October 25, 2006

It’s the fifth anniversary of the iPod, giving the press plenty of excuse to write another “Franco’s still dead” story about the phenomenon of our time. Slate has two today, one about how the iPod isn’t revolutionary but merely an evolution of the Walkman, and another about how combination phone-musicplayers such as Nokia’s new N91 will knock the iPod off its perch.

Both miss a really important point: it’s the software, not the hardware! MP3 players predate the iPod by several years. There are literally dozens of Windows Media-based players that are cheaper and offer more features than the iPod. Why have they all failed against the iPod? Sure, the white shiny box looks cool, and the font in the UI reminds people of their first computer (which was a Mac…unless you were a programmer or a masochistic DOS devotee). But the real advantage comes from the iTunes software that iPodders use to collect songs from the hard drive, acquire them from Apple’s online store, arrange them into playlists, and transfer them to the device. It’s simple, attractive, intuitive, and works correctly. The Windows Media Player, as every 20-year-old knows, sucks in comparison.

This fact completely sinks Slate’s article about the N91. The author, a Mac user, probably hasn’t had much experience with the Windows Media Player, as he breezily states “PC users can get even smoother integration—the N91 connects directly to Windows Media Player without the need for an external application.”

But the other thing that this guy and all the other writers who’ve proposed that the musicphone will kill the iPod are missing: convergence never works. Over and over and over, consumers have shown that they would rather buy multiple devices, each of which does one thing well, than a single device that does nothing well. When I reach down to skip a song, I don’t want to accidentally dial my mom. When I want to call my friend Barry, I don’t want to start playing a Barry White song. No matter if the UI designers are geniuses, a combination device is by nature too confusing, and the “sacrifice” of carrying two devices isn’t really a sacrifice at all.

That’s not even getting into the business side of it. Carriers want you to buy their ridiculously overpriced songs directly over the air from their stores and charge you extra data fees for doing so, not buy them from an online store and transfer them to your PC. So they’ll be reluctant to stock these things. So they don’t want to stock any phone that actually duplicates the functionality of an iPod. Even if Apple comes out with the rumored iPhone, probably they won’t have agreements with all the carriers–will I really want to switch my coverage from Verizon to Cingular just so I can get a combo device? No. I want the best phone with the best coverage for making phone calls, and the best music player with the best features for playing music.

If Apple’s really expecting to sell 25 million iPhones next year, they’re smoking crack.


Rainbow bites the dust

October 18, 2006

Perhaps the owners of The Comet should take a hint from another Seattle music venue, The Rainbow, which will cease offering live music at the end of 2006 after more than 50 YEARS. Back a few years ago when I used to go to a lot of shows, the Rainbow was a solid venue–lots of jazz and jam bands, and occasional indie rock. Even if you hadn’t heard of all the acts playing, you could be assured that the musicianship would be solid.

The story I hear from an insider: a couple years ago, their booker quit. The owner decided he’d handle all booking himself. He knew nothing about music or the local Seattle scene, and therefore put together bills that made no sense and that featured bands who shouldn’t have been allowed out of their garage. (Sample booking strategy: send a mass e-mail to everybody on a Seattle music mailing list, see who responds first.)  Surprisingly, real musicians who actually cared about making decent music stopped playing there. Even more surprisingly, people stopped going to shows there. Most surprisingly of all, the Rainbow started losing money, fast.

Now they’re going to turn it into some sort of dance club. That’s right: nobody goes to live shows anymore. Just look at Fremont on any Saturday night.

Comet vomit

October 18, 2006

The Comet Tavern’s an old Seattle landmark, more known for its graffiti-covered walls and its status as a grunge-star hangout than its live music. Until recently, the Comet had live music maybe a few times a month, usually touring hardcore or punk bands with a couple local acts to fill the bill. The house gear was minimal, and shows were usually free. But a few months ago, they got new owners who decided to try and turn it into a more traditional live music venue.

Unfortunately for them and any band that plays there, they’re taking the approach of treating musicians like shit. The idea, tried and tested by club owners who  don’t particularly care about music but only want to make a quick buck, is to squeeze as many bands as possible on a bill with no concern for coherence or reputation or type of music, in hopes that they’ll all bring a few friends and the bar will make some money. Which is fine as long as they’re organized and honest about it. Not the Comet. The booker told us the music would start at 9 because it was a four-band bill, and they had us listed at the bottom of the bands playing, meaning we should go on first. She sent us this long e-mail full of rules and regulations, and seemed pretty official, so that’s what we told everyone.

But the doorman and soundguy had some mystery order in which we were featured second (which was actually good), then refused to let the first band start until 10, even though the place was full (which was retarded). Because the show started so late and there were four bands, they rushed us off the stage after only 30 minutes, meaning we had to cut our set by 5 songs. Even though half the people in the bar, literally, were there to see us. Then the soundguy told us to load out…immediately…into the street…where we weren’t about to leave our gear unguarded. (What’s the point of that? Keep us around and we might actually buy more drinks.) Adding to the sting, the free drink tickets that all clubs give bands are only good for dog piss (PBR and High Life) at the Comet…and you CAN’T even add a buck or two for another beer because the OWNERS apprently WEIGH the kegs and check them against the tabs. (Although maybe the bartender was just being a dick  because he didn’t want to do the math to figure out how much a drink ticket was worth.)

It really sucked because we had a lot of people there for us. (On a Tuesday night. Go figure. Sometimes we’ve had a lot fewer people on a Friday or Saturday.) And sure enough, as soon as we were done, the bar cleared out.

None of it made any sense from anybody’s perspective–the musicians were miserable, the customers were miserable, the staff was miserable for being forced to enforce stupid rules that they didn’t create.

Memo to all club owners and bookers: if you treat your musicians like shit, eventually you’ll only get shit musicians. Good luck keeping a venue running with that approach.


October 13, 2006


I’ve been a Roger Waters fan for years–I always believed he was the soul of Pink Floyd, and I’m one of the few souls who own and have regularly enjoyed listening to his solo records, particularly the universally panned Radio KAOS. 

But I’ve seen him a bunch of times, and he’s getting old, and I don’t enjoy huge concerts like I used to. I saw him do The Wall on the spot of the former Berlin Wall in 1990 (horrible show with half a million Germans in a dust bowl, and they had to re-perform half the show for the TV/DVD because of sound problems, but it was a great reason to visit Berlin since I was already in Europe at the time). I saw him three times on his last tour: in Kansas City in 1999 (part of a road trip that began 6 months of travel), at The Gorge in the middle of Washington State in 2000 (incredible setting overlooking the Columbia River canyon, and the show started with Rog’s private 737 buzzing the arena–can’t top that), and in Paris in 2002 (great excuse for a week’s vacation with my wife, but a fairly boring show).

So when he announced earlier this year that he’d be playing Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety…and that tickets would go on sale early for American Express cardholders…and that decent seats would cost $125 plus fees…I smelled a cash-in attempt and was going to skip it. Fortunately, a friend talked me into going and had access to a corporate credit card, because this time he put on an absolutely amazing show, a solid 2 1/2 hours of exquisite sound with a 100-foot high-def video screen (where’d he get that?) that actually augmented the music rather than just being eye candy.

Although he did less solo stuff than on his last tour, it felt more like a Roger Waters show–very dark and political, with two full songs from his anti-war opus The Final Cut (a Floyd album in name only and one of the darkest records ever made) and a new song, “Leaving Beirut,” that was basically a 12-minute jeremiad against Bush and Blair and the Iraq war, with an associated a graphic-novelesque video depicting an incident from Rog’s 1961 trip to Lebanon, along with lyrics printed in cartoon-dialog balloons. (It was about two verses too long, and I got the message loud and clear, but at least he’s not hiding his beliefs.) Plus the expected songs, some of which sounded great (most of Dark Side, particularly “On the Run,” “Great Gig in the Sky,” and “Us & Them,” as well as “Set the Controls,” “Another Brick” and “Sheep”) and some of which I don’t care if I never hear again (most of Wish You Were Here).

But what really distinguishes Waters from Fake Floyd is the sense of theater, the combination of songs and video and effects that all work together in clever and sometimes funny ways. Before the show started, the huge high-def video screen behind the stage showed a radio and a bottle of whiskey (Johnny Walker with the label turned around so as not to appear to be an advertisement). At one point, cigarette smoke started rising, and a hand reached up and turned the radio dial to play “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn…a tie-in to the song “Vera” from The Wall, which starts with “does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?” and which he played at the end of the show. A few minutes later, the hand switched back to a rock and roll station, which played some Chuck Berry, then the beginning of Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” at which point everybody in the arena winced…as did the disembodied video narrator, who reached up and immediately switched it to something better! Huge arena-rattling missle-overhead noises and explosions added to the end of “In the Flesh.” A giant flying inflatable pig that’s apparently hand-graffiti’d by Roger every night with slogans like “habeas corpus matters” and “Kafka rules,” not to mention “Impeach Bush Now” across its ass. Surprising added sound effects during “On the Run” that made me jump, like a train and race cars, with associated video in fluorescent super-saturated orange and green. The pills on the video screen during “Brain Damage” printed with the small text “Soma.” The flags of Israel and various Arab countries flashing by during “Bring the Boys Back Home” (it’s not just about America or England). The quick shot of him standing atop the Berlin Wall during “Another Brick.” The satellite from Radio KAOS circling the moon toward the end of Dark Side. The war-as-football-stadium-entertainment video during “Perfect Sense.” A long shot of an oil well pumping during “Us and Them”, sitting there just long enough for you to wonder “what the hell?”… until he sings “and who’ll deny it’s what the fighting’s all about?” A quick fadethrough montage featuring George W Bush in the Mission Accomplished flyer shot just as he sings the line “all you distrust” from “Eclipse.” And so forth and so on.

That said, the lead guitarist did a great job of imitating David Gilmour’s parts but wasn’t him, and a lot of Dark Side was sung by bandmembers who aren’t Gilmour or Rick Wright, making it sometimes seem like a Pink Floyd cover band. And Rog’s music occasionally feels plodding or a little bit cheesy (like the soprano saxophone, which has been ruined forever by Kenny G). His shows are much more meaningful and (I believe) heartfelt than the Fake Floyd tours were, but playing so many Floyd songs will inevitably draw comparisons, and Rog with a bunch of sidemen just isn’t the same as Pink Floyd and never can be.

It also became clear when he sang “Have a Cigar” that Syd was Pink.