Thursday, March 27, 2008


Listen up now. If you’re a musician, if you work with musicians, or if you fantasize about maybe one day considering the possibility of becoming a musician, get out your calendar and mark off April 30. If you’re supposed to work or be in school that day, call in sick. Call in drunk. Call in personal. On April 30 the Future of Music Coalition is coming to town for an all-day series of presentations about making a living in the 2000’s as a musician, and it could be the most important day of your musical career since the first time you picked up your axe.

There have been a bunch of these “how to make a living in the music business” seminars in the area recently; I’ve been involved with some of them, and some of them were quite good and some I’ve heard weren’t so good. This one will be brilliant. I have attended the last two annual Future of Music Coalition Policy Summits and can vouch for the organization and its goals without the slightest reservation.

Titled The Future for Musicians, the seminar is part of a four-stop tour across upstate New York and is co-sponsored by the American Federation of Musicians and funded by the New York State Music Fund—that big pile of money that Eliot Spitzer cranked out of the music industry after he caught the major labels and Big Radio with their pants down a few years ago. The Fund has been responsible for a lot of very cool things over the past couple of years, and, yes, we have Eliot Spitzer to thank. Seriously.

The seminars will feature real live international serious experts and will cover such topics as the use of new technologies for distributing and promoting music, navigating ASCAP, BMI, and SoundExchange, online music marketing, podcasting/webcasting, state and federal policies affecting musicians, governmental funding opportunities, and health insurance options for working musicians.

And it’s free! Go to to find out more and reserve your spot. And tell every musician you care about about this. See you there.

Moving on. The anti-trust unit U.S. Department of Justice this week approved the merger of the Sirius and XM satellite radio networks, saying that the merger would not be anti-competitive. How could this be, you say, since these are the only two satellite radio networks, they competed against each other, and if they merge there will be no competition? Like, huh?

Well, DoJ, following a trend in what’s left of anti-trust jurisprudence in this neo-con “the market will provide” age we live in, takes a broad view of “competition.” In DoJ’s view, XM and Sirius aren’t just competing with each other, they are also competing with terrestrial radio, with internet radio, with IPods, and apparently, with singing in the shower, daydreaming, meditating in absolute silence, and doing cartwheels naked down State Street whilst screaming “Lindy’s landed!” This being the case, the merger sailed through, with the added benefit that it will be good for the shareholders of the two huge, and heretofore money-losing, corporations.

Of course, this theoretical view ignores what some of us here on earth call reality. XM and Sirius competed mightily with each other, and this competition yielded the following benefits: reasonable prices for both the receiving equipment and the monthly subscriptions; aggressive innovations in technology; an amazing array of diverse programming, as the two competitors beat the bushes to attract mass-market and niche listeners alike. For every 24 hour Howard Stern channel, there are a dozen interesting and specialized programs. Just a few months ago I wandered into the Monterey General Store to see the wonderful Pete and Maura Kennedy perform; between sets Pete was telling me about their weekly Sirius radio show. David Johannson’s got a satellite show, too. So does Vin Scelsa, Christine Lavin, Martha Quinn, Lisa Lisa, Bob Dylan, etc. etc. etc.

Now, imagine that Sirius and XM aren’t competing anymore, and there’s only one satellite network. No longer are there two entities clawing and scratching for your attention and your money. There’s just one. What do you think is going to happen to the prices? What do you think is going to happen to the cutting-edge technology? And maybe most importantly, what’s going to happen to the fringe music, the special live performances, all the extravagant things these networks have been doing to get you to sign up?

Uh-huh, stagnation, cost cutting, no more risky innovation, and a bee-line to the lowest common denominator. If you’re a satellite radio fan, you’re captive.

Until it gets so bad that you decide that maybe your IPod is a worthy alternative, just like the DoJ says it is. Except that the DoJ’s anti-competitive ruling caused your migration, limited your choices, and killed off a true haven of diversity.

A-O, way to go.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


This article originally appeared in the 3.13.08 issue of Metroland

I was going to survey all of the good lovin’ I’ve gotten in my life, and discuss which times may have been worth $5500, and why I think so, based on both objective and subjective criteria, if indeed I had to pay for it.

But I decided to talk about Trent Reznor instead.

A few months ago, Radiohead shook the music biz to its core by putting its new album, In Rainbows, up on the Web for download. For a band of Radiohead’s stature, this was revolutionary for a number of reasons. For one, the band was going it alone, without the benefit of label backing. Even more remarkable, the band put the album up for download with a voluntary payment.

The band still hasn’t released figures for what happened, although as of now, the band’s download page is disabled and the album is available for sale as a CD and as DRM-free downloads from all the usual online stores. The band has admitted that the voluntary-payment scheme, which offered only middling-sounding 160bps files, was really a promotional device to sell music the traditional way.

It would be fascinating to know what happened; there have been unsubstantiated estimates that over one million albums were downloaded, and roughly two-thirds of the people grabbed the music for free, but that the band nonetheless made more money that they would have had they been selling through a standard record-company deal. One interesting phenomenon was the fact that even though In Rainbows was readily available for free on the band’s Web site, “pirated” versions were was also tearing up the P2P and BitTorrent sites. Go figure.

While Radiohead’s experience may have been a tentative toe in the water, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails went all-in on the NIN Web site last week with a comprehensive roll-out of a sprawling new instrumental work titled Ghosts I-IV. The offering is a brilliant example of post-label consumer-oriented music delivery. The first nine tracks are offered for free, as high-quality 320bps MP3s, along with a stunning 40 page pdf program with liner notes. For $5, you can download the entire work—all 36 tracks—with the program and a pile of digital “extras” like wallpaper and other images. These downloads are available in an array of high-quality format choices, including CD-quality lossless formats. For $10, you get all the digital stuff, plus a two-CD set with all of the tracks. For $75, you get all this in deluxe packaging, along with all of the session tracks on a DVD in multi-track format, for the buyer to use in remixing the tracks, along with a Blu-Ray disk with the tracks in super HD stereo along with a HD slideshow. Finally, there’s a limited- edition $350 set, which includes everything already mentioned, plus the tracks on four high-quality vinyl disks and a set of Giclee prints of some of the program photographs.

The tracks are released under a Creative Commons license, which means it’s OK with Reznor if the tracks are traded, distributed, or remixed in non-commercial settings. To underscore the point, Reznor seeded the major BitTorrent networks with the tracks at the same time they were offered for sale on the NIN Web site. So anyone who wants to can go get the whole shebang for free from any of the so-called “pirate sites” on the Web.

Now, traditional thinking, major-label thinking, would be that Reznor is nuts. He’s giving it all away at the same time he’s trying to sell it. But consider this—the 2500 editions of the $350 set sold out the first night. So, we know Reznor pulled in $875,000 from the top-shelf offering alone. Traffic was so intense that night that it slowed to a crawl, and for a while the NIN site was sending people to the Torrent sites as an alternative place to grab the tracks. There haven’t been any other figures released about sales and downloads (although I’d expect Reznor to release them eventually) so I can only relate my own experience.

I’m not a Nine Inch Nails fan; I wouldn’t know a NIN song if it bit me on the heinie. But after reading the media hoopla of this release, and being aware of Reznor’s anti-label advocacy over the years, I figured I’d check it out. The NIN site is beautiful, and getting the initial nine free tracks was seamless and satisfying, sort of like the Apple consumer experience—it’s fun, sophisticated, and doesn’t insult my intelligence.

The tracks surprised me; mostly darkly ambient instrumental tracks, featuring airy piano, guitar treatments (from Adrian Belew), and hypnotic, non-face-melting percussion. After listening to the free tracks three times, I decided I had to have the rest, and I went back and bought them for the grand sum of $5. I could have gone to a Torrent site and gotten them, entirely legally, for free. But I didn’t want to bother with that, and more importantly, I wanted Trent Reznor to have my $5 for making my world a little bit better with his music. Call me crazy, but I think this is the way it’s supposed to work.