INNOVATION, APPROPRIATION AND CONTEXT

I wrote this essay in response to two questions I was recently asked. The first question pertained to an ongoing discussion about the state of affairs in music. The second question pertained to my personal guidelines regarding what I consider musically innovative. It’s important to mention that to me, this wound up being more of a blueprint for something than a laundry list of complaints about it. Perhaps you’ll get this, too.

I reckon there are countless discussions which feature all kinds of people debating the relative merits of recent music all over the arena of social media. Going back to the early 1970’s, I recall people ranting and raving about how commercialized and soulless popular music had become; when complaints about the evils of Corporate Rock (personified by bands such as Led Zeppelin) were numerous, while said complainers simultaneously lauded bands like Iggy and the Stooges due in no small part to their, er…raw power.

There is a wonderful documentary on the Newport Folk Festival (oddly enough, called “Festival”) and it features a scene where a music fan is decrying the horror that is commercialized pop music- mainly because they use electric instruments and don’t sound “real” enough for him. This interview is roughly circa 1964. 

Prior to that, there were various old folks and white folks (along with Frank Sinatra, the FBI Mitch Miller and most of ASCAP) railing about “dirty jungle music”, “primitive rock n’ roll” and “race music” Actually, a great deal of amazing music resulted from this type of pushback. 

At any rate, it’s pretty clear that in recent history- at least over the past 50-60 years and, I would reckon, going further back still- people have had their issues with popular music. However, over time, there have also been vast cultural differences and changes which affect these collective expressions and can be a decisive factors in helping a pattern to emerge from the apparent chaos. Recognizing just a few of these differences provides some helpful context and shines a bit more light on what is currently taking place (or, at least, raises more questions)-

1- although, over time, people have complained that various forms of music were commercialized and soulless, they have also emphatically stated that the particular form of music they listened to was not. One example of this is the music fan in the previously mentioned documentary on the Newport Folk Festival who was clearly using his intense disdain for the more commercialized popular music as springboard to underscore his love of folk music. 

Growing up, I heard a lot of people whining about shitty music. However, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone who loved popular music complain that all contemporary popular music was uninspired or disinteresting (and I would respectfully accept being challenged on this point by anyone who has a different experience). Even the most scathing rock critics of the 1970’s- the foremost being Lester Bangs, who hated everything- were absolutely, passionately committed to the music they revered. To the death.

By comparison, many people in the current era (and this includes an unhealthy number of young people who should, by all rights- if such cultural stereotypes were actually valid- be fighting in the streets for their musical icons) who declare themselves passionate music lovers, definitively assert that they haven’t heard any great new music (let alone, music they like) at all. In the past few years, I’ve met virtually no one who deviates from this opinion. In fact, nearly everyone I speak with appears to be relieved that a person involved in music creation is actually giving a voice to something they’ve had an uncomfortable suspicion about for a long time.  

History tells us that prior to the 1950’s, music was a major motivating and inspirational force in most people’s lives- especially through two world wars and the Depression (which nearly demolished the recorded music industry). Therefore, it makes sense that throughout the history of recorded music- apart from the usual generational friction- everyone had some form of popular music they found comfort in (and any sense that all popular music was lacking emotion, substance or meaning would have been completely foreign). 

2- these days, a disproportionally large number of young people are familiar with (and in many cases, prefer) popular music that was created 20-60 years ago. Comparatively speaking, this would be akin to living in the 1970’s and saying you preferred The Platters (a Doo Wop/oldies group from the 1950’s) or Glenn Miller (Swing- 1940’s) to contemporary artists of that period such as Led Zeppelin or even Bob Dylan (whose career began in the early 1960’s). On a relative scale, English bands like the Rolling Stones were emulating American R&B and Blues artists from the early 1960’s onward, however, at that point in time, the majority of the music they were appropriating was roughly five-ten years old. 

Of course, there were cultural anomalies that took place. After the movie “Grease” came out, there was a brief obsession in pop culture with 1950’s music and fashion, however, this was an extremely short-lived fad. Also, there was one relatively well known Doo Wop band called Shanana which was active 1960’s-1980’s (and performed at the Woodstock Festival), but they were largely considered a niche act. 

On a side note, I feel this effectively helps deflate the oft-invoked notion that the main issue most people have with popular music of today is a generational one (in other words, it’s more of an “curmudgeonly old farts versus hormonally over-endowed kids” issue and less an overriding question of intrinsic quality). As stated before, the abnormally large quantity of random young people I’ve met recently who state (emphatically) they prefer older music to new puts the cap on this statement more than adequately.

3- historically, popular music in every era has always been fueled/informed/influenced either by some concomitant form(s) of folk music or some other kind of music form- either from a different culture or entirely outside of the mainstream. This has been the case from the earliest known Western music, to classical music and finally, to contemporary popular music of the last century. 

Relative to rock music- if we’re going to be completely honest- this particular wellspring ran dry in the mid-1970’s once all the indigenous and related music forms such as folk, blues and R&B, etc had been completely tapped for new ideas. Nearly everything since (with some noteworthy exceptions- electronic pop music being one) has been the result of continuously recycling an assortment of music that came before, in varying degrees. 

By comparison, Black music forms have endured slightly longer courtesy of rap (which was derived from field hollers and prison poetry amongst others and began to be absorbed into the mainstream in 1973 courtesy of the Hustler’s Convention record), the evolution of hip hop and more recently, Jamaican Dancehall music. Certain rock artists also attempted to assimilate aspects of hip hop into their work, but in the long run, this created more of a niche than a major musical sea change.

Btw- by saying this, I’m not denying that some artists have made significant artistic and emotional statements that also happen to be both extremely derivative and appropriated from very obvious sources. I’m merely pointing out that the degree of recycling and lack of peripheral, concomitant music forms to appropriate from are indicative of a unique cultural phenomenon relative to the history of popular music and to which, I know of no historical precedent. 

Onward and upward….

Here are a few principles by which I define music as innovative. Certainly, uniqueness and inventiveness are essential components of innovation- mainly, in how distinct a given piece of music sounds from other compositions in the same musical genre. 

I also feel that musical innovation- mainly with respect to modern popular music- stems from precisely how artists appropriate ideas. That is, how artists assimilate the ideas and expressions they encounter that speak to them on the most visceral level, and how they convert this assimilated data into something never before heard. 

It’s also about how an artist synthesizes and derives inspiration or adapts the world around him into his musical expression- either conceptually- by altering other styles of music he has an affinity for in order to create his own new expression (a perfect example of this in visual art is how Pablo Picasso helped to deconstruct the concept of figurative painting by converting radical forms of visual expression such as Impressionsim and Expressionism into Cubism), or by using some facet of their current cultural/societal landscape (and this doesn’t necessarily mean an expression that is directly relevant or created as a literal response to something topical- unlike much protest music, which, while inspirational to many as a call to arms, doesn’t necessarily inspire musical innovation since it is mainly political in nature). 

In this case, it is the quality and creativity of the appropriation and not the specific act itself that defines the artist. In other words, there is world of difference between creative appropriation (which involves assimilating an idea which came from elsewhere and modifying it to the point where it only vaguely resembles its original form) and wholesale appropriation (the annexation and plagiarization of someone else’s idea). 

Since the ultimate goal of music is to communicate (and to entertain, although I consider that to be a secondary objective), there must also be a very palpable emotional component which accompanies or is interwoven into a piece of music- generally as subtext. This is because the emotional component in music is a telltale means of recognizing that it has come from an authentic place in its creator. 

This emotional component is precisely where the communicative aspect of music lies in its purest form. When it comes to emotion in music, if it ain’t there- it ain’t real.

One reason I feel popular music is less innovative now than at prior points in time, is not in how appropriated or derivative it is (modern popular music is, by its very nature, derivative), but how it is derived, where it is originally derived from and how many times previously that same point of origin has been exploited as a source of derivation by others. 

To underscore this point, please consider that every successive generation since the 1960’s has had at least a few artists who got in their “way back machine” to liberally pilfer (often shamefully) from The Beatles and The Velvet Underground. Since the 1970’s, the same thing has happened with The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, etc. Since the 1980’s, the roll of artists that have borrowed from the U2 bag of tricks is unending (and from “The Unforgettable Fire”onward, I’m hard pressed to think of any prior musical artist that regularly and prominently incorporated ninths in their choruses as harmonic coloration or used hyper-compressed 16th note stomp box delays on arpeggiated guitar lines). 

At one time, all the above bands had a new sound- most certainly appropriated in some way- but synthesized into something new. And instead of their ideas gradually being transformed into altogether different forms by those who appropriate from them, they have become literal hard, fast and immutable rules in the play books of most modern rock bands. These days, the coolest bands take their inspiration from such ancient arcana as the Chess Records catalog…

Now, this wasn’t a big deal the first time around- not even the second time. However, a few decades on, the slack repetitiveness of this literal appropriation has gradually deteriorated into a stale kind of creative double-dipping. Now, compare that rote, uninspired mode of thinking to those jazz innovators in the 1950’s- most of whom were in a constant frenzy of trying to out-compose and outplay one another and literally could not stop moving forward- or composers like Beethoven and Mozart who literally redefined the course of all music (while extremely popular in their own time). 

And if there is any question whether artists of previous eras found the idea of appropriating the work of other composers wholesale (and doing so, flagrantly and openly without any regard for propriety or even trying to conceal having done so) disdainful and objectionable, we can simply rely on the obvious progression in their creative output- as well as the greater timeline of musical history- to eliminate any doubt. 

With all that in mind, one may ask, how many times can artists keep composing new music which is essentially recycled from the exact same sources over a fifty year period, and still maintain meaning, relevance and excitement in what they do? To me, the answer is an equation of proportions- the greater an artist relies on appropriation and derivation as creative tools, the easier it is not be inventive, but being innovative and evolving also becomes that much harder. 

Another question is, does this gradual deterioration in innovation indicate either a lack of overall inspiration or a pervasive laziness that has gradually become inherent in music creation itself? I’d say it’s a bit of both and the responsibility is equally distributed amongst a variety of catalysts. 

For example, while innovation, nonconformity and creativity are actively encouraged in the world of technology, they are also actively discouraged in the music industry. To a large extent, this is why (along with the diminishing income streams and aggressive micromanagement from clueless businesspeople) so many of those who might have been great artists (if the Petri dish still existed for them to germinate in) are rushing to learn how to program- there simply is no room to grow or innovate in corporate-subsidized arts. 

I feel that at this point in time, the nature of musical innovation has actually morphed into something other than musical innovation as I defined it earlier. We live in a cut-up, mashable, ready-made, consumer-oriented culture which is defined by artless, bold-faced wholesale appropriation. Concurrently, many of today’s values are on par with those of a sociopath; spin everything; never steal anything small; if you are caught stealing, vigorously deny everything and if you are judged, make up a new and confounding excuse as to why you are in the right and anyone who disagrees with you stands against the future. 

As new musical ideas are becoming less and less available (and the music business is coincidentally less inclined to be supportive of them), the only logical path is to be a grave robber. As a result, innovation in the arts is now directly proportional to how good one is at appropriating information and ideas completely intact and convincing others they are one’s own. Further, this is directly proportional to one’s knowledge of what is relevant to the present and how encyclopedic one’s knowledge is of musical history. 

With this in mind, an artist no longer needs to define himself by his talent, but instead by his ability to invent his own legend. And that is an art form unto itself. 

One final tangent- I found it kind of sardonically amusing when there was recent infighting between certain contemporary artists regarding which of them was the first to begin appropriating music forms that originated 60+ years ago.

Posted in art, artist development, creativity, Creativity, expression, Music, Music Business, Music Industry, Music Production, Pop Music, Popular Music, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

ARTISTS OF THE WORLD, UNITE

Artists- 

You’re being forced into an untenable position by your increasing inability to earn a living from your efforts and hard work. You’re also being dictated to daily- schooled- by multitudes of business people (music and otherwise), so-called pundits, internet commentators, talking heads from the tech world, self-proclaimed tastemakers and occasionally, other performers. 

All of whom deliver the exact same message- that what you do is essentially meaningless, useless and valueless. 

These individuals address you directly and personally, as if they know you. They condescend to you by telling you what you need to do in order to be successful and how to do it. In their next breath, they tell you how and why you will fail at what you do and why you deserve to fail. Naturally, they also assert that they’re right, everyone else is wrong and why you need to listen to them. According to them, the only thing that matters is whether you can generate a commodity they themselves can identify, quantify and then, sell. Your own opinion or feelings about what you do or aspire to, matter not one iota.

Even as the recording industry appears to be going belly-up, hordes of opportunists are pouring out of the woodwork like voracious insects and pursuing new schemes to profit from your hard work without actually investing in it. Using a variety of subterfuges, everyone who can potentially make money from your art is focusing intently on convincing you to sell yourself short- to them. They tell you this because, as they so guilefully put it, something is better than nothing- even if it is a miniscule something. And since- as they further imply (or aver outright)-  being an artist isn’t a real job and art should be freely accessible for everyone, you need to be happy with whatever crumbs you get thrown.

In fact, they’ll remind you repeatedly that since you live in a capitalist society wherein people make money based on how desirable the product they’re selling is, you’re lucky to be getting thrown anything at all. Besides, even though you wont be compensated for our exploitation of your work, this exploitation will gain you access to millions of people on the internet…who have no intention of paying for it, either. 

All of which implies that what you do is effectively undesirable and worthless. 

These nabobs speak to you like pimps do- hovering around jailbait, homing in for the kill. Just change a few of the words and the sentiment is identical. Come on baby- it’s not rape if you say yes. Just lay back and let it happen. You know you want to.

You are being brainwashed, lied to, abused and treated like slaves. You are perceived as being the lowest of the low on the societal food chain and yet, without you, there is no so-called “product”- no “content”, no art, no music- no expression. Without you and your efforts, the world slowly goes dark and all of us, as humans, lose our way. 

You work in an intangible world of magic and limitless possibilities- your purpose and your responsibility is to demonstrate to every other human being what real expression looks like. You are not only the creators, but the builders and potentially, masters of the very supply lines both to those who seek to exploit your work- and to the entirety of humanity who desperately wish and need to experience it. 

Without you- without your work- those opportunists who are simultaneously co-opting, raping and savaging your work, will lose the very businesses they have built off your sweat of your back. They prey and depend on your apparent inability to be self-sufficient or to join together with other artists in a common cause. They rely upon your ignorance, divisiveness and gullibility, for these are the very things which perpetuate their ability to maintain dominion over you. Consider this; when a slavemaster uses the language of manipulation to address his slaves, he speaks from a place of fear because he knows exactly what the cost would be if the slaves were to ever revolt. 

Do you possess the vision to recognize that you are potentially in a position of immense power and if so, how do you visualize yourself actualizing this power? Can you accept this as reality; that by virtue of your uniqueness, you are the engineer and thereby, determiner of your own destiny? 

Change is absolutely possible, and utterly attainable even though it requires superhuman degrees of dedication, imagination, emotion, belief, solidarity and effort. And even then, all of this is meaningless without the evidence of great, great talent. Not many are so endowed- perhaps, you?

I ask you this- do you believe it is wrong for creatives to free themselves from the prison which was fashioned for them by their self-appointed masters who seek only to exploit them and when they are of no further use, cast them aside? 

Why should those who have no hand in the creation of a work be allowed to lay any claim or dominion to that work? Why should anyone other than an artist have control over the fruits of her creative labors? Why shouldn’t artists finally be able to express themselves, unfettered, free and without restrictions or conditions from people who have no idea about what true expression is or what the true intrinsic value of music is?

Do you wonder what would happen if we artists- all artists in every expressive medium- bonded together and took complete control over our own destinies- both in business and in art- and in so doing, dictated to the corporate slave-masters who’ve elected to control and dictate to us? Do you wonder what it would feel like if you were in control of your own work, instead of being a slave, expected to serve no function other than churning out a “product”? 

For the next 15 minutes after you’ve read the final words of this essay, I ask you to consider whether you are completely satisfied with the direction things are heading, or if you need something more. And if you do need something more, what are you willing to do in order to attain it?

Posted in art, artist development, creativity, expression, Michael Beinhorn, Music, Music Business, Music Industry, Music Production, Pop Music, Popular Music, record production, Recording, Recording industry | 1 Comment

WHY ARTISTS WILL LOSE ANY BATTLE AGAINST THE RECORDING INDUSTRY, THE TECH INDUSTRY AND EVERYONE ELSE WHO CHOOSES TO EXPLOIT THEM

One of the current “hot-topic” issues artists are facing is how their ability to control their compositions/works is being threatened, co-opted and in possible danger of being entirely hi-jacked by an amalgamation of interests in the tech community. This list includes such ubiquitous names as Google, Spotify, Pandora, etc- not one of which would shed a solitary tear were the very concepts of copyright or intellectual property utterly and perpetually obliterated, lickety-split.

These companies are (in case one had been living under a rock for the past 20 years) megalithic, with extraordinary power, influence and fantastic coffers laden with money. They know exactly what they’re doing; how to mobilize, how/when to put up, shut up and lawyer up. They employ cadres of lobbyists and understated, well-groomed, well-educated individuals who received Ivy League educations in little more than how to roundly trounce anyone at anything with grave and spectacular finality. 

Some of these companies have the potential to control a good deal more than merely the specific business in which they’ve created a monopoly. Google, as an example, is diversifying and spreading its slimy tentacles into every potential area of future growth/mass-scale revenue generation/global influence from information collection to military contracting to robotics. They could probably underwrite the finances of a medium-large country. If they haven’t already.

Early last month, a guy I know started a grassroots petition/campaign to petition for new legislation providing greater protection to artists, intellectual property, copyright law, etc. He also wanted to call public attention to these issues and raise the general level of awareness to them.

I was discussing this campaign yesterday with a friend and he happened to mention that a few enterprising individuals in the artistic/musical community are splintering and forming their own groups in order to address artists’ rights, proper copyright controls, better quality lunch meats, etc.

Well, dig that.

Artists are a funny breed. They’re each such unique personalities and yet, they all react to certain things the exact same way. They’re so predictable, you can clock them with a stopwatch, if you know what to look for.

Anyway, here we have issues that affect all artists- effectively, the gradual dissolution of our ability to support ourselves via the fruits of our labors, courtesy of sociopathic, gargantuan and relentlessly evil corporate interests. The endgame to this (should it ever come) will potentially have devastating consequences for every last one of us, as well as everyone else who depends on us financially. 

Logically, one would think we, as artists, could all see the common ground we share, have that breathtaking flash of what Zen Buddhists call Satori- or ultimate realization; dispense with our petty differences and join forces. 

But where artists are concerned, things don’t quite work that way. Because, underneath whatever self-created veneer they hide, behind that heroic persona of themselves they labor so intently to present to the rest of the world, artists are intrinsically egotistical, infantile, insecure splitters who can’t find it in themselves to look at the bigger picture- especially not if it means stifling their egocentricity for even a fraction of a second. No matter that the reality of this particular bigger picture is being literally forced on them by way of a massive threat to their present and future livelihood. 

Benjamin Franklin said, “Listen to reason, or she’ll make you feel her”. The brutal- for lack of a better word- rape- the artistic community is presently enduring, (and here, the term ‘community’ encapsulates creators in every form of art or media which can be copied, exploited and represented in whatever context or form an exploiter wishes) bears Franklin’s statement out perfectly. 

And yet, with all the above notwithstanding, artists- those very same people who permit record companies, tech companies, managers and every other solitary soul who speedily approacheth them, waving a contract, check or wad of dollar bills, to have their collective way with them (until said artist can no longer stand upright)- still can’t form ranks. 

As the saying goes; they all want to be chiefs and but no one wants to be an Indian. And if they can’t be chiefs where they presently are, they’ll go somewhere else to start their own group, so they can be the chief there.

Not only won’t artists band together around a common cause, they will make a lot of incredibly transparent excuses as to why they won’t (none of which will pertain even remotely to the actual cause itself; ie- I’m jealous that the guy who thought this up got all the attention and I didn’t; I don’t like his music; he fucked my girlfriend; I fucked his wife, etc, ad infinitum).

Right now, the onus is on our community to challenge huge corporate interests- the tech industry, the recording industry, Google, etc (while also generating some attention to our plight in the public sector). The massive corporations which stand in opposition to this (and opposing is exactly what they are doing) are a thousand times more prepared than we are for this, or any other conflict. They have people who sit around and strategize about stuff like this. Meanwhile, here we are putting our best foot forward by fighting amongst ourselves, creating bigger and bigger rifts and greater divisions until there’s no longer any group left to address what we originally set out to do. 

No Indians- just a bunch of chiefs. I have a feeling that at Google, there is an overriding sense of who the chiefs are and who are the Indians.

We don’t need squabbling, we don’t need tiresome ideological splits- we need camaraderie and we need support. We need legislation- new laws to protect us from scavenging entities that see our work as their fair play and us as their lunch. 

We need a specific agenda, a timetable for getting things accomplished. We need strength- the strength that comes with great numbers of people. We need organization.

Oops- theres a word you don’t want to throw at an artist. Artists generally eschew organization on principle, seeing it as a means by which their rights can be violated by someone they don’t trust and therefore, resist it both tooth and nail. Artists are about as interested in organization as they are in having clean dishcloths or a day job at FedEx. 

Ironically enough, the latter option is where all of us may wind up if we don’t start extricating our heads from our asses.

Some more fun fact about artists. They believe they’re leaders, but they’re really followers. Although they will insist otherwise, they love being lead around by the nose, especially if there’s a carrot somewhere in the equation.

Artists make terrific activists- albeit, after they’ve become fabulously wealthy and are then, able to support causes which occur exactly halfway around the world from wherever they presently reside. 

Artists also have attention spans about as long and robust as those of fruit flies. And, once they begin to exponentially lose interest in the cause they’re backing (or have simply prioritized certain other things slightly higher- such as getting laid) and have concomitantly, completely screwed themselves (because they consciously chose not to consolidate, organize and mobilize), they make the world’s best victims. Artists- all artists- love to complain, especially about how they were, at one point or another, mortally, grievously wronged.

A wronged artist is one of nature’s most ardent and evocative complainers- especially if he was masterfully taken to the cleaners and then, instead of protecting himself, did something breathtakingly brilliant about it, like, er…..nothing. I’ll shoulder my share of that cross for the complaining I’ve done after getting shafted, consistently avoiding the dictates of common sense and thereupon, getting shafted again.

There is absolutely only one cool thing about reactionary wing nuts. No matter how repellent their viewpoints, when push comes to shove, they can put aside any petty, niggling differences between their respective ideological platforms to unite for a common cause. From a mild-mannered Neo-con to a red-blooded Ku Klux Klan member, they know how to form ranks when the situation calls for an army. By proxy, the implication is that your average artist is far less clever or resourceful than your average gun-totin’, Mein Kampf quotin’, queer-hatin’, Creationist, racist militia member. 

The reality is that our common enemy is completely aware of our Achilles Heel. He knows damn well that we lack the gene intrinsic to organizing or teaming up. He also knows it’s precisely that inability that is going to make his job just that much easier. We’re playing right into his hands and he knows it. In fact, I will guarantee you dollars to donuts that he’s betting the farm on it.

And so it goes. The aforementioned petition may crack 10,000 signatories. Another artist’s advocacy group has 615 likes on Facebook- perhaps they’ll get a few more. God knows how many other artists are off creating their own little groups which will attend to their own personal agendas and needs. 

Good luck defeating Goliath if all you have is a slingshot, your unwavering convictions and a handful of “Likes” on Facebook. And, when the day comes that copyrights are as free as napkins and plastic utensils at your local MacDonalds, I hope you are proud of yourselves for doing all you could in service to the greater good. Until then, unless you are ready to consolidate your interests and out away your petty differences, the big guys will keep winning and the little guys will continue complaining. 

As for me, I’ll happily be an Indian or a chief in someone else’s army- even if I have to build my own teepee. The way I see it, the cause is far more important than my all too fragile little ego.

There’s a parable about a king who gathers his three sons and shows them three twigs. He puts the twigs together in a bunch, passes the bunch of twigs to each son, asking him to break it. Each son tries, each son fails.

Then, he separates the bunch into individual twigs and hands each son a twig asking him to break it. Each son does so with great ease. The king looks at his sons and says, “Each one of these twigs represents each one of you. Together, you are strong and unbreakable; individually, you are vulnerable and easily broken. The sum of you is mightier than each individual. After I die, I’m charging all three of you to rule my kingdom together- as a team”.

I have no idea how the story ended. Here’s hoping the sons weren’t artists.

Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Comments

The Facade of 300

I think I just got the true significance of the new music company, 300. In my estimation, there’s much more here than what first meets the eye.                  

Up till now, streaming services have been doing little more than recycling pre-existing works (Beats Music- which is being represented as a streaming company made up of music business luminaries- is simply selling a new, shiny, consumer-friendly way to do this while expanding the Beats name/empire). 

One of the most profound accusations leveled at streaming services (apart from data showing that their business model is failing or how pathetically miniscule their royalty payouts are to the artists who created the works they exploit) is, they are exploiting pre-existing content but doing nothing to support the creation of new works. After all, it’s not as if any of the streaming companies actually create, manufacture or encourage the manufacture of anything.

Further, detractors claim, the fact that streaming services (and the tech industry in general) are not helping create new content is one tell-tale sign that they don’t actually care about art, apart from its face value as a commodity (all their protestations to the contrary) and therefore, do not have the best interests of artists at heart.

Of course, the tech industry have kicked back at these pernicious statements by trotting out their preternaturally volksmensch-ish spokespeople and CEO’s. They all seem to be punched out from the same mold- casual yet styled/groomed but not ostentatious in the slightest, ingenuously humble in a way that belies (or screams) arrogance ; at very least moderately attractive and slightly Asperger’s-ish. And, to a man, every last one either plays in a band, has played in a band, or just plain “loves music” and would never do a thing to hurt it. 

With the formation of the 300 label, these hostilities may be rendered moot. The name 300, which is taken from the legendary battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC between a relatively small cadre of elite Spartan warriors (whose ranks totaled 300) against a far greater Persian army, suggests an intrepid, rugged, maverick approach to the business of music- something bold, exciting, perhaps even a bit innovative. A fearless, nonconformist warrior-spirit, prepared to stand its ground in the face of a vast mediocre and clueless opposition. 

Of course, it can also be perversely funny if you envision Gerard Butler and his massive CGI-enhanced thighs, heroically raging at a contingent of enrapt artists that, tonight, they’ll record in Hell.

And though not specifically in the streaming business (oh, wait- there’s Google Play), Google (which, by underwriting 300, has plaintively demonstrated it indeed has a dog in this fight) appears poised to enter the realm of “content creation”. But, given the timing, (amongst other things) methinks this move feels like an old-school military tactic- to outflank an opponent (in this case, artists, advocates for artists’ rights, etc) and rout them as expediently as possible. 

With this in mind, is it not somehow ironic that the company name references a famous battle?

Here’s one very major red flag that makes 300 look utterly sketchy to me. The fact is, Google could have started this same type of venture with anyone in creation. God knows they have the money. 

In spite of this, which horse do they back? Lyor Cohen. 

One of the least artist-friendly CEO’s ever to grace a record company boardroom. The guy who made 360 deals an iron-clad prerequisite for new artists at Warner Brothers. Someone whose public rhetoric clearly demonstrates his interest in music falls unredeemably short on its intrinsic value and rests, with prejudice, on its value as a commodity. 

In press releases, 300 is being trumpeted as a “new kind of record company”, one which puts an extraordinary amount of emphasis on “artist development”.

Just take a moment- read those words, say them and let them roll off your tongue. Just for fun, why not use some odd inflections while you do it? 

Aaaaahhhhrrrrteeeeest deeevellllluuuuuuuhhhhpmehhhhhnttt. Feels good to say, looks good on paper; it sounds so right, seems like a great idea and yet, no one really knows what it is. That’s because no one actually performs it in any recording company (or business peripheral to recording companies) anywhere, anymore. 

At all. Ever.

I think the reference to Lyor in this blog post speaks volumes (mainly the paragraphs regarding artist development)-

http://www.refinedhype.com/hyped/entry/rapper-poor-artist-devleopment

And here is a segment of an interview with Lyor in his own words, discussing his feelings on 360 deals-

http://www.bet.com/news/opinion/sound-off/lyor-cohen-weighs-the-positives-of-360-deals.html

During Lyor’s tenure, I spoke with various A&R people at Warner’s about this crazy little thing called “artist development”. These conversations left me with the impression with that, across the board, the A&R staff felt “artist development” had mainly to do with building an artist as a “brand”- kind of like Cap’n Crunch, The Cabbage Patch Kids or Louis Vuitton. In their collective mind, this branding was to be achieved by tossing said artist in a van and having him play his repertoire of songs in seedy pay-for-play dives for a couple of years. 

You know, the way The Beatles did it. And hey- look what happened to them.

Mind you- all the driving around, gigging and eating rancid leftover Ramen for months at a time is on the artist’s own dime. It “builds character”.

I randomly encountered a Warner’s artist (at about the same time) who had been in “development” for about 2 years. Her minders at Warner’s employed an “artist development” variant which centered around shuttling her from session to session with a gaggle of songwriter/producers who would consistently use her as a “talking head” to further their agenda- having a “hit”. She was nothing more than another vehicle for them. 

Each time she had a new song to play for the brass, their response was to find someone else to do a few remixes and then, send her to a new songwriter/producer to repeat the same formula as infinitum. Last time I heard, she was dealing with an eating disorder, seeing a shrink and still in “development”.

Based on all the above, I feel extremely confident that Lyor Cohen is someone who understands and can implement “artist development” about as well as I could give myself a blindfolded brain transplant using toothpicks, a butter knife and some Postit notes. 

He is, however, a very smart man- a very driven salesperson who could sell radioactive waste to Fukushima if he was so inclined. One thing I’m sure Lyor and I have in common is, we both know the term “artist development” has an execeptionally nice ring to it and using it without prejudice will probably gain him a great deal of mileage. In this way, he makes a seemingly perfect bedfellow for the aforementioned tech companies. They also recognize that the term “artist development” is terrific window-dressing, (and a great companion phrase to “content creation”) even if it doesn’t…quite…compute.

Anyway, smart move- score one for Team Google. Now, whenever anyone who supports artists’s rights challenges the tech industry and states that no one in Silicon Valley gives a rat’s ass about artists, their work, the value of copyrights or about developing any new music, the pro-tech contingent will be able to shoot that down. They will be able to say, oh no- that’s not at all true. Why, just look at the 300 label. It’s Google funded, run by someone- Lyor Cohen-  a long-term industry pro who knows artists, supports artists and understands “artist development”. 

See? We really do care. 

Yep. By buying into the business of, er…”content creation” (by way of buying into a nascent recording company), Google can now appear to be on the frontlines of support for the arts and shoot down the anti-artist arguments with ease. However, it’s doing so by backing an old-guard, artist-unfriendly, profit-by-any-means music business insider who is going to make the exact same choices with 300 as those he made at all the other businesses he ran. 

And do you think anyone working under the Google imprimatur has even a distant clue of what “artist development” is? Hahahahahahaha. Now, that’s just straight up amusing. 

All the players in our little drama have track records and a past. While progress progresses and technology advances, the intrinsic nature of a person always remains the same. And people who join together in groups- they generally have the same agenda. But you already knew that.

The facade of 300 also affords us more unique insight into how clueless and insensitive to creativity and arts communities the people in the tech world really are. How, although they purport to be part of the solution, they are very much part of the problem. As an example, please read as much into the following article as you can (as it immaculately demonstrates what I refer to as the “widget mentality” evinced by the tech industry en masse)-

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140111/00092625842/unexpected-things-guy-capitalizing-concept-music-seo-recording-100-songs-day.shtml

To me, 300 is nothing more than a Trojan horse. A diversionary tactic, a means to gain entree and convince an opponent that you come bearing gifts when your true agenda is conquest and total dominion.  It’s also a shot for a self-proclaimed “entrepreneur” (oh God- how I’ve come to despise that term, thanks to its relentless overuse) to get back in “the game” with a slick new presentation of the same old shit. 

Right here and now is when we backtrack to the irony that the name 300 references a battle. And, that not only 300, but Lyor Cohen himself, is essentially Google’s prize Trojan horse. 

Yup- you’ve seen this movie before, and often. Therein lies the facade of 300.

Posted in 300 record company, art, artist development, creativity, Downloading, expression, Google, Lyor Cohen, Music, Music Business, Music Industry, Music Production, Pop Music, Popular Music, record production, Recording, Recording industry, Song writing, streaming, Uncategorized, Warner Records, Warner's | 2 Comments

In Praise Of Re Recording Your Masters

One upon a time, at the tender age of 23, I found myself in a recording studio working on record with no less of a personage than Herbie Hancock. This recording was meant to mark the end of Herbie’s tenure as an artist with Columbia Records and although no one wanted to say so, instead of a being a swan song, it was more of a “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out” kind of affair. Due to a series of catastrophic failures, Herbie had become Sony’s red headed stepchild.

The following year, I found myself sitting at The 26th Grammy Award ceremony watching Herbie accept an award for one of the songs we had collaborated on, which was aptly titled “Rockit”. In the interim, “Rockit” had been quite successful, broken a few records at Columbia and put Herbie back on the map. It also kick started my career as a producer.

As I had not only co-produced, but co-written “Rockit”, I began experiencing the many perks of being the writer of a successful song. Life changed drastically- my co-producer Bill Laswell and I started receiving production and writing offers from every direction and staggeringly enormous airplay royalty checks began to pour in.

I also experienced the unforgettable sting of having my cherry broken, ie- being royally reamed business-wise. Within the year, I was edged out of Material, the production collective I’d co-founded, by Laswell. Additionally, I never saw dime one of my writer/publisher royalties. This was due to an incredibly sketchy publishing contract I’d signed with the notorious Jean Georgakarakos (who ran Celluloid Records), at Laswell’s insistent urging. Karakos (as he as called) had proceeded to abscond with the publishing income from “Rockit”.

Eventually, I took the matter to court and due to a combination of serendipity, negligence and blind larceny (mainly on the part of Karakos, who subsequently fled the country and thereby, defaulted on the settlement we agreed to out of court), wound up at one point with the controlling share of the writing and publishing for this song, as Karakos had owned Bill’s share and because of the default, Bill’s share passed through to me.

Fast forward to about 2003. “Rockit”’s glory days were well behind it, however, it had retained a certain cache and was still regularly requested for usages in moves and commercials.

There was just one problem. That problem was Sony Music, the corporate entity which owned the master recording for “Rockit”.

Every time anyone makes a request to use a song in a movie, TV commercial, etc., they need approval from both its publisher and the owner of the physical master recording in order to do so. Since Herbie and I controlled the song publishing, but not the physical master, we only had partial say in the matter and Sony, as owner of the master, could determine or override any deal at their discretion.

Their discretion, in this case, was a fixed master rate of fee of no less than $150,000.

This, of course, meant that whoever wanted a usage would have to pay the $150,000 to Sony and then, even more money to the publishers/writers, which would then be divided appropriately. In other words, a single usage for this song could cost upwards of $250,000.

Suffice to say, we were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, due to Sony’s intractable stance regarding the master fee. A multitude of offers were coming in for the song to be placed but Sony was passing on all of them because no one could come up with the astronomical figure they demanded.

They were the gatekeepers to this song. We were screwed.

Fortunately, a very forward thinking individual named Gregg Brock was handling my publishing. One day, after Sony had just passed on yet another prospective movie usage, Gregg suggested a workaround to our dilemma.

Gregg’s idea was this- why not redo “Rockit” and create an alternate master version? This way, we could offer a near-perfect replication of the track and undercut Sony on every offer. In addition, we wouldn’t have to share a dime with anyone who didn’t participate in the creation of the song and definitely not Sony.

What a brilliant idea. Why didn’t I jump on it immediately?

Because I, like so many other creative types are world-class procrastinators. Here’s a big lesson for everyone in a similar position to the one I occupied- if someone presents you with an idea that has absolutely no downsides and is completely laden with upsides, do not procrastinate. Consider it carefully, deliberate all you need to, but move the instant your mind is made up.

In my case, it took Gregg a few years before he could crack my reticence (er…laziness) as to how vitally important this could be. And even after the light bulb in my brain became alit, I dragged my feet finding someone who could actually pull something like this off.

Another close friend, Fred Maher was a very talented programmer and the job to create the new “Rockit” master eventually fell upon him. He was both enthusiastic the task and nicely compensated for his efforts, working on it in between other projects and whenever he had free time. Because of these impedances, the process took a very long time, but finally, the new version was completed.

The year we were done, we managed to undercut Sony on several movie and television placements. Everyone who heard the new master could barely distinguish it from the original. We had scored a major victory and employed a practical workaround to a problem that is plaguing many artists who don’t have control over their own recordings.

Generally speaking, “Rockit” is a relatively high-end usage and no longer has the volume of requests it previously did. In spite of this, it is, figuratively, real estate. A copyright is a viable commodity and, for individuals who rely on royalty income in order to subsist, this commodity is potentially priceless.

And that is why it is absolutely imperative for anyone who owns a copyright to have complete and outright control of it in every possible form. It is absolutely inexcusable that a record company should maintain ownership of any master recording for more than a few years- even if they completely underwrote its creation.

It amazes me even now to think about how a company like Sony could have rejected all the usage requests it received for our one song, simply because they couldn’t arrive at the onerous rate being demanded. It begs the question- especially at this moment in time where revenues from record sales have dropped across the board well over 50% in the past 10 years- don’t these guys need to make money, too?

With this in mind, if fairness or ethics could ever be variables in the recording business, there would be limitations to the power a record company could have regarding the masters they do control. Otherwise, record labels that own the master rights to songs are cutting off an important source of revenue to very individuals they’re meant to be subsidizing.

Of course, putting into this perspective the mentality and absolute greed that governs them, no major label in the world would be amenable to helping artists in any way- unless they can somehow profit massively and on their own terms by doing so. For this reason, I recommend to every artist- own your masters outright. If they are someone else’s property and irretrievable, do yourself a favor and recreate them.

It isn’t an easy undertaking, but it is possible and with the current technology, 100% doable. You will be glad you did.

As I write this, I think of countless recordings that were made by artists who had promising careers and were ardently courted by major labels. These artists were subsequently signed and made records, only to have them shelved and never see the light of day (the artists being speedily dropped by said label, not long after). How many potential pearls are sitting warehoused and gathering dust because of the whim of some power-mad nabob at a record company who made some casually ill-informed statement, like “I can’t hear the hit?” What if people began rerecording their projects that had been shelved for any number of arbitrary reasons and, as owners of the copyrights therein, started exploiting their work to movie and ad production houses?

The future is rife with these and other possibilities.

Posted in art, Celluloid Records, Columbia Records, creativity, expression, Herbie Hancock, Master recordings, Music, Music Business, Music Industry, Music Production, Pop Music, Popular Music, record production, Recording, Recording industry, Rockit, song placements, Song writing, Sony Music, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

ART VS ENTERTAINMENT PT2- THERE IS NO ART INDUSTRY

The other day, I saw a blog posted on Facebook which largely condemned not only contemporary popular music, but this culture that permits and encourages such music and spectacle to take place for us and our children to see. I really appreciated how passionate the writer was and enjoyed many of the points he made.

http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.hipstercrite.com%2F2013%2F08%2F29%2Fforget-miley-how-to-talk-to-your-children-about-their-shitty-music-taste%2F&h=NAQHBz3-EAQGLMGas1KO3U4rACui3lp_2ykXiO6xLFvr-qw&enc=AZNvA4GBwhTZXgO68dwfisGBpt-l1o3EMzYMK8_lRZ37Nbwh9OS_xHdJ9bo2HofJFMVwwHnN2a9ZOCdmSPArUvB0&s=1

That is, until I got to the part where he referred to the individuals such as Miley Cyrus who dispense their wares under the umbrella of the “the art industries”.

Having seen a lot of art and been present for the creation of even more, I can say with great certainty that there is nothing resembling so-called “art industries” (or art) anywhere in the vicinity of these people the writer of this article has identified with said art industries. The fact is, none of these individuals are artists, much as they might want to be in their wildest fantasies.

There is an entertainment industry. There is even a music industry. But there is no art industry.

Additionally, there is no art being created or emanating from the entertainment industry. None. If you require proof of this, speak to any random executive who works at any level of the entertainment industry. Ask him what his prime directives are and those of the corporation he works for. Within a scant few minutes, you should have a good indication of how utterly irrelevant art is to the entertainment industry and everyone in it.

The words “art” or “artist” are terms with a certain cache which are dragged out of mothballs when this cache needs to be applied to a specific entertainer- usually to give his lack of commercial success some degree of credence or to make the more gratuitous amongst the larger community of entertainers appear to the public as being more “serious” than they cause themselves to appear. Relative to this, there was a recent article full of industry apologists explaining why Kanye West’s latest offering is, depending on who you choose to believe, a commercial disaster or a resounding artistic success. Proof once again that reality is the most flexible commodity we possess.

http://www.eurweb.com/2013/07/kanye-west-hits-first-time-sales-slump-with-yeezus-album/

I am someone who feels that art is an indispensible aspect of human endeavor and human existence (and who also likes to believe that he has- to whatever minimal extent- contributed to its advancement). I am equally appalled and angered that anyone, no matter how valid or strong their primary point, would equate and confuse the self-obsessed spectacle of entertainers with the expression of artists.

The fact is, there never could be an “art industry”. The very personal nature of expression prohibits this from ever happening. There may exist industries which have subsidized artists, but never co-opted art. The absolute and only thing co-opted has been people’s perception of what art and an artist actually are.

An artist works to refine and follow a series of inner directives- not appeal to everyone so he’ll amass fame (and presumably, fortune). Any time you get that familiar aroma of seeking approval while trawling for attention by doing something seemingly outrageous, you know you’ve ceased dealing with art.

Art is the product of an individual’s expression for the sole purpose of doing expressing himself, while entertainment has become a means to gain the attention of others, usually by means of a spectacle. These days, that spectacle has no actual point or necessity beyond getting attention. This is why reality TV stars are entertainers, the same as Miley Cyrus.

Artists can, by their own recognizance, be entertainers. Every great performer who ever became an entertainer was, at their core, an artist first and foremost. Entertainers, however- those individuals who crave attention because they never got enough from their parents and don’t actually have anything to say- cannot be artists.

Posted in art, creativity, Downloading, expression, Kanye West, Michael Beinhorn, Miley Cyrus, Music, Music Business, Music Industry, Music Production, Pop Music, Popular Music, record production, Recording, Recording industry, VMA's | Leave a comment

ART VS ENTERTAINMENT PT1

The other day, I went to an exhibition of the artist Edgar Degas at a local museum. It was a great exhibit and I learned a lot. The accompanying commentary was fascinating and demonstrated how far Degas pushed the various media he used in previously unseen ways, all in the pursuit of his own expression. He literally allowed nothing to interfere with his need to free himself from established norms- to employ paints, brushes, charcoals, wax, pastels, etc in ways other than how they were traditionally used and beyond what others had done before with them.

This man- Degas- used everything at his disposal to express himself, completely and fully. No technique, no material was safe from his obsessive need to create, to mutate styles and in so doing, mutate the ways people looked at both objects and art.

He was creating his own language- a means of communication never before seen in visual art. His own personal expression.

He broke down barriers, changed people’s perceptions and changed the world. He was an artist.

The other week, Miley Cyrus got up at the VMA’s and did something roughly resembling a performance in front of a largely disinterested and unshocked audience. Oddly enough, that very performance became the ultimate cause célèbre; the most important item of news throughout most of the free world- trumping such relatively unimportant stories such as the United States building its case to invade Syria for crimes against its own citizenry.

In her few minutes onstage at the VMA’s, Miley Cyrus did nothing that many others haven’t recently done in similar circumstances- playing with taboo aspects of sexuality and race in order to provoke and shock people, to upstage the other performers in her midst and boost her importance as a commodity in the entertainment business marketplace. The only thing that distinguishes her from many others who have been similarly motivated by sheer desperation is that a few years ago, she was Hannah Montana- America’s Sweetheart.

We live in a society which clearly adores degradation as much as it loves lucre- how quickly and far youth will allow itself to fall if only for a few table scraps of attention.

Unlike Edgar Degas, Miley Cyrus is not an artist. She used a one-dimensional medium to put on a deliberate, preconceived spectacle which touches on the most base impulses (extraordinarily easy targets, these) in human beings and creates a canned artificial sexuality. She has broken no barriers, nor has she altered anyone’s perception of anything (apart from how they will now see Hannah Montana reruns).

Unlike a performance artist, who goes to great lengths to shock her audience (the express purpose in this case being to challenge and kick start her audience’s brains), Miley Cyrus clearly wasn’t interested in getting anyone to think. What she did is calculated salesmanship, entrepreneurial oneupmanship- a calculated risk, not expressive and definitely not art.

There is an immutable 100% guarantee that the spectacle of a near-naked, well known young girl acting in a sexual manner, having her actions broadcast with great fervor across media which also purvey news, family related shows, etc, will get a reaction from almost everyone who does in contact with it. This scenario is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.

We, the audience- those manipulated by said spectacle- are always ripe and randy for the plucking.

Since the late nineteenth centruy, artists have been tweaking the noses of the establishment; shocking polite society and art intelligentsia alike in the pursuit of new means of expression and concomitantly helping the collective unconscious to evolve. A classic example of this was Marcel Duchamp’s famous entry of a urinal signed R. Mutt 1917 to a serious art exhibition. This action caused a great furore and literal rioting in the streets.

This variety of provocation is much different than that of our contemporary very famous and mixed up 20 year old whose obvious priority is in keeping her name in the public consciousness by any and all means necessary. Artists such as Duchamp enjoyed disturbing people, provoking their limited views and challenging their prejudices, however, they also saw the obvious social responsibilty of pushing the outer limits of what people found acceptable or comprehensible in art. Art often involves a liberal quantity of manipulation by the artist, however, those reaping the longterm benefits of this manipulation are nearly always the people who encounter it.

Posted in art, creativity, Downloading, Edgar Degas, expression, lyrics, Michael Beinhorn, Miley Cyrus, Music, Music Business, Music Industry, Music Production, Pop Music, Popular Music, record production, Recording, Recording industry, Uncategorized, VMA's | Leave a comment