Archive for the 'Music' Category

Musicians: just go home and die!

A while back I discussed an interesting speech that examined the economics of the modern rock business. The crux of the speech was that, for various reasons, the bulk of profit made from selling music was going to fewer and fewer performers.

Today I find an interesting new report that mirrors this. It describes the current music business as a “superstar economy.” Lady Gaga and Kanye West reap gazillions while superior artists such as myself eat cat food. The article notes that the advent of this superstar economy is actually at odds with what seemed to be the promise of digitized music. If digital technology makes it cheaper to record and distribute music, the argument went, we should see profits spread to a wide spectrum of musicians who are no longer blocked from the public (as they were in the days when a big upfront investment was need to get an album out there.) But…

In fact digital music services have actually intensified the Superstar concentration, not lessened it (see figure). The top 1% account for 75% of CD revenues but 79% of subscription revenue. This counter intuitive trend is driven by two key factors: a) smaller amount of ‘front end’ display for digital services – especially on mobile devices – and b) by consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actual hinders discovery.

That second point is interesting. Basically, human beings can only keep track of so many music choices, so most of us just go for what everyone else is going for. “I don’t want to shift through millions of song files so I’ll just listen to this Beyonce record everyone is talking about.” The promise of a democratic marketplace ran up against the limitations of the human mind.

This is, of course, at odd with a mantra that was popular in the 1990s—that more choice was better for consumers. At a certain point buyers say, “enough choice – just pick something!”

The end of the creative class?

I’ve mentioned the book “The Age of Insight” which I found quite interesting. It was about many things including the exploits of various artists that lived in Vienna around the turn of the century (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, etc.) One thing I recall from the book is how these men really struggled to come up with unique art. They experimented with different ideas and incorporated a lot of the discoveries of that era’s science into their art. (Klimpt incorporated images of blastocyst cells in his painting, for example. ) Their art was more than just pretty pictures—it had meat and substance*.

* Visual artists of the day were spurred on by two pressing challenges—1) the advent of photography that rendered realistic painting somewhat moot, and 2) the rise of the Freud and the idea that one’s “inner world” might be a more fascinating place than the outer world.

I think this trend lasted through the 20th century. Think of jazz musicians, existential filmmakers, Robert Crumb, psychedelic music etc. Whatever you think of this stuff (I, personally, find most psychedelic music laughable though I applaud the band Ultimate Spinach) it was art with a lot of thought behind it.

This was art made by what I would call the creative class. These were artists (of all disciplines) exploring the world, making art not for any obvious immediate use (like being used in a greeting card or as a portrait.)

I’m not sure you see much of this today. With the decimation of the value of content in the digital age, I’m not sure it’s viable to make art that doesn’t have immediate use.

There was a book that came out several years ago called “The Rise of the Creative Class.” I never read it but it would seem to dispute what I’m saying. But examine this blurb about the books (From the book’s Amazon page.)

He defines this class as those whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. In general this group shares common characteristics, such as creativity, individuality, diversity, and merit. The author estimates that this group has 38 million members, constitutes more than 30 percent of the U.S. workforce, and profoundly influences work and lifestyle issues. The purpose of this book is to examine how and why we value creativity more highly than ever and cultivate it more intensely.

This creative class is creating for a (usually commercial) reason. I absolutely agree that creating a web application can be a very creative pursuit—after all, I’ve been part of that process—but it’s different from explorational creating, from the act of creating to “find your voice.” We value creativity today if it has short term payoff, not so much if the benefits aren’t immediately obvious. Art now has to immediately find its value in the marketplace.

I should be clear, I realize there’s some crossover here. Artists making “for immediate use” art often spend their off hours making more esoteric art. But the general trend I find troubling.

Big data and pop music

I’ve talked a bit about the work of computer scientist David Cope who has developed several software tools that compose music. The exact methodology he uses is complex (he’s written several books about it) but his programs have ably output hours of music in the style of various classical masters.

In one of his books, Cope comments that he has not used his software to write pop music. This is partly because he isn’t interested in pop music and partly because he concedes pop music is about a lot more that just the notes on a page (which is what his software is fundamentally creating.) Pop is also about the tone of instruments, their hip factor, and a lot of contextual baggage the performing artists bring to the song (their personal history, persona etc.)

Nonetheless, I think it’s inescapable that computers will be composing pop songs in the future. Or more likely, computers will be helping humans compose pops songs.

But, then what? Cope’s software can generate thousands of variations on a basic tune. Say someone does the same with a pop song. You have 10,000 versions of a certain melody in A minor. Obviously nobody wants to listen to all of them to find the “best one.”

But what if you could look through a data pool of what listeners were listening to and spot upcoming trends? For example, two years ago you could have noted, “Gee, it looks like people are really digging music with these wonky low end gurgles… I bet dub-step will be popular.” Basically, you would note what properties of music seemed to be getting popular and aim the computer composed music towards those styles.

But where would you get this data? This recent NY Times piece, noting that music analysis company Echo Nest has been bought by Spotify, may offer clues.

The Echo Nest is one of a handful of companies specializing in the arcane but valuable science of music data, examining what songs are being listened to by whom, and how. It makes this information available to its clients, including major media companies like Sirius XM, Clear Channel and Univision, which use the data primarily for music-related apps.

“Analyzing music preferences is something we’ve been doing for a long time,” Jim Lucchese, chief executive of the Echo Nest, said in a joint interview with Mr. Ek. “But being directly wired in, and sitting alongside the Spotify team, will give us the ability to push products a lot faster and learn a lot faster than we could before.”

I suspect Echo Nest is, right now, just analyzing “big picture” music trends, like “people are digging hip-hop country songs.” I think eventually they could move towards more granular observations like “major scale melodies that climb high over three bars and then fall down in a giant octave leap in the fourth bar are getting popular,” or “Synth timbres that sound like a theremin and glockenspiel are getting big.” That data could then be used to power the computer aided composition of pop music.

I’m not saying this is a good thing; it worries me. It could certainly lead to an arms race of musical ideas that would result in fads burning out faster and faster. But I think it’s the future.

Who writes what?

One of the pleasures of having your own blog (aside from the numerous endorsement deals and come-ons from famous movie starlets) is that you can stay on a subject as long as you like. Though I just posted on the topic, I want to link to this informative and rather touching tribute Devo’s Gerry Casale offers to his recently deceased brother Bob. It’s worth reading if you want a nice look at Devo history.

These ‘graphs caught me eye.

Mark Mothersbaugh had a five-chord progression on a clavinet that became “Gut Feeling,” but Bob Casale came up with the arpeggiated, revolving, tingling guitar line that sounds like a twisted, devolved Byrds riff.

Of course, Mark and I wrote all the songs, but without Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale those songs would have never been fleshed out into full Devo expressions.

I presume Gerry means that he and Mark wrote the songs in the legal sense (e.g. the chords, lyrics and melodies) but it sounds like that in a practical sense Bob Casale actually did contribute to the writing; as Gerry says, he wrote a specific guitar line. Why doesn’t that count? Music lawyers could probably spout off some answers but this practice seems unfair. Sometimes the reason a song becomes popular is the great guitar solo or interesting chord pattern that isn’t considered a part of the song (as a legal concept.)

That “Gut Feeling” riff is great by the way. Check it out.

Group produced art

In a recent acid logic article I claimed that authorship is dead. By this I meant that the notion of one person being responsible for a piece of art, writing, film etc. was faulty. I’m thinking this might point towards some interesting new ways of creating art.

Let’s consider rock music. The conventional approach is that there’s a band and usually within that band there’s one or two people who do the bulk of the writing. For example, on my two recent albums I am the sole credited writer. But, of course, I am not 100% responsible for every note you hear. There are many improvised solos and parts that I had little to do with (though I do tend to be a “guiding force” when people are laying down their tracks; I approve and reject ideas.)

Now, there’s a lot going for this auteur approach. One person can have a grand vision and make sure the final work matches that vision. But why not have all band members contribute ideas? Why not have dozens if not hundreds of people contribute ideas? (Thus really eliminating the idea of “a band.”)

But how would this work? Let’s say one person presented a template for a piece of music. Something like, “The song will start out slow and sad, then move into an uptempo happy section, then a driving but angry section, then back to an uptempo section then end with a variation of the slow and sad intro.” Perhaps people could contribute submissions for each of these “song parts” and then vote on how they go together. Or maybe they submit contributions to an authoritarian fascist leader (e.g. me) who decides how they go together.

The result may be that no one is completely happy with the work. But that’s kind of my point. The piece is satisfying a different kind of entity, a different kind of intelligence… a sort of “group intelligence.” The group would have to have a certain faith that the results are worthwhile and will bring to light interesting musical aspects that are not be available in more conventional “auteur style” writing.

Obviously this idea could be applied to other forms of art – film, visual arts, fiction etc.

Strangely, I’m reminded a bit of the Agetha Christie story where the killer turns out to be a group of people, each who stabbed (I think) the victim once. If one considers murder an art (and I see no reason why one shouldn’t) this may be the first conception of what I’m talking about.

I should also be clear that what I’m describing is probably what a lot of existing art collectives around the world are already doing. But I think I might be shading it a little differently and uniquely.

Finally, I should concede that why this is an interesting idea, it may not be something I would excel at. I am still rather ego driven and seem to be moving towards wanting more control over every aspect of what I create, not less. But maybe I’ll give this a shot.

Devo’s Bob Casale is dead

Sad news that Bob Casale, founding member of Devo (my favorite band), has died. The CNN article on his death includes this interesting nugget.

“He was excited about the possibility of Mark Mothersbaugh allowing Devo to play shows again,” Gerald Casale wrote in his brother’s death announcement. “His sudden death from conditions that led to heart failure came as a total shock to us all.”

There’s always been a bit of a Mick/Keith vibe to Gerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh’s relationship. This public jibe that Mothersbaugh controls whether or not Devo plays shows seems an example of that. Who know what the truth is?

I interviewed Gerry Casale years ago.

On Mozart and pop music

A lot of people, myself included, complain about the music of Mozart. It often seems long winded and verbose, weighed down with endless scale passages and ornamental frills.

I think, by the standards of modern music, these complaints are valid. But I’m starting to “get” an aspect of Mozart’s music that I find quite interesting. Mozart’s music is really about conversation—it’s about the different “voices” (e.g. instruments or melodic characters) talking to each other. And the voices all have different personalities and “say” different things. In this sense his pieces are really like ensemble character dramas. Of course it’s not only Mozart who composed this way; many, perhaps all classical composers did. But I think the trait is especially pronounced in his music.

This is, in many ways, at odds with modern pop music. With pop music there is one voice, one point of view (usually the singer) and they are supported by the backing instruments. The singer says “I state this observation…” and the instruments say, “we agree and support you.” What doesn’t happen (for the most part) is a conflict between the singer and the instruments. You wouldn’t, for example, have a singer singing about tender love while a thrash guitar plays distorted chords in the background.

In this sense, I think modern music is more individualistic and ego driven. It’s about my opinions (me being the singer) and my emotional pain and nobody else’s. Music from the classical era is more communitarian—it’s about the group and how they interact. Something can be said for both styles, but as someone who has written modern, individualistic music for most of my life, I find a challenge in the more conversational style. And Mozart, despite his verbosity, is a good model.

The death of classical music

Slate asks the question, “Is Classical Music Dead?” The answer? Pretty much. Sales are down, symphonies are closing, and younger generations have little interest in the music.

To some degree I think this is a problem of classical music’s own making. At some point the culture of classical music aligned itself with the wealthy elites – rich, stuffy, mostly white people. The fact that that demographic is fading has been obvious for years. It’s also true that cuts to art education haven’t helped. And the lack of support for new classical music is an issue.

But I think there’s another reason, one I’ve talked about before. I think our attention spans and ability to focus are getting weaker, primarily because of this culture of interruption we live in. It’s one thing to take three minutes to follow a pop song as it plays of the radio. It’s something else to follow the development of a set of themes in a sonata, or listen for the voices of particular instruments as they weave in and out of a symphony. And it’s shame were losing this ability because that kind of active, focused listening can be a great source of pleaure.

I predict that within 20 years the only way to capture people’s attention will be to lock them in a room full of televisions showing snuff films and bestiality porn while the sound of industrial machinery blasts over a stereo. Even that will barely generate a yawn.

Matching music to characters

Lately I’ve been working on a very interesting music project. What’s that? You say you’d like me to tell you about it? Well, I wasn’t planning on it, but sure. I can never say no to you.

I started with the goal of composing a “conversational” piece of music. The different instruments would represent different characters and they would converse with each other. This sort of thing is hardly unheard of in the history of music, but it was a new approach for me (though as I’ve proceeded I’ve come to realize that I’ve taken this tact unconsciously with much of my music for years.)

Before I started writing I came up with several imaginary characters whose personalities would be conveyed through the music. One is a flighty nag, another a slow moving but well intentioned sort (think Pooh Bear) and several others. I also thought up a kind of story to follow as I wrote the music.

This idea seems to be a great mental trick for writing. I find myself visualizing various scenes when writing and mapping the music to that. I’m far from done but have written about 3 minutes of fairly dense music in a fairly short period (say 6 hours or so which might sound like a lot but is faster than usual for me.)

Ultimately this speaks to a broader process for creativity, one that could be applied to all sorts of endeavors – novel writing, painting, poetry etc. Basically, you have to set limits around what you are doing. If you approach a creative project with everything on the table, it’s impossible to choose from the limitless options. But if I say, as I am saying here, that I have creation musical characters that must be matched, then I know when I on track and when I’m going astray.

This actually reminds me a bit of something I discussed earlier: Earl Gardner’s Plot Wheel. This was a device the author of the Perry Mason mysteries would use to somewhat randomly assemble the elements for a story. One he had them he could knock out the tale rather quickly.

I’m glad you asked me to explain this. I think this discussion was fruitful.

Short man’s vindication?

I’ve mentioned my conflicted feelings about the strange Bob Brozman situation. Brozman was a great acoustic guitar player who killed himself this past year. Laudatory eulogies came flowing forth from the web until allegations that Brozman was a child molester came out.

Last night I was listening to a Brozman track called “Short’s Man Vindication” in which he bemoaned his small stature. I couldn’t help but be reminded on a L.A. Times article on pedophilia I commented on.

Researchers have also determined that pedophiles are nearly an inch shorter on average than non-pedophiles and lag behind the average IQ by 10 points — discoveries that are consistent with developmental problems, whether before birth or in childhood.

Am I implying that all short people are pedophiles? Hardly (I would guess the number is more like 50%.) But I can’t help wonder if maybe Randy Newman was on to something.