Music

How the Telecommunications Act of 1996 Brought Us Donald Trump

Over two years ago I started writing a treatise on the effects of the Internet on music, attempting to debunk the popular theory held among technologists like myself that the Internet is an inherently democratizing force that empowers individuals. I collected charts and graphs, pulled industry data, and created a very compelling storyline.

I even began to compile a global database and build a visualization tool to present all the hundreds (thousands) of “independent” record labels that are actually branches of Sony, Warner, or Universal by tying together the hierarchical structures that are employed to disguise the fact that your favorite cuddly “indie” band is actually just a product squeezed out of a tube or a guy who “sold out to buy in.”

Unfortunately, the deeper down the rabbit hole I fell, the more depressed I became about the situation. I actually became so depressed about it that I abandoned the article, picked it back up a year later, got even more angry and depressed, and put it down again. My research not only caused me to despair and not finish my article, but also made me almost give up on both technology and music as well. It was that bad.

Maybe the truest statement ever made is: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

I’ve tried to get it finished several times, but at this point it’s become the Third Rail of Depression and Futility and I can’t bear to look at it. Also, the data collected in 2014 are starting to age, and I have absolutely no desire to re-mine the data again.

This article, therefore, will perforce need to be written at a sprint, because the longer I steep in this reality, the more I despair. I will attempt to annotate as I can, but I’m not here to prove anything, merely to lay out a line of reasoning that others can follow and bolster (or tear down) with facts, and instead of drilling into source data, spreadsheets, and databases, I’ll probably just quote Wikipedia and leave enough links at the bottom that you know I’m not spinning this yarn out of whole cloth.

Instead of laying out irrefutable proofs, I intend merely to connect some dots with a reasonably thick line. Sorry about that, but I got a life too.

In 1990 I graduated from Texas A&M University, aptly described by one of my dearest friends as “a hotbed of conservatism,” from the Lowry Mays School of Business. After graduating, I attended the Red McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin where I received an MBA in Information Systems Management. As it turns out, those two individuals – Lowry Mays and Red McCombs – will become instrumental in this story.

I was a big fan of Milton Friedman (still am, generally speaking) and a True Believer in capitalism as the engine of enriching the masses (this view has since become more nuanced). I called myself a small-L libertarian, wanting little to do with the quacky Lyndon Larouche party, but finding value in small-L libertarian principles: fiscally limited government, small defensive military, an absolute defense of civil liberty, generally open borders and free trade, and the use of progressive taxation (Friedman’s “negative income tax”) to provide a minimum guaranteed income instead of highly invasive and inefficient government services like public housing and food stamps.

I bring all of this up to share that I am not by birth a radical anti-capitalist, but actually someone who came into this situation with views far different than I have now been beaten by reality into accepting. I am still no radical anti-capitalist, but my eyes are a lot more open than they once were.

First I must dispel a notion:

“The Internet is inherently decentralizing and democratizing.”

As one of the very earliest Internet developers (I started building complex database back-ended web sites in 1995) and a small-L libertarian, I gulped this Kool-aid the moment it was offered. It fit exactly into my ethos. As a technologist, I could see that the Internet had the potential to decentralize everything. And as a musician, I was sure that a New Era of Music was upon us, one where a musician could simply create and distribute music directly to fans without middlemen, and that this empowerment would destabilize and destroy the record label business which had done such terrible disservices to the artists it supposedly represented.

Without getting into the charts, data, spreadsheets, and suicidal ideations from my abandoned article, let me just cut to the chase: this view was balderdash, at least over a two-plus-decade timeframe. In a nutshell, the top 1% artists now 77% of all music revenue, the top 3 labels control roughly 90% of the music you hear, access to the key new music discovery media (radio, satellite, and curated playlists) has narrowed tremendously, and more money than ever before is required to build and maintain an audience. If you doubt all this, write your own article, because I couldn’t finish mine without wanting to drink Drano.

In 1994 nobody as far as I knew was using the term “disruption,” but what I have learned from my work in tech, and from my research, is that disruption is really mostly analogous to a game of 52-pickup: a change comes along that suddenly seems to throw all the playing cards in the air. For a brief moment in time, the former holder of all the cards is destabilized, and everyone in the room has a narrow window in which to grab a few cards while they’re still in the air. Some individuals get lucky, and grab enough cards to empower themselves before the cards are grabbed back up by their original holders. These lucky individuals can then serve as useful anecdotes to the world about how the “disruption” has “empowered people.” Everyone knows the story of the musician that got famous by building a fanbase on MySpace and never signed to a record label. Sadly, far too many of us thought that was a trend not an anecdote.

Even sadder, at least some of these anecdotes were simply propaganda stunts by massive Internet businesses to market their brand. For example a particular Internet giant tried for years to spin the story of how their social network was helping to make a particular “artist” quite famous (3+M social followers!), when really all they did was push this person onto everyone’s social feed and hope for the best while nothing actually happened in that artist’s musical career. Heck, the “artist” never even completed a full album of music. Still, millions of people saw the story and got hope, including me.

Silly, silly me.

I’m not here to bash disruption per se. My view is that disruption, like the technology that enables it, is value-neutral. The point is that it is not inherently value-positive, as so many of us technologists cling to as if it were religion.

So the Internet did not tear down the evil record labels as predicted. In fact the overall market for commercial radio increased 13% in the decade 1998-2008. The Internet also did not destroy radio as predicted. The power of radio has surely diminished somewhat since 1994, but the current and continuing influence of radio on music is almost impossible to overstate. At least as of 2014 (when I collected data for my aborted article), terrestrial radio was still the #1 source of new music discovery.

Let me repeat that: 20+ years after the invention of the modern Internet, FM radio is still the #1 way that people discover music. And the #2 way people discovered music is through word of mouth — in other words from a friend who probably discovered the music where? On radio.

So I will say it again: it is almost impossible to overestimate the influence of terrestrial radio on new music discovery.

Radio is not dead. Not even close.

When researching my previous article, this was where the rabbit hole opened up and swallowed me whole. Because something else had changed in the intervening years since Marc Andressen brought us the Mosaic browser – in fact, this giant change was largely because of that browser.

That change was the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Before we fall down that rabbit hole together, I want to sidestep for a moment, because something else happened in 1996: my rock band from college got its first single played on a top radio station in a top-ten market by one of the nation’s best-known DJs, a man we all call Redbeard. How this happened wasn’t luck or payola: we made a demo, took a CD to the radio station, met Redbeard (cool guy), he listened to the song, liked it, and agreed to give it some spins.

That song didn’t make us famous. But Redbeard and his peers at the competing station broke a lot of influential North Texas bands during this period of the 1990s: the Nixons, the Toadies, Tripping Daisy, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, and many others got their start on the radio exactly this way – by taking a demo to a local station and getting spins – in drive-time rotation in a Top 10 music market. That’s a Big Fucking Deal. It’s also a feat that is practically impossible for an unsigned local artist to pull off today, for reasons we shall soon learn.

Spins on radio means fans at shows. More fans at shows means more requests for the song on radio. More requests means more spins, more spins means more fans — then better shows at better venues, etc.. Eventually the effect is spillover onto other stations and into other neighboring markets. It’s an easy to understand, meritocritous, “bottom-up” virtuous cycle that Made Music Great from 1970-1996, the Golden Age of FM Radio for anyone old enough to remember it. It’s a process that played out for years on hundreds of stations across the country, surfacing local talent and exposing it to the wider world.

This Golden Age was made possible only because of the existence of largely independent local radio stations employing independent DJs to curate a playlist for the local demographic and to develop the local market. This was the formula that had served music listeners since the advent of radio, and that, for all intents and purposes, ended after 1996 and has yet to be replaced with anything.

Particularly on the Internet, where “local” goes to die.

As a young technologist in 1996, I was on the front line of Internet hype. A few years prior, the “Internet” was still something for nerds wearing propellor hats like me. Suddenly, the light bulb came on, seemingly for everyone at once. ISPs like UUnet previously thought to serve a tiny potential market of only hackers started doubling in valuation every few months as people realized “everyone’s going to want to get online!” Startups like Amazon and eBay and Google – and Pets.com – achieved insane levels of hype. The Internet, it was thought, would eat everything. And it probably will, eventually.

It became relatively obvious early on that the Internet as well as other recent disruptive technologies of the time like cellular and cable would radically change telecommunications. In the wake of this sudden disruption, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed. This landmark piece of legislation was the most important piece of legislation affecting telecommunication of all kinds since the 1934 Communications Act which created the FCC.

The purpose of the 1996 Act was stated as:

to provide for a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapidly private sector deployment of advanced information technologies and services to all Americans by opening all telecommunications markets to competition

which, in 1996, sounded like a good idea to a young, small-L libertarian. And in fact I’d guess that there are many aspects of the Act that have been good for the country and its inhabitants. Probably. Maybe.

The Act did many things, mostly oriented around de-regulating the boring communications infrastructure maintained at the time by AT&T and the Baby Bells to try to re-orient it around serving the needs of the coming Internet market. That was the part of the bill that everyone was discussing and arguing about at the time. However, unbeknownst to most, it also significantly de-regulated radio, television, and print media for the first time since 1934.

Under the 1934 Communications Act, radio was held to be a (at least quasi) public good – like clean air, street lighting, or libraries. 1934 was a time where most of the print news in the country was controlled by a small number of political machines, like that of William Randolph Hearst, which used sensationalism and “yellow journalism” to promote political agendas. The goal of the 1934 legislation was to prevent such monopolization from taking hold in the nascent radio market with its limited space on the dial for competition. The mechanism was straightforward: limit the number of stations any entity can hold in any market, and the overall number of stations that any entity can hold. It also limited the ability for media channels to “forward integrate” into radio – to prevent a company like RCA from controlling the distribution channels for its competitors’s music, and to prevent a company like Hearst’s from commandeering the airwaves for political purposes. (Hearst, originally a Roosevelt supporter, would turn strongly against FDR after the passage of this bill).

In other words, radio was kept decentralized with the goal of maximizing local and independent access.

It is important to understand that at the time, it was not unusual for most people to have access to a small number of radio stations. The great 20th century urban migration was not complete, and radio was nascent and capital-intensive. It is for this reason that the FCC was created to ensure that the fledgling technology was deployed in a way that prevented monopolization.

It is from this philosophy – radio as a public good – that later notions like the “Fairness Doctrine” and “Payola” sprang. In the 1940s, the FCC held that radio programming must present opposing views on controversial material instead of only presenting one side. This was the so-called “Fairness Doctrine.” Likewise, rigor was applied to keep record labels from buying access to stations (and crowding out competitors) by rigorously enforcing laws regarding Payola – a law still (theoretically) enforced today. Under Payola laws, a radio station can play a song in exchange for money, but must disclose the song as “sponsored content,” and cannot count the spin in the song’s ratings.

The Fairness Doctrine was struck down in 1987, but the anti-monopoly laws stood until the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which relaxed or removed the restrictions against the number of stations any one entity could own (both in one market and overall), and removed or relaxed restrictions against forward integration, allowing media creators to own networks, and vice versa.

The effect was that the 1996 Act, which was supposed

to provide for a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapidly private sector deployment of advanced information technologies and services to all Americans by opening all telecommunications markets to competition

actually did no such thing at all, at least not in radio and media. The centralization in media has been dramatic: in 1983, 50 companies controlled 90% of US media – that number is now 5 (Comcast, Walt Disney, News Corp, Time Warner, and National Amusements) with almost all of the consolidation occurring since the passage of the 1996 Act. In 1995, companies were forbidden to hold more than 40 radio stations, total – by 2003, only eight years later, one company owned over 1200 stations, including having outright monopolies in many markets where they own and program every station on the dial. Where once FM radio was a unique place to discover new, unusual, and local music, today 80% of playlists match.

And – even though Payola is purportedly still a crime, these media empires enter into profit sharing agreements with the major record labels (who control 90%+ of the music you will ever hear). Folks, this is Payola writ large. Good luck if you’re actually indie.

The degree of consolidation has been breathtaking. I think this infographic sums it up best.

That the Telecommunications Act of 1996 increased efficiency in radio is undeniable. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 people have lost their jobs in radio broadcasting since the Act was passed – even as the total number of stations broadcasting in the USA has increased. This has happened because there is often absolutely no local “station” at your “local” station, but just a transmitter, broadcasting a program that sounds completely local, but which is programmed by Who Knows from an office in Who Knows Where. This has allowed for massive efficiencies of scale: it now takes approximately 0.5 people to run a “local” radio station.

As a small-L libertarian, the notion of efficiency has a certain nice ring to it, until you ask, “what, really, is the product, and how have we saved and benefitted as a society?” The answer to that question is complex, but in a nutshell, the product is simply advertising: advertising for products, sure, but also advertising for big-time-record-label music through these profit-sharing agreements, and – thanks to the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine – advertising for a specific political point of view. The notion of radio as a public good is long gone.

This was basically where my previous attempt to write a similar article about the music business broke down. Because once you, the small-L libertarian technologist-musician, understand that:

  1. Even though the Internet supposedly “changed everything” you still need good old radio to build local markets but
  2. You’re basically cut out of local radio altogether
  3. By the major record labels we said we “disrupted”

you want to just give up and make that nice big Drano cocktail. It’s hopeless.

I remember some of the discussion when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed. As a technologist caught up in the pre-bubble phase of Major Internet Hype, it was “clear” that the future of radio was dead. “Soon” we would be streaming an infinite number of stations digitally. The use of AM and FM waves would “soon” be a dinosaur. With digital, an infinite number of “channels” would be possible, so the idea that radio was a limited “public good” in need of strong mandated decentralization seemed instantly obsolete. So the idea that we should deregulate radio and allow it to blend with media companies had a certain air of logic to it, since radio itself was going away to be replaced by the Internet. And after all, “less regulation equals more competition,” right?

This all might, in fact, happen one day. But satellite radio and streaming have not displaced terrestrial AM and FM radio. Most people still listen to radio in their car – and 25 years in, the Internet still really hasn’t penetrated the vehicle to eliminate broadcast radio. It is displacing it, somewhat – but the number of radio stations in the USA since the 1996 Act was passed has not shrunk – it’s grown. And, since the Act allows conglomerates to own and operate virtually without limit, they’re chewing up space on you satellite dial, too – and have excellent control over the Spotify playlist you’re probably listening to.

And, I’ll add, in much of what we call “flyover country,” far removed from urban culture, AM radio is still the only thing you can reliably find on the dial due to its superior reach.

In the early 1970s, Lowry Mays and Red McCombs formed Clear Channel Communications when they began to acquire failing radio stations and return them to profitability, typically by changing their formats to less operationally-expensive formats like religious programming or talk radio. By the mid-1990s Clear Channel owned 40 radio stations and over a dozen TV stations.

Conversion to religious and talk-only formats was not profitable because they were products with greater demand – they were profitable because they were products with lower cost. As researcher Jackson R. Witherill writes:

Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj of Tufts University interviewed a number of radio executives in 2011 and they found common ground on the sentiment that “the surge in talk radio programming was supply driven, not demand driven” (Berry and Sobieraj 2011). This means that as individual stations within national corporations became unprofitable, switching to talk radio programming was an attempt to stay in business through producing inexpensive and nationally broadcast programs.

The rise in the number of talk radio stations has meant that syndicated programs, which have become increasingly common, have gained a higher level of exposure through the creation of more stations airing the same material in new locations. This increased exposure results in higher ratings for the show.

(emphasis mine)

In short, the conversion of radio to talk formats was less about listeners demanding that material, and more about the low costs of production and economy of scale of delivery. In short, they’re saying what we musicians have known for a long time: generally speaking, people like whatever they’re fed by the radio. Therefore the curator – or program director – or talk show host – has a powerful shaping role.

Enter the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed the restrictions on station ownership, and suddenly Clear Channel’s acquisition + talk-format conversion strategy can be done at scale. Along with other hungry conglomerates, Clear Channel started gobbling up independent radio stations en masse. In three years the company had grown 10X – to over 400 stations. In five more years, Clear Channel would triple its radio reach again, growing to over 1200 stations – as well as 41 television stations and over 750,000 outdoor advertising displays. Clear Channel is now known as iHeartMedia, which is still the nation’s largest holder of radio stations and, through it’s subsidiary (Premiere Networks) is the largest producer of syndicated talk radio.

Suddenly, giant radio conglomerates like Clear Channel / iHeartMedia were able to push syndicated talk radio formats completely across the country, coast-to-coast. Gone were the local DJs and commentators, in were the preprogrammed music stations and religious and celebrity radio talk show hosts. Premiere even created “Premiere on Call” – a service that offers fake callers to call in shows that fit the story or agenda of the show.

As a by-product of this change to religious and talk radio, this period in history saw the rise of a new kind of syndicated radio personality: the shock jock. As Wikipedia defines it, there are two overlapping species of shock jock:

  1. The radio announcer who deliberately does something outrageous and shocking (to improve ratings).
  2. The political radio announcer who has an emotional outburst in response to a controversial government policy decision.

And who are Premiere’s (iHeartMedia’s) top earning syndicated talk show hosts?

  1. The Rush Limbaugh Show
  2. The Sean Hannity Show
  3. The Glenn Beck Program

Premiere’s top competitor is Westwood One. Who are Westwood One’s top syndicated hosts?

  1. The Mark Levin Show
  2. The Savage Nation

These top 5 syndicated talk shows represent the lion’s share of syndicated commercial talk radio. Of the five, only Limbaugh had a significant following prior to the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The other four are creations of the post-1996 radio consolidation phenomenon.

These sort of political talk shows would have been very difficult if not impossible to justify under the Fairness Doctrine that existed from the late 1940s until 1987. However, it’s important to note that it was not the removal of the Fairness Doctrine that led to the overnight explosion of right-wing shock commentators. The reason for the explosion is clear: these shows are products of vertical integration and economies of scale enabled by the 1996 Telecom Act. The typical pre-1996 local radio station in Average, USA would never be able to afford even one hour of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, but a giant conglomerate can actually save money by owning both the program and the distribution network and subsequently firing all the local employees of “Average 1310AM.”

And that is exactly what happened, in thousands of stations and communities all around the USA.

In a matter of a few years, this trend pushed high-volume shock-jock national-level syndicated radio right down into Average, USA. Gone were the local farming programs, the state politics talk shows, and Redbeard playing my demo. In came the right-wing talk radio movement, and the rest is history.

And that, my friends, is the direct line from the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to President Donald Trump.

Epilogue

This article would be remiss without its own version of the Fairness Doctrine. Because I think there’s another radio phenomenon that must be mentioned, and that is National Public Radio.

I’ll state here that NPR is overall a left-leaning organization, and has (had) a number of left / center-left talk shows such as Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, The Takeaway, and Latino USA. However, only Fresh Air makes it onto the Top 20 syndicated talk show list.

NPR’s most successful programs are news programs: All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace. These shows are also left /center left in focus, but as a rule do not offer editorial commentary.

In fact, only two progressive talk radio programs makes it to the Top 20 – Fresh Air (NPR), and the Thom Hartmann Program broadcast from the (commercial) Westwood One radio network.

As a result, the counterbalance of progressive, left-wing talk radio is dominated by an 800-lb gorilla called NPR, which crowds out other stations with its high-quality, listener-supported, and at least partially federally-subsidized broadcasting.

Now, while Terry Gross and Diane Rehm are surely left-of-center, there can be no comparison between the political slant of these sober NPR commentators and Michael Savage screaming “liberalism is a mental disorder” at the top of his lungs. There are no hyperpolarizing “shock jocks” on NPR stoking anger among their listeners with outbursts of rage. Nobody on NPR is “connecting the dots” Glenn Beck style to hypothesize various absurd yet certainly entertaining conspiracy theories. You will never hear an NPR personality refer to the Republican Party as a “terrorist network operating within our own borders.” And its most popular programs by far are the news shows – again, with next to zero commentary, and less-than-zero raving and pulling of hair.

So consider the polarizing effect of the top 5 syndicated radio programs:

  1. All Things Considered (NPR) – news
  2. Rush Limbaugh (Premiere) – conservative talk
  3. Morning Edition (NPR) – news
  4. Sean Hannity (Premiere) – conservative talk
  5. Marketplace (APM) – news

So NPR pulls the left towards the center, while commercial right-wing talk radio pulls the right to the right. Meanwhile, NPR’s large budget and high-quality commercial-free program sucks much of the air out of the room for any potential left-wing audience to support a more vitriolic, aggressive left-wing talk format (as though that would somehow help the country find balance).

More Reading:

Understanding the Rise of Talk Radio, Cambridge Core

The year that changed radio forever: 1996, Medialife Magazine

Why All The Talk-Radio Stars Are Conservative, Fortune

War of the Words: Political Talk Radio, the Fairness Doctrine, and Political Polarization in America, University of Maine

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.