Music

In Response to Seth Godin “The erosion in the paid media pyramid”

I cannot recommend more highly Seth Godin’s recent blog post, “The erosion in the paid media pyramid“.  If you haven’t read it already, please follow the link, and come back.  It’s short, excellent, and we’ll wait for you.  The TL;DR is: digital distribution is putting the squeeze on the previously-cash-cow “Mass” media segment, which is largely being replaced by the “Free” segment at the bottom of the pyramid.

He makes many important points I agree with, however I think Seth makes two statements in his article that need to be addressed:

First, he writes:

The marginal cost of one more copy in the digital world is precisely zero.

This is a common misconception.  The marginal cost of one more copy in the digital world is very, very, very low – a ridiculously low number, a number so low, that if you weren’t careful, you might just decide to round down to zero.  But reading bits off a hard drive and sending them over fiber and copper wires – the process of making a digital copy – as inexpensive as it is, is not actually free.

“So what,” you say.  What’s the difference between “free” and “practically free?”

The problem is that the digital world has to scale, and very, very, very small numbers can still become very, very, very large numbers at scale.

I want to encourage everyone to please, stop using this trope.  TANSTAAFL still holds true even in the digital world.  Saying that digital copies are actually zero-cost leads to terribly erroneous conclusions at the scale of the Internet.

Secondly, he writes:

Media projects of the future will be cheaper to build, faster to market, less staffed with expensive marketers and more focused on creating free media that earns enough attention to pay for itself with limited patronage.

This is true for those mass-media projects that move “down the pyramid.”  But what about those mass-media projects that move up instead?

Moving down the pyramid is the easy move: creators keep doing what they’ve always done and get by through “doing more with less” (and also by just “doing less”).  Skip the art director, and freelance on DeviantArt.  Skip the editor / producer altogether.  Skip the marketing, and outsource through a service provider.  Etc.

It seems that the real opportunity for media / content creators is not to simply the product, but actually to complicate it.  Add enough complexity that it becomes attractively desirable, but hard to produce.  An example of this would be the ways that Lucasfilm differentiated the theater experience with 7-channel sound (hard to reproduce at home) or how Broadway differentiates with expensive special effects (hard to pull off in community theater).

Obviously it’s much harder to “move up the pyramid” to a more differentiated product than it is to simply something you’re already doing.  But that’s where the profit will be.

Take a Greyhound to Fredericksburg

A Story in Three Parts

Pt. 1: December 1994

1994 was a good year to be in the Dallas music scene.  Bands like the Nixons and Tripping Daisy and the Toadies were breaking out with national hits.  Record labels were eyeing Dallas bands with eagerness.  A local-national DJ named Redbeard had the drive-time rock show on the rock station (Q102) and was aggressively spinning local music during drivetime.  It was just a great time to be in a rock band in Dallas.

That winter, my band was tracking some demos at Crystal Clear Studios with owner Keith Rust.  Over a lunch break one day, I casually asked Keith if any interesting bands had been in the studio recently.

Keith replied that they had just worked on a CD for an art-rock band called the Moon Festival that was pretty good.  And, he added, there was a killer sort-of-punk-country band called the Old 97s who had just finished up a CD.

So I checked out the Moon Festival, and met front man Salim Nourallah, and needless to say, that turned out great for both me and Salim.  We’ve worked on lifetimes of wonderful music together and have learned greatly from each other.  Salim’s influence on my tastes – the entire way way I think about music – cannot be underestimated.

And I checked out the Old 97s.  They had a great draw at Dada where they played regularly – a club where we also drew well – so we conspired to get on their bill as openers for a series of shows.  And that’s how I finally got to see the band live, and I was floored.  The kinetic energy onstage was electrifying.  The band thundered through its set and the sweating crowd ate it up. And the songs – this collection of unpretentious but infectious tunes – were a kind of music I’d never heard before.

In 1994 “rock” was grunge.  If you had a twang in your guitar or a twang in your voice, you were country – and the Old 97s had both.  But in those days, “country” meant sterile Nashville pop-masters like Randy Travis and Garth Brooks.  The Old 97s played more like the Clash or the Replacements.  And the twang was more Wichita Falls than Nashville.

I bought the record when it came out, and I was instantly charmed.  After that run of shows, I didn’t see the band again for many years, but I kept up with the records.  The band has made a number of killer records and for sure, records like “Wreck Your Life” and “Fight Songs” and the latest “Most Messed Up” are maybe the band’s best efforts, from a sense of musicality or artistry.

Old_97S_-_Hitchhike_To_Rhome

Hitchhike to Rhome

But over the years, for me, nothing had the staying power – nothing “took me back to the club scene days” – like Hitchhike.  Overlong, minimally produced, sometimes cacophonous / sometimes playful – this record had a sort of naive charm that is impossible to maintain the moment record labels start waving contracts in front of you.

“Getting noticed” changes a band.  Where before you were just kids with dreams and hopes having a good time with no expectations, suddenly you have a responsibility to create something marvelous.  And you have to do it naked, under a microscope, with everyone watching.  The act of observing something changes the thing observed.  It’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action.

The band never made a record like “Hitchhike” again – and really, they couldn’t even if they wanted to.  You can’t re-have your first kiss. You can’t see Star Wars again for the first time.  You just can’t get back to those places once they’re gone.  And in this way, records are like time capsules – and Hitchhike to Rhome is truly that: a time capsule of the undiscovered, youthful band playing their first full “set” and just having a grand old time.

Meanwhile, Salim went on to work and tour with Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller for his solo work.  Later, Salim and the Old 97s and I would go on to make several records together.

Over the years I quit listening to the Toadies, and the Nixons, and Tripping Daisy, and Buck Jones, and Ten Hands, and Hagfish, and 66, and Fletcher, and Pop Poppins, and all the rest of the local bands from that time.  But Hitchhike to Rhome wormed its way into my heart and soul.

It’s karmic, somehow… I grew up with Rhome in my blood, literally, because half of my family is from there.  My great grandparents even founded the tiny, adjacent community of New Fairview.  So when Rhett sings,

Hitchhike to Rhome
take a Greyhound to Fredericksburg

it always evokes a palpable image of dusty, poor North Texas in my mind.  Rusty metal windmills.  Grain silos.  Dirt.

Over the decades I’m sure I’ve listened to that silly romp of a record over 1000 times.  I know every word, every guitar lick, every bass groove, every drum fill by rote memory.  I shit you not: its in my desert island collection, right alongside Please Please Me and London Calling.  There’s not another “local release” in my Top 20.

Pt. 2: January 2014

Early this year I received a message from God.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, God used His child, “Diamond” David Lee Roth, to deliver His divine message to me.

rothreview4

David Lee Roth, Agent of God

The issue was almost existential: I was trying to figure out if I wanted to take up residency in a studio somewhere, build a new studio of my own, or just quit music altogether.  All musicians struggle with the decision to keep making art in the face of an increasingly hostile musical environment – and this was one of my moments of doubt and pain.  This decision lasted literally months, and culminated one day in a trip to Essalunga, the Italian version of Kroger.

That day my indecisive brainstorming reached near-seizure levels.  So wrapped up in decisionmaking that I could barely see straight, I went with my wife Vanessa to the grocery store. On the way I laid it all out for her.  The costs, the risks, the rewards, the probabilities.  I wanted to build a new studio, but the costs are high and the probability of payback is low.  Conversely, I could shack up in someone else’s studio and grind out an income, but that can quickly become soul-crushing work that makes you want to gouge out your eardrums.

I was really wrapped around the axle, as we say in Rhome.  As we walked up to the gleaming automatic sliding doors of the Essalunga, I desperately asked Vanessa, “how can I ever decide?!”

The doors parted, and from inside, accompanied by the swell of fuzzy synthesizers, David Lee Roth loudly proclaimed the answer to my question:

Might as well JUMP!
Go ahead and JUMP!!

There was a certain logic to the illogic, and Diamond Dave’s was the exact answer I needed. I heeded the call. I started seriously and methodically planning the design.  I started assembling a new audio recorder – 48 channels of the latest Pro Tools HD, a lovely vintage “big iron” mixer from the 70s, and a pile of my favorite vintage gear.  There’s old vacuum tube gear and cables piled all over the house now, while the building is currently under construction.

I fully expect to have Diamond Dave over to cut some hot tracks.

Pt. 3: Spring 2014

By now you should be asking where all this is leading.

So, Constant Reader, it was with coronary-inducing excitement that I received a call from the band this spring, asking for some help.  “We’re putting out a 20th anniversary re-release of Hitchhike,” explained guitarist Ken Bethea, “but we were never really happy with the mix of that record.  Would you be willing to remix some tracks?”

Wut?

Remix Hitchhike to Rhome?!?  One of my favorite records of all time?

Are you fucking kidding me?!?

I stammered agreement over the phone, hung up, and immediately started wondering, “where the hell am I going to mix this thing?”  I had the gear, but the building wouldn’t be ready until long after the album’s release date.

I considered a number of alternatives, including mixing it at Treefort (where the last few records were mixed) or even going back to Crystal Clear and mixing it at the original studio.

But I work best when I Do My Own Thing. So finally I decided to wing it: I set up an entire studio’s worth of equipment in my bedroom – not a spare bedroom, mind you, but my bedroom, wife and all – and got to work.

It was a very mad-science endeavor – but in a way – mixing Hitchhike on a bunch of old vintage gear piled into in a bedroom is kinda perfect.  And I couldn’t be more happy with the way the record came out: raw, punchy, and rowdy.  I kept it real – no digital editing or “fixing” was used – and it’s an all-analog mix with all-analog gear for a big fat analog sound.  When I crank it up on a good stereo, I can close my eyes and I’m standing in front of those old JBLs at Dada.

Mixing this record was a complete blast and I’m super grateful to have been a part of it.  I hope everyone enjoys listening to it even half as much as I enjoyed mixing it!

Stay tuned to the Old 97s to find out about the re-release later this year.

Music Appreciation

Welcome address to freshman parents at Boston Conservatory,  given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at Boston Conservatory:

One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician.

I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “You’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music and how it works.

The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940

Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire

Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.” On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world

I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had

Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does

I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings —people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?” Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this: “If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary

Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.

Eco-tainment

As the Editor-in-Chief for ProRec, I get a lot of music-industry spam.  Most of it I disregard.  This is why:

Eco-tainer Alyssa Anjelica James put a fresh spin on the green movement with the release of her first full-length album entitled “within.” Tree-huggers and environment scoffers alike are impressed with her smooth style and soulful lyrics. More than just a performer with a cause, Alyssa has dedicated her support to numerous environmental causes including, “Tree-People,” and “Heart-Song.” As a pioneer of the “eco-tainment” movement, Alyssa hopes to use her talents and experience to entertain and inspire her audiences to “go green.”

Eco-tainment?

I am speechless.