For another dose of record-label schadenfreude, check out this rant (check here if it’s been taken down – Victory’s lawyers have been chasing it all over the internet) by former Victory Records vice president Ramsey Dean. It’s an entertaining but unwieldy mishmash of legally actionable character assassination, insider’s memoir, hilariously hyperbolic tone, pompous word choices, and completely irrelevant Apocalypse Now quotations. I would quote some of the best bits, but I don’t want to get stupid (and lawyers) all over my blog.
If you have the patience to wade through Dean’s sludgy prose, his grandiloquent claims that Victory’s travails are in some way comparable to Joseph Conrad’s dark nights of the soul are pretty funny. Tony Brummel is no Colonel Kurtz. I think there are probably hundreds of dudes (and of course they’re all dudes) in the business who are functionally indistinguishable from Brummel; huge egos, bigotry and self-delusion are practically the defining traits of label heads. It may even be that the industry would grind to a halt without people like Brummel: Hawthorne Heights have very little to show for their time with Victory, but their CDs ended up in the hands of way more kids than the band’s quality merited.
Being nice doesn’t always help: Touch & Go Records, famous for being a humane label, with their “handshake contracts” and band-friendly accounting (as well as releasing most of Steve Albini’s records), ended up getting sued by the Butthole Surfers (who ought to have known better – they won the lawsuit but lost the war, in that a lot of people, like me, ended up convinced that they were egomaniacal dicks with a vastly overinflated sense of their worth in the wake of the lawsuit).
I have no opinion on the truth of Dean’s claims, except to say that bands should probably stop signing contracts with Victory (Thursday actually came back after leaving for Island) and fans of hardcore and emo should stop buying their records (which is tricky, because sometimes they do release some truly transcendental albums, like Refused’s Shape of Punk to Come – probably the best punk record of the last 10 years – not to mention records by Darkest Hour, Earth Crisis, Between the Buried and Me, and Integrity). On the whole, I’d just take the whole thing as a case study of how epically messed up the industry really is, from a not entirely reliable insider’s perspective, with more than a few grim laughs thrown in.
If we’re going to be talking about famous rants about the record industry, of course, we have to include a link to Steve Albini’s famous essay, The Problem with Music. If you don’t know who Steve Albini is, start here to get a quick understanding of why Albini might be entitled to an opinion on the subject. His importance and influence can’t be overstated, for all his claims of being a mere “recordist”. In the pantheon of independent rock, he is a Zeus-class godlike entity.
The essay is from its very start endlessly quotable, filled with Albini’s pithy cynicism and irrepressible annoyance at the mendacity and greed of the “industry” side of the music industry. You really ought to just go read it right now, even if you’ve read it before. It’s a genuinely important document. It’s also surprisingly restrained and extraordinarily educational, serving, in its hyperbolic and polemical way as a highly condensed version of All You Need to Know About the Music Business for bands. Here’s the punch line:
The band is now 1/4 of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 millon dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month.
Have you ever played Guitar Hero? If so, you’ve seen the cheeky summary screen that comes up after you play a song, enumerating all the expenses (“damage to venue”, “top-shelf liquor”) that get in the way of actually making any money for a live performance, which in its way restates Albini’s argument by showing how much even a good performance yields relatively meager rewards. The saddest thing is that for all of the hip, knowing “attitude” exuded by those screens, they actually significantly understate how bad things are. I mean, Guitar Hero is just a game, they don’t want to depress players with the grim reality, and if they were realistic you’d never get to unlock the Grim Reaper because you’d always stay broke. It’s very easy to be a hugely successful band and lose money at it, even without hookers and blow and puking out the windows of the tour bus every night.
If I sound cynical about the major labels, and the recording industry in general, this essay is a good chunk of the reason why. In my ideal world, every new band would be forced to read through it several times, carefully, before they sign their first contract. A lot of them would still push themselves into the whirling blades, but that just means the rest of us can point and laugh when the inevitable happens.
I’m a bit intemperate when it comes to the music business, but that’s only because I’m by nature fairly pessimistic when it comes to capitalism and market-based economics, and (probably excessively) jaundiced about the possibility that the intersection of capital and culture will produce anything worth caring about. Which is a highfalutin way of saying that the majors crank out huge piles of crap, I expect them to do so, and I don’t really care because I don’t listen to much major-label music anyway. So it’s nice to come across things like this blown-out rant in the Guardian’s weekend magazine.
A quote, just to give you the flavor of the writing:
Imagine the outcry if people working in a factory were told that the cost of the products they were making would be deducted from their wages, which anyway would only be paid if the company managed to sell the products. Or that they would have to work for the company for a minimum of 10 years and, at the company’s discretion, could be transferred to any other company at any time.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal investigated the industry and concluded that ‘for all the 21st-century glitz that surrounds it, the popular music business is distinctly medieval in character: the last form of indentured servitude.’
I don’t actually agree with the hyperbolic rhetoric on display here, as entertaining and schadenfreude-y as it is to read. For one thing, the analogy cited above is far from accurate, inasmuch as you’d have to take into account the factory-workers getting a huge chunk of cash dumped on them up-front. Advances are the best and the worst thing about major-label contracts; if you’re savvy and know what you’re getting yourself into, it’s possible to use that to your advantage. Whether any band smart enough to have that savvy would benefit from a major-label deal – especially today – is another matter.
I’ll keep this brief, because I don’t want this blog to be about my day job, but Rhapsody America (a joint venture between my employers, Real; MTV Networks, a division of Viacom; and Verizon Wireless, a division of, uh, Verizon) and Yahoo! announced this morning that Yahoo! would be discontinuing its subscription music service and moving its users to Rhapsody. The timing of the announcement is a little weird, coming as it does in the middle of the gigantic foofaraw over Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo!, but I think Rhapsody is the best of the subscription music services (naturally), and I think consolidation of the subscription music space is probably necessary. This article from the LA Times lays out why in a concise and easy to understand way. Subscription music services are a good idea but an incredibly tough one to sell to the public at large.
Oh, you guys:
Qtrax—the free, ad-supported, “legal” P2P service that launched at MIDEM today—apparently isn’t as ready for prime time as it claims. The company claimed it had licensing agreements with all four major record labels, when in fact it has none.
The inconsistencies with its music licensing status is just one of several missteps that may make Qtrax one of most bungled service launches in the history of digital music. The company’s press release and pre-briefings with reporters all pointed to the “live” launch of the Qtrax service. But on Monday the site shows it is only a beta launch, something the company didn’t mention in its press build-up.
Allan Klepfisz, Qtrax’s CEO, says the service will go ahead and launch with the four majors’ catalogs. When asked if he is worried about a lawsuit, Klepfisz replied, “The answer is nobody has threatened us with a thing.”
Meanwhile, back in reality (this article also discusses last.fm’s new service):
Despite a stable of early ad clients signed on for the untested site, Mr. Kent still was uncertain about what the market’s ad model would look like. “I don’t think any music sites can make money on impressions alone,” he said. “You’ve got to get out there to make the advertisers notice you. You have to stand for something and be a brand. Ad money is going to follow a brand over a long period of time.”
MIDEM is apparently a huge music trade show that happens every year in Cannes, and it’s going on right now, so there’s a flurry of announcements of various significance coming across the wire from sources like billboard.biz and Coolfer. Many of these announcements demonstrate that digital music is finally going through its own little dotcom bubble. I know there’s a bubble a-borning because there are all kinds of businesses popping out of the woodwork that fail even the most basic bozo check.
Take, for instance QTRAX, the most recent attempt to take peer-to-peer filesharing legal. How do they intend to do that? By wrapping DRM around their “25 million” track library (which in actuality has nowhere near 25 million different tracks), so they can track media plays, so that rightsholders and advertisers can get paid – which, to me, presupposes that you’re going to have to use their client to listen to your music and view the non-optional ads. Which leads me to heave a huge sigh, because I just don’t have the heart right now to discuss the now-ubiquitous practice of using advertising to make your halfassed idea suddenly seem profitable. Ad-based business models are the beenz of 2008.
If Brilliant Media’s claims add up, they’ve got a pretty impressive team working on their software, because the initial version is using Windows Media for its DRM, yet they have a roadmap promising Mac OS X and iPod support by mid-April. There are all manner of technical reasons that make me skeptical that they’re going to be able to pull this off. For starters, the only supported library for accessing Windows Media content on the Mac is Flip4Mac’s, and it’s a buggy piece of crap.
On the other hand, it may be irrelevant, because I have a hard time seeing too many people using QTRAX. As this article in the International Herald Tribune makes clear, “free” music services are suddenly plentiful, and web-based services like last.fm’s are way easier to use. This leads me to conclude that the major labels have flipped from their former paranoid selfishness to a passionate desire to sign deals with everybody who’s not Apple, because they want to break Apple’s hold over the download business. I’m skeptical that this is going to do them any good in the long run, although it’s refreshing – if a little unsettling – to see the 4 majors coöperating, instead of continuing to try to corner the market themselves.
I’m also just plain ambivalent about the focus on Apple. I work for a competing music service (Rhapsody), so I’d like to see our business grow (if only because I think subscription music makes more sense for more people than its limited success so far indicates), but at the same time they’ve managed to create a download market by using the very tools (software-hardware bundling, platform lock-in, flat pricing, no DRM) that made the major labels crazy. Without Apple, there wouldn’t be a market for the major to take away. I don’t really feel sorry for corporations, and it’s not like Apple needs my sympathy anyway, but it’s off-putting to see how public and gleeful so many groups are about taking Apple down.
While nursing my newborn obsession with all things Mordant Music, I appear to have found a whole new rabbit hole to fall down.
When I was poking around Boomkat looking at Mordant Music’s releases, this little bit of the Carrion Squared listing jumped out at me:
Apparently made up of offcuts from a Boosey & Hawkes library music album which the duo of Baron Mordant and Admiral Greyscale were commissioned to produce, Carrion Squared is the perfect record for followers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop desperate for a fix.
I know a little bit about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Delia Derbyshire, White Noise, the Dr. Who theme song, the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc), but what’s this “Boosey & Hawkes”? What’s “library music”?
It turns out that knowing a little about stock photography and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is extremely helpful when wrapping one’s head around the wide world of production music. Most photographers and designers know about royalty-free creative asset companies like Corbis, Getty Images and (on the hipsterish end) Veer. You want a stock photo of, say, a generically beautiful vaguely ethnic professional woman staring off into space while holding chic glasses in one hand in front of a blurry sunlit background, you go plug keywords into a search engine, add two or three images to your shopping cart, and buy a license to use them in your annual report or douche ad and you’re good to go. I have more than a couple friends who have sold pictures to stock photography agencies. It’s decent money if you have a knack for thinking like a corporate art director.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was the department responsible for music and sound effects for use in the BBC’s shows, and the reason so much of the stuff that came out of the BBC in the 60s and 70s sounded so futuristic and awesome is entirely due to their crazed improvisers, who were capable of extremely creative work on a tiny budget. Douglas Adams is funny and all, but without the Radiophonic Workshop (and, oddly enough, the Eagles, whose “Journey of the Sorceror” was the Hitchhiker’s Guide theme song) there wouldn’t have been a show.
Boosey & Hawkes is a company that allows production agencies that don’t have the BBC’s license fees to outsource their production music needs. They license music and musical cues to production houses for use in advertising and documentary work, mostly. Music libraries intend for their material to be licensed, so they make it straightforward for producers and broadcasters to work with them – instead of talking to separate publishers and labels and performance rights organizations, everybody just talks to the music library. If you’re making a David Attenborough documentary about cormorants on the Isle of Man, it’s a lot more cost-effective to license a couple discs from a music library than to send a production assistant on a wild goose chase to nail down all the rights to Coldplay’s “Clocks” or whatever.
Boosey & Hawkes own one of the largest production music libraries in the world, and my awesome discovery for the evening is that they’ve put a nice search UI on the front of it, and you can listen to pretty much their entire catalog online. The clips tend to be under two minutes and are organized by concept, description and keyword. Plug in “dark aggressive” and you get back four tracks, at least one of which is a brilliant miniature darkcore epic (Nick Tidy’s “Bad Situation”). The way everything has to be squeezed down to its essence brings back the old days of rave for me, when every song mutated every 4.7 seconds and there were more ideas per track than there are on most modern mix CDs.
In fact, most of the stuff I listened to tonight was pretty good. I’d pretty much like to have a copy of everything on Drone Continuum, which contains most of the Mordant Music tracks made for Boosey & Hawkes (one of which has the delightful title that heads this post). I’m a sucker for drone music to begin with, and the utterly synthetic short songs are tasty bits of ear candy. The combination of short tracks and analog synthesis also makes it sound startlingly like a less damaged version of Omit, and Omit is one of the most compulsively listenable purveyors of weird music out there. Which also helps explain why I respond so strongly to Mordant Music, actually, because they definitely have the Omit vibe, especially on Carrion Squared.
Thanks to Nick, I now know that Fucked Up and Xiu Xiu (two bands who should never be mentioned in the same sentence) are suing Camel, Rolling Stone, and (potentially; see the sidebar) Rhapsody for, well, being asshats (more summary here):
Indie rock bands Xiu Xiu and Fucked Up today filed a class action lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (the parent company of Camel cigarettes) and Wenner Media (the publisher of Rolling Stone) alleging the unauthorized use of artists’ names, unauthorized use of artist names for commercial advantage (right of publicity), and unfair business practices, all in regards to the ‘Indie Rock Universe’ multipage advertising section that appeared in the 40th Anniversary issue of the magazine published on November 15. The class action, which was instigated by Xiu Xiu and Fucked Up but filed on behalf of 186 bands and artists featured in the pull out spread, accuses both the cigarette company and the magazine of engaging in “despicable conduct” that was “illegal under settled, unambiguous California statutory and common law.” The lawsuit demands Rolling Stone publish an admission that the artists’ names were used without consent in a spread equal in size to the original ad, as well as seeking actual and punitive financial damages. (Under California law, this could conceptually amount to $750 per issue of Rolling Stone, per band, or a whopping $195.3 billion.
Everybody’s favorite bit of that story is this line:
The 18-page complaint filed today reads partially like a Pitchfork review written by a music-nerd attorney.
but they actually back it up with
Xiu Xiu’s work is described as “often thematically dark, marked by non-narrative, evocative lyrics delivered in small fragments, and is varied in instrumentation, which can include koto, digital sound samples, and whistles, as well as bass, keyboards, percussion and guitar – or some combination of some or all or more.” Fucked Up’s work is described as “direct, sonically violent at times, and often characterized as hardcore punk, with the sometimes acknowledged influence of Spanish Civil War-variety anarchism, Viennese Actionism and the Situationist International.”
The attorney on the case, Christopher J. Hunt, is either really good at reading band bios, has a remarkable ear, has a well-developed sense of humor, or some combination of all of the above. Those are as accurate descriptions of either band’s sound as I’ve ever heard.
I’ve been trying to tell everyone how great Fucked Up are for a while now; I strongly feel that Hidden World is an outstanding achievement: fierce, loud, lyrically sophisticated, politically and metaphysically engaged, and immaculately recorded. Also, they have a totally hilarious name (check out the hoops Kelefa Sanneh has to jump through to get his review of their live show into the New York Times), and the members’ pseudonyms (10,000 Marbles, Pink Eyes, Mustard Gas, Concentration Camp, Guinea Beat) are overblown and dorky-offensive in the best punk rock tradition. I’d say they’re the best punk rock band from Toronto, but there’s actually an awful lot of really great punk and hardcore bands from Toronto.
I won’t rehash the details of the case, because there’s more than enough links up above, but I will say that I think the bands have a pretty good shot at a settlement. I find the type of advertorial shenanigans Rolling Stone and Camel engaged in distasteful (“advertorial” is, of course, a portmanteau word combining “advertising”, “total horseshit” and “editorial”). Somebody there should have known this was going over the line. I’d be pissed if I were either Fucked Up or Xiu Xiu too: Rolling Stone has as much to do with real independent music in 2007 as Rupert Murdoch does with decency or truth, and the cheesy “Indie Rock Universe” spread Rolling Stone published makes the bands mentioned look uncool just by association. I find the idea of Rolling Stone being forced to run a 4-page pullout saying “WE FUCKED OVER FUCKED UP” in gigantic type quite satisfying.
In the meantime, Fucked Up have put out a bunch of singles over the last year, all of them great (and some of them not at all what you’d expect from a Black Flag-style hardcore band), and have a pretty crowded slate of new releases coming out this year. And their latest blog post linked to a pretty good disco-house single from Hercules & Love Affair, featuring the vocals of the amazing Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons), which shows they’re nice guys – I mean, they’re looking out for my interests and all.
so yesterday i was all lastfm is giving away music for free and u were all no wai and i was all un hunh their dooin it and u were all their dum and watevr and then like today yahoo is all like hai guyz were dooin it 2 come look at our kool adz and ur all like wtf evar dood who cares im downloadin all that shit off pirat bay n e wayz an im like piracy is killin the music bizness and u r all \/\/ and really who cares cuz nobodys makin no $ on it n e wayz
About seven years ago, the Atlantic Monthly published a long, detailed article about the future of copyright and the implications of cheap and easy filesharing. Recently the Atlantic decided to open their formerly pay-only archives up for free access, and so we can read this article and all get bummed out when we realize that essentially nothing has changed in the interim, except that Ross and Bram Cohen came along and invented BitTorrent and basically made it so hard to selectively filter filesharing traffic that Comcast and AT&T are bringing down the ban hammer on their own paying customers in some weird, totalitarian effort to befriend the weird, totalitarian RIAA.
Some choice excerpts:
Within the music industry it is widely believed that much of the physical infrastructure of music – compact discs, automobile cassette-tape players, shopping-mall megastores – is rapidly being replaced by the Internet and a new generation of devices with no moving parts. By 2003, according to the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Investment Research Group, listeners will rarely if ever drive to Tower Records for their music. Instead they will tap into a vast cloud of music on the Net. This heavenly jukebox, as it is sometimes called, will hold the contents of every record store in the world, all of it instantly accessible from any desktop.
- Rob Glaser, the CEO of Real Networks and one of the driving forces behind Rhapsody, frequently makes reference to the “heavenly jukebox”.
- I sure do miss Tower.
Technophiles claim that the major labels, profitable concerns today, will rapidly cease to exist, because the Internet makes copying and distributing recorded music so fast, cheap, and easy that charging for it will effectively become impossible. Adding to the labels’ fears, a horde of dot-coms, rising from the bogs of San Francisco like so many stinging insects, is trying to hasten their demise.
That’s a fabulous line. I wish I’d worked for one of the cool stinging-insect dotcoms back in the day.
Last year the worldwide sales of all 600 or so members of the Recording Industry Association of America totaled $14.5 billion – a bit less than, say, the annual revenues of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance.
I love the brutal way this puts everything into perspective, especially because it’s likely that number is significantly smaller now.
After the show I asked [Chuck Cleaver of Ass Ponys] if he was concerned about the fate of the music industry in the Internet age. “You must be kidding,” he said. With some resignation he recounted the sneaky methods by which three record labels had ripped off the band or consigned its music to oblivion, a subject to which he has devoted several chapters of an unpublished autobiography he offered to send me. (He had nicer things to say about his current label, Checkered Past.) Later I asked one of the music critics if Cleaver’s tales of corporate malfeasance were true. More than true, I was told – they were typical. Not only is the total income from music copyright small, but individual musicians receive even less of the total than one would imagine. “It’s relatively mild,” Cleaver said later, “the screwing by Napster compared with the regular screwing.”
This is the essential problem with which the major labels have never dealt, and maybe never can resolve. They’re trying to get new artists to sign “360 contracts”, where the labels get a cut of touring and merchandise revenue in addition to whatever income comes from selling the artists’ albums, and it takes a pretty naïve (or, perhaps paradoxically, ambitious) artist to think that’s a good idea. Musicians have many reasons to distrust and detest the major labels, and ever-fewer reasons to rely on them.
Last year, according to the survey firm Soundscan, just eighty-eight recordings – only .03 percent of the compact discs on the market-accounted for a quarter of all record sales.
The only difference between then and now is that the number of discs sold is likely to be significantly lower. For all the talk of the long tail, the fat, thin end of the tail is still making the major labels an awful lot of money.
Anyway, the whole thing, while being the usual insanely long Atlantic Monthly / New Yorker ramble, is worthwhile, as it provides tons of historical context for the still-intractable situation in which we all find ourselves. The really sobering conclusion I draw from the article is that we’re no closer to resolving the copyright problem than we were at the turn of the century, and if anything, the big corporate interests have taken even more control.