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.

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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 | 3 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 | 2 Comments

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

Yeezus And Anger

Since someone wanted to know what I think about Kanye West, I decided to give his new record, “Yeezus” a listen.

The experience of listening to “Yeezus” is behind me now.

“Yeezus” feels a bit to me like Kanye trying to be edgy a la Nine Inch Nails or Manson by way of Rotterdam circa 2001.

I don’t connect with Kanye West. Or rather, Kanye West doesn’t connect with me.

This is because every time I listen to him, I hear his brain working. He’s a very intelligent man and I feel like he wants the world to know he’s clever no matter what he’s going on about. When he performs, I hear him calculating every single move, every single breath that enters and leaves his body.

This is the polar opposite of what I find moving or meaningful in music. I tend to gravitate toward performers who become unconscious and get lost in their performance. I tend to gravitate away from performers who sound like they are thinking every moment about things like who their recording is going to appeal to while they’re still making it.

When I listen to Kanye West perform, I hear someone who is completely self-absorbed, completely self-conscious. When I feel an artist mentally efforting his process like a chess game while he’s supposed to be emoting and communicating, I experience a unique sensation of discomfort. I can liken this sensation to watching a comedian who many other people think is really funny, but conceals his lack of talent by being loud and vulgar.

I think I experience this sensation because when I listen to an artist’s music, I’m prepared to connect and commune with the artist. In order to commune with an artist, you kind of open yourself up and make room for his vision in your soul. For this reason, when I listen to Kanye West, I’m completely open and the experience feels like an endurance test- like I’m being bludgeoned with his arrogance.

Kanye revels in his arrogance. So do dozens of other artists I enjoy listening to.

The difference is, when push comes to shove, these other performers have the ability to take themselves out of the equation. I don’t hear their colossal egos when they perform- I hear artists who are completely un-self-conscious and coudn’t care less what anyone thinks about them. They are themselves- perhaps jerks, maybe snotty- perhaps awful, even dangerous.

When Kanye West turns on an edgy synth, fuzzes up his voice or turns on that adorable little growl, it makes me giggle. Instead of sounding dangerous or repellent, he just sounds kind of entitled and bratty.

Like he’s got something to prove. Like he cares a great deal about what people think.

One of his songs is called, “I am a God”. For some reason, when Kanye declares “I am a god”, it sounds to me like he’s posing- insisting that he’s a god, instead of actually feeling or believing it. Because of his ambivalence, I don’t know if he’s being self-revelatory, self-parodying, pointing a finger at someone else or some combination of all three.

It’s also worth noticing that he draws the line at being blasphemous and calling his song “I am God”. I personally feel that would have not only been scary (for Kanye, as well as me) and that alone would be worth the price of admission.

I’d be more impressed if Kanye did something completely out of character, something that takes him out of his comfort zone. Something that either demonstrates he’s really human or really in pain- something really intense that really means something to him, instead of a bunch of silly posturing.

Because he’s insistent on playing to type, I have a hard time believing him or taking him seriously. I can absolutely believe that he’s arrogant, but his anger sounds canned- ingenuous. I don’t feel that he’s really angry- it sounds like he plays someone on TV who’s supposed to be. He seems more pissy than pissed off- more entitled than Master of the Pop Universe.

There are the only tracks on “Yeezus”- “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves”-where I actually feel I’m experiencing someone who is viscerally enraged. That’s when I start to feel him- that’s when I feel like he’s being honest about something that is truly disturbing and upsetting to him. That’s when I feel him moving outside of his ego and going unconscious. That’s how I know Kanye West is actually talented and not merely some poseur.

The problem for me is these two tracks are juxtaposed against a bunch of others which have faux-aggro-titles and are full of posing. Plus, I’ve heard people get enraged on records before- some believably- some, not so much. The fact is, the chilling nonchalance of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” is a thousand times more frightening than Kanye doing “Blood on the Leaves”.

I had the sudden realization that Kanye West’s recording is the tip of a different iceberg.

Anger seems to be the only emotion Kanye is willing to do. And in this, he doesn’t appear to be alone. From there, I started to notice that anger and aggression are the primary elements artists try to project in contemporary popular music.

Over the years, a lot of artists making records have worked extra hard at trying to sound pissed off. Do they feel like it gives them cred to appear menacing? Do they believe that more people will take them seriously if they sound like they’re fixing to get ready to tell their bodyguards to go beat someone’s head in?

When was the last time you heard an artist on a record spill their guts to the point where you felt painfully uncomfortable? Where their pain was their art and you experienced their suffering? Where you got an uncensored look at who they really are minus how they want you to see them?

For me, it was “Daddy” off the first Korn record where Jonathan Davis starts sobbing and runs out of the studio because he’s so completely devastated from the experience of singing his song. Because that experience forced him to relive something unspeakably awful which happened to him in his past. That’s art.

The difference here is that Jonathan wasn’t just evoking rage, but juxtaposing it against a laundry list of other emotions- fear, hurt, sadness, etc. And, he was being completely vulnerable which is difficult almost beyond human understanding for a performer to achieve with clarity- let alone, believability. I feel that 99% of the posing performers do is precisely to avoid experiencing the other emotions which go hand in hand with aggression and anger.

This is because they’re afraid that you’ll see a part of them they don’t want you to see. They don’t want to be vulnerable to you. If they were, they’d feel weak, exposed and out of control.

My experience is, aggression is the easiest emotion in the contemporary popular music-making lexicon to express or simulate. If you have a soapbox and act pissed off about anything, you can convince quite a few people that you have something important to say. There are quite a few reasons to get angry these days and being openly angry isn’t as shocking, taboo or outre as it once was. It’s actually looked upon as socially acceptable- even a healthy release.

There is a general aggression-in-popular-music-101 formula that is was borrowed from “80’s Industrial Music and gradually filtered into the mainstream. If you want to convince the world that you’re angry, dangerous or really mean business; 1- just make everything in your track sound louder and more aggressive, 2- yell or snarl a bit more than usual 3- use dissonant chords wherever the need arises, 4- be obscene and/or vulgar to underscore your point, and 5- put distortion on a synth, guitar, voice, bass drum or sample whenever possible.

I guess artists see aggression as a way to let loose and look good but in and of itself, I find it tiresome. You start looking pretty one dimensional if the only thing you can do is act pissed off when you perform. Divorced from the full spectrum of emotions which go hand in hand with anger, the acting out of anger as a vehicle for popular music actually has very little weight. Without other associated emotions, or some kind of contrast, there’s no depth to reinforce your anger, no conviction to back up your aggression.

I guess that is how I feel about Kanye West, “Yeezus” and most of the music people are making these days. Being loud, obnoxious and pissed off are all efficient ways to call attention to yourself.

However, if that’s all you have in your repertoire, you’ll probably get noticed, but don’t expect your work to have any lasting value.

Posted in art, creativity, Downloading, expression, Kanye West, lyrics, Michael Beinhorn, mp3, Music, Music Business, Music Industry, Music Production, Pop Music, Popular Music, record production, Recording, Recording industry, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

WHAT WE’RE MISSING

I recently had an interesting conversation with my 19 year old daughter. We shot the breeze, eventually arriving at one of our favorite shared topics- music.

She’d been to the Governor’s Ball festival in New York City and described some of the highlights- including a performance by Kanye West. According to her, he was very entertaining. She characterized his performance as “good”.

She talked about some of the other artists she’d seen and the music she was currently listening to. She really liked it; in her words, it was all really “good”.

Not exactly raves, but these days, if something is considered “good”, it’s right about the top of the musical food chain.

We spoke further and she referred to one artist in particular as being really “different” and in a class by herself (although she never used the word “good” to describe her). My interest was piqued and I wanted to know, how, exactly did she feel this artist stands out from all the other music she listens to?

When you hear this artist’s music (I asked my daughter), do you feel as if your perception is being altered? Do you think, Oh my God, this is incredible- what is happening to me? Do you get goosebumps and other weird sensations all over your body? Does it feel like (and, by asking, I wasn’t fishing/didn’t want to know whether or not my daughter has direct experience of this- which potentially makes it a loaded question) you’re on drugs?

When she answered no to all the above (emphatically so regarding being on drugs), I asked her if she’d ever had that kind of experience with anything- music or otherwise. To which, she also responded no.

Right then, I had a profound realization. My daughter, who I consider to be highly intelligent and aware, has never had the complete experience- the full mind/body/emotion experience of what a truly amazing piece of art or music can do to the human consciousness. This is a direct contrast to how I spent my youth, wherein, my consciousness was being altered on a regular basis simply by listening to music that was completely inspired, original and expressive.

This intensely profound way of experiencing music (and all forms of art) embedded itself in me from the time I was very young and continues to the present moment. It’s the one way I can definitively know how the music I hear is affecting me emotionally. Or not.

Having never known this, I feel as if my daughter is being deprived of something extremely valuable and essential to the experience of being human. And, if she’s being deprived of this, I figure that most other people are being similarly deprived.

The reason I feel she- and others- are being deprived is that, presently, there are virtually no artists who can be bothered to make a recording that actually has real expressive power or meaning. Instead of making bold, personal statements, everyone appears to be hiding- either behind a genre or a facade.

And it’s interesting when I attempt to describe this magical, mystical experience of encountering music to my daughter. It’s so utterly foreign to her- kind of like trying to describe a Van Gogh to someone who has been blind all of her life. I wish there was some way she could know this beyond the feeble explanations I’ve given her.

Having lived through five decades of popular music and now watching the emotional impact of music gradually wither and die, I can see how, with the bar dropping progressively lower, people have proportionally reduced expectations. Besides, how can you desire, want or expect to receive that which you have never known?

At best, I can do a very, very poor job of explaining what happens when you hear music that has a powerful emotional impact.

The experience of listening to music- when that music is truly amazing- is so intense that you literally feel like your world is being turned upside down- as if you’re on some kind of mind-altering drug. In this case, it is always a profoundly and utterly transformational experience. You may feel as if up is down and down is up- nothing remains as it was before and everything will somehow always be different afterward.

If the music you listen to is not having some kind of tangible effect on your person (and this is not the same as feeling like your viscera is being mangled because you listen music at 140+ dB)- if you don’t feel as if your perspective has been altered even in some small way; that you’ve either been exposed to something that resonates with you completely, a perspective you’ve never even imagined, or a combination of the two- one of two things is happening. Either you’re not paying attention, or the music you’re listening to is not great and never will be.

You may be absolutely devastated, emotionally confounded and upended by this experience. In an instant, you may be completely transformed on every possible level- life’s meaning and your life’s purpose suddenly illuminated in front of you, plain as day.

You may also not find it revelatory at all- the effect may be barely perceptible- perhaps nothing more than an awareness that what you are listening to simply feels “right”. However, this will always contrast against listening to music that has no emotional resonance and was made by people who are not deeply invested in their work.

You deserve to have this experience. I wish fervently with all my heart that, if you haven’t had it yet- you someday will- even if it only happens one time in your life. It’s something you’d never know about if it never happened to you, but without it, you are truly missing something valuable and magical. It’s as close to connecting with God, a higher self, whatever you choose to call it, as a person can ever get.

Let’s frame what’s missing from a different perspective. Human beings are responsible for some remarkable- almost superhuman feats of art, engineering and expression- many of them having been achieved long before machines or computers existed to add ease to our lives.

One of the greatest achievements in recorded history which combines all of these elements- and more- is St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome. The product of no less than 7 different architects (2 of whom being Michelangelo and Gianlorenzo Bernini), it is one of the most recognizable and important edifices in the world, as well as in Christendom. Its construction was begun in 1506 and ended over a century later in 1626.

When you enter this building, you are immediately struck by several things. First, is the enormity and vastness of the structure itself. Second, is the quantity of remarkable and recognizable works of art throughout the building. Third, is the overwhelming presence of something which could be considered- even by the most unreligious of people- as Divinity.

Then, it suddenly hits you that this massive amalgamation of so many different disciplines may well have been inspired by devotion to some unseen faith, power or god, but it was the result of Herculean effort on the part of human beings.

Human beings no different than you or I, thought this place up and built it. As they have thought up and built every last speck of the civilization we inhabit. As well as all those which have come before.

The people who built St Peter’s were so dedicated to their faith, so prodigiously gifted as artists, they literally allowed that faith to possess and consume them and offered their gifts up to Divinity as the means to express their devotion. Their faith was the inspiration to build this enormous temple to their God, fill it to the brim with remarkable works of art and to allow absolutely nothing to impede them in the process. This was literally their means of speaking with their God and demonstrating their love and piety to Him.

It would be all too simple to explain away the staggering undertaking of these artists by stating that they were commissioned and paid by the Catholic Church. While that may be true, they aren’t exactly known for maintaining fabulous lifestyles- whereas, today, people achieve a great deal less and are compensated with far more.

Imagine that a large part of your existence (if not all of it) revolved around an ideal and your unshakeable service to it. Imagine being so completely devoted, so completely committed to a singular expression of that ideal, you literally gave your entire life to it. Imagine being so completely committed to this singular expression that, even though you put your entire being into creating it, it didn’t matter to you in the least that you wouldn’t live to witness its completion.

Think you have the faith (in yourself, anyone or anything else) to be that committed? Think you have the desire- the inspiration? Think you have the audacity- the balls? Think you know anyone else who does?

Fine. So you think you’re ready to build your own St Peter’s Basilica (or its equivalent in the medium of your choice). Are you prepared to sweat it out and forebear- no matter what happens?

What horror will it take to upend your unshakeable conviction? What could terrify you so deeply that you abandon your absurd dreams in an instant, and run home to the safety and security of your parents?

Or, can you face all those horrors and become greater still through such massive adversity?

Keep in mind, I’m simply referring to commitment and not even addressing the degree of talent a person needs just to be the right vehicle for that commitment….

And this is the kind of commitment a person requires in order to be great. From that greatness, (combined with an almost unfair quantity of natural talent) comes great art. Absolutely nothing less matters- absolutely nothing less is acceptable.

It’s strange- almost futile- to try and relate the concept of an experience- something, that if it never happened to you, you’d never know existed. It’s just as strange to try and relate the concept of an alien state of mind if this, too, cannot be conceived of without it being an innate part of your being.

But I have to try and relate them to you- somehow. Because, they are what we’re missing.

Posted in art, creativity, expression, Michael Beinhorn, Music, Music Business, Music Industry, Music Production, Pop Music, Popular Music, record production, Recording, Recording industry, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Thank you, Daft Punk, Thank you, iTunes

Dear Daft Punk-

I offer you my profound thanks for providing me with an experience I never imagined having, nor did I ever conceive of needing to have.

Shortly after hearing your song “Get Lucky”, I realized that its two primary hooks had become indelibly etched in my brain and could not be dislodged, try as I might. In spite of this, I further realized that there was absolutely nothing about the song which generated any kind of resonance or emotional connection between myself and it. This, in turn, initiated in me a profound experience of what therapists refer to as “cognitive dissonance”. To elucidate, I was confused by the fact that on one hand, I was completely attracted to what I was hearing, and yet, felt completely disassociated from it. The song could be on my mind constantly and yet, I neither cared to physically listen to it and had absolutely no desire to purchase it. Eventually, disassociation evolved into disinterest.

I had never before encountered such a profound and unique disconnect with any music in my life. The only parallel I could draw- however remote- was with the myriad of high school crushes I experienced as a teenager. These would regularly arise with a ferocious ardor and shocking immediacy from out of the sheer ether. They were almost always directed toward random girls with whom I had absolutely nothing in common and the object of my infatuation would generally become transformed into the object of my utter revulsion before the week was out.

Still, this had never happened with art and never, ever with a piece of music.

In the past, I would have found it impossible (and inconceivable) to separate the musical appeal of a song from its ability to resonate emotionally with me. In theory, this phenomena would not only render a work of art immediately disposable, it would also render it completely and immediately irrelevant, in a sense, entirely negating it.

With “Get Lucky”, you have taken this notion from abstract theory to concrete actuality. Yours is a feat I’ve only seen previously hinted at, but never, ever enacted so seamlessly, with such utter precision and perfection. I am truly impressed and humbled by this extraordinary achievement.

Put simply, you have (and most likely, without intending to) created a masterpiece- albeit in an unconventional way. With this song, you’ve built the perfect beast- a fully formed entity replete with all the right moving parts, supple limbs, oversized genitalia, an irresistible appearance, and an insatiable libido- all the external trappings which are considered so essential in order for one to be found attractive and desirable by others in this world. This song is sexy, self-assured and supremely confident regarding its ability to overtake and conquer its prey.

However, in creating your entity, you’ve left out two fundamental parts. You’ve forgotten to imbue it with a reason for existence- a sensibility, intent. You’ve also forgotten to give it a heart- feelings- emotions. It has all the attributes which make it immediately appealing and lacks the very attributes which would make it attractive over the longterm.

In a sense, it is the sonic embodiment of all contemporary popular music and our entire culture. As much as it is an advert for these things, it is also an indictment of them. This creature of yours calls to mind nothing other than the Replicants in “Blade Runner” which are superior in every way to humans, but whose existences are stunningly brief and give them no time to experience and evince substance or meaning.

Still, if popular music can be thought to represent the spirit of the times in which it is created, you should be awarded a Nobel Prize for creating such remarkable social commentary.

As a result of your miraculous phenomena, I can report that the aforementioned hooks, which had all but invaded my consciousness over the past week, have almost completely receded into the distant static of my mind. I actually have to force myself to recall them and can now only do so with some effort.

Congratulations again for this momentous achievement- the creation of contemporary popular music that is utterly infectious, and yet, has a more limited shelf life than anything I’ve ever heard. Plenty of people have written big pop songs which evaporate in 3 months- you’ve managed to create a big pop song which evaporates in a week. Perhaps, the same approach can be used in the future to decrease the half-life of radioactive material.

Thanks also, for helping me recapture some lost moments of my adolescence when mad infatuation so expediently and mercurially soured into disgust.

Dear iTunes-

Thanks from the bottom of my heart for being the best thing that ever happened to a music-centric consumer since Warner Brothers released its “Loss Leaders” series. Making it possible to actually listen to new recordings in the comfort of my own home has proven to be a welcome and money-saving boon. I remember there used to be those little listening kiosks at Virgin Records so one could preview new CDs- the iTunes Store is so much better and convenient. It’s far more fitting, too, since all the music I’m hearing is so disposable; I’m thrilled not to leave the house in order to listen to it.

Consequently, I will not need to purchase new recordings by such noteworthy artists as Black Sabbath, Queens of the Stone Age and the previously mentioned Daft Punk (to name but a few). As a result, I am saving at least $50 which I can now allocate toward such necessities as food, gasoline and cat litter.

O tempora, o mores.

Posted in art, creativity, expression, Michael Beinhorn, Music, Music Business, Music Industry, Music Production, Pop Music, Popular Music, record production, Recording, Recording industry | 12 Comments