Thursday, August 27, 2015

You've Got to Play America

The music business has always been a nasty piece of work if you are a woman:

Various tropes are repeated over and over again, like a riff you’ve heard too many times before: an aspiring bassist being told by a music teacher that bass is for boys, or a teenager being asked by her dubious male classmates to recite a band’s entire discography in order to prove her fan cred. The narrative gets even more disturbing and specific when you start charting the testimonials of women who pursued careers as musicians, sound engineers, executives, and journalists. The recurring message is that, for women, the music industry is a Banksy-designedChoose Your Own Adventure book, with each career path containing its own lady-specific land mines. 

Rampant misogyny is the music industry’s worst kept secret. Recently, legendary rapper—and the richest musician on the planet—Dr. Dre finally apologized for a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse against women. The apology stemmed from outrage over Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A biopic, which topped the box office without addressing Dre’s problematic past. In her essay “Here’s What's Missing From Straight Outta Compton: Me and the Other Women Dr. Dre Beat Up,” rapper and television personality Dee Barnes described the night in 1991 when Dre “straddled me and beat me mercilessly on the floor of the women’s restroom.” Dre later told Rolling Stone, “It ain’t no big thing—I just threw her through a door.” He pleaded no contest to Barnes’s assault charges and settled with her out of court for an undisclosed sum.

I've always admired people like Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson--people who put up with exactly those kinds of obstacles and didn't quit and didn't give up because of them. Her reasons for leaving the music industry were more personal and tragic, of course, but when she was doing her thing, she was the prototype for someone who didn't let those things stop her. She did her part to make glorious, lasting music and then she moved on and had a life.

Miki and Emma Anderson had their own battles within the music industry to fight, and, surprisingly enough, it was more their own management than anything else:

From the days of Split, Lush's management pressured the band to do whatever it took to "break" America. Aside from The Cranberries and a handful of other artists, becoming a huge Stateside hit was in the '90s was relatively unprecedented for European bands. And even with a change of management prior to Lovelife, little changed in the attitude toward the band, the house of cards finally tumbling in an ill-imagined tour with Goo Goo Dolls and Gin Blossoms in the summer of 1996.

"They were totally obsessed," says Anderson, who makes no secret about her adversarial relationship with the band's management at the time. "They used to sit in meetings and say, 'Oh, next album we'll just do America. We won't even bother with Britain.' Just to wind me up. I thought, 'Well maybe there won't be a next album.'... By the time we did that Gin Blossoms/Goo Goo Dolls tour, I think everyone had just retreated into themselves. It was just a nightmare."  

"We were just being told what to do and we were doing it, and it was a mistake," she continues. "You get to the point where you sort of go, 'Why am I doing this?' We were actually doing quite well in Britain. We had a Top 10 album and three Top 30 singles. 'Maybe we should be planning to go back there and do some festivals, and capitalizing on that.' But it was like, 'No, you have to go back to America. You've got to go back to America.' And at the end I thought, 'Fuck this. I'd rather work in an office.'"

"I think I'd completely lost my mind by that point," says Berenyi. "I wasn't in a very good place. We'd been tossed about in so many different directions that I just thought, 'Alright, I'm just going to do what they fucking tell us to do.' Which wasn't great, because actually then I think Emma felt completely unsupported in the fact that she really wasn't happy with the direction that we were being pushed in. And she was right. But I just don't think I had any fight left in me. It was ludicrous, but it was just chasing that prize."

Finally, Anderson had enough and sat down with Berenyi and King to state her intentions. The band had one more European tour on the books, and Anderson was committed to finish her obligation, but after that, she was out.

Now, was this because they were a band that had started putting out singles that were getting more successful or was this an attempt to push a "girl band" with two women up front singing and writing the songs? I think it's more the latter and I think it fits in with the overall experience of women in the music industry.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Dying of the Pono Player

What started out as being a great idea has become a boondoggle:

Neil Young’s music tech startup Pono is struggling with funding issues, which is slowing down the company’s international expansion, the rock legend revealed in a Facebook post. “We are trying to set up stores in multiple countries and are restricted by a lack off resources,” Young wrote, adding that Pono wants to expand to Canada, the U.K. and Germany: “As soon as we have the funds, those stores will open. We wish it could be faster than that.”

Young launched Pono with a Kickstarter campaign in early 2014, raising more than $6 million for the company’s portable HD music player on the crowdfunding platform. Earlier this year, Pono expanded sales of the player to select retail stores, and Young said that the company has sold “tens of thousands of players,” as well as hundreds of thousands of HD music tracks through its music download store.

He also said that running Pono “hasn’t been easy.” Young has been serving as the company’s official CEO ever since it parted ways with prior CEO John Hamm a little over a year ago. The company has been looking for a new CEO for some time. Said Young: “We have no proven business leader at the head of our company, but the search continues for one who could do it to our liking and understand what our goal is and how big it is. We are still looking.”

There will always be a high-end market for music players. There isn't much more you can claim the Pono would be viable for because the technology simply does not rival anything out there while being demonstrably more expensive.

As I've said already, the Pono is not giving you anything you can't already get from a phone or an MP3 player; in fact, you're getting less because the Pono doesn't let you adjust an equalizer to accommodate your preferences. It's a high end device for delivering expensive, exclusive music. You're getting less because you have to enter the Pono's "walled-in garden" and pay for tracks that are "lossless" when really, all you need, is CD quality. You can get that from Spotify (horrors!) or by ripping MP3s at 320 kbps. You can take your own music collection and load it onto a Zune if you can still find one.

You're not going to change anyone's mind on this. It's why ordinarily smart guys pay $50,000 for a vintage guitar that doesn’t sound as good as a $1,000 Paul Reed Smith.

MP3 player manufacturers know that the device is the delivery system; the money is in getting you to buy your music from them. That's why they make those things so complicated. All anyone really needs is a hard drive that's small and that plays music that you can fiddle with until it sounds good to you. There's no money in that because the real money is in selling you shit you already paid for. Hello, albums, goodbye cassettes, hello CDs, goodbye DVD audio. Hello iTunes, goodbye to MP3s downloaded off of newsgroups. Hello remastered and expanded version, goodbye original version of CD purchased in 1994. It's all a scam.

It's not a magical piece of special equipment that will allow only Baby Boomer ears to hear incredible music. It's not an exclusive ticket for people in the know to demonstrate that their highly refined music-loving ear is superior to yours because they once worked in a recording studio for a month as a janitor. It is a mechanical device that delivers music that you have to pay more for. That's all. I would think that if it really were that special, someone in the business world would step up and run the company.

I love Neil Young. But someone sold him on a business idea that is really only viable for a select and narrow market. The Pono is for people who believe they are superior to all other humans through belief not science. The Pono is a status symbol, a Maserati when a Hyundai will do.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The End of Owning Music

Noel Gallagher tells the NME exactly what he thinks:

[...] speaking to the Varvet International podcast, Gallagher has said that while he admits that streaming is "clearly the future" because "people wiser than me tell me that it is", the lack of record sales in modern music "makes him sad".

Gallagher explained his feelings: "If you tell me now that the record buying era is over that makes me sad, that the culture of buying and believing in a record is over. That era is over and the belief is that music is for hire and for rent, the money that you pay lets you access everybody’s music but own none of it. I think that’s a sad day. I understand that it’s the future, but it’s a sad day."

At any given point, I could probably replace 75% of my music collection with a streaming service. I could not replace key chunks of it though--singles, bootlegs, rare things by artists like the Jazz Butcher, and things of that nature. Bands that failed that I happen to really like have been left in the dust long ago. Is everything from Slowdive on streaming services? No, well to hell with that, then.

This would disrupt the organizational scheme of how I manage music. I could labor for months with a paid streaming service to formulate playlists, but that would mean their suggestions might bleed over into what I listen to or it could mean the loss of key artists and tracks. Browsing through what I have means discovering overlooked gems and eliminating things I don't want to lose that I don't want to hear right now.

All of this doesn't even get into the vinyl I own and the physical CDs that I have stored in rubber containers. You can't sell that stuff anymore, except perhaps on Amazon, but even then, you'll never make money from doing that. I'm not taking $.50 for my deluxe edition of Heyday and I'm not interested in tossing those things out, either.

It is sad, but that's technology. It kills indiscriminately and the joy it was supposed to bring leaves a stench in the air and a foul rot in the soul. All you can do is carry on and keep trying to figure out what works.