Middle Earth – It Ain’t About The Money

chrisjonessml.jpgIf I were a decent guitarist (not even close), I’d probably be like my friend Brian, who spends his every spare minute playing in a band. Most of the time, though, he’s helping people select lumber or providing counsel on paint and caulk selection at the local building supply store.

That’s his day job. Damn near every musician I know has one.

I write about music, an avocation with a time-to-dollar ratio that’s likely on a par with the money my friend makes on the coffee house/private party circuit. Computer software consulting pays my bills, but music stokes the bank of my soul.

Looking at box office receipts from bands like the Stones and Aerosmith, it would appear that the music business is a no-brainer road to catered backstage parties, with overflowing bowls of brown M&M’s everywhere. The truth is that most musicians are like my friend Brian, playing for love and barely breaking even after expenses like gas, meals and guitar strings are tallied up.

Thus, I was amused when someone asked me recently why Chris Jones, the embattled owner of Middle Earth Music Hall, seemed content to operate at a loss.

“What kind of person,” he mused, “is proud that he’s never made money?”

He was no doubt referring to a Valley New story where Jones admitted that the club had “never been profitable.” Jones went on to say that he viewed Middle Earth as a refuge for people who’d “given up on the bar scene” but still wanted to listen to good music.

Interestingly, the person asking the question about the club’s profitability is affiliated with an ostensibly charitable organization. He, of all people, should know it’s possible to think of “profit” in non-financial terms. Chris Jones got into the music business for an altruistic reason I can entirely appreciate. In an interview, he told me:

We were at a show one weekend and I liked the band. It was the New Nile Orchestra. I wanted to see them in Bradford, so I asked around and found a way to book them myself. We did it in a 300 seat auditorium. One thing led to another, and every two weeks I’m doing shows in the auditorium.

Eventually, he had to move the shows from the auditorium (Bradford’s town hall), and opened Middle Earth in order to have a permanent location. In the last four years, he’s presented some wonderful, often unheralded, talent to music lovers everywhere.

To my mind, it’s as much a church as a club. What emanates from it cleanses the soul.

Via Lefsetz, Al Kooper weighs in on a career that’s been satisfying for him in spite of the way it worked out financially:

FYI, I don’t get any artist or producer royalties for Child Is Father To The Man, Super Session, Live Adventures, I Stand Alone, (They didn’t even give me a friggin’ gold record for Oddesey & Oracle). No royalties for Free Bird, Sweet Home Alabama, Gimme Three Steps, etc. Obviously I didn’t come into the biz for the money. I came in for the love of music and when the sharks smell that, you’re through financially.

It ain’t about the money, it’s about the music. People who are passionate about it understand. People who aren’t don’t – or worse, as Kooper indicates, they’re in the business of screwing money out of people who are.

Middle Earth Music Hall and Shiloh’s Head To Court

middleearthbarsml.jpgUpdate: Middle Earth wins court case

What started as a promising cohabitation has become an increasingly bitter dispute between the Middle Earth Music Hall and its upstairs neighbor, Shiloh’s Restaurant. Each has filed suit against the other, and the spat threatens the future of both Bradford, Vermont businesses.

Shiloh’s claims the music from Middle Earth is so loud that it’s driving away customers. Owners Nicole and Miranda Fenoff began withholding rent last July. When landlord Vincent Pacilio sued, the Fenoffs counter-sued, naming both Pacilio and Middle Earth owner Chris Jones as co-defendants for what court documents allege is “constructive eviction” – a concerted effort to drive them out of business.

Nicole Fenoff claimed in an interview that she was “set up” by Pacilio, who “wanted us to do renovations and then take over.”

As for the Middle Earth’s music volume, Fenoff says, “Vince never, ever said it was going to be a problem.” She claims “people told us it was just bluegrass,” but admits that she never actually listened to the sound levels prior to opening Shiloh’s.

“This is not about music,” counters Chris Jones. He says the noise is a “phantom issue” being stoked by David Lund, leader of Victory In Jesus Ministries, who he claims “pulls all the strings” for Shiloh’s, even though he’s not the owner. Jones has named Lund as a co-defendant in his own suit against Shiloh’s.

Jones claims the real purpose of Shiloh’s suit “is to cause as much financial harm as possible” to his business in an attempt to force them out. “I don’t think they ever wanted to run a restaurant, they had eyes on the building,” he says.

Both Nicole Fenoff and David Lund deny Jones’ claim.

“He didn’t realize the strength of the community,” says Jones. “It’s international.” An e-mail appeal sent to Middle Earth patrons has generated a lot of financial support. Two benefit shows to raise money for their legal defense fund have been very successful, with more planned.

“When this first hit the fan, I thought we’d just give up,” says Jones. “But everyone stepped up. There’s gonna be so many benefits, people will get sick of them.”

“I’m overwhelmed,” he adds, noting the encouragement comes from “not just performers, but the community itself, even people who haven’t been our customers. They recognize that it’s an asset to the community.”

On Saturday night, as Phil Celia and Friends jammed onstage, a customer from Norwich approached Jones and handed him a wad of twenties. “I took up a collection at work,” he said. Mike, a bartender who doubles as a sound technician, stuffed his tips into a ceramic vase with a “Legal Defense Fund” card taped to it. “They usually go in there,” he said.

David Lund is a polarizing figure in Bradford. Some in the community claim Victory in Jesus is a religious cult; others praise Lund for his charitable work on behalf of Haitian orphans.

Lund started his evangelical organization in the mid-1980s. He also began a construction company, Nikao Concepts, to provide jobs for his congregants, whom Lund refers to as “fellowshippers.” The company filed for bankruptcy in January 1992, leaving over $200,000 in unpaid bills. Lawsuits stemming from Nikao’s demise, and Victory In Jesus’ hasty relocation to Hollywood, South Carolina, have fueled much of the local ire against Lund.

David Lund insists that his personal history should have no bearing on the Fenoff sisters’ attempt to run a business.

Of his problems 14 years ago with Nikao Concepts, Lund says simply, “this town destroyed the company. The Attorney General of Vermont went over the case with a fine tooth comb and found nothing wrong.”

“The game is that Dave Lund’s got a bad reputation so let’s hang it on him,” he says. “I’ve never fought back and I don’t believe in retribution.”

What’s really at issue, says Lund, is that “people don’t want to eat when that sound is going on. “

Lund said in an interview that he has no financial stake in Shiloh’s. His name doesn’t appear on corporate documents for the business or for First Trust Construction, the company formed by the Fenoffs to build the restaurant.

“Those girls’ names are on the certificate and they can do whatever they want,” he says. But he does allow that he designed the business for them, has been a mentor throughout.

“I was involved with this restaurant, that’s no secret,” he says. “We designed the soups, set up cooking and training their help. We also provided spiritual counseling.”

If they’re successful, he hopes they will contribute to his work in Haiti, though he says they haven’t yet.

“They’re taught to give to the church. We work with each other because we believe in giving, and they,” he says, referring to Jones and others in Bradford, “try to slander us.”

Behind the legal issues, which are due to be heard in Orange Country Court on November 6 after being postponed from last week, are a series of escalating skirmishes which have made amicable reconciliation all but impossible. The Bradford Merchants Association offered to intervene, but was rebuffed.

Both Shiloh’s and Middle Earth claim the other defaced their common entryway. Lund accuses Jones of deliberately producing an odor “like boiled sneakers” to drive customers away from Shiloh’s. Jones denies it, but says someone from the restaurant put up a sign in the entryway that read “The Stench Comes From the Middle Earth.”

Last April, an electric hammer being operated in Shiloh’s interrupted a performance by Solas and led to an angry confrontation between Jones and Lund. Lund claims there was planned construction, and attributes the dispute to a misunderstanding with the contractor. Jones insists it was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the show.

What everyone seems to agree on is that a hoped-for synergy, akin to “Cheers” and the Hampshire House in Boston, has been irretrievably lost. Early on, Nicole Fenoff considered providing food to Middle Earth patrons, an idea she says Vince and Chris suggested.

“Before the whole situation happened, we would send people down there,” Fenoff adds. “We wanted to promote Bradford.”

Chris Jones is less circumspect. “They really had a chance to be part of something special,” he says, “and they blew it.”

Today’s Free Download – Stonewall

stonewall1.jpg“Blessings for Pearls” is the first single from Stonewall’s demo disc. The band spent several fruitful weeks at Exsubel working with Shamus Martin. There are more to come, but this is currently streaming at MySpace, and I’ve taken the liberty of making it easier to download. It’s got the punch and crunch I’ve grown fond of, and I’m sure it will translate well live.

I’ll find out how well tonight when I check the band out at Electra with Hexerei. Old home night, with costumes and everything. Don’t expect I’ll dress up though – I think 40’s the cutoff age. Maybe a baseball jersey, who knows?

It’s funny, Stonewall reminds me mostly of Mountain, Three Man Army and Cactus. I’ve talked to Josh Parker and mentioned these bands, and I get the distinct impression he has no idea who any of them are, but he’s polite about it. God bless the young whippersnapper.

Deep Catalog Experiment Works For UMGI

stuart_a1.jpgIt happens all the time.  I get a craving to hear some old, forgotten song.  A few weeks ago it was “The Saints Are Coming” – the original version by the Skids – and it’s nowhere to be found online.  Wal-Mart, the closest so-called “record store” in my small town, obviously won’t have it, and even if Newbury Comics did, it’s not worth the hour-plus round trip, and I want the song, not the whole album.

So I fired up LimeWire and stole it.  I felt bad, but music junkies like me are unaffected by guilt when confronted by such situtations.  What else was I supposed to do?

I’m fine with buying songs, though I prefer to hear them on Rhapsody through my subscription.  Either way, copyright holders are compensated.   But when the track’s not available through legal channels, what’s a music fan to do?

If, on the other hand, record companies digitized everything and made it available online, things would be different.  Universal Music Group International sensed this, and in January launched a program to see how unlimited availability might affect demand for music too marginal to keep in physical release as compact discs, releasing thousands of out-of-print songs as digital-only tracks:

The UMGI programme is open-ended, expected to extend well into the future and involve substantial investment, particularly for the excavation and digitisation of older, rare analogue material.  Planned for delivery before the end of 2006 are thousands more deleted tracks.

Last week, the company made public the initial results of this experiment:

Online music fans have downloaded more than 250,000 tracks of previously out-of-print recordings by European artists since the launch of Universal Music’s pioneering digital catalogue reissue programme earlier this year.

Consumers bought music by a diverse, eclectic range of performers, including rock bands such as France’s Noir Desir, Germany’s Accept, and the U.K.’s Del Amitri, Cast and Eddie & the Hot Rods, as well as household names Chris De Burgh and Nana Mouskouri, and cultural icons Jacques Brel and Brigitte Bardot.

Interestingly, the top album download was “Steeltown” by Big Country, the band Stuart Adamson formed after leaving the Skids.

The programme validates the theories explored in Christopher Anderson’s “The Long Tail: How the Future of Business is Selling Less of More,” says a Universal executive:

It’s easy for our consumers online to find and download current artists and current hits, but through this deep catalogue reissue programme, we are now able to respond to and quantify the appetite for more eclectic, diverse recordings from the past.  It’s clear that this is a ‘tail’ worth chasing.

“We are now able to respond to and quantify  the appetite…”

This approach exposes demand where no one suspects it exists.  I won’t reproduce Anderson’s work here.  Everyone should read his book.    “The Long Tail” reinforces the fact that once content is digitized and published, its value increases with each purchase.  If it’s unavailable, it has no value.  Once the revenue from purchases exceeds the cost of digitization, the value curve moves ever upward.

It’s interesting, as Tower Records shutters its doors, what’s most lamented is the lack of a retail establishment that has, literally, one of everything.  The physical space required to make it possible is too cost prohibitive for the business model to work.  With digitization, all that’s needed is cheap hard drive capacity and, I suppose, encryption to control piracy.

Closer to home, a local band held a CD release party the other night that was marred by their distributor, who didn’t ship the disks in time.  Had the band digitized the record and published it to a digital music store, they might have simply collected email addresses and sent links to everyone who bought the record.  As it was, they had to schedule ANOTHER release party in three weeks, and apologize profusely to their fans.

With those email  addresses in hand, they’d also have a mechanism for reaching fans with music and news later on.

This only works as digital distribution becomes the norm.  We’re not there yet, but it’s getting closer every day.

Local Rhythms – Spooky Night

hallown.GIFHalloween brings out the child in adults who never got over playing dress-up in grade school. Their affinity is likely due in no small part to the fact that, as holidays go, Halloween is just about the best there is.

Don a costume, grab a bag and go door-to-door, demanding candy. How can you beat that? Why would you want to stop? Trick or treating will likely get you big kids arrested, but there’s still fun to he had. Saturday is the unofficial pumpkin day for the over-21 set. Most of the area’s pubs have masquerade balls planned, with prizes and, probably, candy.

Salt hill Pub welcomes About Gladys, with costumes “all but mandatory” for the bash. Owner Josh Tuohy promises a “trick or treat bag full of funk” for all attendees. Across the river at Shenanigans, the Conniption Fits play, along with a “pagan ritual that involves a chicken.”

Seven Barrels has the Gully Boys and a costume contest, complete with door prizes. Their very different neighbor across Interstate 89, Electra, has two DJs hosting a party that goes until 4 AM, with prizes for scariest and sexiest get-ups, if you have the stamina.

In Springfield, Royal Flush has Intercept and cash prizes for their winners.

Halloween offers plenty of fun for youngsters, beginning on the weekend with 13th Annual Family Halloween Celebration at Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock. There are children’s games, pumpkin-carving, horse-drawn wagon rides and a costume parade.

Tuesday, of course, is all about the kids – and any parents who’ve re-channeled their inner child by devising ways to scare the neighborhood moppets witless.

Claremont’s Hallowesta has settled in as a local tradition. The gathering begins at 4 PM in front of Twisted Fitness on Pleasant Street. There’s a costume parade to Monadnock Park, a hot dog roast and hayrides. The fun lasts until 5:30.

Up in Lebanon, the Fire Department throws open their doors for an Open House. They can’t toss candy from the engines any more, but you can walk up and ask for it.

Adults looking to kick the fear factor from threat level orange to red might consider heading to “Drinking Liberally” at Murphy’s in Hanover from 7-9 on Halloween night. It’s a social gathering for those of a left-leaning political bent. From what I see on TV, liberals are probably the scariest creatures in the world.

Seriously, here’s what the rest of the weekend looks like:

Thursday: Devil Music Ensemble, Latchis Theatre – An appropriate start to the Halloween weekend, with this inventive group providing the musical score for a re-screening of the 1920 silent film “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.” John Barrymore plays the London physician with a split personality. Devil’s Music Ensemble has done rock, folk, orchestral and even country music. Last year, they did the score for “Nosferatu” and Brattleboro asked them back.

Friday: Hexerei & Stonewall, Electra – A “Metal Bash” costume party with two purveyors of great hard rock together on the same stage. Stonewall just completed work on a demo with Shamus Martin at the controls. Their MySpace site has one of the songs, “Blessings for Pearls,” up as a free download. It’s got all the punch and crunch I’ve come to expect from them, and then some.

Saturday: Phil Celia, Middle Earth Music Hall – Under assault by an organization with a reputation for frivolous lawsuits, many of the recent shows at this well-regarded Bradford, VT venue have turned into benefits for their legal defense fund. They’re being sued for “noise pollution” – how ridiculous is that? Last week, Dr. Burma donated their take to the cause; Saturday the leader of Acoustic Philosophy presents a band reunion of sorts.

Sunday: George Carlin, Lowell Auditorium – No comedian has the ability to illuminate life’s absurdities quite like Carlin. From proposing golf courses as a solution for the homeless (“plenty of good land, in nice neighborhoods”) to his take on tattoos (“nothing like waking up drunk with the Last Supper on your chest”), he always brings the laughs. That’s why he’s been filling halls for 40 years.

Tuesday: The Decemberists, Calvin Theatre – Newly signed to a major label, their latest, “The Crane Wife,” continues the storytelling chamber rock that made indie fans mad for “Picaresque” and “Her Majesty.” Hopefully, their new imprint won’t cost them in street cred. Decemberists live shows are, according to most reports, pretty faithful re-creations of their records.

Wednesday: La Bohème, Claremont Opera House – OK, if you’re looking for the truly majestic, this is for you. The opera used as a basis for “Rent” comes to town, with a 30-member chorus, 40-instrument orchestra and 7 soloists. Where will everybody else sit? Even though it’s all sung in Italian, this story of love and poverty should resonate. Finally, there’s an opera at the Opera House.

Today’s Free Download – “Have You Had Enough?”

rickielee.jpgTwo weeks before the election, AlgoRhythms waxes political with a link to a lovely little ditty recorded by Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Maxwell and Ken Mosher (with Andy Paley producing). “Have You Had Enough” bops along like the Squirrel Nut Zippers (whose own song “Hell” is an apt sountrack for the last six years, come to think of it), a call-and-response swing skat unlike anything heard in protest music for many moons.

This tune’s been out since August, but here’s some up to the minute news related to the song:

Hey y’all,

Me, Kenny and Rickie Lee are going on a three day bus tour November 2-4 with Ned Lamont, performing “Have You Had Enough.”

I’m pumped. Howie’s already told the BBC, but I wanted y’all to know.

Ned Lamont beat Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary, now he’s facing an uphill battle in the general election against … Joe Lieberman. The Nutbag from the Nutmeg state is, in my opinion, the biggest tool in the history of politics. George W. Bush couldn’t have won without him in 2000, and he’s embarassed himself consistently over the years since the Supreme Court coronation with his boot-licking, cowardly fawning.

If there is a God, please make Joe lose so he can assume his rightful place as a member of W’s lame duck cabinet – how’s Minister of Information sound?

Don’t forget to vote November 7, wherever you live. To paraphrase the RNC’s recruiting film for al Qaeda, the stakes are high.

Addendum 11/6: This is why we need MP3 liner notes.  Ken and Tom ARE from the Squirrel Nut Zippers.  Hence the uncanny resemblance – DUH.

Sansa Rhapsody Caveat – SD Expansion Worthless

sansarhap1.jpgOK, I love my new S250R, but today I learned something that made me love it less. Sandisk advertises the MicroSD expansion slot as a way to add memory to the device. The documentation describes a process for dragging and dropping tracks to the card.

First of all, the supposed device integration breaks down here. Why do I have to open File Manager to add tracks to the card, why not do it in the Rhapsody program?

Leave that aside for an even worse surprise. Only unprotected content can be added to the card. Sandisk tech support said I can purchase tracks from Rhapsody and move them to the card using Windows Media Player, but Rhapsody To-Go tracks can only be stored on the main flash drive.

I tried that – purchased a track, opened Media Player, and atttempted to import it. Surprise, surprise, Media Player doesn’t understand RAX (Rhapsody DNA-encoded) tracks, and it didn’t work. Maybe the Sandisk support guy meant that I can burn the track to CD, re-import it and THEN copy it over. If I wanted to do that, I’d buy another iPod.

Besides, I’ve always thought of “memory” as an increase in the overall size of the workspace or the storage area. Sandisk apparently treats it as a completely separate space, and places restrictions on what can be done there. Worse, nothing in their documentation reflects this. The fact that only unprotected MP3 and WMA files will work on the device should be written in bold letters anytime MicroSD is referenced in the manual.

This would be annoying but understandable if it weren’t for the purported tight integration between the hardware and content vendors. Sandisk and Rhapsody get equal billing on the E250R, but when it comes to memory expansion, the functionality is unchanged from earlier players.

I’ve complained to Sandisk about this and am waiting for an engineer to explain it to me. If and when that happens, I’ll post more here.

For now, though, I’d advise anyone looking to expand the E250R or any other E2xR player for anything other than your own ripped CDs or purchased content to save their money.