Wednesday, August 25, 2010


This article originally appeared in the 8.26.10 issue of Metroland

We sure like our lists, don’t we? We love it when someone else tells us what we’re supposed to like, and in what order we’re supposed to like them. When whatever is #1 on some list is also our personal #1, we’re vindicated, and if it’s not, well, that just means we’re so much smarter than all the stupid people out there. Right?

Right! Lists are lampooned every night by David Letterman, and were absolutely lacerated ten years ago by Richard Thompson, whose millennium-ending “1000 Years of Popular Music” list included everything from dead-language rounds to Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again”. We need the lists. They represent order.

And lists have nowhere been more important than in the music business. I remember listening feverishly to AM radio on Saturday mornings to find out if the Beatles or the Dave Clark Five would be #1. It was important! Music charts have always been vital to a band’s marketing: look at the advertising for any oldies show—usually it’s little more than a list of chart statistics next to a highly Photoshopped picture of the artist. If your band charted, you'd go batshit crazy issuing press releases and telling everybody, yes you would.

The Billboard Magazine chart has always been the big kahuna, the gold standard. Books containing nothing more than decades of Billboard charts are always among the best selling music books. Billboard’s tabulation methods have changed over time, and the numbers of charts have exploded, but these days Billboard weekly charts are based largely on sales and radio play. And the industry and fans alike watch Billboard chart movements like a hawk, like it’s the only thing that matters.

This week Cee Lo demonstrated that it actually may not matter much at all. Last Thursday, Cee Lo posted a new song, entitled “Fuck You”, exclusively on YouTube. It’s a brilliant, bouncy, perfect, hysterical bunch of soul-pop ear candy, with a video that faithfully supplies lyrics, including the relentless refrain “Fuck you and fuck her, too.” As of this writing (Wednesday AM) there have been 2.3 million hits at the official version on YouTube, and that’s not counting the hundreds of reposts, mash-ups, and reply vids that have been put up not only on YouTube, but on every other video posting platform on the internet.

There’s a very good argument to be made that “Fuck You” is the number one song in the world right now, and it’s not even a blip in Billboard’s radar. Why not? Because there hasn’t been a single sale, and it sure as hell hasn’t been played on any Clear Channel stations.

We’re in a world where sales of a paltry 60,000 units can put an artist on top of a chart, while at the same time tracks are flying around the internet, kids are devouring music through their earbuds 24/7 or “watching” songs on YouTube. Sales-and-radio-based charts have nothing to do with how music is actually being acquired and consumed.

Enter the smart people at Big Champagne, who have for ten years monitored folks’ online activity and have made lots of money selling “illegal download” data to the major labels (who tellingly use the data for marketing, not enforcement purposes). At the New Music Seminar in NYC last month, Big Champagne unveiled “The Ultimate List,” a singles music list that it claims is based on billions of data points from all over both the Internet and the physical world.

For all the hoopla, the Big Champagne chart doesn’t look a whole lot different than the Billboard Chart, at least not today. And Cee Lo’s “Fuck You” is nowhere to be seen. Are the billion data points, metrics, weighting systems, and human massaging of data capable of tracking reality in this day and age?

And the Ultimate Chart, like the Billboard charts is compiled weekly. Huh? A week today is a lot longer than a week was even a year ago. Who cares what the #1 hit was six days ago? Or six hours ago, for that matter? What’s #1 right now, dammit, isn’t that what we want to know?

I’m guessing that’s coming, as Big Champagne claims that The Ultimate Chart is only the beginning, and that a lot more stuff is coming down the pike soon. Meantime, I wonder if Big Champagne’s noble effort is just so much tail chasing, or maybe just a big smoke and mirrors play to come up with fodder for our insatiable need to be told what we like.

The great thing, and the scary thing, about internet and its decentralization of our culture is that we’re left to find what music we like for ourselves out of the cacophonous, primordial, and endless flow of music shooting through the ether. But, if you’re lucky, every once in a while some song miraculously rises to the top and presents itself and you’re never quite the same.

Like, you know, “Fuck You.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010


This review originally appeared in the 8.19.10 issue of Metroland

This was so overwhelmingly surreal that I figured at some point I’d just wake up and it would all be over. The Chandler Travis Philharmonic, 9 pieces strong, were playing an unannounced gig on the deck of Zaika’s, an Indian restaurant a stone’s throw away from the Clifton Country Mall. I’d found out only because of a Facebook post where Chandler mentioned a “secret” gig on Saturday following a Caffe Lena gig on Friday. Neither wild horses, nor Wilco, would keep me away.

For the unwashed, or perhaps for the washed, the CTP is from Cape Cod, play there and Boston a lot and maybe once a month in NYC, and once in a couple blue moons over here. Described as stylistically something like “Dixieland on acid”, they have a proclivity for wearing bright-colored pajamas, tag-sale gag hats, being profoundly irreverent, and doing generally whatever the hell they want. For a time in the late ‘90’s, they released a new CD every two weeks. They are to a person virtuoso players, expertly handling Chander Travis’ brilliant pop tunes and various members’ arrangements of oddities from the 40’s to today all whilst maintaining a constant low-level riot onstage. They exist somewhere on the continuum among middle period Kinks, any-period NRBQ, maybe a pinch of Sufjan Stevens, and every Grammy winner in every category in the history of the world. The CTP simultaneously is and isn’t for everyone.

So here we are on the massive and massively cool deck of Zaika’s, overlooking an artificial pond and the mall, with one of the best, weirdest, and most unsung bands in the universe just laying it down, sounding like a million bucks, and looking like happy, disheveled hell. I can’t imagine how an unsuspecting, god-fearing Clifton Park family, perhaps seeking a quiet, restorative summer dinner of vindaloo and nan, would have handled coming face to face with such stark truth and beauty. Oh, did I tell you the drummer is a slender, athletic, and tall transgendered woman, who happens to be the finest pure groove drummer this side of Jim Keltner? She looked fab Saturday night in a zebra print dress. And goddamn can she play.

Off they went, from the stately, heart-rendering “Home” (from their album Have a Pancake) with the horn section slowly building the tender counterpoint refrains, to the push-me-pull-me audience-participation “Fruit Bat” (from their upcoming The Chandler Travis Philharmonic Blows), to an irresistible hard-swing version of Maxine Nightingale’s "Right Back Where We Started From". Every member of the band was mesmerizing to watch. Not the most attractive band in the world, mind you (and, in all fairness, there can really only be one of those) but mesmerizing nonetheless.

Half-way through the second set, just after playing the signature “Chandler Travis, King of the World” (“waitresses and stewardesses love him, especially waitresses”), Chandler announced they would play something they just worked up, something from the film The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, the obscure Stanley Kramer / Dr. Suess kiddie masterpiece generally considered one of oddest movies ever made, and a personal fave of mine since I was, like, 4. Bands, you want me totally in the tank for you? Do that.

Throughout the evening I kept getting tweets and IMs from friends over at Joe Field at MassMoca, folks watching Mavis Staples and Wilco. One said she was at the best place ever, at the best concert ever. Hmmm. Now, I visited Joe Field on Sunday and yes, it’s a bitchin’ venue, and I’m sure Tweedy & Co. were fine, but consider this: I was sitting 15 feet away from one of world’s greatest, most unique and charming bands, playing at the top of their game. I was picking at a spectacularly fine Indian vegetarian platter. The pretty waitress would stop by every 15-20 minutes and ask me if I’d like another beer. (My answer was uniformly “yes, please.”) I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. I wanted it to last forever. I was in heaven.

Or maybe I just haven’t woken up.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

8.12.10 See Change

this article originally appeared in the 8.12.10 issue of Metroland

Well, the deck chairs have started moving, but nobody’s quite sure what it means. First, the Copyright Office issued a stunning set of rulings two weeks ago. These had to do with a particularly stinky part of Digital Millennium Copyright Act that was rammed through Congress in the ‘90’s—a law that made it illegal to unlock “copyright protection” technologies. This absurd little law virtually wipes out any notion of fair use of copyrighted works, because is makes it illegal to simply get to copyright protected works in the first place! It’s also a dangerous law insofar as it outlaws technologies in the name of copyright law. Predictably, the law has been routinely abused by Big Media companies seeking to stop folks from tinkering with their stuff, and utterly ignored by the hacker community, which proves day in and day out that “copyright protection technologies” are silly and doomed to fail.

Congress did leave a little door open: citizens could petition the Copyright Office for exceptions to the law---if it could be demonstrated that disabling a “copyright protection technology” was in the “public interest”, the Copyright Office would grant an exception to the law. (People forget that copyright law was created to serve the public interest, and not the stockholders of Viacom and Disney) The Copyright Office is mandated to issue these rulings every three years.

In the past, these exception rulings would be published and were so picayune or technically dense that most of us paid them little mind. In this round the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a bunch of academics got involved with the exemption requests and two weeks ago a couple bombs dropped.

If you’ve heard about this at all from the media, you’ve probably heard that there were Copyright Office rulings involving smart-phones, jail-breaking, and the use of “unauthorized” apps. The mainstream media went nuts about this because both rulings were smack-downs of Apple, and there’s been this childish fever for Apple-bashing lately. I doubt either of these rulings will have much direct impact on anybody. As to jail-breaking (hacking the phone so it’s not tethered to a particular cellular company, in Apple’s case, AT&T), folks have been jail-breaking iPhones for a while now anyway; Apple’s reaction to the ruling was a shrug and a statement that jail-breaking would void an iPhone’s warranty. Now, one of the things we like about our Apple stuff is that on the off chance it goes south on us, we can just take our broken stuff to the Apple store where nice people fix it all up, often for free. So, jail-break away kids. I’m chicken and I’m stayin’ put. As far as apps go, Apple hasn’t exactly been limiting developers in the app store, blocking mainly porn or apps that might destabilize your phone. So, OK, jail-break your iPhone and watch porn while talking on the Sprint network. Hope it works out for ya.

The much more interesting and important ruling allowed the copying of scrambled DVDs (and almost all commercial DVDs are scrambled) for use by educators, documentary film-makers, and almost anybody who wants to remix a movie on a non-commercial basis. This is just freakin’ huge. As scholar Peter Jaszi points out on his ©ollectanea blog, the breadth of this exemption is remarkable, with the Copyright Office taking a very broad view of what fair use is for movies and who could take advantage of it. You know those great YouTube videos involving the scene from the German film Downfall? With Hitler reacting to everything from the break-up of Oasis to Renaldo going to play for Real Madrid? How they’ve been taken off of YouTube for “copyright violations”? Well, they ain’t copyright violations no more! You know the big scary warnings at the beginning of DVDs about how ANY copying or unauthorized use of the movie is punishable by torture, death and a fine of $750,000? Buh-bye!

The other big news involves net neutrality. The FCC is struggling with whether it can and should impose rules insuring equal access and pricing on the internet in the face of opposition from telecom industry and commercial interests. This week Google and Verizon released a “joint proposal” that caused some excitable techies to scream about the “death of the internet” but left most of us scratching our heads. What is being proposed is absolute net neutrality for wired internet, but not for wireless internet. Which is not good, because wireless is soon likely to be the dominant portal to the internet. This is kind if like saying “OK, we’ll protect typewriters, but not computers.”

What’s most stunning about this is the participation of Google, which one would think would be staunchly in favor of net neutrality across all platforms. But then, we know that Google has been out in front in the expansion of things like municipal WiFi, where boatloads of money could be made with premium service tiers.

But, like I said, nobody’s really sure what it all means. It makes my head hurt.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

8.5.10 CAN BANGIN' 2010

A Bang on a Can ensemble featuring the svelte Todd Big Daddy Reynolds

This article originally appeared in the 8.5.10 issue of Metroland



Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday marked what for some of us is the high cultural point of a culture-drenched season: the Bang on a Can Marathon, where a gaggle of 30-some professional musicians, students and composers conclude a three-week residency at Mass Moca with a 6-hour orgy of what some might call “new music.”

One of the many things that makes this event so fabulous is the friendliness of it all—the event features some 20 pieces, ranging from a couple minutes in length to maybe twenty minutes tops—there is no chance of getting caught in the black vortex of some interminable and ugly modern work. Everything is bite-sized and manageable for even the most untrained listener.

And each piece is played by a different ensemble, ranging from duets to ensembles with 10+ members. (A special mention has to be made of the stage and sound crew, who morphed the stage some twenty times in six hours, and who didn’t appear to break a sweat or miss a trick. Amazing.) And the whole thing is soooooo casual. The action takes place in the big Hunter Auditorium, and even with an audience of 500, finding a good seat is never a problem, and the audience is always free to wander in and out, grab a drink in the courtyard, look at a gallery, or maybe steal a glimpse of Leonard Nimoy, who was being feted out on the deck.

So there’s the vibe, what about the music? It’s always been great, but this year there seemed to be an emphasis on fun, an attribute not often associated with “new music”. Each piece was introduced by either the composer or one of the BOAC-ers intimately familiar with the piece, and all of the introductions were not only personal, but charming and often downright goofy, all of which served to greatly enhance what was to follow.

At the top of the list was Tom Johnson’s Narayana’s Cows, a narrated piece that musically solved an ancient math puzzle about how many cows you’d have after 17 years if you started with just two. Each year was a movement, each cow got a note and each generation got a pitch. The first movement lasted about a second, the seventeenth must have gone on for five minutes. With a deadpan narration (that included the drinking of some milk), and an ensemble that grew whenever a new generation arrived (finishing with two basses, a couple keyboards, three electric guitars, a bass clarinet and a cello), the frenzied, complex piece just got more hysterical with each passing year.

I wish I could write 2000 words but I can’t, so other highlights included excerpts from Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads, an operetta of sorts that featured a libretto taken verbatim from the news, including Hearne sputtering “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” like a mis-firing digital sampler over a disjointed chamber accompaniment; three young virtuosos from Uzbekistan, who played traditional instruments on traditional Uzbek pieces that all fit seamlessly among the shiny adventuresome new pieces played by everyone else; David Lang’s Forced March, a strident piece featuring a repeated pattern over shifting time signatures, so that the pattern is never situated the same way twice, or as the composer observed “the worst of both worlds: endless variety, but you don’t really notice it”; and Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare, an epic large conductor-less ensemble work with so much counter-rhythm that the musicians were instructed to hop and dance in order to keep the downbeat in place.

Lots of concerts make you feel good, hit your pleasure points, make you sweat. The Bang on a Can Marathon never fails to do all that, along with making me feel more aware, more alive, and more in touch with the endless possibilities of the universe. Really.