Category Archives: commentary

The Internet: land of opportunity or just a different way for musicians to starve?

Sometimes its good to be challenged, to step back and question if your beliefs still hold water.

I recently read a very thought provoking (but VERY long) article from David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker (I seriously love both bands): Meet the New Boss, Worse Than the Old Boss? I don’t agree with all of his points, but I can see where he’s coming from.

Like I said, it’s quite long, but it’s worth reading when you have time. You can skip around a bit and still get the gist of it, which is that the freedom and opportunity many of us thought the Internet would give musicians is not panning out, that tech industry giants — Apple, Google, Amazon, Spotify, etc. — are simply taking on the role that the music industry giants used to, and controlling the flow of content.

Only they actually appear to care even less about musicians than the cynical record executives did. According to Lowery, the potential for a musician to actually earn a living from what he creates seems to be diminishing, not growing. The new gatekeepers seem to want all content to be dirt cheap or free. Never mind that musicians are human beings who have to eat and pay rent. Lowery makes some good points.

I sometimes think of 2002 as a mini-golden age for rock ‘n’ roll. It was a time of discovery for me. I found so many great bands during that time. In part, it’s because I had recently moved into the orbit of KTSW, the excellent college radio station at Texas State University in San Marcos (formerly Southwest Texas State University).

But I also have a pet theory. I think there was a brief period in the early ’00s when the Internet helped independent artists find their audience and actually helped them. After that, the Internet turned into a drain for content and began hurting them, just like the major label artists.

If you had told me that at the time, I would’ve argued. I totally bought into the whole cyberpunk ethos (see my blog post on the subject). Ideas like: information wants to be free, always yield to the hands-on imperative, the street finds its own uses for things. Those ideas, and the sheer potential of computers and the Internet captivated me.

On some level I still believe those things. I enjoy the freedom of expression the Internet gives us and hamfisted attempts to stop copyright violations such as SOPA put that freedom at serious risk. It’s also not cut-and-dried. If you clamp down too hard on that sort of thing, you will eliminate some very creative works. I’ve blogged on that subject before.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that all that “sharing” I defended so hard for so many years, may indeed have been hurting many of my favorite musicians. As someone who works in journalism, I’m also a content creator, and my industry is also struggling because of the Internet. It would be very hypocritical of me to tell musicians to suck it up, when I am facing many of the same challenges.

That doesn’t mean I think we can or should go back to the old model, but it sometimes seems to me that we’ve raised a generation of people to believe that they should never pay for creative content. It would be nice if people who call themselves music fans would show some appreciation and spend a little money on the musicians they say they love. You can’t really call yourself a music lover if you’re OK with the musicians starving or winding up on the street. If we want artists to keep creating, we should throw a little money their way.

I quit trying to download the Internet years ago and now I pay for music when I can. I’m more likely to buy digital files than CDs, but I do buy them. It’s kind of hard to say after I’ve found some music I love and played it a few dozen times that the artist’s digital album is not worth $10 or $15. I’m pinching pennies too, but I can afford that every once in a while.

There are some signs of hope. As Lowery says in his article, Bandcamp and CD Baby appear to operate with artists in mind. They aren’t huge in the scheme of things, but I believe they are helping. Another interesting development is the rise of entities like Patronism and the Eye and the Sky Collective, which curate good music and create a system for fans who want to support and interact with them to do so.

If we can get musicians and music lovers on the same page maybe we can both get what we want: great music for us and the ability to pay rent and put food on the table for the artists.

I would love to get some comments on this subject, especially from musicians.


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Happy 420 Day: legalize it or not, musicians are probably still going to advertise it

Still a couple hours left to 420 Day, the unofficial day in March when all pot smokers make an effort to light up on the same day. I’m not one of those – the one and only time I tried the stuff I did too much at once and got sick as a dog. Never again.

At the same time, I’ve had a lot of friends who do smoke and being a music lover I can’t help but notice that Weed is a rather huge influence on many of my favorite artists. I also happen to think the War on Drugs has been an unmitigated disaster, giving us nothing but powerful gangsters, corrupt officials and highly militarized police. And in Mexico a lot of chopped off heads.

Time to face facts and legalize it. All drugs really, but especially marijuana, even though I’ll never take another puff. This article in Forbes sums up my thoughts on the matter pretty well: Let’s Be Blunt: It’s Time to End the Drug War. Will we ever have leaders with enough honesty and courage to actually do what obviously needs to be done? Not optimistic, but one can always hope.

In the meantime, might as well appreciate some of the great songs we never would’ve had without marijuana. At some point, I’ll go whole hog and list a ton of songs about drugs, pro and con. There are so many.

First on the list has got to be Winning the War on Drugs by my recently disbanded favorite live act, the Asylum Street Spankers of Austin. They captured the cynicism of that particular war pretty well.

Followed by the very obvious and to-the-point Legalize it by the late Peter Tosh.

Plus a few more favorites…

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Passive Promotion on ‘pay what you want’ pricing

It was interesting to read Brian Hazard’s post on his Passive Promotion blog about “pay what you want pricing” just as I started editing my interview with Ethan Tufts aka State Shirt.

Brian (also a big favorite in the old T61 site, who makes music under the name Color Theory), has decided that the strategy isn’t effective as it puts some fans in an ethical dilemma that they often resolve by not buying the album at all.

State Shirt has a “pay what you want” option for all his albums ($10 suggested, $5 minimum) as well as a “steal all” option. Interesting juxtaposition, but in a way they are actually very much in agreement. Brian has very much embraced the digital world and is more interested in what works for musicians today than in what worked for them years ago.

And by the way, I am a big fan of Passive Promotion, which is geared toward indie artists trying to find their way. He has some great advice. If you’re a musician and haven’t found his blog yet, I would highly recommend it – he’s in my blogroll for a very good reason. I also like Color Theory quite a bit. Very catchy songs. Check out the Color Theory Bandcamp page. 

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Leslie leaves Austin for Colorado – canary in a coalmine?

I saw a news story the other day that made me sad. Leslie Cochran, the cross-dressing homeless guy who has been an icon in Austin for almost as long as I can remember, is leaving the city, going to a town in Colorado where he hopes he will be “loved and respected.” I hope he’s right and I wish him well.

There was a time when most Austinites at least seemed to love and respect Leslie. He ran for mayor a few times. Not sure how many votes he got, but it helped make him the talk of the town. Someone made a “Dress Leslie” refrigerator magnet set. Leslie sightings were among the highlights of any trip to Sixth Street. You could pretty much count on seeing him at anything that drew a crowd, if you kept an eye out.

He liked to wear a thong, sometimes a mini-skirt (He might have to wear more clothes in Colorado). Locals with visitors from out of town would get Leslie to pose with them for pictures. Someone even painted him into a mural, down on Guadalupe Street (The Drag). He was fairly well-known for his run-ins with the police and has in the past carried signs around, protesting some abuse or other (“I was down on my luck and the Austin Police stole my purse!). He was someone who made Austin for me. I’d see him once and a while and think, “Keep Austin Weird” and smile.

I guess it’s too much to expect that a city growing as fast as Austin could keep its culture. The city is touted as the Live Music Capital of the World, but the fact is, a lot of people came simply because they found a job. Some came because they heard it was a cool place. But they came from a more conservative place and don’t actually like the things that made the city cool. Bohemians are just scruffy people to them. Music is noise. Someone like Leslie is just another weird panhandler to them. Folks who come in from the country probably have a more insulting name for him.

Austin used to be a city that loved its freaks, a city that embraced creative, odd people. There are plenty of people around who still get it, but they are in danger of being overwhelmed by the people who don’t.

I say, don’t let it happen. If you’re a freak and you want to be one, go for it. Don’t be intimidated. If you’re someone with the old liberal Austin mindset who likes having those folks around, stand up for them. Austin is still a unique place with a lot to offer. Looks like we’re just going to have to try harder to keep it that way.

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Before you point a finger, remember ‘Everything is a Remix’

When I was a teenager, I read a story by Orson Scott Card that made a big impression on me. “Unaccompanied Sonata” tells the story of a young prodigy in a future society where talented musicians are isolated and forbidden from listening to the music of others, to prevent their work from becoming derivative.

I don’t want to give too much away, but he rebels, listening to a beautiful piece by Bach. He is forbidden from making music. He does it anyway and is repeatedly punished in horrible ways that ultimately make it impossible for him to make music again. In the end, he becomes part of the very establishment that tormented him so.

I thought of that story when I discovered Everything Is a Remix, a blog about the video series by the same name by New York filmmaker Kirby Ferguson (the one who produced this video about Protect IP, mentioned previously on my blog). The first three videos in the series have been produced and a fourth one is on the way. They can be found on Ferguson’s Vimeo channel as well as Youtube and I recommend them highly. They are fascinating.

The video series points out – very effectively – that very little if any of the entertainment we enjoy is truly “original.” Everything borrows from something else. Movies, music, ideas. And that’s not a bad thing. Bits and pieces of art can recombine and become fresh and new again. I love the old blues music Led Zeppelin ripped off, but I also love Led Zeppelin, can’t imagine what my teenage years would’ve been like without them. Amazing powerful stuff. And much of it purloined.

Same thing with hip hop. That used to be one of my complaints about hip hop before I learned to enjoy it: “It’s just someone talking over someone else’s song.” Sometimes that’s all it is, but in the hands of someone creative, it becomes something much more.

Anybody remember the outlaw album DJ Danger Mouse put out in 2004? He took Jay-Z’s Black Album and mixed it with songs from the Beatles’ White Album, to create The Grey Album. Modern, streetwise rap music, mixed with some of the most beloved classic rock there is. It took off like gangbusters. The studios’ reaction to that very pirate project was predictable. EMI tried like hell to get it off the Internet, even though Paul McCartney and Jay-Z were fine with it, but there was no stopping it. The album went viral and was a very hot topic in the music press for a while.

Something else that will freak you out… Sometime watch Zero Hour, a movie about a plane trip that goes awry when the crew gets sick and a passenger – a washed up, nervous ex-pilot – has to take the controls. Sound familiar? That’s because they borrowed the same exact plot for the comedy Airplane!

Watch the Everything Is a Remix for plenty of other examples. Here is the first installment:

Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

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Stop SOPA/Protect IP – Don’t let Congress censor the Internet

I think my mother considers me to be something of a computer expert. News flash: I’m not. At all. I know just enough about computers to know when it’s time to call in someone who really knows about them so I don’t break something important.

That’s what I wish Congress had done before they decided to take on Internet piracy. Two bills — SOPA in the House of Representatives and Protect IP Act or PIPA in the Senate — claim to be about protecting intellectual property, but they were written with the help of Hollywood lobbyists who just did not understand how the Internet works. They did not get enough input from the technical experts who might have helped create laws that worked, and are fair.

If these bills make it through Congress, the Internet will end up being severely disabled. Legitimate websites will go out of business and many businesses of the future will be stillborn. And the pirates will go right on pirating.

If you haven’t heard much about these bills it’s understandable. They have barely been mentioned by the mainstream media. Luckily, the Internet has a bit of sway as well. The word is starting to get out. Today, some high profile websites, including Reddit and Wikipedia are blacking out their websites to protest the proposed legislation and get people to call congress. Google has posted an anti-censorship message and plea to contact congress. That ought to carry some punch.

I don’t think I can actually do a “blackout” on a blog, but I’d like to pitch in. These bills need to be stopped.

The legislation is complicated, but this article does a pretty good job boiling it down and explaining how it could hurt the Internet. I found it to be a pretty easy read:

Once you’ve read that, if you haven’t yet contacted your congressman or senator, I would urge you to do so.

Also check out Google’s petition.

Edit: It looks like, my favorite album rating site, is also having a blackout today to protest SOPA/PIPA. Good for them. Site owner Hosseign Sharifi gives a great explanation of how his perfectly legitimate, non-pirating website could be shut down by this legislation. Click that link and read it for yourself.


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Doleful Lions vs. the PMRC – cover song project takes on Tipper Gore and the ‘Filthy 15’

I love a good revenge story. Doleful Lions frontman Jonathan Scott will exact his revenge on moral crusader Tipper Gore and the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) throughout 2012.

The year-long project, Doleful Lions vs. the PMRC, will cover the so-called “Filthy 15” songs most harshly condemned by the PMRC during the 1980s.

The Doleful Lions will release up to one song a month throughout the year, with bonus tracks around the holidays. “I am already coming up with a lot of ideas for what I want to do. Some of the songs will be really straight and some won’t,” said Jonathan.

The Doleful Lions’ occult/gothic pop would likely be targeted by the PRMC if the organization was still active, but Jonathan’s motive is intensely personal. “I blame Tipper for fucking up part of my childhood so I guess I want revenge,” he said.

“In the mid-‘80s my mom read Tipper Gore’s book [Raising PG Kids in an X-rated Society] and came to the conclusion that the weird music I listened to played some part in my being bad in school and getting in trouble all the time. So she went through all my records and listened to the songs and wrote down all these lyrics that she said she objected to and wanted to know why I liked all this occult violent music — that is how she saw it anyway — and one day when I was at school she threw out all my records. My parents made some rule where I could only listen to music approved by them and all of it had to be from the 60s or something. It was a weird time.”

The Filthy 15 list was part of a Washington Post article in which the PMRC suggested (per Wikipedia) that the RIAA and the music industry “develop ‘guidelines and/or a rating system’ similar to the MPAA film rating system,” as well as “printing warnings and lyrics on album covers, forcing record stores to put albums with explicit covers under the counters, pressuring television stations not to broadcast explicit songs or videos, ‘reassess[ing]’ the contracts of musicians who performed violently or sexually in concert, and creating a panel to set industry standards.”

The article got rock music and magazines removed from from American stores including Walmart, J. C. Penney, Sears and Fred Meyer.

The moral crusade didn’t stop there. In September 1985, the Senate held a hearing on so-called “porn rock,” taking testimony from musicians Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, John Denver, as well as PMRC representatives and Senators Al Gore and Paula Hawkins. The Dead Kennedys were actually put on trial for violating obscenity laws (it ended in a mistrial).

It was a strange time to be alive.

Songs on the Filthy 15 (with their lyrical sins) include:

1 Prince “Darling Nikki” (Sex)
2 Sheena Easton “Sugar Walls” (Sex)
3 Judas Priest “Eat Me Alive” (Sex)
4 Vanity “Strap on Robbie Baby” (Sex)
5 Mötley Crüe “Bastard” (Violence)
6 AC/DC “Let Me Put My Love into You” (Sex)
7 Twisted Sister “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (Violence)
8 Madonna “Dress You Up” (Sex)
9 W.A.S.P. “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” (Sex/Language)
10 Def Leppard “High ‘n’ Dry (Saturday Night)” (Drug and alcohol use)
11 Mercyful Fate “Into the Coven” (Occult)
12 Black Sabbath “Trashed” (Drug and alcohol use)
13 Mary Jane Girls “In My House” (Sex)
14 Venom “Possessed” (Occult)
15 Cyndi Lauper “She Bop” (Sex)

“I am surprised no band has ever done these songs in this way before,” Jonathan said. “The Filthy 15… the whole concept was so ridiculous. I watched a couple of hours of the PMRC hearings on CSPAN the other night, it was really amazing to watch these Senators wasting time and money on such bullshit. I think the project will be pretty fun.”

Stay tuned. The first release will come out Jan. 30. Songs will appear on this page as they are released. In the meantime, check out the Doleful Lions’ other work. Their entire discography is now available through Bandcamp.

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