Zune Faces Competition In Sansa Connect

sansaconnect.jpgWith the announcement of the Sansa Connect at the recent CES, Microsoft faces serious competition to the the much-hyped Zune. Two key differences in the Wi-Fi player are the focus on Internet radio, and a less DRM-crippled version of Microsoft’s much-hyped song sharing feature.

Microsoft doomed the so-called “community” aspect of the Zune at the outset, requiring that wirelessly traded songs first be purchased from the complicated, consumer-hostile Zune Marketplace, and limiting beamed songs to three plays before they were crippled. No surprise, then, that the Redmond giant announced yesterday that their iPod killer died last quarter. It lost, as my Canadian friends say, a WHACK of money:

The company is betting heavily on the consumer electronics business for future growth, and late last year it introduced a digital media player, Zune, which competes with Apple’s iPod. But Microsoft’s consumer entertainment and devices unit has contributes no profits yet, losing $289 million in the quarter.

Sansa’s device runs on Zing’s technology; their offering got a shot in the arm with the recently announced alliance with FON Networks which will provide free Wi-Fi access in several cities, which should make the Internet radio component much more valuable:

FON’s WiFi network is the largest in the world touting over 215,000 distinct WiFi hotspots, with over 17,000 in the U.S. alone. Hotspot providers are members (called Foneros) who share their unused bandwidth on a FON router in exchange for free WiFi access when roaming through any other FON access point. Through this partnership, consumers using ZING platform, software and services on their mobile players will have the opportunity to become free Foneros and have free unlimited WiFi access directly from their music players.

The only downside to the Sansa Connect is that there’s no explicit Rhapsody component. But the product spec sheet seems to say that the device will connect to any Plays-For-Sure service on the go. I would assume that includes Rhapsody. If this is so, then I’m even more excited, based on the Engadget CES demo showing some insanley cool features, like direct-to-device downloads, community friend finders and such.

This device itself isn’t news, and not just because this post comes two weeks after CES. Anyone with a Sirius Stiletto will recognize the design; SanDisk didn’t build it from the ground up, they simply licensed and re-branded Zing’s device.

Two complaints about this: The Zing device has 8 GB of onboard memory, the Sansa Connect only has four. SanDisk is touting the SD expansion slot, but as readers of this blog know, at the present time this additional storage will only work with non-DRM’d content, on the Rhapsody player anyway.  That kind of defeats the whole purpose of the extra space,  and makes we wonder why the Connect doesn’t simply ship with the full 8 GB.

It probably has to do with the fact that SanDisk’s main business is storage cards.  A company engineer told me a couple weeks ago that SanDisk is working on ways to make this extra capacity integrate with the device. I hope it happens before the Connect becomes available for retail customers in March.

Local Rhythms – Finding the Sweet Spot

dubac.jpgI don’t envy tavern owners faced with the task of booking talent to their establishments. How do they know what their clientele want? From what I’ve gleaned, it’s a hit and miss affair where “learn from your mistakes” tends to be the operative phrase.

Sophie & Zeke’s, the downtown Claremont hot spot du jour, tried everything from shoe-gazing singer-songwriters to unplugged heavy metal when they began offering music last year. For some reason, jazz, with an emphasis on crooner styles popularized by Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme, seems to get people moving towards, and not away, from the stage. There’s also a serious bluegrass contingent that turns out every third Friday to hear the Spiral Farm Band play.

On Washington Street, the opposite’s true at Bistro Nouveau, where “solo on a stool” acoustic musicians hold sway, and not much more than a microphone requires electricity. Performers like pianist John Lovejoy and singer/guitarist Jason Cann regularly entertain appreciative diners.

It’s even harder when you’re trying to fill a 700-seat room like the Claremont Opera House, which is why it was so gratifying to see a sellout last Saturday night for Bob Marley’s stand-up act. This is the third or fourth time that comedy has drawn a big crowd there. That’s encouraging news, because the next Opera House show, on Thursday, February 8 also features a very talented comedian.

Robert Dubac transformed his club act into a one man show, “The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron?” I’m a long-time Dubac fan, going back to the days when he used to warm up crowds at Eagles and Jimmy Buffett concerts. When I learned he was coming to Claremont, I immediately blocked out the date.

Dubac’s that rare combination of funny and smart; during his show there are as many “ah-hah” moments as “ha-ha” moments. “The Male Intellect” is a 90-minute, multi-character look at the differences between the sexes, offering hilarious insights like this:

“What do women want? They want men to feel more and think less. Feeling more will take some practice, but we can think less right away.”

Maybe it’s cabin fever – laughter warms the body as well as the soul – but comedy seems to be the sweet spot for the COH. Hopefully, that means more funny folks like Bob Marley and Robert Dubac are on the way.

What’s coming up this weekend?

Thursday: Billy Rosen Jazz Quartet, Sophie & Zeke’s There’s been a lot of different music here, but for some odd reason, this is the first time a saxophone has ever made an appearance. Rosen’s a fine guitarist, and a veteran of the Upper Valley supper club circuit. Tonight, he’s joined by Norm Yanofsky on keyboards, Jim McNutt on drums and Nick Scalera on sax. Tomorrow, another new duo – Have Blues Will Travel – stops by S&Z’s.

Friday: Stonewall, The Underground – Chester native Brendon Thomas started this club in a space below the music store where he worked. It’s become a magnet for area musicians, many of whom learned from Thomas (who performs live and on record as foreverinmotion). Tonight, rising stars Stonewall headline a three-band show which includes political metal from d’Brotherhood, who are kind of an anti-Hanson, and Orange Juice.

Saturday: Spare Change, Salt Hill – One of my favorite bluegrass bands, led by multi-instrumentalist Joe Stallsmith of Joe’s Waterworks fame. When anyone asks me to name the one kind of music I can’t live without, it’s inevitably a combination of acoustic guitar, mandolin and fiddle, because you can’t fake any of those instruments. If you’re awaiting word on Newport’s Salt Hill Two in the old Eagle Tavern space, wait no more. Opening day is February 5.

Sunday: Roger Marin, PK’s Tavern – I mentioned in my blog a couple of weeks back that Ezra Veitch, an angel of the Bellows Falls scene, was still in town. Lately, he’s mixing a Mr. Burns album while he recovers from hand surgery. He also sent word that he’d put together a quick show this weekend with Marin, the longtime Fred Eaglesmith guitarist who went solo about 18 months ago, and Adam Carroll, a Texan with the gift for weaving a story into a song. By the by, Boccelli’s February calendar is filling up – check out flyingunderradar.com for more info.

Wednesday: Jason LeVasseur, New England College – This is the future of music. Not this guy, though he’s very talented, but the way he brings his music to the people. MySpace, mailing lists, independently produced records made on a shoestring with musicians who are equal parts hired guns and fellow travelers, and a ton of solo touring. The aforementioned foreverinmotion is doing it, as is LeVasseur, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter with a touch of sandpaper in his voice, and a nice balance of pop and plaintive.

Working Class Gully Boys Celebrate 13 Years

groundhog.jpgThe Gully Boys, a ragtag group of friends who found common ground in the music of the Grateful Dead, Phish, Little Feat and other jam bands, celebrate 13 years together next Friday. “Together,” however, doesn’t quite describe their many permutations.

Says leader and vocalist Bill Temple, “there’s been at least 20 guys that have come and gone, and come back and left, and come back again” to the Gully Boys, who typically hit the stage as a five-man combo. The “Groundhog Day Reunion Jam” February 2 at Royalton Academy came about after a friend of the band assembled eight years of live recordings together. The fan, JoJo Levasseur (who also does the band’s artwork), then pressed the compilation into a CD and gave it to band members last Christmas.

Listening to it, says Temple, “really got me thinking. For each song they put who was in the band at that point. This idea began percolating in my head that we should get everybody back together and just have this jam.”

The original Gully Boys lineup formed in the mid-90’s at Bentley’s Restaurant in Woodstock. “A bunch of guys were living on the Gully Road, which runs along the back of Suicide Six,” says Temple. To blow off steam from their various day jobs, “we just started jamming down there, they weren’t paying us much. We knew a few songs and we’d make it up as we went along.”

When Jerry Garcia died in August 1995, Temple organized a memorial at Quechee Gorge, which drew a surprising crowd of over 300 people. Afterwards, they headed over to Seven Barrels Brewery in West Lebanon, where Temple tended bar, and plugged in. “The manager said we could just bring the whole thing down there … that was really the first official gig as the Gully Boys.”

The Gully Boys motto is “if you can’t make it up while you’re playing, you shouldn’t be playing,” and an improvisational spirit still guides the band. “We’ve always been about the jam,” says Temple. “Just throw a basic musical structure out there and get your rocks off, take it as far as you can.”

“Sometimes, it’s a train wreck, but not THAT often,” he says. “But other times you get to that point that makes Deadheads Deadheads – where that bubble pops in your head, and you go, ‘wow, that’s so awesome!’”

They’ve released only one studio album. In 2005, Temple and drummer Tod Moses took charge and, with eight other musicians, made “Diluvian Dreams” in a home studio. They’d already tried to make a record “at least four times, and hadn’t finished because someone would quit or get fed up,” says Temple. When that happened, “they’d either say we couldn’t use their tracks, or because they weren’t in the band anymore, we didn’t think it was right to use them.”

“Diluvian Dreams” features nine original songs, all emblematic of the footloose Gully Boys sound, including the bluesy “Big Rocks,” the Dead-flavored “Cosmic Love” (a sped-up “Scarlet Begonias”) and a soulful ballad, “Beautiful.” A highlight is the humorous “Flatlander Song,” a playful dig at tourists – “you’d think they’d never seen two or three trees in the same place,” sings Temple.

Gully Boys bassist and archivist Dave Clark has also posted numerous live shows on his website, www.yellowhousemedia.com, which is an unofficial but pretty reliable band home page.

There should be between 15 or 20 people at next Friday’s show, says Temple, who hopes that kismet and organized chaos will guide them. The plan is to perform four sets. “I’m just gonna say at the start of the night, OK, who wants to play what tune,” he says. “The drummers will be the biggest challenge. There are so many, but we’ll have two drum kits. You know, the classic Dead/Allman Brothers setup.”

With any luck, the Gully Boys will reunite again in a year, but in the meantime the band’s shifting lineup will convene once a month at Seven Barrels, as well as places like Middle Earth and McGee’s. They’ll play, says Temple, “anywhere that will have us,” but they try to schedule only one gig a week. They don’t want to burn out on making music; it keeps them sane after toiling at a regular job.

“It’s something to look forward to,” he says. “When you’re pounding nails or making steaks, if you know on the weekend that you’re gonna be a rock star for a few hours, it gets you through the week.”

Upcoming Gully Boys shows:

Saturday, January 27 – Seven Barrels Brewery, West Lebanon
Friday, February 2 – Royalton Academy Building, Royalton

Middle Earth Music Hall Soundboard Recordings (2/06)

Ain’t Doing Nothing Wrong
Hey Pocky Way
White Skinned Reggae Girl

Local Radio Heads Back to the Future

rock939.jpgThree years after selling a group of stations, including Claremont’s WHDQ, to Nassau Broadcasting, Jeff Shapiro has returned to local radio. Last Friday, media giant Clear Channel Communications announced the sale of all six of their area stations to Shapiro’s Great Eastern Radio LLC.

Shapiro characterized the purchase as “an aggressive, wise and well thought-out” move into the local market.

Great Eastern acquired the AM/FM talk radio tandem of WTSL and WTSM, along with FM stations featuring country (WXXK), adult contemporary (WGXL) and rock (WMXR & WVRR) formats. The sale, which awaits FCC approval, is expected to close in the spring.

Their deal with Clear Channel is part of a larger sell-off of 448 stations nationwide, carried out under a buyout by Bain Capital, a private equity firm.

Shapiro said in a phone interview Tuesday that he doesn’t expect disruptions at any of the stations. “They’re not in need of major fixes or changes,” Shapiro said, adding that he hopes “to put our imprint on the stations – a little more promotion, aggressiveness and excitement.”

Shapiro praised WTSL as “the heritage talk station in the area,” but also indicated that it may feel more immediate changes. It currently features a lineup of national hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. “If anything, we’d like to add a dose of local talk,” says Shapiro. “That makes a difference in radio, having that locality and local callers.”

As an undergraduate in the early 1980s, Shapiro was General Manager of Dartmouth College’s AM and FM stations. Yesterday, a local radio programmer welcomed him back to the Upper Valley.

“I think it’s a great move, and I wish Jeff much success with those properties,” said the industry veteran, who asked that his name not be used. “Anytime a local owner buys radio properties and takes away control from a giant media conglomerate – only good comes from that.”

“If it means more competition, only good can come from that because that means we all have to get better and serve the listeners better,” he said.

Shapiro said he looks forward to competing with his former stations. “It’ll be fun,” he said.

When it comes to programming that spotlights area bands, Shapiro says he’ll try to strike a balance. “I think radio should be involved with the local music scene and use its’ airwaves to promote and develop it,” says Shapiro, but cautions that, “on the other hand, stations are sensitized to playing music that people like. You can’t be all over the road – people want some consistency. “

Shapiro’s partner Courtney Galluzzo was, says Shapiro, a “local yokel” during his days as WNNE-TV general sales manager, known for “sticking the Jiffy Mart logo on the satellite truck.” Galluzzo and Shapiro have worked together for the past 10 years, and share a spirit of using the media to spur community activism.

“When you can drive people to action to do good things, nothing does a better job,” says Shapiro. “I mean this – by owning five FMs in one market, you cannot get away from it. Local radio proves itself over and over again.”

“As long as we’re strong locally, we’ll always do extremely well,” he says. “That’s why these stations had such incredible appeal to me. They’ve raised a huge amount of money for CHAD and David’s House. That tells you that people are listening to and liking their products.”

“This sounds very philosophical,” says Shapiro. “But we have an opportunity to do right and do well at the same time.”

Spiral Frog Woes Reflect Industry Shift

spiralfrog.jpgVia FMQB comes word that ad-supported music startup Spiral Frog has in the past month lost its CEO, three board members, and six of senior executives. All before posting a single song for download:

SpiralFrog was announced last year with an ad-supported model that would allow music to be downloaded for free by users. However, among the major labels, only Universal Music has signed on with the company thus far. SpiralFrog was expected to launch before the end of 2006, but no launch date has been officially announced yet.I won

Discussions at this year’s MEDEM conference in Cannes seem to indicate that for whatever value the ad-supported service may have, its complex DRM is out of sync with a growing mood in the industry, as reported by the International Herald Tribune:

Now that even digital music revenue growth is faltering amid rampant file-sharing by consumers, the major record labels are closer than ever to releasing music on the Internet with no copying restrictions — a step they once vowed never to take.

Executives of several technology companies meeting here at Midem, the annual global trade fair for the music industry, said this weekend that a move toward the sale of unrestricted digital files in the MP3 format from at least one of the four major record companies could come within months.

Indie labels have been doing this for some time on sites like eMusic. The straw that broke the camel’s back could be Microsoft’s decision to abandon its Plays for Sure partners with the Zune. It also could throw a spanner into iTunes’ works.

Beatles on iTunes a Super Bowl Surprise?

beatles.jpgRumors are flying that Apple (the computer company) and Apple (the music publishing company) have reached agreement for the long-awaited digital release of the Beatles catalog. The Fab Four are the official Holy Grail of those who think the CD is long past dead.

The buzz began with a January 17 story in the Toronto Sun speculating that a newly remastered UK catalog would be released later this year:

The second strong possibility is that the entire state-of-the art, 24-bit remastered UK catalogue will hit stores the first week of June, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of what many call the Fabs’ finest hour — the release of their ground-breaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

What was the first possibility, you ask? During the iPhone pseudo-launch earlier this month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs played a bit of “Lovely Rita” on the device, tantalizing fanboys who’d already wet their seats at the sight of the underwhelming phone/music player/internet toy.

Then there’s the aforementioned Sun story, which also reported that Apple plans a “special announcement” during the Super Bowl February 4. That, said the Sun, is likely to be the moment when the world learns that they’ll be able to buy “A Day in the Life” and everything else Beatles from the iTunes Music Store come February 14.

Given the Cupertino, California company’s proclivity for big deal Big Game ads, the scenario makes some sense.

Frankly, I’ve got a bit of Apple fatigue lately, and I ripped my Beatles collection to MP3 a long time ago. I’d love to see 24-bit remasters of the UK catalog, and I’d especially like a DVD of “Let It Be” with tons of extras, something that was promised two years ago, but never delivered.

Given that the Sun was the same paper that floated those rumors, I’m not holding my breath.

Jeff Shapiro Back In Upper Valley Radio

clearchannel.jpgClear Channel has left the building, and in the words of Bob Dylan, “things should start to get interesting right about now.”

Three years after selling a group of stations led by classic rocker Q-106 (WHDQ) in Claremont, New Hampshire, Jeff Shapiro has returned to Twin State Valley radio with the purchase of the Clear Channel cluster featuring Rock 93.9/101.7 (WVRR) – the station that just happens to be Q-106’s main competitor. The sale is part of a large Clear Channel sell-off involving several markets:

Shapiro’s Great Eastern Radio LLC is buying Clear Channel’s signals, including news-talk WTSL (1400 Hanover NH) and WTSM (93.5 Springfield VT), AC WGXL (92.3 Lebanon NH), rock WMXR (93.9 Woodstock VT)/WVRR (101.7 Newport NH) and country WXXK (100.5 Lebanon NH), for an as-yet-undisclosed price.

“We are thrilled to be returning to the broadcasting community in the Upper Valley,” says Shapiro, who owned WHDQ in Claremont for almost 20 years before selling to Nassau in 2004.

No word yet on what, if anything, will happen to any of the station’s formats, though WVRR switched from Active Rock to a Classic/New hybrid about a year ago. Don’t be surprised if Greg & the Morning Buzz disappears from the local morning slot – their home station, WHEB, is still in the Clear Channel fold.

Ditto for Quinn & Cantara, the evening team that’s based in Providence, Rhode Island.  For the moment, however, it’s business as usual at all the stations.

I suppose Alanis Morrisette’s “Isn’t It Ironic?” would be an appropriate song to play at this juncture – if it were on either Q-106 or Rock 93.9/101.7’s playlists.