Trying To Get To You

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Without A Song

When the decline of rock as a popular genre is discussed, sociology and/or economics usually enter the discussion. Audience fragmentation, the dispersement of rock fans into separate and mutually exclusive entities, is often mentioned as a culprit. Or, it will be argued that there is simply too much competition from other media (the Internet, video games, etc.) for rock ever to be the central point in popular culture that it once was.

I get all those of those reasons, and I agree with them to varying extents. But I have a simpler reason. Most current rock bands don’t write truly great and memorable songs.

I’m thinking about this in regards to the new Kings of Leon album, Because of the Times. I was made aware of the April release of the record from a thread I read yesterday in the Velvet Rope (a music industry website), where the praise for the release was almost unanimous. I got kind of excited – maybe they stepped up their game and have really improved. So I got my hands on a copy of the album (shit, why lie – I downloaded an advance copy off of Bit Torrent) and I listened to the whole thing about six or seven times all the way through yesterday. And you know what? When I woke up this morning, I thought about it, and I realized that I couldn't hum or remember a line, a hook or a chorus in any of the songs. Not one song left any lasting impression on me! The album sounds cool – the production is moody in a sort of sexy way and I like the vibe of it – but where are the great songs? Because despite everything that’s occurred in the music industry in the past few years, one thing has not changed – this is still a business of songs. And amongst "credible" rock bands, great songs have been in very short supply.

I’ve had these thoughts occur with many other critically acclaimed new albums by bands like the Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, the Shins and others. It’s not that I find these albums to be bad – they’re often sonically inventive and interesting and I can tell that there’s a real personal vision in the albums. I can find enjoyment in listening to them. But they’re ultimately unsatisfying to me, because at the end of the day, I want songs that are impactful, with hooks and choruses that draw me in and engage me, instead of songs that I can barely remember -even after I’ve listened to them ten times.

Great new rock isn’t dead. It’s in hibernation. All it needs is a band with great personality to write truly great songs – and if that happens, it will make a rock renaissance seem like it had been a in the cards all along.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Anyone Want The U2 Catalog For Free?

While the industry battles over D.R.M., I'd be willing to bet that barely anyone in the industry even knows how to use Bit Torrent, the decentralized file sharing protocol that allows for an enormous amount of date to be transfered between computers anonymously. Check out this page from Torrent Spy, a Bit Torrent site (one of many). This page isn't offering individual tracks - it's offering artist's entire discographies! According to the web page, there are over 27,000 people right now downloading the entire U2 catalog for free. I'm not exactly sure how you compete with this - but offering an inferior product at iTunes is not the answer.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Recommendations Wanted

If anyone has some great new albums they'd like to recommend, I'm all ears.

My Simon Cowell Moment

I'm featured today on's podcast, where I'm reviewing 12 songs. I wasn't too much of a jerk (which may disappoint some of you) in my critiques of the (mainly mediocre) selections. (There were a couple of good tracks.) DJ Copperhead, who runs the site, was quite gracious and I enjoyed recording the podcast with him.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Rubber Soul

For some reason, perhaps because I obsess about music more than most adults in their mid-30's do, I haven't been able to get Christina Aguilera's performance of James Brown's "It's A Man's World" out of my head. I'm a Christina fan; I liked parts of her most recent album very much, and I thought "Ain't No Other Man" was one of the best singles of last year. But having watched the performance again on YouTube I've come to the opinion that her performance was empty vocalizing and symptomatic of the problem of so many talented singers today - they confuse oversinging with having actual soul. Christina sang over those lyrics like a Mack truck running someone over at 75mph - a lack of subtlety combined with a series of empty vocal gestures. She's got the pipes - but to me it felt like she could have been singing any lyric, and that she gave more thought to how she was going to impress everyone in the audience as opposed to how she was going to communicate with them. It wasn't James Brown's influence I felt up there - it was Mariah Carey's, and for me, that says it all.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Inescapability Of Classic Rock

I was in Chicago this past weekend to see my sister, who I hadn't seen for a long time. She has a fifteen year old step-son, Alex who I met for the first time. Whenever I meet a teenager, I always ask them what they listen to. I do so out of curiosity and also the hope that they might turn me onto something I've never heard.

So I sit down to dinner with Alex and the family and I asked him what he's listening to. And out came a stream of classic rock bands. Led Zeppelin. Steely Dan. Aerosmith. I asked him if he was into any new bands. He looked at me quizically; I asked, "My Chemical Romance?" "They're ok," he said. "Not into emo so much," I inquired. He almost laughed. "No way. No emo." he said. The Shins and the Arcade Fire weren't even on his recognition chart.

I've heard stuff like this before. I've met a lot of teenagers who tell me they like classic rock more than the music from their own generation. But why? What is it about classic rock that makes it preferable to so many kids? What is it about modern rock that makes it's appeal so narrow? There are the usual conspiracy theories about the influence of the baby boomers, but I don't buy that. A former intern of mine, when I asked him why he listened the Stones, Springsteen and the Who to the exclusion of most new bands, had the answer that I had the most difficulty responding to:

"Because it sounds better."

Monday, February 12, 2007

Further Grammy Reflections: Nothing's Changed

You can bank on reading many articles or blogs today about how irrelevant the Grammys are. And I agree with most of them. But here's the thing - The Grammys have never been relevant. They've almost always honored the safe, middle of the road selection. They pretty much ignored rock for thirty years until The Joshua Tree won Album of The Year in 1987. Remember Jethro Tull winning the first Heavy Metal Grammy over Metallica in 1989? Here's an article from 1986 by Jon Pareles in the NY Times, who's got another article about the Grammys in today's issue.

February 23, 1986

Tuesday night at 8 on CBS, the 28th annual Grammy Awards will be bestowed with great fanfare by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Performers and record-business executives will buckle on their cummerbunds and smile for the television cameras; an audience of millions will tune in to see just what 1985 meant to the music business.

''The Grammys are a big factor with records that appeal to a more passive audience,'' says Dan Beck, vice president of product development at Epic Records. ''There's an audience that isn't tuned into hit radio, or doesn't recognize the names on the charts, but still has some interest in music. That night they can tune in and get a synopsis of what music is considered important - what records they should add to their collections.''

Will they get a reliable picture? Do the Grammys really, as the recording academy's president Michael Greene puts it, reward ''creative and technical excellence'' in recorded music?

In theory, the Grammys should single out a good selection of the year's best recordings -pop, rock, jazz, classical, soundtrack, spoken-word, blues, reggae, comedy, even music video. With 71 categories this year, including two new ones - splitting up Best Jazz Vocal Performance into separate awards for male and female singers, plus Best Polka Recording - the Grammys might well seem encyclopedic. But like the movie-business Academy Awards that initially inspired them, the Grammys often leave observers bemused, bewildered or outraged.

The Grammys bring nationwide attention to a record, certifying - as any top award does - that the material is not just popular, but important. In the music business, which is continually striving for respectability, the Grammy is often considered a kind of pinnacle. Some who complain about the Grammys may just be sore losers; others may simply have been overlooked amid the thousands of records released every year. Year after year, however, the Grammys have made stodgy, middle-of-the-road choices and ignored major achievements.

Should the Grammys be taken seriously? ''Sure - if we win,'' says one record-business executive. The Grammys do bring both commercial and cultural recognition to their winners.

Certainly the Grammys reward their winners financially. Bob Merlis, a vice president of Warner Bros. Records, says a top Grammy - for Album of the Year or Song of the Year - can add a million LP sales to an album that's still selling actively at the time of the Grammy broadcast (records released from Oct. 1, 1984 through Sept. 30, 1985, are eligible for 1985 Grammys). ''What it boils down to,'' Mr. Merlis says, ''is when you're hot, you're hot.''

Irwin Katz, the director of merchandising at RCA Red Seal Records, believes the Grammy for Best Classical Recording of 1984 doubled the sales of the winning album, Leonard Slatkin conducting Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records, said the Grammy awarded to Clifton Chenier's album ''I'm Here'' (for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording, 1983) boosted the album's sales up from 5,000 to 8,000 copies, a significant gain of 3,000 for a specialized offering. ''For an artist like Clifton or Koko Taylor, who shared a Best Traditional Blues Recording Grammy for 1984,'' he added, ''winning the Grammy tells the artists themselves that they're recognized beyond a few hundred screaming fans in a bar or a nightclub. That recognition is important.''

Dr. George Butler, Columbia Records' vice president of jazz and progressive music, said that the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis's jazz and classical Grammy awards in 1983 had a ''significant impact'' on his career, as did his live performances on the awards broadcast. To coincide with this year's Grammy broadcast and its nationwide exposure, the pop band Dire Straits, which has been nominated for six awards, will release a new single this week.

Records are nominated and selected for Grammy Awards by a membership of 6,000 music professionals - performers, songwriters, producers, engineers, arrangers, backup musicians and others with at least six recording credits. The full group votes for Record of the Year (which means top single), Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist. Members can then vote in eight other categories, presumably those in which they're familiar with the genre and the nominees.

Yet the Grammy, the most prestigious award in the record business, does not have a great track record in popular music. (In the classical field, the awards almost always go to long-established performers playing mainstream repertory.) Looking through the Grammy Awards since 1958, the year they started, it's easy to see a bias toward unchallenging pop songs and performing styles.

Almost invariably, the Song of the Year is a torchy ballad - such as Debbie Boone's ''You Light Up My Life'' in 1977, Barbra Streisand's ''The Way We Were'' in 1974 and the Police's ''Every Breath You Take'' in 1983; the Album of the Year is a collection of tuneful, smoothly crafted pop, such as Billy Joel's ''52d Street'' in 1979 and Olivia Newton-John's ''I Honestly Love You'' in 1974.

What's missing is the most vital element in the American record business - rude, noisy rock and roll. The coming of rock changed the esthetics of mainstream American music, showing that willful, self-directed amateurs and outsiders could make better music - more heartfelt, more innovative, riskier and, yes, more popular - than the pop professionals. With the Grammys, the pop professionals continued to look down their noses at rock even as it was earning them their salaries.

Among those who have never received the award are the Rolling Stones (who will get a Lifetime Achievement Award on Tuesday, apparently as penance), Steely Dan, Jimi Hendrix and Talking Heads. Similarly ignored were the great Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland - whose songs, such as ''You Keep Me Hanging On'' and ''How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You,'' have proved as durable as anything from Tin Pan Alley. It took the Academy until 1979 - more than two decades after Elvis Presley - to admit that crooning wasn't the only game in town. That year, it instituted Best Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Instrumental Performance awards, still distinguishing rock from pop.

John Coltrane received his one Grammy posthumously, in 1981. Henry Mancini has 20 Grammy Awards; Bob Dylan has two - one shared with the other performers at ''The Concert for Bangladesh'' (which also garnered the only Grammy for Phil Spector, as co-producer) and one for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male, for his 1979 single ''Gotta Serve Somebody.''

Blockbuster albums such as Michael Jackson's ''Thriller,'' Fleetwood Mac's ''Rumours'' and the ''Saturday Night Fever'' soundtrack have won Grammys, but in the years between mega-hits, the Academy honored, for example, the studio band Toto and the songwriter Christopher Cross. Remember them? Things were even stranger in 1965 and 1966 -years of Beatlemania and Motown -when Frank Sinatra had the Album of the Year twice.

''Prior to 1981,'' says Michael Greene, the Academy's president, ''I wouldn't say the Grammys were a good reflection of American music. The Academy has gone through a long maturing process, finding its way to be more inclusive of certain genres of music. As in any organization, a certain group starts the organization, and the Academy was for many years light in rock, new music, Latin and the more ethnic-based styles. By their very nature, those groups are anti-organizational, anti-structural; it's pretty logical that they would be the last to come in. But we now represent a pure cross-section of the music industry.''

Still, an anti-rock bias persists. At last year's awards, multi-million-selling, critically applauded, musically influential albums by Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and Prince were contending for Album of the Year; the winner was Lionel Richie's ''Can't Slow Down,'' a well-made but slight album of formulaic pop songs.

Outside the top pop categories, the Grammys are often eccentric. There are confusing categories, such as those for Best Gospel Performance, apparently meaning country-pop music with devotional lyrics; Best Inspirational Performance, meaning pop with devotional lyrics, and the separate-but-equal Best Soul Gospel Performance, for black gospel music.

There are also unexpected clusters of nominations. This year, the Atlanta Symphony has stirred up the classical community by getting four out of nine nominations for Best Classical Album, prompting accusations of bloc voting. ''Who wins that category will be the most telling thing,'' Mr. Greene said. ''Next year, we're going to take a look at what happened there.''

And there are also odd nominees. This year, the British pop songwriter Sting shows up in the Best Jazz Instrumental category with the one-minute 15-second title tune from his album ''The Dream of the Blue Turtles.'' Last year, Best Latin Pop Performance went to the well-known pop stylist Placido Domingo, while the British singer Sheena Easton shared Best Mexican/American Performance for a duet with Luis Miguel.

Because nominees and winners are chosen by secret ballot, it's impossible to know for certain what causes those selections. ''I don't think the Grammys are more unfairly given than other awards,'' Mr. Iglauer of Alligator Records says. ''But a lot of people do vote in categories they don't know about, and choose names they know rather than albums they've heard. I've been guilty of that myself.''

The Grammys can be counted on in some areas, notably craft awards for technical achievements and Hall of Fame Awards, which honor historically significant recordings from pre-Grammy days. And it is difficult for any award to keep up with the shifting music business; Mr. Greene says the Academy is considering adding such categories as the accordion-driven dance music known as zydeco (which dominates this year's Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording category), ''new age'' music and another rock category for hard-rock/heavy metal.

The recording academy has, indeed, become somewhat less insular in recent years. But as with any award, the Grammy is still only a reflection of those who choose the winners - and not, by any means, the last word on current music.

Most Important Grammy Statistic

God and Rick Rubin tied for the most shout-outs. Actually, Rick is starting to look somwhat Godly these days. Has anyone seen them in the same room at the same time lately?

(Statistic provided by a friend of A Deeper Shade Of Soul.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Grammy NIght (Or: God Loves R&B Night)

11:25: The Dixie Chicks win Album Of The Year. It was their night. I thought it was a good record, not a great one. But it's nice to see them have the last laugh after what they went through - I wonder what the reaction will be in Nashville.

11:14: Al Gore at the Grammy's. The man who's wife started the P.M.R.C. But that's ancient history, I guess.

11:11: I've never been a huge fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' music, but I just like them. And the "Love To Ornette Coleman" banner on Flea's amp is very, very sweet. But, if they're the best band in the world (to quote Chris Rock) then it's no wonder rock was barely present at the show tonight.

11:03: Bruce Springsteen won for Traditional Folk Album. Excellent.

10:58: Dixie Chicks win Record of the Year. Gnarls should have taken it.

10:54: Robin Troup, the girl who won the "My Grammy Moment" is pretty damned good. She's a natural. Great smile, great presence. Strong version of "My Love" with T.I. I have to admit, that song has really grown on me.

10:50: Prince took out his own ad thanking everyone for the Super Bowl. Awesome.

10:43: Please let this be the last time "You're Beautiful" is ever played on any TV show.

10:41: Uh, are there any worthwhile rock bands that can play this thing (other than ones that are reuniting after 20+ years)?

10:33: Really nice tribute to James Brown. A couple of minutes of "Night Train" from the T.A.M.I. show and then Bobby Byrd donned a cape on the mic. Very cool and very tasteful. No words were necessary. In keeping with the theme of the night, the small piece on Ahmet had him saying that the only music that truly travels the world is American black music.

10:26: A 15 year old female violinist just gave a 20 second performance that was my favorite thing so far tonight.

10:21: Friend says: "Britney is home eating ice cream saying, 'Fuck!'"

10:17: Christina Aguiliera is doing James Brown's "It's A Man's World." It's glossy and she's doing a little too much oversouling. Big singing, but the feeling is missing. Despite all that, she pulled it off.

10:13: Christina Ricci looks hot. She and Samuel Jackson are introducing "three generations of soul men." Here comes Smokey. The voice is great...but the face is frozen. Smokey, legends like you just don't need that much botox. Hello Lionel "Dad of the Year" Richie. You sound good, but since when were you a soul artist? And now it's Chris Brown - cool dance routine to start. Someone said he's the next Usher - but the consensus here is that he's a hell of a lot more likeable than Usher. Excellent performance.

10:00: Ornette Coleman just got presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award - and then Carrie Underwood walked right behind him. Oooof. There's something surreal about Carrie Underwood standing next to Ornette Coleman.

9:59: Friend says, "This is boring me to fucking death."

9:58: It's official, I think I hate Rascal Flatts more than Bon Jovi. The lead singer is perhaps the least sexy front guy I've ever seen.

9:56: Carrie Underwood's cover of "Desparado" isn't bad.

9:53: Someone just said that Rascal Flatts is the country version of Bon Jovi. She says, "They sell a ton of records, but you can't find anyone who says they like them. You walk into a bar, and this is who's playing."

9:52: Rascal Flatts is doing a completely unoriginal cover of "Hotel California." Oy.

9:48: Here's the country section. Nice to see Bob Wills get honored. Introducing a tribute to Don Henley, Reba McIntryre just said that the Eagles combined country, rock and soul. What??? Soul??? The Eagles never had a thing to do with soul.

9:40: More Dixie Chicks awards. It's their's and Mary J's night.

9:38: What I realize that I don't like about Mary J. Blige is that she takes herself WAY too seriously. No sense of humor. That's what gets in the way of her being truly soulful, despite having the chops and the charisma. She's way too solopsistic, but when she gets to churchin' it's hard to deny her. Huge note at the end.

9:22: Who are these 2 unknown actresses introducing the Grateful Dead??? It's the absolute disrespect that the show displays to legendary music that makes me want to hurl a fucking brick through the TV. That goes right into a weird martial version of "Crazy" with no groove, an orchestral backing and a choir. Just play it straight boys...the song is great and now they're just making it weird. Cee-Lo does have a great voice though.

9:09: Song Of The Year goes to the Dixie Chicks. I'm glad for them.

9:07: Watching all the very "nice" perforances is making me crave a really nasty and mean punk band.

9:05: Shakira is fucking hot.

8:57: John Mayer wins Best Pop Album. My friends in the room watching with me are saying, "Yeah, he's the perfect artist for the Grammy's. Nice and safe."

8:50: Stevie Wonder introuduces a three song medley with Corinne Bailey Rae, John Legend and John Mayer. Nice performance, but it's all so goddamned polite! I'm digging John Legend's performance of "Coming Home." It's the first time his voice has gotten to me, there's something stately about him that works. Wow...I must be sick, because I'm actually enjoying John Mayer's performance...some nice guitar playing as well.

8:39: Pink is introducing the Doors for their Lifetime Achievent Award. Then Mary J. wins another award. Nice line about you have to be in the valley to know about the peak.

8:33: Here comes Justin. There's something really generic about his voice. His performance is fine, but there's just something missing. It's a decent remake of "Cry Me A River."

8:26: Oh Lord. They've got three unsigned artists, and America has to call in to decide who's the best one. The Grammy's meet American Idol. And just think, there's some artist who got bumped from receiving their award on camera for this. Lame.

8:23: Mary J. Blige just won Best R&B Album. Here come the waterworks. She's a fine artist, but her speech is way too over the top. What a list of names. Here comes the're done Mary. Wrap it up. Please. Now.

8:22: Booker T. and The MG's just won a Lifetime Achievement Award. They should have stopped the show to applaud them for at least five minutes. I bet at least 50% of the audicnce has no idea who they are.

8:21: Ok, Beyonce is gorgeous and she can "sing." But I find her voice completely unmoving.

8:18: Prince comes out to introduce Beyonce. Does he age at all?

8:13: Joan Baez looks great. Good idea to for her to introduce the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines looks great and the Dixie Chicks sound great - with the power that comes from having been right all along.

8:08: Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett won for Best Pop Collaboration - Tony Bennett actually thanked Target.

8:03pm: I wasn't really looking forward to seeing the Police - but after watching a great version of "Roxanne," I'm psyched to see them this summer. (I think some of the background vocals were canned.)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

American Idol

I found Justin Timberlake's performance at Madison Square Garden last night to be simultaneously impressive and underwhelming. His show is impeccably choreographed down to the last detail and the pacing, while not at all perfect (especially in the 2nd half), catered to his material well. "This guy is a real pro," I found myself thinking several times, and I meant it as a compliment. But for a show to be great, it has to transcend beyond the professional, and in this area, Timberlake was lacking.

There's something endearingly sweet about Timberlake; you get the feeling that while he's serious about what he does, he doesn't take himself too seriously, which prevents him from going into egomania territory a la Usher or Kanye. And while he's undeniably sexy, he's sexy in a pop star context, which means the sexiness is never threatening - he's the perfect vehicle for the upwardly mobile, well dressed women in the audience to project their fantasies upon. He may now be singing about bringing sexy back, but he still hasn't lost his nice boy appeal in the slightest.

There were moments in the show that were undeniable - the audience singalong to "Senorita," the groove of "Rock Your Body" and the screams of the predominately female crowd itself - screams that rose in lockstep with Timberlake using his falsetto. And the ballad "What Goes Around" was excellent. But there were plenty of moments that felt somewhat rote and routine (not surprising since the show probably runs like clockwork and has little or no song variation each night), and an interminable DJ set (used as an intermission halfway through) by Timbaland killed much of the momentum for the rest of the night.

I don't find Timberlake soulful in the slightest. It's obvious that he has a real love of R&B (and a Michael Jackson fetish that won't quit), but Timberlake's "saddest" ballads lack an emotional depth that would make them qualify as soul, in my opinion. That's not to say he won't get there - I think the guy is a true talent, and once he gets knocked on his ass a few times, the resulting world weariness combined with his indefatigable charm and smarts might make him step it up another few notches. He may be a minor artist, but unlike many pop stars, it's obvious that he's still got a lot of growth left in him.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"Fool For You"

Sometimes great artists are predominately known for just a handful of songs - and those songs get so overplayed that the true depth of that artist's catalog is lost. Such is the case with Curtis Mayfield, who as far as the larger world is concerned, created approximately five songs throughout his long and incredible career - "People Get Ready," "Keep On Pushing," "Superfly," "Freddie's Dead" and "Pusherman." The latter three especially have been done to death, sampled repeatedly on a myriad of hip-hop tracks and played to death in practically every metro bar in the United States. It is a true shame, for Curtis Mayfield was one of soul's unquestionable greats, with a catalog that is a treasure of American music.

"Fool For You" is my favorite Curtis Mayfield song. It's one of those songs that as far as I'm concerned, is perfect - and the descending horn lines that serve as the song's bridge are one of soul's great unheralded moments. If Curtis had only done this song, he'd still merit every claim of greatness sent his way. If you don't have his any of his catalog - get it now.

Download: "Fool For You"
Buy Curtis Mayfield At Amazon

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I'm Glad Steve Jobs Agrees With Me

This appeared on Apple's homepage today. Basically, it's Steve Jobs saying that DRM (Digital Rights Management) is useless, as 90% of music (physical CD's) comes with no DRM. Somewhere, Mitch Bainwol (the head of the R.I.A.A.) is banging his head against a wall.

If The NY Times Says So...

The New York Times wrote a big piece in this past Sunday's Arts & Leisure section about soul music's big comeback. Soul music in the air - but the true messenger has not been found yet. John Legend and Corinne Bailey Ray are too polite, the American Idol contingent is a vacuous facsimile of the real thing and the Hip-Hop artists mining Soul are, well, Hip-Hop.

When the right artist comes with the right song, it's going to blow up. It's the only music around that can appeal to everyone, and when it's done right, it rings authentically true in such an ecstatic way that you'd have to be dead not to respond.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Meet The (Digital) Beatles

Apple Computer and Apple Corps. (The Beatles) settled today. This paves the way for the Beatles catalog to be made available on the Internet (legally - it's already all over the place illegally). Twenty years ago, the Beatles catalog was released on CD, and it sparked the CD boom. If iTunes revamped it's service and used a digital rollout of the Beatles catalog to introduce a much more comprehensive service, my guess is that it could spark a digital music boom similar to what happened for the CD twenty years ago.

Step #2: Offer Choices

On Friday I wrote that I believe the first best step the record industry can take to turn their fortunes around is to publicly admit the mistakes they have made so far and to recommit to the consumer (and put their money where there mouth is by dropping all lawsuits against individual file sharers). Today I propose a very simple digital solution that is both technologically possible to offer, and gives the consumer, for the first time, an incredible amount of choice in how they purchase music digitally:

Offer music fans the same choices in how they buy digital music as they have in digitizing their own music collection.

For example: I use iTunes as my music player on my computer. When I rip a CD, I usually encode it as an MP3 at 192kpbs. However, if I go to “preferences,” then “advanced” and then “importing” on my iTunes menu, I can change the settings to whatever I want. I can encode a track as an AAC file, an MP3 file (all at various sound quaility), an AIFF file (Apple’s lossless codec) or a WAV file (CD quality audio). Great. But at the bottom of the menu, it says, “These settings do not apply for music bought at the iTunes music store.” So for the music I have on CD, I can digitize it however I wish, but if I buy a music file from iTunes, I have no choices in the matter. THIS MUST BE CHANGED! Offer music at any file format at any speed and then offer a variable pricing structure depending on the purchase. For example:

128kbps MP3 & AAC: 59 cents per track, $5.99 per album
192kbps MP3 & AAC: 69 cents per track, $6.99 per album
256kbps MP3 & AAC: 79 cents per track, $7.99 per album
320kbps MP3 & AAC: 89 cents per track, $8.99 per album
WAV & AIFF (CD Quality audio): 99 cents per track, $9.99 per album

Then there are potential add-ons to be bundled or offered: artwork (that could be printed to make a CD cover), video, etc., that potentially alter the price points.

This is not rocket science. It’s very simple. Offer the customer choice in what they can purchase, and value the choice accordingly instead of offering a restrictive, inferior product at a higher price than it should be. It's already available illegally, so the industry might as well offer it legally (and then double the resources and effort in going after the illegal music host sites). Such a service would be user-friendly, it would value products proportional to their quality and it would be the next and greatest step to bring music fans back to buying digital music legally.

(Note: I know that I have not addressed the subscription model here. I have not yet developed a well defined opinion about that model.)

This week: Obstacles to such a plan.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

There Are Two Kinds Of People In The World

When people ask me who my favorite artists of all time are, I have the same answers that I've had for years; Springsteen, the Stones, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Dylan, Otis Redding, etc. In the past few years, Coleman Hawkins has jumped on the list. So has, almost unbelievably to me, the Grateful Dead. (It's unbelievable to me because I skip over at least half of the band's songs - basically anything that Bob Weir sings.)

There's one band that I always forget when I'm compiling such a list - Steely Dan. Perhaps that's because the pleasure they've given me over the years has "only" been immensely consistent and substantial as opposed to epiphanous. But over the past few years, I've come to be in a sort of awe over the body of work they created. In theory, they should have been a disaster; two art damaged misfits with a love of black jazz and white pop who wrote impenetrable lyrics with literary references that went over 99% of the population and whose music was synonymous with precision and polish, two adjectives that aren't usually complements in rock n' roll. Yet out of all the artists of their time, it is their music more than anyone else that to me, seems like it could have been recorded yesterday.

Steely Dan are the kind of band that starts arguments. To some (like me), their appeal is self-evident; the impeccable playing, the incredible melodic abilities and the sheer quality of their songs makes them beyond reproach. But I've heard more than a few people call them soulless. I've never gotten that. I've always thought of them as "neurotic soul," a term that describes guys who are so brainy that they can't shut off their heads long enough to express themselves in the simple and direct manner that traditional expectations of soul demands. But lurking beneath the polish, the oblique lyrics, the jazz chords and the almost impenetrable personas lays the heart of two guys who feel so much they can barely take it.

If you're not a fan, and no amount of music you hear will ever convince you, I leave you with a piece of wisdom that I believe my friend Peter once uttered: "Their are two types of people in the world, those that love the Dan, and those that don't."

Download: "Any Major Dude" (Live At The Record Plant 1974)

Friday, February 02, 2007

Step #1: Admit And Recommit

Yesterday I wrote that the crisis the record industry faces is akin to the “chickens coming home to roost;” The record industry had it’s way with the consumer for decades – now that power has been shifted in the opposite direction. My main criticism of the record industry is that it’s been resisting the challenges it faces when there’s absolutely no point any longer in doing so – their control of both production and distribution has been shattered. So if the old model is broken, then what is to be done?

The first step in my strategy is what I call, “Admit, Re-Commit and Serve.”

If I was running the R.I.A.A., I’d take full page advertisements out in every major newspaper, magazine (news, music and general interest) and music website saying the following:


During the last decade our industry has been challenged like never before. The control that we once could exert on how music is purchased has vanished due to a revolution in technology (especially the Internet). Instead of embracing these new technologies to provide you, the music consumer, with more choice, we have tried to bend them to hold on to control of how our product is puchased and experienced. The results have been plummeting CD sales, and digital sales that while growing, are nowhere near the numbers we believe they can be. We admit the failure of our strategy up until now.

But today, we, the major labels, declare that we are recommitting to you as our customers. We are committing to providing you with choice as consumers to purchase music in whatever form we can make available to you, with variable pricing to reflect such things as sound quality, artwork, video, bonus material and more.

To prove to you the authenticity of our re-commitment to you, we are announcing that today we are dropping every single R.I.A.A. sponsored lawsuit against individual file sharers and downloaders. This is not to condone the practice of illegal downloading; we believe that it’s stealing and that it’s harmful to both artists and the people that work in the record industry. And we will continue to pursue through any legal recourse the sites that illegally host copyrighted materials. But it is an acknowledgement that we have alienated many of our consumers and that we have not provided them with as much choice in the legal purchase of music as there is in the illegal purchase of music.

In the next few months, look for exciting announcements from us regarding new digital services that will provide you with a breathtaking array of choice.

Music is more important to more people than ever before. We are looking forward to providing you with your music how you want it when you want it, and we ask you to put your past opinions about our industry away as we begin a new era of service to you.

That's the first step to take. Admit the error of the industry's ways up until this moment. It would garner the first positive press the industry has gotten in years, and it will begin to improve the perception of a very scarred business. It has the undeniable ring of truth, and it will stop the industry from wasting even more energy trying to protect something that can no longer be adequately protected.

On Monday, digital music service possibilities.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Chickens Come Home To Roost

When I interned at Atlantic Records in the early 90’s, I became friendly with one of the VP’s of sales. He took me under his wing a little bit and taught me some of the basic rudiments of how sales and distribution worked. We were talking one day about a Led Zeppelin re-package (they were doing a smaller version of the box set), and when I told him that the package seemed redundant to me, as it had just come out in different form a year or two prior, he smiled and said, “Ben, I’m going to tell you the three rules of the record business.” I eagerly awaited the pearl of wisdom that was going to come from out of his mouth, thinking that this was knowledge that would be invaluable to me.

“Ben, the rules are this. Fuck them once, fuck them again, and then fuck them one more time after that.” He smiled broadly. I didn’t say anything.

I didn’t think about that conversation for years, but in the past few years I’ve thought about it often, almost like a “chickens coming home to roost” tale, as the record business has come face to face with an existential crisis. Whatever relationship the record industry had with it’s customers is gone, as the choices available to the consumer from the Internet, file sharing, downloading, CD burning, hard drive swapping, et al, have shattered the control that allowed the industry to dictate the terms of the experience of purchasing recorded music. Sales are down at least 25% from their peak in 2000, and sales are already down 15% this year compared to last year. If you talk to people in the record industry, you’ll get agreement that the system as it stood is broken. But you’ll get very little consensus in terms of what should be done.

Coming tomorrow: My proposed first step for the record industry.

Back In Action

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. I've had my first real case of writer's block since I started posting regularly in October. Everything I put on the page looked and read horrifically to me. Oh well. I'm back.