Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Broken Records (brisk, folk-infused, toe-tapping tragedy)

"If Eilert Loevborg Wrote A Song, It Would Sound Like This" - Broken Records
     We begin with a mournful folk melody, played on cello and accordion, full of sad old-country wisdom. An added mandolin leads to a tempo shift, and now we're tapping our toes, but we're still sad. Music is like that sometimes. Tragedy is in the air; Eilert Loevborg (or Ejlert Løvborg) is in fact Hedda Gabler's flawed, doomed ex-lover in the Ibsen play. I haven't been able to discover why this seven-piece Scottish band chose to write a song from the point of view of this particular character, but ours is not to question why. Listen instead to Jamie Sutherland's commanding, rough-edged baritone and the unerring ensemble playing, led by the swift, crestfallen cello.
     There's a Northern air about all this--some elusive mix of Nordic and Scot, perhaps--but also something Eastern European, and then dawns the realization that at heart, old-country music blends nearly into one, from many different cultures. This might have to do with the violin (or fiddle) that lives in the center of so many folk traditions, or it might have to do with something deeper and more primordial in the human spirit. All I know is this band--whose members also play piano, trumpet, and glockenspiel in addition to guitar, bass, and drums--has a full and satisfying presence, the song a cumulative power. By the time Sutherland, with convincing torment, sings, "And does your husband know the lies that we've kept?/And has he ever felt that warmth from your bed?" (1:31), I feel that inner shift that happens when musical notes and instruments and voices combine in a way that touches the soul. We can sometimes point out when it happens but never can we ever truly say why.
     "If Eilert Loevborg Wrote..." is from Broken Records' debut CD, Until the Earth Begins to Part, scheduled for a May release on 4AD Records. MP3 via 4AD.

Free and legal MP3 from John Vanderslice (more well-produced, smartly written rock from indie hero JV)

"Fetal Horses" - John Vanderslice
     Long-time Fingertips hero John Vanderslice returns on a new record label but with more of the wonderfully produced, smartly written music that has characterized his work to date. "Fetal Horses" is not necessarily a grabber but is a grower at once beautiful and unsettling.
      The first handhold into the piece, for me, is that gorgeous transition from the end of the verse to the bridge, as he sings, "I wanted you/To come back to me again." The line begins, actually, as if the beginning of the verse again, but drifts on the "you," which meanders--while also enhanced by octave harmonies--into the rest of the line, hewing to a heartbreaking melody that is vintage Vanderslice, its beauty simultaneously enhanced and subverted by disquieting piano fingerings, deftly placed strings, and, oddly, the wheezing, high-pitched carnival organ that plays through much of the song. Keep an ear on both piano and organ, as they each seem sometimes to be accompanying a different song than this one, offering enticing juxtapositions and textures that play off the beauty much as the grim and elusive lyrics do. The guitar solo at 1:58 is another jarring-but-engaging highlight.
     "Fetal Horses" is from the CD Romanian Names, to be released next month on Dead Oceans. And here's a nice JV touch: the first 100 fans who pre-ordered the CD received an immediate download, plus a nicely-packaged snippet of the actual analog master tape used in recording the album. MP3 via Dead Oceans.

Free and legal MP3 from Immaculate Machine (both urgent and good-natured, with martial flair and gang vocals)

"Sound the Alarms" - Immaculate Machine
     With a clipped, martial beat, multifarious percussion, and gang vocals, "Sound the Alarms" has the vibe of something at once urgent and good-natured. It's hard not to feel welcomed in by a song that begins: "Bad luck, my generation/The good ideas have all been taken." Most of the lyrics, except the title phrase, are subsequently swallowed up by the ambiance, but a worthy ambiance it is, with the refreshing feeling of musicians actually playing and singing together at the same time in the same room. We're I think supposed to get worked up about something, but not quite so worked up that we want to put down our instruments.
     And I say yes, if you're going to have a song dominated by a strong, repetitive beat, do exactly this: throw all sorts of percussive sounds into the mix, and if some of them sound like pots and pans, all the better. Invite a guitar in for a scorching solo two-thirds of the way through and you've just about got your song. (To be clear, I speak here without irony. I like this a lot. Sometimes I like tragic, sometimes I like fun. It's a big world.)
     A quintet from Vancouver, Immaculate Machine is fronted by childhood friends Brooke Gallupe and sometime New Pornographer Kathryn Calder; the band, at that point a trio, was featured on Fingertips in 2007. "Sound the Alarms" is from their fourth full-length CD, High on Jackson Hill, released this week on Mint Records.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Music is not like water, part three (Fingertips Commentary)

On Thursday and Friday of last week I posted the first two parts of this essay, which is the latest Fingertips Commentary on the main site (where it comes complete with a few footnotes). Today, I pick up with a discussion of the third "model." You can always read the whole thing, with footnotes, at any time, on the main Fingertips site.

* * *

As for the model number three: with its ready-made marketing slogan and futuristic, vaguely ecological sounding premise, Music-Like-Water should make you want to run away just from the overly packaged premise of the idea. And if that doesn't do it, listening to Gerd Leonhard rhapsodize certainly might. Leonhard is the guy who basically invented this and rhapsodize is what he seems to do best.

"Once we can subscribe to music just like we subscribe to water, the music business will EXPLODE and we will enter a new ecosystem," he has written. Well, hold on right there. Say no more. This is utopian thinking and utopian thinking never (ever) works. I'm always vaguely shocked when someone comes along espousing utopian ideas (don't they realize it can't work?), and equally shocked when people believe it (don't they realize?).

While Leonhard is not off base in announcing, as many have, that the music industry's traditional setup is inadequate to the task of dealing, either technologically or logistically, with the quantity of music available in a digital world, his solution--which he calls (guess what?) "inevitable"--is, rather, impossible.

It would take far too much coordination, joint effort, legal agreement, highly capable oversight and unprecedented regulatory prowess to create a fully functioning Music-Like-Water system. And if it's not fully functioning--if there are only certain songs, certain kinds of music--it would be pointless to create. The underlying idea of M-L-W model is that everything is in the pipeline--all possible recorded music. If, instead, it only has some of the music you might be listening to--if, in other words, you'll still have to gain access to other music in other ways--then the idea fails.

Of course, I believe it fails in any case. Beyond the "utopias don't work" argument, the gaping problem with Music-Like-Water is--and this should be a "duh!" but, oddly, isn't--music is not anything like water, or gas, or electricity, or anything at all that we "happily" pay for on a monthly basis, according to Leonhard (he also mentions internet access, wireless service, and cable TV).

Water is generic. Water is a physical substance that supplies a physical need. The water that flows freely into your house is the same water that flows freely into your next-door neighbor's house. Your tap-water isn't the product of an individual imagination. Your tap-water isn't anyone's artistic expression. Your tap water doesn't feed your soul.

Gas and electricity are likewise generic commodoties that share nothing of music's attributes; to compare the so-called "consumption" of music to the more literal consumption of the products brought to our house by utility companies is specious at best.

Comparing music to technological "subscriptions" such as internet access, wireless, or cable and satellite TV is hardly any better. Internet access and wireless are impersonal, generic, technological platforms upon which a diverse variety of individual activities are undertaken, and upon which all of these activities depend. A large-scale architecture and vast technological achievement, the platform itself must be connected to any given house before anything at all can happen. It makes sense for people to pay to bring the platform into their houses if they want to engage in the activities that depend upon the platform for their existence.

Traditionally, none of this has anything to do with how songs come into the world and find their way to an audience. Songs are initially created in an intimate setting, often by just one person, or at most by a small group of people. Songs are artistic creations, not generic technology. Technology, instead, comes into play in an effort to distribute the song. To reach a large audience, the song needs to be recorded and then that recording needs to be available via some widely employed playback technology or another.

For nearly roughly 100 years, there was no need for any kind of regional or national technological architecture to make this happen. You bought your vinyl record, or your cassette, or your CD, and put it in your own individual player, and played it.

The point of confusion--and the reason the Music-Like-Water idea was even conceived--is that nowadays, of course, music is, quite often, and increasingly so, delivered via a large-scale technological platform (i.e. the internet). This does not mean, however, that music is now itself a large-scale technological platform--"music," in other words, doesn't suddenly become some meta sort of entity that we should want or need to pay for in order to listen to "songs."

As for cable or satellite TV, at first glance, one might think there's some basis for similarity that could justify the Music-Like-Water model. Via subscription TV, you can watch individual programs, each of which is valued as an individual thing and yet, lo and behold, you are by and large paying for the generic idea of cable TV, not individually for "The Daily Show," "Battlestar Galactica," or "Paula's Home Cooking." Isn't this more like M-L-W?

I say no. Both cable TV and satellite TV are, in fact, vast, generic technological platforms upon which the programming depends. The shows you watch via these platforms aren't free-floating, individually created entities that either could be enjoyed with or without large-scale entrenched technological delivery system through which you watch them. It makes sense to a consumer to pay for the overall platform, which then delivers a great variety of entertainment options.

Another big difference is the nature of the entertainment delivered via subscription TV: these are large-scale programs involved the combined and coordinated efforts of an array of technicians, directors, producers, and performers. These shows could not exist without the funding made possible (to date; who knows what the future holds) by the existence of organizations dedicated to producing such shows for subscription TV. They exist because, first, there was a tangible, physical platform in need of their being created--which, again, validates the idea of paying for the service of subscription TV itself.

Songs are much more modest and personal entities. They may take advantage, now, of the platform of the internet, but they do not exist because the internet existed and needed them to fill it up. It doesn't make sense to bunch them all together as some sort of "platform" called "music" that you then pay for generically.

Music is in fact something special, something different, something that cannot and will not be reduced to its technological delivery system. Anyone who has ever been touched by any kind of music knows this. Music is a mystery. Evolutionary scientists still can't figure out why it exists.

Interestingly, even before we've gotten anywhere near the fulfillment of the M-L-W model (and not that we're going to), Bono was recently quoted as saying, "Music has become tap water, a utility, where for me it's a sacred thing."

And there you have it: music is a sacred thing. This is nothing, perhaps, that the people with the spreadsheets will understand, but music is not something the flows through my house like electricity that I turn on and off as needed. Music is personal, music has emotional and spiritual resonance. The M-L-W model may, in theory anyway, take good care of rights holders (underline "in theory anyway"), but it takes poor care of the souls of either the artists or the audience.

Do songwriters and performers think of their songs as something that flows generically into someone's life, interchangeably with the song they just listened to and the one they're about to listen to? Do people create music because it's this generic thing called MUSIC or do they create because they are trying to express something from their individual centers, and ache to share that with other individuals?

From the audience's point of view, I can imagine there may well be people who treat music relatively generically. They like to "have something on," but don't listen too carefully. In that case, M-L-W is probably harmless. But for anyone who has been touched by music in a way you can't even begin to explain, the idea that music is "like water" is laughably off base, a ludicrous, impossible conception. A flying car.

Me, I can't pretend to know the exact way out of this moment of upheaval in the music industry. We can't uninvent digital music files, and I wouldn't want to. And I'm completely on board with the idea that some music can and should be free, for promotional reasons (see the Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto for details).

There is no reason to presume that because some music should be free, all music should be free. And there is even less reason for anyone to look at the chaotic state of things right now and believe with zealous certainty that they know what the future holds. No one ever knows this, especially when it comes to technology.

Did the zealous futurists of the '80s predict the web? Or the ubiquity and various uses of cell phones? Did their counterparts in the '90s predict the iPod, or Facebook? Speaking of something as "inevitable" just because you believe it is intellectual bullying. But another thing you learn if you stop looking at formulas and start understanding human history is that the bullies never win in the long run.

Of course, the mainstream music industry itself has been quite the bully over the years, which is why few are shedding tears that it is being pretty much eviscerated by the onset of the digital music age. With the presence of so many bullies on both sides of the fence, lord knows where everything will settle down. Historically this sort of technological upheaval typically requires a full generation or so to find some stasis.

In the meantime, the one minor suggestion I could make is that music right now should be getting cheaper, not more expensive. Online albums should be $4 or $5, not $8 or $9; songs should be 49 cents or 59 cents, not 99 cents (and certainly not $1.29).

Part of the problem is that the industry by and large seems to be believing the bullies on the other side, and digging in its heels as a result. "Music will not be free!" it insists, and then does the stupidest thing possible in response, which is raise prices. The elegant way to fight the free meme would be to lower prices, dramatically. Lowering prices isn't "capitulating" to the "inevitable" price point of zero, it's adjusting to new market realities, while greatly increasing your customer base. (Trust me: lowering prices like this would greatly increase the customer base.)

Meanwhile, as the flying car crazies duke it out with the record industry hooligans, some interesting things are happening. Just this month the band Metric put out an album on their own, without a record company, and have found a supportive audience for it. This offers a glimmer of hope on two fronts. First, it's not just big names like Radiohead and Trent Reznor that can do this, it seems. A group with a more modest following can also harness the internet for a label-free release.

Second, people really can and will pay for music under the right circumstances. People will buy albums that they can own. It's 2009 and this is still happening. If you on the other hand feel no need whatsoever either to pay for or own the music you're listening to maybe that's because there's no CD player in that flying car of yours.

Music is not like water, part two (Fingertips Commentary)

Yesterday I posted the first part of this essay, which is the latest Fingertips Commentary on the main site (where it comes complete with a few footnotes). Thanks to those who have already responded; I know this is a lot to read in our blog- and microblog-focused world. And actually, because it's so long, I decided it would be best to split into three. Today, I pick up where I left off, literally: I'm repeating the last paragraph, for context. I'll post the final segment on Monday. You can always read the whole thing, with footnotes, at any time, on the main Fingertips site.

* * *

When all else fails in a time of upheaval and transition, you can't go too far wrong by noticing who thinks they know exactly what's going to happen and pretty much ignoring them. I have no idea where all this is going, but I know more than someone who already insists they know where all this is going. The Free Music model--in part because of the certainty of its adherents--is a lemon.

The other two models--Access and Music-Like-Water--still presume that people will be paying for music, so at least there's that. The payment in both cases is indirect--not song by song or album by album, in other words. The Access model focuses on a future in which no one will own music, but will merely access it from central databases; payment ideas vary from free and ad-supported to fees of various sorts. The M-L-W model is also based on a central repository, but prefers to focus on the payment concept, which is envisioned as a small monthly fee, with the music being positioned as something that flows easily and reliably into your house, like water or electricity.

And please understand that I am generalizing to bring two basic ideas into focus. It's difficult because everything's really murky; everything's really murky because no one really knows what's going on. No one really knows what's going on because we are in a time of serious upheaval and transition. We're not supposed to know what's going on.

So I don't want to get lost in a lot of unnecessary specifics. Staying with some basic points will be enough to explain why these two, too, are elaborate, fanciful, unrealistic, and never-to-be-realized--flying cars all the way.

The Access model got a big push this year via the success of Spotify in Europe. Spotify offers unlimited access to streaming music, with three options: free acess, interrupted occasionally by commercials, or two types of paying options (a day pass or a monthly fee). It's kind of like a really really cool and responsive radio. To believe that this abruptly replaces ownership for enough listeners for ownership no longer to be necessary is to be drinking the Kool-Aid of those investing in music streaming services.

I discussed the basic idea of access versus ownership, independent of Spotify, in a footnote to my January Commentary piece. My irritation with the idea then remains my irritation with the idea now: the concept that no one would want or need to own the music they like to listen to makes sense as a theoretical extrapolation from today's unsettled music scene but lacks resonance with human reality.

To begin with, there are undiscussed logistical obstacles. If you don't own a physical copy of the music you want to listen to, you have to be near your computer to hear it, or you have to own the right kind of device that will give you portable access to the music. Theoretically such things will be developed, but then again, given the hornet's nest of rights considerations involved, who knows what sort of device it will be and whether it will be as comfortable and flexible to use as the iPod (a device which, remember, is based on the idea of music ownership).

Another logistical concern: if the music isn't on your computer, what happens when the web site freezes up, or the network goes down? What happens when there's a blackout? Is your music something you want to hand over to the vagaries of network connection? This may sound like a small point but there are generations of music listeners previous to the current one who would feel unmoored and ill at ease knowing that their favorite music might disappear on them randomly, capriciously.

The idea of having to talk to tech support to get my music back is horrifying, at least to me.

A larger logistical concern: however many songs a service like this might make available, will it have all of your favorite songs and artists? The bigger a music fan you are, the likelier the answer will be no. If not, does that mean you'll never hear these songs anymore? Or when you want to hear them, you have to dig out your antiquated CD player?

Or: what if a song you love disappears from the basic repository at some point, because of some rights issue, a bureaucratic problem of some kind, or for no particular reason at all? Previously, if you happen to lose an album of yours somehow, you could replace it. If you've handed the reigns of your music collection over to a third party, you never know what's going to happen.

Music is a very individual and individualized experience. On the one hand, the reality of digital music has promoted this idea; one of the abiding images of our age is the earbudded music listener strutting along, entranced by his or her playlist. But now the Access model wants to take our personal, idiosyncratic, individually meaningful music and park it all in a central garage, stripped of personal association.

How would it feel if you didn't get to own your own clothing? If you could wear whatever (mostly) you wanted, but you didn't get to keep your shirts and pants and sweaters and accessories in your own closet? Everything went back to the store everyday, nothing hung around your house as your own. Even if the process were automated, if the clothes arrived and departed without any effort on your part, even if there were new conveniences like not having to do your laundry any longer, isn't there something missing here?

While the clothing analogy seems far-fetched in a number of ways, the fact remains that music is special stuff, tightly connected to history, memory, and personal identity. I don't think the Access model comes anywhere near taking this into account.

Now, I know that many may label my concerns as generational. I care about ownership because I grew up owning albums. I'm used to it. When Spotify got its flurry of publicity earlier in the year, much was made of this generational issue. Today's younger music listeners don't care about owning music, everyone says.

I, on the other hand, say: beware this sort of generalization. It comes in handy for people who are selling a music streaming service. But the realities of human development argue against the idea that your behavior as a teenager gets somehow etched into the unchanging stone of your eventual adulthood.

Look at me: I grew up watching 25 to 30 hours of TV a week, because that's what there was, that's all we had (and not many channels, either), and I didn't know any better. Today I watch maybe a half hour of TV a week.

Or, there's this, closer to the matter at hand: I grew up listening to vinyl albums; today, my music collection is on my computer and I listen almost exclusively to songs shuffling through my iPod. And I pretty much like it this way. Go figure.

Funny how people want to use the "they grew up with it, they'll never change" argument when it's convenient for their own vested interests. But the reality is that people are not trapped perpetually in the entertainment behavior pattern of their youth. On the contrary, behavior patterns tend to change with age. People extrapolating from research almost never take this into account. What you spend your time doing as a teenager is not what you spend your time doing when you're 30 or 35 or 40. Life intrudes, life experiences accumulate, your inner world changes, and, of course, the outer world changes, continually, in ways no one ever anticipates.

[to be continued on Monday; or, go here right now]

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Music is not like water (Fingertips Commentary)

There's a new Fingertips Commentary piece on the main site, called "Music is not like water (but it's sure starting to remind me of a flying car)." Subtitle: "Pundits and entrepreneurs push futuristic schemes as if inevitable; damn reality and full speed ahead!"

It's on long side (oops) so I'm breaking it into two parts for the blog. I'll post the second part tomorrow. The essay is the same here as on the main site, except there are a handful of footnotes accompanying the piece on the Fingertips site, which flesh out the subject at hand.

* * * * *

No longer up in the sky, today's flying cars are zooming with unbridled speed and zaniness around the internet.

You may have heard about those flying cars, the ones that people in the 1950s were convinced everyone would be driving (flying) around in by the 1960s or maybe the 1980s and certainly by the very futuristic year of 2000 (now, bizarrely, in the nostalgia-inducing past).

Well, it turns out every generation gets its own version of flying cars--a certain-sounding vision of future technology based on a vigorously embraced present technology, which passing time eventually reveals to be both laughable and impossible. At the end of the 21st century's first decade, the internet seems particularly susceptible to the flying car syndrome, with all sorts of zippy schemes gaining traction within our net-addled culture.

With the music industry in conspicuous disarray, it's no surprise to see flying cars promised as inexorable destiny. There are three particular models of flying car most prominently advertised these days by the music industry's loudest and most insistent hucksters. These are:

1) The "Free Music" model, with its one big, simple feature: in the future, no one will have to pay for recorded music at all

2) The "Access" model, which still involves paying for recorded music, albeit indirectly (through some sort of fee or another); what disappears in this model is ownership (i.e. you pay to listen but you don't actually hold on to any physical recording of any kind)

3) The "Music-Like-Water" model, another indirect payment concept, hawks the idea that in the future, music will be subscribed to, and paid for monthly, like a utility bill

As you continue to read about such things both here and in other places, remember one thing: I never got my flying car, and neither did you.

The Free Music model's most vocal salesman thus far seems to be Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, and columnist for the Washington Post. He has such unshaking belief in his own analysis that he states over and over again, as if fact, that the price of music will "inevitably" fall to zero because, as he says, "Marginal production costs are zero" (see here for a relatively early example).

"Arguing against basic economics makes about as much sense as arguing against gravity," he likes to say.

As Tina Fey likes to say: "What the what?"

Mr. Arrington's bluster aside, I'm pretty sure that most if not all of the world's sharpest economic thinkers would avoid comparing economic theory--a human construct, which attempts to codify what is at root the irrational behavior of human beings--to gravity, which when last I checked is an actual physical law, rooted in immutable physical circumstances.

When last I checked as well, economic theory, while adept at providing a framework for humankind's basic economic activities, is not a Ouija Board or a Magic Eightball--it does not claim special powers of prognostication, especially within highly complex and indelibly subjective arenas such as the creation and production of music. Economic theories that apply in the realm of commodity products such as soybeans or crude oil cannot possibly work smoothly or predictably when the "product" is something as individual and varying as a song or composition.

Truth be told, the Free Music model is as nonsensical as Hiller's Aerial Sedan (see charming picture above), and for the relatively similar reason that it overvalues theoretical thinking at the expense of everyday human reality.

Flying cars might be theoretically possible but they are empirically impossible. The typical automobile driver could never be skilled and attentive enough to be a pilot, not to mention a mechanic (the machine would have to be thoroughly checked and inspected before every trip, no matter how short). If you are a not especially skilled or attentive driver, you can still, pretty often, drive to the store. Put the vehicle in the sky--without clearly defined roadways, signs, signals, and so forth--and that same level of skill will quickly kill you, your passengers, and people unfortunate enough to be below you on the ground at the time. And there's no pulling over to the shoulder if your engine suddenly has trouble.

Flying car proponents never seemed to think about this, just as today's free music proponents do not think about the mundane but very real barriers to the no-cost nirvana they are convinced is around the corner.

To reduce the music industry's economic circumstances to the simple idea that "marginal production costs are zero" is rhetorical sleight of hand. What about the cost of the original production--the cost of actually recording the music in the first place? Despite the capacities that today's technology gives musicians to record on their own, most serious musicians still want and need a professional recording studio, which doesn't come cheaply. And what about the cost of all the time involved in rehearsing? What about the labor cost of the songwriter? No one imagines a lawyer or investment banker toiling for hours or weeks on end without a fee. Isn't the effort involved in producing the song worth real money?

Of course it is--if, that is, the end result is in fact of value. And this is what complicates the music discussion, to be sure. There is an overabundance of music being written and recorded in the 21st century that has no value to anyone but the person or people making it and (perhaps) their families and friends. It's misleading and distracting to pretend that music recorded on a laptop by your cousin's roommate's ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, when they were drunk, can and should be governed by the same economics as music produced by Neko Case or Radiohead or Grizzly Bear or (name the biggest hottest buzz band of the moment).

There is, therefore, a lot of music available today that really can and should and has to be free, if precisely because it doesn't have value to a wider audience. But this does not lead to the idea that all music can or should or has to be free. Marginal production costs be damned; human beings have, since the dawn of currency itself, understood that to own something of value requires a commensurate payment. To pretend that techonological trickery has changed that basic relationship is to believe in flying cars.

Saying to a band that has created and recorded a worthy song, "Sorry, but because technology now lets me take your song home so easily, I don't have to pay for it" is morally outrageous. To add, further, that economic theory not only demands but justifies this circumstance is to be both outlaw and fool.

Relying on economic theory to explain this deep and knotty subject is like relying on dermatology to understand a human being. The writers and commentators who dive into deep economic analysis expect us to nod our heads and accept their very serious authority on the matter but let's get a grip here. The economy may often dominate our lives, but economics neither rules nor governs our living breathing time on earth. Economic theory doesn't even specifically predict economic events like booms and recessions, never mind the fate of a multifaceted activity like the creation and enjoyment of music.

Just because it's become trickier to figure out how to charge for music doesn't mean that worthy musicians are somehow fated not to be able to sell it. The ideas that have been discussed as ways to offset the disappearance of revenue generated directly by songs and albums--bands will earn money via merchandise and touring, basically--are flimsy and awkward at best, and collapse under realistic examination. Where, for instance, does this leave artists who are not by and large touring artists, either by choice or necessity? What about the fact that consumers can far less afford regular concert tickets than regular album or song purchases?

As for the idea that musicians suddenly have to come up with other things to sell besides music, well, we are yet again zooming around in flying-car airspace. Musicians make music, and the best ones earn their living from that very music. Music fans like listening to music and don't necessarily want or need a lot of extra stuff that isn't music from the musicians they enjoy. To believe in some jerry-rigged scheme by which musicians learn to not be musicians in order to be musicians, to believe that the music industry will subsist on marketing gimmickry alone, is as absurd as believing that car companies could build reliable flying machines and that average citizens could pilot and maintain them.

And to presume that you know exactly where the future is going based on extrapolating from current conditions is likewise to believe in flying cars. "I'm simply stating the inevitable, not what's right or wrong," says Arrington. He knows people get upset by how unfair his idea of free music can seem, and heads straight to the gravity analogy for the coup de grace. Gravity "may not be fair, either," he has written, "but it's inevitable."

When all else fails in a time of upheaval and transition, you can't go too far wrong by noticing who thinks they know exactly what's going to happen and pretty much ignoring them. I have no idea where all this is going, but I know more than someone who already insists they know where all this is going. The Free Music model--in part because of the certainty of its adherents--is a lemon.

* * * * *
Tune in tomorrow for part two, in which the other two "models" are discussed, and conclusions (or not) are reached.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Win a Jill Sobule CD (contest deadline 4/24)

It's not too late to enter the latest Fingertips Contest. The prize this time is a copy of Jill Sobule's new album, California Years. That's the one you may have heard about, which was funded entirely by fan donations. There will be three winners; deadline for entry is this Friday, April 24.

Free and legal MP3 from We The They (crisp, harmony-laced indie pop w/ a '60s flair)

"Pastures" - We The They
     Crisp, well-recorded modern pop with a knowing touch of the '60s about it, "Pastures" does in fact put me in the mind of open fields: this feels like a romp in the fresh air compared to a lot of what our glitchy, mashed-up, over-programmed decade has produced. No laptops were harmed in the creation of this song.
     From their quick Roy Orbison nod at the beginning (both lyrically and vocally) to their winsome Kinks-meet-the-Beach-Boys vibe, We The They manages to look backward without getting stuck there. Familiar snippets of words and melody shoot by, the background harmonies soar (and, sometimes, sink--check out that merry down-sliding note at 1:15), and everything is enlivened by the briskness of the beat and an underlying silliness that one can't quite put one's finger on but it's definitely here somewhere. Front man Robert Wayne has a rubbery voice that is equally convincing emoting and being a goofball. Consider it a useful skill.
     "Pastures" is a song from the band's three-song EP The Shabby Road Sessions, which came out last year in a limited self-release, then a digital release; and then, more recently, a video for the song has caught on amongst those who like to watch their music, so much so that the EP is going to be re-released this summer on an actual record label. No word yet on which one. The band is likewise at work on their first full-length album, which they're hoping to release before year's end.

Free and legal MP3 from Super700 (sleek, smoky, melodramatic pop)

"Somebody Tried to Steal My Car" - Super700
     This one is sleek, smoky, and melodramatic in a way that it's not possible to be if you don't have a stage full of people in the band. Nothing against trios--because I love trios--but there's something that sheer size brings to musical ambiance. Things simmer into existence in a large-ensemble crucible that otherwise wouldn't materialize.
     It's also difficult to be this sleek, smoky, and melodramatic, I should note, without a sleek, smoky, melodramatic lead vocalist, and Ibadet Ramadani scores high on all counts, and then some. Above everything else her voice gives the song its power because there's something darker and untamed lurking just below her enticing, sugary tone. Ramadani's two backing singers are her sisters, which adds uncommon resonance to the vocals, especially during the recurring wordless melody we hear first during the introduction (which features, by the way, wonderful melodic movement and hinges on an unusual ninth interval). Lyrically, the song unfolds with dream-like leaps in narrative, while Ramadani's poise and power gives lines like "Although I was raised by wolves/I want to be a tiger" their bite, as it were, and turns the chorus's follow-up refrain ("And if I was a tiger/What would you be?") into a resonant mystery. (Okay, should be "were," but oh well.)
     Super700 are based in Berlin. "Somebody Tried to Steal My Car" is a song off the band's second CD, Lovebites, produced by Rob Kirwan (who has worked with U2, Elastica, and New Order, among many others) and released at the end of February on the German label Motor Music.

Free and legal MP3 from the Monolators (B. Holly meets J. Richman in the 21st century)

"I Must Be Dreaming" - the Monolators
     Doing their best to find the Venn Diagram intersection between Buddy Holly, Jonathan Richman, and, say, Win Butler is the L.A.-based quintet the Monolators, all the while skating somewhere along that fine line that (sometimes) separates garage rock from indie pop. Backed by speeded up, bottom-heavy Cricket rhythms, vocalist Eli Chartkoff here employs an endearing sort of yelling/singing to express the defiant disappointment of the unlucky in love.
     Keeping this from becoming just another edgy bit of indie angst is the band's forcefully choreographed primitivism, driven by tom-toms, handclaps, a feverish bass line, and reverb-laced guitar squawks. As a group they never stray too far from their inner Buddy Holly: check out how the 30-second instrumental break in the center of the song (beginning at 1:13) begins with the band flying in different directions only to coalesce (1:31) into full Cricket mode. These are some of rock'n'roll's most primal rhythms. They still work because they never stopped working; we just sometimes stop paying attention. This is song is less homage than reminder.
     The Monolators began life in 2002 as a trio, stripped down at one point to a husband-wife duo (Eli and his wife Mary), and now appear to be a five-piece. You'll find "I Must Be Dreaming" on the CD Don't Dance, the band's third, which was released this past fall. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head's up.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Foreign Born (satisfyingly complex indie pop)

"Vacationing People" - Foreign Born
     At once ambling and deceptively precise, "Vacationing People" has the satisfying pop complexity of a late-era Beatles song, without being otherwise Beatlesque in any obvious way (though come to think of it, singer Matt Popieluch has a buzzy voice that can sometimes bring George Harrison to mind). While the song does have verses and a chorus, it also employs a repeating bridge, which results--unusually--in the bridge getting more air time than the somewhat elusive verses do. This kind of thing is subtle but effective: structural intricacy, when there still is structure (versus complete free-formedness), gives a pop song an ineffable sort of richness that charms the ears.
     And what I think I like best here is how the song makes a hook out of something that is not inherently hooky. And let's see if I can explain that. I'm talking about the chorus, which we hear the first time at 1:06. It's a sort of call and response, with Popieluch singing a simple melody that meanders, ascendingly, around a shuffly beat that is surely influenced by one sort of world music or another (the press material says benga, which is from Kenya, but I don't know enough to corroborate that); the answering vocals offer the same four-note response each time, three of the notes simply repeating before closing with one whole-step descent. The fuzzed-up bass and some tinkling guitar lines mesh with the shifty rhythms and the whole thing far exceeds the sum of its parts, forging a hook out of not one particular thing you can point to. By the second time it comes around, it sounds like an old friend.
     Foreign Born is a quartet from Los Angeles. "Vacationing People" is a song from the band's debut CD, Person to Person, scheduled for a June release on Secretly Canadian. MP3 via Secretly Canadian.

Free and legal MP3 from Ariel Abshire (young Austin singer/songwriter with a Neko-like air)

"Exclamation Love" - Ariel Abshire
     After listening to a few too many songs and/or bands that seek to grab listeners by the collar with their quirkiness or their histrionics or their sheer volume, I find "Exclamation Love" to be a balm to the spirit. There's nothing here but a fine song and a confident but disciplined singer. Yeah, she lets a note or two rip now and then, but it's much more Neko Case than "American Idol": a sweet seasoning of reverb enhancing full-throated tones of startling purity. I keep waiting for her voice to wobble, vibrate, or crack with practiced emotion but she's having none of it. The closest Abshire gets to an emotional "trick" is at 3:40 when she starts flitting up to falsetto as she drags out the first syllable in "exclamation"--she's just moving one whole step up but the shift in tone gives it the effect of a dire leap. The song is already two-thirds through, and at that point it's no trick at all but a natural culmination of the journey.
     And who needs histrionics when there's this: "Why don't you love me like you used to?" she sings at 1:36, then follows it with "I still love you like I used to" and listen to how she just plain spits out that last to. Check out, also, how the electric guitar uncorks a bit here, for playful emphasis, only to retreat into the mix thenceforth. Sometimes a little quirkiness can go a long way.
     Abshire is from Austin and maybe it's time I mention that she's 17 years old. Apparently she's been singing around town since she was 11. "Exclamation Love" is the title track to her debut CD, released last year on Darla Records. MP3 via SXSW.com. Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head's up.

Free and legal MP3 from the Veils (engaging, well-conceived rock'n'roll)

"The Letter" - the Veils
     Finn Andrews and company return with an assured piece of rock'n'roll theater: engaging, well-performed, and rewardingly dramatic, featuring a full-fledged, recurring instrumental motif the likes of which has all but disappeared from the 21st-century rock scene. I'm talking about the ringing guitar line that opens the song; at least, I think that's a guitar--the sound is slippery and intriguing, and even though you can sing the melody easily back to yourself, you can't quite tell what's making it. When the theme returns later, braided into that sleek, idiosyncratic chorus, I can't help but smile with a wordless sort of delight at the vivid economy on display. "She wrote the letter down" is all Andrews sings, twice, and--via that delay between "letter" and "down," and the delicious melodic sidestep he takes on the second "down"--yet manages to open up a world of struggle and drama. I can't figure out what else he's singing about but, as is often the case (see above) when a gifted singer gets hold of a good song, it doesn't seem to matter.
     As noted last time around, Andrews is the son of Barry Andrews, once a sideman in XTC, later frontman for Shriekback. The Veils have gone through a variety of incarnations since their 2002 inception; the current, multinational quartet features two from New Zealand (including Andrews), a German, and a Brit. "The Letter" is from the band's new CD, Sun Gangs, released last week on Rough Trade Records. MP3 via the Beggars Group web site.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

New Fingertips contest: win the Jill Sobule CD

Jill Sobule's new album, California Years, is being officially released this week. You may have heard by now of its unusual history. After her last record company went out of business, Sobule decided to see if she could fund a new album through fan donations only. In January 2008, she launched a web site dedicated to raising money for the album. Her goal was $75,000, to be reached via gifts to donors of various levels, from $10 (you get a free download) to $10,000 (you get to sing on the album; and yes, one fan gave it up for $10K). By early March, she achieved her goal, and ended up with almost $89,000 in donations. California Years is the end result.

It's too late to have a chance to sing on the album, but now you can win a physical CD of it for no cost at all by going to the Contests page on the Fingertips web site and following the not too terribly complicated instructions to be found there.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

April Q&A now online (featuring David Harrell, of the Layaways)

This month's Q&A features musician and writer/blogger David Harrell. Harrell is front man for the Chicago-based band the Layaways; he likewise is founder of the blog Digital Audio Insider, which takes as its subject matter "the economics of digital music." So he's something of a ringer for the Q&A, which monthly asks musicians five questions about the state of the music industry here in the digital age. The guy knows what he's talking about.

The Layaways have been twice featured on Fingertips, in February 2005 and November 2008.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

10 current free and legal MP3 favorites, otherwise known as the Fingertips Top 10

I haven't blogged about the Fingertips Top 10 since October, so every song on the chart now is new. (Songs remain in the Top 10 for a maximum of three months.) As of today, here's the list:

1. "Davy Crockett" - South Ambulance
2. "River of Dirt" - Marissa Nadler
3. "No One's Better Sake" - Little Joy
4. "I Know My Ocean" - The Traditionist
5. "Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh" - Say Hi
6. "The Sun Ain't Shining No More" - The Asteroids Galaxy Tour
7. "It Hurts Me All the Time" - Faunts
8. "Strangers" - St. Vincent
9. "Loaded" - The Idle Hands
10. "White Shade" - Lukestar

"Davy Crockett" just debuted at number one, which is an uncommon accomplishment, knocking Marissa Nadler down a notch. "White Shade" is the next song due to be retired. Like everything else on Fingertips, the Top 10 is idiosyncratic and synchronicitous. No research has been harmed, never mind consulted, in the construction of this list, which is simply my way of shining an extra spotlight onto ten particularly wonderful songs at any given time.

Remember, however, that Fingertips only features carefully filtered music to begin with, so you can't go wrong with any of the MP3s featured here at any time.