No more blog posts here

If you are expecting any new blog posts here- don’t. Henceforth, anything new that I write will be found exclusively on my website- Please drop by and have a look.

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Reframing the Recording Paradigm

Less than fifteen years ago, million dollar recording budgets were still common in the music industry. Today, only a handful of the most successful performers have access to such resources.

Modern recording budgets are generally smaller and hover in the low five figure range. Many are artist-financed or patron-financed productions and often, don’t even involve record labels.

Even if a recording has a small budget, the end result is still expected to be competitive with recordings that have million dollar budgets. Initially, this may seem impossible, but with careful planning, it is completely achievable.

Recent advances in digital recording technology have been extremely beneficial to projects with minimal budgets. DAW-based systems such as Pro Tools, Logic and even Garageband, provide musicians with previously unattainable access and professional quality results that far outstrip those of the humble multi-track cassette recorders of yore. Compared to the expense of large recording studios, these are affordable tools that offer musicians a workable, DIY solution to their immediate needs.

Remarkable as it is, the technology does not resolve all the issues of modern recording, nor does it provide any kind of feedback or strategic planning throughout a recording project.  As a consequence of lack of feedback and poor preparation, many talented artists wind up releasing music that is subpar. Lately, I find myself increasingly frustrated by a constant stream of new songs that have the elements of greatness and would have achieved their full potential with a few simple adjustments. Unfortunately, by the time they are released, there is nothing that can be done and these tracks fail to attract the attention they would otherwise have received.

All artists understand that fierce competition awaits them in the marketplace and that once they enter it, they will have no second chances. There is also a gradual awareness that music sales are no longer the obvious way to make money and consequently, even for well-established recording artists, resources are disappearing. All this makes it more difficult to witness the multitude of songs (and potentially great artists) that are falling by the wayside due to preventable missteps.

The good news is that these conditions affecting today’s artists are not entirely financially based and can therefore, be improved. When working with a limited budget, careful planning insures that money will be spent wisely.

With this in mind, I have developed a system that can dramatically and strategically boost the final quality level of a recording with respect to any size budget. The key is to allocate resources (time and money) appropriately into the following template. Investing resources, properly and proportionally in each step of this template will maximize results. This approach is kind of like a business plan where the recording project is the business being proposed, while the artist and songs are the assets being managed in order to achieve that business.

For example, in the case of very limited budgets, the pre-production process is absolutely vital. Without this, there is no guarantee that an artist’s songs, which are the undisputed key to his success- will be represented adequately. Pre-production- as well as subsequent quality control throughout the recording process- is a solid investment in building foundational aspects of an artist’s work- and his career.

While it is likely that having a budget to record and mix in a proper environment will result in a great sounding recording, without perfect songs and performances, the sound quality of a recording has little value. Today’s limited budgets require strategic planning and maximum efficiency in the use of time and money.

The template for this system is straightforward and illustrated in stages as follows-

1- Complete Project Flyover and Evaluation-

This stage involves an overview and evaluation of every aspect of the project. The artist’s songs, song arrangements, song orchestrations are all assessed, as is the artist- who the artist is, what expectations does the artist have regarding the recording project, etc. This stage will also touch on suggestions regarding what kind of recording configuration will be optimal given the genre of music being recorded, potential recording venues, potential guest performers, etc. This information is shared as data with relevant individuals on project, on request. Objective analysis of the project as a whole prior to recording is highly beneficial to planning it efficiently.

2- Pre-pre-production-

This stage involves working one on one with the artist to address and enhance every aspect of the recording project, including songs, song arrangements, song orchestrations and performance. It also addresses interpersonal aspects such as focus, band dynamics, etc. The material must be solid and ready to be rehearsed and the overall mission of the project must be established before pre-production can begin

3- Pre-production-

This stage integrates everything that has been established in the first two stages in a rehearsal setting with all the performers. It includes recap and implementation of the the pre-pre-production stage, extensive rehearsal of all the songs to be recorded and further modification to songs, arrangements, etc where needed. It also includes honing band performances (as well as individual players) and finalization of all material in preparation for recording. It is imperative that the material and the band are thoroughly prepared prior to recording.

4- Recording-

This stage focuses exclusively on recording and performing all the material that was developed, honed and rehearsed in the two previous stages. It also addresses getting optimal instrument sounds that reflect and represent the unique character of the artist and their recording, and insuring that only the best performances are used for the final product. When the material and performances are captured, the physical recording is completed

5- Mix-

This stage involves collating and combining all the material previously recorded into one integrated body of work, creating an overall sound for the project, and drawing the project to its close.

6- Mastering-

This stage involves finalizing levels and tones between songs so everything is in parity and the project is now an integrated body of work.

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The Anatomy, Physiology and Function of “Wake Me Up”

Not long ago, I heard a song that was released in 2014 by an artist named Avicii called “Wake Me Up”. It’s well written, efficiently constructed (in the same way a pre-fabricated plastic shed one might purchase at Home Depot is efficiently constructed) and has a strong, sing-song melodic hook which the composers modified slightly to make the verse and chorus distinct from one another.

This is a very basic piece of music and only deviates from its Bm-G-D, Bm-G-D-A chord structure in the bridge/outro sections when it sheds the dominant chord and cycles on its initial three chord sequence. The minor to major transition provides a slight tinge of bittersweetness but overall, it is an upbeat, light and carefree ditty.

It also manages to distinguish itself from many other pop songs by cleverly straddling an assortment of unlikely musical genre-bedfellows, such as folk and EDM. The buoyant, bouncy “cotton-eyed Joe” acoustic guitar strumming/stomp that comprises body of the song is reinforced by handclaps on upbeat eighth notes which enter with the song’s chorus. This is later juxtaposed against a charming, cheery smattering of EDM that comprises its bridge section and outro, wherein, the beat reverts to four on the floor.

The song’s EDM aspects interact tastefully with the acoustic guitar and vocal while enhancing the overall structure. Breakdowns occur prior to the bridge and outro sections that create dynamic drops exactly where they’re needed, and parity is elegantly created between the stomp feel/handclaps in the body of the song and the upbeat eighth note hihats which are gradually introduced into the bridge/outro sections. These dynamics are linear and predictable but they work.

Pristine, streamlined and perfect, every single event belongs exactly where it was placed. It was tailor-made to appeal to everyone without offending anyone.

In addition to all that, “Wake Me Up” just happens to have been the most played song of 2014. In fact, the last time I checked YouTube, it was teetering precariously close to having been viewed 700 million times.

“Wake Me Up” is an undeniably catchy and infectious piece of music. Although about two weeks have elapsed since I last heard it, on occasion and without warning, it will suddenly pop into my head.

In spite of all the above, I feel absolutely no emotional connection to this song whatsoever. I feel no desire to own it or, for that matter, to ever listen to it again in my life. I know that at some point in the near future, it will stop playing in my head entirely. I also know that if I ever hear it again after the point in time that it has ceased being a part of my consciousness, I will be completely unable to recall exactly what I found appealing about it.

This is not because “Wake Me Up” is in any way bad or unpleasant. It’s actually very pleasant- one could even say it’s nice. Put in relative terms, it’s much like a painting you buy from a furniture shop specifically to go with the decor in your home- as opposed to a painting you buy from an art gallery because it communicates something indescribable that you have felt a powerful urge to immerse yourself in.

However, there is an important detail about songs, pieces of music- or, indeed, any form of art- that this one is lacking. Without a reasonable quantity of subtext to co-exist in a piece of art and counterbalance surface aspects such as “pleasant” and “nice”, these adjectives quickly become meaningless and useless. Subtextual information (such as contrast, engaging orchestration and arrangement  ideas, opposing movement, intent embodied in performance, etc) is essential to a piece of art because it provides dimension and depth that greatly enhances its surface aspects and gives them deeper meaning.

For the sake of context, one could also use the adjectives “pleasant” and “nice” to describe “Girl From Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. It is light, breezy and carefree- some of the same adjectives I used earlier to describe “Wake Me Up”.

It is also rich with emotion, contrast and subtext that adds broader meaning, illuminates and re-contextualizes the song’s surface aspects. Its casual, carefree quality takes on an entirely different significance when juxtaposed with the unrequited adoration and sadness the singer is expressing. These contrasting elements resonate to create a unique sense of melancholy and this helps to transform “Girl From Ipanema” from being a charming ditty about an attractive girl on a beach into something much more.

Contrast, subtext and depth are determining factors in the anatomy and function of a piece of music and in the case of one as deconstructed and simple as “Wake Me Up”, they are absolutely vital. If we consider a song as a living entity, the absence of these elements has a detrimental effect on its DNA- particularly with respect to its longevity. In this sense, “Wake Me Up” is analogous to Roy Batty, the Replicant from the movie “Blade Runner”. It is a candle that burns brightly, but for a very short time.

And, while “Wake Me Up” has many of the surface requisites of being a terrific song (and certainly, its staggering popularity should confirm this in the most ironclad of terms), in truth, it is a simulacra of a great song. It possesses all the appearances and surface aspects of a familiar form, but has none of the requisite substance and depth that ultimately designates it as the genuine item.

That, right there, is the distinction between art and artifice.

Aesthetically, “Wake Me Up” is like an extraordinarily beautiful, disembodied head that has no brain and lacks sentience. It sits there looking stunning, but can only stare vapidly into space because it is absent the requisite neurological equipment to form ideas and communicate with others.

Popular art is both a reflection of its creators and a signifier that indicates the state of the society in which it was created. With this in mind, the ephemeral nature of “Wake Me Up” should be unsurprising since it was created by individuals who exist in, and are products of a consumer society infused with impermanence and planned obsolescence. And if, on some level, this song is a reflection of a greater and further reaching sense of transience, it is also a reflection of its creators’ mortality since, like them, it was born to die.

That is neither the physiology or function of a great song. A great song isn’t something flashy or shiny that catches your eye for a moment but quickly loses its luster, the same way that gum loses its taste after a few chews. A great song drags the listener face to face with an artist and permits him not an inch of latitude to escape.

It’s like a mega-dose of brain-scorching LSD that simultaneously chews you up and spits you out while infiltrating your entire being; or a genetic mutation that fuses with your molecular structure and alters you irrevocably and forever.

A great song is not forgettable in the short or the long term. It is both a curse and a constant companion down through many eons- a well-indented neural pathway like a drug yen or an obsessive urge that never fades. It is a monkey on your back that screams at you every moment all day and night- it claws and beats at your brain and your senses, yet you are unable to escape it, ignore it, reason with it or beg it to leave you in peace.

Not that you really want it to.

And then, even after you are finally gone, it still remains. This is because a great song can’t die- it’s an emotion trapped in sonic amber for all eternity.

“Wake Me Up” is not a great song simply because it was not built to be one. Ultimately, it is an ephemeral, gorgeous, empty vessel- merely mortal and inevitably, forgettable.

And inevitably, it will be forgotten.

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Zoe Keating vs. Darth Vader in “Culture Wars VI; Return Of The Artist”

Currrently, there is a whole lot of flap and furore going on about Zoe Keating and the draconian policies that Google/ YouTube are attempting to smack her (and, presumably, every other artist who uses their service) down with. 

By Zoe’s account, it appears that Google has been playing a classic game of bait and switch with her. After permitting her to develop her business on their site for a few years, they have suddenly changed the terms by which she is able to use it (to their benefit). And now, she is receiving those inevitable phone calls from her contrite, diplomatic, yet firm YouTube rep pressing her to make some decisions. 

When YouTube began implementing their new Music Key streaming service, they allegedly presented Zoe with an ultimatum. Based on her transcribed interactions with said YouTube rep, Google’s ultimatum was this- accept our terms and sign with Music Key or reject our terms and get blocked from using your YouTube channel (which you spent years building).

At any rate, this is Zoe’s version (including a transcription of her conversation with her contrite, diplomatic, yet firm YouTube rep)-

As expected, Google have already publicly contradicted Zoe’s understanding of the Music Key agreement and refuted her “version” of the conversation between her and her YouTube rep. This not so unsubtle attempt on Google’s part to publicly shame Zoe Keating looks for all the world like another bait and switch- albeit, performed hamhandedly with incredible sloppiness and zero panache. This is why her meticulous transcript of the aforementioned conversation between her and her YouTube rep leaves little room for interpretation. 

On a grander scale, the resultant furore isn’t really about Zoe Keating at all. We can all profess our righteous indignation and stand in solidarity with Zoe- the artist who was wronged by the evil empire. 

However, her primary function is no longer about who she is or what has happened to her, but what she signifies. She has become an archetype- an internet meme- and her plight represents that of everyone else in the creative community and indicates what they now have to deal with if they want to deal with Google.

It’s really the rest of us who are incensed. Zoe Keating is simply a catalyst- an individual artist who will, presumably, resolve her problem as she sees fit.

We artists have all come to look upon Google as odd bedfellows. They are partners on whom we feel we must rely, in spite of the tenuous relationship we must endure if we wish to remain in their good graces.

Maybe it’s just me, but this brings up a few questions. The first question is; apart from the infrastructure they provide and the brand name recognition- what does the artist community actually need Google/ YouTube for? 

Isn’t the specific function of YouTube- relative to artists- to provide an avenue to promote themselves and show their wares?

Honestly, when I think of Google/ YouTube, I imagine an vast horde of glorified, high-tech middlemen. Honestly, the breadth of their achievements- and in such a short amount of time- is beyond impressive, but really- apart from the very extensive and all-encompassing platform they’ve built, their primary service is about finding new ways to connect people; to exploit and to advertise what other people make. 

With respect to art, YouTube simply creates and facilitates connections between artists who want their work to be visible and people who are either looking for those artists or just trawling for stuff to look at. While creating advertising opportunities for themselves and their business partners.

Am I wrong here or just missing a major piece? Do Google/ YouTube have an exclusive lock on the internet content playback site business, or do they now own us all and our content, too? 

And, if Google keep demonstrating that they are a conglomerate of megalomaniacal, anti-artist, gluttonous sociopaths for whom too much money/ commerce will never be enough, the relevant question is- what do they do for artists that artists couldn’t do without them?

Is this about Google’s ubiquity; their complete domination and subjugation of content, intellectual property and artists? If you’re an artist and want your wares accessible via the internet, is dealing with Google an unavoidable, foregone conclusion? Or are we a community of people who insist on putting their hands back on a hot stove, even after repeatedly burning ourselves?

Google do a great job of presenting themselves to the general public as a noble legion of white knights who have our hearts (and minds) in mind. They conjure up an image of a passionate- yet dispassionate, monolithic, egalitarian bastion of free speech, free thought and free enterprise. A glorious and luminous herald which clutches the scales of justice and represents the dawning of an unbiased, techno-centric universe where information flows fluidly like water to whatever source wills it. 

I think that most people have sipped that Kool-Aid and perceive Google as an archetype. They are either Satan incarnate as a corporate establishment comparable to the council of Gods on Mount Olympus- absolutely untouchable and beyond culpability- even in matters where they are antagonists.

Be that as it may, in its aspect as partner to content creators, Google/ YouTube is the living embodiment of American neo-capitalism at its most ruthless. Through their actions, the acquisition and consolidation of power seems to be these guys’ primary goal. By adopting the motto, “Do no harm” (and subsequently doing a great deal of harm) they’ve proclaimed the antithesis of their true intentions and clearly used a bait and switch ploy similar to how they rooked their YouTube artists.

In a sense, Google is kind of like Darth Vader- but, hey- at least it’s our Darth Vader. Although, when Darth Vader betrays you- and he always does- most people act like it’s your fault for having trusted him in the first place. After all, the leopard does not change his spots.

Have a look at this segment from a documentary about the NSA, it’s surveillance of individuals (in and outside the US) post- 9/11 and Google’s involvement.

This part of the documentary pertains to a meeting between former California State Senator Liz Figueroa and the founders of Google. It provides some insight into how these guys handle people who plan on stopping them. Lest we forget- they’ve done this dance plenty of times in the past with much bigger partners. They are prepared- are lawyered up, have a war chest from hell and clearly do not give one solitary fuck. 

There are people who talk about trying to “stop” Google, but with all this in mind, that sounds as feasible as holding out your hand to stop a speeding freight train without brakes, as it tears down the side of a mountain.

Am I missing something here? Is there some game-changing element that I am unaware of?

Anyway, this essay can stop being about Google/ YouTube now because they are not as important as we believe. To wit- they aren’t artists and they don’t make music. Instead of trying to go through them, perhaps the conversation should be about how to go around them.

Perhaps we, in the arts community who depend upon promoting our work via these avenues of convenience and access, could simply pool our efforts and create our own infrastructure to address the issue. What’s to stop us from creating our own service with unique channels to address our own needs as a community, instead of relying upon others whose interests are clearly at cross-purposes with our own?

The answer to that question may tell us a little about ourselves, as well as our community, if we are willing to be honest and unafraid. 

And, while I am loathe to address this, that answer touches on a host of maladies which plague artists and musicians. Simply put, we- artists- are often allergic to taking care of our own business; we often expect others to solve our problems for us and frankly, some of us languish just a little too long being victims. 

Now, while I apologize to anyone who reads this and gets offended, it needs to be stated and I am not so vain as to attempt to hover above my own indictment. I freely acknowledge my own frailty and can recognize these faults in myself. 

We artists are often drama-addicts; quick to avoid unpleasantness, quick to blame others for things in which we share responsibility (and that we are capable of changing ourselves). It seems to me that by confronting this issue with Google, we, as a community, are presented with a unique opportunity to be brave and face our own demons.

If Google begins to make life on YouTube untenable for those of us who use their service, do we need to stay there? I can’t help but believe that this is a chance for us to be proactive on behalf of our community and ourselves- to think rationally and realistically about what we really need- not what we need to give up.  

(Incidentally, by making these assertions and using Zoe Keating’s name in this essay, I am by no means implying that she is evading responsibility for anything or behaving like a victim. In fact, if you read up on her, you’ll probably wind up feeling that she’s handling herself with dignity and grace- as do I. If anything, I hope that what I’ve written helps motivate artists to act on their own behalf and enables others to see individuals like Zoe as people- not merely as archetypes.) 

It’s time to cut out the middleman. The fuck with Darth Vader- this one, or any others. Let’s build this thing someplace else.

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Artist Development 1- Place Your Bets

I’d like to address something that I think is really weird and bizarre.

This really weird, bizarre thing to which I’m referring is the deep, passionate and all-encompassing disinterest people in the music industry have for the concept of artist development.

Efforting a bit of logic for a moment, you would think that an industry which is generally, a) lost at sea, b) fiscally sinking like a stone, c) in dire need of a compass and, d) in desperate in need of anything remotely resembling an anchor, would literally fling itself en masse at any potential solution to these problems. Especially a solution that is time-honored; has already been vetted repeatedly over multiple decades; one that would, if history is any indicator, more than likely save their collective asses.

Two issues prevent this from happening. The first issue is the current music industry’s m.o. for doggedly and aggressively avoiding new (or old) revolutionary ideas much the same way a person who wants to remain amongst the living avoids things like the Ebola virus, urinating on the third rail of a metropolitan subway line or anything else that would cause them to become irreversibly dead. 

The second issue is that true artist development is meant to engage and stimulate a spontaneous process of organic growth in artists. I’m sure this doesn’t make any more sense to you than it does to me that this could be perceived by the music industry as a potential threat to their status quo (instead of benefitting them tremendously), perhaps I can further enlighten you.

At some point in the distant, shadowy past, there was a general understanding about artist development. The most successful people in the industry knew that actively supporting the organic growth of an artist was a necessary stage in his lifecycle- one of vital importance. There was always risk involved, but it was calculated risk- something to be expected- and when it paid off, it sometimes paid off big. 

Artist development wasn’t merely a strategy to stimulate artistic growth, but also a practical matter of maintaining an artist’s career. Which, in turn, kept the lights on at the record company and paid people’s salaries. 

It also affected the way business people worked with artists. They were forced to rely on their intuition- to be more creative, more resourceful and take greater risks because as time went by, the stakes got bigger.

The days of genius artists- those genetic anomalies who appear to have come into existence fully formed, replete with staggering and limitless talent- guys who show up out of the blue and without warning at the doorstep of their local record company with jaw-droppingly brilliant completed master recordings in hand- are long gone.

At this point in time- artists need help and direction in order to achieve greatness. And if you desire- if you expect- greatness from anything, you must make a spectacularly great effort on behalf of that something that at very least, matches your expectation.

And sometimes, this means investing time and money in an artist who may never even get close to attaining their potential, let alone break even. This is the very definition of risk.

The music industry is nothing more than a very small group of players who bet on talent and do everything possible to hedge their bets by trying to influence a very large group of consumers to invest in the product of that talent. If you’re in the business of betting on anything- stocks, horse, commodities, music- an element of risk is absolutely unavoidable. And in every game, every player always reaches that point when he needs to ante up or, if he doesn’t have the stomach for it, gets the hell out of the game.

Once upon a time, the music industry had faith in the inherent greatness of artists and art as the cornerstone of their business and the guts to roll the dice on them.

Over the past few decades, the prevailing attitude toward artistic growth in the music industry has shifted seismically. It has been distorted and perverted into a closed systematic process of designing music (as opposed to creating it) that is not dissimilar to churning out widgets on an assembly line. Instead of the artist’s talent being nurtured and organically grown, he has been transmogrified into a mere cog in the workings of this assembly line. 

Even though his name is emblazoned on his work, the artist is no longer the basic atomic building block of the music industry. He is instead, cannon-fodder in the music industry’s in(s)ane war of attrition against everything that it perceives as a threat. This is because the people who are waging this war have lost faith in artists or their work as things of great significance or value.

Odder still, in spite of its risk-aversion, the music industry still blows money out its doors and engages in risk every day. The difference is- it’s on their terms. In their twisted cosmology, signing artists to onerous demo deals and dragging them around to an endless parade of writer/producers in order to produce a “hit” song, is more practical and a better use of their resources than helping them develop organically. 

The fact is, few artists get signed (let alone make “hit” records) this way and the process guarantees nothing more than a burned out pile of artists who’ve been tossed by the wayside.

Amidst all this absurdity, one of the absurdest things of all is that most people in the music industry don’t even know what artist development actually is. As absolutely ludicrous as this sounds, (and I’m not making it up) virtually all of the music industry people I’ve spoken to in the past ten years wouldn’t know what artist development was if it crawled up their collective asses and began ripping out their entrails. 

I have a theory, that to a modern record company executive, the term “artist development” is an arcane term or phrase from a distant and ancient period in history. The term “artist development” has become redundant- similar to a word like “hippospadian”, which was once a polite way of referring to someone as a horse-fucker.

But maybe you’d like to hear about this from a slightly different perspective…. 

I wanted to hear some other opinions- dissenting or otherwise- so I asked a random sampling of artist managers- did they feel anyone in the music industry was interested in real, creative artist development?

As hoped, I got good, direct responses. One guy responded by saying- “Unless they are popstars. No, popstars are controlled by the industry, not the people or a movement”. 

Another one said…”the reduction of the value of copyrights, reduces the incentive and plausibility of anything resembling the kind of risk-taking and investment that was the cast in the seventies, eighties and nineties”

And yet another guy said, “The labels can’t possibly do it because they don’t have the manpower and are too in need of immediate results so they’re not interested in artists, so much as singles they can move quickly”.         

Still another said, “I understand what you’re talking about and I don’t disagree, but it will never fly. There’s no money in it and it goes against everything the record business is doing”.

And, finally one stated a bit more tersely but no less emphatically, “The labels are not (interested). Period”.

About 30% of these managers were also emphatic that artist development was essential to the creative process and building great artists. This is a step in the right direction, but begs the question- why only a minority?

This is reality. Record companies at every level, couldn’t give a damn about developing artists, nor do they know how. They don’t recognize its viability and they are too scared for their own pitiful hides to care, one way or the other. In this present-day music industry, the full potential of an artist can and will never be realized. 

Their loss. 

But I believe that the potential is still present- untapped, perhaps- but burning brightly inside artists. And, by artists, I am referring to that small handful of individuals who are truly brilliant and star-crossed. 

The fact is, there are no fewer great talents in the world than ever before in history. The difference is the most recent generations are laden with individuals who’ve been expertly trained by my generation to chronically underachieve- especially in the field of popular art. 

I am also convinced that now more than ever- there must be avenues to build talent- to unlock greatness and perhaps, to even create a fertile environment- a unified community- where artisans are able to work unmolested and support themselves through their art. Outside the mainstream, but far closer to the people who desperately need the distilled fruit of their labors… 

Nothing else works. This is the only realistic way to hedge your bets when you bet on other people’s talent. 

And if the people in the business of music plan on participating in the future of music, they must first acknowledge that their business is growing artists, not making widgets. If they want to be players, they are behooved to grow a set of balls, stop being so risk averse and become part of the solution. And if the music industry isn’t willing to do this, then someone else will. 

The truth is, everyone gambles at something. If you don’t want to see this, you are avoiding reality. The game is in play- place your bets.


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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.

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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