Liner Notes: The Moscow Rules, ‘2. never go against your gut’

mr-2-final-cover

So, here’s our second EP, coming 6 (!!) years after the first. It includes one brand new song and collects most of the singles we’ve released in the intervening years. Commence liner notes:

‘2. never go against your gut’

All songs ©The Moscow Rules. Engineered by Mike B except for track 5 by Josh and Mike B. Mastered by Mike B at An Undisclosed Location

Track 1. “Crushing Coal (Pressure)”:    

Music: Bergstrom; Lyrics: Crane.

Mike B: Rhythm guitars, bass guitar, keys/synths

Josh: Guitar solo, drone guitars

Average Joe: Vocals

Michael P: Drums

Recorded at An Undisclosed Location by Mike B (except drums recorded by Mike P at Casa Perez and vocals recorded by Josh at The Situation Room). Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

This one was a lot of fun. Mike B sent the demo, which was basically the completed song – we kept all of his original guitar parts and just subbed live drums and bass for what he had done via synths – to Average Joe and I and we both got really excited. The previous songs Mike had brought to the table (see track 4 below) were great but this was a departure from the more straight-ahead, driving stuff we’ve been doing. This had some funk, a little darkness. Mike asked me to cook up a solo, but other than that I knew I wasn’t going to contribute any traditional rhythm guitar since he had that locked down. As I worked on the solo I found myself drawn to a sort of Eastern Mediterranean modality (maybe Phrygian? I’m bad at theory). Before I even laid down demo’s for the solo Joe rolled into town and was ready to go with the vocals. He and I have played in bands together off and on since we were teenagers – I was there the first time he ever sang into a mic – so I guess I wasn’t really surprised when his vocal melody was strongly reminiscent of the solo idea I had come up with completely independently.  His initial run at the lyrics sounded great and he declared that the song was called either ‘Crushing Coal’ or ‘Pressure.’

Usually when we do Joe’s vocals we take a great deal of care with them – ribbon mics, pop filters, baffling, tube preamps, etc, etc. But this one just felt different, and with the lyrical focus on pressure I just grabbed my $39 Blue Snowball USB mic, plugged it straight into Logic, and let Joe’s thunderous voice redline the absolute fuck out of it.  The result is as you hear – obviously we did some ‘stuff’ to the vocal tracks during mix down, but that blown out, desperate, distorted sound is what we started with.

The drone guitars referenced above are 3 single-string tracks played with an eBow and run through Electro-Harmonix C9 and Hazarai pedals. Mike did a great job bringing them in and out of the mix so that they sound almost like a mournful New Orleans horn section off in the distance. For the solo I used the Burnt Offering guitar and I think it’s the first complete take I got.  You can hear the lead guitar shift from the right to the left of the mix in the middle, right where I flubbed a note and loved the effect, which to me was like a machine breaking down under too…much…pressure.


Track 2. “California Warning”

Music and Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals, rhythm guitars

Mike B: Rhythm guitars (?), bass guitar

Josh: Guitar solo, other guitars

Bass Ghost: bass guitar

Michael P: Drums

Initial recordings done at El Rancho del Crane-O, overdubs at An Undisclosed Location, drums at Casa Perez. Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

I want to say that the first note and last note recorded for this track were laid down at least a year and a half apart.  The core of the song – Joe’s vocals and guitar, the bass line (actually two bass lines, one of root notes and one melodic track) and I think some rhythm guitars – at El Rancho del Crane-O, Joe’s compound outside of Austin when Mike and I flew out there and spent a weekend tracking parts of maybe 5 or 6 songs, including this one and Saving Grace (more on which below), and some others that remain unfinished today. The rest of the tracks including the solo, and some more Joe guitars and vocals were recorded quite a while later at An Undisclosed Location.

Lyrically this tells the story of Joe’s musical history between the time we played together in a cover band in high school and reconvened in Austin a few years later in The Ultimate Something. During that time Joe had a band with a mix of high school and newer friends and they decided to make the trek from Texas to Los Angeles to make it big. He’ll have to tell you the whole story but let’s just say that the phrase “running from earthquakes” is not a metaphor.

Musically this is about as Pure Rock Majesty as you can get.  Michael P just beats the everlovin’ bejeezus out of his kit, and you can’t get much more Big Rock than a G-C-D chord progression played through a properly distorted tube amp.


Track 3. “Jupiter Hotel”

Music and Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals

Josh: Guitars

Mike B: Synth strings

Recorded at An Undisclosed Location. Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

My wife and I love Portland, and usually when we go we stay at the Jupiter Hotel, a hipsterized motor court inn across the Burnside Bridge from downtown. One of the ‘features’ of the place is that the door to every room is painted with chalkboard paint, and on one of our trips I wrote Joe’s lyrics to “I-10 Handbook” on our door, took a photo and sent it to Joe. I love how inspiration takes us, and that was all it took for him to come up with this song.  Some of the details are borrowed from other places, like the Hotel San Jose in Austin, but it definitely captures the feel of the actual place. The rhythm track for this, played by me on Mike B’s custom-rebuilt Telecaster, was one of the hardest guitar parts I’ve ever recorded – I am not a particularly fast player, and all those downstrokes and the slightly off-kilter rhythm were a bitch to get right, but eventually I got it all in one take. Other than that there’s just the solo and Mike’s synth string section. A bit of a change-up for us, and I remember having to sell Joe on the idea of doing it this way, but Mike had a clear vision of Joe sitting on a hotel bed playing this, with the door open, and we ran with that.


Track 4. “Saving Grace”

Music: Mike B

Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals

Mike B: Rhythm guitars, bass, keys, synths, etc.

Josh: Jazzmaster

Michael P: Drums

Initial recordings done at An Undisclosed Location; Joe and Josh recorded at El Rancho del Crane-O, drums at Casa Perez. Mixed by Mike B with Josh.

This was a track that Mike brought complete to the recording session in Austin. He had sent it ahead to Joe to give him time to come up with lyrics. When we arrived at El Rancho, Joe had rented some gear for us to use, including a Fender P-bass and a Mexican-made reissue Jazzmaster.

I was never really much of a Fender guy and I never “got” the Jazzmaster.  It just seemed unnecessarily complicated with it’s switches and the funky-ass tremolo system and big brick-like single coil pickups. But I don’t think I had ever actually picked one up until that session and man… what a burner. There’s obviously a reason why it was favored by all the surf rock players in the 60’s because when Mike cued this track up I was suddenly possessed by the angry ghost of Dick Dale. My actual track was kind of a mess but Mike chopped it up and built a great complementary part to what he had already laid down.  Add in another phenomenal performance on drums by Michael P and you’ve got a real face-melter.


Track 5. “Flames of Rome”

Music: Crane/Chisom

Lyrics: Crane

Average Joe: Vocals

Josh: Guitars

Bass Ghost: Bass guitar

Michael P: Drums

Guitars and vocals recorded at The Situation Room, drums at Casa Perez. Mixed by Josh with Mike B

This song started with a minute-long demo Joe recorded using GarageBand on his phone. Immediately upon hearing it I was seized with delusions of grandeur and straight-up hijacked the song. This is maybe the only song we’ve finished without doing any recording at Mike’s Undisclosed Location. I played all of the bass and guitars, and we recorded Joe’s vocals, at the Situation Room.  At various points other band members would make suggestions or comments, and I would either just straight out say ‘no’ or nod my head and just keep on doing what I was doing. In other words I will happily take the blame if this is anyone’s least favorite TMR song.  I will take that happily because I know that person has no taste whatsoever.

Why did I hijack the song?  For one thing, I heard an epic in that one minute blast of reverb and tribal drums that Joe played us. I heard something in the tradition of “When the Levee Breaks,” The Catherine Wheel’s “Black Metallic,” The Verve’s “Weeping Willow,” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.” Something with a big backbeat, huge guitars, and for another thing, I really really wanted to do a big, long, self-indulgent guitar solo.

I’ll let Joe be the keeper of the ‘real story’ behind the lyrics, but to me the song is apocalyptic, like several of the guidepost songs I referenced above.  It’s a look back at a burning city from the open door of a boxcar or a truck bed, it’s as close to a blues as we’ve done. It seemed an ideal song to stretch out on, get that backbeat kickin’, drop about 10 rhythm guitar tracks on there and then just go to town.

Jesus, these liner notes are going to be as long as the song.  So I built the song up, bass and rhythm guitars, then Joe’s vocals, then Michael P’s drums, until all that was left was this solo that I had decided was going to be some sort of Big Artistic Statement.  And… I froze up.  I couldn’t get it. I beat my head against that fucker for what seemed like forever and wasn’t getting anywhere. The problem was, in part at least, that my method has always been to ‘write’ solos to fit the song, and now I was trying to do the exact opposite, to get back to improvisation and get my consciousness out of the way. It also didn’t help that I was committed to doing the whole five-plus-minute thing in one take.

The breakthrough finally came at about 3 AM on a Saturday morning. I was by myself in the Situation Room.  After a bunch of blown takes and increasing frustration I decided to take a break, have another adult beverage and try and reset my headspace.  I went out into my yard with a good bourbon and my headphones and I listened to “Cortez the Killer” twice – once the studio version off ‘Zuma,’ once the live version off ‘Weld.’ Apparently that combination of chemicals and time of night and inspirado was the right one, because I came back in, tuned up, hit record, and got exactly what you hear on the EP in the next take. As the musicians among you can imagine I got reeeeeal fuckin’ nervous in the last 30 seconds or so.  And yeah, there are a few, er, dissonant parts in there, but I’m proud of it.  It’s honest. It’s a summation of whatever style and sound I’ve developed over the last 30 years.

For the gearheads, I used my Burnt Offering guitar plugged into my Vox ToneLab tube-driven effects unit and that directly into the computer via my Focusrite I/O unit.

And that’s our second EP done. I’m really proud of it.  Proud to work with these musicians and help bring their songs to life. Enjoy.

J

September 2016

I Want My MTV As Long As They Stop Playing That Goddamn Dire Straits Video

Another installment in my ongoing series.

I don’t think the mainstreaming of music videos, meaning their conversion via MTV from promo clips that might get shown on late night TV or pay cable to THE way youngsters were exposed to new music, was quite as game changing as the Internet would be a generation later. But it certainly had a huge impact in regards to creating a shared/homogenized youth culture. I remember seeing the random video here and there before we got MTV – “Fish Heads” on Showtime at a friends house[1]; “Centerfold” on SNL one night; the full version of “Thriller,” obviously, at a church youth group ‘lock-in.’ I even remember my friend Kevin describing Tom Petty’s video for “Lucky” and being completely mystified. Music video wasn’t a term yet; he literally did not have the vocabulary to describe what he had seen to me. It’s like a Road Warrior movie but to a song? Huh?

Being from North Florida, Sir Thomas was always going to have a leg up in surviving the apocalypse.

Receiving MTV was a genuinely revolutionary event for me.   Out there in the sticks I had no pipeline aside from mainstream rock mags, mainly Rolling Stone; my parents’ record collections (which were not to be despised and on which more later); and once I was in high school some of the freaks in the upper classes were a great help. But MTV was fucking manna from heaven, especially up through maybe ’86 or ’87 when they were still playing just about any video they could in order to fill 24 hours with something other than Rod Stewart tracks (seriously, why did he do so many damn videos before there was a reason to?).

I had been playing guitar for at least a couple of years. My first song on the electric was “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” and through junior high and into my freshman year it was all about the metal. But then I somehow was allowed to talk to girls, and they[2] liked the Cure and the Violent Femmes and obviously I was going to find out what that was all about. I started watching “120 Minutes,” and that late night video show was my one beloved pipeline to actual cool music from March of 1986 until I moved to Austin three years later. The first big gift I got from MTV was seeing The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” video on 120 Minutes one night. It grabbed me immediately, with the swirling psychedelic imagery and the opening guitar/sitar line evoking some of the late 1960’s records my Mom had loaned me. And then WHACK!!!! A gunshot of a snare hit and the song kicks into a propulsive, almost metallic chug. It was leading me into a musical borderland where I would spend most of my time thereafter. I sought out the cassette of The Cult’s album “Love” immediately and it was a solid collection, although “Sanctuary” was far and away the best thing on it.

To the eternal question of “Quaker hat or headscarf?” Ian Astbury’s answer is “Costume Change!!”

And then a funny thing happened. I recall sitting in English class talking to S.S. and I brought up the Cult and she asked to borrow the cassette. She loved it and then I loaned it to someone else, and someone else and suddenly my “thing” was turning people on to the cool new shit. I had people thanking me for introducing them to bands or records years later. I was a tunepusher.

I tortuously figured out how to play “Sanctuary” on the guitar and later on my girlfriend introduced me to some guys who needed a guitar player for their party band. They asked me to bring a song to the table, and “Sanctuary” was the card I dealt. I was in.

MTV’s second big gift I remember thusly: it’s a weekend afternoon, I turn on the TV and catch the last half of Concrete Blonde’s “Still in Hollywood.” It was exactly what I was looking for: loud guitars, shouty chorus, chick singer, grainy black and white, chaos and urbanism and punk rock[3]. In my memory it was later the same day when I rode with my parents to Wal-Mart and, improbably, there was the eponymous Concrete Blonde debut cassette right there in the rack.

This video predicted the popularity of cat videos, bad tattoos, hoarding and good musicians not making any money ever.

So I get this Concrete Blonde record and I’m REALLY digging its swirly, spacious sparseness and I’m thinking that, solos aside[4] it seems pretty simple guitar-wise. So I get my rig set up and push ‘play’ and start strumming along and something just goes ‘click’ in my brain; maybe it was “Song for Kim” with that simple single-note riff that brought it all into place for me, but regardless I suddenly knew how to play by ear[5]. I had never grasped how to do it before; it’s one of those leap-learning things that happens all at once. It just has to click and it clicked and I jumped in to learning songs with both feet.

Aside from its eternal association with my growth as a musician, I loved that record from the first time I pressed play. I still do, it’s a nostalgia generator par excellence. Whenever I go to L.A. it’s playing on a loop in my head if not on my car stereo. All because MTV existed and decided to play a regionally known indie rock trio signed to IRS Records in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.

[1] Directed by Bill Paxton. Sorry I am required by my brain to trot out that piece of trivia any time it is even remotely relevant.

[2] By “they” I mean the tiny, tiny sweet spot in the Venn diagram of exurban East Texas girls encompassing those that a) would talk to me and b) had any valid opinion about music whatsoever.

[3] i.e. exactly the opposite of what and where I lived.

[4] Jim Mankey is a god.

[5] To the musician this means you can learn new songs by just listening to them instead of referring to sheet music or tablature.

Live From New York, it’s Your Not-Quite-Adolescent Introduction to S&M

Note about my previous post in this series: I wasn’t aware until around the time I started writing this that literally NO ONE knows who Judee Sill is anymore. To me her record was right there with Jackson and Sweet Baby James and the rest and who had a record with their picture on it that wasn’t famous? In any case if you like the Laurel Canyon/Americana thing and can handle lyrics about Jesus having a gunfight with the Devil or spaceships from heaven or magic spells based on the Musica Universalis designed to make God give the world a break, you should check her out. 

John Cougar on Saturday Night Live, April 10, 1982.

Not too long after this my Mom and I moved. We drove up I-45 about 30 miles, hung a left and ended up out in the pines of East Texas; outside of suburbia but still close enough to Houston to not truly be ‘in the country.’ My Mom married a great guy, an English teacher who had a comic book collection and books everywhere and “Ziggy Stardust” on vinyl (on which more later). Mom and Stepdad were progressive and/or laissez-faire about the media to which I was exposed. I can remember them taking me to Woody Allen double features down at the River Oaks and seeing “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*” when I was maybe 10. I didn’t get 99% of the humor, but with the rhythm and phrasing, the timing, and the slapstick Woody trafficked in at the time, it was still funny to me. At some point around then I was allowed to stay up late to watch “Saturday Night Live,” and that was what sparked my love for rock n roll.

John Cougar (post Little Johnny, pre Mellencamp) was the musical guest on SNL around the time his hit album “American Fool” came out in 1982. I don’t remember anything else about the episode (apparently Daniel J. Travanti was the host), but Cougar wore a green t-shirt and fringed leather motorcycle pants, and he did “Ain’t Even Done With The Night.” “We sound just like Martha and the Vandellas, don’t we?” he asked an apparently indifferent crowd as they started it up. He was obviously having a good time even if they weren’t. (Also: if you can, click on the link above to the “AEDWTN” video and at least watch the saxophone solo that starts around 2:40. Music videos used to be amazing).

More to the point, he also did “Hurts So Good.” As with the Woody Allen movies, I didn’t really ‘get it,’ I didn’t understand, but it hit me hard. It was scary and compelling. Why would somebody sing about pain in such an enthusiastic and positive way?   It was a little scary…and I liked it. His performance made an indelible memory, so much so that for a long time I wondered if I really remembered it as vividly as it seemed. Then one day in my thirties I happened across the episode on TV and, yep, it was all just as I remembered.

When I saw and heard “Hurts So Good,” on SNL, it was some sort of next step on that road. In the year or two leading up to that Saturday night I had gotten more into music in general. A friend of Mom’s upon request made me a 90-minute cassette of two Hall and Oates albums, ‘Private Eyes’ on one side, ‘H2O’ on the other, that I would listen to on a Radio Shack mono tape recorder nestled in the crook of my arm as I strolled around the middle school playground.

But “American Fool” was the first ROCK AND ROLL record – and by that I do mean an actual vinyl album – that I bought with my own money. Listening to it right now, and trying to lay aside the obvious four-coat varnish of nostalgia it has acquired, I get this: it sounds great, although it does sound of its time. Luckily its time was 1982, not 1988 so it’s not burdened with cannon toms and fucking Eventides and Bob goddamn Rock. It sounds expensive, which really just means it sounds like it was recorded in a real studio with a real producer and a rock-solid band playing pro-grade instruments.[1]

It’s emphatically un-hyphenated Rock, and its time was also one in which that was no bar to also being pop. It’s such an obvious thing, right? ‘Pop’ is supposed to be shorthand for whatever’s popular. Those three little onomatopoeiac letters aren’t supposed to contain a sui generis genre, unless it’s that of Popular Song in the Cole Porter/Bing Crosby/Sinatra sense. It just means what’s popular. And what was popular in ’82 was a lot of Rock. I had to look it up, but ‘American Fool’ was a pretty monstrous hit[2]. Number 1 album. “Hurts so Good” hit number two on the Hot 100 and “Jack & Diane” [3] number one. Even “Hand to Hold On To” hit nineteen and I have no recollection of ever hearing that one on the radio.

All of that said, I can be honest with my 10-year-old self and admit that it’s not a great album. It has two all-time great songs, four or five very-good-to-good songs and two or three weak-to-shitty ones (happily it’s pretty much sequenced from best to worst. That was nice of them. Every other musician: do that from here on in, OK?) Does that matter when you’re ten years old? No one has taste at ten and I’m going to say that’s a good thing. Ten year old me didn’t react to things because they were cool or because they fit into an aesthetic framework constructed over years of paying too much attention to popular culture. He reacted to things because they CAUSED A REACTION.

“Hurts so Good” on SNL gave me a perfectly calibrated whiff of danger and hit that attraction/repulsion sweet spot that can be so compelling. And I have to say after rewatching the videos from this album, Johnny C. was putting out a pretty sleazy biker vibe back then, in line with the best rock n roll traditions; he was not yet the Americana/60’s revivalist of a few years later. Shortly after seeing SNL I bought the album on a trip to Greenspoint Mall and I listened the hell out of it and wondered what else was out there. So I listened to the radio because that was literally the only place to hear new music. Between 1982 and 1984 I fully embraced Rock, started playing guitar and caring about my hair and along the way I accumulated the following records:

The Rolling Stones, “Tattoo You” (1)

Joan Jett “Bad Reputation” (51)

Quiet Riot “Metal Health” (1)

Def Leppard “Pyromania” (2)

The Rolling Stones “Hot Rocks 64-71” (4)

David Bowie “Let’s Dance” (4)

Genesis “Genesis” (9)

Scorpions “Love at First Sting” (6)

Motley Crue “Shout at the Devil” (17)

Billy Joel “Glass Houses” (1)

The Police “Synchronicity” (1)

If you eliminate “Hot Rocks” as an outlier (only compilation and only non-contemporary release) you can see how I was a slave to the charts: all of them were big goddamn hit records.[4] Look at the numbers in parentheses up there; those are the highest Billboard Top 200 chart positions for each record. You can see that what I was buying was what was selling, which was what I had a chance to hear, which was what was on the radio. I was too young to really have a shared musical experience with my peers, no older siblings, no other options. Pop, but rock, yes? The reason I am pausing this tale in 1984 is that we didn’t get MTV until around then and that. Changed. Everything.

[1] While writing this section, the drum break in “Jack & Diane” happened and OK the toms are a little cannon-y. However I know that JC was inspired to insert that drum break after hearing “In the Air Tonight” so we have to give him a pass.

[2] It was also Cougar’s FIFTH album. How in God’s name is that possible? I knew he had a couple before that, but Christ. Did he start recording as a zygote or is he now 73 years old?

[3] I didn’t want to get all Klostermanny (Foster-Wallacey?) with the footnotes here, but I’m perusing the Wikipedia entry for the record and see that MICK GODDAMN RONSON did “guitar, vocals, and arrangements” on “Jack and Diane”. How did I never catch that before?! We’re going to get to Ziggy here in a bit and I am, just, DEEPLY disappointed in myself for never knowing that before.

[4] OK the Joan Jett record wasn’t a huge hit, but her next record was and I think I bought “Bad Reputation” at the same time as “Hot Rocks,” on cassette at the music store where I took my guitar lessons, probably under the influence of my friend Mike M. who often wore a Joan Jett t-shirt to school and talked about how she was awesome in concert. He was in fifth grade and he’d seen a ton of rock shows. The 70’s and early 80’s were kind of a great time to be a kid.

A Statement

NOTE: I wrote the following piece as my editorial statement for an online culture magazine for which I was to be the music editor. Sadly it folded before it saw the light of day. It in turn was based on an idea I originally had about ten years ago. Here it is, very lightly edited.

hedphonz
The author, probably listening to a Sesame Street album, mid-1970’s.
I have been obsessed with music since I was about eleven years old. I have played guitar – mostly in the proverbial woodshed, occasionally in front of people who paid to be there. I have spent tens of thousands of dollars and as many or more hours over the intervening decades on music – guitars and amps, concerts and lessons and (mostly) on records and tapes and cds and digital files. It’s come to a point where if someone at a party asks me “So, what kind of music do you listen to?” I no longer have a clue how to answer.

What I do know is that NOW is an incredibly interesting time at which to engage with – and write about—music. I will (and frequently do) argue that there is more interesting music happening right now in the world than at any time in history, and I want to learn more about it ALL. What follows is a snapshot, my view of the ‘industry’ as it seems to be.

Down the Deep River

Like all businesses intimately tied to technological advances, the music industry has undergone a whirlwind of change over the last 25 or 30 years. In the early 80’s, compact discs were still the province of early adopters and audiophiles, cassette tapes ruled, and vinyl was still widely available but could feel the winds of change blowing coldly up its sleeve. In the late 90’s and early 00’s mixtapes gave way to mix cds which in turn surrendered to the entirety of the Internet as a way to share music. Only in the last ten years or so has broadband Internet access become commonplace enough to support direct, digital music sales to consumers (and illegal file sharing, natch). However, format changes had occurred with relative frequency throughout the life of the industry (cylinders to 78s to 33s to 45s to 8-track to…), and it seems that the industry treated the move away from cds and the growing popularity of people storing their music collections on their computers as just another incremental change. This shift to digital formats caught the industry, with few exceptions, completely flat-footed. In fact, it took Apple holding on to a tiny-but-hip share of the PC market and the worldwide boom in cheap, hi-tech cell phones and similar devices to keep the industry as a whole from tanking even worse than it has.   Even with pay-download services, streaming sites and other new delivery concepts, revenue for the big players in the industry has plummeted.

The combination of this drop in profit and the consolidation of most labels under a couple of enormous conglomerates has resulted in hundreds, maybe thousands of professional musicians being dumped from their contracts. Furthermore, the artist’s share of the revenue pie, always a tiny one, has shrunk in proportion to the whole. In the short-term, this is terrible for the artists. Yet, amidst the conglomerates, purges and plummeting sales there are interesting bright spots: sales of vinyl albums have skyrocketed, live music seems to be an eternal growth industry and digital distribution services allow literally anyone with a recording and a few dollars to put their songs a click away from the entire music-listening world. In fact, if there’s justice in this crazy mixed-up world, iPhones and ringtones and Spotify won’t prevent the entropic forces swirling around the Universals and Sony-BMGs of the world from pulling them apart at the seams and ushering in a new, smaller, better music business, one that seems to (sort of) already exist. On the downside the loss of profits mean that the labels that are out there aren’t going to spend money to develop artists like they once did in the glory days; they’re not going to spend money on marketing an album unless the performer is a proven commodity.

Rules of Engagement

So what DOES the artist do to engage an audience? What does the independent label do on a low- to-no budget to help get their artists out there? There have to be as many stories about the new frontiers in guerilla marketing, self-publishing, independent promotion and the struggle to be heard as there are languishing MySpace pages. I hope to have the chance to tell some of them here.

The music industry has never been a model of propriety or fairness. From the beginning, artists were treated like indentured servants, and things haven’t really changed much in the intervening 90 years. Writing stables and payola have given way to production teams and independent promoters, but the effect is the same: homogenized music blankets the airwaves, and the “safe” artists – the ones the companies think are most marketable – get the vast majority of the marketing support. Artists are signed to ridiculous long-term deals, which generally require them to reimburse the company for all expenses related to the recording, marketing, and promotion of their material.[1] In what other modern industry (besides publishing) are employees expected to pay for all the tools needed to perform their work?

Let’s put it in “regular folk” terms: I get hired to work an office job and, on my first day, am handed a fifty-five page contract to sign. When I mention in an offhand manner that my car is eternally in the shop and I had to take the train to work, the boss hands me the keys to a new car and shows me to a workstation. What I may or may not realize (depending on whether I had the money to hire a contracts lawyer look over my contract) is that the car he just “gave” me and the cost of everything I use to do my job – the computer, fax machine, phone, phone service, paper, pens, printer ink, etc. – will be deducted from future earnings, and I won’t see a dime until it’s all paid off. Oh, and the contract included a non-competition clause, so I can’t quit before the end of the contract and go work for a competitor, AND I’m not allowed to see the details of what I owe and what I’ve made, AND when I do finally leave I don’t have the right to profit from anything I did while working there. Yeah. Welcome to the rock n roll dream.

So, what DOES the rock n roll dream look like now? Is it a light-duty day job, tours on the weekends and an 8.0 in Pitchfork? Is it getting twenty seconds of your song on a popular TV show and parlaying that into record sales? Is it going back to the roots of the business and road-warrioring your way to a fan base? It’s more of a multiple-choice question than ever.

Margins

It is quite simply not a musician friendly industry and never really has been. Songwriters have it marginally better, sometimes: if you write your own music (and haven’t signed away most or all of your publishing rights), you get a decent return on any recordings of your songs. But the performers, the rock stars, so to speak, generally only make a few pennies on each copy of an album or single. Michael Jackson got a couple of dollars per copy of “Bad” that was sold, and that was seen as a huge deal back then. So, sure, it sold multimillions and he did OK for himself – but what about the average artists that didn’t record “Thriller” last time out? They get hosed, pure and simple.   In fact, their best shot of making money is touring, where they can negotiate their own cut of the gate[2] and (again, if they haven’t screwed up and sold it away) use their merchandising rights to sell t-shirts and whatnot at the shows. This is why all those 70’s and 80’s heavy metal bands that never got songs on the pop charts lived like pashas – because every pimply-faced Trans-Am jockey that bought their albums also went to their concerts and while there bought t-shirts, buttons, posters, headbands, stickers, mirrors (yes, mirrors. The ones with the logos on…oh, never mind), etc. The occasional gold or platinum album was nice, but it was the merch that paid for the strippers, the coke and the gull-wing Benz.

To be sure, the days of musicians buying castles with the proceeds of their talent are almost certainly gone forever. But the Internet-centered connectivity that has become so ubiquitous as to be invisible has allowed musicians a direct connection to their audiences that will allow those audiences to act as their own A&R person, to decide, en mass or in their cultish dozens, what will be the next feelgood hit of the summer or who will be the next hip indie darling.

So, what DOES this connectivity mean to music? Between the laptop loner mixing her next single and the major labels is a vast expanse of the ‘industry’ that seems to be rolling with the changes and maybe, on a smallish scale, thriving. Mail-order vinyl-only record labels, original music venues, locally owned record stores, even boutique amplifier makers are legion and seem to be making a real go of it. Are they? How? 

You’d think that the master-slave dialectic the big record companies have employed over the years would have put them in a good position. But generally it hasn’t, especially since major corporations that have no experience in the arts have taken them all over. Seagrams, or whoever, buys up a label and thinks that they can increase profits using the same methods they did selling tonic water or light bulbs or whatever. And, sure, there are probably some operational aspects of the music industry (distribution, manufacturing) that a bunch of MBAs could improve; however, the obvious thing that they seem to ignore is that music isn’t like tonic water or light bulbs. It’s ephemeral, weird, both far more and far less important than regular consumer goods. Attempts to predict what music the public will want are exercises in futility so the businessfolk now running the labels have tried to dictate public taste and have, to be honest, succeeded, in a way. They have the advantage of owning or having access to a wide array of media delivery systems, and they have the financial power to utilize them in a sort of carpet-bombing technique.

How DOES the modern musical artist engage with ‘the majors’? Are there ways for smaller acts, mid-level bands, independent songwriters to engage with Behemoth and come away (relatively) unscathed? Of course success stories can be wildly entertaining and occasionally edifying, but near-misses, small victories and downright disasters are more intriguing. Let’s talk about that. Let’s not worry too much about genre, or region, or scene. Let’s get in the van. Let’s rock.

[1] In recent years big name artists have signed “360 deals” with these huge companies, in which they do receive funding for their projects in exchange for a percentage of whatever they make doing, well, anything they decide to do. I have yet to hear someone explain how this is different from any typical major label record deal from the last 50 years in any way other than scale.

[2] Well, they used to be able to do this, before almost every major venue in the United States became the exclusive domain of either Ticketmaster or LiveNation.

Not the start I had in mind, but….

Heard some very sad news about an old friend today, but I’m trying to honor him by remembering good things.

Back about 20 years ago he lived in an RV park right smack in the middle of Austin, and for one stretch of time I spent a lot of days with him there, experiencing the ‘Slacker’-esque characters that populated the park and, mostly, listening to and making music. My favorite memory was of a day when he also had a friend who played drums over and around dusk we lugged all of our instruments over to the little baseball diamond behind the RV park. There were electrical outlets in the dugout and we plugged in our amps and set up the drums near home plate and, for a little while, improvised instrumentally as the sun went down and people strolled back to their cars from a day at Zilker, or a meal at Green Mesquite or Baby A’s. A few would pause for a moment and listen, especially the kids, but no one told us to stop or asked if we were supposed to be there. We played the sun down and well past the time when we could really see what we were doing, just communicating through the music. It’s one of my favorite memories, one of the very few Perfect Moments I have tucked in my ledger.

The last time I heard from him he IM’d me asking about a song we had written back then and if I had a copy of the lyrics.  I didn’t, and I put off responding, and now I never can.

Rest in Peace, Milt.