Monday, December 25, 2006

Best-of Time

Here's my best-of shows for 2006:

1) Haale, Club Helsinki, February 3, October 14, Mass MOCA June 24

Three shows, three different configurations of musicians, three spectacular musical experiences of psychedelic Persian magic. Haale’s at least three steps to the left of almost everything else you’ve ever heard, but she’s so dead-on it you probably won’t notice. I suspect 2007 will be Haale’s year.

2) Tallis Scholars, Tanglewood, August 17

I’d been waiting 15 years to see this early-music a cappella group, and every second of the wait was worth it. Mesmerizing, majestic, ethereal, and utterly moving. The ten voices filled every inch of the Ozawa Theater with joy and wonder.

3) Robbie Fulks, Club Helsinki, July 2

Hyper-smart and insidiously funny, Fulks and his killer band played country music the way it oughta be played, the way it used to be played before the country scene got Wal-Marted into mediocrity. And the guy flat-picks like a demon. The only problem was that it was damn hard to dance when you’re laughing your ass off.

4) Tin Hat, Club Helsinki, March 4

Carla Kihlstedt and company performed an evening of intergalactic chamber music that was beyond bold, beyond creative, beyond tasteful. Horns, reeds, strings, a tiny pump organ. Crumpling paper as a percussion instrument. Watching these guys was like taking a three week vacation to a different and delightfully better place.

5) DuWayne Burnside and the Mississippi Mafia, Club Helsinki, September 16

Move over, Rover, and let DuWayne take over. You want the funk? You’ll have to ask DuWayne ‘cause he’s got it. All of it. Cold. Deep, too! Stanky, stanky, stanky-ass stanky............

6) Matisyahu, Washington Avenue Armory, October 17

Everyone’s favorite Hasidic reggae singer showed why he’s da bomb, thoroughly debunking the racist bullshit thrown at him this year by the solipsistic twits at the New York Times. (I got yer authenticity right here, jack-offs.) His arena show was every bit as intimate, powerful, and inspiring as the staggering set he did two years ago on the tiny stage at Savannah’s. Matisyahu’s got his mazel tov mojo woikin’ overtime, bwah.

7) Bob Dylan, Doubleday Field, August 17

I’ve been trying to figure out whether I like Dylan for, oh, 44 years or so; this show locked it in. He’s really got me now. The lingering remains of Hurricane Ernesto kept a lot of people away, and what a show they missed. What a band! George Racile is some kinda drum god. Dylan was actually smiling through the mist.

Monday, December 18, 2006


[This article originally ran in the 12.21.06 issue of Metroland Magazine]

As you know, the major label music industry has been aggressively suing people for using peer-to-peer services to download free music. Something like 20,000 individuals, including 12 year-old kids and grandmothers, have been nailed with threats of lawsuits for copyright infringement. The people that are caught are forced to pay settlements of around $4000 or face a lawsuit with all the cards stacked against them.

Of course, the music industry claims to be doing all of this in the name of “creative artists,” the musicians whose music has been downloaded. This bold claim has been met with considerable skepticism all around, even from a great many “creative artists”, based on the reality that most recording contracts are horrifically one-sided, and that the vast majority of major label recording artists never make back enough money to pay off whatever advances the labels have provided to them. A skeptic would say that the labels are doing little more than desperately trying to bail out a sinking ship, that their business model no longer makes any sense in light of new technologies, and that the wholesale suing of their own customers is perhaps the most boneheaded marketing move in the history of modern commerce.

A couple of things came up last week that graphically show that the labels are not remotely on the side of musicians. First off comes news that the RIAA (the well-funded label trade association) is lobbying Washington heavily for significant reductions in the levels of royalties that labels pay to songwriters. You see, copyright law says that anyone that makes and distributes a recording of a song must pay the songwriter a set royalty for each distributed copy. This royalty, called a “mechanical royalty”, has slowly increased over the years, and is currently set at 9.1 cents per copy. Mechanical royalties are typically paid by record companies directly to the songwriters, and often these royalties are a songwriter’s primary source of income. Mechanical royalties are paid “off the top” and without regard to any advances paid to artists. For a recording artist who also writes his or her own her material, mechanical royalties can be the only money coming in from a recording during the often infinite wait for the label to recoup its advances pursuant to the industry’s draconian recording contracts and crooked accounting practices.

And the RIAA wants this royalty reduced. Does that sound consistent with championing the cause of the “creative artist”? What’s particularly disturbing about this is that the labels already coerce reduced mechanical royalty payments to songwriters in their hideous recording contracts. All major label contracts that I’ve seen have what’s called a “controlled composition clause” in which the artist agrees to accept somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-75% of the statutorily-set royalty rate. And this clause is typically non-negotiable.

What appears to be the motivation here is songwriter royalties for sales of digital files, and especially ringtones. Earlier this year, the RIAA asked the Copyright Office to designate ringtones (which are now a billion dollar business, believe it or not) as somehow not qualifying for mechanical royalties. The Copyright Office ruled, rightly, that mechanical royalties should be paid to songwriters for ringtone sales, just like they are for other digital downloads or CD sales. Having lost that battle, the RIAA is now pressing for reduced payments to songwriters across the board. It is so blatantly hypocritical that it’s obscene.

The other thing that happened is that CBS Inc. announced that it is reviving the CBS Records label. (The old CBS Records assets, but not the name, were sold to SONY in the 1980’s) The stated reason for the new label is to create a reservoir of “low-cost” music for CBS’s television shows. It’s painted as having this wonderful, integrated, cross-platform synergy, where CBS Records artists benefit from the powerful medium of television to promote digital download and CD sales. What’s not to like?

Plenty. The artist gets screwed again. CBS will have its artists agreeing to reduced or eliminated licensing payments for the use of their songs on CBS television programs (and if the deal involves CBS’s corporate cousin Viacom, maybe movies as well). CBS Records artists will be giving up one of their major sources of real money: licensing songs to TV and film. And what do they get in return? Exposure!!! (If you don’t understand why that’s funny, ask any musician.) CBS gets music for its programming on the cheap and artists, instead of getting paid market rates for the use of their songs, get “free promotion” for the sale of downloads and CDs. And sales of downloads and CDs are governed by those hideous, onerous, unfair recording contracts, that are designed to impoverish musicians and make who rich? Uh, let’s see....hmmm...oh, yeah....CBS!!! And if the RIAA gets its way with the Copyright Office, the songwriting mechanical royalties are gonna shrink, too, so artists’ income from recording contracts will be even less.

As they say, people die of exposure. The CBS deal is not even close to a quid pro quo. It’s more like highway robbery. Or stealing. Which is, of course, what the RIAA is accusing the 12 year olds and grandmas of.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


[This article originally ran in the 12.7.06 issue of Metroland Magazine]

The fabulous Russian music download site Allof may be soon down for the count, at least as it’s presently configured. Most of the major record companies in the world have been leaning on their plaint governments to lean on Russia to shut the site down. It appears that the Russian government’s shuttering the site has been made a quid pro quo of Russia’s joining the World Trade Organization. (Poisoning spies and subverting neighboring countries’ democracies is apparently OK, but allowing a renegade music-download website to exist? Nyet, Nyet, Vladimir!!!) Reportedly the Russians have agreed to force the site to shut down; meantime AllofMP3 claims that it follows all relevant laws, and if the laws change, it will change its practices accordingly. As of right now (Tuesday 8AM), the site is still up and running.

The demise of AllofMP3 was inevitable, really. The site has been selling songs for between 8 and 25 cents each, depending on the length of the song the nature of the file containing it. The company claims to pay proper royalties to a Russian music royalty organization that isn’t recognized by most of its counterpart organizations elsewhere in the world. It appears highly unlikely that any of the money coming in to Allof MP3 ever gets to any record labels and songwriters.

Notwithstanding the pricing and royalty issues, the site does demonstrate how a music download site ought to be run. The consumer has some choices, like what digital format the song will come in, and the quality of the file, from small standard-issue 128 bps files to large pure CD files. Consumers are charged by bandwidth, not by the number of songs ordered, so higher quality files cost more, which makes perfect sense. And songs are delivered unencumbered by DRM restrictions, so music can be moved from device to device and shared with friends, and your music won’t disappear and your computer won’t blow up. These factors, as much as the low pricing, were responsible for AllofMP3’s runaway popularity.

And whether you’re bemoaning or celebrating AllofMP3’s near-certain demise, consider this: If the records labels were paid 5 cents for every track currently being downloaded on the P2P sites for free, the labels’ gross revenues would triple. Wanna talk price points? As they say, information doesn’t want to be 99 cents.

Another cool thing about AllofMP3 is that it is about the only reliable place online to get Beatles digital tracks. All of ‘em. Beatles bootlegs, too,-- alternative takes, discarded mixes, isolated vocal tracks, studio chatter, et cetera and so on. You name it, it’s available for sale at AllofMP3 and nowhere else. You see, the Fab Two, Yoko, and whoever’s in charge of George’s stuff have refused to allow any Beatles material to be sold in any downloadable digital form by any of the “legitimate” services. AllofMP3 fills the void.

But the rumor mill is screaming that’s about to change. Last week music blogs were abuzz about the imminent release of re-mastered Beatles tracks on the internet. And the smart money was on the stuff being available on ITunes, and only on ITunes. This is profoundly weird and disturbing for a couple of reasons. First Apple Corps, the company that manages all things Beatle, and Apple Computers, Inc., the proprietor of the ITunes store, have been suing the bejesus out of each other over the use of the trademark “Apple” for, oh, about 35 years now. The other thing is the outrageously unctuous idea of having one of the most precious musical canons available only from one place, from one vendor. Sounds to me like an antitrust enforcement action waiting to happen, if anyone in government cares. We’ll see.

If this happens, one thing that will come out of it will be a custom IPod, preloaded with the entire Beatles catalog. Apple did it for U2, and you can bet your ass they’ll do it for the Beatles if they can. Those recalcitrant boomers who haven’t caught the IPod bug yet are gonna get thoroughly and irreversibly infected with the Apple flu.

Or maybe Apple will do this: put the Beatles catalog only into the new Apple IPhone. Ohhhhhhh, watch out!!! Last week, lawyers for Apple filed an application in the United States Patent and Trademark Office for a device that is both a cellphone and a music player. As there are already a multitude of cellphone / music players on the market, it’s hard to imagine exactly what new thing Apple’s going to patent, but this much is clear: the long-rumored IPhone is coming.

The cellphone market has always been remarkable unstable, with zillions of phones, a pile of manufacturers, and no clear dominant leader of the pack, no standard bearer. The closest to this was probably the Motorola Razr, but the bloom is off that rose; the Razr’s old news. Even the pink one.

Which opens up a golden opportunity for Apple to jump in, and possibly (if not probably) dominate the vast cell-phone market just like it does the digital music market. And what a more devastating way to launch the IPhone than to have it exclusively pre-loaded with the most desired, most iconic artist catalog in the history of music? I know many people, people my age who should know better, who would gladly line up outside some shopping mall store early in the evening and spend the night ignobly freezing on the tarmac, all just to get their hands on a Beatles-stuffed IPhone in the morning.

Maybe it won’t happen. This is all conjecture based on speculation borne from calculated guesses. We’ll see soon, as the wind whispers January for this stuff. Meantime it’s all making my head hurt. Beep-beep beep-beep yeah!