Thursday, February 10, 2011

2010 Musical Highlights: Tales of Technology And The Ascendance of the Middle Class Musician

This was a year of sentinel events that had less to do with music and more to do with technology. Still, the music of 2010 provided an exceptional soundtrack to a country divided along racial, political and class lines. I believe that some of the best music created in the USA never gets released and if it is released, it’s seldom heard by a mass audience. There are exceptions. Lada Gaga’s Bad Romance is an excellent post-Madonna effort filled up with glitz and glamour and high arousal sensuality and Love the Way You Lie has this minor chord bridge sung with just the right nuance by Rihanna with a sharp segue to Eminem’s emotional rap. It is filled with longing and confusion. It’s real - perhaps the best executed performance of the year, if not the decade. Kanye West may argue otherwise as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a stone classic. West is a gloriously demented genius who gets better with each passing year.

Rolling Stone published Jonathon Cott’s long abandoned interview of John Lennon in its December 23, 2010/January 6, 2011 issue. Lennon talked with Cott for over nine hours – just three days before he died. As I read I could sense an audible silence like walking alone through a field of green grass on a sunny day. I miss Lennon and to hear his voice jump off the written pages was an extraordinary experience. I could hear him speak through the stillness.
Thank you Rolling Stone

I grieved the death of Alex Chilton on March 17th, 2010. He was a founding member of the Box Tops and Big Star and he released several spectacular yet uneven solo albums from the seventies until the time of his death. He was a true disciple of original music whether it was rock & roll, blues, jazz, punk, or power pop. He was a chameleon of the first order.

And…Ok.. I like California Gurls ‘cos Katy Perry is a hot Lolita and I get all juiced up whenever I hear the song. Bubblegum has never died no matter what the genre – just listen to eeny meanie miny mo lover. It’s so subliminally seductive that you may find yourself singing the chorus even though you hate it. But that’s the allure of bad music. It’s like the cult movies of the fifties and sixties – Planet 9 from Outer Space or the 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (the only film written by Dr. Seuss, thank god) – they are so excruciatingly bad, they’re good…maybe.

The deluxe reissues of The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street, Lennon’s stripped down Double Fantasy and Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge of Town were like manna sent from heaven. Glorious. If only Rhino or some other reissue dudes could do it up right for The Beau Brummels. Speaking of reissues, my favorite local sixties band The Bossmen are getting a deluxe treatment with a 26 page booklet extensive liner notes, rare photos and three tracks unearthed by our bootleg friends @ Big Beat Records including a slowed down horn based version of I Cannot Stop You (a hit for the Cherry Slush), Easy Way Out and Listen My Girl. It’s scheduled for a 2011 release that will coincide with Dick Wagner autobiography entitled Not Only Women Bleed.

Locally we had a mixed bag musically. Some really great moments of creativity and rebirth mixed with the stasis of cover bands and karaoke.

Saginaw cannot be denied its birthright. We’ve always been wild and wooly. We’ve known hard times before. From the lumberjack days in the 1800’s, prohibition in the thirties, reform in the forties and the unrest and racial strife in the sixties, Saginaw has always fought with itself and today’s conditions seem only too familiar – a sagging economy, poverty and high unemployment. Such extreme misery has affected everything in Saginaw from crime, violence, to protest, the mobilization of neighborhoods and the faith based community and the Arts. Struggle seems to light the fire of our creative passions. Like a scorned lover, our musicians have sublimated their anger and sorrow and immersed themselves into their craft to create some of the best music on the planet.

Thick As Thieves have ascended to the top of the heap with a hybrid of rock, rap and soul that is uniquely their own. Sprout has emerged from an almost year long incubation of refining their vision and creating a new musical persona. The Tosspints have more edge than Burroughs - they are phenomenal. The Thunder Chickens squawk and cluck but continue to make great music and theater and garner an impressive following in towns and cities beyond our shallow borders. Melissa May is a force of nature! The Banana Convention is one of the most innovative bands in the area - they rock hard. Shar Molina is one of the premier vocalists in mid-Michigan. You’ve come along way, baby.
Tim Avram's Elastic fantastic acoustic auto erotic folk punkish rock & roll vision is our saving grace - modern spirituals with one foot in hell. Listen to the gospel. Brody and the Busch Road Trio are displaced Frankenmuth natives that are making a name for themselves. They are close musical cousins to the incredible Honky Tonk Zeros. Silverspork is a one of a kind metal band – smart, sexy and political with a little religion on the side - one of the best bands around. Tension Head is still #1 - OH YEAH! And the world is a better place because of the The Bearinger Boys’ vision and courage to tell it like it is. Matt Heller aka DJ Snakes almost single handedly brought back Hip Hop to Saginaw. Bobby Balderama, the legendary guitarist of Question Mark & the Mysterians, took everyone by surprise when he re-imagined the Mysterians as a cool jazz band.
The result was simply breathtaking. Diversity is the word - it is our heritage.

Perhaps the biggest issue in 2010 is the health of the music business. As it has been pointed out by several pundits in the last few years it’s not the music business that is dying. It is the CD business. Several factors are at work, including the decline in the popularity of the compact disc format, shrinking sales due to digital download services and file sharing, shifting business models and the rise of independent retailers. Ironically, this may create opportunity for our local bands to reach out to a national spotlight through technological advances in delivering music to their fans. This should reduce artists need to sign to a major label for financing and exposure.

In a recent interview Ian Rogers, the former head of Yahoo Music, responded to the fact that sales of CDs declined as the sales of digital files continued to spiral upward: “The lamenting we read in the press is not the story of the new music business. Continuing to talk about the health of the industry in these terms is as if we’d all been crying about the dying cassette business in 1995.”
He goes on to argue for a broader middle class of musicians who can support themselves – to make a living – by using the web to promote their music, live performances and merchandise. This would cause a power shift from labels to artists and create conditions for greater consumer choice.
In an article on the CNN Entertainment site entitled, Is the Death of the CD Looming?, Lisa Respers France noted that the Nielson SoundScan data revealed a sharp drop of CD sales from 147 million last July to 114 million as of July 2010. In 2007 CDs accounted for 90 percent of album sales with digital files accounting for the remaining 10 percent. By 2009 the figures shifted to 79 percent for CDs and 20 percent for digital downloads.
France quotes Billboard Senior Chart Manager Keith Caulfield: “Vinyl was the predominant configuration in the 50’s and 60’s all the way up through the 80’s and then cassettes became the predominant format in the early to mid 80’s to the very early 90’s. Then CDs became the predominant format and cassettes didn’t really go away until a few years ago. It’s a kind of natural progression, to a degree.”
Caufield sees the benefit of digital downloads as they can meet a demand almost instantaneously. He observed that a show like Glee or American Idol make songs instant hits because fans “have already heard and liked the song by the time they download it.”

The music industry is struggling with how music files can be safely stored. A recent article in Rolling Stone, File Not Found: The Record Industry’s Digital Storage Crisis by David Browne warns consumers that digital files are an unsafe storage medium and efforts to restore classic albums by the Cult and The Wallflowers were thwarted by missing data – entire tracks had disappeared! The Cult’s 1985 album Love contained only 80% of the album.
Browne advises us to back up our files on an external hard drive as Hard Drives do fail. He also suggests using quality files such as Apple Lossless and backing up your music on remote online “cloud” systems such as Carbonite.
Oh, and another thing - keep your CDs. Most discs in your collection should last another 30 years. Also…you should never throw away your vinyl collection. You should give it to me.

It is no wonder that the Music Industry is reconsidering its delivery system – how to get music to the consumer. It is a big issue locally. Recently I met with Sean Drysdale, the erstwhile monster bassist for the Banana Convention. We talked about the state of the music industry and the death of the Compact Disc. According to Sean, nobody really wants CDs anymore. He feels CDs are obsolete in the face of new technology – they just don’t give you a bang for your buck or the kind of musical experience sophisticated audiophiles demand. Sean gave this yellow thumb drive shaped like a banana. I inserted it into my USB port and like Alice peering through the Looking Glass I was transported to a magical land of color, music, videos, and photographs. I was able to see, hear and witness Banana Convention’s performances on the Warped Tour and their great show at Bemos. Links to You Tube will connect fans to other obscure BC performances. I listened to their incredible catalog of recorded music including Live @ White’s, Dirty Negatives, Freeze Dried Eclectic Singles, and Taking Back the Fun, and From the Vault (random singles, demos and rare tracks). The Banana Convention is certainly on to something incredibly daring. This multi-media presentation of all their “stuff” was blow-me-away impressive and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to produce - if you don’t include all the expense of making the CDs, art and video production. BC charges only $10 and it includes periodic updates of new content such as the recent uploads of new photos and a great Christmas track, The Bells Will Be Ringing. It’s like having a complete vinyl collection of your favorite artist.

The slow death of the compact disc format will no doubt make small and independent labels more powerful but the CD is not yet down for the count. CDs still make a whopping 7 billion a year. Not too shabby. The big companies are like Wall Street hustlers bidding up on derivatives. They have no clear vision and they aren’t grasping the big issues. It’s like the Titanic boldly cruising in the mid-Atlantic waters, gauging a successful passage in deep waters with state of the art equipment only to scrape past the tip of the iceberg and sink ignominiously. The big companies don’t know how to deal with the advent of file sharing, the growing influence of middle class musicians, and shifting egalitarian business models. The independents are ascending to the thrown.

The King is Dead. Long Live the King

Bo White

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