Monday, August 30, 2010

Listening Harder

I was at Run for Cover this past weekend (well, it was a few weeks ago now) - it's an annual benefit concert of local DC bands covering pop bands from the days of yore. This year featured In Ex Sexy, Tron Petty, and some bands whose names I can't remember who covered C & C Music Factory (complete with non-ironic shirtlessness) and a great version of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by somebody. Total fun - because how could it not be? - and done without camp, which is what makes the night so great to watch.

My friend was commenting on the sound and I found myself explaining that pop/Top 40 music, as a whole, sounds different because of how it's mixed, how the music from the 80s sounds different because "current" sounded different at the time (which explains why things from that era sound "dated" now), how the soundguy was probably used to mixing current indie rock bands and this explained the burying of the keyboards and the general noisiness of the sound. (Of course, the guys also gets props because he was mixing eight different bands in a row and it's not easy satisfying that many musicians.)

I learned how to record and mix sound in college. It's not a skill I use much these days but whenever I hear something like Run for Cover, I'm reminded of the power of the sound engineer. When I saw the Silversun Pickups a few months ago, the show was meh and not particularly memorable except for the songs at the beginning and end of the show when the the wall of sound dropped away. The wall-of-sound approach certainly has a place but it obscures the song and can make music sound the same if the songs aren't well-written or interesting. Anyway, Silversun Pickups sounded good in places because the soundman (and yes, they're almost always male) threw his aural spotlight on different instruments and balanced those sounds against each other in perfect tension - and without the wall of sound - you could actually hear that harmony.

A sound engineer can't improve a song, but he/she has an unprecedented ability to shape a song by choosing where and how to focus the listener's attention and shaping (or not) the sounds of each instrument. Even listening to the results from contests like Radiohead's for Reckoner shows the basics of what you can do with that sort of control over a song. (I didn't listen to them all but this was my favorite of the ones I heard.) For those interested in what it used to be like with high-stakes razor blades and tape, check out Geoff Emerick's book on engineering The Beatles. Speaking of The Beatles, if you ever want to play "Where's Waldo" with music, The Beatles are great because you can listen to those songs on headphones a hundred times and still hear something new that you haven't heard before.

As I said, I did this work for a while so I have a personal interest but I also like to throw my own spotlight on this hidden artform where I can.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Ethics vs. Law

Sleepers Awake!I was surprised by Randy Cohen's Ethicist column in the recent Sunday New York Times Magazine about the ethics of media piracy. Since the woman who wrote in had bought a hardcover copy of the new Stephen King novel and the publisher had decided to withhold the e-book version (to increase hardcover sales), the columnist decided her piracy of the e-book was illegal but ethical.

The dilemma this woman faced isn't unique though it's typically couched in terms of fairness or usability. However reframing the debate about digital media format-shifting as ethics vs. legality gets to the crux of the issue for me.

Today I was making a mix CD and a few of the songs were iTunes files. There are easy ways of breaking digital rights management protection on iTunes files, but the ones I tried weren't working. I had bought the songs - so the artists were paid - and I wanted to share them but couldn't because of the DRM. Which it's illegal for me to break. Now, if I'd ripped my own CDs, then turning these songs into mp3s would be easy and questionably-legal-but-ignorable. In short, there's no way to legally share those songs. For those that try to answer this need, well, the experience of muxtape is a cautionary tale.

Once you start thinking about all the ways people use music, it's not hard to think of other cases where what seems like a perfectly reasonable consumer desire is illegal. What about DJs who buy vinyl and then pirate mp3s? Some manufacturers bundle mp3s with vinyl to cater to that audience, but the rest are violating copyright law. Even President Obama most likely violated copyright law to give an ipod with some showtunes to the Queen of England.

Predictably, Randy Cohen's remarks inspired blog posts with lots of comments wherein each person placed the line between legality and ethics in a slightly different spot. They're an interesting bunch of comments though precisely because so many of them recognize that there is a difference between legality and ethics.

What most people want to do with their music is pretty simple: listen to it, share it with their friends (not the world), and listen to it again in another place/on another gadget. Readers will want essentially the same thing. It's odd to me that any industry would proactively choose to make their consumers become pirates to get a product that they're selling.

To be continued as the film and book world wade into the bog...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Positive Feedback

YeasayerI went to a couple of shows recently where I found myself thinking about how much venue choice impacts the audience, which in turn impacts the musician's performance.

First show in question: The Holmes Brothers played The Barns at Wolftrap. The Holmes Brothers are friends from my days working at their management/booking agency Concerted Efforts. I used to do advance work on their dates, traveled with them when they went to Singapore, and I'm a fan as well so I go whenever they're in town - to say hello and get my musical fix. They're a blues/gospel/R&B trio known for their three-part harmonies, a killer take of Amazing Grace, and a style that zigzags between sacred and secular. The Barns is a beautiful, great-sounding, converted barn in Virginia not far from DC that holds 300ish in a seated room. I'd never been there before because it's not accessible by public transport.

The key word in that description is seated. The more concerts I attend and put on, the more I believe there's no better way to kill the energy in a popular music performance than to make everyone sit down. Even if you can have a drink in your seat.

Of course, whether the venue is seated or general admission is only one of many factors that go into which venue an artist plays: which venues are available, how big are they, where are they, is the date standalone or part of a longer tour, how is the tour routed, who else is playing in town that night, how recently has the band played the area, what's the ticket price, who's the intended audience...and hardly least of the factors: how much does the venue want to pay the artist.

The second show in question: I saw Yeasayer at the 930 Club a few days later. Yeasayer is the "it" band of the moment and the show had been sold out for weeks in advance. (I scalped a face value ticket in front of the club the night of the show.) The place was packed with people who wanted to dance. But there was no room to dance because it was too crowded. This isn't strictly the club's fault because some government third party sets capacity on a performing space, but have you noticed that club capacity according to fire code is always so much more than seems possible?

So much of live music is about the exchange of energy between musician and audience, where each feeds the other to create a unique experience. Which is why I get annoyed when people are forced to chair dance because dampening that exchange of energy doesn't serve either artist, audience or venue.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


ParasolsBack from New Orleans trip #6 and it feels refreshed this time. As in previous posts, I was there to hang out with a smart, thoughtful, committed group of musicians about activism for a few days culminating in a fantastic rock show at One Eyed Jacks.

Our opening night party at Mother-in-Law Lounge had the best pick-up band of all time with George Porter, Jr. from The Meters, Terrence Higgins from Rebirth Brass Band, three members of Bonerama, keyboardist Brian Coogan, a crawfish boil, and lots of dancing.

Other highlights: meeting David Montana, the Second Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe (read more - my photos were taken with permission), visiting Ronald Lewis and a Mardi Gras Indian and Social Aid & Pleasure Club Museum called The House of Dance & Feathers and po-boys. Leah Chase made the best dinner I've ever had at the legendary Dooky Chase restaurant. From there the night segued into wild dancing to the Stooges Brass Band (listen here) at the Hi-Ho Lounge and a nightcap of beignets and coffee at Cafe du Monde.

I know it's easy to forget about New Orleans when it's been nearly five years since Hurricane Katrina and there have been earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Iran, Pakistan, and China, a tsunami in Southeast Asia, not to mention all the smaller and man-made disasters that don't inspire telethons. But New Orleans is ours - the music community's and America's. It's the birthplace of so much American music and we stand to lose a part of what makes us unique if we let it slip away for lack of effort.

Just over a year post-storm, my first trip was so devastating it was hard to imagine that the sky was ever bright over that city. I'm sure it was sunny but my memories of that trip look like this.

This time around I could see progress. Brad Pitt's and Global Green's houses don't look as lonely as they did last time. There is, of course, still plenty to do and there's plenty of anger that it's still undone. There are still people living in Houston and elsewhere. The economic downturn has no doubt slowed down the recovery process. Still, there were also fewer houses with spray paint on them, more traffic, more people out, the sounds of construction, and a feeling of normalcy and hope all around.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


GraffitiMaybe it was a symptom of not being at SXSW, but I've been craving live music lately. And not just the bands I know either.

In addition to seeing a bunch of different live shows last week, the other night I nearly made it out to a non-predetermined club to see whoever was playing. I don't think I've ever shown up at a club for no reason. There's always been a reason - I like their music, a friend wants to go, I work for them, I need to check them out, I was given free tickets. As I said, I nearly made it out, so I don't get full credit, but it felt liberating to not have a plan.

On the planned side, I saw the weirdest live music performance I've ever seen in the form of Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat-singer. I've seen and admired the Tuvan style of throat-singing, but this was different altogether. Imagine that sound you make when you stretch first thing in the morning but while inhaling and beatboxing and sounding tortured. And imagine that you're Bjork and you hug everyone and you really like steaks. I sound like I'm making fun of her, but the cool thing about her was her sincerity and lack of irony. That and she ended the night by saying "Thank you for accepting weird." I was enamored.

The following night at Rock and Roll Hotel I enjoyed the crack band and countryesque croonings of middle opener April Smith and the Great Picture Show while remaining underwhelmed and disappointed by the droning from indie darlings Here We Go Magic - kind of like Arcade Fire but with fewer hooks. Also liked The Dig at the 9:30 Club who I've been meaning to see because they're friends of a friend and Port O'Brien. Portugal. The Man headlined, but by then I was too hungry to hang around; did learn that they're from Wasilla, Alaska though.

Now I head off to New Orleans for another few days of talking about activism with musicians and a rock show at One Eyed Jacks.

I guess the pick-a-band adventure will wait until another night.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Music as Gewgaw

I admit I live in the bubble of the embattled independent music world. Given that, it was an interesting experience to spend two days in the Corporate Music World when I attended Digital Music Forum East on February 24 and 25 in NYC. Some thoughts on my foray into that strange land:

- Music-as-most-definitely-a-business: I was looking forward to hearing David Pakman, formerly CEO of emusic, now with venture capital firm Venrock, because I'm a subscriber and emusic's obviously been looking to grow their audience and their bottom line lately. The noteworthy point for me of his interview was that, contrary to the many emusic subscribers who cried foul when they started offering some Sony titles last year, Pakman describes emusic's niche of independent music as a business decision. They took the path of least resistance - with the independent labels who were more willing to license to them at decent rates - and built a business model around them. Which says to me, that while the indieness-as-godliness image of emusic might still be "authentic", it's an image built to support a business model, not the reverse.

If that's the case, there's nothing wrong with that since it enabled the rise of one of the most successful digital music retailers ever...but I'd bet it's an affront to all those people who hold emusic as a standard-bearer for the indie aesthetic (whatever the hell that means these days). If you think I paint too strong a picture, try googling "emusic sellout" - it's not all about this topic, but it's a prominent theme.

- A guy from MTV Music was asked why they don't play more music videos. That's probably the most asked question to all MTV employees ever. He talked about how the channel is about more than music videos. And since the schedule has all seven hours of music videos programmed, from 3 AM - 10 AM, I agree. But why not own up to it? Just say that "My Life as Liz" garners more viewers than music videos ever did. No, they're not saying that in so many words but they did quietly drop the words "Music Television" from the logo recently.

- Branding, image, markets, profits, brand penetration, so much about music as a thing to sell other stuff. For example, a question asked from the stage: "do you need music to brand a product or just an engaged audience?" Now I recognize that many indie bands would happily license their song to Sears to fund their next tour. Making money to further your career isn't selling out - these days, it's surviving, which translates to winning the game.

My beef with this whole line of discussion is that it's not about music, rather it's about how to make McDonald's/Proctor & Gamble/Jeep more successful - with the incidental help of X artist/song. Throughout my two days there was very little discussion about paying artists, many complaints about licensing costs, and I'd almost swear I saw the audience smile kindly and condescendingly at the one guy who spoke from the stage of signing artists to his label for their music rather than their marketability! As they all acknowledged, it's a rough business to be in - now and ever. If you're not in it for the music, then why bother? Go sell tires instead already.

It's like that call I got once from some guy wanting to know how easy it was to make good money making music. He seemed to expect me to have a roadmap handy. *Smile* *Sigh*

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sipping from the Garden Hose of Words

Afternoon break at LA Burdick'sTo lessen the feeling of being perpetually behind, I've been trying to be more intentional with my literal and virtual piles of stuff to read.

I currently have magazine subscriptions to Outside, Cook's Illustrated, and The Atlantic. I also sold my name to TapeOp's mailing list in exchange for a subscription. At the beginning of the year, I swapped Paste Magazine for The Atlantic.

As someone that works in music, it feels odd to no longer receive print music journalism in the mail. But I found I wasn't looking forward to reading Paste anymore since they're so focused on adult-contemporary genres. That, plus having so many sources to find music now, meant that reading it didn't seem necessary. The last music magazine that I remember wanting to read from beginning to end in one sitting was Musician magazine. What was cool about Musician magazine was just how many genres and musician-related issues they covered. Maybe it was a slight foreshadowing of the work I do now?

In terms of long-form reading, I've succeeded in consolidating the "to read" list to one online list on I still add more stuff to the list than I read - but at least I know what I've been meaning to read.

The blogs, however, are killing me. Can't keep up. Too much content. Not enough time. And the brain only takes in so much in one sitting. Do other people just let all the daily knowledge wash over them? Do they use services to sort through it all? Even though I'm slowly unsubscribing, I think I'm only managing to swap the stuff I don't care about for less stuff that I care more about -- which only makes the problem worse.

Too much stuff to read! Magazines! Blogs! Books! Ahh!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ode to Snowstorms

My Snow AngelI love snow. Even today, on my fifth day of being held semi-hostage by two consecutive snowstorms - I still love snow.

For me, snowstorms are about trudging down the middle of the street in a city that's as quiet as it's ever going to be because lots of snowflakes have forced me and everyone else to give in to something they can't control.

It's not only that snow covers bare ground and purifies the landscape and gives us days off, but it's what a good snowstorm does to people. I come from one of those places where strangers don't talk to each other unless it's about snowstorms or the Red Sox in the playoffs. In DC, like in Boston, snow brings people together. My experience has been that during snowstorms people are kinder to each other - shoveling, pushing cars, helping people over snowbanks; they're more patient - driving slower, standing in lines at the grocery store; they have more fun - sledding, skiing, snowmen, forts, snowball flights. Kindness, patience, and the ability to enjoy life can get lost in the daily grind of "accomplishing things" and snowstorms give people the chance to rediscover and embrace them.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fair Use Now

I attended Public Knowledge's World's Fair Use Day last week - an entertaining and informative day-long exploration of the state of fair use and how technology is pushing people to invoke it for new purposes.

Fair use is a principle of copyright law that entitles the public to freely use copyrighted work for commentary or criticism without needing permission from the copyright owner - full definition with examples here and here. In order to determine whether a work is fair use, a judge weighs four factors: 1) the purpose and character of the work, i.e. is the use of the work transformative or educational; 2) the nature of the work, i.e. is it fiction or non-fiction, published or not; 3) how much of the copyrighted word is used and is it the heart of the work; and 4) what does the use do to the value of the original work.

Stay with me here, because I know it sounds like a pretty opaque concept at first, but it's used easily and without mishap often. Basically, a song parody or a book review that includes a quote takes advantage of the fair use principle to use the original song or the quoted material, respectively. (Notable exception: Weird Al Yankovic gets permission from recording artists and licenses every song he parodies rather than claiming his songs as fair uses. Check out artist reactions to Weird Al's requests to parody. Kurt Cobain's reaction is priceless.)

What I find so compelling about fair use is that it sits exactly at the place where the law and popular culture and digital culture are colliding. As has been noted umpteen times in the last few years, we live in a remix culture, and remixed work relies upon source material, and source material requires money to create. So the law struggles to untangle the need for creators to make a living from the need for the rest of the public to inform, criticize, comment, and mashup. And that's what fair use deals with.

Most of the programming I saw at World's Fair Use Day dealt with multimedia uses of copyrighted work that were critiques/commentaries that were clearly transformative to me. For example, Jonathan McIntosh's So You Think You Can Be President is an overt critique of the political process but it's an even more inciseful commentary once you read about what he's trying to accomplish below the comedic surface. The same holds true for his Buffy vs. Edward from Twilight (accompanying explanation here).

Fair use in multimedia can be a murky proposition, but seems to be an easier case to make once guidelines are established. That may be wishful thinking on my part, but it's still a far easier argument to make than fair use in music.

After all, practically speaking, how do you recognize a critique or commentary of a song that's being sampled? How do you delineate a non-transformative use of a sample from one that is transformative? I consider Girl Talk, for example, to be transformative in how he juxtaposes and recontextualizes samples, but is that fair use? Cardozo Law Review writes two fictitious opposing opinions, Idolator stands firm, and the New York Times even weighs in.

The existence of that gray area is exactly why I find the topic of fair use so fascinating: sampling in music today creates art that's valid, valued, and culturally relevant but the law has no standardized way to recognize it - imagine it as music in its own private Guantanamo Bay.

All that's not to say there aren't ways to deal with sampling in music. There are, but unfortunately, they're clunky and expensive and not conducive to the creative process. There are also creative remedies to improve the current sample clearance process. But those remedies are almost beside the point if musicians have to circumvent fair use - the system set in place by copyright law for precisely this purpose - to create music that doesn't flout copyright law and and allows them a chance to make a living from their art.