Local Rhythms – How not to run a business

Screen shot 2009-11-05 at 10.30.28 AMThis is a story about two industries, one fat and complacent, the other hungry and scrappy.

The first is record labels and the second is music.  Believe me, they’re not the same business.

Remember the fanfare last September, when the remastered Beatles catalog finally came out? Turns out EMI didn’t make enough of the most coveted item to satisfy demand.

As a result, my copy of the Beatles Stereo Box Set took nearly two months to arrive.

Big labels always blame fans for declining revenue, then sue customers and lobby Congress to do their bidding.  Yet when the most popular band in history made its biggest announcement in years, fans were made to wait in line to spend $300.  How does such a thing happen?

You’d think someone might have seen this coming.

Leave aside the fact that 10 years into the MP3 revolution, Beatles songs still aren’t sold digitally (300 USB apples don’t count as far as I’m concerned), or that the reissues contain no new material.   The suits at EMI need to spend less cash on lawyers and more on market research.

9-9-9 was the Beatles big release date.  It’s also the number that you dial in England when there’s an emergency.

I think it’s time to pick up the phone.

Contrast the behavior of annuity holders like EMI with bands that actually have to work for a living.

I’m not just talking about the musicians I write about, the ones with day jobs. Phish posts audiophile-quality soundboard mixes of every show for download. On Halloween, they played the Stones’ Exile on Main Street in its entirety.  I bought it the next day.

One of my favorite new records is Sainthood, from Canadian alterna-pop duo Tegan and Sara, not just for the bristly love songs, which are great.  I also like it for coming in enough flavors to make everyone happy.  The crazily passionate fans can buy a limited edition package with three books and a signed, one of a kind Rorschach print.  A vinyl version comes with a free CD of the pair’s last album, The Con.  Or, you can just get it on iTunes.

 

The other night at the Claremont Moose, a packed house watched the Agonist top the bill with Hexerei, TranScenT, Hung and three others.  The Agonist’s lead singer Alissa White-Gluz worked the merchandise table right up to the start of the band’s set.

That’s pretty impressive for a headliner.

If record labels reached out to their customers in the same way, things might be different.  But I’m not holding my breath.

On to the rest of the week:

Thursday, Nov. 5: John Gorka, Four Corners Grille – Gorka writes literate songs, rooted in place and time.  “Houses In The Field” looks at the costs of progress; on “Bottles Break” he crawls inside the mind of a denizen who wants nothing more than “to buy this town and keep it rough.”  “Mean Streak” would have been a smash hit if John Mellencamp recorded it. I could go on, but you should see him and get it for yourself.

Friday, Nov. 6 Heather Maloney, Sunapee Coffeehouse – A memorable season continues with singer-songwriter Maloney, whose balance of upbeat and plaintive will appeal to fans of Paula Cole, Joni Mitchell and Beth Orton.  The just-released Cozy Razor’s Edge is a taut, layered work with a big sound.  In a coffeehouse setting her songs will be quieter and intimate. Either way, Maloney is worth checking out.

Saturday, Nov. 7: Ansambl Mastika, Immanuel Episcopal Church – The band call its sound the New Balkan Uproar, a musical melding of wide-ranging influences: the clarinet ‘miroloi’ of northern Greece, Macedonian gypsy music, Serbian, Turkish, Middle Eastern chalgi, Klezmer, Bulgaria wedding band.  The list goes on, but like they used to say on American Bandstand when a song got 90 or better – it has a beat and you can dance to it.

Sunday, Nov. 8: Dartmouth Gospel Choir, Hopkins Center –This fall’s concert by the well regarded student ensemble explores heaven in its many forms– what is the afterlife?  Choir Director Wes Cunningham said in the program notes that he’s looking for “heaven on earth” with contemporary songs like “I’ll Take You There” and “Circle of Life” alongside more traditional fare – “Oh Happy Day,” “Amazing Grace” and “O Give Thanks”.

 

Tuesday, Nov. 10: Mark LeGrand, Windsor Station – Known for down-home Americana with the Lovesick Bandits and romantic country-flavored songs with his wife Sarah Munro, LeGrand is a regional treasure.  The chance to see him in an intimate setting like Windsor Station shouldn’t be missed.  The restaurant has really beefed up the musical offerings of late – it’s worth a visit.

Wednesday, Nov. 11: Tad Davis, Skunk Hollow – Tad Davis helms this weekly affair. If you’ve ever wondered whether you should take your playing to another level, this is a good starting point. Bring your axe and your songs. You have 15 minutes. The best part is that Simon Cowell is nowhere to be found, and the food’s better.

Local Rhythms – ITMS Drops DRM? BFD

no_drm_apple_sqLast week, Apple behaved more like Detroit of years past , with new fins, bells and whistles adorning their computers and software. But there was no iPhone-level breakthrough at the annual Macworld Expo.

The biggest news proved just how underwhelming the whole show was.

In April, the iTunes Music Store will go DRM-free, stripping file locking from the millions of songs it sells.

But, as they say in the news business, the company buried the lede.

Sure, the remaining record companies followed EMI, which decrypted some of their music in 2007.  But in exchange, they got variable pricing, topping out at $1.29 per song.

It’s a move that Apple’s resisted for years.

There’s no official word yet, but I’m betting it’s the most popular music that goes beyond the once-standard 99 cents per track. That’s just how this business does things.

Utter idiocy.

To paraphrase industry gadfly Bob Lefsetz, who weighed in immediately after the announcement – only gas stations are raising prices.

The bestselling books are always discounted, and CDs with one or two hits on them are loss leaders from Best Buy to Wal-Mart.  Yet these moguls think digital music, which requires no assembly line, warehouse or shipping channel, ought to cost more,

Is it any wonder they’re bleeding red ink?

Anyway, I find the whole no-DRM discussion beside the point.  e-Music, with perhaps the best legal indie music catalog anywhere, has been doing it forever, and they don’t rule the world.

Music from iTunes is easily bought, and (up to now, anyway) simply understood.

But without the computer/iPod synergy with iTunes, it’s nothing.  Besides, 90 percent of music stored on portable devices is already DRM-free, because it was ripped from CD or stolen online.

Now, if an all-you-can-eat rental service went DRM-free, that would be newsworthy.  I swear by Rhapsody.  For 15 bucks a month, I get all the music I want when I want it.

My biggest problem with this unlimited library is that I can’t play it on an iPod.

Fix that little difficulty, and the iTunes Music Store will lose its cool factor in a Cupertino minute.

Which is why this big move is such small beer.  Anyone with an iPod gets music from Apple already.  I’d love to hear how many people even care that their songs are handcuffed.

However, if the next Justin Timberlake single costs 30 cents more, they may start paying attention.

When that happens, I’m guessing it won’t be a good thing – for Apple or the music business.

Now, on to the local scene:

Thursday: Johnny Winter & James Montgomery, Latchis Theatre – At 17, I snuck into a bar to see the lightning-fingered Winter play blues guitar.  It was mesmerizing.  Though he’s frail these days (like B.B. King, he performs sitting down), the flame still burns.  With harmonica genius Montgomery at his side, it should be a great evening. The event benefits the Brattleboro High School Marching Band’s trip to next Tuesday’s Presidential inauguration.  They’re the only Vermont band to receive the honor.

Friday: Elsa Cross, Salt hill Pub – The flood of Seacoast bands to Salt hill continues with this Americana singer-songwriter who claims Loretta Lynn’s music gave her an out of body experience, and whose own songs have been compared to a female Johnny Cash.  Accompanied by Steve Roy on upright bass, and PJ Donahue of the Amorphous Band, her debut Lebanon performance should be a barn burner.

Saturday: Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca, Hopkins Center – Spanish guitar and staccato heels feature in this centuries-old tradition, along with clapping, singing and incessant rhythm.  Dancer Soledad Barrio “dances as if possessed by the spirit of a Gypsy encampment…She breathes the essence of flamenco,” according to the New York Times.  After the show (which also plays Friday), there will be a question and answer session with Barrio and her husband Martin Santangelo, who directs the Madrid-based troupe.

Sunday: Johnny B and the Goodes with Ted Mortimer, Plainfield Town Hall – Johnny Bishop’s harp playing is a throwback to the masters of old – I loved his recent album.  Ted’s an ace guitarist with a delicate touch.  With a famous Maxfield Parrish mural as a backdrop, these guys will play the blues while celebrating next week’s inauguration. This event is BYOB, and I suspect they’ll be a lot of champagne corks popping, PBR music notwithstanding

Tuesday: Inauguration Party with Dr. Burma, Whaleback Ski Area – Our new president is at the center of several events tonight, including a Skunk Hollow open mike. The Whaleback party is dubbed “Brick by Brick: A Community Building Party.” It both celebrates the events in D.C. and shines a light on work done by non-profit organizations in the community. The Upper Valley Land Trust, the Upper Valley Haven, Vital Communities, and the Upper Valley United Way are represented so far – suggested donation is five dollars.

Local Rhythms – Netflix Shakes Things Up

After spending a few days renting movies from the Internet, I’m no longer convinced that the DVD’s future is any safer than its compact disc cousin. Chapter selection, deleted scenes and commentary – everything’s there, and without the $4.00 a gallon drive to Blockbuster.

Netflix customers already save on fuel costs, but waiting for the mailman can be tiresome. So the just-announced Netflix Player, a set-top box that works with most any TV, intrigues me.

The device, made by Silicon Valley startup Roku, isn’t the first of its kind by any means. Apple TV pairs with iTunes for movie rentals, and the Xbox connects to a Microsoft video store as well. Tivo hooks into Amazon Unboxed – it’s a growing field.

What makes the Netflix Player interesting is the way it mirrors, and extends, their existing service. Customers who already pay one price for an unlimited number of mail order discs can now can do the same with Netflix online for no additional charge.

It’s a bit like Rhapsody, the music subscription service, and may inspire a bit more risk-taking with film selection. If one flick doesn’t agree with you, another one is but clicks away. That’s quite a contrast to other high priced rentals. For example, six dollars for an Xbox HD movie doesn’t encourage dabbling.

Netflix has over 10,000 streaming titles – unfortunately, there’s not a lot of recent ones. That should change over time. The best news is the cost of the player – $99, which beats the competition by more than half.

The Netflix Player doesn’t have built-in storage, which concerns me a bit. My iTunes movie rentals were lag-free, with pristine picture quality, because I downloaded them first. Early reviews of the player suggest a faster-than-average broadband connection is essential to enjoy it properly.

But it’s early, so my excitement is focused more on the gadget’s promise than with what it does now. There’s no HD content or surround sound, that’s a minus. But with a picture size toggle switch, it also doesn’t require a widescreen to work.

It could be a nice addition to a bedroom TV, providing on-demand entertainment for less than a cable box rental fee. Best of all, it’s all you can watch, and when the red Netflix envelope arrives with a DVD, the living room flat panel is just a few steps away.

Now, what about the best destinations for live music in the coming days?

Thursday: Dan Weintraub, Murphy’s on the Green – Look up “prolific” in the dictionary and you’ll probably find this man’s shiny-headed visage smiling back at you. Weintraub’s tunes range from funny to poignant, and there’s 70 of them on his website, all recorded in the last year and a half, each a free download. Mix Randy Newman with Tom Petty, add a dash of Weird Al – that’s Dan.

Friday: Hurricane Alley, Seven Barrel Brewery – This well-regarded melodic band is splintering across the region this weekend. Leader Reid Traviskis and singer Jan Bear are working in Maine, while an augmented version of Hurricane Alley play the West Lebanon brewpub. Singer/guitarist Dave Sheehan and bassist Ben Butterworth team with Dave’s brother Steve for a selection that ranges from “Abba to ZZ Top.”

Saturday: Roxanne & the Voodoo Rockers, Anchorage – A sure sign of summer is the return of live music to Lake Sunapee. Memorial Day weekend includes this bluesy band, a favorite around the harbor. They have a pair of Newbury Gazebo performances slated for later in the season. Mark and Debbie Bond, familiar from several area bands (including Last Kid Picked), perform at Anchorage Sunday. Bond’s CD, “Broken,” is a real treat.

Sunday: Kurtis Kinger, Bentley’s – This singer-guitarist specializes in crunchy blues numbers mixed with straight ahead rock. I don’t know much about him, but some of his music is up on the Yellow House Media site. Yellow House recently debuted a cable access show featuring local musicians called “Homegrown.” The first guest is accordion/keyboard player Jeremiah McClane (it’s also streaming on the site).

Tuesday: Submarines, Iron Horse – John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard met in Boston, joined a band and toured Europe together, fell in love, moved to LA and broke up four years later. Their musical paths kept crossing, and it turned out both of them were writing sad tunes about missing each other. Now they’re married, and their songs are much happier – “You, Me and the Bourgeoisie” deserves its own iPod ad.

Wednesday: Van Halen, Verizon Wireless Arena – This show was postponed and rescheduled from earlier this year, which means tickets have been available for close to 6 months, and it’s not even sold out. The biggest reunion tour of 2007 is old news in 2008. To paraphrase Boz Scaggs, there’s a breakdown dead ahead for the concert business, and it serves them right.

Apple’s Rhapsody?

3d_apple_logo_102.jpgThe Financial Times reported yesterday that Apple was readying a subscription-based version of iTunes. I fully expected Lefsetz to blow a gasketat the news, but thus far, he’s said nothing.

ZD Net’s post speculates that Apple will eventually get to an annual pricing structure, not the one-time forever fee (tied to an iPod purchase) mentioned in the FT story.

I’m a long time advocate of subscription services. I don’t need to own every CD under the sun, but I would like to fire up whatever song suits my mood. ZD Net’s Larry Dignan agrees:

 I’d rather have a subscription music service. I’m sick of my music. That’s at least part of the reason why I subscribe to Sirius–I’m lazy and would rather have someone just play new tunes I haven’t heard than have to go looking for them. Of course, the other primary reason for Sirius is Howard Stern, but that’s another post.

The point: Apple has what it takes to make music subscriptions the norm. In fact, Apple can make music subscriptions palatable to the masses. Music is perfect for the subscription model if done well (and Apple can do it well).

I expect the “own versus rent” fanatics will be in full dudgeon over this, however.

MacWorld

Welcome to the greatest show on earth, live from San Francisco.

The keynote should have been held at the Warfield, or the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – some place befitting the demigod aura of Steve Jobs.  Say what you will about the Apple CEO, he’s the only tech mogul capable of upstaging actual rock stars.

Or even an MOR icon like Randy Newman, who performed the encore to Jobs’ annual journey into the Reality Distortion Field, where products aren’t just tools or toys – they’re life-changing forces of nature.

A seat for Jobs’ speech to start the 24th annual MacWorld Expo at San Francisco’s Moscone Center had the cachet of a U2 nightclub show, and the revolution was not televised, or even webcast.  Exclusivity is an annoying part of the company’s DNA.  Someone should remind Steve that even sold-out football games aren’t tape-delayed anymore.

Of course, guaranteed admission cost about as much as a Super Bowl ticket. Platinum show pass holders had priority seating – for about two grand. 

None of today’s announcements are six o’clock news material.   Software upgrades (for the iPhone and AppleTV) may make the geeks happy, but most people could care less.  iTunes movie rentals? Ho hum – NetFlix also rolled out their version today.

This year’s sexy thing was without a doubt the  the MacSkinny, er, MacBook Air.  The much-anticipated subnotebook is a mere .76″ thick, a stunt Apple manages by eliminating the CD slot from the machine.  Software installation is done via the Internet, or through a wireless connection to another optical drive.

The built-in hard drive is a mere 80GB, though a solid state 64GB drive (now that’s sexy!) is an available option – for $999, more than half the cost of the base model.

The MacBook Air is fast (Intel Core Duo 2 running at up to 1.8 GHz) and beefy (2 GB RAM standard). Though not the first ultraportable, it could be the best.

But I doubt Katie Couric will be talking about it tonight. 

AppleTV is cheaper, and no longer requires a computer – movies, including those in high definition, can be bought from the iTunes store and copied directly to the device’s hard drive.   This upgrade is also available for current AppleTV owners, an uncharacteristic move for the typically backward-compatible averse company.  

Twentieth Century Fox’s plan to offer DVD purchases that include an iTunes digital download included represented the only paradigm-shifting revelation of the keynote.

More to come…. 

Apple TV Gets A YouTube Boost

apple.jpgApple Inc. has had its share of miscues of late. The deafening hype surrounding the as-yet unreleased iPhone hasn’t quieted misgivings about the company’s first foray into mobile communications: inflated price, closed architecture, single source carrier (AT&T) and questions about whether it will even ship this month as promised.

The recent announcement of iTunes Plus, which promised music playable on any and all devices, is now mired in controversy. The industry blog ARS Technica reported that supposedly unprotected songs sold on the iTunes Music Store had customer information embedded in them, a move that in theory made it much easier for anti-piracy organizations like the RIAA to track them on file-trading sites.

That, coupled with the fact that customers who upgraded their software to purchase premium ($1.29 each) music were no longer able to buy cheaper versions of the same songs, turned what should have been a defining Apple moment into a nasty public relations headache.

Then there’s the little box that CEO Steve Jobs hoped would finally get Apple into consumer living rooms. Apple TV looked good on paper – a network device that can grab a video from any computer in the house, and stream it to a television in state-of-the-art widescreen format.

There was just one problem – it didn’t work with web sites, only iTunes, where episodes of most popular shows sell for $1.99 each. With no chance to watch Grey’s Anatomy on ABC.com or check out NBC’s Heroes with the occasional commercial break, Apple TV didn’t look like such a great deal. Jobs’ much-vaunted “Reality Distortion Field” was dissolving in a wave of bad press and bothered bloggers.

Perhaps Apple TV’s biggest omission was failing to tap into the zeitgeist of the web’s most popular video site, YouTube. Stranger still, it seemed a perfect match. Google CEO Eric Schmidt sits on Apple’s board of directors, and Google owns YouTube.

Last week, Apple TV’s prospects began to improve when the company unveiled a planned software upgrade, due later this month, which would provide the ability to play YouTube clips on the set top box. Along with that announcement, Apple’s web site began selling a 160 GB Apple TV – a model with four times the storage capacity of the original – presumably to hold all the newly available (and free) content

The Apple/YouTube deal is important for a couple of reasons. First, YouTube is fast becoming the preferred hub for the legal distribution of music videos. Last week, the company struck a deal with EMI, home to David Bowie, Coldplay and Norah Jones. This means that all four of the major labels are on board. Though MTV/VH1 owner Viacom’s intellectual property suit is still unresolved, Schmidt termed the action “a negotiating tactic” at the recent All Things Digital conference, hinting that an agreement wasn’t far off.

Secondly, a deal with Apple means the QuickTime H.264 codec, which maintains picture resolution regardless of screen size, will become YouTube’s streaming video standard. That’s the reason Apple executive David Moody only promised “thousands of videos designed for Apple TV” at launch, not the entire YouTube library. That conversion effort will take a lot more time, though all new videos will be offered in the new format. QuickTime videos are, of course, fully compatible with both the iPhone and iPod. However, no announcements were made about making YouTube content available on those devices.

The move affirms that Apple, for all its recent stumbles, still intends to be a revolutionary force in the entertainment world. As the iPod smashed the music paradigm, YouTube has re-shaped the television landscape. What started as a hybrid of low-rent “MTV Jackass” and alienated teen vanity vehicle has fast become the first on-demand video network of the Internet.

Google is, of course, the most popular web site in history. These elements, combined with Apple’s well-known hardware and design capabilities, could produce a recipe that does for television what the iPod did for music.

Local Rhythms – Future of the Album

emiapple.jpgThere are plenty of reasons for the music business to rue iTunes, but killing the album isn’t one of them. If anything, the leading Internet download site is the long-player’s biggest supporter.

Wait, you say – doesn’t the availability of 99 cent tracks make it easy to snap up just that one Fergie tune I like? Yes, but it’s not Apple’s fault if the rest of the record is awful.

I’m a fan of players with more to say than just one song. Every time I tout a performance in this column, you can be pretty sure the artist I’m highlighting is one that goes deep. When I log on to iTunes, I usually buy a whole CD’s worth.

Apple just announced a couple of moves which I think bode well for my way of thinking. Last week they introduced “Complete My Album,” which gives customers credit against the full price of an album for each song they purchase.

Purchase two tracks from Justin Timberlake’s latest, and you can get the rest for eight bucks.

It’s a great way to dabble without getting penalized. You sure couldn’t do that with a CD.

Which leads me to the second iTunes move, which not everybody thinks means good things for the music biz.

EMI, a record company close to bankruptcy, made a bold move last week when they announced they were removing the digital handcuffs from music they sell on iTunes.

It should be noted that other online music stores will likely make the same deal – Microsoft already has tentative plans on their Zune store.

DRM-free songs will be sold at a marked up price, a part of the deal that riled up many. However, the audio quality is vastly improved. Here’s the part that’s so good for album lovers. The price for long players won’t go up under the deal.

It’s a bit of a trick, I admit, and Fergie’s “Glamorous” is still the only decent cut on “The Duchess,” high audio quality or no. But it begins a trend that’s long overdue.

For too long, record companies have treated their customers like criminals, instead of devising creative ways to engage them.

Selling unprotected music should be combined with fan incentives like early access to concert tickets and other goodies. After that, it’s up to the artist to make records that are more than one or two tracks deep. I know they’re out there; I buy (and recommend) them every week.

Here are a few “full length” artists playing locally in the next few days:

Thursday: John Gorka, Flying Goose – Case in point. I would never buy just one Gorka song. The folksinger closes out an abbreviated music series in New London with tunes that can make you weep, laugh out loud or shake your head in emphatic assent. You hear a line like “I live where the bottles break and the blacktop still comes back for more,” and wonder what else he’s got up his sleeve.

Friday: Noche Latina Caliente, Electra – Get lucky on Friday the 13th when you learn the tango, salsa and cha cha cha from some talented instructors. Then dance the rest of the night away to great music from south of the border. Claremont had a night like this a couple of years ago that people are still talking about.

Saturday: Stonewall, Royal Flush – It’s a good Saturday for hard rock fans, with Hexerei and Transcent at the Claremont Moose, but I mention this show for two reasons. One, the Flush touts the quality of the tribute bands it brings in, but this show re-states the club’s ongoing commitment to original local music. Two, Stonewall rocks.

Sunday: Fiddler’s Dream, Latchis (Brattleboro) – Jay Ungar and Molly Mason are joined by fiddling friends Liz Carroll and John Doyle for a night of traditional music. You may not know their names, but you’ll recognize their music from Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The Civil War.” If you don’t want to make the drive south, the duo is in Lebanon April 20th.

Tuesday: The Greencards, Iron Horse – “New Grass,” a melding of old time traditions and contemporary attitude, is probably my favorite genre of music It’s best exemplified by bands like Nickel Creek, the Bittersweets and Crooked Still. This trio just released a new album which should move them from the litte rooms like the Iron Horse to much bigger stages. See them while you have a chance.

Wednesday: Molly Chernington with Kate Wirsing, Canoe Club – Molly’s a Meriden native who took up music while living in Colorado. She has a spare, Shawn Colvin sound, and tonight she’s joined by slam poet Wirsing, which must be a first for the staid Canoe. Should be fun.