Tuesday, July 26, 2005

In the New York payola case, Sony settles nothing

No doubt that major label haters are licking their lips over this: Radio Payoffs Are Described as Sony Settles. But the fact remains that this is going to be a temporary victory at best even though NY Attorney General Elliot Spitzer definitely had the right idea going after these industry leeches. A settlement of $10 million is a lot to you or me but pocket change for a huge corporation like Sony. They chopped off the head of a few scapegoats (i.e. Joel Klaiman, executive vice president of promotion at Epic Records) and shrug off a fine that will go to non-profit music education groups which means that they might be able to write this off on their taxes.

The L.A. Times' Paying a Price is the sharpest, most informative piece I've seen about this story. Some great quotes include Spitzer explain that this modern-day payola is "as widespread and "corrosive" as it was in the 1950s." And then there's the pathetic corporate flack who begs a radio station "What do I have to do to get Audioslave on WKSS this week?!!?" Not to the mention the elaborate way that Sony/BMG carefully got employees to call radio stations to request certain songs. Of course, Clear Channel says that it is shocked and dismayed at these practices and will make sure they'll punish anyone under their wing who do such naughty things (sounds like Bush admin and the Plume leak). Even the self-appointed moralists in the FCC have now decided that this is a problem and have promised to yank radio licenses if they find a station has been getting paid off but I'll believe that when I see it- they're much more interested in handing out fines for 'immoral' broadcasts since that gets a lot more political traction.

In the LAT article, note this tidbit:

"The settlement won't ban all gifts. Sony BMG may pay for listener giveaways and give station employees concert tickets, modest personal gifts and meals costing as much as $150 per person. The settlement also permits the company's artists to perform at radio-sponsored events, a practice some critics describe as "play-ola," because radio stations can sponsor huge concerts without having to pay the performing bands."

It's nice to know that the labels and stations won't have to go cold turkey. They can still do favors and pay-offs but guys, um... please just don't make it too blatant, OK? Which must be a relief to all involved that the gravy train is only temporarily slowing but not getting shut down.

OK, so this is small peanuts compared to all of the lobbying groups in Washington who buy and sell Congress for their votes but that's cold comfort to any real music fan. The fact of the matter is that payola is not going to end. There will always be ways around the laws.

I do wonder about a few things. What do the artists themselves who had their records paid-for-play think about this? I'm sure some will laugh to the bank but this doesn't exactly help their rep- to think that their labels have to pay someone to play their records doesn't exactly boost confidence. And while NY State can be proud of Spitzer, what about the other states? This involves stations across the country, right? Also, isn't it kind of interesting that Sony honcho Andrew Lack is supposed to be chummy with Spitzer? What's up with that...?

Maybe this is all going to be irrelevant anyway since ads are so ubiquitous nowadays- instead of getting radio to constantly play paid-for hits, we'll have to hear a preview of them on our dial tone before we can make a call or turn on our computer. But it is strange to think that if payola is so widespread that the labels are not getting the sales figures or chart positions they claim, hoping that the placing they buy will get them real sales later, hoping that the more lemming-ish members of the record buying public support a winning horse or that they'll actually like a song that's on auto-repeat. It would be interesting to find out just how effective this scheme actually is.

So what's the long-term answer to this problem? For one thing, the labels and stations would have to have some kind of incentive to not engage in this kind of trickery. Easier said than done but the obvious finger pointing would be at the greedy multi-national companies who own the majors. But the fact of the matter is that the original payola scandal of the 50's involved smaller labels too: see the History of Rock site for more details. That's not to say that all (or some, or a few) indies today would stoop to this practice but obviously, this kind of problem is so endemic that fines and rulings aren't going to wipe it out. Basically, you'd have to restructure the entire industry and hope that the basest of human nature doesn't surface again (which is wishful thinking of course). Thing is, the whole entertainment industry is in such a topsy-turvy mode anyway, we may see that scenario played out.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Jandek's U.S. tour- reality check time

No, I don't quite believer it either but he did do an English gig. Thanks to the SXSW posse for the info below.

Jandek - August 28, 2005
Austin Scottish Rite Theatre - Austin, Texas

Jandek will perform for the first time in the US at the Austin Scottish Rite Theatre in Austin, Texas on Sunday, August 28th, 2005. The performance will begin at 7:30 pm. Tickets will go on sale soon at http://www.jandekinaustin.com

The historic Austin Scottish Rite Theatre is located at 207 West 18th Street, near downtown and the University of Texas. Doors will open at 6 pm.

The Austin show will be followed by two performances in early September in New Orleans and New York City:

New Orleans show:
September 2, 2005
Dixon Hall Annex
Tulane University
Doors 7 pm

New York show:
September 6, 2005
Anthology Film Archives
32 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10003 USA
Telephone: (212) 505-5181
Fax: (212) 477-2714
Doors 7 pm

Monday, July 18, 2005

Saul Williams and Bobby Brown- abject lessons in race relations, large and small

- Saul Williams
The rapper/poet was easily the highlight of the Village Voice's Siren Festival though some would complain that this year's fest was a little light on talent (likely sucked up into the Intonation Fest the same weekend). I had two friends with me who were definitely NOT rap fans but were still impressed by his set. The rest of the crowd responded too as his record was soon sold out at the mersh booths (the other acts had plenty left over at the end of the day).

His most interesting banter was about the recent London bombings- while not brushing aside this horrible attack, he also noted how unfortunate it was that the news media plastered headlines about it all over the place and ignored the G8 conference push for helping Africa. Williams rightly wondered why millions staving and dying in the continent were immediately old news now, even after the spectacle of Live 8. The answer is obvious, sad to say.

- Being Bobby Brown
Though Bravo's happy with having 1 million viewers for this reality show, they still pulled in 1/2 the audience for Britney's flop show- guess it's all in a scale of numbers/audience. I've never had much use for BB (who Britney covered recently), especially in light of his ongoing legal problems. Still, if you're going to pick someone who's gonna be a real character for a show like this, Mr. Houston will certain do.

Listening to Star and Buck Wild's morning show for Power 105 today, they noted a recent incident on BB's show. Seems that he and Whitney were looking to fly across the water so he yelled out to a white jet-ski-er "How much is that?", asking about his pricey little aquatic device. "More than you can afford!" he snobbishly replied. The DJ's implied that the jet-ski guy was probably ready to append "nigger" at the end of his reply. Even if the guy didn't recognize BB and Whitney (who Star rightly noted could buy a country by now even factoring in BB's court expenses), he obviously meant that 'those kind of people' weren't upwardly mobile enough to afford a little luxury. Sounds like Hermes store incident where Oprah was turned away, doesn't it?

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Live rap and techno on the skids?; Embracing the music you hate

Way behind on posts- so many topics, so little time to spiel. For now, I just wanted to note three interesting articles.

- Will Rap Fans Pay More and Fill the Arenas? A Tour Bets They Will
I've always wondered why many rap acts that top the charts can't fill arenas like say rock or country. Two theories floated here are that the lack of dazzling FX ("pyrotechnics") and "tour development" (building a fan base by touring) work against live rap, not to mention parents being squeamish about stories of violence they hear at shows. For this last point, we're obviously familiar with all these stories but I have to wonder how much this gets played up by the media. I wonder if there are actually any studies about how much violence happens in rock shows as opposed to rap shows in recent years. Going back to reasons for poor rap show attendance, overall declines in ticket sales definitely don't help.

I don't know why but I have this feeling that there's some other factor that's not easy to pin down, as if these shows aren't necessarily the way that the audience expects or wants to experience this music as opposed to hearing it at home or seeing the videos. This may go back to the pyro argument where there's the perception that these shows don't provide enough visuals. I remember reading an interview A Tribe Called Quest circa 1990 where they addressed this problem though they still didn't put on a really compelling show when I saw them around the same time. That this is still an issue 15 years later points out how chronic this problem may still be.

- What Goes ON- After the Stall
I don't always agree with Washington City Paper's Mark Jenkins (in fact, I've written him several angry letters about wrong-headed comments in his columns) but I always find his writing to be at least thought-provoking, which is a lot more than you can say about most music columnists nowadays. This one (with the cute Moby cartoon) is about techno's failure to take over the American airwaves and charts. Two points I'd add to his arguments: 1) instrumental music usually doesn't reign on the pop charts, 2) techno is all over commercials nowadays, which obviously counts for something since Madison Avenue likes to keep its finger on the consumer pulse.

What's even more fascinating is Jenkins' side note about the Billboard Charts and how they 'bump' off records more than two years old. This means that warhorses by Pink Floyd and Queen don't make the cut though they're always steady sellers. It also means that Norah Jones and Postal Service get cut out too. All in the name of making our the music industry look hipper and more current than it actually is...?

- I Don't Know What I Don't Like
Frank Oteri is an especially perceptive and thoughtful editor as he proves month after month in New Music Box. I also cherish his columns there and here's one of his best. Though most peoples' budgets make the idea prohibitive, he dares to suggest to the reader that they start to invest in some of the music that they hate. Seems kind of insane, doesn't it? But it's not that crazy when you consider his argument that unless you want to cocoon yourself in your favorite genre (or just with a handful of your favorite bands), you owe it to yourself to explore some things that you don't think you like. Who knows? You might change your mind. Or maybe you won't. Oteri's comments are particularly salient for the classical world that he's addressing in NMB as the genre has been in long-term crisis with regards to its insular nature.

For anyone who's a music nut, his words ring true also. Maybe the most important thing I've learned from Ann Powers' work is that it's OK to not like everything you hear but it's not OK to outright dismiss everything, especially if it's seeped into or dominated pop culture. At the very least, the healthiest thing is to at least UNDERSTAND the phenom, even if you're ultimately going to decide that it ain't for you. You can get good deals on used CD's (and sell 'em back if you're not happy) and some online music services like Napster let you stream thousands of albums for a monthly fee (I use them a lot). Admittedly, embracing music that you don't like isn't not easy to do (takes up a lot of time, which you probably don't have to spare) but if you're a real music nut (or a music scribe), it's worth it to invest your ears and brain in such an undertaking at least now and then.