Last night saw two of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had in ages, a perfect example of the joy you can get from small-scale, live, local music.
The Master Musicians of Bukkake describe themselves as a “loose-knit posse of Seattle-based musicians performing collective ceremonial music.” I’d describe them as a mixture of Fantomas and the Village People, transplanted to a hill tribe village in northern Thailand. Think costumes, old-style analog synths, samples and loops, burning swirling Paul Leary guitars, Black Sabbathy basslines, fog machines, and a singer who wavers between low growls and falsetto faux-Chinese. I’ve seen them twice before and found them too confrontational, almost like they were daring the audience to stick around. But last night they were tight, focused, energetic, and entertaining as hell, with lots of dynamic builds and just the right level of weirdness–interesting without being pretentious. Particularly loved a song that contained the lines “if the world spins, is that unfair to you?” and “you’re just a reflection,” repeated about 12 times each.
The second band, Hairy Apes BMX are a percussion-heavy funk-rap-groove combo with entertaining but political lyrics and a miraculous keyboardist/FX maestro. Think a combination of G-Love and Special Sauce, Disposable Heroes, and Bernie Worrell. You have to love a band that can write a catchy chorus about an acid trip and rhymes “Dick Cheney” with “Ayatollah Khomeini.” Especially if they’re from Texas. Which they are.
These bands are touring a bit together on the West Coast in April, and I strongly encourage anybody who likes unusual music to check them out.
Lots of people talk about supporting local music, but how many of you actually do it? I don’t just mean listening to college radio, which has its own circle-of-hipness that can make it almost as restrictive as commercial radio. I mean taking a risk and spending a few bucks to see an act you’ve never seen before. Going out to hear live music from a band that doesn’t get radio play and hasn’t been written up in Rolling Stone and isn’t trying to imitate everybody on MTV, a group of musicians who could have taken the easy way out and started playing 70s funk covers for frat boys and casino rats, but instead continues to play original music on weeknights for 20 people. Just for the sheer love of it.
This week, it so happens that a lot of people I know are playing these kinds of shows. So I’ve decided to try and make it out for seven nights in a row–something I’ve never done.
Sunday, I subbed in on bass for an old band I used to play with, Natalie Wouldn’t, and got to catch The Plaintiffs, who do a sort of tongue-in-cheek 80s rock with country influences…sort of like the Young Fresh Fellows meets .38 Special. (Some of these guys were in The Squirrels, who did an absolutely brilliant parody of Dark Side of the Moon which every Pink Floyd fan should buy immediately.)
Monday, I went to hear James Whiton and the Downtown Apostles, an apocalyptic Knitting Factory jazz-metal combo. Psychedelia and kewl-jazz rainy-streets-at-night soundscapes. James is a great bassist, he’s about to go on tour with Eric McFadden, a shredmonster guitarist who plays with George Clinton and Funkadelic. Anyway, great band. Left a nice afterglow that persists this morning.
Very sad article in today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer (one of two daily rags here) regarding the Experience Music Project, Paul Allen’s multibillion-dollar music museum.
Personally, I was excited when the EMP first opened–so excited that I bought a one-year family membership. How disappointing! The ride never changed. The exhibits never changed. The hands-on music lab–the coolest (maybe only really cool) thing in the EMP–was always packed to the rafters. Worst, I was promised early notice to buy tickets for shows there, but never got any such notice, and every show I tried to attend was sold out days in advance. Needless to say, I didn’t resubscribe.
Last year, when a relative was in town, I bought another one-year membership because it was actually cheaper than buying three standalone entry fees ($60! Ouch!!). Once again, I was sorely disappointed. There’s really no reason to visit the damn thing more than once or twice a year. Worse yet, it’s depressing–it’s usually half empty (except for that hands-on lab) and the cavernous spaces reinforce this sense of being in a morgue or crypt. Just an awful, un-fun experience all the way around.
It seems like Paul Allen’s losing interset in his mid-life rock ‘n’ roll obsession–I read that he’s selling his interest in local college station KEXP as well. That’s good. As the PI’s companion article on the EMP’s “secretive culture” makes clear, Mr. Allen’s a paranoid nutball. It’s going to take somebody else to save what he’s built.
And here’s how:
1. Cut the entrance fee in half, to $10, immediately. $20 is outrageous. Even the Museum of Modern Art in NYC is getting flak for raising admission fees to $20. And in terms of cultural significance, the EMP’s a wart on MOMA’s backside. Van Gogh’s Starry Night or a guitar played by Hendrix? No comparison. $10 might get some people back in there.
2. Book more shows in the SkyChurch (big venue). At least 4 per month. I’d love to see EMP creating some competition for the Showbox, Seattle’s default mid-sized (max capacity less than 1,000) venue for touring bands.
3. The Liquid Lounge is the best venue in Seattle that nobody’s ever been to. Why is that? They should book local bands seven nights a week, and really promote them–have a graphic designer create fliers that the bands can pass out and put on lampposts, buy some radio promotion, buy some ads in local weeklies. Seattle’s got a great music scene, where bands support one another–it’s far better than San Francisco, where I used to live–and up-and-coming bands would love a way out of the “pay our soundguy $100” hipper-than-thou cabal that currently controls many small local venues.
4. Halve the security staff. What are they protecting? The exhibits are all alarmed and behind bulletproof glass. And there’s something distinctly un-rock-and-roll about getting yelled at for accidentally bringing a beer bottle outside the confines of the Turntable restaurant when searching for a bathroom.
5. Increase the size of the sound lab, the only cool (and consistenly popular) part of the museum. Expand it into the space currently occupied by that idiotic “pretend you’re a rock star” ride thing. People might want to play at being rock stars once, but they’ll never go back. But banging on free instruments is really fun. Change up the stuff in those rooms and make more of them and people will flock to them.
6. Create a small movie theater with a fantastic sound system and show rock movies, every night of the week. I’d pay $10 to see Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii on a big screen with a killer PA, rather than at home. There are thousands of rock movies sitting at my local video store–why couldn’t EMP screen them?
7. Sacrifice one floor of the lame exhibits and build a decent recording studio. Charge reasonable rates so that unsigned bands have a chance to make a top-notch recordings without spending ten thousand dollars. Heck, why not run a promotion and management company out of the EMP?
In other words, support and promote the local music scene, rather than catering to tourists. Active not passive.
So looks like Sony’s making a change at the top.
Mr. Stringer has a tough job. Here’s what I’d do if I were him.
1. Bag the low-end low-cost consumer electronics hardware. It’s already been commoditized, and you can’t compete with grey-label companies out of China making $49 DVD players.
2. Focus on style, design, and high-end stuff for discerning customers. Open a chain of Sony-branded retail stores like Apple.
3. Kill all of your proprietary standards right now and continue to embrace more widely accepted standards.
4. Drive interoperability among DRM systems really really hard. There’s no way DRM will work if we continue to have the current situation in which content from certain sources can only be played on certain devices.
5. Force your content arms–Sony BMG Music and Sony Pictures–to ease up on their DRM restrictions. Make way more unprotected material available. Embrace and drive new and experimental business methods like legalized, royalty-based file sharing. Stop using the RIAA to sue your customers. Let your artists build deeper relationships with their fans now, and long-term, your content sales will go up.
A company to watch: founded by former Napster head Shawn Fanning, Snocap is trying to build a rights clearinghouse for legal P2P file-trading services.
In plain English? The record industry hates file-trading services like Kazaa because they allow customers to download music for free. But despite the record industry’s lawsuits against the companies that make peer-to-peer (P2P) file-trading software and their customers, file-trading networks are very hard to shut down. Cut one head off (the original Napster) and two more (Kazaa and eDonkey) spring up in its place. Their decentralization–millions of individual users with no “company” or “headquarters” distributing anything–and their international reach of the Internet makes it impossible to legislate them out of existence.
What Snocap proposes is that the record companies embrace file-trading and try and find a way to make money from it. So, the record companies list their songs in Snocap’s database, along with specific “rights” for each song, such as how many times it can be shared, what it costs to download it, what it costs to play it, and so on. So far, two of the big four, Universal and Sony BMG, have signed on.
Then somebody–not Snocap, but a startup like Mashboxx or maybe the record companies themselves or Microsoft or Apple or whoever– comes up with a legal P2P system that honors these rights. Importantly, Snocap is agnostic toward DRM technology (that’s digital rights management, technology that actually enforces the rights set by the content owners). This is crucial because Apple, Microsoft, RealNetworks, and many others have their own DRM schemes, none of which are currently compatible with one another. Snocap doesn’t care. All it does is handle the licensing–tracking what’s happening with the songs, collecting money from users or P2P software makers, and redistributing it to record companies.
But there’s a huge flaw here. Where’s the audience for Mashboxx and other legal P2P services? Why would anybody pay for a legal P2P system that restricts their rights when they can use free ones that have no restrictions? Where’s the user benefit?
(Suggestion: the fact that Mashboxx is a one-page Web site with a PDF link to a single press article suggests to me that, as of right now, there is no audience, thus no funding and no company.)
The only way it could work is if Kazaa and all the rest of the current popular “illegal” ones (I put that in quotes because it hasn’t been decided in court yet) agree to go along with Snocap. They could charge users a monthly or annual subscription to use their software. This would improve their revenues so they would not have to bundle annoying adware with their products anymore. Then they could let Snocap track per-song usage, collect an appropriate percentage of money for rights, and redistribute that money. Not sure how they’d stop free ones from undercutting them.
No matter what, the content owners are going to be worse off than they are today–the amount collected through legal P2P services will have to be far smaller than the amount collected for selling music through traditional channels (CDs in retail stores), otherwise nobody will use the legal services. And smaller pie means smaller pieces for big content owners. But that’s better than no pie at all.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted an interesting proposal for collecting royalties on music file-sharing. The idea is that ISPs, software makers, universities, mobile phone operators, and other organizations that want to legitimize file-sharing levy a standard blanket fee on users. The EFF suggests $5 per user per month, but let the market decide. The money is collected and distributed among publishers. This is how radio (and other forms of media playback, like the soundtrack you hear at the gym or grocery store) works today–ASCAP and BMI collect from these sources and distribute to the publishers. In fact, most mid-level and higher artists make far more money from publishing rights than they ever do from record sales.
Interesting proposal. Great benefits for companies like BigChampagne who would essentially become the minters of new currency, like Nielsen is for TV ratings today.
The big trick, of course, is getting the record industry to realize that their old business model is dead and not coming back to life. They’re still in denial….