Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Streaming Music Models

Here's an interesting article from the Quartz website, titled "An Epic Battle in Streaming Music is About to Begin, and Only a Few Will Survive." I'll pause while you read and absorb.

This article is a fascinating examination of the current and coming changes in the music industry, vis a vis the shift from CDs to digital downloads to various types of streaming music services, from the business perspective. What I find really interesting -- no, kind of appalling -- is that the word "musician" is only used once in the article, and then only as a descriptor for an industry advocacy group. It's all about the business models, with no regard at all for the people who create what the industry politely refers to as "content."

The article bemoans "the costs of the content," in that the poor big streaming music companies are forced to pay royalties on the "content" they deliver. There must be a way to drive down these costs, argues the article, or else the poor big streaming music companies will never make any money. (The payments for "content," according to this article go to the "content owners" -- record labels and publishers. Not musicians, apparently.)

This, I argue, is today's problem in the music industry. The companies trying to make a buck off the music -- today, they're tech companies -- have no regard or affinity for the music itself. It's just "content" (of which "a large proportion of those songs are apparently never played"). It's not art, it's not inspirational, it's not personally touching -- it's just content for their customers to consume. Musicians are apparently nothing more than workers in a factory producing this anonymous content. It ain't the Beatles, it ain't Dylan, it ain't Nirvana, it's just "content," who cares where it comes from?

Putting tech companies like Google, Apple, and Spotify in charge of the musical art form is about as bad as it gets. At least the old school record labels actually recognized that they were selling music from musicians to people who loved music. To the tech companies, this is just another scheme to enlarge their portfolios, "control the Internet," and enhance their stock price. If it wasn't music, it'd be ball bearings or digital widgets or whatever.

And when these yahoos are done playing around in the music industry playground, they'll just move on to something else, leaving behind the rotting corpse of everything we love about music. The tech companies with their deep pockets won't even notice; the musicians with much less cash on hand will not be able to survive.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Great Eight

Take a look at this:

Great Songwriters: Who Are They, and Why Haven't There Been Any for the Past 20 Years? 

I just stumbled upon this very well reasoned and detailed blog post about songwriters, by Evert Cilliers (aka Adam Ash). Cilliers comes to the conclusion that there are only 8 great songwriters in the 20th century (Paul McCartney, Richard Rodgers, John Lennon, Jerome Kern, Bob Dylan, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin), but 200 almost-great ones, and no great ones writing today. I find his reasoning interesting, and agree with most of it. To get his "great eight" he focuses on quantity as much as quality.

With that reasoning, you can understand why McCartney and Rodgers come out on top. It makes perfect sense and it's tough to disagree with that. But this approach also relegates many worthy songwriters to the almost-great 200 list. For example, he looks at Jimmy Webb's output, finds only a half-dozen great songs, and says that's that. Now, I'd look at Webb's output and find a dozen great ones, but the quanity qualification still holds; Webb hasn't written near as many memorable tunes as Paul McCartney or George Gershwin or Irving Berlin.

Where Cilliers fails, IMHO, is with Bob Dylan and Burt Bacharach. He looks at Dylan and sees dozens and dozens of great songs. I look at Dylan and, while recognizing his tremendous influence he had on songwriting in the 1960s and beyond, only see a dozen or so truly great songs that have made it into the public consciousness. I have to look at the music as well as the lyrics, and Dylan is more of a lyricist than a composer. Also, even though the poster might like a large number of Dylan tunes, not that many (again, probably about a dozen) have made it into the lexicon and are well known to the general public.

Bacharach, on the other hand, truly is a great composer. (Not a lyricist, of course.) His melodies are legendary, he writes songs you can hum and remembers days and years later. And I can name several dozen Bacharach tunes that everybody and their brother knows, many more than I can name from Bob Dylan. Based on this combination of quantity and quality, that would put him in the great eight for me -- bumping Dylan, unfortunately.

But these are quibbles. I find this an interesting way to evaluate the songwriters of the 20th century, and admire the poster for comparing both pre- and post-rock songwriters, which is seldom done. You really can't argue much with his choices.

Anyone care to chime in?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Beatles

It was 49 years ago today when the Fab Four invaded America via their beachhead on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was one week shy of my sixth birthday, but I still remember my family hurrying home from a Sunday visit to my Uncle Ted's house in Elwood to catch whatever in the world everybody was talking about. Well, it was worth talking about, and helped defined popular music for generations to come. 

I can't say that I was inspired to be a drummer by watching Ringo that night (as many doubtless were; my inspiration was Cubby on the Mickey Mouse Club), but it definitely had an impact. Watch it yourself to see why.

Monday, January 21, 2013

More on Amazon AutoRip

I recently wrote about Amazon AutoRip, which gives you free MP3 copies of any eligible CD you purchase from Amazon -- or have purchased in the past 15 years. Well, I purchase almost all my CDs from Amazon, and today received this email from them:

Dear Michael Miller,

We thought you'd like to know that eligible songs from 647 CDs you have purchased from Amazon are being added to your Cloud Player library. This means that high-quality MP3 versions of these songs are available for you to play or download from Cloud Player for FREE. You can find your songs in the "Purchased" playlist. Please note that some songs from the above CDs are not eligible for this feature and may not be available in your Cloud Player library.
In addition, we're excited to announce AutoRip. Now when you buy any CD with the AutoRiplogo, all songs from the MP3 version of that album will instantly be delivered to your Amazon Cloud Player library for FREE.

There was also a link to view all of the 647 CDs mentioned. Pretty sweet, if you ask me.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

More Money

I've written before about the travails of the Minnesota Orchestra, whose musicians have now been locked out by management for more than 100 days. It's all because management wants the musicians to take a huge pay cut, in order to make the orchestra more profitable.

With that as background, I found the following somewhat incredible -- meaning, literally, it strained credibility. Last night, at dinner time, I fielded a call from the Minnesota Orchestra. (Not the musicians, but the management.) They were looking for me to contribute a little something something to their endowment fund. I gave the poor phone solicitor an earful about me supporting the musicians not the management, to which I got a continuation of the spiel, to which I said I wouldn't talk to them again until the musicians were paid what they're worth and hung up the phone.

End of story, until I got this follow-up email today. The gall of these people, begging for money while they lock out the musicians that make the Minnesota Orchestra great.

Here's the email:

Dear Mr. Miller,
Thank you for taking the time to speak with a Minnesota Orchestra Phone Representative regarding the Building for the Future campaign. 
The Campaign is poised to accomplish much more than capital improvements – our goal is to raise $30 million to help revitalize the current endowment. This important resource will ensure the continued growth of our artistic success and our financial viability, maintaining the Minnesota Orchestra as a source of inspiration for individuals of all ages for many generations to come. 
If you would like to learn more about this important initiative, please visit our campaign site. Again, thank you for your time. 
Jessica Rau
Campaign Manager
Can you believe that? They want dissatisfied customers (excuse me, patrons) to contribute even more to their management coffers, even as we're deprived of music from our esteemed musicians. What a way to run a railroad...

Friday, January 11, 2013

Amazon AutoRip

Here's something cool, at least sort of. Amazon is introducing a new AutoRip service, which provides MP3 versions of selected CDs you purchase. Look for the blue/green AutoRip icon on new CD product pages; as soon as you purchase the CD, you also have access to MP3 versions of all the tracks, at no extra charge. These MP3 tracks are automatically added to your Amazon Cloud Player library, and can then be downloaded to your computer. The AutoRip tracks don't count towards your Cloud Player storage limits, either.

Even better, if you've purchased any CD from Amazno currently identified as AutoRip anytime in the past 15 years (since 1998), you get MP3 versions of those CDs for free, too. Kind of cool -- an added feature for past purchases. Good job, Amazon!

On the downside, we are are talking about MP3 files here, not lossless AAC or WMA. They're ripped at 256Kbps, which isn't horrible but could be better. And not every CD available has AutoRip capability; at present, only 50,000 CDs are available with AutoRip.

Still and all, a very nice way to build your digital library while still purchasing physical CDs. Learn more about AutoRip here.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Does Quality Matter?

I am saddened by the fact that so many people settle for low-quality digital recordings played on sub-hi fidelity equipment, such as the speakers in your average notebook computer. And I am further saddened by how many people don't really listen to music anymore, but just use it for background noise. All this is addressed in Steve Guttenberg's recent CNET column, "At What Point Does Lousy Sound Interfere with Enjoying Music?"

I find the comments to his article even more interesting. Like this one:

"Yes it's nice to hear great sounding music, but to me it's mostly background. I don't have that "oh my god, bluetooth sound, I'd rather hear nothing" attitude. I'll bet they believe gold plated digital connectors actually improve the sound quality."
Like I said, it saddens me. The days of having a few friends over to actually listen to a new album (and pass around the album cover, too) are long gone, apparently.