Sunday, May 29, 2005

'Ad-Pull' guarantees you spineless articles or their money back!

A chilling trend seems to be emerging in the ad world. As AdAge reports, BP institutes 'Ad-Pull' Policy for Print Publications. This would make the second recent big company (after Morgan Stanley) to go on record to say that they're not going to support publications with ad dollars if they're critical of them. Though it's being overplayed quite a bit, more and more dollars are going to non-trad media outlets for advertising (online mostly). This is what already happens defacto with advertisers holding clout but now they're looking to up the ante.

Needless to say, this will have a chilling effect on what does and does not get reported on. So far, this is just seen as a story for national publications but there's no reason that this idea couldn't to the entertainment biz when they realize too that they can pull some strings with the money they use in magazines and newspapers- today it's an oil company and an investment firm, and tomorrow, who know? And then, either a bad record review or an investigative report into record company practices like price fixing might be killed off because it could mean the loss of crucial (and dimishing) ad dollars. The end result will be jolly, fluffy 'reporting' that pumps up the music business but tell readers essentially nothing (or nothing critical).

As always, the consumer has the last word in the matter. If they're mad at these companies for trying to squeeze out the publications for any ill words, buyers can make their discontent known with their pocket books or joining in on boycotts of these companies.

Of course, it's easy for me to say. I don't take in any ad dollars.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Daphne Brooks on the Jeff Buckley you thought you knew

Just in case you haven't heard, Princeton professor Daphne Brooks is one of the most thoughtful, engaging music journalists around today. I saw her Jeff Buckley presentation at Experience Music Project and was blown away by it. Buckley had been a performer that I really had little use for before, thinking that he was only a shadow of his daddy Tim. Brooks' presentation laid out a great case for his importance, noting his odd but heartfelt connections with chanteuses (i.e. Nina Simone) and indie-rockers alike. I admit that I'm still not enamored of his music but I definitely had much more respect for him as an artist and for his ambition.

It only makes sense that Brooks wrote a tome on Buckley, laying out her thoughts in even more detail. For anyone around Gotham, here's your chance to witness her work in person and support what she does.

Also note Girl Group, the collective of women music journalists, who helped to put together this event, and hopefully future events. This group includes some of the best writing talent around, engaged in good ideas and discussions. Admittedly, I helped start up the group but don't let that dissuade you.


The Girl Group presents:
A Reading of Grace

The power and influence of Jeff Buckley's Grace increases with each passing year. Here, Daphne Brooks traces Buckley's fascinating musical development through the earliest stages of his career, up to the release of the album. With access to rare archival material, Brooks illustrates Buckley's passion for life and hunger for musical knowledge, and shows just why he was such a crucial figure in the American music scene of the 1990s.

The latest in the 33 1/3 music series by Continuum, Books: Grace by Daphne Brooks. Join us for a reading and conversation with the author. *Copies will be available for sale at the event.

Thurs. May, 26
@ 7:00 p.m.
Cake Shop
152 Ludlow Street
New York City- Lower East Side
(between Stanton and Rivington)

The Girl Group is a forum for women music writers to talk about the challenges of writing, editing and general career advancement as a woman working in the arts media. Interested? See

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Talkin' Bob Dylan B-day blues

I have the nerve to complain about turning the big 4-0 when Bob Dylan is old enough to be my parent- right now, he's older than my mom. Hell, he's only a few months younger than Dick Cheney (who's also been known to spin fanciful tales). 64, just like the Beatles song and Paulie will be there next year himself.

At a recent New York show, Dylan's band sounded great, his voice didn't always and he didn't touch a guitar once that night (rumor has it that he's got arthritis though that didn't stop him from playing a keyboard). Not surprisingly, his most recent songs were masterful- the latest version of his vocals and band-mates are still fresh in your mind compared to the studio versions (I was praying to hear him do "Cold Irons Bound" and he didn't disappoint). Some of the older material was still being re-arranged and re-thought, including a ballad take on "Mr. Tambourine Man." After working in a respiratory unit of a hospital for a while and remembering his long-time smoking habit, I had to wonder if part of what we hear now from him is something on the order of emphysema. Whatever the case, he deserves credit for not turning into a sad oldies act. He'll likely be doing dates until he drops.

But back to his birthday today, I remembered a Loudon Wainwright III song from the early 90's. Triple L himself had been one of many dubbed a "New Dylan" back in the early 70's when labels were dying to anoint someone else with such a crown. L knew this obviously and poked fun of this in the song "Talkin' New Bob Dylan Blues." Interesting to note that L himself and other new Zimmies he mentions were hardly shadows of the man but very distinctive, brilliant songwriters on their own (even though they were undoubtedly influenced by him). Well, maybe not so much Forbert...

And so...

Hey, Bob Dylan, I wrote you a song.
Today is your birthday if I'm not wrong.
If I'm not mistaken you're fifty today,
How are you doin', Bob? What do you say?

Well, it musta been about '62,
I heard you on record, and you were brand-new.
An' some had some doubts about the way you sang,
But the truth came through and loudly rang.
Yeah, you were hipper than Mitch Miller,
And Johnny Mathis, put together.

So I got some boots, a harmonica rack,
A D-21, an' I was on the right track.
But I didn't start writing until '68,
It was too damn daunting, you were too great.
I won a whole lot of Bob Dylan imitation contests, though -- huh

Yeah, times were a-changin',
You brought it all home --
"Blonde On Blonde", "Like a Rolling Stone" .
The real world is crazy, you were deranged,
An' when you went electric, why, everything changed --
A shock to the system.

Had a commission at yer motorcycle wreck --
Holed up in Woodstock, with a broken neck.
The labels were signin' up guys with guitars, Out to make millions, lookin' for stars.
Well, I figured it was time to make my move --
Songs from the West Chester County Delta country.

Yeah, I got a deal , and so did John Prine, Steve Forbert and Springsteen, all in a line.
They were lookin' for you, signin' up others,
We were "new Bob Dylans" -- your dumb-ass kid brothers.
Well, we still get together every week at Bruce's house --
Why, he's got quite a spread, I tell ya -- it's a twelve-step program.

Well, but we were just us and of course you were you,
"John Wesley Harding" sure sounded new.
And then "Nashville Skyline" was even newer,
'Blood On the Tracks', an' the ringin' got truer.
Let's see -- there was another one in there somewhere...oh, I got it, I got it -- "Self Portrait" --
Well, it was an interesting effort.

Yeah, had to stop listening, times were too tough,
Me bein' the new me was hard enough.
You keep right on changin' like you always do,
An' what's best is the old stuff still all sounds new..

Yeah, today is your birthday -- have a great one, Bob!
Bein' the new you is one hell of a job.
My kid cranked up her boom-box to almost grown
When I heard you screamin'
From her room--
"Everybody must get stoned."
Thanks a lot, Bob -- happy birthday, Bob.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Welcome to the world of legal bullshit!

Contracts say the darnedest things. You find out that out when you enter the fascinating world of the music industries where you maneuver through the fine points of negotiations with artists, managers, publishers and labels. Somewhere in there, you'll eventually get to work with pages and pages of contracts, full of terms that would make a dictionary vomit. I understand and appreciate that all the parties involved have to do this to protect their rights (including the artists themselves). All that matters is that all sides are happy and you have signatures on the dotted lines. You just hope that somewhere in there isn't a provision that you're giving up your first-born (assuming you want to keep her or him).

Fair enough but sometimes when you do sift through these agreements, you'll find something utterly mind-boggling. My favorite recent example is this doozy which seeks to cover recordings "... in any form whatsoever and in any medium now known or to be discovered anywhere in the Universe." I kid you not. I thought this was hilarious at first until I realized that this was something totally serious. As such, I was almost tempted to consult with a astro-physicist to see if there's some loophole there. Does that cover parallel universes, time travel or hostile alien races that do not recognize contracts on this planet?

When I shared this with a friend at a label, he just shrugged and said that this kind of wording was pretty standard now. He didn't have any thoughts about other universes or bad-ass aliens. "That hasn't come up yet in any negotiations I've seen," he admitted. "But you never know with this business..."

Indeed. When I shared with someone at another label, they not only had the same reaction but could do even better than the original wording. He had this quote from Donald Passman's All You Need to Know about the Music Business:

"The 'universe' wording was the cause of one of my most bizarre negotiations, as well as my initiation by fire to the music business. I had only been practicing entertainment law a few months when a label I represented signed a jazz artist named Sun Ra. This guy said he was a reincarnated Egyptian, and had recorded records in the pyramids (for real). Anyway, his lawyer called me up to say that it was unacceptable to grant the universe, and that our territory must be limited to the earth zone. At first, I thought he was kidding, so I said I would give him everything beyond our solar system, and maybe Neptune and Pluto, but that the moon and the neighboring planets were mine. I also asked if we had to pay him earth money. The lawyer, very seriously, said this was not negotiable and would blow the deal. So I added 'satellites' to the territory of 'the world' and caved in on the rest. (that lawyer still owes me one.)"

Ah, good ol' Ra. Don't you wish you could have been in the negotiations for that one? It's kind of funny to read but at some level, you have to figure that Ra was serious about this at some level (right?).

I shared this some partners I was working with on a reissue project and they started thinking about this themselves.

"Do we have distribution on Saturn?"

"Uh yeah... I got someone working on that."

"OK but let's look into the moons there too 'cause that might be another market."

"No, no, that's covered with the rings..."

And so on. Yes, we will have inter-galactic lawyers to deal with such things someday and may need to re-negotiate all the old contracts to deal with that. Until then, one of my co-producers summed it up best when he also shrugged at the "known universe" clause I mentioned above: "welcome to the world of legal bullshit!"

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

But seriously... older and musically wiser?

I'm not really one for birthdays but when the clock hits a new decade, you figure that it means something. Yes, it's just another year and another day goes by. You notice certain hair is now lightening and such. You wonder about what you've done, what you're doing and where you're heading. You think "I never imagined I'd be... (insert age here)."

For me, it's forty today (just like Trent Reznor and we pretty much turned out the same, except for the number 1 album one of us has now). I find it hard to believe sometimes. "Where did the time go?" Oh well. Don't laugh- you'll be here before you know it or maybe you've already left there.

I guess I shouldn't complain because the big things are in place- I have a special someone who loves me, a good job, I still enjoy writing and music and writing about music. Honestly, if I did have more time and money, I'd just want to do more of what I do now. And probably travel more...

Thanks to all the experience I've gotten, I do think it's helped me to do better writing. It's come not just from working with good writers, editing their work and helping them along but also from working with good editors and learning the trade, the tricks, tips and such. Also, you can't beat reading good articles and books for ideas, background and inspriation (that also goes for fiction, which gives you good ideas too). I've also learned what it's like to be a writer going over edits so I keep that in mind when I'm editing other writers.

Other useful journo tools that are obvious now came along after years of work- doing your homework/research (both written and musical), collecting notes and then starting a first draft, put writing aside and coming it back to it later with a fresh mind, thinking of fresh, unique angles, etc.. You get to savor such nuggets of wisdom so much that you almost wish you could go back and re-write earlier pieces. Not time for that though and there's so much else to discover, not just coming along now but the mountains of things that passed you by for some reason or another.

I also take solace in articles like Sarah Dempster's ... But seriously (Guardian, May 7, 2005). At first flush, this seems like an old fogey who doesn't understand those darn kids' music but for anyone who's past 30, there's something to ponder here. Why not find out what music you REALLY like and have dismissed past all the flavor-of-the-month music? "Embrace your unfashionable instincts. Nurture your inner nerd... You're only old once," she explains. I guess I could go back to the music of my youth and listen to Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd all day. I also wonder what I'd really like to hear if I was faced with the old desert island parlor game. I'd like to think that I wouldn't bring or have any albums. Instead, it would be much more fun to have an instrument and try to unpack all the songs I've loved and heard over the years but haven't had time to listen to. Best of all, I could sing them all off key 'cause hey, I'm on an island... That'll have to wait though- I know I'd miss Gotham too much right now.

And then there's this BBC article:
The age of 50 marks authors' peak. "Fifty is the perfect age to write a novel, a study of the best-selling authors of the past 50 years has shown. The average age of writers who topped the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List from 1955-2004 was 50.5 years." OK, granted they're talking about fiction writers but I think there's something to be said for experience and wisdom gained by years. I'm happy with some of the work I've done when I look back at it but I know that when I have the time and an adequate word count, I can do much better work now than what I've done before and be proud of the results.

In the end, I know I'll just go about things as I have been, trying to balance my work and find time for myself and people I care about. And hey, I have another ten years until I'm faced with these "what I am doing with my life" riddles.

For now, I can definitely enjoy my b-day. I'm going to be with my girlfriend Robin (who is a wonderful, wacky, sweet person that I'm very lucky to be with) and Gang of Four, one of my all-time favorite bands. I guess that it'd be nice to have some family and other friends around otherwise but I really don't like big to-do's for me and besides, I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate. And of course, I'm writing about this outside of a blog entry. The band I mean, not me. I'll leave that to some crazy kid who thinks my antics are worth documenting.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Against the spectator state- do we really want more participation?

Brian Logan's Guardian article Against the spectator state is about theatre audiences and their relative passivity but obviously, it has implications beyond that. In ye olde days of the Bard and the classical composers, audiences didn't sit on their hands and listen quietly- they talked to each other, walked around and then listened in on the action sometimes. Nowadays, not just a cell phone ring but an ill-timed cough or sneeze could get you dirty looks. You get the feeling that such a rarefied atmosphere is part of what keeps younger or adventurous patrons away from this crusty events and not just the same old fare offered.

So if a sea change happens and we do have more active audiences, how is that going to make things for the performers? Since they're already conditioned to perform in front of quiet, unobtrusive audiences, this is obviously going to take some getting used to.

Call it a hunch but you get the feeling that a greater participatory audience would have to be initiated from the side of the performers/management- as fun as it would be to imagine, the idea of a widespread audience revolt just seems too unlikely. If theatre companies or classical ensembles did try to encourage a heightened level of activity, there's no doubt that the audience itself would need some time to get used to the new shift also.

Compare this to other types of music concerts. At a jazz or blues show, people will regularly applaud at the end of a great solo. At a rock concert, the volume will usually be too loud to hear any crowd banter during a song but look out between songs- request for song favorites and "Freebird" will fly around. At a rap show, how often do you get asked to "throw your hands up in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care" or to shout a phrase back at the microphone technician? And how about the African phenomenon of spraying the singer with money after he's mentioned your name or a family member? At King Sunny Ade concerts, people have been known to line-up to do this. At punk shows, there's the fine arts of moshing, crowd surfing, etc..

Most likely, this isn't what Logan and others have in mind when they cite the need for more participation but this can at least foster ideas and inspiration. They should be careful what they wish for though. Once the audience gets the idea that they don't have to be quiet little sheep for all these performances, it'll be interesting to see what else they will be expecting, besides more reasonable ticket prices...

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Free tinnitus with your I-Pod & deciding what's on our own TV

Who gets to pick what we watch? Tune in
TV Watch is a counterpoint to the self-appointed public guardians in the Parents Television Council. TVW works under the commendable assumption that the tube shouldn't be constantly under the heal of religious extremists. Instead, they advocate that parents should make decisions for their children about TV and the rest of us who don't happen to be school age should have say over what we watch otherwise. TVW is accused of being a puppet of the networks- even if that's so, I'm ready to lock arms with them because this time, they're fighting the good fight. Likewise, the Future of American Media, started by Representative Maurice Hinchey, looks to also add some measure of sanity to the debates about how to best regulate (or not regulate) media.

Digital music craze stores up ear trouble for iPod fanatics
Playing with our little MP3 toys is fun until years later when we can't get that ringing out of our ears. Suggestions about the right volume level and the amount of listening time might sound wimpy now but it won't when you're having trouble hearing any sounds. As someone who used to give hearing tests, I can tell you for certain that this is no joke. If you don't believe me, see the British Campaign Against Tinnitus.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Minutemen documentary on tour

Indie rock fans in the NYC area might be interested to know that the documentary We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen is coming to Lincoln Center on May 24th- this is going to be the film's New York premier- tickets are available at the Lincoln Center website. Admittedly, I did help to arrange this but that's partly because I'm a fan and because I wanted to see the film myself.

(Check the website at the link above as the film is also touring around elsewhere)

Minutemen were ragged, angry, hopeful, soulful, jagged, funny, tense, politicized and a few dozen other adjectives that you'd want a cherished band to be. When I was in college in the mid-80's, albums like Tim or Zen Arcade were like sermons from the mount that my friends and I endlessly dissected as soon as we got our hands on them. But above all else, Double Nickels On the Dime seemed like an endless source of amazement and amusement. This is what I said about it five years ago for a UK publication:
In the year of Orwell, as Springsteen, Tina Turner, Van Halen and Prince were hitting megastardom with U2 and R.E.M. well on their way, a poetically political punk-funk-jazz trio from a Los Angeles seaport unleashed an unassuming, sprawling double record on the Sun Records of the '80's. Though the band themselves would be the last ones to call it a masterwork, the sheer size and heft of the thing seemed to spell out their unique vision in more detail than any of their other records. This sweet excess made the critics take note and bellow in approval, not knowing that this was near the end of their career. As it turned out, the group was spearheading an underground rock movement in the States where the likes of Big Black, the Replacements, Meat Puppets were also crawling into the limelight.

Starting out as a quartet in '78, Minutemen were part of a fertile West Coast crop that the proceeded the skinheads populating the L.A. punk clubs. At first, their songs were chants and blurs, in the true spirit of their punk daddies. On WHAT MAKES A MAN START FIRES? and BUZZ OR HOWL UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF HEAT, the band started to reveal some of its sophistication, build around the brief, jazzy guitar solos of the humongous D. Boon, funky, thumping bass of Mike Watt and George Hurley's intricate drum fills.

By the time of DOUBLE NICKLES, the three-some had nearly perfected their rowdy, friendly, angry, impassioned rock music while still keeping the songs at their custom 1-2 minute length (a minute, man). The record begins "serious as a heart attack" and ends with "can these words find the truth?", housed by pictures of band members in their cars (with their engines beginning and ending each side), savage Raymond Pettibon cartoons and a slap at their label-mates ("take that, Huskers!"). Despite calling the last part of it "Chaff" and filling it out with covers of Van Halen, Steely Dan (hilariously out-of-it) and Creedence (low-fi with crowd noise), this was far from a waste product. Highlights like the shout-a-long fan-favorite "This Ain't No Picnic," the straight-ahead rocker "Untitled Song For Latin America" and the mad, desperate "Little Man With A Gun In His Hand" were some of their strongest songs, period.

Musically, they were going everywhere without making excess like SANDINISTA! (by another buncha politically-charged funky white dudes). They were hitting on a jazz-funk fusion ala James Blood Ulmer (they actually jammed with Ornette bassist Charlie Haden) like a looser, sweater version of Gang of Four ("It's Expected I'm Gone," "Nature Without Man" and "Maybe Partying Will Help" are dead ringers). At the same time, these lovable lunks let their soft side show with pretty pieces like "Cohesion," "Take 5, D." and "There Ain't Shit On TV Tonight." For some breadth, they also threw in swing ("The Big Foist" "Nothing Indeed"), Sir Douglas Tex-Mex ("Corona"), sea-chantey ("Themselves"), and James Brown salsa ("Love Dance").

Lyrically, they could fall into slogans ("Viet Nam," "West Germany") but the song titles themselves were, as they put it, worth 1000 words. How can you deny tunes named "The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts," "#1 Hit Song," "Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?" and "Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing"?

Sadly, one year later, Boon died in a car accident and the band called it quits with Watt carrying on the spirit of the group with Firehose and his own solo career. Like their other releases, DOUBLE NICKLES is not Minutemen's definitive work but it's definitely a moving testament to band that ended too early and the likes of we see too damn little of.
I'm looking forward to the film to bring back a few memories. Hope to see you there.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

In praise of life imitating art- what's wrong with Kurosawa karaoke?

I was taken with this pretty snobbish article from the St. Paul Pioneer Press: Exhibitionism, voyeurism don't add up to art by Dominic P. Papatola. Though it's thoughtfully trying to deconstruct the way that the arts are becoming a removed, second-hand experience. But wait, aren't the arts by nature a removed, second-hand experience...?

If the dreaded musical karaoke trend won't die away in the West after having infected us from the Far East (note heavy sarcasm), what hope do we have to stave off the fall of our civilization from movie karaoke?

If we're going to get all high and mighty about authenticity and mimicking dialog, remember that Godard himself had dialog later dubbed into Breathless. I could be wrong but if you watch and listen closely to Fellini's La Dolce Vita (especially Anita Ekberg) or Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, it doesn't seem that the dialog is coming directly out of the actor's mouthes.

Papatola is traumatized by the thought of Animal House being relived by frat boys nationwide. But what if you had a group of people re-enacting say, The Seven Samarai or The Seventh Seal, in their native languages no less (with sub-titles provided)? Or what if you had an action sequence from a high budget blockbuster re-created in hilariously lo-fi style by some creative types? Or how about an over-the-top dialog scene from a camp classic by John Waters or Ed Wood played out for all its worth? It wouldn't be any worse of a removed artistic experience than most remakes, that's for sure.

This applies just as well to music. As much as they're easily vilified, hundreds, thousands of cover bands are playing a show tonight to paying audiences (my personal favorite is NJ shore staples the Nerds). And then there's the myriad of bands that do their own songs but also do cover versions. And when we see all these groups in videos, you know that they're not singing or playing their own sings live in front of the camera- just like the movie karaoke people, they're just playing along (so to speak).

And why shouldn't other art forms join in? Professional and amateurs could easily do dance karaoke. Aren't readings a form of literary karaoke? And maybe it's not so easy to imagine, but it is possible to have architecture karaoke, I think at least- you'd have to be pretty damn creative but that in itself would be fascinating to see how it could be pulled off.

And with movie karaoke, having would-be actors literally standing between us (the audience) and the film is a great metaphor for the art experience. The reason that we love art/movies/music is the connection we make- it enriches us, helps us understand ourselves, gives us new perspectives. And when it's done in a public space, we can share our obsessions with others as it brings us together. That's true of Fellini's world-weary bohemians or John Belushi spitting food all over preppies. When it comes to turning art into a more participatory medium, I say the more, the merrier.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Piracy & pluralism- the future of the record industry?

Rest assured that the RIAA is preparing a lengthy rebuttal for this USA Today article: Pirating grows, it may not be the end of music world:

'Music pirating is so rampant and so entrenched in China that it's unlikely to ever be eradicated... In all probability, no company will ever be able to sell $15 CDs or 99 cents-a-song downloads in the world's most populous nation.

The International Federation of Phonographic Industry, which tracks music copyright issues worldwide, agrees. It figures 95% of music sales in China are of pirated copies. Instead of predicting that China will change as it engages with the global economy, the federation warns that China is, in fact, the leader. The federation's chairman, Jay Berman, has been quoted as saying, "The business model for the record industry worldwide is moving toward resembling what we see in China today".'

Needless to say, this is not unique around the world. Even though pressure has also been put on Russia by the IFPI to clamp down on music pirates, they're likely to have as much success there for the same reason. The CD's that are officially released by record companies are far out of the reach of most of the people there so they instead rely on boots to hear music. They're even pretty creative about how they do their homemade compilations. A friend who lived there picked up the entire Kraftwerk catalog on one CD-R for less than the price of an album. Similarly, when I was in Morocco and wanted to sample some of the local music, I went to some record shops to pick up CD's. When I later opened them up, I found out that all of them were CD-R's which were obviously not made by any official record company.

Can a group like the IFPI (or any other group) really stop this? That would require them trying to pressure local governments to pass stricter copyright laws. Unless America, where they line the pockets of senators, governors, etc.. to make these things happen, international law is trickier for them to deal with. The carrot-and-stick approach they can use is to threaten other trade agreements if these governments don't comply. If this does work (and it doesn't always), they then have to convince these countries to actually enforce the laws extensively and continually, which isn't cheap and will have the police diverted from other duties.

Assuming that all these measures are successful and that all of the international pirates are shut down... uh wait a minute, there's a problem with that too. As Napster, Kazaa and other P2P services have proven, once you shut down or threaten one service, many others are ready to spring up in their place. It's simple supply-and-demand. You shut down dozens of pirates, there's dozens more ready to take their place, even under threat of prosecution. Then, these countries would have to be willing to spend the time and money to drag these people into courts and have them fill up their jail cells.

OK, but let's take a huge leap of faith here and suppose that the Chinese, Russians and other governments play along and pour their resources into stopping all these pirates over a long-term basis (a huge IF for sure). Now everyone's going to buy CD's legitimately, right? Wrong. As noted in the USA Today article, most people in these countries don't make enough money to afford these albums. So if no one can even afford to buy your product, that's not exactly a boon to your industry. Will the IFPI raise the average wages in these countries so people can afford to buy these albums? Sure, if they're willing to shut down the sweat-shops that supply the West with all that reasonably priced clothing and goods we enjoy. Obviously, that's not going to happen.

So what's the solution for record companies? It seems pretty obvious and it's been repeated often but not readily adopted because it's a difficult reality to grasp. Instead of being in the business of only selling records, they're going to have to adapt to a pluralistic model (again, as the USA today article suggests). Artists are already realizing this and if the majors don't, they'll go the way of the player piano and gramophone- pricey antiques that will be traded on E-bay.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Big Star returns

Happy news for you power pop fans. Right now, the new Big Star album is slated for late August, coming out on Rykodisc. This would make it their belated fourth studio album: Third (aka Sister Lovers) was recorded in '74 but got its first official release in '78, after the band had broken up. This might be a record for time lapse between albums except that the New York Dolls are also working on a belated third album now.

(Actually, the way that I found out about the Dolls record was when one of them inquired about Alex Chilton lyrics. They also know other members of the Star crew. Interesting connection there.)

The B-Star's line-up is the same that they've had since the occasional reunion shows that they've been doing since the early 90's: perennial leader LX Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens plus Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from Posies (who have their own album coming out). Info about the contents of the new record are somewhat mysterious for now: at a panel at last year's SXSW, when asked what a new B-Star album would sound like, the group cagily replied "that's what we're going to find out!"

Looking to come out in conjunction with this is a B-Star bio in September from Chicago Review Press with this wonderful title: "The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop." Sums up things pretty nicely, doesn't it?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

MTV China- ready for Western prime time

A Reuters article about MTV expanding its coverage in China seems interesting especially for this last part:

'Eventually, Viacom hoped to export Chinese-produced content and original programs to other countries, (vice chairman of MTV Networks, Bill) Roedy said, noting that producing animated shows in China cost about one-fifth what it did in the United States. "China is a huge, huge priority for us," Roedy said.'

I'm all for cultural exchange but what are they implying here about this being such a priority? And shouldn't their announcements about MTV Base, their new African counterpart, also mention something about exporting local content too? Multi-national deals don't have to be a problem as long as there can be an some equitable give & take.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Dueling over dual discs- do record companies hate and mistrust us that much?

Industry playa Bob Lefsetz puts out an interesting, amusing though sometimes wrong-headed and fogey-ish e-mail newsletter. Many industry people read it and it gets reprinted everywhere from VH1 to the Rhino Records homepage. His review of Bruce Springsteen's Devils & Dust seem pretty cynical and mean spirited. Anything low-key in BS's catalog is going to find detractors (who usually just want him to rock out with E Street again) and supporters (including die-hards) but a sober look at the new record should show that while it's not Nebraska, it's not The Ghost of Tom Joad either.

But when ranting about this new album, Lefsetz is really on-target when he talks about the problem of dual disc technology that's used there. On the part of the record companies, there's two thoughts that go behind DD and both of them involve piracy. First, a DD provides a user with some extra audio-visual content that you're not going to get with a regular CD (or a download for that matter). This makes it more appealing to fans to have these things to enhance their experience and make a store-bought purchase of the album.

But in addition, DD safeguards against copying (ripping) the songs there but, as they warn on the release itself, the disc isn't going to be able to be accessed in all types of play-back devices. This might include not just your computer but also your car. If you're stuck with just listening to it on your stereo then, what's the purpose of the A-V extras?

As Lefsetz notes in his DD article, people are getting pretty pissed about this. He cites postings at Amazon where users aren't just grumbling about the quality of songs but also how hard it is for them to try to listen to the album itself. Again and again, you hear the words "caveat emptor."

Whether they like it or not, the record companies message to buyers is this: we don't trust you and we don't care if we inconvenience you. Trying to rope people in with extra bells/whistles makes no sense if you're also pushing them away with their technology. Not surprisingly, there are song files from this record floating around the P2P services (i.e. Kazaa) so that anyone angry after buying the disc might have to go there to hear it. These people will also be telling friends and online lists and message boards how they've been ripped off and to warn other people from not making the same mistake. How dumb and how bad does that then make the record companies look? For that matter, how does that make Springsteen look?

A piece from the Chicago Tribune (Sounds like the future) notes these problems:

DualDiscs don't conform to the industry's compact-disc standard and can't be read by all players. Pioneer, Toshiba and Onkyo were among manufacturers to have initially issued warnings against playing DualDiscs, noting that doing so may damage the machine. But the problem isn't widespread, and has been limited to select older players and multidisc changers."

The first two sentences of that should be warning enough. Manufacturers are issuing warnings? DD's might damage the machines? Would you want to buy one of these discs, take it home and then find out that you had one of the CD players that was going to be damanged by these things? Not quite a brave new world.

And what effect is this going to have on future CD's? If they keep pushing DD technology and consumers get more and more frustrated with finding out how to listen to their music, the result is going to be that they're going to drive more people to P2P services. Recently, it seem that the major labels were finally understanding that people want as much flexibility as possible to access and hear their favorite music. Trying to turn back this tide isn't going to work. It's going to backfire. Giving fans something a little extra for their money is commendable but not when it sacrifices usability. That's just suicide. If there was a CD only release without the extras but that could be played anywhere, it would easily outsell the DD version of the same album.

People who buy a record online or offline at the bare minimum should be able to actually listen to what they purchased. When you deny them that or make it inconvenient for them to do that, you're telling them not just that you don't like or trust them. Whether you like or not, you're also telling them that there's a better way to do this. Isn't it funny that in trying to draw more people in to buy their product, these labels may in fact be driving people away from making any purchases?

Oh well... it took the labels a few years to realize that one of the best ways to beat P2P was to make deals with online music purchasing services (i.e. Rhapsody, the new Napster). Maybe it'll take them a few more years and millions of dollars in loses to realize that DD, as it stands now, is the wrong approach. In the meantime, their lawyers will surely thank them for driving more people to P2P services and then punishing them for that. Since they're the only ones who will benefit now, makes you wonder if the lawyers themselves weren't the ones who were really pushing DD...