Rage Against the Machine

LaraStJohn

Lara St. John and her favorite non-furry friend

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The ever-interesting violinist, blogger, and musical entrepreneur Lara St. John on Wagner and Madison Avenue’s idea of what constitutes “classical” music. Okay, I admit I ranted to her about it, but i’m grateful to her for the research and the writing. C’mon Rick Rubin, you can do better than that!
Rage Against the Machine

Belafonte II: The Long Road to Freedom

Seeing Belafonte @ Berklee yesterday couldn’t help but make me think back to the time when he came to our NPR studios in 2001 to record a couple of programs around a project that was near and dear to him….but took nearly 4 decades to produce!

Harry Belafonte at NPR in October 2001  (Photo: David Banks, NPR)

Harry Belafonte at NPR in October 2001 (Photo: David Banks, NPR)

It was called “The Long Road to Freedom,” and aspired to be nothing less than an authoritative anthology of black music in America…from the earliest war crys, work songs and shouts, imported from Africa, to Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” and a musical setting of a speech by MLK called “I’ll Never Turn Back No Mo.”   Once completed, it contained no fewer than 80 tracks across 5 CDs, as well as a beautifully-produced 140-page hardbound book of photos, essays, and commentary about the black musical experience in America.

It was an amazing, lavishly packaged, and carefully produced set, which Belafonte had undertaken at the height of his popularity in the early 1960’s.  Belafonte had the run of RCA’s thoroughly “modern” studio facility, and as a Music Director the legendary (and now shamefully forgotten)  arranger and choral director Leonard De Paur, famed at the time for his work with the pioneering De Paur Infantry Chorus, an all-male black chorus that became a top-drawing attraction for Columbia Artists in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Leonard De Paur, Joe Williams, and Harry Belafonte reviewing a take, C. 1961

Leonard De Paur, Joe Williams, and Harry Belafonte reviewing a take, C. 1961

And, at the start, Belafonte and De Paur had a budget big enough to bring in some big names to the exercise into chronicling what the singer called “African-matrixed music,” Bessie Jones, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Joe Williams.

And Belafonte was deeply invested in the project: “We in America know very little about the history of our nation, especially as applied to the black experience,”  he said in an interview.  “So I always felt that my mission was to use music as a way in which to impart ideas and thoughts that would awaken curiosity.”

But whether is was for reasons of budget, time, or interest, the journey of the Long Road project got a lot longer.  The sessions came to a halt around 1971, and the entire project languished in the vaults of RCA – and its ever-evolving corporate ownership – without a single note from any of the sessions making its way to the public.  My guess is that at some point, the bean-counters at RCA decided that the ROI would never be realized; the project got put on the shelf, and then institutional amnesia took over.

But, miraculously, three decades later, The Long Road to Freedom materialized in much the form that Belafonte and De Paur imagined it — if not more so.  (Ironically, the set was released on Sept. 11, 2001, which may help to explain why it did not get more attention when it was released…).  So after a lot of back-and-forth negotiations,  one crisp autumn day Harry Belafonte was at NPR, recording a Morning Edition interview with Bob Edwards, cutting tracks for a long documentary special I was producing around the anthology, posing for photos with practically everyone in the building, and sitting down for one of the most extraordinary lunches I’ve ever had in my lifetime.

It actually started the moment we left the building on Massachusetts Ave. for our half-block-walk to the restaurant.  Harry Belafonte does not blend in to the crowd; the man oozes charisma.  Truck drivers, pedestrians, and even bike messengers all had to say hello to The King of Calypso, which meant that our half-block walk took about 40 minutes.  As for the meal itself: the food was profoundly unmemorable, but the the conversation anything but.  There is no such thing as “idle chatter” with Harry Belafonte.  It wasn’t just the fact that Belafonte has been an eyewitness to history – he had a way of describing his arguments with JFK, or his bailing MLK out of jail, or visits to Africa that were both sharply etched in a journalistic sence, but also deeply philosophical.  And he wasn’t content to just tell war stories; like many people of real greatness, he asked as much as he answered.   And when Harry Belafonte leans into you and asks you a probing question, you don’t dare give a dishonest response!  For all of his struggles for racial equality, you could tell the Belafonte remains a curious and optimistic student of the human condition.  Reminds me of how he quoted from Paul Robeson in his acceptance speech at Berklee:

“It’s a wonderful path to be in the arts, because artists are the gatekeepers of truth. Art is the radical voice of civilization.’ From that time until now, I always knew that I would have a life in the arts. My pursuit was to do what Robeson said, take advantage of this gift of art and to develop myself, and to apply it the way other people needed to be inspired.

Back to the Long Road for a moment: Over time, this collection has become an invaluable resource for schools, critics researchers, documentarians, and, yes, a radio producer or two….though the early-sixties aesthetic of the recordings and arrangements is very much a product of its era.  Some of it can sound a little quaint to our ears, but other parts are breathaking, like hearing Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers singing Kneebone Bend, or Belafonte himself doing Boll Weevil   You can listen to the interview Harry did with Bob Edwards here.

(Aviso: it’s from 2001, back when NPR was using RealAudio, and it may not play on your fancy smartphone….)

 

 

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.

How to Succeed in the Music Biz, c. 2008: Ingrid Michaelson

Girls and BoysDriving back from New England over the holiday weekend gave me the chance to hear both an appearance by Yo-Yo Ma on the Diane Rehm show (though the Silk Road Project seems a bit of a stretch for MLK Day), and a fascinating discussion on the World Café between host David Dye and the new singer-songwriter It Girl Ingrid Michaelson.In his intro to the show (also a holiday repeat, but since it first ran the Friday before Christmas, we can be forgiven for missing it the first time around!) David talked about Michaelson being a model for how to make it the new media landscape, and I think he’s on the mark: Unsigned and proud of it, instead she’s built a career through a mixture of MySpace and TV placement – both via Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, and more famously through an Old Navy ad that prominently uses her breakout song “The Way I Am.” (destined to be a wedding-song staple for the rest of the decade, I suspect…)Ingrid is talented enough, I suppose, and has written a couple of lovely songs.  But what struck me about the interview was her savvy and clearheaded understanding about into the business of the music industry right now, and where she sits in it:

I’m thinking about it [signing to a record label]. I’ve always been thinking about it.  But these great opportunities keep being handed to me.  I think a lot of it is because I’m independent and it’s such a great story.  There’s such a shift going on in the music world right now, and I’m sort of little guinea pig. Everyone’s helping out.   At some point, if it gets to be too much, I’ll look for a partnership.  I never liked the idea of being dragged around as a new artist. So I just want to get to a point where I have power and control and work with somebody, and not FOR somebody.

For more of Ingrid Michaelson’s back story check out this recent profile from the New York Times (buried in the NY/Region section, not the Arts page, and also just before Christmas in case you’re wondering).  Sample grab:

Not bad for someone who, until May, was teaching in an after-school theater program in the Stapleton neighborhood of Staten Island, where she still lives with her parents, a dog and a pet rabbit in the house she has inhabited since she was born. “It’s so uncool, it’s cool,” said her mother, Elizabeth Egbert, the executive director of the Staten Island Museum.

Required Reading – The Well-Tempered Web


In the Oct. 22 issue of the New Yorker you’ll find
a Critic At Large piece called “The Well-Tempered Web” – in essence, a Postcard from the Brave New Media World, written by Alex Ross. There’s a reason Ross is at the top of the list on my blogroll….this is one of the best, most stylishly written and comprehensive snapshots of what’s happening with classical music online, and its implications for the future. Ross writes about a lot of the things I’ve been trying to see and describe in this space, though, in my experience, the scenario is not quite as rosy as he paints. Sample grab:

Classical-music culture on the Internet is expanding at a sometimes alarming pace. When I started my blog, I had links to seven or eight like-minded sites. Now I find myself part of a jabbering community of several hundred blogs, operated by critics, composers, conductors, pianists, double-bassists, oboists (I count five), artistic administrators, and noted mezzo-sopranos (Joyce DiDonato writes under the moniker Yankee Diva). After a first night at the Met, opera bloggers chime inwith opinions both expert and eccentric, recalling the days when critics from a dozen dailies, whether Communist or Republican or Greek, lined up to extoll Caruso. Beyond the blogs are the Internet radio stations; streaming broadcasts from opera houses, orchestras, new-music ensembles; and Web sites of individual artists. There is a new awareness of what is happening musically in every part of the world. A listener in Tucson or Tokyo can virtually attend opening night at the Bayreuth Festival and listen the following day to a première by a young British composer at the BBC Proms.

Those who see the dawning of a new golden age should bear in mind the “Snakes on a Plane” rule: things invariably appear more important on the Internet than they are in the real world. Classical music has experienced waves of technological euphoria in the past: the Edison cylinder, radio, the LP, and the CD were all hailed as redeeming godsends for a kind of music that has always struggled to find its place in American culture. At the end of such bouts of giddiness, classical music somehow always winds up back where it started, in a state of perpetual fret.

Thanks, Alex. I’ll go back to fretting now. I think there’s still a critical missing link having to do with music education (or lack thereof) and the general broader cultural awareness of events outside of the roar of the pop-culture surf, which is what’s driving the UTunes: Music 1.01 project.

Ross also makes a marvelous point about the utterly transparent online accessibility of arguably the most inaccessible of all composers….Arnold Schoenberg. Throwing copyright concerns to the winds, the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna has created a transparent, robust, and comprehensive site dedicated to the inventor of “twelve-tone” music, a man some (like John Adams, f’irnstance) to have led classical music down a 75-yeard spiritual dead-end.

On the site, you can read immaculate digital reproductions of Schoenberg’s correspondence, listen to his complete works on streaming audio, examine his designs for various inventions and gadgets (including a typewriter for musical notation), and follow links to YouTube videos of him playing tennis.

And there’s this trenchant “deep catalog” observation:

Classical music, with its thousand-year back catalogue, has the longest tail of all. In Naxos’s case, thirty to forty per cent of its digital sales in the U.S. come from albums downloaded four times a month or less. Thus, a not insignificant portion of the company’s revenue comes from titles that, by Justin Timberlake standards, don’t exist

Required reading, if you care about classical music.

Link

The Madonna Model or the Radiohead Revolution?


So Madonna has given Warner Brothers the boot in favor of concert promoter Live Nation, while at the same time Radiohead has devised a pay-what-you’d-like scheme for their latest self-produced, self-distributed release, thumbing their noses at long-time label EMI. All in the space of a few days. The blogosphere – and the mainstream media, for that matter, are all a-twitter.

Have we reached, then, the Tipping Point? Is it curtains for certain for the much-lambasted Record Industry?

Frankly, I think the tipping has already happened. And I’m also not persuaded that the record industry’s days are over …. so long as they don’t think of themselves solely as purveyors of recorded, um “product” as Billboard magazine terms it.

One of the things I’ve discovered in plying the classical, jazz, folk, etc. waters over the years is that these minority formats tend to be the canaries-in-the-coal-mine for the bigger genres. Long before it was a gleam in Thom Yorke or Trent Reznor‘s eye, the excellent classically-oriented Magnatune label was offering the pay-what-you-think-its-worth option. And for some serious artists with serious credentials, too, many of whom had recorded for the so-called “major” labels. The Economist introduced me (and, it turns out, a whole of folks) to the Magnatune concept more than two years ago:

From a listener’s point of view, the firm’s website is enticing. You can legally listen, free of charge and with high sound quality, to full albums by any of the 200 or so artists who have signed to the label. (Your correspondent was immediately hooked by a song called Making Me Nervous by a one-man electro-pop band from Ottawa called Brad Sucks.) Music streamed is free, but to download it to your computer or burn CDs, you have to pay. Just how much is a matter of choice—Magnatune allows you to decide what the music is worth, and to pay as little as $5 for an album or as much as $18. Once paid for, the music is not locked up using digital-rights management software, so you are not prevented from making copies.…

Magnatune was born out of the simple reality that is known to any classical musician: You don’t make your money from record sales. There are possibly a half-dozen living classical musicians you have a positive income stream from their recordings: Yo-Yo Ma, James Galway, Renee Fleming, Placido Domingo, Van Cliburn, and… Andrea Bocelli? Go ahead, name another.

Same is true in jazz. I’ll bet the only artists that actually get any meaningful income from records are Dave Brubeck (thanks to the perennial popularity of Time Out, released in 1959) and maybe Diana Krall.

And even in larger the pop-music sea, that’s not and never has been where the money is — for 90% of the artists, that is. Even in the best of times working with a label was a deal-with-the-devil cost-of-doing-business proposition: You signed with a major because of the potential they represented to promote, market, and, if you got lucky, actually to move mass quantities of your physical “product” into the hands of your fans. Can’t do that selling your self-produced record out of the back of your trunk and running handbills off on a mimeo machine in the back room.

Hmmm…but in the iTunes world you suddenly don’t have to worry about having the supply to meet the demand, do you? Thus a big-name well-established act like Radiohead, with a carefully-cultivated image-conscious fan base, doesn’t really have much more use for EMI. No wonder the label’s new prez Terry Hands said it was a “wake up call,” according to a leaked internal e-mail:

The recorded music industry… has for too long been dependent on how many CDs can be sold,” Hands wrote. “Rather than embracing digitalization and the opportunities it brings for promotion of product and distribution through multiple channels, the industry has stuck its head in the sand.”

Hands warned that more artists could follow Radiohead’s lead and take their careers into their own hands. “Why should [superstar acts] subsidize their label’s new talent roster – or for that matter their record company’s excessive expenditures and advances?” asked Hands.

Why indeed? And that’s where the Madonna / Live Nation model is so interesting — it’s part of a larger chess match within the music industry:

Madonna’s deal to abandon Warner Music for concert promoter Live Nation signals more than just a tectonic shift in the music distribution business: It shows how far Live Nation is willing to go to break the hammerlock Barry Diller‘s Ticketmaster has on online concert ticket sales.

The core benefit to Live Nation of the $120 million recording and touring contract with the pop superstar is the opportunity to tap into concert, recording, merchandising and other lucrative revenue streams. But don’t discount the role that lowly ticket fees play.

   

Ticket buyers may be annoyed by the $5 or more in fees tacked on to every ticket ordered online or over the phone, but they’ve proven to be a gold mine for Ticketmaster. Ticketmaster’s revenues jumped 14 percent to $1.1 billion in 2006 and generated almost a 25 percent operating profit margin.

Thus, To these eyes the “three-CD deal” (with up to $50 million in “advance payments”) is really a “signing bonus” for Madonna, in order to cash in on where the REAL money will be made. I think Digital Music News editor Paul Resnikoff gets it right:

“…You can’t download a live concert – at least the real, in-the-flesh experience. Maybe you can hop onto BitTorrent and grab some amazing concert footage. Or even purchase a live performance album release. But what is your girlfriend (or boyfriend, bff, sibling, spouse, child, etc.) going to get more excited about – a video download, or a real ticket to a real show?One can be duplicated, viewed on-demand, and buried within a massive iTunes library. The other is a one-time, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Labels are now specialized in producing assets that can be reproduced instantly and infinitely. They are also specialized in an asset that is increasingly generating excitement for other assets they do not control.

Live Nation makes its money off of something that can never be duplicated. And that is why they can afford the elephantine deal terms to lure Madonna.

And even, if they don’t get all of the $120 million back out of Madonna (who will be 60 when the deal ends!), what’s the value to Live Nation if they can break Ticketmaster’s hammerlock on sales??? I’d say……Priceless.

So after reading all this, there IS a next logical step for the much-maligned record companies….what if Ticketmaster, for example, went out and bought EMI, a well-oiled production, distribution, and marketing machine?

If You’re Going To San Francisco….


…Flowers in your hair are no longer necessary (what, you don’t remember the song by Scott McKenzie?), but do make a point to check out the History of Audio exhibit in Terminal Three (mostly United Airlines gates). Word has it that it was put there to coincide with the AES convention last October, and it runs through the end of this month. So maybe I’m the last to find out about it. But if you are even remotely interested in how sounds to us over the radio, television, in movie theatres, and our homes, it’s absolutely terrific. Of course, also a trip down memory lane for the RoeDeo (Dr. Wizard dryly noted that it was a slightly more organized version of what’s lying around in the attic), with (mostly accurate) biographies and photos from the Golden Age of Hi-Fi, and earlier, including such luminaries as Lee De Forest, FM Radio inventor Edwin Armstrong, Henry Kloss, Edgar Villchur of AR fame,



Ray Dolby, and the brilliant English visionary Alan Blumlein.
And the “stuff,” of course: (grabbed from the SFO website:)

One hundred and thirty years of audio inventions are on display—from Thomas Edison’s first sound recorder, to systems that produce theater-quality sound in your home and digital players that put a thousand songs in your pocket. The importance of sound in our lives is evident in the many inventions that are closely associated with the generation that enjoyed them—the Victrola, the hi-fi stereo system, the eight-track player, the Walkman, and presently, the iPod. The only constant is change, and as the development of sound technology continues, one day even the iPod will seem as quaint as a wind-up gramophone.


My favorites included a 1946 “disc cutter” for making your own home 78s (in case you thought a DVD burner was a new idea!), a vintage 8-track tape recorder, and, from 1956, an early Ampex 2″ video tape machine bought by CBS and in use for decades. The thing looks bulletproof. And the piece de resistance: An original
“Highway Hi-Fi” for playing records in your brand-new 1956 Chrysler – replete with a photo of a beaming Lawrence Welk using one in his new Hemi ragtop. Priceless.