Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Departures, Returns, Treadmills

End

A year of loops, analemmae, routines. Departures and returns. Treadmills metaphorical and literal.

At times, even the most remarkable things seemed mundane, and the most mundane seemed remarkable.

I was fortunate to spend time with family and friends on my trips around the world. Happy to even take said trips, even as the pace and schedule grew punishing. I have particularly treasured crossing the finish line in mid-December and spending some time at home, doing not much more than cleaning, sitting, reading, playing video games, and updating computer software.

I lost my voice for nearly 5 months. It came back.
I went to the gym. I came back. I went from being the heaviest I'd ever been in my life to being as fit as I was at my mid-20s rock star peak.
I lost 20 pounds. I hope they don't come back.
I went away - SFO, LHR, NRT -  and came back more times than I can count. 
I lost my temper more than I would have liked. It came back, too.

I regret not spending more time on music this year, but something had to give, and once my voice was gone, it was easy to make that call.

I am particularly happy to have spent time with my friends at home - this was a year of building friendships old and new, and spending time with people I enjoy. More of that in 2014, I hope.

Middle

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” 
- John Cage

Every repetition brings with it the possibility of new discovery, and with each repetition, subtleties become more and more important.

I learned a lot about myself this year. I am growing older, for better or worse. More gray hair. Slowing down. Some things become more difficult. Some become impossible. And that's OK. A very few things get easier.

Just because you've seen the clouds at 30,000 feet a few times doesn't make them any less beautiful. Sometimes they are transcendental, even when everything hurts and you're tired.

Every run, every mile feels different, even when it's a route you know well. You return to where you started, changed by the journey. The Anu who walked off all those planes was always different from the Anu who walked onto them.


Beginning

The computer on my wrist gently pulses, waking me up. It is dark. Wherever I am, it is probably between 5 and 6 AM. I was sort of awake anyway, and still tired.

I get up and fumble into my workout gear. Within a few minutes, I am on a treadmill. Wristband, headband, Jawbone Up, Polar heart rate monitor. A scrap of paper with scribbled numbers.

Beep beep beep. Whamp whamp whamp. Sweating and breathing.

I am at the airport, in the short line. I look up at the vast ceilings, the glass walls. I have time to marvel at all of it.

I am in the lounge, typing on a computer. Listening to music.

I am in a business class seat, feeling the rumble of the engines. 10 hours remaining. I am so tired, but I have so much to do.

I am in a hotel room, somewhere. There is a tray of demolished room service food. Sweaty gym clothing hangs in the bathroom. Showered, I sit in a chair and type on the computer. I look over at the bed, and count the hours until I can sleep again.



Numbers

195,000 air miles flown
89 days on the road away from home (11 weekend days!)
17 business trips

950 miles run, about 20 per week
20 pounds lost from February to November
10 minute mile averages
5 pounds maximum differential before and after 10 mile run

2013 in Music

2013 was a great year for music. I heard more things I liked than in many previous years, and I bought a lot of music as well, including more vinyl than in the last several years combined. (This should not be construed as an indication that vinyl is a superior format - it's like the candles of audio. It is a cozy and pleasant format with very nice packaging!)

2013 Album of the Year

Mark Kozelek and Jimmy Lavalle "Perils From The Sea"

A surprise, and a treasure. Normally I find these two artists a little on the boring and predictable side. Kozelek (who also records as Sun Kil Moon) is an impressive lyricist, but he tends to write some samey melodies and use his limited vocal range with just an acoustic guitar. For me, it gets old fast.

Jimmy Lavalle normally records as The Album Leaf, and basically makes new age for hipsters.

But the combination is magical. The soft electronic beds Lavalle offers provide a nice contrast for Kozelek's half-spoken, half-sung slices of life.

The lyrics are beautiful and relevant, given how many of the songs reference the Bay Area, air travel and its accompanying woes and joys, and a particular point in one's life. Examples:

from "Somehow The Wonder Of Life Prevails"
"Every day, I get out and I walk.
Every day, I get on the phone with someone and I talk.
It's good to have friends who love you, care and understand. Who have your back and don't judge you, criticize you, or make demands.
Every day, for miles I walk along the Monterey Pines, the Marina to Aquatic Park.
And I look at the Marin Headlands, Tiburon, Sausalito, Angel Island, from the end of fishing pier.
I couldn't ask for more.
My eyes couldn't ever want for more.
I watch the seagulls fly.
For half my life I've watched the ferry boats and the barges go by"
from "By The Time That I Awoke"
"I met the most beautiful lover,
Walking along the San Francisco Bay.
She guides me through the perils,
Through the long, unlit hallways.
Below the surface, beneath the distractions
Beneath the dumb, knee-jerk reactions.
It's to her I owe everything,
It is for her that my heart sings." 

It can be a little "sad old bastard" at times, but in 2013, well, so could I. Strongly recommended, and well worth a listen or two.

The Two Icy Jessies

My appreciation for great pop songs grows yearly. I still love "challenging" music and listened to plenty of it, but I also found myself really enjoying some more mainstream sounds. Two women named Jessy/Jessie delivered in 2013.

Jessy Lanza "Pull My Hair Back"
Pop futurism, mysterious, sexy, hooky, and icy. Lanza has a breathy, feminine voice, and owes an explicit debt to various 80s R&B singers.

The production of the record is somewhere between 80s synth sheen and 21st century techno-pop. I love it. There are surprising elements and lots of empty spaces. I want my next record to sound like this.

The songs are pretty good. Lanza has a strong feel for melody. The lyrics can be hard to make out due to the production and delivery, but what you can hear is earnest, mysterious, and sexy. She accurately describes them as a "cohesive mumble".

The record works best as an album, starting with the percolating opener "Giddy" and then moving to, well, "Keep Moving" to the great closing "Strange Emotion".

There's something about her icy-hot vibe and delivery that reminds me of Sade at her best. Her cover of Phyllis Nelson's "Move Closer" doesn't appear on the album, but is a great summation of what I find compelling about her sound.

Every time one of these songs came up on shuffle for me, I listened. No skipping. That's some high praise in 2013. I look forward to hearing her next record.

Jessie Ware "Devotion"
Ware was a professional backup singer for a long time. "Devotion" is her breakout effort. It originally came out in 2012, but I didn't really hear it until this year when it was re-released in a slightly different configuration.

Another strong, polished, adult pop record. But where Jessy Lanza is mysterious and subtle, Ware is direct. This is a big pop record aimed at the charts, and at the same time, doesn't really sound like it belongs on the radio in 2013.

The album had what was probably my favorite "single" of 2013, the perfect and appropriate "Running", which featured harmonized electric guitars coupled to a great melody and a euphoric bridge.

But there were plenty of other great songs, including "Wildest Moments" and "Night Light", both of which could easily have been on the radio in the 80s or 90s, sung by any of the big pop divas at the time. There's something charming about something that is so "retro" that isn't simultaneously trying to cash in on retro.

This is definitely a pop record, and anyone expecting depth or noise or weirdness is going to be disappointed. Ware isn't perfect - she lacks a bit of personality that will likely come in time, and when her material isn't strong, the record falters a bit. She has a great voice, though, and with the right material, shines bright.


Best Victory Lap/Best New Album by Old Musician

David Bowie "The Next Day"
It's an imperfect record. It's not as good as "Heathen". But it has some really great songs on it, and some junk. It heavily, consciously references his own earlier work and life. He's entitled to take it easy a bit, and if this is the last album he ever makes, it's still totally respectable. That said, the critics all went overboard for it. It's a few songs too long, and lacks the crazy inventiveness that marks so much of Bowie's work.

The Rest

Savages "Silence Yourself"
I expected this to score higher on the critics' lists than it did. It's pretty cool, a kind of distaff Joy Division with various post-punk influences. Harder and more abrasive than Interpol's take said revival, which is also why I probably didn't like it as much. Still, they're great live. Looking forward to hearing what they do next.

Haim "Days Are Gone"
These young ladies write their own material and play their own instruments. And when they do it, they are clearly loving it and full-on rocking out. It is hard not to be caught up in that exuberance, and they do a lot of things I like (swapping vocals, for example). A disposable confection, and a little too much demographic pandering (the Eagles sample! The Fleetwood Mac references!) but that just means they're good businesspeople, right, Sid?

John Foxx and The Maths "Evidence"
Electronic rock. Mostly notable for "Changelings", a great and moody track. The rest of this release (which sits between album and EP in scope) is a combination of remixes of earlier tracks, a few decent-but-not-great new tracks, and a neat cover of Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar". Like their other records, works best as an album experience.

Robert Hood "Motor: Nighttime World 3"
Abstract-ish techno. Great sounds, great cover image, great work from a master of the genre.

Julianna Barwick "Nepenthe"
Sort of like a one-woman version of Eno's "Music for Airports". A dream in fog, beautiful, and then gone.

Junip "Junip"
Sort of a downtempo The Moody Blues with 21st Century neo-folk influences. A little soft rock-y, but that also makes it easy to listen to. Songwriting is pretty good, but the album is a few tracks too long. I like that they don't have to yell.

Young Galaxy "Ultramarine"
A great indie-pop album, with strong songs all the way through. I didn't listen to this a lot, but I enjoyed it every time I did.

Karl Hyde "Edgeland"
Half of Underworld makes a record that sounds like Underworld with acoustic samples instead of synthesizers. Not bad, but not great.

Goldfrapp "Tales of Us"
Neat concept - a record all about specific people. It's beautiful and cinematic and slow. A bit too samey by the end, but really nice all the same.

Julia Holter "Loud City Song"
This would be my "Scott Walker award" record, for something weird and interesting. Way less scary than Walker, though.

Disappointments

Elvis Costello and The Roots "Walk Us Uptown"
Man, I really wanted to like this record. How could you not? And yet I didn't. I will give it another try, but it's just not catching for me, and all the references people talk about make me feel like I have to do homework before I can appreciate it.

Janelle Monae "The Electric Lady"
Monae is super-cool. She's got a great look, a great voice, and a great concept and story. But she's got no great songs, at least not to my ears. Another record I really wanted to like (and which everybody else really did).

Tim Hecker "Virgins"
I like Tim Hecker. I didn't like this record much at all. However, the critics disagreed, with many claiming this was his best yet. I didn't get it.

Vampire Weekend "Modern Vampires of the City"
I'm admittedly not a fan of this band, but this album was without compelling songs, and chock full of what felt like pandering to particular demographics. It sounds amazing - the mixing and production is top-shelf. That just serves to emphasize how limp the songwriting is. Overall it is totally inoffensive. The sort of "rock" record that old people buy and tell themselves they're still hip because they like it. For better or worse, Vampire Weekend truly IS the Graceland-era Paul Simon for this decade.

Kanye West "Yeezus"
Again, not a fan. Some of the best production in hip-hop coupled to completely inane songs. Few records have made me wish the songs were better/less awful than this one.

The Knife "Shaking The Habitual"
This record was awful and wildly overrated. Noisy and annoying and not in good ways, just lazy ones.

Neon Neon "Praxis Makes Perfect"
Another concept album from the guys who did that great record about John Delorean. This time it was about an even more obscure figure, and the songs weren't any good.

Daft Punk "Random Access Memories"
Marketing overkill. Celebrity walk-ons. A complete lack of urgency and a kind of queasy entitled quality to the anointing of "Get Lucky" as "2013's song of the summer". Fact is, "Get Lucky" was a pretty good chorus coupled to verses I would have rejected, and a vocal performance I'd call perfunctory. I'd write this record off completely, but it did get people paying attention to Nile Rodgers again. Nile's great. This record, however, is boring. Hard to believe 2 French guys could make such a wad of American cheese.

Depeche Mode "Delta Machine"
Nine Inch Nails "Hesitation Marks"
Highly anticipated new albums by legendary, innovative bands. Both felt uninspired and sort of tepid when they should have been confident and fiery.

Depeche Mode's Martin Gore continues in his "Biblical allusion autopilot" mode. Trent Reznor tones things down a bit, which is welcome and appropriate, but it also feels like leftovers.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Ken Kessie

There's nothing quite as sobering as saying "Gee, I wonder whatever happened to..." and then doing some Google and finding out they died last year.

Ken Kessie in his element
This evening, while doing some research on gear for a friend, I remembered a microphone I have that I haven't used in a while. It was given to me by Ken Kessie, a producer I met through my then-girlfriend Anne Kadrovich when I was living in L.A. in the 90s.

Ken was a record producer and engineer with a pretty impressive discography to his name. Mostly known for R&B stuff, but he really wanted to do rock.

He used to drop by my makeshift garage studio in the valley. Sometimes he'd ask to hear what I was working on, and would make helpful production suggestions, even going so far as to do some mixes with/for me. I learned a lot from him in a short period of time.

He also gave me gear. Stuff that he didn't want or need, but that made a big difference for me. A R0DE NT-1 microphone. A really fantastic Zoom reverb (which sadly died shortly before I left L.A.). A Moog 3-band EQ.

He was a complex guy. Like all of us, he wasn't perfect. I remember him smiling and laughing, though. That was his usual state.

I don't have any other details, but then, none of them would matter anyhow. He was here. He made some music. He touched some lives. Now he's gone. I thought I would run into him again some day.

Thank you for the music, Ken. And thank you for the advice, the knowledge, and the gear.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Some Guitar Heroes

A while back, one of my co-workers (who is also a serious musician) asked who my "important" guitar influences were. Sure, there are a bunch of people who everyone cite all the time. But on reflection, there are a handful of players who really affected my personal style. I will fully admit that many of them may not be the "originators" of what they're doing, but they were the ones I heard first and most.

The players below are generally not idiomatic "rock" players - they almost all use a combination of tone, effects, note choice, and technique to produce something that can rock, but is usually different somehow.

The late, great Stuart Adamson
1. Stuart Adamson of Big Country
Album: "The Crossing". Great textures, inventive sounds, and detailed parts. A guy who eschewed the barre chord in favor of riffs and parts. Ebow! Guitars that didn't sound like ordinary guitars. I am still learning how to play his parts. The first "guitar" music I loved. And I still love it - I listen to his music every year.

2. Edge of U2 
Album: "War". Redefined what rock guitar could be. Yeah, maybe he doesn't shred - but that's kind of the point. And he wasn't the first guy to use a delay, but he was perhaps the first to hardly ever not use delay, and to turn it into a signature.

It's not fashionable to like him now, but he created a distinctive sound that left a lot of space, and is now copied by many. Probably not intentional, but effectively crystalized the serious art music "minimalism"of the 70s and translated it into rock music.

3. Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen
Album: "Fair Warning". His playing sounds so easy and effortless that you go "this doesn't seem that hard" and then you try, and of course, it actually is pretty hard. His rhythm playing is underrated, loose, groovy, and funky. He's not just a barre chord + low string thumper. He plays like a classical violinist - all double stops and interesting theory things.

He also had great guitar tone, both distorted and clean. Plus, he actually gave me a guitar once.

4. Robert Smith of The Cure
Albums: "Standing On A Beach" (cheating, because this is a singles collection)
His sounds were an updating of psychedelia, and his playing evolved from punky minimalism to a fairly specific personal style, incorporating lots of effects, unusual chords and voicings, and rare instruments like the Coral Electric Sitar and the Fender Bass VI.

Also underrated because he doesn't "shred", but he's got more technique than you might think, and he is able to fit his playing into a large ensemble (and probably writes many of those parts)

5. James Calvin Wilsey of Chris Isaak's band Silvertone 
Albums: "Chris Isaak" and "Heart Shaped World".
Wilsey's playing reminded me that I loved surfy, twangy, clean guitars. Originally a punk bass player, in Isaak's band he produced idealized and updated versions of classic country, surf, and early rock tones.

He's a tasty player, too, knowing how to get the most from a few notes. And for someone not terribly "technical", his playing always felt great.

After listening to these records, I got my Strat back and started a cowboy band.

Vini Reilly
6. Vini Reilly of Durutti Column
Album: "The Guitar and Other Machines".
A record that made me start thinking about how it was maybe OK to make "pretty" music using the electric and acoustic guitars.

Reilly is another player who blends effects, technique, and sparse note choice to create something truly unique. Made a bunch of records in a very similar vein.

I've never heard anyone play quite like him - some kind of finger-picking and plucking. I still wish I could play like this. I still try frequently.

7. Daniel Ash of Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, and Love and Rockets
His parts were simple - often just 2 strings, or arpeggiated chord shapes with one finger moving. He had a handful of signature tones: his underweight Tele-through-a-Marshall distortion, his Ebow, and 12-string clean parts. From all that, he created a style that served him well for an entire career.

8. Steve Stevens of Billy Idol's band
Album: "Rebel Yell"
Wasn't quite metal, but was as close as I got for a long time. This guy could play like crazy (and frequently did) but wasn't afraid to use technology, layering, and unusual parts and voicings.

9. Michael Hedges
Album: "Aerial Boundaries". I will never be this good, ever. I could listen to the title track for hours. Beautiful, inventive, and incredibly emotional.

A guy with tons of technique, but who deployed it in the service of some very nice compositions. I can't play like this, but his music is inspiring as a composer and as a player.

10. Christian Fennesz 
Album: "Venice", "Cendre" (with Ryuichi Sakamoto). A true 21st century guitar player who uses computers to sculpt his guitar into towering walls and pillars of sound. Amazing stuff that made me think about the guitar as raw material for processing rather than just a rock instrument.

Honorable Mention
Metallica, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai made me want to practice a lot
There's all the obvious classic rock stuff - Jimmy Page, Keef Richards, The Beatles, and so on
And all the obvious classic punk stuff - Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, and a million hardcore bands

Friday, October 18, 2013

Piece of Crap: Banksy, Fame, and Frames

Apparently, famed graffiti artist Banksy set up a kiosk in Central Park where he was selling his artwork. He hardly sold any. One of my New York friends was walking in the park that day and is still kicking herself for not walking by and picking up one.

"Ha, ha", the stories bark, "aren't people stupid? Aren't you stupid? You could have had this great art for pennies, but you didn't bother looking!"


Again, the story is framed as "Gosh, people are Philistines!" The Post article's title stops short of calling everyone "swine" for not noticing the beauty and wonder of the playing and the magnificence of music.

But anyone who attended an introductory class on modern art understands this situation.

This is an issue of "framing".

Context

We have all been conditioned that most things people try to sell you are probably terrible. Capitalism starts giving you wedgies and smacking your face pretty early, yelling "Fooled you!" and running off with your cash. As Neil Young sang:
Saw it on the tube
Bought it on the phone
Now you're home alone
It's a piece of crap.

Current street art fashion
Live in any big city and you'll be quickly trained to ignore all of the noise around you and keep going. Most buskers are terrible. Most goods sold on the street are counterfeit, stolen, and/or low quality. Street art goes through fads, with everyone copying everyone (the latest, by the way, is painting on maps). Stopping to look or pay attention is just inviting tedious interaction. 

The savvy, street-wise people never come bouncing in, smiling, saying "look what I bought on the street today!"

You literally "know better than to do that".

Further, the context most people are in when these stunts have been pulled is simply not conducive to art appreciation. When was the last time you arrived at Union Station (or any travel terminal) and said "well, I've got plenty of time to soak up the ambiance and appreciate the art here"? Most people are thinking "I am late, and I need to hustle to get where I'm going."

If you think that is unfortunate, it says more about the state of society and the pace of life than people's ability to appreciate beauty.

Context matters. And the context that museums, concert halls, and other "art environments" provide is some degree of cultural and social safety, a guarantee that "what is in here is 'real art', and what is not in here is not."

This is the same framing that the actual frame around the art and little title card provide, just on a larger scale. Both the frame and the museum tell you "the art starts here and stops there." Or in a concert hall, it's the curtains opening and closing.

John Cage's famous 4'11" silent piece and Marcel Duchamp's readymades cover this same ground.  

When you go to one of these art boxes, you are dedicating time and putting yourself in a space to have an art experience. 

When those art experiences are presented without the cultural and context cues, most people won't be able to parse them as art at all, and will instead assume they are commerce and/or a rip-off.

The Frame Makes The Art

The other important takeaway here: Framing is a more important element of "great art" than most people are willing to admit. 

You can look at this the following way: Maybe there's not much difference between the pros and the hacks. This is the same thing that allows people to look at some great art and say "hell, my kid could have done that." (which, of course, misses several points, including "but they didn't" and "yes, but painting is about a lot more than the paint on the canvas")

This painting of a wine bottle is by
famous painter Magritte.
Banksy's style has been copied and appropriated and duplicated. Banksy himself is likely to say (tongue in cheek) that you might as well buy "street art" from anyone. Is there that much of a difference between Banksy and not-famous graffiti artists other than name? 

And maybe there just isn't that much difference between a virtuoso on a fancy instrument and the typical busker sawing away. At least not that most people can tell.

But, well, yeah, there is a difference. For one thing, they're not Banksy.

The frame - the "story" around the art object - helps you understand why it is or isn't art. Lots of people have written a lot about this, both simply (Brian Eno) and in much more obtuse fashion. 



A recent study demonstrated people liked wine more if they had been told it was expensive. Exact same idea.

Culture is Framing

Really, everything we think of as "culture" is just a big frame or story around stuff that happened and got made: "This over here is good and noteworthy. This other stuff isn't."

And if you don't believe me, well, a bunch of famous people like Theodore Adorno and Malcom Gladwell and Brian Eno say so, so there!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

David Byrne Tells Streaming Services To Get Off His Lawn

David Byrne, courtesy of WikiPedia
(which destroyed encyclopedias)
Some days, I feel like I just write the same articles over and over. Sisyphus pushing the rock, defending streaming services. If it's not some random person on the internet, it's Thom Yorke.

Now here comes white-haired David Byrne, shuffling down the sidewalk, yelling about the good old days and the end of the music world.

Byrne was the leader of Talking Heads, one of those moderately successful bands that manages to become influential and is a part of the undisputed "canon of cool" for many musicians. Like with Thom Yorke, it stings a little for me to hear musicians I respect and who influenced me speaking out against my work - work that I have engaged in for their benefit.

Evil?
Byrne asks "Are these services evil?" It's difficult not to respond with something equally churlish and provocative, like "Is David Byrne stupid, or just ignorant?" Probably the latter, as he admits and then demonstrates a lack of detailed knowledge about how the services work.

Still, I am compelled to respond to these uninformed and incorrect assertions.

All Internet services are not the same. Byrne lumps streaming services in with YouTube and Pandora, which is sort of like lumping your bank in with muggers and vending machines. "Well, sure, they're kinda different, but they all take your money, right?"

Byrne asks if streaming services are "simply a legalized version of file-sharing sites such as Napster and Pirate Bay". Nope, at least not in terms of infrastructure and effort. Napster and Pirate Bay don't ingest and host terabytes of music and push it out to CDNs worldwide. They don't provide customer support. I could go on.

The most important distinction is this: YouTube and Pandora don't need or get permission to offer the music they deliver. Streaming services have to get permission from the artist, label, and publisher. And then they pay huge guarantees and submit to a ton of control from the content owners.

It's streaming or nothing. Byrne repeats the assertion that no one will buy CDs or pay for downloads when streaming is available. But there's literally years of research that show that the most avid streamers still buy music, and buy more music, than people who don't stream. Put another way, for every Spotify user who says "I'll never buy a CD again", I'll show you a Rhapsody user who says "I'm buying more music than ever". Streaming increases sales.

But why would you buy when you can stream? Well, maybe you're trying to give the artist you like more money. Maybe you want a copy to keep. People do it.

Monopoly...someday. Byrne asserts that we'll end up with a monopoly, and that will be very bad. Well, it's been 12 years, and we don't have a monopoly. We have a bunch of struggling services, and tons of competition in most of the major music markets. The USA (the biggest music market in the world) alone has at least a half-dozen streaming services. And Apple and Amazon haven't even entered the market...yet.

Griping about payment size. I've gone into this many, many times. It is true that for some artists, the per-stream payment has been low. That has a lot to do with the artist's deal with the labels. I will also again point out the labels are collecting money from services even when users play nothing. Is any of that money going to the artist? If not, the artist should be talking to their label. And I repeat my favorite question: What payment would you suggest for a single stream?

Go browse a store instead. Byrne says you could just go to Bandcamp instead. Yeah, Bandcamp. A place that has none of the content. Where the artist doesn't get paid at all when it's played. Look, I like Bandcamp. I have some of my music available there. But it is not a good substitute for subscription services for the reasons above. It's more like iTunes, but more fair. Amazon is pretty much the same. And most bands on major labels aren't allowed to put their content on Bandcamp.

People only go to these places when they have already decided to buy something. It is a very different experience.

It's totally true that the purchase links in Spotify and other services are lame. They're in there because the record labels make us put them in there, not because we think they're a good idea.

Great Pull Quote!
Byrne being the media old hand that he is, he closes with the usual "everything will collapse into these services and the poor artists will starve". The pull quote and tweeted memed headline is "the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left."

Provocative! Exciting! Wrong!
In some ways, this is just an updated version of Sousa's "The Menace of Mechanical Music". But let's look at a similar model: video.

Jack Valenti famously said that the VCR was the Hollywood Strangler. And instead, it grew revenues tremendously. Opened new markets. There are lots of people who subscribe to Netflix. They're also still watching broadcast or cable, going to movies, buying and renting movies on DVD and Blu-Ray and as digital files, watching pay-per-view, and watching free internet video as well. New methods of enjoying art bring more consumption of art in more areas. 

If that wasn't true, then Sousa would have been right, and the dawn of recording would have destroyed music such that people like David Byrne and Thom Yorke would never have had careers writing and performing it.

Look at ebooks. People are buying and reading more books than ever.

It's depressing to keep arguing these points. But there is some hope.

Dave Allen (of Gang of Four and Shriekback) has finally come around. His excellent response is well worth a read, and I'll repeat many of his points here. Mr. Allen and I have discussed these issues in the past, and haven't always seen eye to eye. But he brings some welcome perspective. Some of his strong points:

There aren't enough good rebuttals. The Guardian will print things that Yorke and Byrne say because they're both famous musicians, and their tirades will sell papers. It would be nice for a change to see them either allow someone from the industry to respond, or find another famous musician who will say something positive about these services. In the meantime, I'll keep plugging away.

The old system was as bad or worse. As per usual, people start trotting out how many streams a musician has to generate to make minimum wage, and start comparing it to selling t-shirts or CDs. I will again point out that it requires nearly no effort or upfront cost on the part of the musician to provide that stream - that's the work the service is doing: ingesting content, making it available worldwide, writing client software, and more.

Compare that to lugging t-shirts and CDs around, carrying change, and soliciting transactions. That's why you get to keep more money in those scenarios: you're doing more work, you're carrying inventory.

Making a living by selling CDs is as hard or harder. Fine, ignore the previous points. Focus on the actual statistics:

  • There were more than 98,000 new albums released in 2009.
  • Of those 98,000 albums, about 2% sold more than 5,000 copies.
  • About 1% sold more than 10,000 copies.
  • As far back as the mid-/late-90s, the average band on a major label with a national promo push would sell about 1,000 albums

And all those new records are competing with Led Zeppelin IV and OK Computer and Speaking In Tongues.

If you think selling CDs is going to make you more money, you're wrong. Statistically, you're not even making minimum wage.

The current internet alternatives to streaming are so much worse. Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, and other services are paying out 70-80% of their gross income directly to "content owners": record labels, publishers, and yes, artists. iTunes pays 70%. Other internet alternatives like YouTube and 8Tracks pay nothing, and only achieved their current success by either operating illegally (in a "get big, then get licensed and legit" model) or by exploiting a loophole in the DMCA.

Those royalties are cripplingly high. Spotify still isn't profitable. Most of the streaming services are money-losers. Even mighty iTunes just breaks even. These services cannot pay any more than they are already paying...and frankly, shouldn't have to just because artists signed deals with labels which the artist now regrets.

Listeners won't pay more. I've done the customer research many times. The primary reason people don't use these services? Too expensive. And when the free services bloat up with ads, customers turn away and go back to unlicensed services or illegal downloading. Or don't bother playing music at all.

I'll conclude with noting that Messrs. Byrne and Yorke aren't helping the music business, they're hurting it. It's difficult for today's listeners to understand the distinction between legitimate services and piracy, between what pays the artist and what doesn't. And when they attack the services that are doing the right thing, they are sending a message to those listeners that sounds like "you might as well just steal all the music you want, because the artist doesn't get paid anyway." Again, I've done the market research. I've heard it from the music fans

I suppose this constant criticism is a sign of the legitimacy of streaming services, but it sure doesn't feel like a "win".

Life Is Hard
Byrne closes with an appeal that sounds a bit like "won't someone please think of the children???" He notes that life is hard for up-and-coming musicians, and that even talented ones may have to give up if they can't find a way to make a living...and that the future of musical culture thus "looks grim".

OK, three more points and I'm out.

1. It has never been easy to be an up-and-coming musician. It wasn't easy when Byrne was coming up (there are plenty of his peers that never made it big like he did). It wasn't easy when Sousa was coming up, either.

As I noted previously, there were 98,000 albums released in 2009. Recent years have had similar numbers.

That means all those up-and-coming artists have a lot of competition - not only from all the other 199,999 albums released that weren't theirs, but from all the great old records released over the last 50 years, like those by David Byrne and Thom Yorke. It is not an easy job. It never has been. And streaming services aren't making it any worse. If anything, they're offering an easy, low-cost way to make music available worldwide.

2. 98,000 albums. That's a lot of new music, and those numbers keep going up. So even after over a decade of streaming music services, the number of new albums being created continues to rise. If there is some kind of creative apocalypse, it hasn't happened yet. I'd argue we're seeing the opposite - massive growth in content creation.

I also hope Byrne isn't so commerce-minded that he can't see that many artists (as opposed to entertainers) create because they have to, not because it's a good career choice.

3. Look up what "amateur" means. A personal anecdote: I was an aspiring professional musician. I dipped my toe in nearly every part of the music business before Napster came along. It was really hard. And I came to realize that even being talented wasn't enough. You had to be talented and lucky.

That wasn't good enough for me, so I got a day job (making streaming services, it turned out). I still write, perform, and record music. I distribute it worldwide. I don't do it for the money, I do it for the love of music. I am not unique.

I do not consider myself a "great artist", but I am pretty sure most of the folks I do consider great artists create because they love creating first, and because they can get paid second.

It is entirely possible that subscription music is a terrible idea, and one that will become a footnote in history, like the 8-track cassette. But I have a feeling that if it were to vanish, many artists and music lovers would mourn its loss and sing its praises.

That may sound hard to believe, but then who'd have thought David Byrne would be arguing in favor of the past and fighting against the future?

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Silence

On May 8, 2013, I lost my singing voice.

I woke up in a San Diego hotel with a pain in my neck. Not unusual for a hotel night with an unfamiliar pillow. But driving home after a week on the road my throat felt a little funny.

I was singing along with a song in the car, one I had sung frequently. I went for a medium high note...and it didn't happen. My voice just stopped, well below where it was supposed to go.

I tried again. Stopped. Pushed harder. My throat was just closing up. It was like trying to raise my arm over my head and having it stop halfway.

I've been singing for almost my entire life. Done it professionally or semi-professionally for 20 years. I've had laryngitis, resulting in full voice loss. I've had colds and fevers and near-fatal sinus infections. I've had problems from eating the wrong food. I've sung so hard I lost my voice for a day or two.

I had never experienced anything like this.

I went to the otolaryngologist the next day. They said it was probably a virus, and that I would probably be better in 2-3 months.

100 days passed.

During that time, I took it as easy as I could on my voice, singing only enough every few days to know I still couldn't do it. Limited talking, even though I arguably talk for a living. I still got hoarse after speaking too much or pushing my voice even a little bit.

I saw the doctors a few more times and had various cameras put down my throat. There's nothing physically wrong with my vocal cords. They look quite healthy, all things considered. No damage, no trauma.

But I couldn't sing.

I realized how much I enjoyed singing, just to myself, here and there. I had developed a voice that could emulate or match many of my favorite singers: Peter Murphy. Dave Gahan. Bono. Stuart Adamson. Scott Walker. David Sylvian.

And it was gone.

Having thought of myself as "pretty bad at most instruments, but a good singer", this was a big psychological blow. Bigger than I expected.

And then I started thinking "eh, it doesn't matter, nobody listens to your music anyhow". Which led to an even darker place.

Finally, a lab test showed a deep infection. I took strong antibiotics for 10 days, and finally, my voice started to come back.

Like a runner who's had one leg in a cast for 4 months, it's going to be a while before I can sing full-on again. And also like that runner, it is not yet clear whether there will be any permanent impairment or pain.

But I have a new appreciation for my voice, whatever I've got left of it. I hope to record some things soon.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Who killed album sales?

The latest news is that album sales are down.

The usual gripers are blaming subscription services. It's amazing how quickly Rhapsody, Spotify, and the rest have gone from being ignored to being laughed at to being portrayed as ruining the music business. (It's also funny how artists have gone from bemoaning their inability to get on FM radio to bemoaning their inability to get off of internet radio!)

This is especially problematic logic given the relatively paltry numbers of subscribers these services have. It's hard to see how such a small number of users (20 million worldwide) paying $120 a year for a subscription service is devastating the industry. Especially when the data actually shows people who use these services are more likely to buy music, and more of it, than people who don't use these services.

To put that in perspective, in just the USA, around 45 million people bought at least one download in 2011 or 2012. That's compared to 20 million music subscription users worldwide.

Blaming streaming demonstrates a lack of perspective, and a disappointing willingness to point fingers at companies actually trying to improve the business for all particpants - artists, listeners, labels, and publishers.

Here's one problem. There are no record stores anymore. Tower and most of the other big record stores went out of business long before streaming services had taken off (and in Tower's case, before Spotify even existed).

If there are no significant retail outlets for music that are convenient or pleasant for people, they're not going to buy as much stuff. The record business was hurting long before streaming was more than an interesting curio.

So what actually killed album sales?

  • Was it the CD format, which some argue encouraged artists to bloat albums with even more filler? Maybe, but this is hardly objective and widespread enough to cause this decline.
  • Was it Napster and other file-sharing services, which taught a generation of music fans to steal the songs they want, and forget the rest? 
  • Was it the perennial oldster gripe that "music is just no good anymore"? This one is somewhat backed up by industry decisions and data which shows that many post-1990s albums have no long-term catalog value: they do all their sales initially. This trend is not unique to music - many other forms of media (books, movies, apps) follow a similar power law pattern.
  • Was it competition from other media and goods? Music fans today can spend their money on DVDs, Blu-Ray, digital video, MMORPGs, Xbox/PS4, apps, smartphones, data plans, and more.
  • A more fundamental correction (in the economic market sense). For a long time, the only way to buy music was buying an album. Yeah, there used to be singles, but when big business took over the music industry in the late 70s/early 80s, they started killing that off or converting to absurdly pricey rip-offs like the cassingle or CD single...and even those were hard to find. If you wanted music, you had to buy the whole album, whether you wanted it all or not.

    This is like only selling cola in 3-liter bottles. Suddenly someone starts selling it in cans ($1 downloads). Big surprise: not everyone wants 3-liter bottles, and sales of 3-liter bottles drop.

    Maybe the music business was historically overselling and overcharging, and the current sales are what economics would "naturally" dictate.
I don't know for sure. I do know it wasn't solely due to subscription services. 

I'd also argue the album isn't dead. There were more albums released in the last few years than ever before! Yeah, fewer are selling big numbers, but just because you or your favorite band isn't doing well (or as well as they used to) doesn't mean the system is broken.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Hi, Fidelity

"Fidelity" means "faithful" and/or "accurate in details". The etymology takes you right to the Latin for "trust" (fides).

Neil Young is still waving Pono around, and I keep hearing people who should know better talk about how "bad" recordings sound today.

There are 3 elements to achieving fidelity in listening:

  1. The actual audio to be recorded: the performer/musician/artist/noisemaker
  2. The recording system
  3. The playback system

The Performer

We can dispense with this pretty quickly. We'll just assume "the music is good". The artist knows what they're doing, and has good instruments, etc.

It is generally true that back when recording was expensive and time-consuming, "the best" musicians got to make records. But you can go back as far as you like, all the way up to the beginning of audio recording, and you'll still find plenty of subjectively terrible artists and work.

Garbage in, garbage out. If what you're starting with is "bad", it's all but impossible to fix. Musicians, get good instruments. Learn how to make them sound good in a room, on their own. Write good songs. Play them well. If you're a listener, choose stuff that comes from talented people, not products of the machine.

The Recording System

Edison Phonograph and cylinders
The very first sound recording devices - the Edison wax cylinder and its eventual replacement, the 78 shellac disc - sound horrible. Even with lots of digital remastering, the "horn" (basically a giant funnel) used to record, and the horn used to reproduce both add resonance, coloring the sound, and the media itself is not great. The entire system adds a lot of noise (as in "undesired signal").

Things got a bit better once electrical recording was developed, using microphones and amplification. However, in the first few years of the technology, electrical recording was considered vastly inferior to the established "warmth" and fidelity of the mechanical system.

From the recording side, things didn't really get acceptable or decent until the 1950s, when there was decent tape and decent recording technology. You can find remastered recordings from the 1950s that sound great...for what they are. You will almost never mistake them for reality.

It takes until the late 1970s for stereo to be standard, and for records to generally start sounding "true" to life, including widespread adoption of real stereophonic recording and playback. But even in that era, many artists focused on making "good recordings" at the expense of just "recording in a room" for a "you are there" fidelity. Classical and jazz are generally exceptions here, but not always - many canonical records from those genres feature tape edits of multiple takes and overdubs.

Since that time, as recording tools have become more powerful, recordings have become hyper-real or stylized. Why stop with documentary photography when you can airbrush, enhance, or digitally create something "better than real", or "perfect"?

The democratization of recording has placed powerful tools in everyone's hands. But those hands are typically far less skilled at actually using said tools, so you end up with lots of records that sound "bad" by most recording standards.

To make good records, learn to use the tools, and use them appropriately. Some of the best-sounding records were made with 2 microphones in a room, and people who knew where to put them relative to the musicians.

In my admittedly limited analysis, there is absolutely zero correlation with how "good" a record sounds (by musician or engineering standards) and how well that record connects with an audience commercially or emotionally. (If anything, there may be some kind of inverse correlation!)

There are a lot of canonical, great records that sound terrible by most audiophile standards.

The Playback System

On the listening side, it's taken a long time for consumer playback equipment to get good. Most cheap record players were and are awful. Most consumer tape players are not properly calibrated (and some can't be). They play at the wrong speed, too. Most listeners had no idea how to maintain them for optimal sound quality and used dull needles and magnetized heads to further destroy their media.

The great thing about CD players - even cheap ones - is all of this went by the wayside. The difference between bad, decent, and great CD players is smaller than most people like to admit.

The problems for most consumer audio playback is the end of the chain: the speakers or headphones. For most people, these are by far the weakest link. Sadly, those white earbuds that have become so popular are part of the problem, and their terrible fit and worse sound quality have helped perpetuate the myth that "MP3s sound bad".

It remains fashionable among musicians and music fans to say "vinyl is better". Well, it isn't. At least, not in terms of fidelity, and not in terms of what most people can afford.

Vinyl is demonstrably not faithful to the original recordings. There's surface noise inherent in the process. The theoretical dynamic range of vinyl is far lower than that of CDs. The available frequency range and accuracy are also narrower than CDs. There are frequently clicks and pops even on "virgin plays" (though quality control has improved somewhat).

And you have to change your recordings to fit the medium: You can't have a lot of bass, and/or a lot of stereo information, without worrying about the needle getting literally kicked out of the groove. Records are fundamentally changed when mastered for vinyl - the high end is dramatically boosted on when the record is made, and then dramatically cut on playback. This is an attempt to reduce the high end noise (at the cost of increasing rumble).

All of that is before you get to the actual record players many people have. Most record player manufacturers used the cheapest possible components to achieve something close to the desired effects above. There actually aren't even standards for tonearm angle, pressure, and other important elements that are fundamental to accurate reproduction. And strictly speaking, any standard "pivoting" tonearm is already terrible. You need a so-called "linear tracking" turntable (popular in the 80s) with an arm that moves in a straight line across the record surface to reproduce accurately.

Records warp. They scratch easily. And on top of all that, because they are physical, mechanical things, the mere act of playing them degrades them.

The Philips compact cassette doesn't inspire the same devotion as vinyl, but was also pretty bad. High noise (even with Dolby, which most people didn't understand), limited frequency response, and lots of tape alignment issues. And playing it also destroys it over time.

The high fidelity audio world is populated by people who can be best described as "nuts". For people who value "truth", they cling to pseudo-science and voodoo. They spend $1,000 on special electrical cords to connect their gear to their home power. They buy oxygen-free speaker cable that "protects the signal from light" by insulating it with fluid or rubber or magic. Gaze into the mouth of madness.

I'm not saying that expensive stereos don't sound good. But I am saying they don't automatically sound good. And that you don't have to spend a lot of money on your reproduction equipment to have a good experience.

If you really want to improve your fidelity, here are the things I'd recommend, in order:

  • Get better speakers and/or headphones. You're probably listening to whatever you bought around college. Generally, the headphones that came with your phone or MP3 player are junk. For $100 you can get something decent. It makes a huge difference.
  • Fix your listening environment. If you listen on speakers, where you listen matters a lot. Put your speakers at an appropriate height. Not too low, not too high relative to where your ears will be when you're listening. You want to be sitting in the "sweet spot" between the speakers. You want a room with a minimum of acoustically reflective surfaces. If you clap your hands and hear reverb or echoes, your music isn't going to sound right. If you're like most people, you stuck your speakers wherever they fit in your weird-shaped room.
  • Pay attention. When you listen to a record, don't do anything else. Close your eyes. Or look at the cover. Get into the music. Just like how you might concentrate on the taste of a good meal. Listen carefully. Don't let the music be background, and it will immediately sound better.
  • Get better music. Stop listening to music made on computers out of shards of other digital recordings (or at least go find some of the ones making deep, huge, beautiful works). Go find some 256 or 320 kbps MP3s (or CDs) of well-recorded, great music.


Rhymes With "Oh No"

The Pono player, as seen on David Letterman
All of this is a pretty long way of saying Pono is going to fail.

This bums me out, because I like Neil Young's music.

This is also unfortunate because its mere existence and continued discussion will further entrench the twin bad ideas that "regular old MP3s/digital sounds bad" and that the "fidelity" issue for consumers hasn't been "solved" yet. It has. By MP3s. Which (at 256 or 320 kbps, with a decent encoder) sound amazing compared to vinyl and tape.

Science disagrees with Pono's fundamental premise. Even if Pono wasn't wrong here, the record companies are unlikely to release all of their catalog in this format (or any new format), making it similar to quadraphonic stereo, HDCD, SACD, DVD Audio, and various other "hi-def" audio formats that also failed due to a vicious circle/negative feedback loop of "no content, no users, no demand".

But more importantly, most people don't care that much about fidelity to begin with. Those that do are pretty skeptical of digital audio (even though they're wrong to be).

The average music consumer wants and expects all of the music they want to be available wherever they are, whenever they want it. They care far more about convenience than "quality" (and that is largely the short-sighted music business' fault), and they care about price above all.

If you are reading this, you almost certainly are not the "average music consumer". But ask yourself this: When was the last time you took an hour, sat down, and really listened to something?

"Fidelity" means being faithful - go be faithful to your music. Treat it right. Maybe get some new headphones, too. I work at Sony, I can get you a deal.

"Coincidence that Pono rhymes with 'oh no'" 
- JP Lester


Thursday, August 08, 2013

Welcome to 1984, Winston

Several things happened recently, and it doesn't take a genius to draw connections and consequences from them:

1. Bradley Manning is facing a possible sentence of up to 90 years for leaking "sensitive data".
2. The NSA is allowing other law enforcement agencies to use its data for non-NSA business. And it's telling them to cover it up.
3. The TSA is now being used outside of airports, and claiming they have special exceptions allowing them to violate the probable cause protection in the 4th amendment to the US Constitution (also known as the Bill of Rights).

In his aptly named "Counterterrorism Mission Creep: When Everything Is Terrorism", Bruce Schneier says:
Once the NSA's ubiquitous surveillance of all Americans is complete -- once it has the ability to collect and process all of our emails, phone calls, text messages, Facebook posts, location data, physical mail, financial transactions, and who knows what else -- why limit its use to cases of terrorism? I can easily imagine a public groundswell of support to use to help solve some other heinous crime, like a kidnapping. Or maybe a child-pornography case. From there, it's an easy step to enlist NSA surveillance in the continuing war on drugs; that's certainly important enough to warrant regular access to the NSA's databases. Or maybe to identify illegal immigrants. After all, we've already invested in this system, we might as well get as much out of it as we possibly can. Then it's a short jump to the trivial examples suggested in the Atlantic essay: speeding and illegal downloading. This "slippery slope" argument is largely speculative, but we've already started down that incline.
Note that he doesn't say "if" the NSA achieves ubiquitous surveillance. It's "when".

He says "it's really bad." He's right. This is just the stuff we know about. It will get worse until and unless we the people do something about it.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

The 2 Questions from Yorke/Godrich/Spotify

Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich's decision to remove some of their music from Spotify hinges on 2 questions, both of which have been asked repeatedly since streaming services matured. One question is tactical and specific, the other more philosophical:

1. How much is a single stream play worth?
2. Are artists entitled to a living?

How Much Is A Single Stream Play Worth?

Busker image courtesy of Wikipedia
I have written and spoken about this before, to much controversy. I have yet to see anyone arguing against Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, Music Unlimited, RDIO, etc. provide their answers to this question.

This is a critical point to resolve. If we're going to claim that (new) artists aren't getting paid enough for plays, we need to know what "enough" is.

A few years ago, I gave a talk where I looked at what similar industries were charging "per play":

  • Jukebox in a bar: $0.25-$0.50 per play. Yeah, that's a lot...but how much of this actually goes to the artist?
  • CDs: $0.10 per play. The average CD is played fewer than 10 times after purchase. Assume $10 price for 10 tracks, each played 10 times. That's $1 per track, divided by 10 plays. 10 cents. How much of that goes to the artist? Depends on the size of the band and the organization, but maybe 10% overall.
  • Downloads: $0.10 per play. Assumes similar usage for purchased CDs, but the artist gets less money because Apple takes 30% of the retail price and pockets it, and because the labels typically pay artists less for downloads than CDs. 
  • Lala.com: $0.10 per stream, infinite plays. Lala failed because they, in their words, could not make this model a viable business. Don't know how much went to the artist, but you can assume similar or worse economics compared to CDs and downloads.
  • SiriusXM: $0.002 per stream play (on the internet). [Updated]. I am using SiriusXM's internet streaming rates, based on the NAB rates, not its satellite broadcast payment rate (yes, the two are different).

    SiriusXM's satellite rates went up in January 2013 as part of a new CRB ruling, and the company currently pays 12.5% of their retail subscription price to copyright holders (either $1.81 or $1.25). (I could write about how logically weird it is that the rate increases .5% each year, implying somehow that the value of music is rising).

    The only data I can find is a little bit old, but it suggests that satellite radio listeners play 44 hours a month. Assuming that 25% of that time is ads and drops (a generous estimate), that means 33 hours of music, or 495 4-minute songs. Divided by $1.81, that yields $0.0037 and divided by $1.25, that yields $0.0025 per play for satellite plays, which is close enough to the internet rates and doesn't change the argument much.

    SiriusXM is a relatively large company delivering a fairly lame product. Very limited choice for users. It's taken them a decade to get to scale, including hundreds of millions in advertising and merging the only two companies in the space together. They're barely profitable after all that, even with extremely low churn and now, no competition.
  • Generic Internet Radio (USA): $0.0012-$0.0022 per stream play. Depends on a bunch of things, like whether or not you're rebroadcasting FM radio or other programming, what your revenues are, and how big you are.
  • Pandora: $0.0012 per stream play. That's a tiny bit more than a tenth of a cent. Pandora is the undisputed king of internet radio, and they have not been able to make a profitable business of it, even at massive scale. 
  • FM radio (in the USA): $0.00 per play. You might get something if you're the songwriter, but if you are just the performing artist, you get nothing. FM radio remains a relatively strong and viable business, even if the variety of music offers continues to shrink along with their target demographic.

This comparison deliberately ignores how much more difficult it is to get people to do things higher up on the list (buying anything) than items lower on the list (listening to something for free).

It also ignores the huge difference in scale between items. We're just focusing on the gross possible payment to the artist or cost to the user.

The intentionally inflammatory conclusion I drew? The optimal price per stream, in order to have a successful business, needs to be somewhere between $0.00 and $0.002, because anything higher all but guarantees your business will fail.

Even the high end of that admittedly meager scale means you, as a business, will barely be hanging on. It's possible all of the market leaders in their respective industries - Pandora, SiriusXM, and so on - are total idiots and are running their business badly. But it seems more likely these rates are just punishingly high . Even mighty Spotify is not really making any money.

But who cares about business! Fuck those guys! What about artists? What's a fair rate for artists to charge per play?

Well, you clearly can't charge more than what CDs offer - $0.10 per play - or users will just buy CDs and the question is moot. And we're talking about a single stream play, not ownership or "infinite" plays (which is what ownership gets you), and thus you can't really charge more than what ownership costs.

Assuming you stick the rate you need at $0.10 (using my $10 CD with 10 tracks gets played 10 times math), and assuming you can find companies that will pay you those rates to stream your content, you need to generate 11,600 plays per month (139,200 per year) to earn minimum wage of $1,160 per month, or $13,920 per year.

Is that a lot of streams? I guess it depends on how you figure it. If you assume someone listens to your song every week, you need nearly 3,000 fans reliably playing your song once a week all year to make minimum wage. Then again, if you're Daft Punk, you blow past those numbers no problem.

Based on conventional wisdom and misleading graphs, you'd probably decide that artists should sell CDs, and perhaps everything else should be outlawed.

But you'd be condemning most artists to starvation.

Here's why:
According to Soundscan, in 2009 there were 98,000 CDs released (that means physical CDs that sold at least one copy registered by SoundScan).

Of those 98,000 CDs, only 2.1% sold more than 5,000 copies for the entire year.
Of those 98,000 CDs, only 1% sold more than 10,000 copies for the entire year.

Assuming you are a solo performer on a label, you need to sell 1,161 CDs per month - 13,932 CDs per year - to earn minimum wage.

Which means that less than 1% of artists on labels selling CDs earn minimum wage.

(If you go totally indie and do everything yourself, it's much better. You can get by selling 1,716 CDs per year. But remember, you are now doing everything yourself - running the label, collecting payments, shipping, marketing, etc.)

Being an artist is a tough job. Which leads us to the next question...

Are Artists Entitled To A Living?

Daft Punk: Professional Artists
One problem with having this discussion: Some people will pillory you for even asking the question. "OF COURSE!", they shout. "Artists are special and magical people who speak what cannot be spoken and address the human condition and enrich life!" And so on.

To answer this question, you need a clear view of art and business. The way I see it, if you are truly an artist, you create because you want to or have to. Financial remuneration for said creation is a secondary consideration.

On the other hand, if you are doing it for the money - if "the money" is your primary concern - you are an entertainer or businessperson. And you're going to focus on giving your broadest possible audience whatever they will buy the most of. You will think about this as you craft your, uh, craft, and you will budget a ton of money for marketing (again, see Daft Punk)

If you're not targeting either of those edges, you're waffling in the middle, and risk being someone who delivers compromised work to a non-optimal audience.

People should get paid for their work. But is anyone entitled to a living just doing what they want to do? And what's "a living"? How much income is anyone guaranteed, regardless of what they do?

I think of this: If you started a restaurant and no matter how hard you worked, it failed, nobody would say "wow, we should revamp how restaurants work so you can get paid enough to live."

Instead, they'd say things like "maybe you should have served different or better food." Or been in a different location with better traffic and/or less competition. Or had better service. Or decor. Or done something else.

Businesses fail all the time. The reaction is generally a shrug and "that's the market". Why should professional artists be treated differently?

There have been plenty of starving painters, writers, actors, and other "creatives" throughout history as well. Why do (pop/rock) musicians merit special treatment?

Who gets to decide who qualifies as a professional supported artist? (In the United States, we don't even really have much government support for the arts, even for undisputed titans of creativity).

Let's say society did decide to support artists with some kind of stipend/minimum guarantee because as a society, we value whatever artistic contribution these people are making. How much do we pay them? Minimum wage? 2 x poverty level? $100,000?

The economist then asks "well, why should the category of artist be special? What about other jobs?You'll just get the entire world claiming they're artists, and asking for their payment."

Historically, what you see is effectively a kind of means testing or "quality gate" for public or private patronage.

Despite all of the doom and gloom coming from people like Thom Yorke and the record labels, the fact remains that more music is being created, recorded, and released now than any other time in human history. Some of this is because there are more people, but much of it has to do with the tools for creation (computers, cheap instruments) and distribution (the internet and various services).

This does mean we are drowning in music, most of it not very good. Personally, I would rather have music be democratized, in all its messy, not very good, mostly uninteresting glory than have it be limited to a precious few ordained as "real" musicians by a bureaucrat or Pitchfork or Reddit or whoever your proposed authority happens to be.

Music used to be something nearly everyone did, and most people didn't expect to be able to make a living at it. In that respect, it is no different than lots of other things people do...like writing blogs, for example.

I'm all for debate around the business of music. But it needs to be real debate, around facts and proposals and issues. I will keep pushing forward, trying to build businesses that are directly addressing these issues. I hope the rest of the industry, including thought leaders like Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich, will answer the hard questions with some proposals of their own.

Afterword: Some Notes and Clarifications

  • The fact that the average CD is played fewer than 10 times after purchase comes from NARM.
  • The sales figures for 2009 come from NARM and Soundscan.
  • 2009 was not an unusual year in terms of sales and albums - that distribution is typical and has been for quite some time. Even back in the late 90s, the average album by a band on a major label with a national push sold about 1,000 copies.
  • All of the other numbers are publicly available data and close enough for argument's sake.
  • For SiriusXM, it's worth noting their 12.5% of consumer price royalty is low, compared to the 60-80% that internet services pay. And let's mention they don't have to pay royalties on a whole bunch of content that internet services still do (read the above links). And SiriusXM has no idea how many songs users are listening to.

    The "percentage of revenue" model basically says it doesn't matter
    . If users listen to zero songs, somebody gets paid. Does any of it go to the artists?

    If users listen to 10,000 songs in a month, deriving maximum possible enjoyment from the service, artists aren't going to get very much.

    "Percentage of revenue" is a perverse system that effectively says "the more listeners like music, the less we pay the artists per play."

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

44

I raise my mask and stare at the light leaking around the blackout curtain. My phone says it's 6 AM. I roll out of bed and fumble for my workout clothes.

44 today.

I'm not even sure if it is my birthday yet at home. What is home, at 44? I think about how much of my past is gone, erased, lost. Names and faces changed. The houses of my childhood long sold. "Where are they now?"

California. Los Angeles, a lifetime ago.

"Where are we now?
The moment you know, you know
As long as there's sun..."

San Francisco. Home for 13 years, and yet sometimes I still feel like I just got there. I think about articles I've read claiming people like me are ruining the place.

Where am I now?

London. Got here yesterday. I was in Tokyo 2 or 3 days ago.

I am alone in the hotel gym. I step on the treadmill gingerly. Glutes still hurting from Saturday's training session. Hip sore from bursitis and yesterday's workout. I punch in numbers and run slowly, carefully, more focused on my gait than anything else. I make it 25 minutes before pain makes me switch to the elliptical. I can't get my heart rate up as high, but at least it won't aggravate things too much.

My MP3 player blasts a song by Last Amanda. I did a show with them several years ago at Altamont:

"I've got so much I want to tell you/I don't think so
Share my experience with others/I don't think so

...I can't stand myself"

Life has changed so much, so quickly. Just 4 years ago, I had a huge party. You were probably invited, and maybe even showed up. I sang and played guitar. I was working at Rhapsody. I felt like I was on top of the world.

My physical self has been on my mind a lot lately. My voice has been broken for just over 2 months.It seems to be recovering...slowly. I spend far too much time worrying about it, but literally every day I am reminded of the loss, and how much I loved singing, and feeling like I could sing anything.

Largely driven by doctors' orders and by vanity, I have been exercising and watching my diet for the last few months. I am 15-20 pounds lighter than I was in February. In better shape now, in terms of performance and appearance, than I have been since probably my mid-20s. But in recent weeks my right hip has started complaining about the 20 miles of running I've added, and I am not sure how careful I'll have to be or how long that will take to recuperate. I haven't missed too many workouts, and am watching what I eat, but I am still worried about backsliding.

At least my back and leg have substantially improved over the last few years. I still have problems, but they're much less common and more manageable. Getting old. It's all wear and tear. Damage control.

That right hip is stiff and sore as I walk through the unseasonably warm London morning (LONDON! How did I get here?) to work. I listen to music, in glorious high quality on the best headphones I've ever owned.

One of my own songs comes up, from the yet-to-be-released album "The Ghost Town", the last album I've finished to date. It sounds really good. I like my singing on this one.

"When I crossed the desert, there was nothing that I lacked. 
I left in the dead of night, and I never once looked back."

I smile to myself. I really did cross the Mojave desert at night, leaving childhood and my old life behind, and I've never regretted it once.

I have so much to be grateful for, so much to be happy about. Sometimes it is hard for me to see that clearly. Perhaps it's just my nature to focus on the things I wish were better - I think that is part of what makes me good at my job.

I think about my other birthdays. I have made the same wish for decades. I won't tell you what it is, because then it won't come true. But it has come true, time to time, more often than perhaps I deserve.

I already bought myself a birthday present. A fancy new synthesizer. I wish I had more time to explore it, and more time to create with it. I don't really need more stuff, but there are worse things to spend money on than instruments.

Things are good, even great. My biggest challenges all seem to be self-inflicted to some degree. If I could just ease up a bit. If only. I keep trying.

I'll spend most of today sitting behind mirrored glass in a dark room, watching people be questioned about their activities. "Like FBI?", the Eastern European hotel clerk asked. Yes, exactly like FBI, I told him. Maybe I'll have a nice dinner with a colleague tonight.

Business travel is lonely. I don't really mind being alone, even in unhealthy doses, as long as I know there's an end in sight. I flew back home between international trips to see Iran and my friends. A touch of fatigue and loneliness is worth it for the adventure. Totally.

I'll be home again soon enough, with time to noodle around on my instruments and sleep and think and write. I have so many projects in the works (including an unusual one I am very excited about), and so many people to see.

I think of my friends, my family, my wife, and how fortunate I am.

Happy birthday to me.

Thom Yorke Is Wrong, and 3 free solutions

3 Free Solutions

I'll start off with some answers...

For my colleagues in the digital music business, here are 3 totally free product solutions to the problems Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich are complaining about. I may implement some of these myself. Each of these ideas does have its own challenges and problems, of course.

1. Editorial Programming
2. Tip Jar
3. Make it easy to add content

Editorial Programming

The simplest approach to pushing more new music is to promote it. Have the music service editorial staff take a proactive role in seeking out new and cool stuff, and feature it (on the home page, or playlists, or radio channels). Even just badge new stuff.

Today's reality, however, is the services are generally pushed to feature what the labels want them to feature, and are discouraged from picking favorites.

Additionally, despite what Pitchfork et. al. say, most of the "tastemakers" today write about the same few dozen albums every year. For better or worse, there's a lot of overlap between those few and what the industry is pushing. I suppose there's a blog post to be written about it.

But the easiest way to help out new artists is to promote new music aggressively. And it doesn't really cost a thing!

Tip Jar

This is not a new (or even particularly good) idea. But services could include a button to "donate" more money directly to artists they like.

One problem is "who is the artist?" In a few small cases, it's very clear who the artist is. But what if they're dead? What if they can't be found? What if the band has broken up, or is arguing with each other about money?

Where do you send the money? Even assuming you can resolve that issue, generally services only have contact with the label and publisher, not the "artist". Building that database would be difficult and contentious.

The bigger problem is just that most listeners won't even bother donating. They'll say "well, I am already paying for the service, so..." Most of these fans will go to the artist's site and buy stuff there.

(You could also include URLs to the artist's web site, but many of the above problems still apply).

Make it easy to add content

Each service could/should have prominent links "for artists" that give them instructions for how to get their music in the service fastest and cheapest. Consider adding support for direct deals (these days, most services require use of TuneCore or a similar aggregator).

Some stuff that doesn't help:

  • Live shows. Not all bands play live, and those that do have finite capacity for it, and fairly large overhead. This will not solve the problem at all.
  • Buying downloads instead. Same (or worse) contractual and accounting problems. Artists don't get that much cash from these, either. Plus you're supporting one of two giant companies that combined represent almost 90% of the music retail business. Apple makes more money on downloads than the artist does, by a huge, huge margin. How does that help? 
  • Raising the price of services. Most people think music services are already too expensive, and cost is the #1 cited reason for users cancelling. 

Thom Yorke Is Wrong (and so is Nigel Godrich)

Once again, it is time to clear up some misconceptions about the streaming music business.

Super-cool Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Atoms For Peace took to Twitter, (as did his friend and music partner Nigel Godrich), broadcasting that he is pulling his solo album and his new band's albums from Spotify. 

It's not entirely clear why. Some of their tweets:

...It's bad for new music. 
The reason is that new artists get paid fuck all with this model.. It's an equation that just doesn't work 
The numbers don’t even add up for spotify yet.. But it’s not about that.. It’s about establishing the model which will be extremely valuable.  
Meanwhile small labels and new artists can't even keep their lights on. It's just not right.
Millions of streams gets them a few thousand dollars.. Not like radio at all.. 
Plus people are scared to speak up or not take part as they are told they will lose invaluable exposure if they don't play ball. 
If people had been listening to spotify instead of buying records in 1973... I doubt very much if [Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon] would have been made.. It would just be too expensive.

Ok. Let's address these things.

First, it's hard to see exactly why music services (Spotify, Rhapsody, Google Play Music All Access, RDIO, MOG, Music Unlimited, etc.) are "bad for new music". Music services offer access to everyone, and most of them will automatically include "unknown" artists in recommendations and radio channel experiences. If you know what you're looking for, they make it easy to find.

As for payments, in general, all content is treated the same by these services. I've written extensively here and elsewhere about how those payments actually work. I will reiterate some key points:
Services pay the content owners: the labels and the publishers. For small artists, frequently both of these things are the artist themselves. For "new" artists on labels, how much the artist gets paid has little to do with the deal the service has with the content owner, and everything to do with the deal the artist has with the label and publisher.

This album, by a "new" artist, sold 2.2 million copies when
released in 2012. At least one new artist is doing fine. 
"New" artists having bad or unfavorable deals has been the status quo since the beginning of the record industry. Music services have actually provided an alternative - direct deals - which did not exist before.

It is entirely possible that labels (and publishers) are paying out money to the artists in ways that favor them rather than the artist. That's what they do. As an example, most music services have to pay a minimum to labels and publishers, even if users play nothing in a given month. Do the labels divide that up among all of the artists on their roster and give them a cut? Or do they pocket the whole thing. I'm pretty sure I know the answer, and I bet you can guess what it is yourself.

My takeaway? The point Godrich and Yorke are making here is simply invalid.

If they're complaining that new artists don't generate enough plays, well, that's possibly true for some of them, but not true for all of them. Same as any new artist dealing with sales: most new artists have no sales. In fact, most albums have no sales, period. This isn't news. And any decrease in sales has more to do with the sheer volume of music released.

And this is really what most of the artists involved in this discussion are really bothered about. The old way, including radio and sales of goods, was a "winner take all" model. If the average annual per capita expenditure on music was $35, a user who bought 2 CDs would be giving all of that money to 2 artists.

But in a subscription world, that vastly higher sum - ($10 x 12 months, or $120, less the 10-20% services actually get to keep) is divided amongst all the possible things the user can play. This results in many more artists making a much smaller sum. I'd argue it is more fair. It is just less remunerative for the artist.

This album had one good song. The rest was really bad.
Even the "good" song wasn't that good. 
Looked at from a different angle, prior to music services, users would frequently buy an album because they liked one song on it. And then they'd find they hated the rest of the album. The artist captured the full album amount "unfairly", and the user had no choice in the matter.

Is it hard to "keep the lights on" for small labels and artists? Yes, it is. Again, that's been true for the entire life of the business. And music services offer outlets that are far easier and more transparent than previous physical goods distribution systems.

It's not the same as radio. At all. And that's a good thing. New artists and new music have always been totally screwed by radio, except for the tiniest slice of new stuff designated as the next big thing by the machine. And how you get designated "next big thing" involves a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with how good your music is, and everything to do with how you play the game.

Streaming services put everyone on an equal footing. Yes, it's hard for new bands to rise above the noise and the competition. But at least they have a chance, and people can play the music when they want, and not wait for some DJ to make your music their own personal cause.

Yorke and Godrich seem to imply the services are strong-arming artists into participating. That is straight-up garbage. It is absolutely true that artists lose exposure if they don't participate: if people can't find your music because you've held it back, they can't very well play it, can they? It's the same as withholding your content from record stores because you don't like how little they pay you. You don't have to put your music in their store, but it's not fair or accurate to imply the store is pressuring the artist.

I am particularly irritated about these types of accusations because I have worked on several of these services, and without exception, the entire staff have been musicians and music-lovers dedicated to supporting artists and other music-lovers. I take it personally when people impugn their motivations and intents. We love music, and we love musicians.

If we wanted to make money, we'd have either not gone into music in the first place, or at the very least started some kind of dodgy safe-harbor-using-user-generated-content company that "complied with law" (wink, nudge) instead of burning up millions of dollars in cash advances and contracts.

Finally, there is the assumption that a great work like "Dark Side of the Moon" wouldn't have been made because it would have been too expensive.

*sigh*.

Factually, this is problematic. "Dark Side" wasn't a particularly expensive album to make. Yeah, they used Abbey Road, but it was affordable. And it didn't take that long. In many respects, while it was expected to be a "hit", it was not a "big bet" by anyone involved. It was just the next album by a successful band. Nobody knew or expected it to be a huge hit.

When you look at the albums that really were crazy expensive, or had outsized expectations, the resulting product has seldom lived up to those expectations, and most of the money was wasted or spent on marketing.

And nothing is stopping record companies from making similar bets today. Typically, when an album is "expensive", it's because the label is spending a ton on marketing, or paying talented "beatmakers".

But let's set that aside for a more important point: Are you an artist, or are you a businessperson?

I'm pretty sure Pink Floyd's motivation for creating that album wasn't "hey, this will make us a ton of cash". They wanted to make a record. They had been playing most of the songs on tour for months, so they already knew the material, and knew it would go over well for their target audience.

The album had no "hit single", and Pink Floyd didn't really care about such things. They were making art, meaning they were more concerned with "doing what they wanted" than "how it would sell".

If you are businessperson, the reverse is true. You have to care about "what will sell" more than "what you want". And you would do things like minimize your upfront (i.e. recording) costs and not take many risks.

I assume that Godrich and Yorke are basically saying "because there's so little cash coming in, nobody will invest in making expensive albums". Well, not true. People are still spending lots of money on albums.

But spending money has never correlated with success, and in today's world, you don't have to spend a lot of money to make a good record, much less a successful record.

Look at movies or painting or games or any other art form. If you are depending on someone else to give you massive amounts of cash up front on the hopes of massive returns, well, I think you're doing it wrong.

But more importantly, if all of the music fans that had been buying music had been subscribing to Spotify or other music services, the music business would have been drowning in money.

The main problem today, as I have stated several times, is that not enough people care about music to buy or subscribe. Until that changes, whether it is a music service or download store, the industry is in trouble. Where is the fault? With the artists? The labels? The shop owners? The fans? Maybe all of the above.

But the secondary problem is perhaps more intractable - how do you get fans to listen to more new music, and not just the artists and albums they already know?

That's a tough one, and if Godrich and Yorke can fit any ideas into 140 characters or less, I'm all ears. In the interim, I will continue to do what I have always done, and push for a better music business today.