Jul 252009

Pop Quiz: How do you make a smug, untalented crooner like Rick Astley listenable again? Why you mash him up with a far superior band, of course:

Jul 192009

Bad Veins, “Gold and Warm”

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This is the new single from a new band called Bad Veins. Their debut, self-titled album comes out on Dangerbird Records this Tuesday.  The single is called “Gold and Warm”, and I find it to be all kinds of groovy:

P.S: Props to Dangerbird for allowing embedding on their videos.  Thanks for making sharing your artists’ music easy!

Jul 122009

My friend Ann sent me a link a few days ago to an “Open Letter” taking Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley fame) to task for the use of one of her songs in a Carl’s Jr. advertisement.  The offending Carl’s Jr. ad can be found over at YouTube.  For my purposes here, I will concede entirely that  the ad in question is as horribly misogynistic and objectifying as the author of the letter, Malori Maloney, claims it is.  The problem with the letter is that Ms. Maloney is placing blame on the wrong person.  Jenny Lewis likely had little to no control over how her song was used.

In blaming Lewis for the use of her material, Maloney makes a common mistake by assuming that artists are the sole masters of their recorded material.  While it’s true that most established modern artists often have a great deal of latitude in negotiating their contracts, most will have to give up a great deal of control over the usage of their material to their labels.  This is particularly true of the Major labels, including Warner Bros. Records to whom Rilo Kiley is currently signed.

(Side rant: anyone who insists on referring to Rilo Kiley as “Indie” are technically incorrect.  Rilo Kiley were Indie, which is short for “Independent”, for many years, but since their signing to Warner Bros. they’re no longer really “independent” in any musically meaningful sense of the word.  Unless of course we’re going to continue the facade of turning “Indie” into a genre like we did with “Alternative”.  In which case, I suppose I have no recourse but to throw up my hands in the face of the persistent spectre of genre creep.)

See, most major labels want to not only sell albums and merchandise and get their cut from the fans, but also want the rights to reuse the music they’ve purchased in other lucrative ways.  This includes use in TV shows, movies, and, yes, advertisements.  For the label, this functions as a handy secondary revenue stream.  As for the artists, they often benefit from the free advertising.  One example cogent to the artist at hand would be the use of Rilo Kiley’s “Portions for Foxes” on the pilot of the show Grey’s Anatomy, which greatly expanded Rilo Kiley’s exposure amongst a demographic which isn’t typically exposed to independent music (which Rilo Kiley still were at the time.)

This is one of many reasons why accusations that a particular band has “sold out” are often misguided.  Bands benefit from signing to major labels because their music gets distributed more widely and they benefit from the stronger support that a major label can provide.  Of course, there are downsides as well, one of them being that the artists don’t know how their music is going to be used.

This is one reason why some of the more successful Indie labels (e.g. Saddle Creek and Sub Pop) often have their pick of any number of great artists: they can offer many of the same benefits of the major music groups and yet offer artists more control over how their music is used.

So getting upset with Jenny Lewis over the use of her song in a Carl’s Jr. ad is short-sighted at best.  If one really feels the need to blame the artist, about the only recourse to blame them for signing to Warner Bros., in which case one ought be prepared to disown their ambitious, critically-acclaimed Under the Blacklights album, which was a product of that union.  One ought also to consider that Rilo Kiley’s current popular success may only have been possible on a label as large and as powerful as Warner Bros.

So really, if you want to blame someone for sullying Rilo Kiley’s music by using it soundtrack burger-eating, bikini-clad models, the blame Warner Bros.  They are a proper target for ire, though I imagine anyone complaining will find them unreceptive.  It’s often hard to hear a few complaining voices (no matter how good their arguments) over the sound of piles and piles of filthy lucre.

In closing, I’d just like to remark that this mistake is, in most cases, an understandable one.  People are often not interested in the internal workings of music labels (and really, why should they be?), and so it’s intuitive and natural to assume that an artist’s product is under the artist’s control.  What there isn’t an excuse for, however, is for a writer for a pop culture magazine to make such a mistake.  Bitch magazine, in which the letter was published, bills itself as a “Feminist Response to Pop Culture”.  And while I can’t speak to their feminist credentials, their understanding of the music industry seems to leave something to be desired.

Jul 062009

Hey Presto!

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Well, would you look at that. I finally got around to changing the Categories all to Tags. The categories were a hold-over from the Blogspot days, but they were clunky and annoying in WordPress. I’ve created some categories to use, but all the old ones were converted to tags. This both makes the blog search easier, but also significantly cleans up the right-hand sidebar. It also makes admin easier for me. So, you know, wins all around.

You’ll notice that most of the posts are currently all tagged, but “Uncategorized”, I’ll try to get those assigned to the appropriate general category (e.g. “Reviews”, “Videos”, etc.) over the next couple weeks.

Jul 062009

“Wait! They don’t love you like I love you.”

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Because I’ve been on a total Yeah Yeah Yeahs kick of late, here they are performing “Maps”:

I would link you to the actual music video but, since they’re a UMG artist, I can’t. See, Universal Music Group disables embedding on all their videos on YouTube. Still, it’s a good video and worth watching, so do check it out.

Jul 032009

Reflections on Michael Jackson

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Michael Jackson gets short shrift from the modern music community. He’s fallen out of favor with a lot of modern fans, many critics refuse to acknowledge him as anything other than, at best, “a talented entertainer”, and the general public at large are more attracted to the freakish character of the last few years of his life than they are to his stellar musical career before that. So in a way, it feels like one almost has to not only remark on Jackson’s passing, but in some sense defend his musical career in doing so.  Which is sort of a strange position to be in, since Michael Jackson is essentially the reason that we have modern pop music.

Now, let me start out by saying that my personal musical tastes don’t often attract me to pop music. And even the stuff I do like is usually the stuff that pretends to be rock music (I will neither confirm nor deny that I have a voluminous collection of Sister Hazel albums). But as a genre, pop has acquired a reputation as being universally water-y, homogeneous drivel. And here’s the thing: there’s a lot of truth to that.

But see, what’s interesting is not THAT pop music is full of soulless, sound-alike pablum, but WHY it’s that way. Pop music is uniform and boring because pop artists are all trying to imitate a stable of three or four original pop artists and what’s worse, they’re doing so poorly. Of course, probably the most influential of those was Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson wasn’t just on the scene when modern pop music was developing, he in many ways WAS the scene. There was a period of a little over a decade (from the release of Off the Wall in 1979 until the early 90s) where pop music was more or less defined as “that kind of music that Michael Jackson does”.  The four albums released during that period alone have sold almost 200 million copies worldwide.  Thriller, his most popular album, has gone platinum so many times as to render the notion meaningless. (“28x Multi-Platinum” kind of loses the sense of scale).

So during the 80s when pop music started to take off, it was natural that a lot of artists wanted to tap into what Michael Jackson (and Prince and some other similar big-name pop stars) were doing.  Of course, during the 80s, there was still quite a bit of experimentation and musical exploration of exactly what “pop” would sound like.  And while none of the artists or sounds was as successful as Michael Jackson, there was some variety in the genre.

Enter the major music labels and their production-line approach to popular music.  The 90s saw the labels beginning what could charitably be called a “refining” of the pop sound.  Labels began to treat pop much like they’d treated R&B decades earlier: artists were picked to fit a particular sound and image and then those artists each worked with a team of label-procured writers, producers, marketing flacks, etc. to make that image work and sell money.  “Pop” music became more and more narrowly defined and other influences were excluded.  The result was that the genre became increasingly homogeneous and isolated.

The new pop sound?  Glitzy synth and guitar lines, an over-all clean and unmuddled sound, a dance-oriented feel, relatively simple song structure, and a vocal-centered aesthetic.  It was a distillation (some would say a watering down) of what Michael Jackson had been doing (and selling successfully) for years.  And that’s EXACTLY why it was picked.  See, when the majors get find an artist, they of course need to know if that artist will sell.  Well, without releasing a bunch of a musician’s albums, it’s hard to know if their music in particular is going to be successful.  But that’s too high-risk of a business venture.  A safer approach is to scout and recruit artists who either sound something like a band that’s already wildly successful, or artists that are willing to change their sound to do so.  It’s a cheap and relatively effective way of ensuring that one’s new artists will have at least some chance of appealing to an established audience.

For pop music in the 90s, Michael Jackson was the yardstick by which all pop acts where measured.  The result?  After two decades, the “pop” genre has begun to stagnate.  And the common center around which it has stagnated is a somewhat distorted, somewhat watered down idea of what “pop” should sound like towards which the artists can aspire.  In a weird sort of way, the music industry has guaranteed that modern pop acts are, one and all, bad Michael Jackson impersonators.

So, if modern pop music feels soulless and overproduced and simple and chintzy, know that it’s not because all the artists are imitating Michael Jackson.  It’s because they’re all imitating him poorly.  It seems kind of odd in retrospect, but the genre that he built is slowly dying because people won’t let go of his sound.

Michael Jackson, Resquiescat In Pace.