Saturday, November 19, 2011


The alarm goes off at 4:30 am. Today's going to be a long one.

I silently slip into my gym clothes, grab my bag, and head off for my morning workout. The sky is black and the autumn chill makes me shiver.

As I finish my workout with 30 minutes of cardio, the news is showing the Oakland Police forcibly removing the "Occupy Oakland" protestors. The news calls them "squatters".

The scene is Orwellian: helmeted, armored, and gas-masked police in dark uniforms and jackboots kick down tents, drag people away, and eventually, start firing rubber bullets, "bean bag" shotgun rounds, tear gas cannisters, and flashbang grenades into the crowd.

If the police were American soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, using these tactics and this behavior  towards other soldiers, much less civilians, would result in courts-martial.

The sounds, images, and storyline could be straight out of any number of video games.  It is surreal and disturbing.

I watch the senseless violence and will later listen to the mayor talk about "protecting public safety". I wonder how protected the hospitalized protesters feel.

Pop music from the Reagan era plays over the gym loudspeakers, plastic, oblivious, and upbeat. Everyone silently sweats, running on treadmills, watching the footage.

I drive home in the dark, try to get cleaned up, and wolf down a quick breakfast before climbing back in the car. I have an early meeting with a very large tech company down south.

I ease onto the freeway, past the traffic chokepoints, and am soon cruising down 280. I watch the sun slowly creep into the sky. A new baby blue Tesla roadster whips in and out of traffic, dodging the furry bags of roadkill littering the otherwise clean freeway.

280 is a beautiful drive once you're past Serramonte, and as long as you don't have to do it every day. All you see are trees and fog and the sun and canyons. The wide, fast road seems to embody the California mythos. The morning's nightmarish science fiction dystopia seems far away.

A few days later Oakland's mayor will deliver a statement, no doubt carefully crafted by Luntz-style language manipulators. I marvel at its clever, diabolical brilliance. She says all the real and peaceful protestors left a long time ago, and all that's left is the criminal element for Oakland to clean up.

Shortly it will be revealed that 18 mayors of "occupied" cities had a conference call, planned, compared notes, and agreed to disperse the protestors (conveniently, while the President is out of the country). The mayors get their story straight. They lock out the media and other observers. They send in the riot cops, who mace women and kids in the face. Who beat people with truncheons. Who harass and assault bystanders.

When this kind of crackdown happens in a single city overseas, there is government outrage and media support for the protestors. Think of the "Arab Spring". Now it's here in the USA, and it's happening nationwide. The crackdown is fierce and harsh, and the media is largely silent about the parallels, focusing on the sensational surface rather than the deeper drives.

The mayors complain about how these protestors are costing the city money. The bitter irony is that we are all literally paying for this.

There have been reports of horrific things (including beatings, robbery, and rape) happening in some of the camps. The police provide little investigation or help. They are implying (and sometimes stating outright) that it's what happens when you protest, while simultaneously using these incidents as justifications for the crackdown.

This all sounds implausible, and yet every bit of it is true.

I have mixed feelings about the "Occupy" movement. I have yet to discuss it with most of my friends.

But it is easy to see why people would be upset. (If you read nothing else about the "Occupy" movement, take the time to page through that article. Maybe this, too.)

And a few things seem very clear to me as I drive back home, the sky darkening fast at day's end:

Whatever Occupy stands for and may have done, the reaction from the establishment - from the local mayors, from the banks, from the cops - is extremely telling. Occupy isn't setting cars on fire and smashing windows en masse (yet). They're marching and chanting and drumming and holding signs and...sitting there. But they've been subjected to a fierce crackdown. It's not clear exactly what Occupy's goals or demands are, but their existence is obviously terrifying the existing power structure.

Scott Olsen, Iraq War veteran, shot in the head by OPD.
Thus far, the Occupy people have been largely peaceful and non-violent, especially given the shockingly excessive police response. That won't last much longer. Young people with nothing to lose (and little grasp of consequences) won't take much more beating, spraying, and tasing before they start fighting back. Hard. First defensively, then pre-emptively.

This will not end well. We all think of Kent State.

When I look at the news footage, I see a small number of old, fat, clean people in suits behind the microphones defending the status quo, and many young, hungry, dirty people on the other side. Historically, in these types of conflicts, with those sides, the young, hungry, and dirty win. And when they do, there are lasting, violent, and painful repercussions for the old, fat, and clean.

The dialog and trajectory of employment in America in 2011 feels like a return to feudalism. You have a very small number of extremely rich "job creators" (the lords) who claim they need to stay rich and privileged so they can "create jobs" for everyone else (the serfs). Nobody wants to admit they're a serf, and in America we believe we can rise up (through hard work or luck) to be a lord and have our own serfs, so why rock the boat?

Since Occupy doesn't have simple, clear objectives, it's difficult for any negotiating to happen, especially at the municipal level. The Mayors have no power to force banks or Wall Street to change. It's difficult to see how Occupy itself can actually accomplish anything, other than serve as a very potent symbol of public unrest and increasing injustice. Because Occupy lacks a specific agenda, it risks losing control over its own narrative. Or worse, simply turning to violence and property destruction.

I don't know that I understand or agree with everything Occupy stands for and does. I don't think they understand or agree, either. It's something of a Rorschach test for everyone.

But when I see ordinary Americans harassed and physically assaulted by the police for exercising their right to free speech, or even for merely attempting to observe what is going on between the protestors and the police, it makes me angry and fearful for the future of our democracy. And if America can't make democracy work, what then? For us, and for the world?

Somehow we ended up in a country where "corporations are people", "money is speech" and income inequality is quickly increasing. The result of combining those elements is as chilling as it is clear. If that is what our own government, police, and employers are protecting, it's time we all head down to the barricades.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Waits and Coldplay vs. Music Services

Recently Tom Waits and Coldplay both released new albums.

Tom Waits' "Bad As Me" is basically more of what you buy Tom Waits for. It's a great record if you like what he does. It's been getting stellar reviews.

Coldplay's "Mylo Xyloto" is also basically more of what you buy Coldplay for. It's a great record if you like what they do. Arguably, it's been getting stellar reviews as well.

Neither album was made available on the major streaming services (MOG, Rhapsody, RDIO, Spotify) in the United States.

Both albums sold very well in their first week.

Coldplay, of course, cleaned up. Their album "Mylo Xyloto" debuted at #1, with sales of 447,000. Coldplay is one of the most popular rock bands in the world. It's not surprising they debut at #1. What's surprising is how small the sales figures are, for what is one of the world's biggest bands, releasing a new album with a big promo push.

Waits sold 63,000 copies and his album landed at #6. Yeah, it's only 1/7th of Coldplay's numbers. But look: Tom Waits, Top 10 artist. Something that would have been unthinkable back in the 20th century. "Bone Machine" (my favorite Waits record) was released in 1992 and peaked at 176 on the charts, and it even had a "single" with a great video.

Make no mistake - Tom Waits hasn't gotten more commercial or watered down his sound, although "Bad As Me" is a more conventional record than some of his other work. His record is great. It's also not substantially better or worse than the last 5 he's released. I don't mean to diminish the genuine talent or artistry of Mr. Waits. I believe he's the real deal. He writes beautiful, perfect songs. I hear him coughing all night long, 100 floors above me in the tower of song.

So why did he crack the top 10 this time, and not with "Bone Machine"?

To paraphrase Norma Desmond, Waits didn't get big, the charts got small. It only takes 63,000 albums to debut at #6 now.

A movie that only sold 63,000 tickets on opening weekend is considered a dismal failure, and at this point, that movie theater ticket costs more and provides less entertainment. Let's not even talk about what 63,000 viewers gets you on TV. 63,000 puts you in the realm of books.

Some industry pundits are pointing to the Tom Waits and Coldplay sales numbers and are trying (incorrectly) to correlate those “strong” sales to Waits and Coldplay choosing not to make their new albums available on streaming services.

This is not clear thinking. Both of these records were going to log strong sales no matter what.

In Waits’ case, he’s got a very loyal group of fans and this is his first album of “new” music since 2004  (2006 if you count the b-ssortment "Orphans"). It got excellent advance reviews, not that it matters, since Waits' albums are more or less predictable, consistent, and critic-proof for his fans now.

That said, Tom Waits has been hitting his audience-appropriate promo circuit hard. I heard him with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. I read an article about him in the New Yorker. I'm sure he'll turn up in a few other places, despite being somewhat reclusive by nature.

As for Coldplay, they’re one of the most popular rock bands in the world. Of course their new album is going to sell well. It has been accompanied by the promo equivalent of a full-court press as well, including what is becoming the de rigeur appearance on the Colbert Report.

Streaming, or lack thereof, had nothing to do with it. If "lack of streaming" played a part, it was only in the blogosphere lift that comes from people like me burning additional electrons on covering that part of the story.

Put another way, there are 8 other albums in the top 10, all of which are available in streaming services and doing just fine.

One could argue the story should be "Waits and Coldplay sell well despite absence from streaming services", but again, the same logic would apply.

One wonders what kinds of sales these artists would have generated if they had made their music available on streaming services. Personally, I'm not buying either album until I've heard it first!

Music and Musicians in the 21st Century, a brief summary

Here's what I think about music and musicians in the 21st century:

If you are an artist or hobbyist (defined as someone who cares more about the specifics of what you're creating than getting paid), it is a better time to be alive than in all human history. You can make great recordings for cheap and distribute them globally with minimal effort. People are more interested in live performance than any time in the last few years, and willing to try new things. So there's a big potential audience and lower friction than any time I can recall.

If you are someone who expects to earn a living from music, (and thus fundamentally cares more about getting paid than the specifics of what you're creating)
...the good news is it is easier to get started because there are all kinds of tools for creation, distribution, and feedback you can use that didn't exist even 5-10 years ago. 

...the bad news is that making a lot of money is probably more difficult than it has ever been, and you must think like a business person first and foremost. You are going to have to work. Being a great musician isn't enough - it's just table stakes, just like being a good chef is not enough to have a successful restaurant. 

You have to either be a businessperson or surrender a portion of your revenue to one. (If you are not prepared to do that, I'd argue you're a hobbyist/artist.)

Artist/Hobbyist or Careerist, in either case, there's far more music out there now than the audience can take in

You'll be competing against not just the 200,000+ albums that will be released this year, you'll be competing against the 200,000 that came out last year. And against Lady Gaga's album. And Britney and Nirvana and Duran Duran and Led Zeppelin and The Beatles and Eddy Cochran and...people who think whatever they did with the "T-Pain" app is a "real song".

And when I say "compete", I mean that you are highly unlikely to even make minimum wage as a full-time musician:
  • In 2009, there were 98,000 new albums released (Soundscan, does not include Tunecore-style digital only releases)
  • Only 2% of those 98,000 releases sold more than 5,000 copies over the entire year.
  • Only 1% of those 98,000 releases sold more than 10,000 copies over the entire year.
In the late 90s, the average band on a major label, with a national promotional push, sold about 1,000 copies of their album.

This is the price of democracy - everyone can contribute, everyone has a voice, everyone is competing. 

Musicians shouldn't expect an audience to find them, and shouldn't expect any individual or company to wave a magic wand and solve their problems for them.

This is good advice for anyone in any industry, and is certainly how my own career (in every part of the music business) has been.

Really, musicians are like any other person in the 21st century:

You can't coast along doing whatever worked last year or last decade or last generation and expect success or even survival. It is a cutthroat, competitive world out there. 

If you run a business (say, a restaurant or a digital music service) and it fails, mostly people will say "You probably did it wrong. You probably weren't good enough. You made mistakes." Complaints about how rough the industry is and how people won't pay for quality will fall on deaf ears.

Is the music business any different?