Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Five free & legal MP3s, no reviews: Fingertips holiday update

It's Thanksgiving in the U.S. this week, and so Fingertips is taking a holiday. Not to leave you empty-handed, here are five current free and legal MP3s that are available from artists previously featured here, minus lengthy reviews. Princeton was just featured last week so I will not likely feature them again quite so quickly, but any of the others may yet get a full-fledged review here, once I listen in more detail and see what my ears make of each of them.

Wishing a Happy Thanksgiving to all those who celebrate, and a cheerful week to one and all in any case. It's up to us, really; the world is certainly not cooperating in terms of putting a smile on our faces. Maybe that's not its job.

And don't forget: there's still one day left to enter the Hall & Oates contest. Tell me what unhip band you like. It won't hurt.

"Korean War Memorial" - Princeton   These guys were featured just last week; here's another song from their Cocoon of Love album. MP3 via NME.

"Good Boys" - the Minor Leagues   The Minor Leagues are a seven-piece band from Cincinnati; their song "Scene It All Before" was featured here in June 2006. "Good Boys" is one of two free and legal MP3s available from the band's new album, This Story Is Old, I Know, But It Goes On, released this month via the Datawaslost collective.

"Wide-Eyed, Legless" - Laura Veirs   Laura Veirs has returned to the land of free and legal MP3s after a few years at sea on Nonesuch (a fine label, but anti-free-and-legal). This song comes from her forthcoming album July Flame, to be released on her own label. She was featured here back in 2004. MP3 via her site.

"Hundred/Million" - the Whigs   The Whigs, from Athens, Georgia, are one of those bands that hit it indie-big with a song, from their second album, that didn't strike me nearly as well as the stuff they put on their first album, when they were featured here (October 2006). Could've just been me, of course. In any case, now comes the third album, and we'll see which way they go from here. MP3 via Magnet.

"The Ballad of Cherry Hill" - Steve Goldberg & the Arch Enemies   Goldberg heads up a Pittsburgh-area ensemble with a big-hearted sound. His first album was recorded as as senior project while he was at Carnegie Mellon University; a song from it was featured here in September 2007. This song comes from a forthcoming EP. MP3 via his site.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Scanners (musically astute & cinematic, w/out fussiness)

"Salvation" - Scanners
     The London-based foursome Scanners make a kind of music once all too common and now all too rare: smartly-produced, aurally interesting, musically astute rock'n'roll. This is music that isn't trying to be fancy, or arcane, or difficult; and yet neither is it simple-minded in sound or concept. Now, I said that this sort of smartly produced (etc.) rock used to be pretty common, which leaves us with the interesting reality that we are not, in 2009, used to hearing music like this in songs that we don't already know. (Such a dispiriting genre, "classic rock"--sealed off by definition from the living, breathing world.) Kind of an odd truth, and one which makes a song like "Salvation" all the more appealing.
     I like, right at the start, how the song offers depth and drama with such sparse instrumentation: until 55 seconds in, we hear precious little but an itchy acoustic guitar lick and some distant chimes, joined for a bit by a quiet keyboard motif. The atmosphere is fostered by the minor key melody and those resonant backing vocals, which are echoey and mixed in such a way as to sound as if the voices were shouting but the volume was turned way down. It's a foreboding effect. Keep an ear on the harmonies throughout--they remain central, and get increasingly interesting. And for all the sonic theatrics, discipline rules the day. You don't hear too many rockers that will dial back halfway into a song (1:19) so that you can only hear, for three seconds, one repeated note on an acoustic guitar.
     "Salvation" is from the band's forthcoming album, Submarine, scheduled for a February release on Dim Mak Records. The band was previously featured here in Aug '06, around the time of the first album, Violence is Golden. MP3 via Better Propaganda.

Free and legal MP3 from Princeton (cheerful-wistful orchestrated pop, w/ boy-girl duet & story)

"Sadie and Andy" - Princeton
     From its faux classical intro to its jaunty doo-wop melody and deadpan storytelling, "Sadie and Andy" is all craft and artifice. And pretty much irresistible. "I stock the milk and all the eggs there," Andy sings, catching Sadie up on his daily doings in the grocery store, "And all the herbal tea." Sadie is radically uninterested. It's been ten years. "I haven't thought of you at all," she says. "And I don't wish to know."
     It's the standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy's-love-grows-with-loss, girl-could-care-less story, and it's found its musical apotheosis in this cheerful-wistful piece of precisely orchestrated pop, with its swirling strings, diligent trumpet, elusive oboe, and martial snare. That it's much ado about nothing--did she mention she hasn't thought of him at all?--is part of the thematic point. Matt Kivel's Andy sings with great nasal earnestness, a wannabe crooner with neither quite the voice nor the charisma to pull it off. Guest vocalist Meredith Metcalf, for her part, is a breathy ice queen, a Sadie not in any obvious way worthy of Andy's obsession, but that's always the underlying irony of this story.
     Princeton is a quartet from L.A. featuring the twins Jesse and Matt Kivel. (The name comes from the street they grew up on street in Santa Monica.) "Sadie and Andy" is the lead track on the band's debut album, Cocoon of Love, released in late September on Brooklyn-based Kanine Records.

Free and legal MP3 from Class Actress (electro-pop w/ a groove & a subtle sense of humor)

"Careful What You Say" - Class Actress
     Given the synthesizer's inherently goofy sound--the rubbery beeps and boops, the cartoonish echoes, and so forth--it's a bit surprising, now that I think about it, that the instrument isn't more jovially presented as a rule. Indeed, the synthesizer is offered up rather humorlessly in rock music by and large, far more often used with austerity or gravity than with a sense of humor, even when--or maybe especially when--propelling dance music of one kind or another.
     Not so with "Careful What You Say." From the opening noodles, the synthesizer tones are charged with something resembling mirth, if not flippancy. After the song settles into a seductive electro-groove--no organic instruments in sight--something else now goes against the electro-pop guidebook, which is front woman Elizabeth Harper's singing. Rather than float above with requisite frosty archness, a match for the cold equipment around her, Harper pretty much purrs her way through this one. Whether down in the rich tone of her lower register for the verse or in the airier range of the chorus, Harper sings as if maintaining a wry, secret smile throughout, regardless of the emotional wreckage traced by the lyrics. As for that exquisitely breezy chorus, I like it all the more for how it is fitted into a song that refuses simply to be about its groove--and refuses, in the process, to take itself too seriously. (If you have any doubts about that latter point, check out the instrumental break that begins at 3:17; and just wait for it.)
     Class Actress began as a solo project for Harper, but has become a full-fledged band. On the MySpace page, Harper is listed as "Songwriter," Mark Richardson as "Beatmaker," and Scott Rosenthal as "Heartbreaker." "Careful What You Say" is a song from the trio's debut EP, Journal of Ardency, slated for a February release on Terrible Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Monday, November 16, 2009

More comments on "Farewell to the Casual Fan"

In addition to the comments posted here, I've received a fair number of emails in response to the essay "Farewell to the Casual Fan." As such, I've begun excerpting some of them in a feedback section at the bottom of the essay on the main Fingertips site, for anyone interested.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

New Fingertips contest: win the four-disc Hall & Oates box set

So there's a new Fingertips contest online and yet I just found out that my server is down, and there's no quick fix. Bummer.

So instead of linking you to the Contest page, as per usual, I'll put the details such as they are up here in the blog. The show must go on and all that.

So, okay, pondering the career of Daryl Hall & John Oates made me realize how rather fascinated I am by the hipness cycle in music. You know how it goes: a musician gets "too popular" at some point and therefore turns dreadfully unhip. Stays unhip for a goodly number of years. (There's probably a formula for exactly how long the unhipness lasts, depending upon the length of the popularity.) And then, as if by magic, something gives. Just a little at first. A few intrepid sorts start admitting in public that they like the guy (or band) after all. Or despite of it all. Or something. Soon enough, the "they're so unhip they're hip" dynamic kicks in big-time. Everyone lines up to say how much they've always always loved them. Other musicians clamor to record duets with them. Tribute albums are born. Box sets sell briskly. And now you hope they just live long enough to earn something from the resurgence.

One thing that usually strikes me about this whole cycle is that the musicians in question hardly ever deserve either the crazy popularity they once enjoyed or the awful slagging they got later for being so terribly horribly unhip.

Daryl Hall and John Oates certainly never deserved banishment. What, exactly, was the crime--they were too successful? Their songs were hits too often? (They did score 22 Top 20 singles; the best-selling duo of all time, if you must know.) Let's listen with our ears, shall we? These guys were good for quite a long time. Maybe their success was a bit over the top but still: not their fault. This is not a "guilty pleasure" (and by the way, I do not like the whole idea of "guilty pleasures," but that's another story). This is good pop music. And, in Do What You Want, Be What You Are, a good amount of it--it's a four-disc box set.

I have one box to give away. With apologies to international visitors, you must first of all be a resident of the United States. To enter the contest:

Send an email to prizecloset at fingertipsmusic (don't forget the dot com) with "Hall & Oates" in the subject line.

In the body of the email, please write:
- Your favorite "unhip" band or musician (I won't tell anyone); and:
- Your first name and last name, because, as usual, if you're going to win, I'm going to need to know. Anonymity has its limits.

Please use an email address that you check regularly so if you win, you'll be able to find out. You'd be surprised by the number of times I try to contact the winner and they've disappeared into the misty ether of the internet.

There will be only one winner (U.S. only!; just a reminder), who will be selected at random from eligible entries.

The deadline for entry is Wednesday November 25. The drawing will take place shortly thereafter; only the winner will be notified.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Farewell to the Casual Music Fan, part two

Here's the second part of the long commentary piece posted to the main Fingertips site on Monday. Thanks for the comments so far, and the emails too. Perhaps this second part, for those who haven't read it yet, will clarify some things. Without further ado...

* * * * *

Consequence No. 2: Cultural disconnect

Beyond plummeting album sales, another disorienting hallmark of the digital music age has been the fragmentation of popular music into a mind-boggling array of genres and sub-genres. Are there any songs or artists that "everyone" listens to and knows about any more? Not apparently.

And yet so far, at least, this is not for want of trying. That is, many musicians still aspire to gain the ear of the multitude, if only from the instinctual understanding that if as a musical artist you have something important to say, you hope to say it to a larger rather than smaller number of ears.

In the brave new musical world of fan engagement, musicians need no longer aim in this direction. As artists, by necessity, nurture their super-fan following, no one will need to think about creating something for everyone rather than something for their marketplace of 1,000--or, even, as one recent story would have it, just forty.

By and large this is presented as a liberating idea. Release yourself from the desire to appeal to large numbers of people, follow your individual muse in a way that pleases your flock of supporters, and you shall be set free, goes the basic thinking. Let go of the ego need for millions of fans and you'll see it's okay to seek a micro-audience, because a) you'll be making a living, and b) everyone listening will be listening really carefully and pretty much worshipping you.

But the point here isn't psychological. It's cultural. The point isn't getting artists accustomed to aspiring to selling to only a thousand people. The point is the different nature of the involvement sought and the consequential effect on a culture being served by this new kind of musician.

Aiming to reach a vast audience and seeking to connect with a limited group of people are two very different things. The end result of having all or even most of our contemporary musicians seeking the former rather than the latter style of artistic connection means the loss of a meaningful musical commons in our joint public experience.

The restorative effect of this type of commons is subtle but powerful. Just the other day, I was working out at the gym and the song "One" by U2 came on the sound system. I am not a diehard U2 fan, and yet the song in that context triggered a deep, ineffable pleasure. Hearing a good song that everyone knows in a public setting recharges the spirit in a subtle but meaningful way.

Note that this is not just about me hearing a song I like. I hear a song I like every time I'm listening to a playlist on my iPod. This is about me hearing the song in the midst of other people, total strangers, who also know the song and are hearing it at the same time. What transpires is a communal, connective experience, even without any words passing between those having it.

This effect is the antithesis of a super-fan moment. The connection to the music is casual; it's a sense of human connection here that provides the frisson of aliveness. Music in this way can offer a culturally constructed way of feeling at one with the world around us.

In a world in which musicians are encouraged, if not forced, to cater exclusively to their most passionate followers, likewise a world in which music fans listen exclusively to music most passionately loved, we lose this important but overlooked capacity to connect. The world shrinks. Something about being human is lost.

Consequence No. 3: Artistic claustrophobia

The decision to go from having an audience which includes diehard fans among others to having an audience exclusively comprised of the diehards will have aesthetic consequences too.

That's because musicians aiming to slake the appetites of diehard fans are likely to retreat, however unconsciously, into a closed-off, self-referential space. The music is likely to become constricted over time, for a few reasons.

First, think about the time and energy required to feed and nurture a group of super-fans, and whether this leaves a musician time to tend to his or her actual art. In the old days, musicians needed only to convey the idea that their music was worth the price of an album or a concert ticket. This modest goal involved first putting out a good album and second getting the word out that it was indeed good--no mean feats to be sure, but at heart not too complicated. The energy was by and large directed towards writing and performing good songs, and trying to convince people to give a listen.

In the age of the super-fan, the musician is charged with conveying the idea that his or her music is worth $100 a year of various and sundry purchases, some or even most of which may not involve actual music. I am not saying that this can't be done, I'm only pointing out that this is first of all a less modest goal than musicians of the past were charged with and second of all requires a different approach to a music-making life.

Some 21st-century musicians appear to be well-suited to this new mode of being. It requires an unmitigated willingness and ability to be a public person in a much different way than is involved when simply singing songs on a stage. Artists for whom such conduct feels natural may not find it any particular kind of burden.

I suspect, however, that many musicians will find this behavior difficult to come by in any consistent way. I suspect many musicians will be unhappy when they find that time and energy that once could be devoted to writing and performing must now be deflected into other endeavors and activities that may have little to do with music.

Even if a musician can find a manager-like person who can help out with all the social media interaction and the peripheral offerings required to stoke the super-fan base, staying on top of fan engagement will still consume personal resources he or she may not have. The music may suffer. The first stage of claustrophobia is arrived at out of basic depletion.

Above and beyond the time and energy situation, creating for a tribe of passionate fans has a couple of additional artistic drawbacks as far as I can see. To begin with, the situation strikes me as similar to a politician surrounding him- or herself with sycophants, or to a writer who, after a big bestseller, no longer feels the need to be closely edited. Regardless of how talented the artist, to create exclusively for people who are predisposed to believe that you are utterably brilliant is a less than ideal environment in which to create meaningful art.

The final element of the claustrophobia relates to the look and feel and vibe of an artist catering to and grooving off of his or her tribe of super-fans. Artist and super-fans are insiders together, sharing information and ideas with an ever-present interactive feedback loop.

To the expert I heard at the DC conference, the idea that artists and highly-engaged fans will "co-conspire" like this represented nothing less than the future of music. To me, it sounds like middle school. You've got the cool group on the inside, and what they mostly conspire to do is keep the uncool and unworthy outsiders outside.

Insider cliques stoke egos but fall short when it comes to worthwhile activity. I am not optimistic about the quality of music likely to emerge over time from super-fan-driven musicians.

Consequence No. 4: Debilitated listeners

If the musician motivated by fan engagement is in danger of losing his or her creative touch, the fans in this scenario are at risk of a similar loss at the receiving end of the creativity.

To begin with, just as musicians may grow artistically flabby catering to a tribe of worshippers, listeners likewise may find their powers of discernment slacken in this environment.

Think about it. Listeners are congregating exclusively around artists they passionately love. They pay $100 a year or more for the privilege of buying a variety of products from their beloved musician. In that environment, there is little room for critical thinking.

And so, among this small group of devotees--who, don't forget, have an unprecedented capacity to talk amongst themselves, and therefore reinforce established opinions--what the musician produces will wind up in one of two basic drawers: the drawer of "oh my god, I'm gonna cry, this is so brilliant"; or, the drawer of "oh my god, I'm gonna hurl, this sucks." That's because in this group of super-fans, particularly as the artist acquires a body of work, those who think that every tiny thing the musician does is genius will exist side by side with those who think that every tiny thing the musician did used to be genius but now (as noted) sucks.

It's the nature of diehard fandom, and not a big deal, except to the extent that the fan engagement model becomes the bedrock of the music scene and we're left only with the diehards. Not a lot of good happens when we are left only with colliding extremes (cf. 21st-century U.S. politics).

One of the great, if paradoxical, things casual fans bring to the scene is the fact that they don't care quite so much. They are somewhat objective observers. For those who've read Nick Hornby's new book, it's the difference between the written reviews of Juliet, Naked that Duncan (the super-fan) and Annie (the casual fan) post online (not to mention the difference between what proceeds to happen to each of them).

Another way listeners may be debilitated over time by the super-fan scenario is how it will accelerate the already existing trend of closing ears off to music that is not already known. And some of this closing-off will be a purely logistical problem.

The key word in fan engagement is "engagement," after all. Musicians in this model are trying their damnedest to keep your attention--encouraging you to browse offerings, haunt message boards, enter contests, follow tweets, read newsletters, leave blog comments, and so forth. All of this takes time. A lot more time than just listening to a song or two. A principal reason that the super-fan scenario will close listeners off to experiencing new music in a more casual way is that there are still only 24 hours in a day.

Consequence of the Consequences

The ironic bottom line about the fan-engagement model of Saving the Music Industry is that, if effected, it will shrink the market for rock music far beyond the place to which technology and circumstances have already shrunk it--far beyond the place, that is, where everyone's already freaking out.

Remember, there is no such thing as popular music without casual fans; remove casual fans from the mix and out the window also goes popularity.

I know that in theory most critics and pundits and sideline observers don't really care about that. Being "popular" is never that cool a concept with such folks. So if that's the case, then sure, let's sit back and applaud as rock'n'roll takes its place next to jazz at the table reserved for music that used to be popular and now caters to a specialized set of listeners. Maybe some new and interesting musical avenues will be opened up in the process.

But here's the thing. This happened to jazz in a more or less organic way. Yes, I know I'm oversimplifying, but with jazz one could say that the music went one direction, the mainstream audience another. (Same with classical, sort of.) The idea behind something like "1,000 True Fans" is different. Here, musicians are told to aim for slender segments of listeners. This is an aim that purposefully--if somewhat obliviously--shows casual music fans out the door.

What's more, it's doing so in a way that seems kind of...well, icky. Jazz musicians followed their muse away from the mainstream. It was all about the music, and if a limited number of people still wanted to listen, so be it. Via "1,000 True Fans," musicians are being told that it's not just about the music. It's about the tweets and the video updates and the t-shirts and the personally-signed pottery cats and dogs and who knows what else.

Because here's what it's really about: figuring out how to pry $100 a year from your most ardent admirers.

There are many who say: and what the hell is wrong with that? Maybe nothing. It's nice work if you can get it. As a major consumer of music for 30 some-odd years, I will note, however, that I am much happier when I feel as if I'm pushing money to my favorite artists rather than having it pulled out of me.

Look, it's always been nearly impossible for most musicians to earn a living wage. And yes, the 21st century has made it even more difficult. There's file sharing. There's the bad economy. There's more file-sharing. (And did I mention file-sharing?)

Worse--and pay close attention now--there's the badly overcrowded marketplace. Thanks to the combination of laptop recording and web-based distribution, the barrier to entry for being a musician in the first place has all but disappeared. Amateurs and imposters have flooded the marketplace.

And so, even as industry experts propose fan engagement as a panacea, my conclusion is that, if effected, it will only make matters worse. It may ultimately be even harder for musicians to earn a living.

Because if everyone now thinks they only need 1,000 fans to make it as a musician, then yikes--you won't believe how many more people will be out there trying to do just that.

And that, to me, is the biggest indictment of this well-intended but not well-thought-out idea: that it will in fact be a beacon of hope for "vanity press" musicians who write and sing and record songs that they should not even be sharing with their friends, never mind 1,000 strangers. No matter how untalented and unpromising any one person with a Mac and a dream may be, he or she will be nothing but inspired to know that all all they need are 1,000 fans and they can be a full-time, professional musician. Why, most of them probably have at least 600 Facebook friends. That sounds like they're already more than halfway there.

Will "1,000 True Fans" work nicely for any one particular musician? No doubt it may. Set it loose on an unsuspecting marketplace, however, and watch out. Casual fans will disappear and in their wake come those we may as well call the casual musicians. I for one don't like the trade-off.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Free and legal MP3 from Think About Life (exuberant deconstructed funk)

"Johanna" - Think About Life
     So this may be about the best thing I've heard all year. How sharp and sleek and funky; how multileveled and well-crafted and exuberant; what deeply gratifying fun.
     The basic groove alone is impressive, established at the outset by some brilliant horn charts, with their stuttery swing and that softly dissonant chord they settle on at the end of each phrase. But "Johanna" has so much more going for it than the basic groove, including an memorable melodic spine--the song just hangs on it so perfectly--and Martin Cesar's delightful, full-throated singing. When everything kind of caves in on itself momentarily, at 1:14, this isn't just a cute effect, it's spirited statement of purpose: this Montreal-based quartet can and will do anything they want with the sound they're creating. In an indirect way, Think About Life brings to mind Remain in Light-era Talking Heads--not because the sound is similar, but for this group's willingness and ability to simultaneously work with and deconstruct the funk. I have rarely heard a band manage to give off a kitchen-sink air of anything goes while at the same time writing and playing such tight, kick-ass music. This isn't just someone pushing a button to put this sound in here, then this sound here; as with Talking Heads before them, I get a strong sense of both brainy tinkering and physical exertion in the presence of this song. The crazy-awesome instrumental interlude at 2:26--30 seconds of time standing still right in the center of the groove--is not to be missed.
     "Johanna" is from the band's second album, Family, which was released in Canada in May and in the U.S. last month, on Alien8 Recordings. The MP3 was made available last week via Magnet.

Free and legal MP3 from Will Stratton (young singer/songwriter w/ gorgeous, reverb-laced tune)

"Who Will" - Will Stratton
     Gorgeous and swaying, but with a deep-down sense of gravity. (Anyone remember the old Fleetwood Mac instrumental "Albatross"? This evokes that, pleasantly.) I like the sonic interplay between the crisply strummed acoustic guitar at the front of the mix and that big dark open space underneath--space created seemingly by just a lonesome-prairie guitar and Stratton's voice, each enhanced as they are by a steady, stately reverb. The acoustic guitar offers naked immediacy, the reverbed layers lend a shadowy, contemplative air. Somewhere in the middle someone is sitting at a piano and playing a few chords every so often, adding to the engaging three-dimensionality. Later we get female harmonies, violins, even a trumpet, all of which contribute further to the song's gentle dream.
     But this song has a haunting quality that seems to be larger than the sum of its parts. In a weird way it's as if the reverb itself, independent of what's reverb-ing (the drums get it too, and the trumpet, and the female backing singers), is a visceral part of the intimate yet spacious landscape, is itself somehow its own presence in the music.
     The 22-year-old Stratton recorded his first album, What the Night Said, the summer after he graduated from high school, and it was released two years later, in 2007. Two years further on, he's out the other side of college, and along comes his second album, No Wonder, released last week on Stunning Models on Display. MP3 via the record company.

Free and legal MP3 from the Sun (a fuzzy blast of melodic noise)

"In Perfect Time" - the Sun
     A fuzzy blast of melodic noise, "In Perfect Time" seems to want to be played really loud. As a matter of fact, it has a kind of sneaky effect going--the louder I turn it, the louder still I feel I need to hear it. This clearly has to do with how singer Chris Burney's voice is mixed down, but it's more than just that. Any number of other bands have done the mixed-down-vocals thing and it doesn't always have my hand reaching for the volume dial (okay, not a dial anymore, but whatever). So what else is going on here?
     Part of it has to do with the unerring melodicism on display. Songwriters with the talent to write this kind of strong, earnest pop melody--Matthew Sweet in his heyday had this kind of sound--typically give you the thing right out front. You don't have to fight for it. I turn the volume up here because I'm trying to put the melody where I'm used to hearing it. But, of course, turning the volume up only turns all the background wash louder also. And the noise is not at all unpleasant, mind you. It's bashy and tinny and crunchy. And when it gets louder, I need to turn the volume yet higher, again trying to raise the vocals to a more audible level. A losing battle in this case, especially since--strange but true--the wall of sound appears to get proportionally louder than the vocals as I increase the volume. Producer Mike McCarthy has some wacky magic going here, perhaps the after-effect of working with Spoon's studied minimalism for so many years (he's produced all their albums since 2001).
     The Sun is a band from Columbus, Ohio that did not name themselves with Google in mind. "In Perfect Time" is the closing track on the album Don't Let Your Baby Have All The Fun, released this week on Rock Proper. Rock Proper happens to be a so-called "netlabel," which means that its releases are entirely digital and entirely free. You can download all the songs from the album as free and legal downloads here.

Monday, November 09, 2009

New Fingertips Commentary: Farewell to the Casual Fan

There's a new Fingertips Commentary essay on the main site, called "Farewell to the Casual Fan." Subtitle: "Too many 'future of music' schemes overlook the importance of listeners who don't worship you."

As always, it's a somewhat lengthy discussion, so I'm breaking it into two parts for the blog. I'll post the second part on Wednesday. The weekly MP3 selections should be up 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.

* * * * *

One of the recurring themes of the recent Future of Music Policy Summit in Washington, DC was the necessity, for musicians, to develop an "active fan base." There wasn't one specific panel about this, or one discussion; it was instead a constant thread through many different panels and discussions, and the seemingly inevitable answer to the industry's $64,000 question: how on earth can musicians earn a living in the digital age?

We all know the basic plot by now. Musicians are on their own out there, lacking both the imprimatur and promotional budget once afforded by big record labels. And by the way no one wants to buy music anymore either. What's a poor singer/songwriter boy or girl to do?

At the conference, something like a consensus emerged in response: foster the artist-fan relationship. Any number of experts in any number of different ways ultimately said the same thing: succeed with so-called "fan engagement" and you're on your way. (Well, okay, musicians were also told, repeatedly, "not to suck." Another worthy goal, but outside of the purview of this essay.)

And luckily for today's musicians, the internet is just one big crazy fan-engagement machine, if properly operated. Through regular forays into blogging, Twittering, and Facebooking, musicians can get up close and personal with their fans, and use this interaction to--let's be blunt--make money.

In the minds of those pinning the future of musician well-being on fan engagement, what they're talking about is really a sort of fan engagement on steroids. It's not just about collecting email addresses and talking to fans at the merch table after the show. That's relatively easy, old-fashioned, and, now, inadequate.

Fan engagement as newly conceived is relatively difficult. It involves managing an arsenal of 24/7 social media pages and being ever on the lookout for creative avenues of interaction and out-of-the-ordinary sales opportunities. Needless to say, this is time-consuming. And--it should be noted--the path from this new, aggressive kind of fan engagement to revenue isn't necessarily clear.

The general idea, however, is that the more that fans feel connected to musicians they love, the more they are likely to want to attend their concerts, buy not merely songs but premium items (specially packaged albums, boxes, et al), and be interested enough in their beloved musicians' comings and goings to be willing to pay as well for any number of offshoot endeavors that the musician can dream up--custom clothing, exclusive video performances, hand-made art items, you name it.

With all this in mind you can see why the experts at the conference seemed to agree that in the digital age, the central important thing that's changing in the music industry is not so much the technology as the artist/fan relationship. Musicians should be thinking of fans not as fans at all but, said one panelist, as "co-conspirators."

So I'm listening to these ideas in Washington and I'm wondering what isn't sitting right with me. Not that there's anything wrong with the concept of fan engagement per se. How could there be? All any committed band wants to do is make an honest living through their music, and I understand why an augmented sort of fan engagement strategy may be just the way some bands eke it out in the digital age.

But I also think the fan engagement bandwagon is missing something significant in the bigger picture of how music functions in the world.

Outside of the confines of the Future of Music Policy Summit, this new approach to fan engagement has been most widely pondered and discussed in the context of Kevin Kelly's well-known "1,000 True Fans" post from last year. As pundits are wont to do, Kelly attempted to crystalize an interesting idea into a concrete credo, which was his hypothesis that anyone producing any kind of art needs only to have 1,000 passionate, committed fans to make a living.

Most of the discussion generated by "1,000 True Fans" has focused on whether it works or not financially. Is 1,000 the right number? Is it more if you have more people in the band? I'll leave that to others. I'm wondering about whether it works culturally.

In some important ways, if the music scene is transformed into a place in which all worthy musicians are supported by enclaves of super-engaged fans, 21st-century rock'n'roll musicians may win the battle but lose the war. Because the more that artists require so-called super-fans for their livelihood, the more they will leave behind the very sorts of casual fans that made rock'n'roll such a robust musical arena for such a long time.

For better or worse, popular music depends upon the existence of casual fans. Back when the big albums of the day were selling a few million copies, these were not purchased by a few million super-fans. Even when a band like Arcade Fire sells a "mere" 300,000 copies of an album, this does not represent an audience of 300,000 super-fans. Once a band achieves any measure of widespread success, that success hinges, somewhat paradoxically, upon catching the attention of people who aren't really paying attention.

Today's fan engagement schemes, however, deny the existence of casual fans by leaving them out of the picture entirely.

Because what entices a super-fan will almost, by definition, be of no interest to a casual fan. Just because you happen to like a song or two, or even an album or two, doesn't mean you require a musician's real-time biographical details, doesn't mean you crave endless streams of recording flotsam and jetsam (b-sides, live takes, remixes, etc.), doesn't mean you'll want to purchase objects lit by physical association with the musician (self-designed t-shirts, hand-addressed postcards, and the like) or watch repeated video presentations.

Casual fans also lack any need for the very sort of online interaction that sits like a holy grail at the center of this new idea of fan engagement. The various schemes I'm seeing now on a daily basis--make a video of a song for a contest! donate money so your name can go on the album jacket! subscribe to a service offering journal entries and/or webcasts and/or live recordings!--make no sense to a casual fan.

Most important of all, a casual fan will not spend upwards of $100 a year purchasing music and other accessory items from one band or musician.

In his original "1,000 True Fans" post, Kelly asserted that the processes artists develop to feed their diehard fans will also nurture what he calls "Lesser Fans." I see no evidence beyond wishful thinking to support this idea.

I believe, on the contrary, that the more the music scene focuses on these kinds of super-fan activities, the more likely it will be that casual fans more or less disappear.

Such a development will not be unprecedented in the unfolding history of music. For instance, you have to be something of a super-fan to know what to do with, how to listen to, and how to interact economically with classical music. Jazz is another genre that caters by and large to super-fans.

This could be rock'n'roll's trajectory too. And that may be for the best for all I know. But I don't think anyone busy touting hyperactive fan-engagement scenarios has considered the large-scale consequences of transforming rock into a super-fan genre.

So let's look at four such consequences.

Consequence No. 1: Far, far fewer fans for rock music

Proponents of these super-fan scenarios seem to be presuming that the total number of active music fans will remain somewhat the same. That's the beauty of it, in theory: so, instead of three million people buying one particular artist's album, 1,000 people will buy 3,000 different albums. That's still three million music fans, right?

Actually, no. As noted earlier, in the glory days of the album-selling past, if any one artist sold an album to three million people, a large percentage of those people were casual fans--people who heard a song or two and liked them enough to buy the album, or people who had been exposed to the music via a friend, or people who were just kind of swept along by the zeitgeist.

There is of course no research to cite here; I can only go with decades of my own anecdotal observations. I'm suspecting that the ever-useful 80-20 rule may be applied, but in any case it is clear that any band throughout rock history that has broken through to some amount of widespread success--say, sales of 250,000 copies or more of one album--has done so largely on the backs (and purse strings) of casual fans. Probably, also, the higher the total number of albums sold, the higher the percentage of casual fans.

Super-fan orientation shrinks the rock'n'roll marketplace because to foster tribes of passionate fans requires throwing maybe 80 percent of the potential audience out the window.

Musicians nurturing diehard fans are not, of course, making a conscious decision to freeze out casual fans. It's just that seeking to promote super-fans inherently alienates the non-super-fan. I disagree with Kevin Kelly's belief that musicians will be able to "convert" their "Lesser Fans" into "True Fans" in an ongoing way. I contend, instead, that casual fans (a phrase I prefer to "lesser fans") are disinclined, behaviorally, to be somehow lured into ratcheting up their involvement with any musician simply because they happen to like a few of his or her songs.

In my experience a True Fan is actually a type of person (and I mean that almost archetypally). I don't think casual fans are typically or easily converted into True Fans. Sure, you might get them to give your their email address for a free MP3 but their hearts won't be in it for the long run. (What is likely, instead, is that a True Fan of one musician will be open, additionally, to becoming a True Fan of any number of other musicians. The market isn't expansive but, rather, cannibalistic.)

From the perspective of any one individual musician who is happy now to be supported by his or her diehard admirers, freezing out or alienating casual fans may be pretty much okay--a necessary evil, say. And maybe this will foster a whole new kind of music, as bands aim not for mass success at all, but for idiosyncratic sonic niches, or, in any case, sounds that appeal to much smaller rather than much larger numbers of people.

Let's just be clear, however, about what casting aside casual fans entails. If industry pundits are wringing their hands to date over shrinking bottom lines, just wait till the super-fans take over.

* * * * *

The rest of this essay will be posted to the blog on Wednesday. If you want to read the whole thing right away, got to the Commentary page on the main Fingertips site.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

November Q&A: Morningbell

The latest Fingertips Q&A is now online, featuring Eric Atria of the Gainesville, Fla.-based band Morningbell. Morningbell has been twice featured on Fingertips to date, most recently at the end of September for the song "Marching Off to War."

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Attention winners of the Top 10 contest from October 10!

Sorry to bug everyone else but this message goes only to the three people who won the Top 10 contest from October 10. Thanks to a bit of prodding by one of the winners, I just realized I gave the wrong email address out, so anyone who's emailed me at that address, well, I never got it.

I'm sensitive about putting my email address into a post here on the blog for fear of spamming--this is no doubt how I messed the address up in the first place--but let's just say you assemble my address but making one word of "fingertips" and "music" and then hooking it up with gmail. Put the "at" sign in the right place, add the dot com and you're all set.

Please do contact me if you were one of the winners. I want to be able to send you your prize!

Many apologies for the screw-up at my end and associated inconveniences. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Free and legal MP3 from Ravens & Chimes (sprightly indie rock w/ an edge of reserve)

"Hearts of Palm" - Ravens & Chimes
     Cheerful songs are usually vigorous things. Songs that seem hesitant, wavery, or otherwise introverted, on the other hand, tend to be at best wistful if not downright mournful. "Hearts of Palm" subverts the formula, and is all the more effective for it--a sprightly, hopeful-sounding song edged by an equivocal, somewhat trembling vibe.
     Some of this is due to the vocal qualities of Asher Lack, who sings like someone wading into cold water, at once timid and determined, while instruments chug forward around him. But listen and you'll hear how the music yet reinforces the partially timorous atmosphere: it's peppy, yes, but likewise stuttery, and lacking the oomph and crunch of a typical rock band. This isn't for lack of personnel. Ravens & Chimes is a six-person outfit, but the members are busier playing things like harmonium and flute and glockenspiel to bother with the din of standard-issue rock'n'roll. And so this is how we end up with this buoyant, reserved piece of pop and I for one am happier for having heard it. I especially love the agile, islandy flute lines and the beautiful, pure-toned female harmony vocal that blends and yet doesn't quite blend with Lack's quasi-speak-singing in the chorus.
     "Hearts of Palm" is a single from the band's forthcoming and as-yet untitled second album. Its first CD, Reichenbach Falls, came out in 2007. Prior to the album's release, this song is slated to be released soon as the a-side of a 7-inch single. MP3 via the band's site.

Free and legal MP3 from Tahiti 80 (carefree English-speaking French pop done right)

"Unpredictable" - Tahiti 80
     Carefree English-speaking French pop from a band doing it before it was a genre. There's something not only charming but truly satisfying about a song that works quite so well both for people who are barely paying attention and for people paying close attention. This is no small feat. For the first group, a jaunty, smoothly sung tune is all that's required. Great background music. The second group is trickier to please, as the music has to display a sort of depth that jaunty, smoothly sung tunes by their nature often lack.
     The depth here, for me, is rooted in the song's offhanded musicality. "Unpredictable" is full of interesting moments that whisper rather than shout as they unfold. Listen, for instance, to the very start: we hear a basic drumbeat that the ear expects to be established through four standard measures but instead--there for us to notice, or not--it's interrupted after three seconds, in the second measure, which grounds the song in a sort of percussive pre-introduction. Only after that comes the standard four-measure intro. Listen, as another example, to the subtle adjustments the melody makes in the verse and how seductively singer Xavier Boyle wraps his faintly textured tenor around them: the way the melody mimics the keyboard riff at 0:23; the slow then fast pacing in the phrase "knock me down" at 0:31; the way the verse line is shortened and turned on the unresolved phrase "on the wall" at 0:35; and that's just in the first verse. I give the band points, too, for an entirely different kind of craftiness--how the song title comes not from the chorus but from the verse. That's rare in a chipper number like this one; anyone seeking only the inattentive audience will place the title where it repeats most obviously.
     Bouncing along since 1993, Tahiti 80 is quartet from Rouen, France. "Unpredictable" is from the album Activity Center, the band's fourth, which has been out for a year in Europe; its U.S. release comes, at last, later this month.

Free and legal MP3 from Múm (melancholy mystery from Iceland)

"Illuminated" - Múm
     The fact that Múm wrote the music to its most recent album in the middle of Iceland's economic meltdown and political upheaval adds poignancy to the already melancholy beauty of "Illuminated." Against a bed of mystical tinkling and mysterious vocal arpeggios, "Illuminated" doesn't so much start as float into being. The extended chord progression described by the angelic arpeggios becomes the framework of this soothing but enigmatic song. A minute passes before front man Gunnar Örn Tynes begins a lyrical exploration of the central chord progression, a 30-second vocal segment that we hear just twice, the second slightly altered from the first: in both cases, a dreamy, impressionistic account of a man falling off his bike, into the snow, and then melting the snow and drinking it.
     There is nothing to analyze here intellectually. The song floats into being and floats out of being. A man falls in the snow, illuminated. Voices sing wordlessly, unusual keyboards play, and a string quartet. Somewhere a country is falling apart. Somewhere else someone falls off a bicycle into the snow.
     You'll find "Illuminated" at the tail end of Múm's latest album, Sing Along to Songs You Don't Know, the band's fifth. MP3 via Better Propaganda.