Play in Subway, Win Pulitzer…

Joshua Bell in the DC metro Not quite one year to the day it was published, funnyman writer Gene Weingarten‘s celebrated story about Joshua Bell busking in the Washington Metro wound up as one of six Pulitzer Prizes won by the Washington Post today – an impressive and near-record haul. Even though the little social experiment was in itself something of a failure (hardly anyone recognized who it was playing underneath that Curly W cap, and even fewer chucked in any change); the story itself was a PR bonanza for Bell — and now, it seems, for the author.    BTW, you can hear Bell’s entire subway performance  here.

And if the past is prologue, I’ll bet that the “Joshua Bell Pulitzer” will get a lot more attention than the “official” Classical Music Pulitzer for 2007: The Little Match Girl Passion, by David Lang, commissioned and premiered at Carnegie Hall by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices ensemble.

My piece is called The Little Match Girl Passion and it sets Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Match Girl in the format of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach’s Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Han Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion), and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane

Nothing against Lang or his work, which sounds interesting enough, t’s just that invariably these Pulitzers go to pieces that have been played once in often out-of-the way locations.  Back in my NPR days, tracking down the actual *recording* of a Pulitzer-winning-composition – and doing it in time for the morning news! – invariably involved a combination of detective work, browbeating, and more than a little luck.

Not so in the Internet age, however.  Want to hear Lang’s piece – or even download it?  Get it here– direct from the Carnegie website.     For that matter, this may be the most information-rich Pulitzer ever — you can even hear an interview with Lang about the creation of the work.

Oh, yeah, and there’s one more musical Pulitzer today – a Special Citation for Bob Dylan – for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

See the complete list of Pulitzer winners here.

PS – nice to see another Hans Christian Andersen piece set to music to some acclaim.   Throughtout his career the Danish writer/poet/playwright collaborated with and was inspired by a number of notable composers – including Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Wagner.     And Lang is just the latest of a long line of musicians who have in turn found inspiration in Andersen’s words.

Miscellaeneous Musings: the NY Phil, Howard Theatre, WYPR, No Depression, Pete Seeger…

Any resemblance to Mike “I Was Just Thinking….” Barnicle is purely coincidental….

  • Kind of amazing to hear the wall-to-wall media coverage of the New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea….startling and gratifying to hear snippets of the New World Symphony in the middle of network newscasts. Worth reading:  Anne Midgette’s column in the WaPo on this not being a case of bringing Great. Western. Art. to poor benighted souls behind the Bamboo Curtain….

But in Vienna, Austria, there is another image of them: as conducting students. The elite conducting class at the University of Music and Performing Arts there has trained no fewer than 17 North Korean students in the past decade.

  • Which reminds me of a similar history-making venture I helped to orchestra for NPR in 1999: The Milwaukee Symphony’s trip to Cuba, which was the first time a US orchestra had performed on the island since the Philadelphia Orchestra had been there in 1959.  ‘Course, it was a little easier for our NPR crew to move around the country than it was for the delegation traveling to North Korea this week…I remember that producer Laura Bertran even managed to lend some technical and logistical help to the struggling public radio station in Havana to broadcast the concert live on the island. (Oh yeah, they played Gershwin, too….the Cuban Overture, natch)  Click here to hear some of the music from similar symphonic excursions in the past,  and here for a similar Washington Post story on other “Diplomacy Concerts” of that past half-century.
  • On the other hand, for the same station to air during afternoon drive a six-month-old repeat of a Mario Armstrong “Digital Cafe”  feature?  About an Internet startup being Beta tested?   With a casual disclaimer that “some information may be out of date?”  Incredibly. Lame.
  • Pete SeegerIt’s nice to see Pete Seeger getting his props from PBS this week, with an American Masters portrait airing tonight on most PBS stations around the country. Except, that is, in DC, where despite Pete being on the cover of the Post’s TV Week,  the local pubtv powerhouse WETA inexplicably is running a show a three-year old show on Judy Garland.    Huh?   I’ll have more to say on Pete in a later post.

Qtrax – When Is a Launch Not a Launch?

QtraxSo. Today is/was supposed to be Day One of a new online service with an irresistable headline: “From today, feel free to download another 25 million songs – Legally.” blared the Times of London this morning, breathlessly announcing the launch of a “game-changing intervention in the declining record industry” at the MIDEM Conference in Cannes.

Qtrax, is a new ad-supported online music service that, in the words of its own PR,

…is the first free P2P service to be fully embraced by the music industry. With a base catalog estimated at between 25 and 30 million copyrighted tracks from all the major labels, publishers and a host of leading indies, QTRAX has the largest legal library of any music service on the market.

How will they do it? Through DRM (Digital Rights Management) encoding of tracks from the four major record groups, and, the Times observes, “As with iTunes, customers will have to download Qtrax software. They will own the songs permanently but will be encouraged to “dock” their player with the store every 30 days so it can gather information on which songs have been played.” Oh, and the service is not compatible with your iPod.

Only….. it rather embarrassingly turns out that Qtrax had failed to cross a few t’s and dot a few i’s….as Reuters reported just a few hours ago….

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Qtrax, a new free music download service, backed off claims that it has deals with all four major music companies after Warner Music Group denied it had agreed terms with the start-up.

“Warner Music Group has not authorized the use of our content on Qtrax’s recently announced service,” Warner, the No. 3 music company, said in statement late on Sunday.

Qtrax said late on Sunday, “We are in discussion with Warner Music Group to ensure that the service is licensed and we hope to reach an agreement shortly.”

A source close to Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company, told Reuters it also did not have a deal with Qtrax but discussions were continuing.

The Los Angeles Times also reported on Sunday that EMI Group executives said it had not agreed terms with Qtrax.

Sony BMG Music Entertainment, the second largest music company, was not immediately available.

Ouch! What a way to launch – missing three out of four of your major partners? Just one of many dubious claims to this new enterprise, I think.

What I found most interesting about the Times of London story was not so much the story but the reaction of the readers. They are neither fooled nor amused at the many obvious flaws in the Qtrax business plan. Here are but a few of the choice comments: (scroll to the bottom to read ’em). If I’m a Qtrax exec, these comments would make me plenty nervous:

They’ve created an Internet radio station that spies on you. All of your musical listening preferences are just one subpoena away from public information. God help you if you’ve been listening to death metal and are going through a child custody battle. Big Brother wants to watch you.

A crippled music industry is finally admitting defeat. Of course Qtrax will not work! I’m done with spying softwares and people controlling what I do, listen to, etc. Leave alone the advertising.

If there isn’t native Linux support, iPod support count me out straight away.

If it’s full of ads or poor quality rips – also count me out.

So does this mean that EMI and the others in the RIAA will compensate those whose lives they have ruined by lawsuits?

I really suspect that anything which has been “in development” for 5 years is at least 4 years too late.

Amen to that. If you’re still with me this far down, you might enjoy what the resident snarkologists (caution!: some geek-speak and may require translation) at the Register have to say about how the “backend” of the Qtrax system…

So when the going gets weird, the weird get ad-funded. Even in the short, strange history of digital music, they don’t come weirder than Qtrax, a music service that launched here at Midem in Cannes today. It’s a marriage of two desperate industries – the music business, and the ad-supported web startup. To steal a phrase from Sun’s Scott McNealy, it’s like watching two garbage trucks colliding.

So how weird is this?

Qtrax delivers an unlimited supply of free music to the web surfer, for them to keep, by scraping the Gnutella P2P network, sticking ads on the front end, filtering out the bogus files (that the IFPI and RIAA have put on the P2P networks in such abundance over the years), and wrapping the song files in DRM.

If that isn’t surreal enough, the company pushed a bewildered looking James Blunt on stage with a broom to say how stealing from the sweat shop was wrong. And that he didn’t really know much about what was going on – but he’d like to.

Qtrax is staffed by refugees from SpiralFrog, the clueless ad-supported web startup that was unveiled in a blaze of publicity but never quite launched properly – yet still managed to fork over $2m to Universal Music, the world’s biggest record company, before it had made a single transaction. These business geniuses have now raised $30m from venture capital for their latest suicidal tilt at the market.

If you’re going to fail, I guess, then fail hard and fast.

Music Lessons from Seth Godin


I’ve been an admirer of Seth Godin for a while. His book “Small Is the New Big,” (among others) is one of the seminal publications of the so-called Web 2.0 era. Godin periodically weighs in on the music business, (I think I mentioned this fascinating dissection on the future of the radio industry before) and what he has to say is invariably smart, on point, and a few laps ahead of the field. Some of what he says may appear stunningly obvious, but it’s amazing to me how little of it has been understood – or, more to the point, embraced, by the music-biz world at large.

So anyway, let me commend to you his Music Lessons blog entry posted earlier today. Godin’s 14-point manifesto-for-music-in-the-digital-age (starting with Point Zero!) is the first “must-read” of 2008, to my mind. Here are a couple of memorable grabs:

2. Copy protection in a digital age is a pipe dreamIf the product you make becomes digital, expect that the product you make will be copied.

There’s a paradox in the music business that is mirrored in many industries: you want ubiquity, not obscurity, yet digital distribution devalues your core product….

Most items of value derive that value from scarcity. Digital changes that, and you can derive value from ubiquity now…The solution isn’t to somehow try to become obscure, to get your song off the (digital) radio. The solution is to change your business.

You used to sell plastic and vinyl. Now, you can sell interactivity and souvenirs.

3. Interactivity can’t be copied

Products that are digital and also include interaction thrive on centralization and do better and better as the market grows in size (consider Facebook or Basecamp).

Music is social. Music is current and everchanging. And most of all, music requires musicians. The winners in the music business of tomorrow are individuals and organizations that create communities, connect people, spread ideas and act as the hub of the wheel… indispensable and well-compensated.

4. Permission is the asset of the future

… Permission is an asset to be earned. The ability (not the right, but the privilege) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them. For ten years, the music business has been steadfastly avoiding this opportunity.

It’s interesting though, because many musicians have NOT been avoiding it. Many musicians have understood that all they need to make a (very good) living is to have 10,000 fans. 10,000 people who look forward to the next record, who are willing to trek out to the next concert. Add 7 fans a day and you’re done in 5 years. Set for life. A life making music for your fans, not finding fans for your music…

5. A frightened consumer is not a happy consumer.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but here goes: suing people is like going to war. If you’re going to go to war with tens of thousands of your customers every year, don’t be surprised if they start treating you like the enemy.

There are 13 more equally thought-provoking points in Seth’s manifesto. Take a moment to read the whole thing. I’ll return to point 2) in a little while.

The RIAA – They Can’t Be Serious


Noticed that the top e-mailed story from the entire Washington Post site the other today was regular radio columnist Marc Fisher’s latest Report from the RIAA front, containing this loaded handgun of a paragraph:

Now, in an unusual case in which an Arizona recipient of an RIAA letter has fought back in court rather than write a check to avoid hefty legal fees, the industry is taking its argument against music sharing one step further: In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.

The industry’s lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer from legally bought CDs are “unauthorized copies” of copyrighted recordings.

Huh? Ripping your CD (or vinyl, for that matter) into your PC is a crime? No wonder the music-blogosphere is burning up, and Jerry Del Colliano is hyperventilating. They can’t be serious! After all, the in the “Betamax case” (brought in 1976, ultimately settled in 1984) the Supreme Court famously said that home taping for “personal use” was OK — and thus the VCR and TiVo industry was born.

Ironically, in its initial response to the lawsuit, Sony in fact argued that the precedent of home-taping had been introduced by the cassette recorder, which was of course used for recording AUDIO only. So now the RIAA is seriously going to clamp down on the 21st-century version of this practice?

No, I don’t think they’re serious about it all. I think the clues to what’s really going on here lie in this analysis of the Betamax case by the Frontier Foundation:

It’s thanks to the Betamax ruling that the makers of VCRs and every other technology capable of infringing and non-infringing uses (e.g., personal computers, CD burners, the TiVo DVR, Apple’s iPod, and Web browsers) can continue to sell their wares without fear of lawsuits from copyright owners.

The whole article is pretty good — it really does suggest that RIAA sees another opening here to lay claim to more legal territory, and try to chip away a little more at the accursed Betamax ruling. It’s not you at home they’re after — it’s winning the hearts and minds of the Court. Doubt that anything so politically charged will happen in 2008, however…..

Resolved….

Sam Cooke - A Change
WASHINGTON, D.C. — As day breaks on a New Year here in downtown D.C., a resolution is in order in This Here Space: Namely, to post a little more often! The ol’ RoeDeo blogpost track record hasn’t been too impressive lately…I’ve been far better at managing the posts for my various clients, friends, and associates than for myself.

But that’s not to suggest that there’s not a lot on my mind, which I intend to share in the course of the comings days and weeks and months ahead.
So I think I’ll keep the 2008 resolution short and sweet: To make at least one post per day — even if it’s for no one’s benefit but my own.

Fact is, when it’s working, I like to view my blog as a sort of “open notepad” — a place to save, share, or spin a newsy nugget or two that I’ve come across, as well as to scribble down a personal observation or reaction. I’ve had nearly a year’s worth of Days at the RoeDeo now; my first post was on Jan. 18th, 2007, and I managed 74 posts over the course of the year. Not that great, but hey, it’s a start.

Now with a little experience under my belt I’ve got a whole raft of ideas about what to do in the New Year, both for this space, as well as for the overall roedeo.com site, which has been rather embarrassingly neglected. But rather than dwell on that I’ll just leave it for now to quote Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come, and I can’t wait to share it. Here’s to a great ’08!

Avant Gershwin

WASHINGTON – The reason I’m posting from downtown D.C. this morning has to do with the lady on the left — jazz vocalist Patti Austin, who helped to usher in the New Year with a dynamic all-Gershwin concert at the Kennedy Center last night. Patti’s two-set show, backed by a crackerjack octet (piano, guitar, bass, drums, sax, trumpet, ‘bone) was part of Toast of the Nation, NPR’s annual all-night New Year’s Eve jazz party. Yr Hmble Srvnt was on hand to produce the show for the net.

In my previous life coordinating this production was Tension City; the logistics of pulling off six live shows through multiple timezones is only dizzying when it’s not downright frightening. By comparison, spending a day backstage at the KenCen with old friends and terrific musiciains, old pros all, was pure pleasure.

That’s not to say there weren’t the usual hiccups and anxieties that arise anytime you’re producing live radio. To be sure, there were. But it was all redeemed by the music on stage: some really interesting arrangements of Gershwin standards, mostly drawn from Austin’s recent CD called Avant-Gershwin. The disc has been getting a lot of buzz — a pair of Grammy nominations, and USA Today critic Elyse Gardner even had it down as her Top Album of the Year, edging out Junior Senior and Springsteen’s Magic. — and if we didn’t get the memo, Patti was there to remind us. (As a veteran showbiz producer, she’s not the type to let these PR moments pass…..)

But the praise is hard-won and well-deserved. Her voice was in top form, and the arrangements by Michael Abene are clever, quirky, and swing. You can check out a couple of the CD cuts (recorded with the excellent WDR Big Band) here. The Kennedy Center show was the first time that Austin has taken the show on the road with a pared-down octet, and the results were pretty impressive, particularly for the second set that we broadcast live to the nation. Though I have to say that my lasting memory was a haunting version of But Not For Me, featuring just Patti and pianist Mike Ricchiutti.

But don’t take my word for it: check out the whole concert on the new NPR Music site.

Update 1/2/2008: Critic Mike Joyce talks about Patti’s “Star Jones Moment” in his review of the concert in today’s Washpost. You can read the review here.