Category Archives: Discussion

Making money with music as a paper thin excuse

A current Pitchfork article: Making Cents.

A couple of pertinent quotes from said article:

“The question of when we’ll be profitable actually feels irrelevant. Our focus is all on growth. That is priority one, two, three, four and five.” (Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify).

Indeed, music itself seems to be irrelevant to these businesses– it is just another form of information, the same as any other that might entice us to click a link or a buy button on a stock exchange.

Who are backing these companies? Would I be very far off if I guessed that they are various kinds of capitalists (venture-, investment- et al) who have found a quick way to generate capital? Who are running them? Would I be very far off if I guessed that they are various kinds of “boardroom professionals” as we call them here?

Look at the ownership of these companies. Why do the old “conventional” record companies own such great shares in for example Spotify? I suggest that control of assets is the key motivator.

All of this (and more) work to limit creativiy and suppress variety in the mainstream. None of it has the slightest thing to do with music.

Also, an interesting perspective from the world of books: I Tripled My Royalties.

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Regarding the UMG/EMI merger

For anyone remotely interested in the current and future state of the music business (as opposed to music itself), here are some interesting things to read:

Declan Colgan on Universal’s EMI bid

Simon Raymonde on Universal’s EMI bid

This is a subject for careful and considered discussion, but I lack the insight to do so myself with any credibility. I suggest to anyone with an active interest in music to look deeper into the issues of copyright, digital distribution and skewed market influence in the music business today.

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Rig Building

A hot topic of conversation whenever two guitarists meet are their Rigs. “What Rig?” I hear you ask – the guitar rig of course! The combination of instrument, effects and effects pedals and amplifiers. The Rig is a source of constant joy, irritation, hard work and worry.

Joy, for all the wonderful noises it can make and the potential for artistic expression it holds.

Irritation, for when something stops working and the sometimes very long signal chain has to be gone through. Again.

Hard work, because with guitars, pedalboard, amplifier or indeed amplifers, possibly an effects rack and all the wiring the weight of the Rig grows exponentially.

Lastly worry, because the conservatism in the guitar world is absolutely monumental. “If it was good enough for Jimi, it’s good enough for me” is something you come across more often than I care to think about. This leads many to worry constantly about keeping their tone “pure” and can cause a certain amount of machismo bullshit – “look at me, I don’t need all that stuff to sound good, I just play and sound good”. Not a very useful attitude when you are doing U2 covers let me tell you.

Obviously things can get out of hand (for one high profile example, see John Frusciante’s 2006-2007 pedal boards on this page) but I think the important thing to remember is that there is nothing inherently bad – or good – with guitar effects pedals. It is entirely up to how, and when, you use them.

This all leads me to the topic of my own rig, as if by pure coincidence! I have been working on it in earnest for a few months now, and it is really starting to come together. Generally my approach is that if it sounds good, it is good. I do not have an unlimited budget and my pedalboard is quite small so I am forced to consider any additions carefully.

The guitar is still just my trusty Hagström Swede. It is entirely stock right now, but next week I am having the electronics replaced and the neck looked at by my friendly neighbourhood luthier at Gitarrist. While the pickups and the general quality is very good for the price this guitar really shows its price point in the volume and controls: they are pretty much rubbish at anything but full on. The truss rod (controls the curve of the neck) has become stuck, making seasonal adjustments impossible – wood moves with the change of seasons!

On my pedalboard sit, in order of signal path, a Moody Fuzz, a Way Huge Pork Loin, a Subdecay Liquid Sunshine and an old 18v version Danelectro Cool Cat. These are all powered by a T-Rex Fuel Tank Chameleon.

The signal is fed into a Vox AC15C1 amplifier. I usually play through the Top Boost channel on a clean setting and set the master volume about halfway up – I get a very dynamic sound that I really enjoy, but I could still use a little bit more push. The reverb and tremolo are controlled by a Lead Foot FS2 that sits on the pedalboard. I have a Stonecastle amp cover for protection/amp stand.

Plans for the future? A new guitar – more on that next year, hehehe! -, standalone reverb and tremolo pedals as well as delay and volume pedals. I have an interesting solution to the amplifier situation.

More on this subject as budget allows!

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The Future of Music?

There has been a lot of hoopla regarding Spotify and its various competitors like the iTunes Store the last few years and it has been called “the future of music” and other exciting things. Well, it is not exciting in the way one might think.

Have a look at this chart titled “How Much Do Artists Earn Online?”. It is not a boring chart, like most charts, but a heartbreaking one.

Have a look here at an article on who owns Spotify. Hint: the market value of Spotify has not decreased since the article was written.

Also, did you think Grooveshark was a good thing? Not so much. From Digital Music News:

King Crimson can’t get their music off Grooveshark

This Morning, Grooveshark Sent Us This Angry Email

Grooveshark Now Has Another Problem: The Eagles…

For further reading, see Robert Fripp’s online diary since ca mid-August of 2011.

In essence, it is business as usual with a slightly worse situation for artists. It is worth noting though that this mainly concerns indie/non-major-signed artists. Well – in theory… Universal Music Keeps Trying To Claim Zoe Keating’s Royalty Checks, Despite Having Nothing To Do With Her (Techdirt.com).

Update 19/11 2011! In a instance of not insignificant irony UMG is now also suing Grooveshark. In their material, one thing they point to is a comment in one of the articles on Digital Music News I have linked to above. The irony? King Crimson/Robert Fripp have been in an ongoing battle with UMG over rights infringements for several years now… The hilarity, and tragedy, is considerable.

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So you think you can do a gear demo?

For a musician today, and especially a guitarist, Youtube has become an absolute goldmine of sound samples and demonstrations of applied gear. Guitars, effects and amplifiers are being demonstrated with various degrees of expertise and usefulness. I have found it very helpful – mainly to rule out pieces of equipment that sounded like good ideas on paper. However, there are a few aspects to these demonstrations that start to become rather tedious once you have seen and heard them ten or twenty times.

1: Talking. Long, winding and ill prepared explanations of the features of the demonstrated piece of equipment that no one really needs to hear. The viewer is very likely to be more or less fully informed about this and does not need a step by step runthrough, one or even two minutes of length.

2. Omitted information. The talking that is not done, this is actually an even worse offense. Hopelessly common is that of stompbox demonstrators not saying what guitar they are playing or through which amplifier. To make a good assessment of whether or not the demonstrated piece of equipment may be of value or not, the viewer also needs a good reference to how the signal chain sounds without the item in question affecting the sound.

3. Low quality of sound. When I come across a 240 video and/or one where the sound is recorded with only the camera’s microphone I immediately click “back” these days. It is simply not worth the time.

4. Not tuning up. Seriously, this is very common: guitar players not tuning their guitar, recording a gear demonstration, and then posting it on the internet for all to see and hear. It never ceases to amaze me that someone can do this.

5. Dull playing. Constant repetition of the same old tired blues “licks”, extremely predicatable bends and double stops – or nonchalant metal legato runs, good grief make it stop make it stop

6. Not giving different examples. Trying to correct this can easily backfire and lead to far too many examples of settings, I have noticed this with distortion pedals especially. Something that I have found very helpful is to play through the same setup using two or more different guitars, but this is time consuming and unless you have some pretty varied guitars, pointless.

7. Unboxing. Seriously, this is no joke. On one channel every single video begins with a complete unboxing of the stompbox in question, made by a person who describes what he is doing as we look at him doing it. It is unfathomable.

To end on a more positive note, the ones who do the very finest demonstration videos are, in my opinion, Strymon. They build very high quality digital effects for guitar and bass and make amazingly good videos for them. I find myself watching these videos just to hear this guy being excellent at what he does!

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Music & film 2000-2010

Best music album: Radiohead, In Rainbows

I own the packaging nerd’s ultimate wet dream, the made-to-order discbox version of this album.  Unwrapping it was like christmas, birthday cake and wedding night all in one go, and then I got to listen to the music. And oh boy, what music it is. The bouncey songs really bounce around, the rocking numbers have a fantastic drive and the slow ones grab you – and squeeze.

Radiohead had a good decade, probably their best yet, but In Rainbows is by far the most solid, cohesive and and terms of quality even statement yet. Amazing, amazing music.

Honourable mentions:

  • King Crimson, The Power To Believe: the last KC album ever to be made, and quite possibly the best: after 35 years, that is astounding.
  • Björk, Medùlla: the technical triumph is far outshadowed by the triumph of the heart on this deeply moving album.
  • Iron & Wine, The Sheperd’s Dog: I have yet to hear all that Sam Beam has released, but this is his best work by miles of what I have heard. A disquieting and cohesive, but not distractingly so, narrative of a life lived in our times, utterly brilliantly done.
  • Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back: A covers album is one of the greatest musical achievements of the last decade, who knew? On my first listen this had me crying uncontrollably – not just sniffling or welling up a bit, but all out bawling.

Best movie: No Country For Old Men

Watching this was one of those times when you know you are watching one of the best movies you have ever seen. I need to see it again to be able to talk more about it, but the deeply unsettling feeling of it sat with me for weeks, dissipating slowly.

Honourable mentions:

  • Dancer In the Dark: “heartbreaking” does not even begin to describe it.
  • Bloody Sunday: see above comment. James Nesbitt is astonishingly good.
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Live Music

This, in my opinion, is the whole point of music – playing it live. Music is an event; it takes place when performer and audience meet. Music is an outside entity; it is created when performer and audience merge. I have experienced this for myself, but only a bare handful of times and always as an audient. A live performance has the ability to in a very real and tangible way change the people involved. One person enters, another person leaves.

Given the experiential nature of music, and the way a live performance involves many more senses than a studio record listened to through a stereo system, I have found many to be be of the opinion that live records are somehow inferior entities, below both the sweaty gig and the considered studio album. I disagree, and have always done.

I think the way I started to really listen to and be affected by music plays a big part in this. I can point out four, maybe five records that really got me interested in music, and two of those are live recordings. Well, one and a half at least: The Nits’ Urk and U2’s Rattle & Hum (for more on R&H, see my Achtung Baby review).

An important effect of this was that when at the tender age of 9-10-ish I heard the studio recordings of these songs, I became aware, at least subconsciously, of the concept of rearranging music. Of adding, removing and changing parts of songs to make them work better live, to add variety for the players and to accomodate new ideas. I was downright disappointed in the Joshua Tree version of U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” for example. At the very onset of when I started to really listen to music I was given the impression that live music was somehow better.

And it has been like that ever since. Of course there are exceptions, but take a band like King Crimson: here, the studio recordings are actually less important than the live performances. Yes, their albums provide an opportunity for considered statements and the introduction of new material to the audience, but it is not until the pieces have been played live for at least one whole tour that they truly become what can be. Very few KC songs are ever better in their studio versions. And happily in KC’s case there is a plethora of live material availiable for purchase and immediate download on the DGM Live website, currently spanning 40 years of playing.

I do not have a conclusion or anything to all this, I just wanted to present a few thoughts on the subject. Let me say this – I missed Leonard Cohen’s recent touring in Europe due to lack of money, and I am instead very very greatful for the live recording made in London that was later released on CD and DVD. Without it, I never would have had my life changed by hearing “A Thousand Kisses Deep”.

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Music Videos

I have heard a few times the opinion that music videos are just “promotion” and not a valid form of artistic expression: not to be taken seriously. And indeed, there is a lot of deeply crappy videos out there. But if the artist and video maker together do take the medium seriously, great things can happen. Here are some of my favourites!

Gnarls Barkley – Who’s Gonna Save My Soul? Have we not all felt like this at one point or another? There is not really much to say about the video, it is simple and uncomplicated. It is a shame that the restrained music and Cee-Lo’s amazing vocal delivery are buried below dialogue sometimes, but that is why you go get the album and/or do a quick search for the lyrics. I usually dislike any sound being added in the video for a song, but here it works very well, because they are basically saying the same thing (although in the video it is the man’s eyes, not his words, that do the talking).

U2 – Lemon. U2 made some fantastic videos in the 1990’s – especially the videos for “Lemon” and “Please”. The “Lemon” video is in black and white with the odd splash of colour for contrast, shot mostly against a white grid on black. With the sometimes grainy phootage and the cracklingly dry little captions (“Man walking up ladder”, “Man playing hi hat”), the contrast with the lyrics of the song is striking, even jarring. This is Bono’s song, written about his late mother – a recurring theme in his lyrics. Speaking in conventional terms, the more “feminine” side of life, of expressing and discussing emotions, lies in the lyrics and the music, clashing with the “masculine” side’s tendency to analyse and draw schematics expressed in the imagery.

Caught in the middle of this, we have what I believe is the first appearance of MacPhisto (or a least a proto-MacPhisto), the stage persona Bono would adapt for the last part of the ZooTV concerts in Europe and Asia. The empty nature of MacPhisto is deeply unsettling, as if he is simply a shell with its humanity crushed and withered.

Radiohead – Pyramid Song. I am a bit of a fan of the post-apocalyptic, so this video I like almost instinctively. Basically, it is about the last journey home of the last human being, after humanity has fucked up one time too many. I like the visual style and love the song. The ending is very “Close Encounters”.

John Frusciante – Going Inside. I have always liked music videos and considered them a perfectly valid form of expression (many do not), but this was the first time I was genuinely bowled over by a video. The visuals are absolutely perfect for the song, but what I like most is probably how the looped parts are not in time with the beat. It is a song about confusion, and the video expresses that confusion perfectly.

Daft Punk – Around the World. A genuine music video classic! When you have no lyrics to express, express to music – or in this case, illustrate it with dancers. Beautiful.

Bright Eyes – First Day of My Life. Can a music video possibly get any cuter or sweeter than this? I think not. Beautiful lyrics as well, “I would rather work for a paycheck / Than be waiting to win the lottery” is one of my absolute favourite pair of lines. This video also illustrates with all due clarity that a music video does not need to show the artist to be memorable.

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On the Windows 7 beta

For a few months I’ve been running the Windows 7 beta, build 7000, exclusively and thought I would write down a few thoughts.

I come straight from XP without passing Vista, so I do not really have any extensive experience of Vista. From the little time I have used it, I can say that it seemed a bit too heavy and unwieldy, and felt a bit cluttered. Also, it does not seem to run very smoothly on basic laptops.

My computer is a bit better than that (but not high end by any means), so in the beginning XP ran very well but then gradually became bloated and sluggish. I never liked XP all that much to begin with, so I was not exactly a friend at the end. The W7 beta came out at a very good time.

The install was simple and straightforward, the basic settings as well. To be honest, everything with W7b has been simple and straightforward. The interface has been significantly cleaned up and has several clever features. I really like how applications can be pinned to the taskbar and how they only take up the space of a single icon – the taskbar in XP was a mess that I never liked. This is simple, graphic and intuitive; good work.

Some things are strange and some things simply do not work yet, but I see no reason to change my OS at this time. It is annoying that Punkbuster will not work with W7b as I had just got going with Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, but that is just nitpicking. Also, Quicktime is not all smooth sailing.

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Covers, the hardest songs

All right, covers. For some reason, many people have a big problem with artists playing cover songs. I am not quite sure why actually, something about not being original possibly? Obviously there is a danger if all one does is copy/paste the original arrangement, choose the same kinds of sounds etc. But then is that really to do a cover? Hang on to that thought; lets look at the originality argument first.

The idea of playing only your own original material is new. It is actually very new, only about 40 years or so I would argue. Observe jazz: while I am not an expert on the genre in any way, I do know that playing songs written by other composers and performers is integral to the genre. Where would jazz be without “My Funny Valentine”? To play existing material intermingled with your own new material is simply to play jazz music. Looking back further, one finds that this is true for other genres as well – blues, and going back further, dancehall standards and folk music. And then stepping back further: classical music, opera – religious hymns? Clearly, music is actually more about playing existing material than it is about the constant production of new works.

So what has happened? Well, at the risk of sounding like someone else’s broken record – capitalism and consumer culture happened. Society has changed from a relatively slow construct lumbering along the path of history into something altogether more mercurial, driven of course by the explosive technological and political development since the mid-1800’s. At least in the west, making and spending money has become the prime objective in life. With that comes the idea of culture as something disposable, and the constant – and artificial – need of new things.

No wonder covers are unfashionable.

Of course, there are bands who are simply too original in themselves to play much in the way of covers, such as King Crimson. Also, Bono has always claimed that U2 were simply too bad at their instruments in the early days to play any covers – originality through ineptness, so to speak.

On the other side of this is the cover band. Normally considered to be at the bottom of the artistic food chain, they are nevertheless often the bands that are able to make a living playing music, usually a blend of current hits and golden oldies. The upside is that one gets to play music, for a living. The downside is that the only music that really works is the popular, radio friendly stuff. Originality is usually limited.

So covers are not something we should be afraid of doing, but not to excess, depending on genre. But how then to go about playing a cover? Still hanging on to that thought from earlier?

Obviously, the sound of a cover depends a lot on the type of instrumentation you have at your disposal as well as the general genre you play in. If you play in a metal band, your covers will have a certain metal-ish flavour – the tendency to use bone crushing distortion is higher than in a folk duo, so to speak, and the tendency to use gentle vocal harmonies is more pronounced in a folk duo. And so on and so forth.

On the other hand, this means that one will almost always bring something new to a song when doing a cover, by default. But just using different guitar sounds and then copying everything else is not exactly bringing something new. This newness can be a completely different sound, a new take on the melodies – or indeed a new melody altoghether – or, and this is often forgotten about, a new context. A few exemples of a successful cover follows below:

This is Neil Young covering “All Along the Watchtower” at a concert celebrating Bob Dylan.

So not exactly a novel context, but the man simply steamrolls the song with his enormous sound and enormous, well – Neil-ness. I would hate to have to follow a performance like that, and I think that at that time and that place, only Bob himself would be able to pull it off. The last verse and the end are brilliant.

Covering this song is almost a cliché these days: Jimi Hendrix completely reshaped it and since then blues-rock guitarists everywhere have produced endless note-by-note copies.

This is Jeff Buckley’s famous cover of “Hallelujah”:

It has been completely rearranged from Leonard Cohen’s original, of course. Sadly it has also become somewhat of a staple “sad song” in US television shows, which has watered it down significantly. Too bad, as Buckley really makes it his own, a good song even though I prefer Cohen singing it.

This is José González covering “Heartbeats” by The Knife:

This is a good example of a cover becoming more well known than the original. In sound it is completely different from the original. It gained widespread attention by being played in a Sony tv advertisment.

This is Patti Smith covering “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, live.

I love how she sings “dangerous” and “yeah”. This song is right up there with “All Along the Watchtower” and “Halleluja” in terms of being more or less a cliché, but this radical rearrangement (here is the original for comparison) is so far from the original that it sounds completely new again. And as the lyrics are so well-known, it is utterly familiar at the same time. Together with a passionate performer who still takes liberties with the lyrics we get one effective cover.

All right, a performance like that can not be topped so enought with the videos.

The Patti Smith video demonstrates possibly the most important thing about doing a cover: if you are a good performer and the material matters to you, it does not really matter if you wrote it or not. Passion is the key.

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