Local Rhythms – The End of the Music Business As We Know It

A report from the Forrester Group last week predicts that digital music sales will surpass CDs in 2012. That’s a good thing for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is environmental.  If companies no longer need to stamp out discs (which may not sell, and ultimately be relegated to a landfill), less energy is consumed and the planet is better off.   

With the advent of online offerings from Netflix and Blockbuster, the DVD business could be in for the same sort of makeover.  Early reviews of Apple’s high definition movie rental service  indicate that it’s both easy and pleasing to feed the widescreen without ever leaving the house. 

“It’s the end of the music industry as we know it,” says Forrester analyst James McQuivey.   

Or to use Bob Dylan’s words – “please get out of the new world if you can’t lend a hand, ’cause the times they are a-changing.” 

The future belongs to hardware makers and software developers, says McQuivey.  What he doesn’t say is that it may be theirs alone.   

A trade organization recently reported that for every legal download, there are 20 illegal ones 

“There are more people availing themselves of free intellectual property than at any other time in history,” says Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, a firm that measures peer-to-peer activity. 

The total number of songs sold on iTunes could fill maybe 10 percent of the iPods in the world, which means the other 90 percent is coming from somewhere else. 

Last week’s story on Big Head Todd and the Monsters is just one example of the many performers who’ve elected to simply give away their music.  Peter Gabriel recently announced We7, an online service that offers free songs with 10-second audio ads attached. 

Reading between the lines of the Forrester report, it’s clear that there is no longer a “record business” – just the “music business.”  

As such, says McQuivey, “the artist is the product – not just the source of it.” 

Rather than try to stop file trading, which BigChampagne says accounts for more than half of all Internet traffic, it makes more sense to find ways to monetize it so that artists benefit.   

Right now, that’s not happening.   

Songwriters, producers and session musicians – who contribute to recorded works but often don’t perform live – are left out of a system that uses free music to sell concert tickets; this inequity that needs to be addressed. 

Here are my picks for the coming days: 

Thursday: Cathie Ryan, Colby-Sawyer College – Keeping with the Celtic theme, Ryan ended a successful seven-year run with Cherish the Ladies to go solo.  She’s released four CDs, including her latest, “The Farthest Wave.”  She is comfortable with traditional fare, but she’s also written several of what the Boston Globe called “probing original ballads about a woman’s place in the modern world.”   

Friday: Billy Rosen Quartet, Sophie & Zeke’s – Leap year is a good excuse to party, right?  This jazz quartet is one of the finest improvisational combos in the area. This probably explains why so many of its members can be found working with other musicians, including Emily Lanier’s Jazz Ensemble, performing Thursday at the downtown Claremont restaurant.  Quick on their feet and melodic to a fault, this is Rosen Quartet is one of the best. 

Saturday: The Dreaming, Mark’s Place (Bedford) – This LA band has Goth looks and a Big Eighties sound.  They’ve released 3 independent EPs, only one of which was a physical disk, and a limited edition special pressing at that.  They’ve sold everything else online in high-quality MP3 format, a situation that only changed last month with their first full-length release – old paradigms die hard.

Sunday: Jason Cann, Goosefeathers (Mt. Sunapee) – The roads may be tricky, but if you ski, snowboard or race custom-designed cardboard boxes down snowy hills, these are good times.  Personally, I prefer hot toddies in the lodge at day’s end.  Cann is a perfect complement to that experience, with an easygoing mix of tried-and-true (James Taylor and Dave Matthews), edgy (Pearl Jam, Staind) and originals.  Which reminds me – where’s that CD, Jason?  

Tuesday – Matt McCabe, Elixir – The ace piano player spent a long stretch in Roomful of Blues, and also helped out on some of RoB founder Duke Robillard’s solo efforts.  The quintessential sideman plays unaccompanied these days, with an easy mix of jazz and standards. Elixir is really hitting its musical stride these days.  If you haven’t been, you should. 

Wednesday: Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary Tour, Colonial Theatre – This is the longest continually running jazz festival, but not the oldest (that distinction belongs to Newport).   This celebratory tour brings together young and old musicians, including “Next Generation” vocalist Nnenna Freelon and sax player James Moody, who began performing in Monterey in 1963.  In addition to Keene, the show also stops in Portsmouth and Amherst.

Local Rhythms – “A Fine Little Business”

brianclow.jpgI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the local music community takes care of its own. This time, a Claremont man who’s anchored his fair share of rhythm sections over the years has fallen ill, and his friends are stepping up to help him out.

This Sunday at the Claremont Moose Hall five bands – Stonewall, the Davis Brothers, Sun King, Saylyn and Flashback – will perform a benefit show for Brian Clow, who’s been a part of the area music scene for over 40 years. Brian has played with Carter-Rush, the Doc Maryn Band, Private Gold and Special Delivery, among others.

Joe Peters performs with the Davis Brothers, and led the effort to organize the show. He says that the day of music, which runs from 1 to 6 PM, reflects the connection Clow feels with the music community. “Brian asked for these bands,” Peters says.

The afternoon features an eclectic lineup.

Stonewall, the young power rock trio with a new album on the way, has a history of donating their talents to worthy causes. Saylyn is a fine local reggae combo, while Sun King has an energized jam band feel.

Flashback’s sweet spot is classic rock, while the Davis Brothers Band can play pretty much anything you toss at them – country, rock and blues of every stripe.

All have a connection with Brian Clow and a desire to do their part to raise his spirits, and help him in his time of need.

“You can be down on your luck,” Joe Peters says, “but when someone throws you a jam, you’re all set.”

Brian Clow learned of his illness last summer. Recently, he had to leave his job at Comcast, where he’d worked for many years. The benefit will hopefully help to ease the financial crunch these circumstances have put him in.

More than that, it will remind him that he can count on his friends.

“It’s not about the money,” says Peters, “it’s more about the camaraderie.”

It’s also a reminder of what a fantastic, close-knit musical community we’re blessed with. It’s no way to make a living, and everyone has at least one day job. But, says Joe Peters, “this is a fine little business we’re in.”

How can you support local music this weekend? I’m glad you asked:

Thursday: Jeff Warner, Goshen Town Hall – Warner is a singer/guitarist who excels in turn of the century folk music. His mission, he says, is to “teach American history and culture through traditional song … to make history as interesting as it really was.” To that end, he’s recorded several albums featuring songs like “River Driving” and “Come Love Come” as well as children’s records with timeless tunes like “Froggy Went A-Courtin’”.

Friday: John Gorka, Middle Earth Music Hall – One of the sadder stories to come out of the local music scene is the report that Chris Jones plans to close his Bradford, Vermont music room. If someone doesn’t buy the hallowed hobbit hole, the final Middle Earth show will be June 1. The next few weeks serve as a reminder of how vital the club is, with world-class songwriters Gorka and Chris Smither appearing on consecutive Fridays.

Saturday: The Squids, Zotto Gym – The good news out of Claremont is that the City Council has committed to its part in making the skateboard park a reality. But there’s still a lot of public fundraising to be done, and this dance party by good time blues rockers the Squids will hopefully raise the thermometer sitting by the park’s location just past the Puksta Bridge on Washington Street. Plus, it’s a good excuse to shake your tail feathers.

Sunday: Tiger Okoshi, Center at Eastman – This inventive trumpeter is a perennial performer at the Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon shows, and with good reason. The Japan-born Okoshi came to fame as a member of Gary Burton’s band, and has carved out quite a niche with his blend of traditional jazz and modern fusion. This combination is sure to keep his backing band, the JOSA Ensemble, on its toes

Tuesday: North Country Chordsmen Practice, Hanover Church of Christ – There are times to listen to music, but eventually everyone feels compelled to make a little of their own. This organization exists simply to celebrate singing – of the barbershop quartet variety. It’s old-time and old school, with handlebar mustaches, vertical striped shirts and all men.

Wednesday: Natalie MacMaster, Chandler Music Hall – Few musicians tour with the vigor of this fiddler. Tonight’s performance is the second of two in Randolph; she has five more New England shows before month’s end. If you miss any of those, she’ll be back in June. Of special note is a raffle to raise money for Jerry Holland, a musician who helped create the Cape Breton sound; he’s battling cancer. First prize is a one-hour private lesson with MacMaster.

Big Head Todd’s Radical Notion

big_head_todd_the_monsters.jpg“Big Head” Todd Mohr is the record business’s worst nightmare. He thinks all music should be free – especially his own.

“I think that’s what it’s worth,” Mohr said as he prepared for a show at South Burlington’s Higher Ground club last Sunday.

“The easier it is for people to access culture, the better it is for everyone.”

That such a stance likely spells doom for record companies doesn’t bother Mohr one bit.

“The world would be better off without them,” he says.

Big Head Todd and the Monsters know all about selling records. But this isn’t 1993, when their major label debut (“Sister Sweetly”) went platinum and spawned three hit singles. These days, a good release might sell 50,000 copies. Even blockbusters are performing poorly – the numbers for the biggest selling CD of 2007 would have barely put it in the top ten in 2000

While the record business grows apoplectic, alternating between suing fans and cooking up half-hearted attempts to control digital music, Big Head Todd and the Monsters have decided to embrace the future.

When the three high school friends started playing together in 1986, bands commonly toured to promote their records; in the post-Napster era, that logic has been turned upside down. These days, it is records that sell concert tickets.

Inklings of this trend appeared long before file sharing came into vogue. In the early 1990’s, Big Head Todd and the Monsters were part of H.O.R.D.E., a jam band caravan that actively encouraged fans to record shows.

Underground tape trading played a vital role in the careers of Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler, Rusted Root and other H.O.R.D.E. alumni. This served as an early example of how making music freely available could help bands build their fan base.

With the Internet age, the practice suddenly became a lot easier to manage. Still, a bootleg tape isn’t the same thing as a studio album. But Big Head Todd and the Monsters began thinking that it might serve the same purpose.

Shortly after the release of 2004’s “Crimes of Passion,” the band started giving away podcasts of selected songs on their web site.

Their latest record, “All the Love You Need,” isn’t even for sale (yet – later this spring, Best Buy will offer it with a bonus DVD). With nothing more than a valid e-mail address, fans can download the entire album for free, including the cover art, from bigheadtodd.com.

Even more radical was the decision to send out, via postal mail, over 500,000 free discs.

“We felt like a lot of our fans aren’t as Internet-savvy, or dialed into burning discs,” says Mohr. “The idea of a hard CD appealed to us a lot.”

Ultimately, the goal is exposure, something neither radio nor the old-line record business can provide. Though, Mohr says, “I love satellite radio; I think it’s a great medium. It’s growing, it’s young.”

“We need to get the music out to as many people as we can,” he explains. “It doesn’t do us much good to sell 50,000 units of a record if we can deliver a half a million plus in free ones. This will drive people to the show and have them fall in love with our music.”

Besides, he says, “most bands don’t make any money on records, and we never have – even when we had a platinum record.”

Big Head Todd’s free music strategy seems to be working. They’re on the second leg of a tour that began January 10 and runs until early April.

“We’ve been having a lot of sold-out shows and a lot of excitement for the band,” says Mohr. “It’s been great.”

With all the focus on distribution, one wonders how the music is on “All the Love You Need.” Well, it’s a bit edgier than past albums, but there’s enough melodic blues rock to remind fans of Big Head Todd heyday hits like “Bittersweet” and “Don’t Tell Her.”

“Silvery Moon” is a particular standout, name-checking Jack Kerouac, one of Mohr’s heroes, and cresting with a hopeful chorus of liberation – “free at last, you’re on your own.”

“Blue Sky,” recorded in 2005 for the crew of the space shuttle Discovery, continues in a similar vein. “You can change the world,” Mohr sings.

When questioned about all this insistent optimism, he answers, “I believe in the power of the individual and pushing boundaries – free expression. I think overall, life is great.”

“Are we gonna die? Yeah,” he says with a laugh. “Everything comes to an end sooner or later. But overall, I guess I would be an optimist.”

Mohr thinks of “All the Love You Need” as Big Head Todd’s punk rock record.

“It has an aggressive tempo,” he says. “Our producer kept telling us how it reminded him of Social Distortion. It has a more masculine feel; a lot of the songs are kind of epic ballads in a punk rock format.”

The DIY spirit of punk has long been a part of the band’s approach, says Mohr.

“We’ve always been outside of the music business mainstream.”

Local Rhythms – Grammy 2008: Turn Me On, Dead Man

bengen.jpgThe big news from this year’s Grammy Awards? Obama defeats Clinton.

No, the presidential primaries still rage on. However, Barack Obama beat Bill Clinton for Best Spoken Word Performance.

But talk is cheap. What about the music? Does anyone care, least of all the folks handing out the golden gramophones?

The winner for short form video, Johnny Cash, best exemplifies this year’s Grammy class. The Man In Black couldn’t claim his prize, because he’s been dead since 2003.

Add to that the macabre Alicia Keys/Frank Sinatra duet that opened the show, and there’s proof that no industry ever pined for its’ golden days like the music business.

Even this year’s award-winning product is dated. Carrie Underwood’s Best Country Song (“Before He Cheats”) first appeared on an album in 2005. Herbie Hancock won Album of the Year for remaking a bunch of 40-year old Joni Mitchell tunes.

I think the Beatles have won something every year since 1964, but why did Ringo get to accept the award for the Cirque du Soleil “Love” soundtrack? George Martin, or more to the point, Martin’s son Giles, did all the work.

Sunday’s telecast was a turgid history lesson populated with B-list eminence. Paul, the other Beatle (who actually was nominated this year for “Memory Almost Full”), didn’t show up. There was no Led Zeppelin reunion to match last year’s Police tour launch, just John Paul Jones serving as the Foo Fighters’ “guest conductor.”

For most of the show, you’d be hard pressed to find evidence of any new music.

Even last summer’s biggest hit, Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” got folded into a “Purple Rain” revival.

Oh, there were a few winners from 2007 – Bruce Springsteen’s “Magic,” for example.

It seems that all Bruce needs to do is show up; he even won the Best Instrumental Grammy for covering a song from an old spaghetti western, and he’s not even the E Street Band’s lead guitarist.

The White Stripes picked up another Best Alterative Album award, begging the question – how can a band still be “alternative” after three Grammies?

Ya think it’s time we mainstreamed them?

Amy Winehouse was a true surprise; she deserved every trophy. The British Britney’s blistering performance, broadcast live via satellite, was rife with human drama. Who knew if she’d even make it to the stage?

But she did and she nailed it, collapsing into her mum’s arms as “Rehab” took the prize for Record of the Year. It was a good end to an otherwise tired night.

So what’s hot this week on this side of the pond?

Wednesday: Dan Weintraub, Elixir – Imagine the “School of Rock” character played by Jack Black as an alt-folkie, and you’d have a good idea of Weintraub’s sound. His suburban talking blues style reminds me of John Prine; but Prine’s riding a tractor, while Dan’s pushing a lawnmower. He does funny, irreverent songs like “Employee of the Month,” a PG-13 fantasy set, I think, in a CVS drug store.

Thursday: Punch Brothers, Lebanon Opera House – Back in 2003, Nickel Creek performed one of the five best shows I’ve ever seen. Two years later, Loggins & Messina reunited for a set that made my top ten. I mention them in the same breath because mandolin player Chris Thile lit up the first show, and fiddler Gabe Witcher stole the second one. Now, they’re in the same band, along with a few other amazing players. You’ve never heard bluegrass played this way before.

Friday: Roadhouse, Imperial Lounge – Music’s become pretty regular at this bar adjoining the newest Chinese buffet in Claremont. Yer Mother’s Onion last week, Iron Box was supposed to play February 1, but icy roads cancelled their show. Tonight, it’s straight up rock with a band that’s shaken the walls at more than a few local clubs. Some, like McGee’s and Coyote Creek, are long gone. But the band still rocks on.

Saturday: UV Dance 10th Anniversary, Tracy Hall (Norwich) – For Valentine’s Day, give your sweetie a ticket to this gala. It includes lessons from the 2007 World Swing Dance champions, as well as a session with John and Sandra, the couple who started Upper Valley Dance 10 years ago. Then, there’s live music (with dancing, naturally) from Bob Merrill’s Fabulous Five, followed by a performance by the championship couple, Ben & Gen. Details on uvdance.net.

Tuesday: Lyle Lovett/John Hiatt, Portsmouth Music Hall – Two icons of the Americana song form join together for a night of acoustic tune swapping. Both share a laconic, ironic style, though Lovett’s a bit more smooth and suave, while Hiatt can be quite the joker. At their best, though, both can strip life, love and sorrow down to the barest of bones. Will it be a night of collaboration? No one’s said yet.

Local Rhythms – Going Gourmet in Claremont?

greenacres.jpgThere’s a certain conversation I often have with people who aren’t from my hometown. It invariably ends this way:

“In Claremont? I had no idea.”

There’s fine dining, eclectic shops, and a first class performing space? Uh-huh. From the look on their faces, you’d think I lived in Brigadoon – or Hooterville.

The only thing missing was a place catering to my inner gourmet. That usually required a trip to Hanover.

Upon discovering Green Acres, I was the one saying, “in Claremont?” Anyone who’s ever sat hypnotized by the Food Network is going to love this place.

The store’s name playfully harkens back to the classic television show – their (under-construction) web site is “givemeparkavenue.com”.

It’s the kind of place an urban sophisticate like Eva Gabor might have opened herself, if she’d ever stopped complaining to Eddie Albert about being stuck in the sticks.

Situated next to Violet’s Books in Opera House Square, Green Acres is an oasis of handpicked delicacies – locally made cheeses, freshly baked bread, craft beer (with corks!), and wines Robert Parker can love.

They also carry chic cookware, and dark, decadent Lake Champlain Chocolates.

Proprietor Tristan Henderson is a very erudite 21-year old; he also makes a first-rate latte, which customers can enjoy on the large, comfortable leather couch in the front of the store.

Soon – and this is the best part for me – there will be music. Beginning February 16, Green Acres will host its first “Cheese Jam.”

A group of musicians, led by South Strafford fiddler Randy Leavitt, will swap tunes and have a good time.

Tristan envisions the gathering as a song circle, not a performance. It’s a bit like Lebanon’s Salt Hill Pub on Tuesday nights, except with Cajun, folk, and traditional French-Canadian music instead of Irish tunes.

It includes open invitation to anyone who fancies himself a player to come in and share.

With the pending arrival of Sophie & Zeke’s into the newly renovated Brown Block, Opera House Square is shaping into the downtown hub everyone in Claremont always wanted it to be.

Maybe the folks who run the Farmer’s Market will move to the bullpen this year. That would be exciting.

To those who haven’t experienced Claremont’s renaissance first-hand, we welcome you.

What other lively happenings await?

Thursday: Recycled Percussion, Colby-Sawyer College – My pick of the week. Imagine the “beat on anything that looks drum-able” sound of Stomp! Then add in heavy metal guitar shredding, a sampling, scratch mixing DJ, and plenty of urban sass. That about sums up this inventive foursome. Quite honestly, I’m just trying to meet my deadline. Give me a few more hours, and I’ll find more superlatives.

Friday: Amity Front, Salt Hill Two – How come bands who charge 10 bucks everywhere else perform free at Salt Hill? Must be the charming owners. Amity Front play roots music that recalls “American Beauty” Grateful Dead. Good singing, good playing – if you ask me what my favorite style of music is, it’s this: strip away the amps and flash, and prove what you can do with your fingers and your voice. These guys are right there in the sweet spot.

Saturday: Molly Cherington, Blow-Me-Down Grange – This singer-songwriter blends the raw neo-folk energy of Ani DiFranco with a Joss Stone soulfulness. A fine example of this miraculous balance of edge and flow is “Become,” a track from Molly’s just-released “Our Minds Were Made.” The CD is included with each ticket – my kind of guerilla marketing. Since Cherington, a Plainfield native, now hails from Denver, she doesn’t play many local shows. Don’t miss this chance.

Sunday: Susan Werner, Tupelo Music Hall – Some intimate venues are worth the long drive. There’s Iron Horse in Northampton, Higher Ground in South Burlington, and this gem in Londonderry, which just underwent a sound upgrade. The acoustics are amazing, and the talent is first rate. Werner just released an album, “The Gospel Truth,” which tries to reclaim some of the moral high ground ceded to the religious right in the last few years. What is faith? She has some interesting answers.

Tuesday: Billy Rosen & Norm Wolfe, Tip Top Café – White River Junction is quite the hot spot these days, and jazz is a big reason why. Rosen and Wolfe are busy guys, playing in Woodstock, Quechee and Claremont when they’re not making regular stops at Canoe Club. Rosen’s guitar and a fine dish like pork ginger meat loaf are the perfect combination, and Tip Top is a nice cozy place to enjoy both.

Wednesday: Ed Eastridge, Canoe Club – Tasty licks from the one of the area’s finest jazz guitarists, and he’s a smart singer too. One wag described his music as “like therapy” – and I won’t disagree. There is something quite soothing about his restrained, delicate touch in the midst of life’s vicissitudes.

Gully Boys – If It Ain’t Fun, It Ain’t Worth Doing

gullys.jpgThe Gully Boys’ secret of success, says founder and bandleader Bill Temple, is simple. Don’t worry about success.

“One of the reasons we’re still playing is we can’t take it that seriously,” he said before the band started their “14th Reunion Show” at the Middle Earth Music Hall Saturday night. “

Our biggest expectation is we’re going to have a good time and enjoy playing with each other.”

By those standards, it was “mission accomplished,” as five original members were joined by several others who’ve been Gully Boys through the years, romping through a spirited night of music. They played their favorite jam band songs, and also kicked around a few originals

A vintage Hammond organ helped spice up a track from “Diluvian Dreams,” their independently-released CD, which has sold a respectable 1,300 copies locally. “Big Rocks” is vintage Gully Boys, a kiss-off to the workaday world that the band escapes from every time they play.

The show also had a “Kumbaya” moment, when Temple introduced another original tune with the observation that “evolution is stronger than anything, but something that can help it along is love.” Then he coaxed the crowd to wave their arms high, “and suck some of that cosmic love from the sky.”

The only thing missing were cigarette lighters. The modern-day equivalent – glowing cell phone screens – might have been too anachronistic for this throng.

Other highlights included a slowed-down, sax-infused “Spanish Moon” that improved on the Little Feat original, and an epic-length version of “Scarlet Begonias” which morphed seamlessly into “Fire on the Mountain.” The floor in front of the stage stayed crowded with dancers all night. There were even a few toddlers, including Temple’s 2-year old son Gideon.

The party lasted till just a little before 1 in the morning, when rhythm guitarist (and original Gully Boy) John Sigarfoos unplugged. “That’s it, I’m done,” he reportedly said.

“He has a morning job,” explained Temple with a laugh.

That’s the essence of this working class band. They play when they can, because they want to. “We’re just a glorified garage band playing three-chord songs,” says Temple. “We haven’t had a rehearsal in two years.”

“I like to believe the music plays the band,” he says.

Keeping it simple keeps it going. “People have unrealistic expectations – that’s been the demise of a lot of good bands,” says Temple. “It’s such a buzz to be playing music for people; it makes you want to be a rock star. It’s like a drug – you get that hit and you want to play bigger gigs, you want to travel, you want all of it, the partying … realism doesn’t often enter into it.”

Their antidote to all that was apparent Saturday night, as the band squeezed every bit of pleasure out of tunes like “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Sugaree.” They’d start each set with a list of seven or eight songs, and end up playing five. With so many soloists on stage, that kept things both fair and fun.

The band employs no special effects, no posing or preening. They don’t even have a web site. “There’s only dial-up in South Royalton anyway,” Temple says.

The band coalesced around a Quechee show to memorialize Jerry Garcia, after the Grateful Dead guitarist died in 1995. They had so much fun that they moved the party to Seven Barrels Brewery. They still play the last Saturday of every month at the West Lebanon bar. “That’s what’s kept the band together – that gig,” says Temple.

In addition to Temple, two keyboard players, four bassists, six guitarists and a Spinal Tap-worthy eight drummers have done time with the band. There’s also been a harmonica player (original member Peter Meijer- his brother Rich joined on guitar four years ago) and a lone saxophonist.

By Temple’s count, 24 to 25 players have called themselves Gully Boys since the band’s loose beginnings in 1994.

Quite a few made the trip back for last weekend’s show, though the drummers are apparently the hardest to track down – and typically the quickest to leave.

“They have to haul the most stuff,” explains Temple matter-of-factly. “All the other factors – day jobs, families – and add to that you have to haul your drums, and take an extra hour to set up.”

So they burn out a little faster – and that’s fine, says Temple.

“If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doing.”