moments before the wind.

April 23, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #16 – End Bits

One thing that I continually find entertaning is the feedback loop at the conference, presenters quoting writers to help support their point, and those writers are literally sitting in the audience listening to their own words spoken back to them. This kind of validation (or cancellation?) is a kind of black hole, a weird moment in time when the reasoning behind an argument starts to sound circular. For some reason the fact that the original writer is in the room listening sort of serves to render the intellectual capacity of the argument null and void. Like anything that is circular, you have to wonder whether it’s useful to end up where you started. Of course it can be. And of course it can’t be.


There seemed to be an exceptional amount of political commentaries built into the arguments I saw. The theme of the conference, “Waking Up From History,” propelled many writers to arrive at the concusion that we should actually wake up TO history, to learn from history, and to draw conclusions between the cultural sphere that our work covers and the political sphere of which we are citizens.

Some examples:

-Robert Bennett on the Jazz Diplomacy program and the things we should learn from it.
-Scott Nelson’s timely mention of “abortive gun policies” in the paper about John Henry’s exhumation – I’m not sure how he managed to reference the VA. Tech shootings in that conversation but at the time it made perfect sense.
-Brendan Greaves’ talk of Terry Allen’s border politics and the ways in which the Texas/Mexico border is treated by the government versus the inhabitants. 
-There was also an entire panel about New Orleans, as well as a smattering of other related papers throughout the weekend, all of which contained a fervent expression of the power of music and solidarity and the essential character of the city.

In general, as there seems to be in more and more things these days, there was a real sense of urgency that was more palpable than in previous conferences. It may have been the effect of the theme, but in general people’s research was very much rooted in the grim realities of life and music’s ability to help maintain and even create hope where all seems quite hopeless.


April 20, 2007

EMP Pop Conference #5 – On UVA

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, digital, distribution, folk, indie, labels, marketing, music, writing — alimarcus @ 10:12 pm

I had to make a stop to see the talk of an old college professor. Actually, he was never my professor, but he did administer a sightreading test once, and he also rejected my idea for a thesis on the grounds that there was no faculty member who would be interested in supporting it. (For the record, it was 2003, and I wanted to deconstruct the process of record labels as we knew them, and through a re-evaluation of the digital possibilties and available communication outlets, redesign the record label model for the 21st century. Heady topic for a 20-year-old intern, but I’ve always had big eyes.)

And so, I graduated without honors, but am a living example of the doomed thesis, or at least trying to be, so I am not sure yet whether he was being flippant about it, or if my career, like the thesis, is doomed as well.

His talk on the Pet Shop Boys, I dutifully report, was enlightening in the sense that I learned a little bit about them, and wonderfully pedantic in the sense that the combination of an old professor and some harmonic analysis brought me back to the basement of Old Cabell Hall. I could feel the chalk dust in the air, the creaky door panels, the musty classicism. I heard they are rebuilding the whole music department over there, which is triumphant but also a bit tragic as well.

EMP Pop Conference #4 – On Fans

Filed under: authenticity, business, distribution, labels, marketing, music, writing — alimarcus @ 9:59 pm

Jessica Suarez points out the fact that while new media claims to bring fans closer to musicians, it might in fact be creating not only a false sense of connection but also an avenue for exploitation by the business. I just have a story to share.

Once when I was working for a record label, they held a fan contest that asked the fans to submit names of local places where they wanted to hear the artist’s music. It worked like a raffle; one lucky winner would get some sort of signed memorabilia, like a guitar or something. It’s worth mentioning, too, that this particular fan club is one of the most active and close-knit that I’ve ever seen. I would not doubt that it’s one of the top ten biggest fan clubs around, either.

So anyways, as the intern for said record label, it was my job to filter through the emails. And guess what I had to do? Make a spreadsheet, of course, with all the names and contact information for all of these places, call them up, ask to send an instore play copy specially made for a lifestyle campaign, and then spend the hours packaging and sending. I discovered that a fan contest was, in this case, little more than a direct marketing ploy, not far from cold calling those specially tailored lists that people can buy. And in the end, I just chose a random person to be the “winner.”

It’s not that this was immoral or anything. Nobody was being taken advantage of, not really. But Suarez quoted Kelefah Sanneh commenting on “the potential for a community’s exploitation,” touching on exactly what made me a little uneasy at the time. Fans have no idea about the man behind the curtain, about the fact that the Wizard of Oz has an agenda that has nothing to do with anything except their wallets.

But I find it easier to avoid cynicism now that I know about these things. Strangely, it’s knowledge and the ability to prepare that helps to keep the faith. Which is ultimately why I love this conference, in it’s infinite attempts to expand our little bubbles.

i heard there was a major chord – introduction

Ahhhhhhh. So nice to be back. The continual decline of the EMP’s institutional gravitas only makes this conference all the more sweeter. Oh, how imminent demise doth make the heart grow!

But in the lovely Seattle springtime, everything feels like a rebirth, and so this weekend we embark on the eternal journey of speculation and debate, insight and confusion. Does this stuff matter to anyone else? If it doesn’t, does that matter? And if it does, then what are we doing here?

We are analysts, we are critics, we are artists: I cannot think of a more potent combination of inspired and cynical people who must against all odds maintain faith in this crazy work we do. For me, the conference feels like a yearly pep rally. So lets get to it. Thanks for reading!

February 10, 2007

fifteen miles on the erie canal

On an article in today’s NYT:

A woman curates a show called “Not For Sale,” in which artists are showing pieces that are not for sale. Very interesting things, to read about the various reasons artists hold on to or don’t hold on to things. The conclusion of the article:

“I’m not insisting that all these artists are in any way pure, whatever that is,” she said. “I just want to show people art that can be made and exist apart from the market for reasons that I hope still exist, even in this kind of market.”

But then, expressing her allegiance with the Ray Johnsons of the world and unable to stay completely away from the pulpit, she thumped the table with her hand. “We are talking about religion here, aren’t we?” she said, smiling fiercely. “We’re talking about God.”

A curious mix of righteousness and independence. It seems very clear that this woman knows exactly what she thinks, and while she is not going to force it on anyone else, she is going to make it very clear, and leave the choice up to the individual.

This sounds a little bit familiar. How ’bout here:

Turtle Rock is not a record label that is trying to compete with – or even criticize – the practices of other record labels, major or independent. It is simply going its own way.

Nevertheless, the materialism of our culture has become an ecstatic caricature of itself, unabashedly reveling in its own greed.

The same sort of back and forth coming from me. And Turtle Rock practices are shifting a little bit, with a new record out that actually costs money, people are asking questions. But people are also buying, so it can’t be that horrible. Things like integrity or value can’t truly be measured but they can be felt. So as long as we are still paying attention to that, then things should be OK.

Did I mention the record is for sale?

Did I mention that the website is rebuilt?

Did I mention that half of the album is still completely free?

December 15, 2006

in letters made of gold, my love

Filed under: authenticity, business, folk, labels, marketing, music, writing — alimarcus @ 3:52 pm

There seems to be an insane amount of Christmas music around this year. I am not sure if it is actually more prolific than usual, if I happen to be noticing it more, or if it’s just the fact that the less showy singers seem to be more involved that they have been in the past. A short list off the top of my head – I’m hearing Aimee Mann’s Christmas stuff all over the place, and she put on some concerts. I saw a Sufijan Stevens Christmas album (no surprise there, really). Sarah McLaughlin too. And this big family gathering put on by the Wainwright/McGarrigle clan. And I just don’t really get it.

From the audience’s perspective, what inspires people to want to listen to an entire album, or an entire concert, of Christmas music? I think this just might be a personal choice, one that I have never agonized over, that some people are actually emotionally attached to Christmas music, and to hear one of their favorite artists sing it can be a worthwile experience. To me it sounds like an afterschool special from, if not hell, then at least our high school holiday assemblies.

Additionally, it seems like a marketing scam. As if all of the Christmas frenzy hasn’t already consumed far too much of our time, worry, and money, the music industry – no, the halfway respectable part of the music industry, specifically – is trying to grab their piece of the pie. It’s never so much bothered me that the crooners, the chansonniers of the world have been doing it for ages, like Dean Martin or Bette Midler or Mariah Carey. And I suppose that when I say “respectable” I don’t actually mean “respectable,” since there’s plenty to respect about DM, BM, MC, etc. What I mean is something entirely different, but rather than edit my words I’ll just unwrap it this way.

What I incorrectly dub as “respectable” artists are artists with whom I identify. Artist that I can see parts of myself in, and in whom I want to be able to see parts of my self or future self, or past self, or all of them.

Hence, when someone like Aimee Mann, who is easily one of the most important people in this category for me, puts out an album that I interpret as pandering, I am really put off by it. And there’s a lot of pandering to go around these days.

And of course I want Aimee Mann to be able to continue her career, and succeed, so that there can be more great music and all that. But from an artist’s perspective, I just feel like I lose a bit of respect in situations like these. Thus the use of “respectable.”

But I am a purist. And you gotta do what you gotta do, and hell, maybe these people actually wanted to do something like this. It seems to me, though, to be more of a symptom of the flailing industry model and the gasps of breath that people are lunging for at any opportunity. Understandably. This could be part of a larger lesson in the realities of life for me also. It’s sort of that time. Aimee Mann, just like me or anyone else, has to weigh the sacrifices against the rewards, and I doubt there are many tangible things that retain their idealogical purity anyhow. And in addition to that, there are plenty of people whom I respect that disappoint me in certain ways, and you have to learn how to process that, and learn from the disappointments along with the encouragement.

The Nields, who appeared in my bizarre dream last night, have this great song on an old album (Bob On The Ceiling) called “Merry Christmas, Mr. Jones,” and it’s a rare specimen: a song sort of about Christmas, with Christmas in the title, that still manages to use the context in an intriguing way, to make a song that can be listened to at any time of the year, no holiday misery/euphoria necessary.

November 11, 2006

well then embroider me in gold

Filed under: business, digital, distribution, labels, marketing, music, news — alimarcus @ 10:49 am

Me and Coolfer are on the same page. And probably lots of other people, too. Regarding the iPod/Zune/Major Label dynamic, I’ve been saying that the way people will be making the big dollars is just the way Apple does it – from the hardware. The software, and to be honest, the downloads, are small potatoes compared to the machine that plays them. Just a few days ago I wrote here about how Microsoft probably has something up their sleeve, and today I find that indeed they do.

October 31, 2006

holes in my fishnets and holes in my last alibi

Filed under: architecture, authenticity, business, digital, distribution, indie, labels, marketing, music, news — alimarcus @ 8:22 am

Coolfer posted an interesting link today, to an article about Thrill Jockey and record labels’ reistance to downloading. Basically, owner Bettina Richards has decided to offer only full albums online, and lets people stream the albums for free so that they can decide to buy, or not. She also has all the liner notes readily available to browse while listening.

Richards makes an interesting point: “ITunes sells a lot of MP3s to sell MP3 players — they’re not in the game of label survival. I am.” Often, people don’t talk about the fact that iTunes is a warm up to the iPod. It’s well designed and popular, but the money comes from the hardware. Labels, so far, don’t quite have that luxury. Until they do – the U2 iPod being a good example of what’s to come. I’ve said it before that I truly am expecting Starbucks to come out with their own iPod as well, and I’m sure other folks will follow. Maybe the Zune folks over at Microsoft have something up their sleeve. It’s like the Hello Kitty phase that little girls go through when they are eight. People see these things as fashion and they identify, however silly it may be, with the design of the thing – branding is powerful. Using music and musicians as this means of identification is nothing new (see NKOTB lunch boxes) but suddenly it seems more necessary for survival. Unfortunately it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the music itself.

So, going back to how small indies try to preserve their modestly good intentions. Rune Kristofferson of the Norwegian label Rune Grammofon distributes through Thrill Jockey mainly because his principles are in line. But still, he comments: “My main priority is the physical product, and I’m not even sure if I want us to continue being a label if downloading will take over.” Now this is less nihilistic than it sounds, I think. Maybe the perceptions of what record labels do are enough to get people into this business, and I’m willing to bet that the combination of finding out what really goes on, and the way technology is changing the industry, are going to drive a lot of people to re-evaluation. The concept of a record label is something we have in our minds that is becoming less and less the truth as the months go by. Fascinating, and a bit unfair, that there was definitely a stable period of standardization on which many people founded these beliefs, and now they have very much crumbled. I think it’s a glass half-empty/half-full kind of a thing.

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