Friday, March 13, 2009

I've been wanting to post on so many things, but I think I underestimated the amount of interest I would have in updating my blog. It's simultaneously a great deal of interest, and yet not. I have a folder in my email with links I've sent myself, and beginning drafts on at least 5 or 6 different topics. My sister has also asked that I post on a specific topic, which I'm in the process of working on (it's a pretty involved topic - it's coming soon, I swear!). Eventually all of it will find it's way in here, but for now, I would like to give a few thoughts on the music industry.

A common misconception of the free-market Capitalism supporter is that he condones and supports any and all business ventures, including lobbying for Congress, etc. This is so far from the truth. Not all businessmen are Capitalists, and many are ignorant that actions such as lobbying to Congress for tariffs, parity prices, fixed rates, etc., in the long run don't help their business, and don't help the economy. While legislators and business lobbyists (as well as just about anyone else involved in public policy - the President, environmental lobbyists, cabinet members, etc.) claim to always be looking to the future and the "long-term consequences," this is rarely the case. While they may look at one long-term consequence pertaining to the sole business to which the new hypothetical law pertains, the effects felt in other areas are almost always overlooked. Often the government will enact legislation in support of lobbyists who claim that their industry needs to be "saved." This is what has increasingly been occuring in the music industry.

The controversy over illegal downloading has been a very interesting series of events to say the least. While I'm sympathetic to the loss this has resulted in, it's important to look at this through the lens of laissez-faire and progress. Illegal downloading has been going for what, ten years roughly? Yet illegally procuring your own copy of music and (increasingly) movies is nothing new. I was recently telling my boyfriend about the 80's miniseries Anne of Green Gables, which I love. When I was little, we used to have it on tape. We taped it on our VCR off the television; on the same tape we had the Wizard of Oz and Garfield Goes to Hollywood. It didn't stop there either, we had dozens of tapes with shows and movies recorded off the TV, not to mention even more cassette mix tapes with music recorded off the radio. Everyone was doing this. This was a widespread practice, and I don't remember anyone ever making much of a fuss about it. It got me thinking about what's going on now.

Of course, there are differences in downloading music and movies from the internet, and taping them from TV or the radio. First of all, buying the tapes needed to record either on cassette or TV were still a consumer purchase, whereas internet downloading is free of any cost whatsoever (except the internet connection and computer purchase). Also, selection was limited to singles played on the radio, and movies shown on TV, whereas internet downloading is as simple as finding one of the dozens of freeshare websites, or downloading torrents with entire albums, as well as torrents of virtually any movie one can think of. It's definitely an interesting predicament. Additionally, I want to acknowledge the problems with downloading music and copyrights, royalties, etc. I sympathize. But, when we get down to the root of the problem, these things are of little consequence.

One of the things Milton Friedman discusses in Free to Choose is the rally of governmental support to industries crying out to be saved. It happens all of the time, and is certainly nothing new to our times. In fact, it's an issue that has been going on for as long as industry has existed. It sounds noble and good to save an industry from collapsing (even if it's due to increasing irrelevance - no one ever wants to admit that part). Of course we want these people to have jobs, to have security, and to make a living. But… aren't they becoming irrelevent for a reason? Think of it logically, how absurd would it be if the government had stepped in and saved the loom industry, after textiles began being produced in factories? Or if we had stepped in to save the horse and buggy after the widespread implementation of the automobile? Or transistor radios, irrelevant children's toys, floppy discs, and so on? Industries die, it's a fact of life. There is no market out there for looms, floppy discs, or transistor radios, so what would be the point of keeping it alive when no one wants it?

Capitalism has allowed our society to achieve a completely unprecidented and almost unimaginable world of luxury and ease. We can afford to live in conditions more luxurious than even kings and emperors of just a century ago. And all for working 40 hours a week. Did this luxury come around because we continued to use outdated technologies and support businesses which produced nothing of value? No, no, no, no, no. Things become obsolete, and that's all there is to it, but the way some people speak, one would think that the workers losing their jobs are doomed never to work again. But that's the genius of the market, of Capitalism, and of western society. We are constantly changing, moving, inventing, and making our lives easier. New industries open up where others die. Think of all the jobs provided by the boom of the computer industry. How many jobs have been created in graphic design, programming, retail, and even jobs made possible by the mere use of computers! It's an amazing and beautiful thing.

The government and the business world need to face the music (pun not originally intended, but after I re-read the sentence, I realized the pun and loved it). The music industry as we used to know it is long dead. What is the purpose of scrambling to keep things the way they used to be? Whether they know it or not, the purpose is to stop progress - it's the logical consequence of their actions. Look at the changes that have gone on inside the industry as it remains. Independent music has never been so easily accessible; it's given successful carreers to countless unknown names, who have then gone on tour (increasingly where the money is) and spread their music around even more. It's been a boon to so many, many people; it's definitely made my life much happier. My life would not be the same if I didn't listen to the music I do, and I would have never have found out about a great majority of it were it not for illegal downloading. Who knows, I may not even have my beloved if not for the widespread music listening downloading has entailed. Take this even further, and you can see all the jobs made possible in support of artists on tour, the careers of the artists themselves, who probably would never have made it out of local bars and clubs (which a lot of independent artists still play, even with their newfound underground fame) without the boon of downloading. And entire websites, e-zines, etc., that have risen as a result in this explosion of music interest. When looked at through this lens, is the music industry really in trouble? It looks more like it's thriving!

Complainers inside the music industry make it seem as if they've been around forever. The truth is, the music industry ideal they refer to began with the Beatles (and on a side note not a single music artist in years has been able to repeat the success of Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, or David Bowie, let alone the Beatles; to have that kind of widespread appeal that makes one able to have a double digit platinum album - what do they expect? With the hundreds of music varieties now in popular rotation, could any one artist garner that sort of universal appeal? Coldplay and Radiohead probably come the closest, but sales wise they are just a shadow of the awesome might of the Beatles). After that, they enjoyed nearly 40 years of uninterrupted prosperity . It would indeed be frustrating to have to adjust to something so abrupt, and so detrimental to your livelihood. But isn't this what a business should expect? It's competition, pure and simple. There is no longer a market for music as it used to be. And it will be impossible to stop it. Everyone believed the end of Napster would signal the end of illegal downloading. Ten years later and it's more prevalent, easier, and faster than anyone would have believed, even in the late nineties when the internet was really taking off.

We are told that illegal downloading is wrong, that it hurts the musicians, and all the people associated with them. But as far as I can tell, the only thing that's happened in the past 10 years has been an increase in musicians, or at least the public's awareness of them. They say illegal downloading is wrong because it cuts out the middleman, though in terms much more flattering to the role of middleman (especially in the music industry, where corruption is widespread and despicable). Music hasn't stopped being made; producers, session musicians, bands, and songwriters are all getting work. People are still going on tour, providing plenty of work for stage managers, back-up dancers, costume designers, club owners, not to mention the record labels and artists themselves from ticket sales and merchandise. Vendors set up shops at music festivals that sell food and alcohol. Huge companies sponsor these festivals and increase their business.

And we haven't even looked at the numbers yet. From all reports I've seen, the percentage of people downloading illegally, versus the people still buying cd's (which seem almost laughably outdated at this point) or downloading legally via iTunes or Amazon is still very skewed. It begs the question, is illegally downloading really the cause of the music industry's collapse, or is it the scapegoat? Maybe the mainstream music industry just doesn’t produce good music anymore. And how reliable are these statistics? Black market sales are never anything more than estimates.
I saw it mentioned on some (socialist) music website complaining of the prevalence of illegal downloading (and crying for more government control) that the artists have to "peddle" merchandise at their concerts to cover costs, and a bunch of other rubbish. Let's get one thing straight. NO ONE IS FORCING ANYONE TO DO ANYTHING. If the artists or anyone else involved in the music have a problem with how their industry has to operate IN REALITY, then they have no business being there.

One thing is for certain. If the option is there, a great majority of people will opt for the free one. Maybe it's time industries adapted to what the consumers and the market are actually telling them, rather than trying to manipulate it to serve their purposes. It's impossible to base your expectations of the world on wishes rather than reality and not be dissappointed. The music industry (and I mean the music industry as an entire whole - from big record labels to the indiest and everything inbetween) needs to see reality for what it is. A market has opened up where a consumer can get his music for free. Either use the ingenuity found in the field to make something bigger and better, or shut up and shut down. The market has spoken, and there is no demand for your products the way you want to sell them. You made your choice when you lobbied and bullied to shut down Napster; rather than seeing it as the beginning of the wave of the future (which it clearly was) and jumping on the bandwagon, you chose to shut it down, somehow believing that cd's would be around forever (just like horse buggies and astrolabes are still around... wait, what?). Fighting the market only leads to catastrophe, as America should know all too well at this point. Interfere, and the consequences will come back to haunt you. If this is the kind of fight the music industry is going to put up when all people are doing is refusing their services, then good riddance. I guess you don't know as much about business as you thought you did.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Soft Bulletin

It's happened! Just when I think I'm doomed to another bored stretch of not having a current music obsession, I chance upon another gem. This time in the form of The Flaming Lips masterpiece The Soft Bulletin.

It didn't take long at all to draw me into their beauteous psychadelia. I got the album over the weekend, and listened to it for the first time on Monday while at work. It was exactly the kind of rush I hope for in newly discovered music. The songs were badly labeled, and it was out of order (two things that I hate; I'm a total nut for having an organized music library), but I fixed that as soon as I got home. I don't like to use shuffle when listening to a full album - if by chance the artist actually had the time and scope to make an album, versus a collection of good singles and filler, I like to be able to listen to it as it was intended and gain that big picture perspective of the music. But even with the initial out-of-order listening, I knew that I'd found something good. I didn't have any standout songs yet, but I knew that they were there. And the album as a whole was just so incredibly beautiful; I knew it would become one of my regular rotations. And as I expected, over the past week the album and the band have become one of my new favorites.

I had never listened to The Flaming Lips before, other than "She Don't Use Jelly" and that song they played in Batman Forever; "In Your Dreams" or something. And I'm sure there have been other unknown listens on my part. It's not like The Flaming Lips are a super obscure band.
I was very impressed, upon my initial listen, with "Race For the Prize," "Slow Motion," and "Waiting for Superman." Over the rest of the week, I've come to adore "Buggin'" (the harmonies and what sound like harp flourishes are to die for), "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate," and "Sleeping on the Roof"; the latter two and "Slow Motion" probably being my top favorites on the album as a whole (so far). There aren't many pure instrumentals which I enjoy as much as songs with lyrics. There are a few instrumentals which I do enjoy as much as or even more than some lyrical songs (some random Sufjan Stevens and Cut Copy interludes, and "Lamb on the Lam" by Band of Horses come to mind). "Sleeping on the Roof" may be poised to become my most favorite one of all.

There is a recurring theme in the music. It's almost melancholy. My impression of the album was that it was about death, and how it's inextricably connected to life. The songs reference wounds, blood, death, keeping up the fight, but with each of these grim references is an accompanying reference to love. It never connotates violence, but the simple fact that death is around us, that it's a part of life, but there is still unspeakable beauty in the fight for life and love. Lead singer Wayne Coyne's tenor, almost boyish voice is a perfect compliment, adding even more depth and sincerity to the music and lyrics.

There is a great quality to the music. It's layered, but not too dense. There's a lot of reverb on guitar, which is one of my favorite effects. I had never given much thought to the term psychadelic pop before, but that's definitely what this is. It has an almost Dark Side of the Moon quality to it.

I'm always happy to have good, new music. I love discovering and exploring a new sound, a new voice, a new musical technique. Just like in any industry, there has to be those producers - the ones who create and challenge and discover new ways of making melodies, changing the way we think of music. Nothing can accurately describe the effect an extremely well crafted album can have on a person. It happens when I listen to a lot of my favorite artists; I hear the bounce and pop of "Soon" by My Bloody Valentine, the epic 16 minute "Only Skin" by Joanna Newsom, the simple bassline and drumbeat of "Our Swords" by Band of Horses, or "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead (which pretty much defies description), and I feel so lucky and so blessed to be able to listen to and enjoy a true artist. Someone (or a bunch of someones) who followed a vision for a new sound, a new concept, and succeeded. One of my favorite things about Loveless and Joanna Newsom's Ys is that the artists knew what they wanted, and they didn't let their vision be affected by anyone else's opinion. Joanna Newsom knew that her album would be a little hard to swallow (it's only five songs, and "Cosmia" is the only one under nine minutes - it's about 7), but she didn't let that stop her creation. Loveless took over two stressful, only spradically productive years to create; MBV's record label even refused to work with Kevin Shields afterwards, because he was such a perfectionist. There are times when compromise is beneficial; Joanna Newsom had to work together with Van Dyke Parks to ensure the orchestra fit well with her songs and her harp, and that she fit well with them. But in the end, a very personal dream was realized. Too much compromise on an artistic work is never good; the outcome of committee thinking is never good - it's an average on an average (just think of network television). It's the artist's work, and they made it for themselves. This staunchness in holding on to one's vision is what makes these albums so great. Well, that and the superb talent of the artists.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Why so serious?

Although it has really nothing to do with anything I ever post in here, I thought this was too hilarious not to share. See, I'm not always so serious.