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May 22, 2008

Filed under: music»business»distribution

Pandemic

Wired reports that Pandora will be partnering with Clear Channel to stream music on CC websites, although founder Tim Westergren insists that Clear Channel will not be altering the feed in any way.

The last time that I got a chance to speak with Westergren, for an Ars interview that didn't work out (I wasn't happy with my questions, and my recorder malfunctioned), he said that Pandora actually saw Clear Channel (and the rest of terrestrial radio, to be fair) as their competition. I wonder if this is a step forward for them, or a step backward?

April 23, 2007

Filed under: music»business»distribution

Burying Caesar

To the surprise of even myself, I'm going to say nice things about Myspace.

In a recent conversation over in the bass forum, I got into a kind of genial alteraction about the nature of music production. Some poor, helpless guitar player wandered over and wanted to know how to buy a bass for recording "professional results." After a few of the usual answers, a forum member who works as a session bassist in LA stepped in with a more complicated--and much more expensive--answer.

For real professional results, he said, you should be running through a good DI and preamp, proceeding to name preamps that run in excess of $3000 each. At the very least, the recommendation was a Universal Audio unit that starts at $700. In further posts, much was made of the barely-audible differences between analog, tape-and-tube recording versus digital recording, even at very high sampling rates and resolutions.

Now, this rubbed me the wrong way. Part of it was just the invalidity of the argument--clearly, a great album can be made without spending money on ridiculously expensive components. But another part was the elitism of it all: your music isn't "professional" unless it's gone through one of these preamps, or been recorded in a certain prescribed way, or distributed on vinyl (last refuge of music snobs, despite its limited dynamic range and high noise floor).

I know that I never shut up about how bad .mp3 and other compression sounds to me, or how ugly and misformed Myspace is. But at the same time, let me praise these two technologies for how they have immeasurably improved the state of the small-time musician, and how they have democratized music. While Myspace in particular hasn't lived up to the hype--with one or two widely-publicized exceptions, nobody has been able to use it to bypass the studio distribution system--for "local bands" and other unsigned musicians, it has opened new doorways for the hobby. You might be able to get 500 people to buy a homemade CD, but it's easy enough to get 1500 friends on Myspace to listen to at least one song, and it beats putting up fliers on lampposts to announce gigs.

Privileging "professional" production and distribution methods is a way of locking out the poor or the unprepared from being "real" musicians. Digital production and distribution, which make it possible to write and record music cheaper and faster while still maintaining a basic benchmark of quality, threatens that heirarchy. It won't necessarily produce superstars, but it forces us to ask: what does "professional" even mean? What do we value in music? And how successful do we really want to be?

April 17, 2007

Filed under: music»business»distribution

Congress Killed the Net Radio Star

The administrators of Pandora Internet radio have started a web campaign to petition against the retroactive increase in broadcasting fees for web-based radio, located at SaveNetRadio.org. I have always been critical of the online letter-writing campaign, but I think the past has shown that they actually work for putting pressure on representatives who are not necessarily well-informed about these issues.

Why save net radio? For myself, this is the primary way nowadays that I discover new artists. If it weren't for places like Pandora and Last.fm, I wouldn't know about Actionslacks, Mon Frere, or Viva Voce, just to name a few. You're certainly not going to hear them on terrestrial radio, assuming that I had time to listen to that anyway these days.

I thought it was interesting, in an interview with the AV Club, when Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) made the point that his was the first generation that could "own" a copy of a movie. Before the VCR, you could see a movie while it was in the theater or on TV, but you couldn't have a version to watch and pore over on your own schedule. Music went through that transition long before, and in a way the next step was the formation of net radio stations, where people could not just take ownership of the music, but could also program it into playlists and share it. If independent record shops hadn't already been fatally wounded, this would have killed them. I think it's important that we not let this channel of discovery die.

March 5, 2007

Filed under: music»business»distribution

Mastery

Wired's music writer asks the obvious question: if we've got increasing amounts of storage nowadays on our music devices (even the flash drives are multi-gig now, whatistheworldcomingto...), why are we still buying compressed music? Why aren't we listening to the 24-bit, high sample-rate masters that came out of the studio?

Because honestly: an 80-gig iPod full of .mp3 files will still be playing when the sun explodes and flash-fries the Earth into a crispy, carbon-based donut-hole. And yet you hear about people who are proud of this. "I've got 70,000 hours of music on my MP3 player," they'll say, and any relatively-sane listener should be asking, "Why? When will you listen to it? How much of it have you actually heard?"

And perhaps more importantly, given the length of those playlists, how much time do you spend fiddling with the scroll wheel instead of doing something productive, like digging your own grave?

My steady complaint about production trends has been the constant prioritization of "more music" over "quality of sound." It certainly started with the use of brick-wall limiting to create "loud" albums for CD and radio play, but it only got worse when digital compression started stripping frequencies out of the material, just because flash memory was small and expensive. Now that we have all of this disk space available, why can't we use it to listen to better-than-CD quality, instead of jamming it full of inferior noise?

And then people can ruin that high-quality music through a set of $3 Apple earbuds. But at least then I'll have something else to yell about.

December 11, 2006

Filed under: music»business»distribution

MySpace is Terrible: Now With the Guy from Napster Edition

Today MySpace rolled out their digital distribution system. To the relief of basically everyone on earth, they decided to outsource the actual technology to somone else instead of rolling it themselves. SNOCAP, the company that will handle the transactions and downloads, is run by Shawn Fanning, who created Napster.

I haven't signed up, because I actually like giving music away for free. But the terms don't look brutal--there's a $.10 or 15% broker fee (whichever is bigger), a $.45 wholesale fee (probably to keep songs from undercutting iTunes and other music services), and a $30 yearly charge for unsigned artists (waived the first year of membership). If you sold 1000 songs at $1 a piece ($.40 of which would land in your pocket), you'd make enough money to pay the yearly fees.

On the other hand, that requires you to sell 1000 songs just to break even. I know we're supposed to believe that online downloads are the wave of the future, but I'm not sure that people are really "discovering" bands through MySpace as much as the media wants us to believe. My suspicion is that most bands still get most of their exposure through gigs, and can make more money by selling CDs for $5 or $10 a piece. Small bands that can get away with homemade CD-R could make a lot more money in a hurry. You'd be surprised how good a CD-R and a cheap label can look with a little care. Even going with a discount duplicator like DiskFaktory might only cost $1-4 per CD. It takes many fewer CDs than songs to make a profit.

Digital distribution doesn't just change how companies sell music, or how we buy it. Online, per-song purchases are also altering how we think about music. Bassist Max Valentino commented in the Lowdown forum that album sequencing might be turning into a thing of the past, since people will probably just buy the songs they want and listen to them in shuffle mode. To this day, I hate listening to Nine Inch Nails on shuffle. More importantly, we've complained for years about the amount of filler on music albums, but ignore the songs we might not have enjoyed at first, but grew to love.

I don't know. I feel bad for buying CDs, in a way: all those plastic disks eventually end up in a landfill. But once you get past the techno-lust, I think conscientious listeners need to sit down and ask themselves how they can best support the artists that they enjoy. Maybe we need a completely new mechanism.

November 8, 2006

Filed under: music»business»distribution

i(ncentive)Tunes

Want to see something funny? Cory Doctorow, tireless champion of useless digital hysterics, takes yet another crack at the copy-protection built into iTunes files. You can apparently strip the protection out using iMovie now, which Doctorow finds terribly exciting because previously he "spent six weeks this year running two PowerBooks 24/7 to convert all my iTunes audiobooks to MP3s."

I've made no secret of my own personal animosity to Apple's digital media, largely because I dislike all compressed music on principle. So I sympathize with him on his desire to actually own the files he buys. But one is forced to wonder, I think: if Cory Doctorow really hates iTunes DRM as much as he says, enough that he's willing to dedicate expensive hardware to the relatively trivial task of re-recording them via crappy built-in sound cards, why does he keep buying them from Apple in the first place? Why doesn't he just buy the books on CDs and rip them himself, no doubt a faster process anyway?

I mean, I have a visceral reaction to Old Navy's advertising, so I don't give money to Old Navy. I go elsewhere for clothes--or at least, Belle wishes I would. The idea is that I give them an incentive (i.e. they might get my money) to change their ways (i.e., they stop running annoying faux-ironic commercials starring deadbeat D-list celebs). Whether or not Old Navy actually cares about the incentive I'm offering (so far, results of the Thomas Wilburn Old Navy Embargo have been depressingly nonexistent), I thought that the "vote with your dollars" approach was a fundamental part of capitalism. It seems kind of silly for Doctorow to moan unceasingly about how Apple should change its ways, when all the while he's funding their copy-protection with his business.

September 4, 2006

Filed under: music»business»distribution

MySpace is Terrible: Shameless Commerce Edition

The news that MySpace will begin allowing bands to sell their .mp3s has gotten people talking. I have a few concerns, though. One is that we should watch very carefully for the license conditions--before a few artists forced them to reconsider, the site's terms and conditions granted them extensive royalty-free rights to any songs posted there. Also, let's face it: MySpace is a mess. It's the programming equivalent of a Ford Pinto, likely to explode at even the slightest provocation. Right now that's just inconvenient, since all you're facing is the technical error message. With e-commerce and customers' credit card numbers involved, it'd be nice if the whole system felt like you could kick it without losing a foot.

Sorry! an unexpected error has occurred, exposing your Mastercard number to a 14-year old meth addict in southern Montana. We will, of course, blame Flash Player, but only after the media attention gets too big to avoid.

This error has been forwarded to MySpace's technical group.

I was always rooting for CD Baby, personally. I've got a bias towards lossless formats.

But just as MySpace is stylistically the Web from a decade back, it's become the resurgence of all those old fears as well. Pedophiles, hacked bank accounts, spammers, and now scammers. I got a message from the Emerganza Festival today. They're a long-standing battle-of-the-bands style promoter, but of course it's a $70 entry fee and you have to sell your own tickets. In return, you get to play at venues like the 9:30 Club and the Velvet Lounge in DC. Not to be too blunt about it, but that's not like being told that the Nissan Pavilion will open its doors to you. I have friends who are playing at both of those venues now. They got there by playing at other clubs and being really dedicated, not by paying a promoter. Never pay to play, kids. If you're any good, you won't have to.

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