Music

In which I sound more flip on Twitter than I meant to

Earlier this afternoon, John Scalzi posted this on his Twitter feed:

I agree wholeheartedly (I have paid for all of the music in my collection that wasn't given to me as a gift) and responded with:

@scalzi Would always prefer to buy, and if directly from the artist if possible. Hate paying toll to middlemen who abuse artists and fans.

To which he responded:

@MrRidleyKemp The "middlemen" I work with are people who do work I don't want to do, better than I could. I want them paid, too.

Ouch. Ok, it's a fair enough comment because I didn't specify that I wasn't talking about publishing in general or him specifically there. I know approximately nothing about the publishing business. I know enough people working as writers and editors to know that publishing is really, really different than the music business.

And the music business? I know something about that one. I worked in it, on the non-creative side, off and on for most of a decade. I have a reasonable handle on the economics of the business and I can say with some degree of authority that the middlemen absolutely abused their position for a very long time, taking advantage of both artists and fans alike.

Back in ye olden times, in the days of recorded music before there was an internet, creating playable recordings of music and distributing them had a prohibitively high cost of entry. Only a few companies could do it economically. This meant that, for artists wanting to market their music, there were very few options available. It in no way resembled what we think of as a "market." Similarly, these companies had a monopoly on selling these recordings. It was a non-competitive situation on both ends, and the companies milked the situation to an abusive degree.

The price of the recordings,of course, was "whatever the market will bear", but the cut that went to the artist was absurdly small because the artists had no choice but to enter into these one-sided deals. This generated ill-will among artists who rightly felt abused, and didn't exactly make the fans happy since only a tiny portion of their purchase price was going to support the part of the whole supply chain they were wanting to support.

Then the internet happened.

Suddenly, the "production" and "distribution" costs went to a fraction of what they'd been. That part of the equation went from being a necessary evil to being something that could be bypassed completely (the fact that the music could also be illegally copied and shared at no cost and very little risk of retribution plays a part too, but that's another story). It was now possible to make an album every bit as good, using the same personnel, the same producer, the same engineer, the same everything except for company that stamps out the plastic disks and the big box retailer racking them, and it could be sold at a larger profit to the people who made the music and a lower cost to the people who wanted to buy it.

This is what I was trying to say in my 140 characters. I didn't mean to belittle his choices, about which he knows approximately 10000000x more than I ever will. And I don't want to cut out the editors, the agents, the managers, the typesetters, or any of the people involved in making a book better any more than I'd want to cut out anyone involved in making a record better. Hell, I don't even want to cut out a middleman that the artist happens to like and wants to support. Like I said, I buy all of my music. 

But, given a choice, I'll choose to purchase in whatever way most benefits the artists as opposed to, say, WEA and Wal-Mart.

Brill Bruisers Visited

I'll let you in on a dirty little secret of mine: I am convinced that pop/rock music reached it's pinnacle in the 2000's. I suspect this isn't the majority opinion, particularly among people of my generation who grew up on seventies rock bleeding into punk and new wave. The music I grew up with will always be special to me, but I can't remember any era as exciting to me as the first decade of the millennium. 

Even if several of my favorite acts, like The Futureheads, Stellastarr*, The Hives, The Kaiser Chiefs, MGMT, and the late, lamented Ambulance, LTD didn't have the long, successful runs they deserved, bands like Metric, The Arcade Fire, Ted Leo + Pharmacists, and especially The New Pornographers** turned out great record after great record during the aughts. 

We're well out of the 00's now, but The New Pornographers have just released yet another album that one could argue is their best yet. I was chuffed from the get-go about this one. Carl Newman has always done a brilliant job describing the influences on their upcoming albums and this one was the most evocative yet:

We wanted Xanadu and we wanted Sigue Sigue Sputnik, which translated into sparklier and faster [music].

If that doesn't get you excited, then you have different tastes in music than I do.

After several listens, start to finish, I think it's safe to say they hit the target. This is the most uptempo album they've made since The Electric Version. It's easily the the brightest record they've ever made. Sure, it sparkles, but it rocks as well. Check out "Backstairs", which is probably the best ELO song ever made. Unfortunately, it's not on Youtube yet, so you'll have to use a little ingenuity to dig it up. You know, like "buying it" or something. 

* The asterisk is actually part of the band's name.

** The videos are kind of great, so it's worth clicking on all three.