Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Updates to the Fingertips Top 10

The Fingertips Current Top 10 now looks like this:

1. "He Keeps Me Alive" - Sally Shapiro
2. "Parables" - Rebekah Higgs
3. "Cherry Tulips" - Headlights
4. "Boys" - the Autumns
5. "The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing" - I Am Bones
6. "Gila" - Beach House
7. "Saturday Night" - Pale Young Gentlemen
8. "The Silence Between Us" - Bob Mould
9. "Heaven" - Club 8
10. "On the Chin" - Grey Race

The most recent addition was the number four song, "Boys," by the Autumns, but lots of changes have been made since the last blog post about the chart back in late November.

The Fingertips Current Top 10 is an ever-shifting listing of ten extra-good free and legal MP3s, worth keeping an eye on if you can't keep up with the posted songs week to week. You may want to check the Retired Top 10 page too, for that matter--lots of good stuff to be had there that you also may have missed.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Another batch of Fingertips MP3s, always free and legal

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Jan. 27-Feb. 2)

"Power" - Nick Jaina
     A brisk but elegiac piano sequence, underscored by some spooky strings, leads us directly into the intriguing melody of this new song from the Portland, Ore.-based singer/songwriter Nick Jaina. I've been trying to put my finger on just what makes the tune so compelling, and I'm thinking it has something to do with Jaina's prominent use of semitones, or half steps, which is not something you hear a lot of in indie rock, or classic rock, or any other kind of rock or pop for that matter. The half step is the smallest commonly recognized interval between notes in Western music, and the most dissonant when played in combination. When related within a melody, however, strange and wonderful moods emerge. Listen to how the notes he sings on the words "of the moon" (0:34) and "sacred tune" (0:37) sound so divergent, so firmly separated, and yet lo and behold they are only a half step apart. The illusion is achieved by his returning, in between, to the same notes he was singing leading into the "moon" part. So what we're hearing is not just the half-step difference in the end notes but the significant difference in sonic relationship between the top and bottom notes in the two segments (i.e. the "moon" segment and the "tune" segment). More semitones are used, in sequence, as the melody line resolves (0:38-0:42).
     And I know, this kind of thing sounds neither exciting nor, often, comprehensible in an attempted written explication. And worse, with pop music in particular, I'm always caught in the awkward position of claiming treasure in a seeming musical trifle. What I describe here, after all, is no stunning revelation in music theory land. But the very thing that causes many classical aficionados to stiff at the simplicity of pop music is, I would contend, pop's very strength--what Proust, of all people, referred to as "the magic appeal to the imagination" found in things that those interested only in "intellectual weightiness" would condemn as "frivolous."
     Then again, maybe I'm all wrong. Maybe the song is compelling because Jaina was playing on Elliott Smith's old upright piano. Jaina was the last person to play it before it was given to the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Or maybe it's compelling simply because Jaina--itinerant, whimsical, a former archaeology student--is himself compelling, in a quirky sort of way. "Power" is from the CD Wool, Jaina's second, and his first for the Hush label. (He recorded the vocals for the album in his kitchen, "refrigerator unplugged so as to be quiet, food slowly spoiling," according to his web site.) Expect Wool in early March. MP3 courtesy of Hush; lead courtesy of the indefatigable Largehearted Boy.

"Warning" - Wye Oak
     This is an unusually breezy-sounding setting in which to encounter such fuzzy/droney guitars. And yet therein lies a good part of the appeal. So here we have vocalist Jenn Wasner, lightly, airily singing the sing-song-y tune to a perky, march-like beat, and listen to what-all is going on around her: extended drones of feedback-laced guitars, rising and falling according to their own logic, existing in their own time and space. Seriously, after the lead guitar offers a fuzzed-up version of the main melody in the introduction, we don't hear anything straightforward out of the guitars for quite a while. Try listening to this and imagining the song without either the vocals or the drums and you'll see how driven by entrancing noise the piece actually is. I particularly enjoy the instrumental breaks, which begin with a vague effort to give us the opening riff again, but it never manages to emerge completely amidst the semi-chaos; the second and longer of the two breaks, beginning at 2:04, has the happy Yo La Tengo-ish capacity to sound simultaneously crazed and cozy.
     Listen also to the shifty time signatures. The sing-song-y, march-beat-ed verse is given a rhythmic tweak by a dropped beat in the fourth measure. This creates an extra dollop of semi-chaos in the instrumental sections connecting the verses, during which the beat of the entire song seems to have been misplaced. And then the chorus, or what passes for a chorus here, re-establishes some sonic order but all of a sudden, somehow, we're in 6/4 (or 6/8?) time. For all the noise, this is one smooth song.
     You'll find "Warning" on the CD If Children, slated for release in April on Merge Records. The Baltimore duo Wye Oak, by the way, was until earlier this month a band called Monarch; a self-released version of If Children was put out originally last year under the old name. The change was prompted by the existence of (at least) two other bands named Monarch, and was no doubt connected to their Merge signing. The Wye Oak, you may as well know, was the honorary state tree of Maryland--it was a specific tree, of great renown, that was believed to be more than 450 years old when it was, alas, destroyed in a storm in 2002.

"Sad Songs" - the Pendletons
     I'm never sure quite how or why it happens, but sometimes a song that seems at one level a pretty basic genre exercise at another level rises way above that for me. "Sad Songs" is an excellent example. A stompy, country-tinged garage rocker, there's something in the basic vibe that sounds like it's been cycling through rootsy musical ensembles since the dawn of time. Or at least since the 1950s. When the melody is so strongly rooted in a classic rhythm like this (Johnny Cash, anyone?), that's a sign of a genre exercise. And there's nothing wrong with that; it just doesn't tend too often to inspire a melody-oriented listener like me.
     But here are four relative youngsters from Athens, Georgia, cranking it up and cranking it out and what do you know?: it's a blast. Why? No doubt the appeal has something to do with the energy of the playing. Check out, for instance, the speedy, stuttering guitar riff that anchors the end of each verse, at the "no no no" part (for instance, at 0:30)--it's done with this tight-loose sort of accuracy that conveys an image to me of everyone in the band moving up and down in unison to the stutter of that little lick, in a manner at once comical and serious. And listen by all means to drummer Ben DuPriest, who bashes and bangs and still keeps a train-like pulse; he manages to sound rowdy and polite at the same time. Oh, and don't miss (e.g. 0:39) the thrilling, brilliant mini-rolls (are these paradiddles? I'm not up on my drumming lingo) that he uses to puncutate each lyrical line in the chorus, except the last. Maybe that's what's doing it for me. The (maybe) paradiddles.
     "Sad Songs" is from the Pendletons' debut CD, Oh, Me!, which was released electronically this summer on the digital label Indie Outlaw.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The latest free and legal MP3 from Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Jan. 20-26)

"Boys" - the Autumns
     Riveting, dramatic, slightly breathless, and thoroughly satisfying, "Boys" is the perfect soundtrack somehow to a crisp blue January day, even if the band is named the Autumns, not the Winters. The song opens with a distinctive drumbeat that launches us into an edgy, unusually dynamic melody. The edginess comes from two elements: first, the melody appears to start off the tonic--that is, the tune begins within a chord that is somehow not home base, which is an unusual circumstance, especially in a pop song; second, the melody never in fact seems to settle in a place that feels centered. The third and fourth measures are the closest we get to a "home" feeling, harmonically, and even there it's vague and fleeting; after that, the melody in the verse springs from an almost startling series of chord changes.
     And the band is really just getting started at that point. The chorus continues the kinetic vibe: an angular guitar chord--another off-center thing--leads us into a soaring section in which singer Matthew Kelly, leaping up a minor sixth (0:26), shows off a formidable falsetto; here the melodic momentum is such that it seems to be dragging Kelly along with it, the way the tide moves the water but is not the water: up and down he goes, in and out of his upper range, and in and out of singing actual words--the lyrics break for a stretch of wordless syllables right in the heart of the chorus (which themselves mirror the underlying drumbeat), and the effect is of a song overcome by its own fervor.
     Perhaps long-time Fingertips visitors remember the L.A.-based Autumns from three years ago, when they were featured here for the song "Slumberdoll." That was darn good; this is truly great. "Boys" is a song from the CD Fake Noise From a Box of Toys, the band's fourth, which was released in the U.K. in the fall, and is slated for a U.S. release in April on Bella Union.

"Bag of Hammers" - Thao With the Get Down Stay Down
     Thao Nguyen has a woolly-textured, back-of-the-throat sort of voice that brings to mind Erica Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards. Thao has an airier air about her, however--a feeling supported by the cheery banjo with which she chooses to accompany herself and the sprightly, slightly cockeyed rhythm that bounces us along. The jaunty guilelessness on display in fact puts me in the mind of the sound pioneered by Talking Heads in their early recordings: this sense of simple yet off-kilter music that surprises even the people playing it, as they play it.
     Nguyen, from Virginia, released her first CD in 2005, a solo effort entitled Like the Linen. The disc eventually found its way to Tucker Marine, who plays with Laura Veirs and has produced the Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens. And now, also, he has produced We Brave Bee Stings and All, Thao's second full-length, recorded with her band, to be released later this month on Kill Rock Stars (that's a record label). "Bag of Hammers" is the album's second track.

"Him" - Biirdie
     This one features both a classic-sounding melody, almost folk-like in its sturdiness, and an ongoing urge to deconstruct it. Sometimes oddball electronics wander in. Other times, the band grinds itself more or less to a halt, just when you were air drumming to the Phil Spector-ish beat. The bass, meanwhile, seems to come and go, and when present opts often for extended notes rather than a typical, rhythm-oriented pulse. And how often does the worn-out sounding male vocalist get a sweetly harmonizing female vocalist to sing with? Not very often is the answer.
     So this trio calling itself Biirdie--oops, another L.A. outfit this week--kind of makes you listen more than once. Much the way their name kind of makes you look more than once. In the old days, by the way, I'd find the oddly-spelled name somewhat irritating. But here in the Google Age, the name is a boon: search on "Biirdie" and you pretty much get stuff about them and only them. However accidental the origin--they had wanted merely to be Birdie but there was already a Birdie band--the strategy appears sound. I fear a trend coming on.
     You'll find "Him" on the CD Catherine Avenue, coming out this week on Love Minus Zero Records.

Monday, January 14, 2008

More high-quality free and legal MP3s from Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Jan. 13-19)

"Cherry Tulips" - Headlights
     At once delicate and sturdy, quirky and poppy, summery and somehow wintery too, "Cherry Tulips" embraces a seemingly endless series of opposites--in addition to containing the aforementioned dialectics, the song strikes me likewise as both lo-fi and polished, retro-y and current, crisp and echoey. And if that's not enough, singer/keyboardist Erin Fein manages to be at once airy and substantive, both forthright and mysterious.
     Or maybe I just can't make up my mind today.
     I do know that I'm enjoying this one without reservation, from the shadowy opening heart-throb pulse through the sped-up Motown rhythm and maybe most especially the soaring, melodic, call-and-response payoff in the chorus, which enlarges the song in a way I can only describe as florally. Headlights is a trio from the Champaign, Illinois area; "Cherry Tulips" arrives in advance from the band's second CD, Some Racing, Some Stopping, scheduled for release next month on Polyvinyl Records. MP3 via Polyvinyl.

"Gila" - Beach House
     Sometimes it'll be one melody that does it, one melody that is robust and agreeable enough to hang a song upon. And "Beach House," a languorous new song from the Balitmore duo Beach House, gives us that melody as its opening salvo, the first thing we hear from singer Alex Scally's mouth: a dreamy, downward-tending progression that's actually two lazily swinging four-note descents tucked into one another. Drenched in reverb, steamy organ, and unplaceable atmosphere, the melody hooks me for good the second time, when the upturn at the end disappears; the simple act of staying on the same note one extra time changes the chord, the mood, the trajectory of the song on the spot (compare 0:25-0:26 to 0:32-0:33 and see if you feel it.)
     Now normally I'm not sure I enjoy songs with quite this much blurry reverb, but I realize in listening that it's not the blurry reverb that bothers me per se, it's the tendency for songs with a lot of blurry reverb to be blurry through and through--indistinct melody, hazy structure, vague instrumentation, vague everything. "Gila" is exactly not that; it's as precisely crafted as they come, in which case the smeary touch of the reverb offers an enriching counterpoint, in maybe the same sort of way it works when a happy-sounding song has sad lyrics, or a song with fast underlying rhythm has a slow melody. Listen in particular to the guitar, which plays chord-free accompaniment throughout, offering nicely-etched lines that curl in and around the vocal melody.
     "Gila" comes from the band's forthcoming CD, Devotion, which will be released next month on Carpark Records. MP3 courtesy of Pitchfork.

"Henri" - the Heavy Circles
     In one of the more unusual multi-generational (but not really) musical couplings in recent memory, Edie Brickell has teamed up with her stepson, Harper Simon, to put out an album as an entity called the Heavy Circles. Simon is Brickell's husband Paul Simon's son from his first marriage, and I said multi-generational "but not really" because as it turns out, Brickell is only six and a half years older than stepson Simon, who's 35.
     And here they are, serving up an offbeat, atmospheric homage (it seems) to French painter Henri Matisse, describing Matisse's imagery via a hypnotic rhyme scheme over a circular, spy-movie motif, fleshed out with some cinematic synthesizers and the barest touch of crunchy guitar. I'm not sure there's any more point to it than there was when the elder Simon sang rapturously, and surreally, about René Magritte back when Brickell was a teenager. But it draws me in and then--nicely--lets me go, without fuss. Songs under three minutes always score extra points with me.
     But: combine the son of a '60s and '70s icon with a woman most often considered an '80s one-hit wonder and the cool factor is way low on this one; I'll be surprised if the blogosphere pays much positive attention. But I've always admired the clear-voiced Brickell as a singer; maybe this collaboration will help her shed her outdated public identity.
     The self-titled CD, to be self-released on a label called Dynamite Child, is, yet again, due out next month.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Sound of a Brand New World - part two

(And now, part two of the Fingertips Commentary piece examining the In Rainbows phenomenon. Read part one, below, or see the entire essay--plus footnotes--on the main Fingertips site.)

However the the music industry in the digital age unfolds, rest assured that these five usually overlooked statements of fact will have more to do with where we end up than will all the defensive and self-justifying statements of opinion put forth by music industry players:

1) There is a difference between electronic files and physical CDs.

While there's no turning the clock back to the days when you had to buy a CD to get music, the fact remains that a physical CD is different than an electronic file. Physical CDs sound better, for those who can hear the difference. Physical CDs carry with them at least some little bit of the "album-ness" of albums that I talked about in my previous Commentary piece, and there are still people who care about that. A physical CD is just that: a physical product, which lends to it an intangible "suchness" that the electronic file lacks. To the extent that the music world has barrelled along in the '00s without much awareness of this difference does not eliminate the difference by any means; as a matter of fact, it may be setting the stage for an unexpected comeback of the physical product.

The fact also remains that a good percentage of people who still buy music still do buy CDs, naysayers and doom-and-gloomers aside. Take In Rainbows as a good, current example--of the 122,000 copies sold the first week, three-quarters were actual physical CDs. While we don't know how many of those people who bought physical CDs had also previously downloaded the music online, I'm guessing that many of them certainly did (for instance, me; I actually paid for it twice; go figure). If this isn't a de facto argument for the viability of the CD in the digital age, I don't know what is. Radiohead does happen to be a band whose fans particularly enjoy the album packaging, but there's a hint for musicians around the world: make the package part of the worth of the music.

In discussing the matter, people seem constantly to talk as if the anticipated future of nobody buying CDs at all is already here. There are two things blatantly wrong with that: first, that future isn't here yet, by a long shot; second, there is little if any guarantee that this anticipated future is the future that's in store for us. People glibly act as if a downward trend must therefore be downward to zero eventually. So if three-quarters of people buying music now buy CDs, this means eventually nobody will. Rarely is anything so cut and dried; rarely if ever do trends go all the way down. As a matter of fact, judging by the track record of those who predict what the future holds for us, from a consumer products point of view, I'd say that there's overwhelming evidence to suggest that anticipated futures such as "no one will buy CDs anymore" are the ones that never arrive.

For the time being, I would suggest that musicians draw a sharp distinction between their electronic files and the physical product. The more interesting, instructive, and intrinsic to the music itself the CD package is, the clearer the distinction between the electronic file and the physical product will be.

I think this inability to make the distinction--crucial to the success of the In Rainbows experiment--between music as electronic file and music as physical product is what keeps so many musicians stubbornly unwilling to offer a free and legal MP3 or two from every album they make. I am continually amazed by the number of independent artists I encounter who won't do this. It seems that they think they're protecting their work but in reality they're just protecting their egos, not to mention shooting themselves in the foot. The Radiohead experiment shows at a massive level the promotional value of offering songs, legally, online, that people don't necessarily have to pay for. This is not the same as offering free CDs and never will be.

2) Like it or not, when music exists electronically rather than just physically, the rules must change.

I'm not saying it's a great thing that people have gotten used to having a lot of free music in the digital age; lord knows Fingertips exists because I feel strongly about not pirating music willy-nilly just because one can. On the other hand, I don't believe in sticking my head in the sand about this either. Digital reality has changed many many things. Look at how strange, for instance, software is: it's a product that a company sells, and yet it is entirely and effortlessly replicatable. If you buy a flat-screen TV, you can't make a quick copy of it at home, and then send it to your friends via the internet.

Because software was by its nature digital from the outset (duh), the software industry has by and large figured out how to deal with this, although it's been its own sort of bumpy ride. (Should software be subject to copyright or patent, or both? Should software simply be free?: there are any number of people out there who do in fact believe that.) Those products that used to exist non-digitally but have since been digitized--pictures, music, film--are the ones in which the new digital reality causes the most upheaval. As we will continue to see.

3) In the digital world, something can have value and still be free.

This is the sticky wicket many old-model music people have trouble with. Label people and independent musicians alike are known to fume about how "music has value" and that anyone giving it away is undermining the idea that music is actually worth something. The Times, for instance, quoted one technology investor as saying that the Radiohead experiment "shows pretty conclusively that the majority of music consumers feel that digital recorded music should be free and is not worth paying for."

This argument--and a rather overstated argument in this case--overlooks the reality that the very people who are often taking music for free do nevertheless value their music a lot. What the bean counters of the world don't understand is that these music lovers have detached the idea of financial value from inner-worth-value. That is, they don't feel inclined to back up their sense of music's value to them with cold hard cash.

I don't think this has to do with the inherent evil of 21st-century humankind. I think it's actually a somewhat sensible response to the aforementioned change associated with the digital world.

Back when a song had to exist on a physical piece of vinyl, there were literally only so many copies of the song "XYZ" in the world: they could be stacked and counted as they were produced, and each could be given a particular price, a particular financial value. Now, the song "XYZ" is transportable invisibly, and can multiply incessantly. It makes no sense to try to apply the old idea of value to such a product.

I think this is what people are responding to, unconsciously, when they seemingly "steal" music--why people who would never go into a store and pilfer a physical CD have no qualms about going online and downloading music for free, whether it was being officially made available for free or not. I am not saying this to justify piracy, which I still ardently oppose. I still don't think MP3 blogs should be posting songs that have not been made available legally (and the vast majority of them do, alas). But I do understand why we've gotten to where we've gotten.

4) Digital content is not by and large seen as having financial worth

This is another tough nut to swallow, I know. But look: the overwhelming majority of web sites that actually make money do so either by selling concrete, non-digital things or by selling advertising based on the number of people visiting the site. There is very little money in digital content, except in the most specialized areas.

As a writer, I saw the proverbial writing on the wall on the matter pretty early--it was 1997 or so when I began to notice, to my chagrin, that the same writing I used to be paid to do in physical magazines was worth nothing or next to nothing online. Print magazines paid nothing extra for putting their copy--my writing--online; and web-only publications paid embarrassingly little, if not literally nothing at all, for the words with which they filled their screens. I spent a little time bemoaning my fate; I spent a lot more time adjusting my approach to the business. (In the long run, I used it as a convenient reason to stop doing the sort of freelance writing I had been doing, which I realized I didn't even like in the first place.)

If there is one way to sell digital content for money, it's going to have something to do with how iTunes has managed. Let's ignore for the moment everything wrong with iTunes regarding its proprietary technology and its artist-unfriendly relationships with the major labels, and let's look simply at the fact that Apple has convinced millions and millions of people to pay for music online. (Hell, they even convinced a whopping number of people this last week to buy, via iTunes, for $9.99, the very album they could have bought via Radiohead for any price they wanted.) They've done so with a combination of low perceived cost (just 99 cents a tune; much less than $1.00, right?) and that Apple-oriented magic of the iTunes "store" feeling like a spiffy place to go and look around. They've done the more-difficult-than-it-looks job of organizing millions of items in a way that seems friendly and accessible.

And it was positively brilliant of them to link the online store to the iTunes player, so it doesn't even feel like you're on the web when you're buying stuff--you're in some Twilight Zone-ish place that's neither online nor offline. The buying procedure, once you've registered, is credit card free and seamless. The whole experience feels entirely unlike a web-based transaction--which at least partially removes our built-in resistance, otherwise, to buying digital content online.

5) The digital age isn't just about online music distribution; it's about low barrier to entry. This changes the market just as much, if not more, than the existence of MP3s.

The 21st century has brought with it an unprecedented ability for a musician to record and distribute his or her music to the great wide world. There are way way (way) more people doing this than there were 15 or 20 years ago.

The total amount of money spent on music could be going up healthily every year (and it may well be, if you consider indirect spending on things like technology on which to play music) and it still couldn't possibly assure a living for everyone out there with a musician shingle up. The idea that in the future musicians will make money from touring but not CDs--a highly unlikely circumstance that has nonetheless achieved meme-like status in discussions like these--is severely undermined by the reality of just how many bands and musicians are theoretically going to be out there touring. Where on earth is all the money coming from to support all these tours? There just aren't enough people interested in going to concerts night after night after night. Supply has outstripped demand--it's really as simple as that.

Never mind the fact that moving forward in our climate-changed world, there's going to have to be a lot less touring, not more touring. And--sorry to say to the hundreds of thousands (literally!) of bands haunting MySpace, looking for a big break--there are going to have be fewer bands. A lot fewer. Or--this is the only option, although not a pretty one--they are going to have to be okay not making any money from their music.

Call me elitist (and idealistic to boot!), but I don't think the really really talented folks get completely screwed too often. Choose the hoary aphorism of your liking--the cream rises to the top, talent will out, etc. By and large, I believe it. That doesn't mean the talented people don't have to work really really hard to make ends meet sometimes. Very few musicians get success handed to them on a silver platter.

On the flip side of this assertion, there are a whole lot of bands out there that don't need to exist, judging by aesthetic standards, and if they fade away, or if they must make music on the side of their "real" lives, I don't see the harm in it.

That's one of problems I encounter when people complain about musicians "needing" to be able earn money from their music. Somehow quality squirts away from the conversation. No one presumes that an inept plumber "deserves" to make his living fixing pipes, but somehow with music, people get all touchy about the artist's right to exist and be paid and forget about the audience's right not to support uninteresting, mediocre music.

The hard truth is most of the music being made out there isn't really worth a lot of money. Music is not an inherently financial endeavor. I admire anyone who tries to make a living as a musician, but the mere fact that someone wants to try by no means guarantees that his or her music is of high enough quality to garner financial support.

And the fact that 21st-century technology has allowed the number of people trying to do this to mushroom as never before means that from here on in, it's only going to be harder, not easier, to find a living in this arena.

To believe that this living is being compromised by a band such as Radiohead allowing people to download their music files for a price of their choosing--or a band such as the Charlatans, who having begun releasing their next CD via free and legal MP3s online--is benighted. The enemy is not the internet, and the enemy is not any band trying to have a real relationship with digital music distribution.

The real enemy--as always--is something that lives inside of each of us, something that perpetuates insecurity and fear and then believes that other people, places, and things are at the root of this insecurity and fear. One outside-of-the-box way to look at the situation is this: the digital age in music is giving many people an incredible opportunity to confront themselves. Those who do so, successfully, will, like Radiohead, have the most interesting stories to tell in the years to come, and may produce some really great music in the process. And I for one will gladly pay for it.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Sound of a Brand New World - part one

(What follows is part one of a two-part essay examining the In Rainbows phenomenon, as posted in full on the Fingertips web site. The web site version has footnotes that further flesh out the subject at hand.)

So In Rainbows, the album distributed online in October in a pay-what-you-will fashion, showed up at number one on the sales charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. in the first week of January.

In the U.S., it added up to about 122,000 copies sold for the week, about one-quarter of which were purchased via iTunes. While the total is well below the 300,000 figure that the band's last CD, Hail to the Thief, sold in its first week back in 2003, it's safe to say that the difference was more than made up for if you add in the number of downloads sold and the number of special, high-priced "discboxes" the band sold during the pre-release promotional period.

And because of the direct nature of the download sales, plus the fairer-to-the-artist contract the band now has with Dave Matthews' ATO label, it's also safe to say Radiohead will be making much more money from In Rainbows than they did from any of their previous albums.

On top of that, the album is by all accounts (including mine) a musical success as well. Everybody wins!

So why isn't everyone smiling? Why, in fact, did the whole In Rainbows gambit make so many people kind of grumpy?

As the story played out over these past few months, Radiohead was repeatedly taken to task for their bold and unexpected move. Both big-label honchos and workaday independent musicians--two groups which don't normally see eye to eye--were often united in slamming the band for releasing In Rainbows electronically and allowing consumers to pay anything they wanted for it, including nothing at all.

The record company criticism was of course unsurprising. "Radiohead tried to spin this as offering a service for fans," said one unnamed source from a major label quoted in the Times (U.K.), "but it was nothing more than a marketing ploy to make themselves relevant again and prepare for their next release."

We've come to expect short-sighted foolishness from record company officials, but what was with all the grumbling from independent musicians on the matter? One such musician, in an "open letter to Thom Yorke" published in Philadelphia Weekly in early December, summed up his gripe this way:

"I can't tell you how many MySpace messages I've gotten in the past couple weeks asking, 'Radiohead gave away their new album for free. Why can't you?'" And his answer:

"Because it's what I do for a living."

But Radiohead does it for a living too. The smarter answer to the MySpace hordes would be to correct their mistaken idea that Radiohead was "giving away" their "album" for "free." This conjures a false image of stacks of In Rainbows on a table at a concert, with the sign "Free! Take One!"

Radiohead did not give away their album for free. What Radiohead did was offer the electronic files in advance of the CD release, and didn't require you to pay for them although you were certainly encouraged to.

Our independent musician/writer goes on in his essay to state his distress at the idea that Radiohead might start a trend, and that so-called "rich bands" who can afford to let people pay or not pay for their albums would make it even harder than it already is for struggling bands who rely on CD sales for some of their very hard-earned income.

This argument is understandable but simplistic, and makes the mistake in logic of presuming the inevitability of a not-inevitable circumstance--namely, that in the future, no one will pay for CDs.

This presumption appears premature in the face of the goodly number of people who actually went out and bought the physical In Rainbows CD.

That the album turned up at number one on the chart in its first official week of release renders all the hubbub about who did or didn't pay for the pre-release download even more ridiculous than it already was--and it already was pretty ridiculous.

You see, we never really found out how many people actually paid for the original download, and, if they paid, what they paid. Radiohead refused to satisfy inquiring minds on the matter, and did not release any statistics.

That didn't stop an online consumer research company called comScore from stepping into the vacuum in early November with a press release claiming to be "a study of online sales of In Rainbows." The results were widely and forcefully reported. The idea--as put forth in the report--that 62 percent of people downloading the album did not pay for it rapidly became the de facto truth.

Such was the meme-like power of this 62 percent figure that Radiohead's own statement on the matter--they called comScore report calling it "purely speculative" and "wholly inaccurate"--didn't make a dent in the coverage. The 62 percent might as well have come straight from the notarized spreadsheet of Radiohead's bookkeeper.

Our aforementioned writer/musician in Philadelphia launched his "letter" off the veracity of the report, saying at the outset, "We now know about 60 percent of the people who bothered to download it did so for nothing."

The 62 percent figure was, perversely, used to malign Radiohead both coming and going. There were those who scoffed at how many people apparently just took the album for free--an interpretation prodded along by the title of the comScore press release: "For Radiohead Fans, Does 'Free' + 'Download' = 'Freeload'?"

Simultaneously came an assault from economists, as reported in the New York Times, among other places, who scoffed at people who paid for something that they didn't actually have to--behavior that will forever elude the unfeeling formulations of the economist's trade.

So let me get this straight: Radiohead was silly for expecting anyone to pay, and those who did pay were silly for paying?

That can't be right. And it isn't. In fact, the analysis of the 62 percent number was shoddy from the get-go. One assumes the band disowned the number because the actual percentage of so-called "freeloaders" was lower than that, but for the sake of argument, let's say that roughly 60 percent of people downloading In Rainbows did in fact take it for free, and roughly 40 percent paid something for it.

Give these numbers an accurate context and they're actually nothing to sniff at, especially from the band's point of view. First, it's important to realize that not everyone who downloaded it for free did so from the same place and for the same reason. Free downloaders can be divided into three distinct groups: 1) people who never would otherwise have bought this Radiohead album; 2) people who might have bought it but now won't because they got the electronic version for free; and 3) people who downloaded the album online for free because they were still planning to buy the physical CD upon its release.

To be as precise as possible, let's divide that first group, furthermore, into two segments: a) people who never would otherwise have bought this Radiohead album because they rarely buy anything, opting always to find free (if illegal) downloads of the music they want; and b) people who never would otherwise have bought this Radiohead album because they were never previously interested in listening to Radiohead.

Okay, now we have some context. And you can see that Radiohead in this case lost revenue only from group 2--people who might have bought In Rainbows if they had to but didn't because they didn't have to. Group 1 people, who weren't going to buy it anyway, represent no loss for the band at all, and in fact there's a bit of a gain, exposure-wise, if you consider that the experiment attracted the 1b types who never previously listened to the band's music before.

And now don't forget that all the income from the sales went directly back to the band. In the past, because of their major-label contract, the band received exactly zero percent of online sales. Be aware too that among the (let's say) 40 percent of people who paid for the download were no doubt at least two interesting subgroups: people who would not otherwise have bought the album at all, and people who bought it and would also buy the CD.

One of the most bracing things about the experiment, to me, was how Radiohead, in offering the album as they did, was forthrightly acknowledging that group 1 exists in the world, something no one in the traditional music industry seems ready or able to do. Outside of filing lawsuits, the music industry does not appear to know how to respond to the fact that there are a significant number of music consumers in the 21st century who pretty much don't pay for music, at least not in the direct, old-fashioned way of buying a song or an album from a record company or independent artists.

The band was saying, okay, let's see if we can still earn a living out here, working around the reality of how many people might be inclined not to pay for a download. If they were not the first, they were certainly the highest-profile musicians to give this a shot.

Hooray for Radiohead, a band of truly innovative, serious, and talented musicians. Boo to those who snipe at them every step of the way. And now: where do we go from here?

Answer: I don't know. The whole thing is a still-unfolding mystery. But I do know five particular things that are relevant and seem to be continually overlooked in discussions about the brave new world of music in the digital age.

(To be continued....)

Monday, January 07, 2008

The web's best free and legal MP3s, every week

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Jan. 6-12)

"On the Chin" - Grey Race
     I'll start the new year with a couple of songs that are not really new at all--a reminder that a song is always new if you haven't heard it yet. "On the Chin" begins with a straightforward eighth-note riff linked by an amplified acoustic guitar-neck sound, which emerges after the riff is heard the second time. If it's gratuitous, movement-wise (the guitarist doesn't really need to run his fingers up and down the neck like that), percussively, it's at the center of the riff, quietly threading through the song and tacitly foreshadowing the later emergence of actual stringed instruments in the mix. And, what the heck, because I'm a foreshadowing fan, I hear in that slidy sound, additionally, a hint of the vocal intervals that singer Jon Darling will soon be leaping with his pliable tenor--intervals topped by notes he has no business hitting with such glee.
     The string players who enter during the bridge (at around 2:07) and step briefly but incisively to center stage for the subsequent return of the chorus (2:39) probably have no business in the song either but the thing is so judiciously assembled it makes perfect sonic sense at that precise moment.
     "On the Chin" has been floating around the blogosphere--just barely--since June, when the Brooklyn-based trio's first EP was released; the subsequent Grey Race album containing the song, entitled Give It Love, was released in September on Unfiltered Records.

"Une Américaine à Paris" - Rupa and the April Fishes
     Born in the Bay Area to Indian immigrant parents, Rupa Marya spent a good amount of her childhood in both Northern India and France, which at least partially accounts for the zesty, gypsy-inflected sound she coaxes out of the April Fishes, an ensemble featuring a guitar, a cello, a trumpet, drums, upright bass, and accordion. Singing in fetching French, Marya mixes musical cultures in a way that may sound pastiche-like to purists but sounds vibrant and beguiling to me, thanks in large part to the song's simultaneously energetic and intimate vibe. (That's a more unusual combination than it may initially appear.) Marya herself strikes me as a preternaturally charming vocalist; listen to how musical she sounds when she's trying not to sing so prettily (that speak-singing section beginning at 1:38) and see if you are charmed as well.
     Note that if you are at all insecure about your accomplishments to date on the planet Earth, you may not want to know that Marya, singer/songwriter, guitarist, and driving force behind Rupa and the April Fishes, is a musician at night and an honest-to-goodness M.D. doctor during the day, currently on the medical faculty part-time at the University of California at San Francisco. She has also worked as an independent radio producer, in between medical school and going to work as a physician. But remember that this is not a competition; admiration is the proper response to someone this talented and driven. "Une Américaine à Paris" is from the debut Rupa and the April Fishes CD, Extraordinary Rendition, originally self-released on Bateau Rouge Records last January and scheduled for an international release in April on world music label Cumbancha Records.

"The Silence Between Us" - Bob Mould
     A bracing shot of earnest, subtly melodic rock'n'roll, "The Silence Between Us" ranks up there with the best of Mould's solo output. Lionized for his role as Hüsker Dü lead man, Mould has been an inveterate blogger but spotty solo artist, recording infrequently and often steering clear of the guitar-based blitz of his first group and its more commercially-capable successor, Sugar.
     There is no reason to expect again from Mould anything resembling the gut-deep fury of Hüsker Dü; so while I'm not hearing the volume or speed associated with that seminal band, what I am connecting to across the years is Mould's willingness after a good long while to put some meaningful electric guitar back into his songs, while at the same time maintaining a precision in songwriting characteristic of his best work (and often, I think, missing when the volume gets cranked too high, particularly in his post-HD material). This one does nothing fancy, but some well-timed melodic intervals and chord detours lend "The Silence Between Us" an almost noble sort of stature. The guitar solo that begins at 2:20 is worth the download alone, offering a succinct balance of brain and brawn, complete with a nifty electronic coda.
     "The Silence Between Us" will be found on Mould's forthcoming CD, District Line, slated for release early next month on Anti Records. MP3 courtesy of Spinner.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Begin '08 with great free and legal MP3s

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Dec. 30-Jan. 5)

"In the Rain" - Marqui Adora
     Marqui Adora is a quartet from Miami who do not otherwise sound like this. And while there's nothing wrong with the early U2- and Cure-inspired material the band more typically produces, I find myself smitten by the easy-going, old-fashioned swing of this unabashedly tuneful little song.
     Sprung off a nostalgic descending guitar lick and pop's most basic chord progression, "In the Rain" succeeds to a great extent on the vocal flair of Danny Ashe, whose airy tenor echoes the doo-wopping crooners the song so fluently evokes. Reigning in a bit of the drama he employs for Marqui Adora's neo new wave sound, Ashe floats himself casually atop "In the Rain"'s loping beat; I find that I can't quite tell if he's lagging behind or pushing ahead but in either case his knowledgeable, unexpectedly silky singing lends subtle substance to a tune that drummer Joe Shockley says was inspired by the movie That Thing You Do! and "a love of 50's and 60's pop." I suggest the world would be a better place were we all inspired every now and then by That Thing You Do! and a love of '50s and '60s pop. The MP3 is free via the band's site--as, in fact, is all of Marqui Adora's music.

"You Cross My Path" - the Charlatans
     Smart, driven, atmospheric rocker from a veteran British band. I really like how this manages to be at once trippy and succinct. True to their "Madchester" roots, the Charlatans give us a nice shot of psychedelic keyboard washes (I especially like the burbly buildup into the chorus you can hear starting at 1:19); but even so, the song surges forward with fierce clarity, anchored by a powerful bridge, with its double-time, adjacent-note melody.
     The fact that the Charlatans are still active doesn't fit neatly into the current decade's internet-driven view of pop music--the relentless need by online music sites and writers to dissect rock into micro-genres and leave everything behind for the next new thing. The Charlatans (who must officially place "UK" after their name here in the U.S. because of a long-defunct '60s band with the same name) came initially to prominence in the aforementioned Manchester music scene of the late '80s and early '90s; their second single, "The Only One I Know," from 1990, survives as one of the quintessential hits of that short-lived era.
     Scenes rise and fall, usually taking bands with them. The Charlatans, however, managed to effect what was seen as a comeback in the mid-'90s, and now, look, it's even 10 years later and they're still doing what they do. And now, Radiohead-ishly, they're giving it away: the band has decided that it will offer its next album free online. "You Cross My Path" was the first single, made available in October via both the band's site and the British music site Xfm. A second song, "Oh Vanity," will be available next month. The as-yet untitled album is slated for a March release.

"Country From the Dome Car" - Brooke Miller
     On the one hand a straight-ahead piece of countrified rock, "Country From the Dome Car" is likewise a fetchingly elusive sort of song, centered around two divergent guitar sounds--sprightly acoustic; fuzzy electric--and a resolutely unresolved melody.
     I definitely think that latter aspect is what hooked me: each line of the chorus ends by veering away from a sense of musical groundedness. Listen to the notes she sings at the end of each line--the words "everyone there," "in my hair," "engineer," and, most prominently, "out of here," at the end. Not once does the melody resolve. That she is employing a so-called "half rhyme" here--every line ends with the same consonant sound--is a subtle counter-effect; likewise the rollicking, rail-inspired rhythm provides a regularity that the melody beguilingly undermines.
     Miller is a singer/songwriter from Prince Edward Island, now living in Ontario. "Country From the Dome Car" is based on the experience she had participating in a unique, three-day on-train folk festival that traveled from Toronto to Vancouver a few years ago. The song can be found on her 2007 CD You Can See Everything, which was originally released in July and was subsequently picked up for a digital re-release via Sony/ATV.