Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Albums of Influence: "Second Toughest In The Infants" by Underworld

Los Angeles, 1996.

It is a hot day. May, probably. You are on the freeway. 101 southbound. Driving from your small house in the Sherman Oaks suburbs to Hollywood.

You are listening to KROQ, as you often do. You have to stay up on what's popular, what the kids are into, what's selling. Plenty of what's on these days leaves you cold -- stock pop-punk, barely-OK pop, metal. 

It's maybe 2 pm. A new song comes on. A synthesizer chord stretches on forever. A stuttering vocal sample bounces on top. You hear an insistent drum loop, the rhythm skipping as it's retriggered. The synthesizer bass is all rapid-fire 16th notes with a slow flanger. You think it sounds like helicopters, the ones passing overhead at night.

The vocals recite stream-of-consciousness lyrics, distorted and echoing:

rioja rioja reverend al green deep blue morocco the water on stone the water on concrete the water on sand the water on fire smoke the wind the salt the bride boat coming dave in the water old man einstein on top of his house... 

It's arresting. It's strange, it's not some typical verse/chorus la-la-la bullshit. You pull over onto the freeway shoulder and wait for the over 9 minutes of the track to end. The DJ says something about "Underworld" and "Pearl's Girl". You pull back onto the freeway and head for the record store. You buy a CD.

Your bands have come apart. Your marriage is coming apart. Your life is coming apart. You are going to quit your job. You are going to quit everything. 

The song feels and sounds like the fugue state in your head. The blue-and-gray album cover looks like your life feels - some kind of modern, abstract smear. Maybe designed, maybe random. 

The record is a revelation, full of contemporary sounds and long, abstract songs.

Your sun
Fly high
Your window shattering
Your rails
You're thin
Your thin paper wings

You hear on the news that people have been shooting out windshields on the freeway. On your way to work, at the job you'll be quitting soon, a baseball-sized piece of concrete seems to appear out of nowhere and knocks a golf-ball-sized divot into your windscreen. At 65 miles per hour, in the morning rush. You manage not to kill anyone as you brake and swerve.

You think of the vocoded chants, the incessant grooves. The way the chords feel like breezes in the San Fernando valley's heat. You can't always make out the words, but you can always make out the feelings.

white room sun room shadow room night transmitting cars across the room these things sent to dance across the room eye watching from your bed returning to you

You listen to this record in your car. Your wife doesn't like it, but then, she doesn't like anything about you these days. You listen to it as you walk through the neighborhood at night, after she's gone for good.

You spend a lot of time running laps around Balboa Park. Thinking about everything. Trying not to think about anything. Words and deeds. Bad songs and failed bands. Your ideas and lack thereof. You wonder what you are going to do. Tonight. Tomorrow. Next year. With the rest of your life. Do you even have a rest of your life now?

You look up in the evening sky and see the Hale-Bopp comet, blazing, the size of your thumb. They say it only comes around every 2,500 years. Cultists are killing themselves over it, and you can understand why.

It is miraculous, mysterious, ominous, beautiful. A reminder there are more things in Heaven and Earth than dreamed of in our philosophy. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, inescapable.

Your feet hammer the path. You glance up again. Despite everything, the ruins and the chaos, you know you are lucky. Lucky to be here. To see this marvel, day after day.

The album closes with a brief guitar instrumental, a palate cleanser before the echoing "Stagger".

cover your teeth
i love you
don't bite me yet
i believe in you
i found you shopping in europa
on wardour street
not phoning packwidth
guilty as sin

Everything is falling apart. The future is uncertain. The world is full of wonder.

Ain't it good to be alive?

and old man einstein crazy in his attic crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazycrazy crazycrazycrazycrazy


"Second Toughest In The Infants" isn't Underworld's best album -- that would be "dubnobasswithmyheadman", their debut. But "Second Toughest..." is my favorite Underworld album, because it introduced me to the band, and their arty take on electronica. It reminded me that weird can sometimes be commercially successful, or at least get airplay. It showed me how the most banal and boring of genres can provide a grounding for adventurous and bold work.

Some albums are important because they are so indelibly fused to a time and place, to memories of the past and memories of future dreams.

Whenever I hear "Second Toughest...", I am right back there on the path around Balboa Park, staring at the comet in the sky as I try to outrun my life. I am in my car, driving somewhere in the Los Angeles heat. I am still young, confused, and alive.


Monday, May 11, 2020

The Music Industry and The Pandemic

[A friend asked for my thoughts on this Esquire article about how "Coronavirus Might Kill The Music Industry."]

The problems described in the article were all making life difficult for musicians long before CoVID-19. The pandemic is doing the same thing to the music business as every other industry: choking off cash for an extended period of time, with resulting economic asphyxiation at multiple levels.

Live music was under threat from rising rents and what is referred to as "gentrification" plus a general loss of interest in music from the average person well before the pandemic. The current situation is just putting extra pressure on things, as it is for every struggling business.

Like restaurants, a bunch of venues will go out of business. A bunch of them were on the verge anyhow. Like a forest after a fire, you'll get a few starting to grow back in a few years. It won't be the same, but life never is.

Are we really going to start arguing that streaming services are bad? They're the only growth the music industry has had after decades of economic nose-dive. People aren't going to go back to buying vinyl or CDs or (god forbid) downloads. That's over.

When did the music industry ever "work for everyone?" The "golden age" of the 1970s and early 1980s, where a handful of payola-fueled artists locked down segregated and limited radio stations? It was very much winner-take-all in those days, and independents had no way to get any real exposure or distribution. And there were no other real outlets for media and culture. No internet. No video games. No DVDs (barely VCRs, and movies on tape cost the equivalent of about $250 of today's dollars).

More music is being made now than ever before in human history, and more is available to everyone to listen to.

Economically speaking, it's not a surprise that recorded music has little value anymore. A decade-plus of piracy (late 90s-early 00s) and limp and hostile industry response meant an entire generation grew up with the expectation that music was (or should be) free.

The fact that artists have been complaining about it all for ~20 years doesn't help. If the MAKERS of the music are constantly saying "It sounds like shit, it's not worth paying for, it's a rip-off, and I don't make any money from it anyhow," (refrains for CDs, downloads, AND streaming) what makes anyone think the average person will say "ooh, yeah, I'm going to spend money on THAT!"

In 2020, there's an endless supply of free recorded music. Pick whatever service you want, you can probably find what you want to hear or something close enough for $0.

Thanks to the democratization of recording, recorded music isn't special. People can (and do) make records on their phones or computers now. The number of new recordings has gone up to an astounding number. Granted, most of them are terrible, but few people care about the "quality" of the music.

Music has also become less of a cultural force than it used to be. I don't mean for music fans (like us), I mean for the average person. The 80% of the public that really just doesn't care that much anymore. They used to buy a couple albums a year, maybe, and that was the margin that kept the business going. Now, that money goes to Netflix or Disney+ or video games or phone apps or paying for broadband.

You can see this reflected in most people's homes. They don't have stereos anymore. Not even boomboxes. Maybe they have a "smart speaker" they sometimes use for listening to music. They definitely don't have a CD player or turntable. (Again, not talking about the handful of fans. I'm talking about everyone else, the majority.)

The ocean of music out there means people also don't have to have their tastes challenged or new stuff cycled in and out periodically. FM and AM radio are wastelands, good for polarized talk radio and little else. In your car, you're listening to SiriusXM or your phone. Alexa and Siri play what you expect or ask them to.

If you're exposed to new music, it's likely because the artist made a clever or shocking video, which people watch 30-60 seconds of on social media, either with the sound off or hissing out of their tinny, tiny phone speaker. Or because they did something outrageous and you read about it and wondered what they sounded like.

When you have massive supply of a good and the same (or declining) demand for that good, the price of that good drops.

As for streaming service payouts...really, this again?

Briefly: If artists have bad deals with their labels, it's the artist's problem. Services make deals with the owners of the recording and publishing copyrights. Streaming services already pay so much off the top they can barely survive.

Look at the graveyard of services past and compare them to what you've got now. There's exactly ZERO difference between, say, RDIO and Apple or Spotify. Practically the same interface design, same business model, same features. Marginal differences, more music.

The majority of the public thinks music streaming is too expensive, which is why there's only one semi-independent player left standing at this point (Spotify, who is partially owned by the labels and titans like Tencent.) and the other streaming services are arms of major tech titans who can afford to take losses on music as part of a larger digital media or device ecosystem strategy.

That's right: losses. Nobody is really making lots of money off of streaming services. Even Spotify is aggressively moving into podcasts because those cost so much less for them to provide.

It is a winner-take-all world in streaming, but it's always been that way in the music business. We hoped that streaming would make things slightly better by giving everyone a platform; it ended up making it slightly worse due to the overwhelming flood of music (and industry incentives to promote certain artists over others, and people's inherent laziness in curating their own media universe, which is completely understandable and predictable for non-music fans).

All physical media has taken a big hit -- books, DVDs/Blu-Rays, etc. Again, look at people's houses. No CD player, why should they buy CDs? CDs were a bad deal for most people anyhow, with the average CD being played fewer than 10 times after purchase.

One thing to keep in mind is this: People, fans, listeners seem to have no problem paying for one or more expensive video streaming services -- Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, Disney. Each of those costs around $10 per month to provide a narrow slice of "content".

Ask the same people to throw down $10 a month for all the music in the world, and they hem and haw and go to YouTube and listen for free, or ask their smart speaker to play something and suffer through ads.

Why? I go back to "music doesn't matter that much anymore".

The live music business has been broken for a long time before this. Classical and jazz ensembles and institutions have had to beg rich people for money for decades. They are museums for the wealthy, and their repertoire and business models reflect and cater to that demographic reality.

The average person just doesn't attend those performances. Maybe for a date, once. And sales are embarrassingly small numbers.

Live pop music also has plenty of problems. It's too late, it's too loud, it's too long, it's too expensive.

Big shows are spectacles, and if you're a major act touring without video walls and dancers, you're probably doing it wrong. P.S. People don't care about backing tracks anymore. The aging rockers can tour their albums to their aging fans, but that is literally a dying art. Younger bands have to focus on
"the show" more than "the music" to attract attention.

Festivals are great if you're someone who likes festivals. Personally, I can't stand them. But like Marvel movies, ultimately the festival's star is the FESTIVAL, not the bands on the bill.

Independent bands in clubs can be thrilling experience, but are most often boring and simply not worth it. Smaller venues have been suffering from rising rents and changing urban values for some time. Again, some of this is simply because most people don't care that much about music.

Put another way, if you ran a restaurant, would you only serve food from 9 - midnight (the sign said 8, but you made people wait around for another hour before your actually opened the kitchen)? Would you make the food so hot that it burned people's mouths unless they took precautions? I could go on, but you get the idea.

Even if you do care about music, is it really fun to stand around at 11:30 on a Wednesday night having your ears blown off by a bunch of amateurs? Sometimes. Maybe.

Personally, I can't stand live-streamed concerts. It's like the worst of both recorded music and live music, with little of the good bits. I can't imagine that anyone is really sitting through an hour of that.

It is also worth noting that nearly every other media vertical is suffering. Cinema/film/movies are taking a big hit for many of the same reasons as music. The future there is shaky indies, mediocre streaming-service series, and soulless Disney/China behemoths, streamed to your phones.

Nobody cares about books, either. If you want to see some scary numbers, read some articles about how many units "best-selling" authors move, and how little money they pull in.

All that said, MUSIC is going to be just fine. Because real artists don't do it for the money, they do it because they WANT to, or because they HAVE to. It is a difficult life choice, as it has always been.

Anyone who chose to go into music for the money, as a business, is also in for a tough time, but I'd argue there is no business that isn't suffering right now, and/or that isn't tough in the 21st century. Maybe banking.

[For context, I've been playing music since I was single-digit years old, was a professional musician for most of the 90s, and helped invent and launch the music subscription business. I'm also old and a little jaded about all this.]

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Albums of Influence: "Computer World" by Kraftwerk

Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk died today, after a short battle with cancer. He was 73 years old.

Florian Schneider
Schneider was a co-founder of Kraftwerk, which started in 1970, not long after I was born. Schneider and the early version of Kraftwerk were part of a famously creative nexus of musicians in Germany known as "krautrock" or kosmiche musik that would spawn bands like Neu!, Harmonia, Cluster, Can, and Faust, as well as more synth-driven groups like Tangerine Dream, and eventually, what we think of as mature Kraftwerk. You may not be too familiar with them, but your favorite bands are.

Kraftwerk has been called "The Beatles of electronic music", which is apt. Their influence is profound, and any electronic musician, even if they've never heard or heard of Kraftwerk, is following in their footsteps. And in the same way, from our current vantage point, it can be difficult to see what all the fuss was about.

I first remember hearing Kraftwerk on the radio not long after "The Man-Machine" came out in 1978. It stopped me in my tracks. I only heard perhaps the last third of "The Robots", but I was immediately transfixed. It was like the spacey sounds of Tomita and Jean-Michel Jarre but wrapped up in a catchy pop song, with dark overtones and what sounded like Cylons singing.

As was often the case with pre-internet music discovery, the radio didn't tell me who the artist was or the song. I had no idea, but I never forgot that sound, and assumed I'd never hear it again.

Years later, I was in a record store. The punk girl behind the register put on a record, and I went up and asked her "who and what IS this?". She smiled and said "It's Kraftwerk. 'Computer World'." It had just come out. As soon as I had saved up enough allowance, I bought it. On vinyl.

"Computer World" front cover
Kraftwerk's "Computer World" was released in 1981. Computers, particularly home computers, were still rare and magical things. The world was still blurry analog. Society was just beginning to understand how computers would be permeating all aspects of our world. Even music prominently featuring synthesizers was still a novelty, and considered something between lame and outright cheating.

The album was one of the first that registered for me as a complete artistic experience, with every aspect considered.

Take the cover, for example. It's an eye-searing yellow-green, the color of early CRT computer displays. Against that field is a black-and-white photo of a computer, and on the computer screen, the image of the band, done in period-accurate graphics with what passed for computer typography in those days (and for my younger readers, seriously, computers looked like this, both the hardware and the screen, and we still thought it was mind-blowingly futuristic and cool). This was powerful iconography, and also had the advantage of making the album stand out in record stores.

The back of the album featured the band...or was it mannequins?...posed in front of computery-looking machinery, shaded green and black, with computer text across the bottom (including being in all upper case).

"Computer World" back cover
The band isn't getting the spotlight -- the computer is. And it is worth noting that, if anything, the band is somehow reduced by the computer on the cover.

Drop the needle on side one. A robotic but funky groove (Kraftwerk's specialty!) starts off, with catchy percolating synthesizers, before a tranquil string pad wafts over the top. You immediately notice (particularly in 1981!) what's missing, what you're not hearing: No drums. No guitar. No electric bass. This is all synthesized. But it is full and engaging.

Over the groove, the singer chants clipped and minimal phrases: "Interpol and Deutsche Bank. FBI and Scotland Yard." He is answered by what sounds like a Speak N' Spell: "Business. Numbers. Money. People." Or "Time. Travel. Communication. Entertainment." Each line repeated twice, before the vocoded chorus simply notes "Computer world." You can almost hear the period at the end. Not an exclamation, or a lament, or a joke. A fact. Computer world.

Side one then moves to the album's "hit singles", "Pocket Calculator", which features tones that sound like they're from a Merlin game, and somewhat cute lyrics that are again as merely descriptive as they can be -- "I am adding and subtracting. I am controlling and composing. By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody". Seems harmless enough.

The other single on the album was "Numbers", a typically Kraftwerk-y beat with typically Kraftwerk-y lyrics -- in this case, just recitations of numbers from different languages, rendered with a variety of techniques ranging from purely synthetic to vocoded to spoken and sung. There's hardly any "music" to it, no bass riff, no chords, just an odd, echoey synthesizer sequence bending and bouncing, and that's only present for about 1 of the song's nearly 3.5 minutes. The rest is voices and drums, minimal and primal. How could they leave so much out?

This segues into a reprise of "Computer World", with the counting returning before it all fades out in a blur of robots reciting numbers.

Side two kicks off with perhaps the most beautiful song in Kraftwerk's catalog, "Computer Love". It has beautiful and simple synthesizer melodies rendered in twinkling tones or silky strings. It is remarkably expressive for all its restraint, and Ralf Hütter's wobbly singing.

It is hard not to hear this now (and perhaps, RIGHT NOW) and not feel how prescient it is:

Another lonely night
Stare at the TV screen
I don't know what to do
I need a rendez-vous

Computer love.

At the time, the idea of computer dating seemed weird and futuristic. From the vantage point of 2020, it is hard to imagine a time when people didn't find dates through the internet, through computers.

The music manages to convey both the sense of loneliness and a sense of beauty. Observing, not judging. And it stretches out, for a glorious 7 minutes and 20 seconds, floating, gliding.

This is followed by "Home Computer", which has a much more sinister groove, and lyrics that simply state "I program my home computer, beam myself into the future." That's it. They're sung by a human who sounds focused but disinterested, as the track's groove splinters into percussion and bubbling computer noise.

The album closes with the starker and darker "It's More Fun To Compute". No human sings on this track -- the album closes with a robotic voice intoning the title over a bass drone and an alarm. The silky synths and percolating grooves of "Computer World" return, but somehow feel desolate and disconnected. Computer world.

The total effect was potent at my young age. This wasn't just a bunch of cool songs, this was an album, with an arc and purpose from song to song, and arranged in a specific way. But it was also cool, catchy, easy to enjoy, different from what was on the radio, and not just modern, but futuristic.

Also, only 7 songs and 35 minutes. They said what they needed to. No filler. No pandering.


This was Kraftwerk's last great album. It would be a long time before they would put anything else out, and aside from the odd single, they haven't done anything truly new since, mostly re-hashing or re-mixing their old work.

I would go back and discover all their great records -- the arguably even-better "The Man-Machine" (which had the song I'd first heard those years back - "The Robots"), the sublime and influential "Trans Europe Express", the primitive "Radio-Activity", and their foundational "Autobahn". I'd even track down their earlier work, which feels much less vital but is still interesting and creative.

Those records were all great, but were just furthering the impressions and understanding of things I had gleaned from living in "Computer World": Make total statements. Consider all aspects of your album. Be creative. Be restrained. Don't be afraid of technology.

Thank you for the music, Florian. And thank you for the music, Kraftwerk.