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.

Rock Legend Gives iTunes Music Store Black Eye

whalkooper.jpgAl Kooper isn’t merely a key figure in the history of rock, he’s also an astutely vociferous critic of the online music business. Recently, he weighed in at The Lefsetz Letter on the iTunes Music Store’s sorry state of affairs. Apple duly responded to Kooper’s complaints about format locking, nonexistent customer service and one of my pet peeves, their seeming inability to post a list of new music releases on Tuesday.

Apple’s response proved that it’s possible to put your foot in your mouth and shoot it at the same time:

New release day is Tuesday at iTunes. We turn the store at midnight eastern every Monday night. All the new releases delivered by the labels are up at that time except for the very few where there are problems with the delivery, which is usually on the label end, sometimes on ours, but we try to correct those delivery errors as soon as possible. By 2 or 3am eastern all the new releases and new catalog titles are available for purchase.

They missed Kooper’s point, which wasn’t that new releases weren’t available for purchase, but that there was no top-level information on what they were:

They have a page that’s accessible from the homepage if you click on “See All.” This takes you to a page that has 5 vertical rows listing the new releases of the last five weeks including the current one. At first, when they failed to get the new releases uploaded on Tuesday, they would push ahead the releases they had listed so that September 22nd releases from last week, were now labeled September 29th, so the average Joe would think they were on time. They wouldn’t make any announcement that the new releases were going to be uploaded two days later and you couldn’t write in and tell them they sucked for doing this.

Seems clear enough. What’s missing form Al’s post is information on iTunes 7. Now, there’s not even a list, no past lists, just a three screen view of album cover clip art, 6 discs per screen. Today’s included at least two reissues. For contrast, Rhapsody features 1136 total releases for September 19. On iTunes, it’s possible to drill down by genre. But the previous week’s lists are now gone from view, meaning that Apple is actually moving backwards. (Note: I checked this again on Friday, September 22, and the lists had returned.  Probably an ITMS bug, if anyone knows please comment)

Most of Apple’s reply to Kooper amounted to insulting him for alleged cluelessness and chiding him like a sputtering child. Al had wondered why Apple couldn’t add any value to the songs on ITMS beyond DRM and cover art. Says the company:

I also don’t believe that Al can walk into a store and get a CD booklet if he doesn’t buy the entire album. Last I checked I cannot walk into a Best Buy, purchase two tracks off an album to see if I will like the rest of it and get the CD booklet to go with those two tracks. That would be great though, wouldn’t it?

Ah, but you CAN purchase two tracks off an album at iTunes, it’s pretty much the whole point of the store, and ITMS COULD, if they chose, provide rich content. Rhapsody does,and Microsoft’s Zune, for all it’s problems, holds out the promise of wireless up-to-the-minute content (I’m hoping that comes to pass). All Apple can offer is a snarky non-defense of a 20th century paradigm. This after curtly dismissing him at the outset:

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, i’ll assume he doesn’t know any better as opposed to being a grumpy old man.

Kooper fired back at Apple’s attempt to characterize him:

If you bothered to check my account before you chastised me for my “grumpiness” you would have seen that I have downloaded approximately three thousand, three hundred, and thirty six tunes from iTunes (3,336) since its inception a few years ago. I thought it was a fair answer to Napster, and I remember buying 45 RPM singles in the 1950’s for $.99 each. I LOVED iTunes when it first started.

Oops. Now, what started as a good natured pissing contest between Lefsetz and Kooper is evolving into a bit of a public relations snafu for Apple. Kooper continues:

Gotta go. The Wall Street Journal wants to interview ME about what I think about all this Apple stuff – Me? A grumpy old man who should know better ? Funniest thing – You haven’t heard the last of me but hopefully I have heard the last of you.

Can’t wait for that Wall Street Journal story.