Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Microscopic royalties and the golden age of CDs

Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi caused a bit of controversy last week by writing an article about the meager royalties fees paid out to artists by streaming sites like Pandora and Spotify.  Some people got worked up over it, told him to stop whining and go on tour if he wants to make money, and writers like Maura Johnston penned rebuttals to the rebuttals.

Like with most mini-controversies, this one is less of a big deal than it's been made out to be.  First of all, Krukowski wasn't really railing against the current state of things.  Obviously he wouldn't object to pocketing more money each time someone streams one of his songs, but he wasn't using his article to say "pay me" either.  He didn't say that he was against the streaming sites -- I'm sure he gets his time and money's worth from his Spotify subscription.  His concluding point, after having run through the math to justify his position, was that he'd accepted the fact that he wasn't ever going to earn significant money from streaming his songs.  That's why he's offering his own streams completely free of charge.  He's never going to be able to buy much more than a six pack of beer from his streaming royalties, so why not just give the music away for free through his own site, increasing his web traffic and giving fans easier access to his music all in one shot?

Artists are earning a pittance but the streaming sites are losing a small fortune every year and aren't looking like they'll turn a profit anytime soon.  Krukowski says they "exist to attract speculative capital", i.e. like an overinflated stock, their services/products aren't worth much but the company is.  So if they're not really in the business of music, and are in fact undermining the recording, pressing, and selling of music as Krukowski claims, then how are they worth anything at all?  He doesn't say, but the answer is obvious.  Spotify is worth something for the same reasons that Facebook is -- they're in the business of building databases of information about their users.  The site's actual services are worth very little, but information about their millions of users' listening, purchasing, and social habits are worth a fortune.  It's even quoted right there in Krukowski's article, when Spotify CEO Daniel Ek says that "our focus is all on growth", he's not talking about diversifying the selection of music they offer, it's about growing and diversifying their user base.

Anyway, some people misinterpreted Krukowski's acquiescence as complaining and commented that he should tour more rather than trying to make a living off selling records and CDs.  That's easier said than done, no question about it.   Organizing a tour is a lot of work, there are plenty financial risks involved, and I can't disagree with anything Maura wrote.  But these aren't the real issues here.  The core of the debate is no different from the David Lowery/Emily White spat from several months ago, and my opinions on that haven't changed.  Music is a high risk, high reward business, and not everyone living in every city in the world will be able to make a living off it.  That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it always will be.  Trying to reconfigure the industry so that bands can see an increase in revenue for doing the same work isn't financially viable.

I agree that it's not a fair industry in that artists have always had to accept the short end of the stick in their battles with record company management.   But the digital/streaming genie isn't going back in the battle, and I've never understood what musicians' long term plan is supposed to be to combat that.  Of course musicians want to be better compensated for their work, so what's their proposed solution?  Should albums cost $20-25 again, like in the early days of CDs?  Do artists need to pursue more liscencing agreements with TV shows and advertisers in order to subsidize their music careers?  What about more government support for musicians, possibly in the form of arts grants?  Lowery chatted to The Awl a free months ago, complained about the state of things, said that musicians should be able to support themselves, and suggested no solutions for doing anything about it.  When the Amanda Palmer/Kickstarter experiment was brought up he basically ridiculed it.  I'm not going to get into the Amanda Palmer thing here, but at least she tried doing something a bit different, something that circumvented the usual revenue streams.  

If this post hasn't depressed or frustrated you too much, now it's time to take a break and relive the glory days of the CD by celebrating it's 30th birthday with Pitchfork. Enjoy the nostalgia, and try not to dwell on all the money you invested on overpriced CDs! 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!"; Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, "Meat and Bone"

Check your calendars ... yes, it's 2012, not 1999.

You'd think that as time drags on, music would be less likely to truly surprise us.  The more you see, the more the unexpected becomes expected, or even common.  Bands make comebacks all the time, sometimes they're successful, sometimes they embarrass themselves, but both paths are already well traveled.

I hadn't heard that JSBX had reunited.  Proper bluesmen either never seem to age, or if they do age, they get cooler and more badass as they get older.  Either way, they play forever, or until they physically can't anymore.  But JSBX were never proper bluesmen.  They were punks who loved the blues whose gigs were sweat and beer soaked medleys of songs that often weren't much more than repetitively shouted slogans.  They were fantastic both on record and on stage for several years in the 90's, whose cred was partly fueled by whatever they could siphoned off sometime collaborators like Beck and Beastie Boys.  Anyhow, it was a safe assumption that the indie blues revival, like nu-metal or swing or other brief 90's trend, would have a short shelf life.  JSBX knew it too, which is why they experimented with proper songs and real producers starting with 1998's "Acme".  But the magic was destined to fade away and they finally went on hiatus several years later.  Many formerly devoted fans probably couldn't have told you exactly what year that was.

They returned to the stage in 2010 for some one off shows, which must have been well received because they started playing live more and more frequently thereafter.  You might have thought that these 40-somethings were too old to still pull off all their old shit, I mean sure, bands reunite all the time but this isn't Culture Club playing MOR pop with an occasional harmonica solo, this was the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion who were supposed to be ripping it up on stage and throwing their bodies all over the place.  Based on some of the evidence it seems they've toned things down a bit but you used to feel tired just thinking about one of their gigs, so can you blame them for mellowing a little?

But the new album couldn't possibly be any good.  Maybe there'd have a chance if it was hip-hop tinged funky blues made for driving around on Sundays, but if you told me that they there attempting to record a throwback to the savagery and trashiness of "Now I Got Worry", I would have dismissed it as an idea that was clearly dead on arrival.

And yet, they did it, they made that album and it's good.  It might not have hooks and catchy slogans that compare with their best work of a decade and a half ago, but it's brimming with energy, packed with cool riffs and crazy mid-song rhythmic changes, plenty of theremin solos, and is generally a fantastically fun 40-minute rollercoaster ride of Blues Explosion goodness without a boring moment.  It wouldn't be fair to trot out the clichéd comment that longtime fans won't be disappointed.  This album will exceed your expectations.  By a lot.


GY!BE reunited a couple of years ago and have been touring steadily since their comeback at All Tomorrow's Parties (which they also curated).  At some point earlier this year, they found the time to record a new album basically in secret.  Somehow the very existence of  "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" was virtually unknown until days before its release.   Suddenly, GY!BE had come all the way back, with tours, a new album, and the best reviews of their career.

Maybe I could have anticipated all of that in some alternate reality, but I definitely wouldn't have foreseen them becoming culturally relevant. Who saw that coming?  GY!BE used to be one of the most divisive bands around.  You either thought they were one of the most emotionally powerful bands bands ever, a cinematic tour-de-force and the vanguard of the indie anti-establishment; or pompous Glenn Branca ripoffs whose songs dragged on for forever and a half.  But even their biggest fans, and I was certainly one of them, thought their politics were crap.  Even their most devoted fans wouldn't stan for the ideas of a collective of reclusive figures who wouldn't let up about American imperialism and society's endless downward spiral.  They were too heavy-handed even in the immediate post-9/11 age of pessimism and paranoia, which is saying something.  But skip forward ten years, and suddenly, protests and reactionary politics aren't just the stuff of bearded weirdos.  Between the Occupy movement and the massive student protests that dominated the news all year in their native Montreal, protests are a thing again and GY!BE are the role models providing the best soundtrack for the changing times (reviews like the two I just linked didn't exist during the first phase of their career) .  The fact that most of "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" consists of old material that was kicking around in their live sets nine years ago is irrelevant, in fact, it probably only enhances their image as the prophetic band who saw the future coming before anyone else did.

But the best thing about "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" is that GY!BE finally managed to record themselves properly, capturing the brain-melting ferocious power of their live shows on a studio recording for the first time.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Music stores in Milan, plus SPIRITUALIZED (with Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle) live in Milan at Magazzini Generali HELL yeah

After an afternoon of searching (mostly in pouring rain), I finally located the best music store in Milan -- Serendeepity.  They focus mainly on electronic music, particularly house and techno.  I flipped through impressively stocked rows of compliation CD's (both new and classic), new releases, and heavily discounted discs, eventually picking up stuff by Conforce, Tiga, Stefan Goldmann, and a few others.  I barely scratched the surface of their vinyl stock, because what's the point?  I don't have access to my vinyl collection or turntables so why set myself for disappointment by salivating over music I can't buy?  Later on that day, I stumbled upon another cool store, Dischi Volanti, completely by accident when I was searching for a place to hide out from the pouring rain while waiting for the aperitivo bars to open.  It's a second hand vinyl and CD store that mostly stocks jazz and rock, but they also had a few shelves devoted to experimental, ambient, and industrial music, most of it at least 10-15 years old.  I felt transported back in time to a sale at Amoeba or the Record Peddler (RIP) in the 90's.  

But the highight of this trip to Milan, musically speaking, was getting to see Spiritualized live for the ninth time on Sunday the 11th.  There's nothing to make me feel more aware of the incomprehensible passage of time than the realization that it had been over nine years since I last saw SPZ, or put another way, more time since the most recent show than it took me to see them the first eight times.

Before that was a transcendent set by Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle.  First, a couple of quick notes about Italian crowds (or at least about this Italian crowd).  The hour of the concert, i.e. what is written on the ticket or in the newspaper, is the time the concert actually starts.  And by concert, they mean the main act.  If there's one thing I hate about concerts, it's always having to guess at what time to show up based on some combination of band and venue and time that people will decide to show up.  In Italy, the listed time corresponds to a realistic start time, and the opening act hits the stage one hour before that.  But this meant that Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle had to start shortly after 8 PM, with not more than twenty or thirty people in attendance.  In Toronto, nobody would be caught dead within 50 feet of the stage in a mostly empty concert hall.  But in Milan, everybody stood up -- no matter where they'd been sitting anywhere in the room -- and walked to the front as soon as the band appeared on stage.  How about that, respect shown to the artists who came to entertain them ...

Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle certainly earned it.  Their first song was a spot on homage to CCR -- if CCR had been a Krautrock band.  I think that's yet another great musical idea that AFAIK nobody had ever thought of ... the world didn't know it needed a Krautrock CCR and how could a band like that be anything but good.  Then they started rocking out John Lee Hooker style, with a heavy bluesy twang despite the lack of a bass player, with three guitar players hammering out Spacemen 3-like riffs right down to the uncanny ressemblances to S3's "Suicide".

The key turning point in SPZ's career happened between two legs of the tour in support of "Let It Come Down".  Not like anyone realized it at the time.  Fans were used to Jason's constant tinkering with the lineup and with live versions of his songs, so the changes didn't really register.  But the fall 2001 incarnation of SPZ was still a maximalist space rock outfit, committed to creating the most overwhelming blast of sound possible by augmenting the regular band with singers and brass.  It was a pint-sized version of the 100-strong collective that participated in recording "Let It Come Down", if Jason could have taken 100 people on tour with him, he would.  Whereas the SPZ that emerged in spring 2002 was a more stripped down ensemble, now minus the brass and all the other bells and whistles, that played crisp Velvet-y rock with the occasional gospel ballad.  And in the ten years since then, on every subsequent album and tour, they've entrenched themselves deeper into that mold.  It's as if they took ten years to figure out what kind of band they wanted to be, spent the next ten years trying to perfect that sound, and yet judging by Drowned In Sound's recent interview with Jason, he still can't figure out exactly what he wants to do next.  

That odd mixture of confidence and uncertainty was clearly evident when they were on stage.  The wibbly improv interludes and noise freakouts used to be the glue that held their sets together.   Now they feel out of place.  This version of the band is too rehearsed, right down to their carefully coordinated choice of stage attire (all the bands members in black at stage left and centre, Jason and the backing singers dressed in white at stage right).  I'm not convinced they enjoy jamming at this point in their careers, but they feel obligated to do it as part of the show.  Most of the time I found myself wishing they'd stop wasting time and skip to the next song.  It was often more interesting for me to hear silence -- silence!! -- between songs, because it was something I'd never experienced at a SPZ concert before.  No guitar noodling or "pure phase" drones, just complete silence between songs, like with most other bands!

For the most part, that summarizes the first half of the concert.  It was dominated by songs from "Sweet Heart Sweet Light", which according to Jason in the DiS interview, is an album he doesn't listen to and isn't even sure if he likes, partly because he was so miserable when he recorded it.  "I Am What I Am", one of my least favourite songs on the album, packs a terrific groove live, which was one of the few surprises from the "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" songs they played.  The bass was unfortunately mixed too high for most of their concert set, but this is one case where this sonic annoyance actually helped a song along.

The second half of the concert was like watching a completely different, more focused band.  Maybe they needed the first hour to get warmed up.  The first new song was a ferociously sludgy one chord blues, something that Jason hasn't played on since S3's "OD Catastrophe".  The second new song was the sweetest, most direct love song Jason has ever written (working title seems to be "Perfect Miracle").  It was also more than a bit corny, which is both the principal fault and the primary appeal of the song, i.e. it's so cloying and awkward that you won't be able to stop humming it.  It could be a minor hit off the back of a Wes Anderson movie.  Anyway, another intriguing surprise.

The final section was a throwback to the SPZ of old, proving that they can flip the switch and turn into the improv-heavy space rock worshippers of years past whenever they want.  Incendiary versions of "Take Your Time" and "Electric Mainline" closed the main set, and for the encore, they returned with "Come Down Easy" (!!) and "Smiles".  I'm almost certain that they haven't played "Come Down Easy" as Spiritualized before (excepting the handful of shows from earlier on the fall leg of their tour).  Looking forward, or looking back, what's next for this band?  Jason says he doesn't know, and based on this concert, I believe him completely.  


Hey Jane
Heading For the Top
I Am What I Am
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
So Long You Pretty Things
Take Your Time
Electric Mainline


Come Down Easy

approx. 2 hrs

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The end of the 80's

Every time I travel to Europe it seems as though I discover a great music video channel completely by accident.  In the breakfast room of my hotel in Milan, the TV is usually tuned to a channel that plays a mix of 80's and 90's videos every morning (and perhaps all day long, if the ads on this channel are any indication).

Every day I eat my breakfast to a mix of Italian pop songs and videos I haven't seen in ages, if at all, even by bands I really like(d).  I'm not sure I'd ever seen the video for Def Leppard's "Women", and I listened to "Hysteria" about a billion times in '88-'89 and thought I'd seen every video made from that album.

One morning I heard these three songs in less than half an hour and could have sworn they were all released in the same year:

Basia - New Day for You
Aretha - A Deeper Love
Enigma - Age of Loneliness

Of course they weren't all released in the same year, and I already knew they weren't, but a first time listener could have been fooled into thinking they were.  I had absolutely no recollection of Aretha having a hit song and video in the 90's, and would have pegged this for no later than '90-'91 based on the music alone.  The video, featuring clips from "Sister Act", was my only giveaway that I was listening to a mid-90's song.  So it had to be at least the second time I'd heard "A Deeper Love" because I did see "Sister Act" in the 90's (unfortunately), but for all intents and purposes I was a first time listener and I know the watered down NYC-house music style from 1990 when I hear it.  Enigma released some great music over the years (I was freakishly into "Sadeness Part 1", I'll still stan for it if prompted) but "Age of Innocence" isn't their finest moment.  And Basia's "New Day For You" is a well crafted 80's dance pop number that has aged surprisingly well.

As a side note, I think people often place most pop music within a narrow British/American frame, or alternatively, originating from countries where English is an official language (i.e. incl. Canada, Australia, Ireland ...).  We think we only see acts from those countries showing up on charts everywhere in the world, whereas every other country's music is relegated to their own national charts, never to be heard or seen elsewhere in the world.  In this musical world view (which may not be as prevelant as I'm assuming) there are few exceptions (e.g. ABBA) outside of the occasional international fad/punchline (e.g. "Macarena").  But 80's and 90's pop had plenty of international acts.  There were the Eurodance acts, obviously, and Ace of Base, Basia (Poland), Enigma (Germany via Romania), and many more.   

Obviously the 80's didn't end, musically speaking, on New Years day 1990.  It took a while for the sound we associate with the 80's to peter out, just like Nirvana didn't complete their takeover of alternative radio  in a day.  So how long did the 80's last anyway?  Those Enigma and Aretha Franklin songs were from 1994. Enigma were a 90's phenomenon if there ever was one, but "Age of Loneliness" feels like something too primitive for the 90's (maybe it's because of the chanting).  

A lot of artists who had hit albums in the late 80's were able to carry their success into the 90's without changing hardly anything about themselves.  Prince, Paula Abdul, and Janet Jackson were still wildly successful, and Duran Duran actually made a comeback in the early 90's!  So what killed the 80's for good?

I really don't know.  Some ideas:

-- Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men releasing one interchangeable ballad after another, driving the electro and dance elements completely out of R&B.

-- MOR "alternative" rock like Semisonic making the leap from alternative to mainstream radio and taking the spots of the legacy rock acts like Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams.  Of course those guys would have the last laugh by staging huge tours in the 00's and earning enough money to buy back every Smashmouth album at full retail price (90's retail price even!) and destroy them forever in a massive CD bonfire, but we're talking about the charts and radio playlists now.

-- Country making a huge comeback in sales and popularity, causing non-grunge rock to be pushed into the background.  New rock bands had to wear flannel or go at least a little bit country, never forget that Hootie and the Blowfish were heard everywhere in the 90's.

-- Major acts with dance music credentials such as Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Annie Lennox switching directions and trying to sound more "adult", leaving behind a vacuum on the charts that was filled by the very different sounding Eurodance acts.        

EDIT:  The morning after posting this, I saw these two videos:

Van Halen -- Right Now
Dire Straits -- On Every Street (live from what appears to be a Roman amphitheatre, most probably was in the Arena of Nîmes since I see they recorded some of the "On The Night" video there)

Another pair of very interesting examples!  Specifically, what happened to Dire Straits in the 90's?  They'd gone from big to huge in the 80's and adapted well to the new reality of MTV by releasing some one of the decade's most iconic videos.  Among rock acts, perhaps only Springsteen was bigger and more successful in the mid-80's thanks to the phenomenal success of "Brothers In Arms".  It's been suggested that they killed their momentum by waiting too long to release the follow up to "Brothers In Arms" (seven years), but I've never bought into that.  It's not unusual for artists to take time off and come back as big as ever.  Maybe we should take the Occam's razor approach ...

-- Running in place.  Give or take a saxophone solo here and there or Mark Knopfler's choice of headgear, that video for "On Every Street" could have been shot at nearly any point between 1978 and 1992.  People get tired of bands that stick to only one thing, no matter how much they excel at it.  U2 and Depeche Mode are two examples of 80's giants who completely changed their look and music entering the 90's, kept fans and curiosity seekers guessing, and became even more successful because of it.  They returned to their more traditional sound in the 00's but after more than twenty years of making music headlines they were practically bulletproof.  Every move they make is a big deal because an entire generation of fans has grown up with them as a Big Deal.  See also: Madonna.  

Ah, but what about Van Halen?  They had a number of hit songs and albums in the 90's, and their sound is as constant as it gets.  But they did change, sort of.  After a rough transition period, Sammy Hagar was firmly entrenched as their new singer by the start of the 90's.  Eddie van Halen's solos might have sounded more or less the same, but Hagar was the right guy in the right place at the right time to help with the shift from the cartoony, testoterone filled David Lee Roth era to the more politically conscious "Right Now" era.  Van Halen might have become a punchline without the slight attitude and personnel changes.  Consider AC/DC, another band whose music was as constant as they come but were spent as a chartmaking force after 1990's "Thunderstruck" (although of course they continued to clean up on the tour circuit).