Local Rhythms – Record Store Day

picture-11Music business news is giving me whiplash.

Take the RIAA lawsuits.  Last December, the industry organization announced plans to stop going after fans, focusing instead on Internet service providers.

But they’re milking all they can out of their ongoing cases.  A UNH student was initially sued for sharing 7 songs but, her attorney recently told the Union Leader, “the number keeps changing, and unfortunately, it’s going in the wrong direction.”

The growth of legal download services is an industry bright spot, right?  Fans are getting with the program.  That’s a good thing.

Here’s the industry’s idea for how best to capitalize on this success – raise prices.  That’s right, “Stairway to Heaven” used to cost a buck on iTunes – now it’s $1.29.

Head spin, neck snap – huh?

Here’s another puzzler.  Apple Corps responded to Beatles fans clamoring for MP3s of Fab Four songs by – wait for it – remastering and reissuing their entire catalog on CD.

Talk about partying like it’s 1999.

“Discussions regarding … digital distribution … will continue,” read a clueless press release.  “There is no further information available at this time.”

One glimmer of hope is Record Store Day, a worldwide celebration of indie retailers happening this Saturday.  Participating New Hampshire stores include Bull Moose, Turn It Up! and Newbury Comics.

Granted, a 28-store chain can’t exactly be called independent, but one Newbury Comics clerk typically knows more about what’s in the bins than the entire staff at Best Buy or Wal-Mart.  That’s still unique and worth preserving.

A lot of musicians agree, and are chipping in with store appearances and RSD-only releases.

Locally, Static-X takes a break from the Sno-Core tour to appear at Bull Moose in Portsmouth, while big names like Lamb of God, State Radio and Sarah Borges are among those listed for Newbury Comics (including a 4-band show in Nashua, roots rocker Michael Bernier in Salem, and an open microphone in West Lebanon) .

Special product includes Americana chanteuse Tift Merritt’s “Buckingham Solo” live collection, special 7” singles from the Stooges, Andrew Bird and Brandi Carlile, along with 12” platters from Talking Heads, Radiohead and Regina Spektor.

There’s also  “This Album Crashes Hard Drives,” an audiophile-grade vinyl indie sampler specially released for Record Store Day.

“In a rare act of collective goodwill,” says a blurb about the disc on recordstoreday.com, “[artists] have come together and made a high-quality LP at a price you can actually afford.”

If only the RIAA cared that much about fans.  What else is happening?

Thursday: Bluesberry Jam, Salt hill Newport – Arthur James holds forth in the weekly blues-tinged jam session, with amps and microphones provided.  James usually rocks it up with his band Northbound, but calls tonight’s ensemble “Unacoustic Mayhem”. This is a standard open mike affair, with a bluesier touch. It beats American Idol by a country mile.

Friday: Herman’s Hermits, Paramount Theater (Rutland) – Peter Noone is still at it, 45 years after topping the charts with the Carole King/Gerry Goffin-penned “I’m Into Something Good.”  These days, he’s as likely to cover David Bowie as dip into his catalog of smashes like “There’s a Kind of Hush,” “Silhouettes” or “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.”

Saturday: Mary Gauthier, Lebanon Opera House – A benefit for COVER that also features Anais Mitchell.  Listening to Gauthier, who’s lived as hardscrabble a life as any musician around, you know her songs come from a very real place.  Tomorrow night in Bellows Falls, she plays an intimate show at Boccelli’s on the Canal, a great little restaurant which seats less than 100 people. As of Sunday, tickets were still available.

Sunday: Gavin DeGraw, SNHU Field House – The singer-songwriter came to prominence the way a lot of musicians are doing it these days, by way of a youth-oriented television show.  “One Tree Hill” featured his “I Don’t Want to Be” as its theme song.  The Berklee grad just released his 4th studio album.  “Free” is a deliciously soulful, yet rough around the edges affair that should please fans and newcomers alike.

Monday: Todd Rundgren, Iron Horse – It appears that Todd’s in the same boat as Leonard Cohen.  He made a few bad business decisions (like selling his share of Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” which he produced) and now he tours a lot.  Rundgren is directly or indirectly responsible for some of the best pop to come of out the 1970s, writing “I Saw The Light” and “Hello It’s Me” and producing Grand Funk’s “We’re An American Band.”  A night with him is a tuneful journey.

Tuesday: Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, Hopkins Center – This week’s eclectic pick blends the classical dance forms of India with contemporary concepts.  It’s colorful and kinetic, combining “magic and spirituality with the sensuous flow of Odissi, the oldest of India ‘s classical dance forms,” according to the troupe’s web site.

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…. 

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.

EMI To Offer DRM-Free Tracks

emiapple.jpgVia BBC comes word that EMI Music will sell songs unencumbered by Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes on iTunes beginning in May, with more digital music sites to follow. EMI will offer the so-called “premium” tracks at a higher price than the current 99 cents/track. The non-DRM’d tracks will have better audio quality, with a 256K bit rate, which Steve Jobs called “indistinguishable from the original source material.” That’s a debatable claim, but it’s twice as good current 128K AAC currently available.

A couple of pieces of very good news – iTunes customers who have previously purchased EMI tracks can upgrade them, for 30 cents each, to DRM-free. Also, the price to purchase entire albums will be the same. No word how that will work on the recently announced “Complete My Album” feature.

Is this the beginning of the end for DRM? Maybe. EMI CEO Eric Nicoli’s statements on the move are quite extraordinary given the industry’s prevailing attitude on the subject:

“We have to trust our consumers,” he said. “We have always argued that the best way to combat illegal traffic is to make legal content available at decent value and convenient.”

Apple CEO Steve Jobs shared the podium with Nicoli, and had this to say:

“This is the next big step forward in the digital music revolution – the movement to completely interoperable DRM-free music …”The right thing to do is to tear down walls that precluded interoperability by going DRM-free and that starts here today.”

Trust your customers? Tear down the walls? What on earth is going on here? It almost gives one hope.

If customers bite, it means big bucks for Apple and its industry partners, says ZDNet’s Dan Farber and Larry Digman:

Why will the music industry follow EMI’s lead? Let’s do the math.

Say I have 1,000 songs purchased on iTunes with the DRM. Let’s assume all of those songs are EMI tunes. I hate DRM so I’ll spend 30 cents a song to ditch DRM for a total of $300. Multiply that by a million customers and you get $300 million.

That won’t happen overnight, but you can see the sales adding up for the music industry.

For Apple, the math looks like this: More music downloads.

Listen to the podcast. Note: the first several minutes are standard EMI promo stuff, with an advance listen to a Chemical Brothers track.

iTunes Complete My Album Update

apple.jpgThere’s a press release on Apple’s website that clarifies the just-announced “Complete My Album” offer. It’s not due to expire on June 26, as my previous post indicated. Instead, it appears to be a permanent iTunes feature. The June 26 deadline is for all previously purchased songs – the date represents 180 days from March 29, when the offer was officially announced:

Complete My Album offers customers up to 180 days after first purchasing individual songs from any qualifying album to purchase the rest of that album at a reduced price. When users buy any song on iTunes the corresponding album will immediately appear on their personalized Complete My Album page with the reduced price listed.

Once again, the Cupertino company is at the leading edge in customer service and satisfaction. Wonder how long it will be before Zune and Rhapsody go down the same road?