Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Remix, remake, rethink, redo

I'm an old fart. I figure I'm supposed to be excited about this victory of the Marvin Gaye Estate over Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. After all, those guys are obviously fucking assholes and brought the whole damn thing on themselves by being fucking assholes.

Not to mention, Thicke was the first modern singer to test my philosophy that people getting older reject newer music at some point as some kind of natural cycle. I mean, sure, there's been lots of music in recent years I don't like, but that I just didn't like in the same way I didn't like music from my generation or from the generation previous. It's just normal old shitty. Seeing Thicke somewhere was the first, and still only, time I saw a musical artist that just fucking pissed me off because of the purity of its awfulness, and how incredibly far that awfulness existed away from anything I've ever considered entertainment.

So, seeing that fuckstick brought down should really bring me pleasure.

But it doesn't.

Because it's wrong.

Here's The "Blurred Lines" Verdict Is Bad News, Even If You Hate Robin Thicke by Michaelangelo Matos, which makes a lot of good points on the matter. Probably better than the one's I'll make.

The thing is, though, I realized I can't say John Fogerty was right in his victory over Saul Zaentz for the claim that The Old Man is Down the Road infringed on Fogerty's earlier composition of Run Through the Jungle or that Morris Levy was wrong in his claim against John Lennon that Come Together infringes on You Can't Catch Me by Chuck Berry and then say these assholes's shitty song was legitimately plagiarism of Gaye's Got To Give It Up and not be a goddamn hypocrite.

So, no, I don't think this was a good decision. Unlike Matos, I don't think it will set any incredible precedent. Frankly, it's not even as shitty as that Levy/Lennon case, although, since that was settled and not decided in court, it's a different legal beast.

The thing is, without even having a strong opinion on the merits of this case, I'm nervous about any of these kinds of decisions. I'm deeply skeptical of recent changes to Intellectual Property law and our societal view of Intellectual Property. I'm not sure I agree with every word, but I'm generally on board with the thinking presented in Why Piracy is Good and Copyright Sucks by Lloyd Kaufman. I certainly think that we need to return the value of the public domain to the public and to the arts as part of the conversation, from which it's been largely removed since the Copyright Act of 1976.

The fact is, I'm a fan of remix culture. I'm a fan of it with the growth of the blues and how those guys riffed off each other and, by today's standards, ripped each other off, building it into new things, up to, and including, the birth of rock & roll.

And I love cover songs. Not all of them. Not even necessarily most of them. But the idea of them.

Look, Louie Louie by Richard Berry is a modest and pleasant little doo-wop song. It isn't until The Wailers got a hold of it did it turn into what we all know it as, a stomping garage rock classic.

Even then, I don't think it really came to all it could be until The Sonics recorded their take in that style that it really turned into all it could be, and that's the only version I ever listen to simply for entertainment at this point.

But we're still in the range of perfectly legal, paid for cover songs. Let's look at some plagiarism.

Let me introduce you to You Need Love, written by Willie Dixon and performed by Muddy Waters. It's a solid, groovy little blues number.

What it's not is great. Dixon and Waters were both great, together and separately, but this is one of their lesser songs. I mean that as a compliment. Not many people's lesser songs are anywhere near that good.

On the other hand...

... Whole Lotta Love finds Led Zeppelin undeniably rips it off. The vocal melody is very much the same and many of the lyrics are even identical and the rest follow the same established patterns. Zeppelin's version takes it to another planet. It breathes and screams and bleeds.

And a lot of the things that give it that life are things that are unlikely to have happened if they had done a straight cover. It's most likely the very things that went into thinking they were twisting it into a whole new song that makes it so special. The fact that they failed at making it an entirely new entity feels nearly irrelevant when you consider it in this light.

It's in this light that I think the problem with movie remakes.

Fogies my age like to bitch about the fact that they remade Robocop. I think the problem is that only risk averse corporations remake these things. Frankly, they're generally not any worse than the other risk averse bullshit the studios put out. It's the fact that they're so obviously risk averse when compared to originals that are so fully of life, vigor and creativity that makes remakes more frustrating.

Imagine a world in which smaller, ballsier studios or independent producers could do with something like that. They could bring in a Carpenter, Cronenberg or Kaufman onto it. Not to mention, the risk averse studios would have to face the risk that their remake could be blown out of the water by the more interesting remake.

As with everyone else, I don't have an answer. This is another conundrum that lacks an easy answer.

The problem is, we're all treating it like it has one and that we've settled on it. I think we need to open it up a lot.

And, y'know, Free Thicke! Or something...

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Spotify and the death of Rock

So, I write Rock, RIP, which I'd had in mind for a while, and then this happens: Taylor Swift Catalog Removed From Spotify by Andrew Flanagan.

Not exactly, of course. Actually, I knew that story, but ignored it.

Because I don't care.

I literally have no opinion on Taylor Swift, including on her decision to pull her music from Spotify.

Author Laird Barron shared this article, Rich as Fuck Taylor Swift Pulls All Her Music Off Spotify by Aleksander Chan. I have an opinion on this article, that I share with Mr. Barron, is complete fucking horseshit, but still no opinion on Ms. Swift or her decision.

In the discussion there, Making Cents by Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi was posted. I believe there are some similar articles out there, mostly by artists at a similar level of success. He raises a lot of interesting questions about services like Spotify. Some people respond to that with "Buy physical media!" as a conclusive answer. I'm sure Ms. Swift, and others like her, would largely accept if we all simply made a direct purchase, even if that is a download file from or iTunes, and I'll take that as the default position in this discussion, as I think too much of that discussion is different.

Of course, that assumes that's the whole question of Spotify and such, doesn't it?

On the other hand, I have a lot of Spotify playlists, and Pandora stations, for that matter, that play mostly things I own. Let's look at Kiss, because they played such a part in the last post and have a number of other points worth noting. So, I have over the years purchased quite a number of Kiss albums. This does not include their output between Animalize and Revenge. I was given the Kiss Box Set as a gift and that does include songs from that period.

For me, having that Spotify playlist means I don't have to rip and re-rip all of those CDs or move them around from device to device, even though I do own the physical versions. So, if I'm listening to Kiss on my phone as I ride the bus, every fraction of a cent Kiss gets from my listening is on top of the money I've already spent. And, in the case of albums I've never bought and never will buy, a couple extra fractions of a cent for the small number of songs I do have on there despite never having purchased.

Off the top of my head, this is also true for 7 Year Bitch, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Alice Cooper, Steve Earle, Roky Erickson, Hank3, Judas Priest, MC5, The Monkees, Motörhead, Rick Nelson, Nirvana, Prince, Van Halen, The Velvet Underground and ZZ Top.

Almost all of the times I'm listening to those artists on Spotify, it's because I'm away from the physical media. Every fraction of a cent made from those listens is on top of the money I've already spent on the physical media. And I don't have to worry about how much space is on my phone which albums are or aren't ripped to my laptop if I'm out. Nor do I have to be concerned what mood I might be in before I leave. Worse than that, the night before I leave.

Is that the only thing I use it for? Well, of course not. As I said before, I discover new artists, which again, might be fractions of a penny, but is fractions of a penny more than the nothing they'd make if I never heard of them, so that's something. And it's worth more than just those fractions of a penny. It's also the shares of their music I might make on social media as well as normal day-to-day social being. Not to mention, potential purchases down the road when I have the money to afford to make purchases such as that, not to mention live shows I might attend or t-shirts I might get.

Does all that add up? Well, obviously not.

Plenty of other people are only listening to these albums on Spotify and honestly, as much as I'd like to claim better, I'm moving that way myself, and I love to buy stuff and own stuff.

The trouble I have with the whole rock is dead rhetoric is that it assumes that the world gone by is an ideal and we're moving away from that ideal.

But who all was that an ideal for? Big, big artists. Big, big record companies.

And while Mr. Krukowski's article raises the concerns that this new market is worse, or, at best, not better for smaller artists. That's something I think we need to look for improvements to the new ways for. The old way isn't coming back, and for the most part I think "Good fucking riddance!"

The general success of iTunes and Spotify shows that convenience was at least as big an issue as price.

As I said, and let me be blunt, I am paying a monthly charge for a service that allows me the convenience of playing every Nirvana song wherever I want to listen to them, even though I've already bought all of their fucking albums already! More than goddamn once!

So, instead of focusing the dialog on why the new ways are inherently bad, let's look to what we want them to become. Have we even begun that conversation? I haven't heard it at all.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Rock, RIP

As I'm sure most people who would end up here know, Gene Simmons, professional asshole, has declared that "Rock is finally dead."

Yeah, it was almost two months ago and I would have as much as forgotten it if there weren't still responses coming in.

Joe Perry, of the former rock band Aerosmith and formerly of the criminally underrated Joe Perry Project, said, "I think he’s right in the sense that this whole era of rock & roll has dwindled down to literally a cottage industry."

Dee Snider, of, or formerly of, Twister Sister, said "Yes, the rock & roll 'business model' that helped Kiss (and my band for that matter) achieve fame and fortune is most certainly long dead and buried, but rock & roll is alive and well and thriving on social media, in the streets, and in clubs and concert halls all over the world. And the bands playing it are more genuine and heartfelt than ever because they are in it for one reason: the love of rock & roll."

Weirdly, despite how we go about putting it, we all kind of agree, don't we?

We can fuss over the details, and there's some good details to fuss over, but yes, thirty-odd years after punk rock set about trying to kill the dinosaurs that preceded it, I think they are slowly falling and there isn't a lot ready to take the place. What's the era of the last group of rock bands that can tour arenas and charge $100+ a ticket? Early '00s maybe? I'm not sure who that might be, but that sounds right.

My question is, was that ever a good thing? Was that ever a "rock & roll" thing? I remember is being a big argument in the '70s and '80s, but that kind of died out and we all learned to accept that seeing big rock bands at big arenas was what you did. And then bands like The Eagles started making you pay extremely high ticket prices along with your shitty seat and shitty sound.

I spent 20-odd years grouchy that I never saw the David Lee Roth led Van Halen in 1984. In 2007, on their reunion tour, there were a number of reasons I absolutely could not make it work, although money was certainly the top of the list. But, without that issue, working steadily and all of that, excited about a solid new album, I was ready to make it happen in 2012.

Somehow, looking at the prices and what I was getting for them, I opted to stay home. I'd have paid those kinds of prices to see Van Halen specifically, and probably a couple of bands I have a similar high regard for, in a large theater. I'd also, in only a couple of cases at this point, consider paying something like half the prices being charged to see them in a shitty arena from lousy seats with lousy sound.

That's not me complaining about how Van Halen, Kiss or The Rolling Stones go about their process. It's simply me, making a decision about what is a valuable use of my time and money, having some experience using it in various ways over the years.

It's how capitalism works.

As long as enough people want to see those kinds of shows enough to pay those kinds of prices, they will keep putting them on and making that kind of money. I don't begrudge them that.

It does, of course, also mean, if other people start joining me in staying home, we're not killing rock, we're making a decision. In fact, some of us might even be specifically shifting our spending dollars to more small bands, local shows and such. When we're at those shows, we might feel more of the energy and spirit that attracted us to rock & roll in the first place. Yes, all that stuff that Dee Snider said. Don't think I didn't notice that.

It feels to me that when Simmons says "Rock is dead", he's talking about the part of rock I wasn't that happy about it anyway.

Lady Gaga and Katy Perry make more sense to me in an arena to me. I suppose another rock fan might mean that as a dismissal of those performers, and I don't mean it that way. I do mean that they're welcome to that and, I suspect there will always be a place for that kind of spectacle, but it might not always involve distorted guitars.

I don't care what it involves, because I'm not especially interested in it.

What do I think about the possibilities for future musicians in terms of making a living or, we'd hope in special cases, do better than that?

This is no small thought for me. I have musician friends and more than that a music obsessed toddler that I'd like to be able to dream could make a success of himself in that, if it continues to be something he's interested in.

Here we see the stories about the death of platinum records all around, which people see as the musical apocalypse. We have David Byrne, formerly of Talking Heads, telling us "The internet will suck all creative content out of the world."

Maybe he's right.

I don't know.

Let me say this. I have a dream for Kim and I. I'd love it if between us we could make twice what we make now from self-directed creative work. It's a modest amount, I promise. I'd be happy to make that solid committed goal. But we could augment that with seasonal work, outside our self-directed creative work, too.

And I wouldn't make that a final goal, if we reached it, but I'd be ecstatic if we reached it and never exceeded it. I think I'd be happy if Conan were able to earn something in that range.

I live in Austin now, which bills itself as the Live Music Capitol of the World. People make money playing music here all over without ever becoming ZZ Top

(And, yes, I know they're from Houston.)

I know that with streaming services like Pandora and especially Spotify, I'm able to listen to a lot of things I wouldn't have before.

As examples off the top of my head, I've been listening to Honkeyfinger and The Detroit Cobras, both of whom were recommended to me by Spotify, based on my listening.

I've been listening to more of The Melvins than I'd gotten around to before, including side projects, etc., and found out how fucking awesome they are, when before I had merely liked them casually. That led me to finally checking out Fu Manchu, who I'd been skeptical of, but I really, really dig now.

Now I'm recommending Daikaiju and Betty Davis, both of which I have paid for physical media of, and Lexington, a fantastic jazz album by the great Wayne Kramer. Now, you can check them out, now matter how skeptical of my taste you might be.

How many of those would I have found through other means? I don't know. When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I spent a lot of time and money finding all of the music I might like. It took a lot of time and a lot of money.

As other things filled in the amount of time and money I had to spare, less went into finding new and interesting groups. I learned some, of course, from people around and happening upon articles in local newspapers and social media, but not as much and not as often.

Me learning less new bands is good for Gene Simmons. I already know his band. As I've detailed, I already like his band. The old way is better for him, worse for me.

The new way is better for me as a listener. Is it better for smaller bands? I think that's the question we're still learning the answer to. Some people have a lot of grand hopes and horrifying fears, which are both almost certainly wrong, because things very rarely turn out as good or as bad as the most extreme prognosticators tell us they will.

So, for me, who dreams of making a middle class living through art and maybe dreams the same for his so, which system sounds like it has more potential to help me and mine, not only as consumers, but as potential creators?

It's not the old way.
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