Saturday, November 28, 2009

Long Form

For the past fifty years, by far the most dominant form of music creation has been a 30 to 75 minute construct which we call an "album." This is directly due to the wildly successful technological invention of the "long playing record" (LP), first introduced in 1948. The compact disc merely provided an extension to the album format (in more ways than one). But one of the great questions (and debates) around the emergence of digital files as the preferred format for music reproduction surrounds the future of the album, and ultimately what shape the "long form" of recorded music will take. (An aside here: it's curious that technology seems to have a stronger impact on our relationship with music than with any other art form).

Live music may be a major factor in the equation. As I posited in a previous post, going to a live music show is quickly becoming one of the only examples of when we commit our undivided attention to one band or artist for a significant amount of time. Concurrently, the model of touring to support a recording has been turned on its head; tours are now looked at as the more reliable revenue generator for many artists, and increasingly recordings are released to promote tours and to generate merchandise income at the show.

In fact, we're seeing a new trend recently, especially with our more popular local bands, which for now is being called the "EP Release Concert." Instead of waiting to complete a "full-length album" before staging a show, bands are now more commonly putting together 4-8 tracks of new or re-thought material, which gives them something new to promote to the media, and provides the fans with something new to buy at the merch table. Further indication that what was once the tail (the live show) is now wagging the dog (the recording).

Aesthetically successful albums have tended to fall into two general categories: those with such a strong critical mass of individual tracks that the entire album stands up to repeated listening as a whole, and those with some sort of unifying concept which holds the whole thing together. Unfortunately, even the most ardent lovers of the album format will admit that only a tiny percentage of records released over the last 50 years accomplish either of these two things. However, I venture to bet that most of us "older" music lovers would grieve the loss of the album format based on the enormous satisfaction and gratification derived from that tiny percentage!

Personally, I'm a bit of a sucker for the "concept album." I can't say that I was a huge fan of The Decemberists before the release of their most recent release, The Hazards of Love. But this "rock opera" hooked me hard and fast, with the usual concept album trappings of continuous flow, recurring themes and musical segments, and a storyline narrative. Then the band followed through with a full worldwide tour in which they played the entire album from start to finish, only furthering my respect (and, admittedly, bringing me back to my youth, and my personal halcyon days of long-form progressive rock concerts).

Now the band has taken it a step further, and commissioned four interesting and inventive animation artists to "visualize" the album non-literally. The final work, titled "Here Come The Waves: The Hazards of Love Visualized," premiered in L.A. two months ago (behind a live performance), and is being offered exclusively on iTunes beginning December 1st. The Cedar has the distinction of being the only venue that I'm aware of (anywhere in the world, actually) which is having a theatrical screening of the film, on Thursday 12/3, with an admittance price of only $3. I've previewed it... it's very cool, very trippy, at times with spectacular imagery. I'm really looking forward to seeing it on our big screen while the full album plays through our great sound system...

Probably not a trend here, but another imaginative reason for someone to spend an extended period (nearly an hour) listening to a long form music creation... this time, in my opinion, one of those rare, worthwhile ones.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Musically giving thanks

I am thankful for too many musical things to list here, though initially that is what I intended to do in this entry. Instead, just a few things from the last week or so:

Thankful for:

-Parties at The Cedar put on by local brass band The Brass Messengers complete with stilt walkers, roller girls and costumes.
-Nomo's existence (check Mama E Dub's report on their Cedar appearance that she wrote just days ago)
-Seeing Russian Circles with coworkers who dance the polka afterwards
-Listening to a friend's punk record at hyper speed while dubbing tapes
-Being asked to teach someone to read music
-Being asked, "Is this Burl Ives [playing]?!" while watching Fantastic Mr. Fox and being able to answer, "Yes, I believe it is."

In a couple days I may be able to ad "seeing Fool's Gold and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros" to that list, but will be for another entry.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Take My Advice

There are any number of different ways in which a concert becomes a truly memorable night. There are the "I don't really know who this band is but somebody told me they were really good so here I am" nights that blow your mind. The Pixies in the Entry on the Surfer Rosa tour comes to mind, after a new friend had played one tune for me and I'd checked out their in-store at Northern Lights. Oooh, dating myself with that reference, eh? Don't even ask me what year that was? '88?

Or there are the nights when you're just there working, and the synergy of the music, the crowd, and the personalities of the musicians make for a really fun night. The Bajofondo show at Global Roots last fall was one of those in recent memory. Very professional show, interesting and diverse crowd got way into it and the band was just very fun to work with in the green room.

Then there's the "I know every note of this band's repetoir and I want them to play all my faves." NOMO came close to that for me the other night at the Cedar. Damn, that was fun. I got so psyched during the sound check I had to call my sister and let her hear some of their "Rings" intro loop. Whoops, I was supposed to be working right then, wasn't I? The expectations were high and NOMO exceeded them. Plus they were nice guys, too. Hung around all night and graciously received a lot of high fives from strangers and brand new fan converts.

I know I've linked to this vid before and it's several years old, but it's the only halfway decent thing out there of these guys. Plus they closed with "Nu Tones" here Friday, heading down into the audience while people gathered around them and sang along. Yes, all their songs are instrumental, thus the italics.

The first time David Rawlings and Gillian Welch played the Cedar was one of those memorable nights where a friend had put a couple tunes on a mixtape, then gathered a posse to check out the show. They sold out the place on a Monday night, a rare feat in this town. Hell Among the Yearlings was freshly out and Gillian's banjo playing was this precious novelty, simple melody lines that were so haunting and true with songs like "One Morning" and "The Devil Had A Hold Of Me." It was one of those coulda-heard-a-pin-drop kind of nights.

Another time they were part of an Ani DiFranco tour along with Greg Brown. I remember hiking up three flights of stairs to the dressing rooms at the Northrup to pick up dirty dishes, and finding a rousing session jamming away up there, David and Gillian leading the charge with some local pals of theirs. Ani sat on the edges, clapping along and grinning her head off. (I believe Greg had a bottle of whiskey at that point - hey, it was pre-Iris Dement for him, y'know.)

With those two it was always the synergy. David's high harmonies as a foil to Gillian's amber alto. David's complex flat picking to Gillian's solid rhythm lines. His gentle humor to Gillian's more serious stage demeanor. His baggy suits to her vintage dresses. His herky-jerky motion to her lanky elegance. Not for nothing did he sing "I'll be Emmy Lou and you be Gram" on "I Dream a Highway" from Time (the Revelator.) The first three discs they made together were touchstones for a generation of younger Americana/new grass musicians and those tunes have been covered by artists from Joan Baez to Crooked Still.

Here a very vintage (1996) clip of "Caleb Meyer" with a classic Gillian intro about having to play at least one "killin' song."

So when Gillian's first disc without as much of David came out, it just wasn't the same. Sure she had a bunch of Nashville sidemen and probably a big budget for Soul Journey, but the edge was lost somehow. David kept busy in the years that followed writing songs for folks like Bright Eyes, Robyn Hitchcock and Ryan Adams as well as producing bands such as Old Crow Medicine Show.

You know I will be right in there to check out David's new project when they roll into town next month. The David Rawling Machine will feature Gillian on harmony vocals as well as members of Old Crow, so we'll get a bit fuller sound. Hope we get to hear their Guit-jo. Surely we'll get to hear the warm tones of David's little 1935 archtop Epiphone. Other than that, I'm not sure what to expect other than I know it'll be a special evening

Look for David and Gillian as the proprieters of the "Exotic Ladies" booth at the circus in Old Crow's "Wagon Wheel" video.

You can just count this as one of those "A friend told me I'd better check out this show" pieces of advice, then, OK?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Going Local

This is the time of year where we expect to see an increase in our local music offerings at The Cedar. From about mid-November through mid-February the mix of local artists, which generally runs at about 30% of our overall programming mix, tends to spike a bit. It's not just because national and international touring artists wisely stay away from Minnesota weather at this time of year... it's also because winter touring in the U.S. in general is fraught with weather risk, so our best local talent also tends to stick around.

It was a happy coincidence, then, when I was asked to appear on The Current's Local Show by host David Campbell for last weekend's edition. I got to play a wide sample of local music tidbits, and talk up some upcoming shows. For those who missed it, here's a stream of it:

Next weekend also tends to be a big one for people going out... after Thanksgiving there's a need to get out of the house (maybe to escape the extended family staying there?), and socialize with friends around for the holiday. So we've arranged to have two of our most popular and talented (and our personal favorite) local acts double-bill Friday and Saturday night. They will take turns headlining each night, and each have picked different special guests to open as well. So, the two shows will be different enough that you may actually want to consider both, but the advice would be to at least make sure you don't miss one or the other:

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I will now attempt to move my iTunes/Steve Jobs debate with Veronica Fever towards a conclusion, but she may have actually immortalized the new handle Fevers by replicating the exact symptoms of an annoying virus that keeps re-appearing...

There's simply too much to rebut in her last post, and I suspect folks are getting more tired of the debate than even I am... but I do need to correct one of her misrepresentations: I am, in fact, not a content-owner. Almost everything I continue to represent on my two record labels, ESD and NorthSide, are licensed from other content owners. And in the handful of recordings in which I actually do have some ownership, in no case am I the majority equity holder, it always being shared with the artist themselves.

I say this because "content owner" has become code for greedy corporate interests, thanks to the major record labels, which have only promoted this image by predictably acting like greedy corporate interests since the invention of the record industry. But this makes "content owner" an easy target, which can then be substituted in these discussions for consideration of any actual value placed on the content itself.

For example, the logic used to be that CD prices were too high, because after all, everyone knew that the cost of the materials for the disc, artwork and jewel box were well under $2... so a $15 retail price, the argument went, was nothing short of outrageous. The easy extension of this thinking to a music download is that $10 for an album of 10-15 files is even more outrageous, since you've now eliminated even the $2 materials cost, to say nothing of shelving, inventory management, warehousing, middlemen and shrinkage.

What is conveniently lost here is the content itself... both the cost of making it, and what its actual value is for someone buying it. The cost of making it has its own problems in any discussion like this. Since technology has made the minimum cost of producing a decent recording within the reach of virtually all musicians, there's an assumption that the cost of producing music content now should then be fairly minimal. And it can be, if an artist makes the kind of music that will sound good enough when recorded at home, produced, mixed and mastered by themselves using basic equipment and software. But usually, if you want a great sounding record, you have to spend money on at least a couple of those items, and then it's easy to start spending money fast. In today's world, it's still not at all unreasonable to expect to need to spend, at the minimum, $5,000-$10,000 for a very good ensemble recording.

So I think it's relevant, whether I'm a content-owner or not, to weigh-in to this discussion the context of the real math involved. iTunes will pay the content provider 70 cents of each 99 per track that they sell. Emusic uses pro-rating, and when I talked to them a few years back it averaged close to 25 cents to the content provider. About 9 cents of that (either income model) goes to the songwriter(s). The rest is what goes to the content provider... which may be a licensor, or the actual content owner. Under a best case scenario (content provider is an artist who is both the owner of the master and the songwriting copyrights), the Emusic model brings in a total of $2.50 to $3.00 total per album download (as opposed to $7 from iTunes). If you had spent any money making that record, unfortunately the odds are stacked heavily against selling enough at those prices to recoup your costs. Spending more money on marketing only makes the odds longer.

But really, here's the bottom line of this debate: what is it worth to the consumer? At the end of the day, wearing my hat as a heavy music consumer, I'm pretty happy with the 99 cents per track / $9.99 per album price model for a good quality, non-DRM download. Fevers apparently is not. Ultimately, the market will likely decide. The jury is still out, as while the iTunes story is one of great success for the parent company Apple, it certainly has not yet provided enough of a turning point for the record industry, and conservative estimates are that five times more music is still downloaded for free (illegally) than is sold through music download stores. Would anyone else out there like to weigh in on this?

Next time: many experts seem to agree with Fevers that a subscription-based model is the future of music retail. But I see many problems with that model, probably too many to make it work as the dominant structure...

Friday, November 20, 2009

hardcore happy

I was really blown away by the Vic Chesnutt show we had here at The Cedar last night. Similar to seeing Mount Eerie at The Bedlam not long ago, the evening was a collection of soft, staggeringly-intimate moments, and rib-cage-rattling power. Before Mount Eerie, I was scoffed at when I mentioned forgetting my ear plugs. I was sorry I had. I didn't forget them last night.

A coworker asked me to describe what the Vic Chesnutt show was going to be like. Our conversation went like this:

"Does he play guitar?"
"Yes. There is a clip on the video screen in the lobby."
"So, it's folky? Kinda quiet?"
"Yes. But he is playing with members of A Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed! Both of which are post-rocky bands. So overall, it sounds much louder and more...epic."
"So, it's right up your alley, then?"

I think I just responded with a shrug and a smile. This conversation happened only a few days after a friend said "cute" in response to the fact that I liked to attend hardcore shows in high school. Cute? Puh-lease.


One of my friends that lives in Brazil visited about a month and a half ago. We sent her home with a Forro in the Dark record, that she already was adoring. Wish I could have sent a copy of Céu's new record, Vagarosa, with her as well. Really getting into that record again.


And speaking of music I've gotten really excited about, Nomo will be at The Cedar tonight. Yep, you read that correctly. The band I've been all in a tizzy about for months and months is going to grace my favorite stage. SO EXCITED. And I'm not the only one. At least two other coworkers told me they were glad I gave them the heads up on this one. Sort of wish I could have the night off to enjoy their set (as well as that of locals The Brass Messengers, who might be the most fun band in the Twin Cities) but, if I had the night off I'd be torn about not heading over to The Acadia to catch "Wake Up." This event is sponsored by the U of M's campus mag, The Wake and it sounds like it is going to be pretty wild from start to finish, including a performance by Dance Band, three comedians, and an acoustic version of local favorites Zombie Season. They'll also be adding cello, banjo, french lyrics, and some guest performers. And that isn't the half of it. More information at

Another weekend where the West Bank is the place to be. See you there!

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Last week, on consecutive days, a friend and a movie reviewer I follow both brought up the same subject independently of each other: Steve Forbert's 1979 debut album, 'Alive on Arrival.' Here is a little something from that classic:

In his blog, the reviewer used the Forbert album as a springboard for a thread that I swiped and revised for Facebook purposes. The premise: What are the five all-time best debut albums?

To elaborate: Who came out of seemingly nowhere fully-formed with a knockout debut album? (This is intended to weed out acts that gained fame in prior incarnations, e.g. Crosby Stills & Nash). The game does allow a certain leeway for artists who released singles and/or EPs prior to the album. Also, it seems worthwhile to allow extra credit for 'game-changers;' i.e. debut albums that were also signposts to the future.

Here are my five:

1. Nick Drake -- 'Five Leaves Left'
2. Jimi Hendrix Experience -- 'Are You Experienced?'
3. The Jesus and Mary Chain -- 'Psychocandy'
4. REM -- 'Murmur'
5. Massive Attack -- 'Blue Lines'

What are yours?


Recently the Cedar blog has witnessed a bit of intramural scrimmaging over Steve Jobs, iTunes, and their position and importance in the modern-day music business. Click on the following for the initial thrust and parry.

To Mr. Figurehead's rebuttal, a few rejoinders:

1) The name is Fever, not Fevers. No wonder your staff complains incessantly to me about you.

2) Yes, the Jobs-bashing in my initial tease was a bit gratuitous; call it a ratings-booster. Truth be told, if the new liver hadn't taken hold I would have volunteered to eulogize the guy for the development of the iPod, the single greatest gizmo of my lifetime. However, such genius no more makes him a music-selling expert than designing the Technics SL-1200 made Matsushita a gifted LP seller.

Frankly, I'm surprised MF didn't PhotoShop a halo over Jobs' head in the romantically-lit picture he posted.

OK, enough sniping. Let's get a bit more substantive.

3) Community is the single biggest driver of music interest and exploration these days. Everything has returned to the grassroots: recommendations among friends and trusted voices. I agree: Tower 'evolved' into a real-estate pusher at the expense of editorial-based selling. My point is that the iTunes store looks just like that to me.

4) I never look at Amazon-generated recommendations. However, were MF to look at the product detail page for any given music release, he would find gold in the 'So You'd Like To...' and (especially) 'Listmania' features. Thousands and thousands of customers have posted (usually themed) lists of favorite albums. When there is a 'hit' (meaning that the title being researched turns up on a customer-generated 'Listmania' post), that list is made available for viewing. And if on that list there are some other titles I am particularly fond of, that poster becomes a trusted voice and I will want to look into the other stuff she has recommended. For that feature alone (on top of the endless user reviews and discussion threads), Amazon is the best community-based music-exploration site on the web.

5) The iTunes 69-cent price point was a public-relations ploy, as Jobs knew it would be. By citing the bold new three-tiered pricing system, iTunes managed to engineer a price increase while making it seem that pricing was remaining essentially flat.

69 cents was doomed to failure. Too many label bean-counters would want to know where the increased volume was going to come from to make up for the lost revenue. 69 cents or 99 cents or $1.29 mean little to the convenience shopper. 69 cents is not a driver.

6) Yes, the 'dog ate my music' argument has the flaw MF brings up...anyone who rips their CDs and then discards them without backing up their digital files is asking for heartbreak. Disk-drive failure is as much a certainty as a devastating California earthquake: who knows where or when? But the point is still valid: in the current music-commerce environment, 50,000 tracks will not fetch $50,000. Nor should they. And this brings us to the lucky number

7) Mr. Figurehead's most interesting line was this: 'I do also subscribe to eMusic, although I have to say that while it's a great deal for the music consumer in me, it's such an awful deal for me as a record label that I won't go near it!'

Exactly. While we both have backgrounds in the music business and have witnessed the past decade's carnage up-close and personal, MF is a content-owner and I am not. Hence our difference of opinion: he has a rooting interest in the iTunes model while I don't have a horse in the race. I do, however, have a certain fascination for the sport. Here is what I see:

The industry is headed for a service model. For instance: mobile carriers are service providers who sell buckets of minutes. Cable companies sell buckets of TV channels. Successful music-sellers of the future will sell buckets of songs. Some form of subscription model is the ultimate answer...variations on the Rhapsody or eMusic approaches, perhaps. The idea is to extract as much money from music customers as possible in the hopes that they won't use their full allotment and won't be tempted by piracy.

To my mind, all-you-can-eat for free with ads is a bridge too far. A-dollar-a-track pricing is a niche market. The answer is somewhere in between. In the buckets.

To the extent that a Dexter like me can empathize, I do understand why MF would hold out. Certain specialty content-holders will attempt to create mini-universes for themselves. To them, iTunes is a lot closer to what they wish were true. Alas, it is ever-more a fantasy.


In this household, Scott Walker is a divisive figure...and other artists with a similar, um, theatricality can be tarred as well. One such is The Divine Comedy. Their album 'Absent Friends' is a staple around here...when I'm on my own with my scented candles and bubble bath, that is. Anyway, a friend sent along a link to the following video, a lovely cover of one of the best songs from that album, and a version that provokes no squabbling around here:


In honor of the Big Event next Thursday, we can all give thanks that there will be no Veronica Fever posting that day. Seeeee Decemmmmberrrrr.....

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Some Love for the Opening Act

One of my favorite parts of being "backstage" helping to produce a big show is watching the audience react to the opener. There's just something about watching somebody win the crowd over that gets me every time. The way the Dirty Projector's fans gobbled up Tuneyards' set last week reminded me of this. By the second or third song they were right there with Merrill, whooping and yelling along as she hit a big crescendo. I think she sold most of her groovy vinyl by the end of the night, too. Hey, don't forget to mail us one for the Cedar green room, Merrill!

Reminds me of the last time we had Ani DiFranco at the State Theater downtown. The Cedar got Dessa from the Doomtree Collective to open. Ani's fans...well, you know how they are. They just like Ani. So it was quite great to see a couple thousand go from gabbing and playing with their phones to "Wow! She's really cool! What's her name again?" in the space of three tunes of Dessa's quietly fierce rapping. Catch Dessa and others of the Doomtree crew at their Blowout at First Avenue December 5.

Then there's Sunday nights opener, local (she's my neighbor!) gal Chastity Brown. After her set, Chastity confessed to the Angel of Rock and I how honored and thrilled she was to play a show at the Cedar. She also said she could hardly believe she was in the green room with Toshi Reagan, an artist she's admired for years. She was so sincere and genuine. AOR and I just kinda looked at each other and said "Wow. We really take the Cedar for granted, don't we?" Thanks for the reminder of what a special place we have here, Chastity, and hope to see you on the stage again soon. Maybe for that cd release you're doing next spring?

* * * * * * *

Cedar faves the Carolina Chocolate Drops are putting the finishing touches on their new record, their first for the Nonesuch label. When I heard it was to be called Genuine Negro Jig, I got pretty excited, because that means I will soon be able to hear the eerie and wonderful "Snowden's Jig" whenever I want to! I wrote a big ol' post about the fascinating and controversial history of this tune. In a nutshell the tune was probably swiped by Daniel Emmett, "author" of "Dixie", from his African American musician neighbors, the Snowden Family. (Even the Wiki entry mentions the Snowden theory now!) Emmitt called it "Genuine Negro Jig." Read the post for the details. It's a sassy political act in a couple of ways to name their new disc as they did, and I wouldn't expect any less from the 'Drops. Reclaim that history! U.S. release date in late February. Touring before and after the release date; not coming to town this round. (Hey now, they were just here in May...We can wait our turn.)

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Lookit the fur fly!! Did you see my fellow bloggers Miss Fever and Mr. Figurehead square off last week on Bill Gates, I Tunes pricing and related topics? Thought provoking points are made on both sides, so be sure to give it a read, but whoa! Meow!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Stevie 99 Rebuttal

I took me a while to figure out what that high-pitched noise was which started at 1:43 this past Thursday afternoon. Turns out it was the whining of Ms. Veronica Fevers with her latest blog posting, trying to support her previous provocative claim that "Mr. (Steve) Jobs has been wrong from the get-go and has been doing a disservice to the industry and the music lover for years."
Actually, there's not much in the new post to support the "wrong from the get-go" claim, and while there are actually some valid criticisms on places where the iTunes/iPod model falls short, I'm going to dispense of that previous claim right now... If nothing else, Steve Jobs needs to be thanked for rather dramatically proving to the completely clue-less titans of the music industry that a pay-for-download model was not only something that could work, but if designed simply and elegantly enough, is something folks would actively flock to. It's easy to forget that before iTunes, this was generally dismissed as a workable model. Now whether that alone qualifies him to be crowned "savior for the music business," something Veronica admits to be looking for, I cannot answer. But clearly that was the first big step, and he was right.

Veronica categorizes her two main complaints as the lack of community and absence of innovation. I, for one, think the best commerce model tends to be incompatible with the kind of community to which Veronica aspires. With music retail, it always goes back to re-creating the corner record store, where there was at least one clerk who knew your musical preferences, and could recommend new things or gently push you in new directions knowing your proclivities were more likely to respond positively. Ms. Veronica, being a former member of the Tower Records empire, remembers fondly the rather brief period where this kind of thing was de rigueur (pardon my French, literally) at individual Tower stores.

But what happened at Tower should be the cautionary tale of mixing commerce and this form of "community," and I'm not talking about its bankruptcy and financial collapse, although this may well have been one of its first mis-steps toward that end. What happened is that the concept of personal recommendation became seen as an opportunity for another revenue-generating profit center. Each slot on that main wall of recommended new releases, once a source of great debate and pride among the individual store's staff members, became something that was sold to the highest record company bidders on a national level, and became an important "profit center" for Tower corporate.

The same thing happens at Amazon (and every other national music retailer, to my knowledge). If you believe that the "other customers who purchased this title also bought these" recommendation system is based on some pure mathematical algorithm from their purchase history database, consider yourself a newly enlightened chump. As a record label, I can pay money right now to have someone buying a Beyoncé album be recommended, say, a Garmarna record.

So I would argue that the community part is best left to disinterested third party bloggers and recommendation sites (who will still, inevitably, get a kickback from iTunes (or whomever) for the link). Frankly, I would always be skeptical about any recommendation system, but especially those generated directly by any major retailer.

As for the innovation issues, here is where Ms. Veronica finally lands a few punches. But she seems to be unaware that iTunes began offering a lower price-point, 69 cents, at the same time that it started offering the higher price point of $1.29. So far, the lower price point has hardly been utilized by the record companies or the artists that have direct deals with iTunes (of which there are more and more). It is, after all their decision to set the price point, not that of iTunes (albeit at those three limited choices). So a good amount of the innovation blame goes to those putting these things into the iTunes store in the first place.

As for the flood scenario (what would you do if you lost all of your iTunes music in a flood?), here's where Veronica actually builds a stronger case for the value of the 99 cent download. For the first time in history, Veronica's entire music collection, all 49,577 tracks, can now be copied endlessly onto storage devices, each the size of a pack of smokes. It's pretty much common sense now for anyone with a large data music collection to maintain at least one backup volume, and if you want to protect yourself from fire or flood, it's pretty easy to have one of those backups be a portable drive that you keep off-premises. Need I remind you that this was never an option with LPs, tapes and CDs?

Considering this ease of portability of digital files (which also enables you, theoretically, and also for the first time, to maintain an endlessly playable, near-perfect copy for all eternity), I would say that ever since the record companies allowed iTunes to be rid of DRM restrictions, and to upgrade to 256k, 99 cents per track and $9.99 per album actually represents enormous value. And I think I need to remind Veronica that before the $9.99 iTunes model came along, the selling price of most reasonable new-release 10-track CDs which were "produced, manufactured, packaged, shelved, shipped, received, shelved again," as she accurately put it, was more like $15, or about 50% more.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't see Steve Jobs or iTunes as the panacea or savior of the music industry. I do also subscribe to emusic, although I have to say that while it's a great deal for the music consumer in me, it's such an awful deal for me as a record label that I won't go near it! There is plenty of room for improvement, further innovation, and better execution at iTunes and elsewhere. But it has unarguably altered the landscape of music retail for the better, and as a music consumer, I for one am grateful.

* * *

To leave on a more musical note, it's going to be difficult to top last Wednesday's packed Dirty Projectors show. Here's a recent live clip with a taste of the amazing things they do:

Friday, November 13, 2009

It's contagious

Though my classmates are disappearing, and hand sanitizer dispensers are sprouting from the walls, I'm not talking about H1N1 or seasonal flu.

But rather music exchange: The mix tape, the mix CD, the flash drive filled with hand-selected tracks.

It's contagious in more ways than you think. Someone gives you a mix tape, and you are compelled to return the favor. A coworker overhears the exchange: "Well, if you made a mix for so-and-so, I want one too." But lately, I've found a third route. When in mix making mode, I tend to be more aware of what I am listening to. I tend to ask "What are you playing now?" more often. Frequently, this is rewarded with a response like, "WHAT? You've never heard this Brian Eno record? You don't know the old Raveonettes material? You've never heard a singing saw? I can't believe it! I will make you a mix tape."

Through a surprising number of conversations like this, I am now responsible for making four CDs (This includes one for Ms. Veronica Fever, whose is embarrassingly overdue. I get a break from school soon, and will hopefully have a little more time for music).

That's all for now. This is one bug I hope you do get.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Stevie 99 Part Two

The following is based on the opinions of one Veronica Fever, and is not necessarily representative of those of any Cedar staff members or, in fact, anyone else I know.

It is hard being an idealist.

If you are one, you know: your candidate wins, so you expect the promised change you can believe in. You fall in love and you're sure this time your heart won't end up squoze in a vise. For me, it's continually believing there will yet be a savior for the music business. At least I'm clear-eyed enough to see it will never be Steve Jobs.

As a music-store operator, Jobs is a dandy iPod and Mac designer and marketer. The iTunes store is surely one of the most overrated sites on the web. Yes, it is a 'success story' of sorts, but only as a seller to people who pretty much know what they want going in. The site itself is cluttered and lifeless, and it lacks two major components in what should be expected from a leader who would help the industry claw out of its pit: community and innovation.

Community. Where are the peers, the tastemakers, the music-lover next door? Where is the incentive to explore? Where are the recommendations you want to follow, the opinions you want to believe? OK, fair enough: the entire web is chockablock with all that, and iTunes is a point of destination. Tower Records filled that role ten years ago. Where are they now?

This isn't talked about a lot, but the digital music commerce growth curve is slowing, and it ain't because the business is mature. Two-thirds of people who buy music still buy CDs exclusively, only fewer of them. Where is the incentive for those people to get in to the game? After the hurdles of ripping all their CDs and mastering their vexing playback gizmos, then what? Paying 99 cents or $1.29 for tracks condensed to a fraction of their original (already condensed) file-size?

(Time for a shred of fairness here. While I see the price as too high, the major labels see it as too low. In the cases of big-name artists, neither is Apple's fault. Pricing innovation won't come without revisiting some of the fixed costs attached to getting a song to market. I would only suggest that if a 10-track CD could be produced, manufactured, packaged, shelved, shipped, received, shelved again, and sold for $10, surely there is some cost wiggle-room with unpackaged binary data.)

(Hard to stay on the rails here; please bear with. Can my ears detect the difference between a CD WAV (or lossless) file and a 320 rip? Not readily, no. Can I tell between 320 and 192? You bet. It's all to do with ambient space. That's a big deal for some, and a psychological factor for others. If we allow that 192 has been a sweet spot between sound quality and player storage capacity, let's also allow that 192 is an inferior product to a WAV file.)

This brings us lurching to the second point: innovation. At the time, uniform per-track pricing seemed novel when Steve Jobs insisted on this concession from distribution and label mavens who fought the idea hammer and tongs. And as much as I wanted to disagree with many of these boobs masquerading as trading partners, they seemed to have a point. The internet was a gigantic petri dish for experiments in retail...why not try anything and everything? My belief, which admittedly morphed quite a bit over time, was that individual song pricing could be based on a number of factors, e.g. fixed costs, popularity, and bandwidth usage. For instance, 'Hey Jude' ripped to 320 would naturally retail for much more than, say, 'Wild Honey Pie' at 128. Also, you could blend in subjective pricing factors such as essentially giving away baby band tracks to start and then adjusting according to popularity.

Yes, all of that would have been a real chore to implement and administer in the beginning, but what about now? Where is the innovation? We're seeing some of that elsewhere...but not in the iTunes store. They would seem to have little reason for such effort, because they're the runaway leader who benefits from masterful integration with the deservedly popular iPod. So. Apple has no incentive to innovate and acts accordingly.

99 cents or $1.29. For what, again? A condensed slice of ephemera? Yeah, that's fine here and there. Say you're sitting in a Starbucks and you're talking with friends about the TV show 'Lie To Me.' Someone says they like the opening credits theme song, so you do a Google, find out it's 'Brand New Day' by Ryan Star, hop onto iTunes, purchase, and bam, you're all listening to it. Very cool.

But take a longer view. If you lost your entire music collection in the same flood that took Toad's ID, what would you do? If you're me and you lost all 49,577 tracks, you won't be spending fifty large at iTunes to replace 'em all with inferior rips and with no incentives to buy big.

See, that's the thing. Where are the pricing models that encourage exploration and bulk buying? In the world I imagine, I could go somewhere and commit to buying, say, Steve Earle's entire oeuvre for, I dunno, sixty bucks. Or a whole 'if you like' 50-track playlist for twenty. How about a Costco model: Pay a membership fee and then buy in bulk the music available from participating artists and labels. And let's not forget the sliding pricing scale. OK, so supply-and-demand doesn't exist in the digital world, but artist development still does. Get artists out there at 20 cents a track and adjust upwards if the grassroots catch fire. And, of course, there is always the all-you-can-eat on-demand music buffet. The subscription model is still in play; apparently Spotify is meeting with resistance in procuring content for its free, ad-driven on-demand service, and MySpace is looking at moving to a pay model from its (currently) free streaming service.

Oh, and why isn't Apple offering an on-demand service? Presumably because they fear cannibalization of its own prematurely peaking music sales. But also because Mr. Jobs claims that people want to own music, not rent it.

Actually, most folks believe that, and it's a reason why the movie studios will still have sources of reliable revenue for longer than the music industry did: people are cool with not owning the movies they stream because they're used to the rental model. Music admittedly does have a higher hurdle there. But all revenue streams must be considered, even if that means hammering away at music-lovers' traditional expectations of ownership. Piracy is rampant, and all too available: do it once and it's real easy to do it again. The industry must combat it in two ways: keep swinging the Whac-a-Mole mallet, while figuring out how to compete with free.

Me? 99 cents or $1.29 per track is a last resort, and if I deploy it I'll do it at Amazon, where one can be immersed in community if desired, find that all available tracks are ripped to 256kb and on sale for 99 cents, and have their purchased tracks passed through a downloader that adds 'em to their iTunes library automatically.

But before I even go there, I'll check out eMusic (wide array of indie-label tracks that average out to about 40 cents per, depending on the package a subscriber chooses), Amie Street (much smaller indie selection but with pricing based on the afore-mentioned popularity sliding scale), or I'll see if the desired music is available on a $3 used Amazon Marketplace CD, which I can then rip and resell.

99 cents or $1.29 is a convenience price, and the iTunes store is a giant, virtual, music 7-11. Convenience is a compelling motivator for the shopper on the go. But it ain't enough to fuel digital music sales growth that is unaccountably sputtering.


As an au courant music critic of the highest order, I like to keep up with what the kids are into. The following is gonna be a big hit, I can tell:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Among the Heathens

DJ Blanche and I journeyed over the river and through the woods to a metal festival the other night, mostly to see Swiss "pagan-metal" band Eluveitie, but partly just to check out the scene. "I'll be the one in the black t-shirt," she quipped as we made arrangements to get ourselves over to Heathenfest in St. Paul.

So, yes, I was throwing the horns and jumping up and down with all the youngsters for a while there, but I just have to say, (for about the millionth time) we are so spoiled by the Cedar's sound system. I don't know if the poor guy over at Station 4 had ever worked with instruments beyond the holy trinity of bass/guitar/drums or not, but the mix was so far down in the Murkwood quality range. Alas. I keep pulling out my earplugs hoping to hear a bit of the upper register instruments, but they were just buried by the onslaught 95% of the time.

Not what you want your sound system to reminds the audience of...

Too bad, because it's the fiddles, hurdy gurdy, bag pipes, whistles and mandola that make Eluveitie so much more interesting to me than the average metal band. I've blogged about this band in the past, so I won't dwell on their merits, but their recorded work harnesses the raw power of metal but juxtapositions it nicely with the acoustic instruments mentioned above. Fans of old Garmarna and Hedningarna stuff might dig it. The lyric cycles in Gaulish describing the rise and fall of the Helvitii tribe work with with this mix, although few people can translate the ancient language. You know me, I'm perfectly happy not to understand the lyrics; I'd rather have vocals be just another strand in the chord. Plus you gotta love a metal singer who uses adjectives like "sublime" to warn fans of a slower tune coming up. (Especially refreshing because the "black metal" band Belphegor earlier on the bill that night had about two words in their lyrical vocabulary, "Satan" and "F---ing.")

There was a great moment near the end of their set when Eluveitie front man Chrigel Glanzmann was pulling out all the stops, eyes rolled back in his head, flanked by fiddler Meri Tadic and hurdy player Anna Murphy, both their heads of long hair spinning in unison, the guitars and drums thundering behind. Wish I'd had a camera, that is the beauty in the power. But Glanzmann's mandola work, Tadic's lost in the mix that most of the time the band sounded like metal mush.
Eluveitie on the Paganfest-Europe tour last year.

I do have to plug Nathan, aka The Sword Lord, for organizing metal shows around town. (Sorry I did not get the last name.) The guy is a tireless promoter, and is part of the team that fills in Earl Root's mighty footprints on KFAI's Root of All Evil overnight metal show. (He does the "Dragon's Hall" segment.)

The Monday night crowd, about equal parts wide eyed high school kids in brand new Heathenfest shirts and oldsters in their pirate/buxom wench gear was friendly and really quite free of attitude. ( I think the pirates were fans of Scottish "Pirate Metal" band Alestorm. Gotta love those metal sub-genres!) Room was made for those who wanted to mosh, but hands were there to catch those who got out of bounds, rather than shoves. A rather welcoming community, if I can say that.

Good for Station 4 for providing a home for local metalheads, and for doing the 16 and over shows, but golly folks, please put some money into your sound system! And while you're at it, maybe a little pipe insulation for those exposed hot water pipes along the wall. Ouch! Or some kind of padding for those big pillars that run down the middle of the floor. Whine whine whine.

You know what I'm going to say now, don't you? Just makes me appreciate the Cedar clear sight lines, amazing sound system and skilled sound techs all the more. We love you, Chris, Eric and Ray! Ray's work on Tuneyards' set was great tonight, with some pretty tricky stuff.

Would love to see Tuneyards back here soon; nice folks, really fun to see them do their loops and samples live with Merrill's amazing vocals!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Live Music on Television

Broadcast television is in a tenuous place, with more people turning to their computers and the internet for their on-screen entertainment needs. But there's no question that it still holds a commanding role in our cultural landscape, not so much by setting agendas as by ramming previously tenuous ones down our collective throats. TV has become widely dispersed and specialized. There's a food channel, a travel channel, a golf channel, "women's" channels, Black Entertainment Television, etc. etc. There are music channels of course, and MTV can be seen as the granddaddy of this specialization, but there's not actually a whole lot of music there anymore, and almost no live music.

Live music performance can be found on television, of course, regularly on the late night talk shows, which more recently do seem to have expanded their traditionally narrow scope as the major label stranglehold has loosened here, like so many other places. Just last week there was our old friend Andrew Bird, surrounded by those hometown boys Martin Dosh, Michael Lewis and Jeremy Ylvisaker with a great performance on yet another network talk show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon:

There's also the venerable Austin City Limits for something closer to a full set by a wide range of hipster bands.

However, considering the impact live music seems to be having on the entertainment industry in general these days (just look at how much of an appetite for even poor quality amateur live music clips on YouTube there apparently seems to be), there is a real lack of imagination on the part of television broadcasters to bring this into their programming strategies. You would think that these folks would be motivated... they are pretty much all international entertainment conglomerates with music divisions anyway.

It does not take much to appreciate the impact a special live music event can have on a broadcast. The Ed Sullivan Show was a square, often tedious weekly variety show, but electrifying performances by Elvis Presley and The Beatles on that show are still considered important cultural landmarks.

And few would argue that this television moment in 1983 forever changed modern dance, while catapulting its performer to unprecedented international super-stardom:

But live music performance does not have to be structured as a traditional television variety show to make an impact. One of my favorite live music performance television moments came on Sesame Street, of all places, back when Jim Henson's creative genius was behind everything...

Unfortunately, it's just hard to imagine any television program turning over nearly seven minutes of airtime in this day and age for a creative jam by one of the world's most creative musicians. Yet it's just as compelling to watch this clip today as it was some 35+ years ago.

Why are there not more moments like this on mainstream television now?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stevie 99 Part One

"But if there's a rare Charlie Patton recording out there that's worth hearing, I'm perfectly happy to wait until it's available to download from iTunes for 99 cents." -- Main Figurehead

What is the value of a song?

While MF was plying his trade with Rykodisc way back when, I was a desk jockey at Tower Records. One of my chores was to master all things music pricing, specifically from and among suppliers, wholesale-to-retail margin, and between our competitors. I picked up a lot of inside baseball arcana. For instance, Columbia/Epic was aggressive about cutting prices on its older catalog while the Warner/Elektra/Atlantic group never met a fare increase it didn't like. In order to survive, music specialty retailers operating high street and mall shops had to net at least $4.50 on the average $10 wholesale CD while maintaining year-over-year same-store sales increases. And Best Buy was one of the first coffin nails in the packaged music business that they, too, now find unsustainable.

Sentimentality aside, one notable price shift came with the introduction of the CD. At the time, top-tier LPs and cassettes wholesaled for about $5.75. From the start, CDs were priced almost two-thirds higher, and eventually climbed another third after that. At the time, I wondered whether economies of scale would bring the prices back down, and when they didn't I decried the labels' and distributors' avarice. Looking back, though, the shift seems less unreasonable. The CD represented a quantum leap in product quality, and the market was willing to bear this value-added surcharge (if you will), which fueled the last great music boom.

Over time, of course, the much-discussed perfect storm gathered itself together and blew the perceived value of music right out of the water.

So. Turn the scrapbook page to the present day, and what do we see? 99 cents per digital song file as the de facto standard. Now, one could argue that a buck a song is where CD retail pricing ended up, assuming a CD's sweet spot became $10, with album lengths eventually coming back down to the 40-45 minute range, or the equivalent of 10 average-length tracks.

What we have witnessed, however, is another stealth price increase. And this one seems ever-less defensible. While some might argue that Apple is doing the thankless but crucial job of propping up perceived value, I'm here to say that Mr. Jobs has been wrong from the get-go and has been doing a disservice to the indsutry and the music lover for years.

More on the subject next week.


Let's hoist a few at the 3-Dot Lounge...

Lately I've been in some discussions about cover songs. What constitutes a great cover? Reinvention? Popularity? The ability to make another's material your own? One thought that has stuck is The Beatles were (and are) the most difficult popular act to cover. I mean, fine for the hired hand with a mike and a guitar to blend 'Yesterday' in with his Eagles and Neil Young set-list. But to record a Beatles cover for posterity? Why bother? And yet, I know of no one who has mangled 'Across the Universe.' That song seems to work no matter who assays it...

One test of a music critic is a willingness to assail the unassailable if necessary (for instance, one day I'll work up the gumption to describe in detail the depth and breadth of the abyss of boredom into which I fall whenever I am subjected to The Band). So, I'll just come out and say it: Rosanne, I love you to death, but your critic-proof release of country standards your daddy loved '(The List)' has so much reverence for its own material as to be an instant museum piece devoid of life, best put straight on the shelf and looked at...

Lest it seem that cranky pants are my only clean garments, I am heartened to see John Gorka in the Cedar lineup for November. I've been a fan for years; he roped me in almost 20 years ago with 'Jack's Crows.' As one who was ticketed for the life of the farmer before it became apparent that small family ag operations were ticketed for oblivion, I have a particular soft spot for this song of his.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ice sheets, shellac and glass plates

Sometimes a musician tells of story from stage that just really sets off my historical imagination. I'm a history nerd, what can I say? Well, I subscribe to more academic podcasts than music ones. Like years ago at Nordic Roots when Jenny Wilhems from Gjallarhorn explained the strong asymetrical rhythm in Scandinavian polskas by saying the common people in those lands were forbidden to possess drums for hundreds of year. Some say it was the Lutheran church who came down on percussion because it might lead to sin (like dancing the polska?) and some say it was the military, because only soldiers could have drums. Either way, facinating factoid.

So when Warsaw Village Band's Wojtek Krzak spun a tale of a 17th century freeze on the Baltic Sea and Scandinavians walking across to Poland and taking home new dances - like the polska - it got me to wondering. Yeah, OK, I know they could've just gone in a boat, too. The Gulf of Bothnia between Finland and Sweden used to freeze too, and starving peasants from both sides walked that dark crossing, just looking for work and a chance at a better life. And maybe a few new tunes.

Not so far apart.

Not to revisit that familiar topic of complainig about our country's artist visa/security system, but...

I was talking to some of the members of Warsaw Village Band prior to the concert, expressing my disappointment that they hadn't brought along the really cool old-style instruments, like their suka, nyckelharpa, hurdy gurdy and that big hammer dulcimer. Fiddler Krzak said they could only bring one instrument per person this time, then percussionist Maciej Szajkowski told how the security guards didn't believe Krzak he was really a musician so they made take his fiddle out and play for them at the airport. Pretty demeaning. And you wonder why European artists don't really want to come over here. Hey, at least they get in the country...often the African artists are just refused visas.

I really enjoyed the WVB concert, although without the old intruments we got fewer of the quiet, more delicate numbers. It was the driving, rock-out version of the band, which was cool, too. Very percussive use of the fiddles and cello. It was great to see people dancing all over to the band's triple-drummer second encore "Is Anybody in There." As they say in Poland "It kicked."

I have to wonder, however, what does it take to get people to check out a different sort of "world music?" I mean, really. The crowd for that show was Polish expats and U of M students plus the handful of Cedar World music freaks, many of whom were volunteering already to get in free. (Yes, I include myself in that freak group.)

* * * * * *

So just to continue this 78 rpm discussion for one more minute, I SO can't picture owning or even wanting to own that $8k piece of shellac. What does one do with it? Look at it? Put it in a box? You can't play the thing. Sheesh.

I have a few antique little glasses. Cut glass, very nice. They were dated 1910 at the dusty little antique store by the side of some nameless highway near the Illinois border on the way back from a cousin's wedding. They're so pretty, I just like to look at the light shining through the facets. But every time I fill one with wine at a party, I feel compelled to say "Be careful. It's 100 years old," as I hand it to a guest. Sheesh again.

The 78s that interest me are the stuff that will never ever show up for 99 cents on ITunes, like those Turkish discs I mentioned last week. DJ Pepper Patriot (who still hasn't answered my emails for an interview...) was trying to get some sound out of a disc he'd brought back from Istanbul that had a big chunk out of one edge. It was crackly, but we got part of the tune. LO-FI!

* * * * * *

So has anybody noticed that you don't need to put the .org on to Google this blog any more? It's another milestone. First it stopped asking if one meant "" then it stopped sending us to "Cedar's blog" if we left off the .org. We win. It's all us now, no matter how you search it.

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And in a non-music note, Sergei's back in town! As in more of those amazing 100+ year old color photos from "Photographer to the Tsar" Sergei M. Prokuden-Gorskii at the Russian Museum of Art. If you missed the initial showing of his work last summer, drop the five bucks and get yourself over to this. The new exhibit "revealing the Silk Road" focuses on what is now Central Asia, you know, "the 'Stans." Many of the photos are from legendary cities like Samakan and Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan, and what was then the legacy of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan.

There's something about seeing people from so long ago in color...details you would never notice in black and white. Little things like creases in a rabbi's boots, stains on a peasant's apron, or the verdigris patina on an Orthodox church's downspouts. You can even get free passes from the Minneapolis Public Library's Museum Adventure Pass program, so no excuses.

Check out the tile work.