Local Rhythms – Music wants to be free – or at least freemium

The record companies must be feeling pretty good right now.  Two recent illegal downloading cases netted the RIAA over $2.6 million in judgment money.  The era of piracy is ending, just like they said it would.  Music fans – turn off your computers, start your cars, and drive post haste to Newbury Comics for further instructions.

Not so fast – if that’s really true, it’s only because you can’t steal something that’s already free.

Though the cost of music is rising for webcasters and radio stations, fans are finding it’s getting closer to zero every day.

Start with the many musicians who’ve already written off recorded work as a loss leader to drive fans to their live shows.  Locally, that includes 84 Sheepdog and Ghost Dinner Band (see below and Beyond), but bigger acts are in the picture too – and that’s where it gets interesting.

Trent Reznor gives away Nine Inch Nails music on his web site, but hardcore fans will pay for “freemium” content – extras like DVDs, exclusive concert presales, t-shirts and the like.

Currently, the most compelling free/premium concept is only available in Europe, but is promised Stateside by year’s end – with the record labels’ blessing.  Spotify is a service that looks a lot like iTunes, without the 99 cent per song price tag.   With Spotify, pretty much any song in the world can be streamed free.

The audio quality, and more importantly, stream reliability is, by all accounts, phenomenal.

Unlike services like Last.fm and Pandora, which send music randomly based on a listener’s tastes, Spotify allows you save songs, as well as create and share playlists – just like iTunes.

The whole thing is ad-supported, so it costs nothing if you watch a commercial or two.  Ironically, the delay in bringing the service to the U.S. is apparently tied to the fact that the ads aren’t obtrusive enough.  The labels want fans to work harder for free music.

Typical.

For a “freemium” fee of five Euros, the ads disappear, and music can be played offline – even on an iPhone.   If music is so easy to get legally, the lure to break the law disappears.

It’s not a whole lot different than Rhapsody or Napster; both offer subscriptions, with unlimited access to downloadable (and portable) tracks.  Of course, access ends when you stop paying.  But the way I see it, for the cost of one CD a month, I can listen to tens, even hundreds more.  That’s a fair deal.

Speaking of which, many of the shows below are no-cover.  What’s stopping you from going?

Thursday: Hop Season Preview, Hopkins Center – Another eclectic lineup from the Hopkins Center this year, with returning favorites like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Bill T. Jones dance company, along with the legendary Ravi Shankar and the young, virtuoso Sejong Soloists.  Thursday’s previews (Noon and 5 PM, no ticket required) provide an look of the many shows between now and next May.  Bring your calendar.

Friday: Ghost Dinner Band, Henniker Junction – This band sounds like Pink Floyd meets Tom Waits on their way to an Electric Prunes concert – dreamy, gravel-filled and intense.  Henniker is two towns away from the Sunapee region, and Ghost Dinner, who weave Nirvana and Robert Johnson covers between originals, make it a worthwhile trip.  Their recently released “In Nightmares” is available for free via BitTorrent.

Saturday: West Fest, Claremont – This could get a little crazy.  Every year on Lionel West’s Twistback Road property, the best of the area metal scene gets together.  Anything can happen.  Saturday’s lineup includes Hexerei, Soul Octane Burner, Escape to Everything, Till We Die and TranScenT.  There’s BBQ from Claremont’s Sweet Fire, and a car derby.  Noontime start, 5 buck tickets, and you must be 21 to get in.

Sunday: Brownstock, Ascutney Mountain Resort – I remember going to my very first pig roast, hosted by Rick and Dave Davis, back in 1981.  This year, the name of their annual party is a nod to the 40th anniversary of Woodstock.  Acts include the Gibson Family Band, Carlos Ocasio and Frydaddy, Michael Veitch and Friends, Dave Clark and Juke Joynt, the Nobby Reed Project and anyone related to Rick or Dave Davis who can carry a tune.

Tuesday: Open Mike, One Mile West – George Johnson, carpenter by day, musician by night, rotates hosting duties with the Moores at this Sunapee restaurant/bar.  I stopped in the other day and was impressed with the great menu and the huge selection of beverages on tap, including a lovely Long Trail Double IPA, and a made in New Hampshire (non-alcohol) blueberry soda.

Wednesday: Squids, Ben Mere Bandstand – Always a good time, hope there’s good weather.  The Squids are the perfect excuse for an afternoon of alfresco music.  See you on the Sunapee harbor!

Beyond – Worth driving out of town
Pleasant Valley Brewing
16 Main Street, Saxtons River, Vermont
Distance: 41 minutes south

Why: 84 Sheepdog w/ Ingrid
When: Friday 7 August

Formed as a Richard Thompson tribute band, Ingrid’s Ruse provided many memorable nights of music before lead singer/guitarist Ingrid Ayer-Richardson moved to Maine in 2007.  After “The Ruse” split, band mates Josh Maiocco and Shamus Martin busied themselves with solo endeavors – Josh’s singer-songwriter work, and Shamus’s many projects with his independent Exsubel label.   They formed 84 Sheepdog last year.

Ingrid’s back in town for a visit and a rare set with her old pals, so this is a must-see affair.  Pleasant Valley Brewing Company, run by ex-Windham manager Patrick LeBlanc, is a great, music-friendly place too.

84 Sheepdog has a novel “plug and tug” way of getting their music to the masses.  Anyone who comes to a show with an MP3 player can hook up to a computer and download band tracks.

Local Rhythms – Musical Independence

Picture 6I was all set to write about the Fourth of July until my mood was interrupted by thoughts of a different sort of independence.

A common thread runs through many of the interviews I’ve done with female singer-songwriters – they all cite Patty Griffin as a key influence.  Many have said she’s the reason they started writing songs.

Which brings a special poignancy to the way Griffin’s early career was mismanaged by record companies.

Her label (A&M) tried to turn Griffin’s first album into a country-rock comic book before scrapping the studio sessions and releasing her original demo.  Thank goodness – “Living With Ghosts” is a raw, naked masterpiece, rivaled only by Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” for its seminality.

She wasn’t as lucky with “Silver Bell,” her would-be third album.  It became a hostage of A&M’s sale to Interscope, and has never been released.

Fortunately, Patty Griffin chose not to be beaten down by this situation.  She severed ties with her new label, and signed with Dave Matthews’ ATO Records.

What followed was a career-defining body of work that’s still in progress.

How much more artistic freedom does she have?  Her next album is a collection of gospel covers!

Over the years, “Silver Bell” has become something of a holy grail for me, and I’ve managed to find all but one track online.

But last weekend I was surprised by some great news.

A musician who worked on “Silver Bell” gave a close to perfect copy of the sessions (including a track I didn’t even know existed) to a blogger, who proceeded to leak it the world.

God bless him – great music must be heard.

We are witnessing an era of independence like no other, with artists in control of their destinies, and the checkbook clowns who once owned them dead on the side of the road.

Follow my lead, and steal a copy of “Silver Bell.”

Ask yourself – what’s the possible upside of keeping this music away from the public?

Why waste time, as EMI did recently, refusing to participate in efforts to grow the Internet as a music distribution platform and dreaming of a return to 1990?

Ifhippies can’t bring back Woodstock Nation, what makes the record business think there’s another Michael Jackson out there capable of moving 20 million units?

It’s time to get real – set the music free.

Happy Independence Day – here’s the happenings:

Thursday: Antje Duvekot & Chris O’Brien, Boccelli’s – A wonderful night of folk music in Bellows Falls, featuring Duvekot, a singer-songwriter who gets better every day (her latest, produced by Richard Shindell, is a gem).  O’Brien is a BF favorite who’s working on a new album to follow his scintillating debut, 2007’s “Lighthouse.”  I’ve been looking forward to this one for a long time.

Friday: Diana Krall, Meadowbrook U.S, Cellular Pavilion – I confess, I knew a lot about Krall’s interpretive singing style and very little about her musicianship until I saw her on her husband Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle.”   Her piano playing is amazing.  Elton John interviewed her, and his smitten air playing told me all I need to know – this will be a great show.

Saturday: Neil Diamond, Boston Esplanade – OK, there’s a ton of stuff going on today – Woodstock’s old fashioned fourth, Avi & Celia in Bellows Falls (and Brattleboro), fireworks everywhere, Roadhouse at the Anchorage.  But if I could be one place only, it would next to the Charles River experiencing the annual Pops concert featuring the reborn Diamond and an unbelievable show in the sky.

Sunday:  Áine Minogue, St. Gaudens – The summer series of concerts begins in Cornish with this Irish-born harp player, vocalist, folklorist and lecturer. The Boston Globe says Minogue “combines a hypnotic Celtic spirituality and contemporary sophistication in her playing and delicately lovely singing.”  I can’t think of a better instrument to waft through the statuary at Saint Gaudens, a local treasure.

Monday:  Open Mike with Second Wind, Digby’s – There’s a serious open mike scene in the area.  Terry Ray Gould hosts this Sunapee confab with his partner Suzy Hastings, and his Facebook posts about it have been positively giddy.  Serious fun, prizes, drink specials and loads of musical camaraderie.  They must call it “hospitality night” for a reason.  For my money, it’s a perfect way to spend Monday night.

Wednesday: Yvonne & the Reverbs, Lyman Point Band Shell – Outdoor shows seem to be a dodgey venture these days – will the rain ever end?  Fortunately, this weekly free series of summer shows repairs to the Bugbee Senior Center if the skies open up.  This Wednesday, it’s a country rock band with a good reputation in area clubs for keeping the energy level high.

Local Rhythms – Turntable Turn-on

s_turntableEverything old is new again.

For example, the downward trend of the music business’s general state remains unchanged, but one rare bright spot is a throwback – turntables.

Digital track sales are up, while CD sales are down – no surprise there.  But the biggest industry growth area is a bit shocking.  Vinyl album sales have nearly doubled in the last year.

That’s only a million or so LPs, and with disc sales plummeting exponentially more, not enough to save the day.  But it’s good to know warm, honest sound is back in vogue.

I have a record player and I’m not afraid to use it, but I’ll need something better than my 1989 Technics model to enjoy the current generation of long players (top seller: Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” followed by the Beatles’ “Abbey Road”).

The vinyl’s heavier, which makes for better sound, but the price tag is also weighty – over 20 bucks each for most platters.

So I prowl the swap meets and EBay auctions for out of print gems like the Fools’ “Sold Out” or the first (and only) Cowboy Jazz album.  I also try not to wonder why the LP is suddenly such an expensive format.

Didn’t’ CDs double the price of music when they replaced vinyl 25 years ago?  Maybe those in the business expect folks who held album-dumping garage sales in the 80s to once again pay through the nose to replace their entire collections.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Leaving the circular firing squad to its own devices (hey, we have a newly successful sales formula – let’s price it out of everyone’s reach!), I’m heartened by another trend.  Digital album sales increased in 2008, which is good news for anyone who believes it takes more than one good song to make a great musician.

If folks are going to iTunes for more than the odd Katy Perry single, things could be improving.  But I’m not holding my breath.

This week, I’m at the annual MacWorld conference in San Francisco, where video and iPhone apps come up in conversation more than music does. Rumors swirl about Steve Jobs’ absence (is he sick? No, just protein deficient.), Apple’s decision to withdraw after 2009 (are they smug?), but I doubt even an iTunes Vinyl Store would shake things up.

DRM is gone, but it’s too late.

After years of industry dithering, coupled with ever-widening entertainment options, everyone’s moved on.  Even Apple can’t save them.

Here’s the area live music slate:

Thursday: Wise Rockobili, Firestones – This is creative self-expression night, I guess.  Salt hill, Casa del Sol and Clear River Tavern host open mike nights, while 7 Barrel Brewery recently launched Karaoke Thursdays.   This Quechee restaurant features a revolving ringmaster – next week is Tad Davis, followed on January 22 by Guy Burlage.  Bring your axe and your courage.

Friday: Jimmy Dunn’s Comedy All-Stars, Claremont Opera House – The host of NESN’s “Fan Attic” is the ringleader for an evening of stand-up comedy that includes Paul D’Angelo, Rich Ceisler and Tony Moschetto.  There’s nothing like a lot of hearty laughter to shake away the winter blues.   Expect a lot of Boston-centric humor, although Moschetto has worked everywhere, including Beijing, so who knows?  Anything can happen, all of it funny.

Saturday: Dr. Burma, Salt hill Pub – One of my favorite albums of 2008 came from this Upper Valley R&B outfit, which has a reputation for packing the dance floor at Salt Hill with some inspired, high energy sounds.   I particularly like their version John Hiatt’s smoldering song, “The Crush,” but the original material contained on “One Bite Won’t Kill You” is also first rate.  DB’s always a great party, tonight at a music-loving venue.

Sunday: Richard “Dobbs” Hartshorne, St. Thomas Episcopal Church – Everyone calls this upright bassist and storyteller by one name – Dobbs.  Today’s show is a benefit for the Upper Valley Music Center.  It includes a lecture called “Hope Through Music” that recounts his work with children, refugees, and prisoners in Afghanistan, Palestine, and the U.S, as well as a performance of Dobbs’ own unique musical work.

Tuesday: Singer & Jordan, Tip Top Café – Phil Singer and Lucianne Jordan play authentic folk music, show tune and fun stuff from every era..  For an example of what they do, check out Phil’s recently launched web site, dogandponymusic.com, with free downloads of his many songs (he’s been making music since the mid-60s), as well as lyrics and a growing section for tunes from his many musical friends.

Wednesday: The Wood Brothers, Higher Ground – Both Oliver and Chris Wood spent time in other bands – Oliver in King Johnson, Chris in jazz genre-benders Medeski, Martin & Wood – before forming a duo and releasing “Ways Not to Lose” in 2006.  They’ve played their brand of stripped down blues-rock for audiences at Bonnaroo and Carnegie Hall.  Tonight, it’s Northern Vermont.

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.

Local Rhythms – Bragg’s Message to Moguls: Pay Up

I know, it’s only rock and roll, but I like it – and everyone young and old has an opinion about music. Thus, the debate over its future matters, even if the subject doesn’t have the weight of, say, Bernake’s prescriptions for the economy or General Petraeus on Capitol Hill.

Believing I understood all the angles of this argument, Billy Bragg’s views surprised me. He’s mostly known as a leftist political rocker, so one might expect him to side with the “music wants to be free” proponents.

Bragg’s response to the 1980s campaign for a tax on cassette tapes was to print the message “capitalism is killing music” on one of his records.

But he’s less predictable on this subject. Why, Bragg wonders, should Internet companies profit from the public’s hunger for music while the artists themselves struggle?

Sales of social networking sites have brought riches to investors. Would News Corp. buy MySpace or AOL snap up Bebo without the creative output of thousands of independent musicians?

“The powerful start-ups,” says Bragg, “are blithely following the consumer’s argument that they don’t have to pay.”

The mouse-clicking millions don’t seem to realize that easy access does not equate to zero value.

Though the exchange of music has become free, Bragg told a British webzine last week, the technology moguls exploiting it are making a fortune.

Bragg is taking a lot of heat for an op-ed he published a few weeks back in the New York Times. “The musicians who posted their work on Bebo.com are no different from investors in a start-up enterprise,” wrote Bragg. “Their investment is the content provided for free while the site has no liquid assets.”

He’s just asking to share in the bonanza.

Artists need to step forward and shape the future, he says. “We can’t go back to the $15.99 CD, but we want to make a living from this – help us to convince big business to cut us in.”

The alternative, says Bragg, is to be spoon fed megastars like Hannah Montana by corporations who have put songs through focus groups like detergent or light beer.

“Someone who is a bit quirky – and by quirky, I mean a Radiohead – will never get out of Oxford.”

Far from being a geek utopia, Bragg says “it’s cutting the legs off from the next generation of musicians … condemning them to never really give up their day job.”

Words to ponder while you consider these upcoming performances:

Thursday: New Blue Trio, Sophie & Zeke’s – They’ve changed their name and added more cool jazz to their sound, but the core musicians of New Kind of Blue – recently known as the Roland Yamaguchi Band – still possess the same excellent musical skills that made them perennial Thursday night favorites in downtown Claremont. The piano, upright bass and guitar are, like the food, simmered to perfection.

Friday: Amity Front, Salt Hill Pub – This Northampton band sells out venues to the south, but their third Lebanon appearance is, like the two before, a no-cover affair. When they strip down to guitars and mandolin, Amity Front delivers a high lonesome sound. But they can also plug and play, with revved-up Americana reminiscent of Wilco. Their latest CD, “Border Towns,” offers a bit of both worlds.

Saturday: New Black Eagle Jazz Band, Claremont Opera House – A bunch of New Englanders with a love for New Orleans music, this band got its start playing on a riverboat – in Boston Harbor. If you dig Dixieland jazz, you’ll go crazy for these guys. They’re as real as it gets, and wildly exuberant to boot.

Sunday: Leo Kottke, Lebanon Opera House – A master of the six and twelve string guitar returns to the area. I once had the privilege of sitting in the front row for a Kottke performance; he was the opening act. I’ve never seen anyone’s fingers move so fast. He played seated at the edge of the stage, in front of a curtain; the band that followed him couldn’t match the sound he made with just one instrument.

Tuesday: Billy Rosen & David Westphalen, Tip Top Café – Another White River Junction hot spot for food and music welcomes two musicians who keep a busy schedule playing with area bands. Rosen fronts his own trio (at Sophie and Zeke’s Friday), while Westphalen is the go-to bass player for Emily Lanier, among others.

Wednesday: Pat Benetar, Lowell Memorial Auditorium – Since her beginnings as a rock diva in 1979, this pint-sized powerhouse has charted a ton of hits, one of which (“Hell Is For Children”) launched a charity, and been an MTV goddess when such a thing mattered. She’s still missing from two places, however: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and iTunes.

Today’s Free Download – Oneside

oneside2.jpgI linked to a Oneside video a few months back, but this is a band-authorized MP3 of “Chinatown,” a song that’s equal parts jazz, jam band and psychobilly.

Upper Valley region fans have two chances to check this Boston-based quartet out in the coming weeks – Friday at Salt Hill Pub and a week from this Saturday at the Heritage.

Live, they prove something I’ve told a few bands in the past – it’s possible to play mostly original material in a bar without losing the crowd. They only think they want to hear “Cocaine” for the 10,000th time.

Oneside has played at SxSW and the Kennedy Center to attentive audiences. Someday soon this band will turn the corner and you’ll be kicking yourself for not seeing them when you had the chance.

SpiralFrog – Big (But Not That Big) Developments

spiralfrog.jpgSpiralFrog, the free music service viewed (by some) as the last best hope for the struggling music business, yesterday announced a distribution deal with BMI. The song publisher will make their entire catalog available for ad-supported free download in WMA protected format. The catalog comprises nearly half of all recorded music, including the entire Beatles discography, a fact that induces much irrational exhuberence at Wired Magazine:

The irony of The Beatles refusing all online music stores but accepting (or being forced to accept) this free, ad-based service is a little much. I have a call and email in to SpiralFrog to confirm that The Beatles are included in this deal. I have to assume they are, but I just can’t believe it, so I need to make sure. More on this soon.

Not so fast. No word yet on whether Neil Aspinall got back to Wired, but rest assured that the Fab Four’s Luddite stance won’t be changed by this deal. There’s rumors afoot that the recent “Love” songscape could be made available to Apple (the computer company) iTunes, and reports of Steve Jobs using his reservoirs of charm on all interested parties to bring that to bear.

I don’t think Beatles product is going to be digitized until Apple (the music company) is damn good and ready. It will happen when the audio quality is there and not a day sooner – at least that’s what Aspinall said in court earlier this year.