Jesse Sykes on Pitchfork

March 30, 2007

Funny interview in which Seattle downbeat alt-country chanteuse (how’s that for criticspeak?) Jesse Sykes disses Pitchfork. She’s right when she says people who buy music based on reviews are idiots–I’m left with a bunch of bad indie-rock LPs I’m trying to sell because of idiot reviews I’ve trusted. (I’ve added Soul Coughing’s 1996 record “Irresistible Bliss” to the list…not sure why I ever bought that.)

But her point about there being so many bands and so many critics was what really rang true. It’s like Lefsetz says–there’s no mainstream anymore. Everybody can play the guitar–or at least garage rock barre chord guitar. Everybody can sing–or at least indie-rock sing (slightly out of tune to show you don’t care) or amateur hip-hop sing (talk in rhythm over a beat). There are still the skilled workers in the background, the DJs and producers and drummers (especially drummers…thank God for good drummers), but everybody between the ages of 20 and 40 is in a band, was in a band, or has friends in a band. They all think they’re good. And with so many bands, and so few of them on the radio, and so few people with enough musical conviction to trust their ears, nobody knows what to listen to anymore. Hence the demand for all these new critical outlets. I mean, Rolling Stone and Spin haven’t been relevant for years to anybody but rural teenage mallrats. So instead we’ve got Pitchfork and college radio station bloggers and weekly paper bloggers and bloggers and more bloggers, with no particular credentials, but a lot of opinion.

So I can see why Jesse, who puts an enormous amount of effort into her music, is frustrated because some kid in Chicago didn’t like her album after a couple listens. But she’s also right–in the long run, if you really have something to say and you have the craft and patience and talent to say it well, then you’ll survive.


The suits talk DRM

March 20, 2007

Two interesting posts from AppScout about panel discussions on DRM at the Digital Music Forum in New York City last month. In the first, a group of execs from Sony BMG, Real/Rhapsody, and several small online music distributors argue that DRM is necessary, that Steve Jobs was blowing smoke, and that if Pixar/Disney started selling its content without DRM, everybody would sell the stock on the presumption that piracy would render its business unsustainable. Fortunately, one guy from digital distributor The Orchard pointed out that DRM doesn’t work to prevent piracy anyway, but only prevents average consumers from doing things they might want to do, such as transfer an iTunes download to a non-iPod device.

The second discussion sounded a bit more interesting, with some industry folks admitting that eliminating DRM would actually benefit them financially, and a long discussion of my favorite topic, the celestial jukebox.

Do Make Say Think

March 8, 2007

Do Make Say Think played gorgeous music last night at Neumo’s in Seattle. A music critic might classify them as “post-rock,” a genre that involves lots of instruments, extreme shifts in dynamics, slow tempos, classical constructions (lots of triads, few sevenths or jazz chords), and few or no vocals. “Post-” because most of the musicians came out of the rock world (particularly punk), but somewhere along the way evolved (or devolved?) into more “grown-up” sounding music. Other bands in the genre include Sigur Ros, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, and Tortoise. Personally, I like to think of these bands as the musical successors to mid-era Pink Floyd–after Syd Barrett left, but before they turned into a classic rock megaphenomenon; like Umma Gumma and the movie soundtrack albums More and Obscured by Clouds.

But here’s the interesting part. I was perched in the perfect spot for ultimate stereo sound (directly between the two enormous banks of speakers at the front of the club, as far away from them as they were from each other, like the third point of an equilateral triangle), when a younger guy, maybe 25 or so, asked me if I could move to the side. He had two stereo mics and some sort of digital recording box. I asked him if he was with the band, and he replied no, but that Do Make Say Think have an open taping policy (popularized by the Grateful Dead and often used by other hippie-jam bands), and that he posts all his recordings on Most interesting, he uses an open-source (this was very important, he mentioned it several times) lossless audio codec called FLAC that I wasn’t familiar with. Lossless codecs give you the exact same bits as a CD-quality recording, but are compressed to about half-CD size simply by eliminating a lot of blank bits–it’s basically like zipping a computer file.

Two things about this really struck me:

  1. Do Make Say Think don’t benefit directly from letting this guy record their shows, but allowing those shows to be recorded, posted freely, and traded benefits the band overall–it drives excitement and gets people out to live shows, where they might buy merchandise.
  2. This whole scene couldn’t have been further from the corporate rock world that Microsoft so desperately wants to enter with Zune. They’re striking this indie rock pose, but it’s really about fashion more than about the music–the Zune doesn’t even support Windows Media Audio Lossless, the only WMA codec that an audiophile like this kid would have found interesting. And of course their stance on DRM is completely alienating.

Quality vs. convenience

March 5, 2007

Eliot van Buskirk is wrong about the major labels being able to save themselves by re-releasing higher quality versions of music based on their ownership of the original masters. Historically, consumers have never been willing to change formats for higher quality. SACD and DVD-A didn’t fail only because they required new hardware–MP3s took off with the release of the iPod, which is hardware. The reason people were willing to pay $300 for a glorified hard drive and spend several hours re-ripping all their CDs into a new format was because of the added convenience: thousands of songs in your pocket. Same with the move from LPs to CDs–sure, the industry sold higher quality and reliability, but the real reason was convenience: CDs are smaller, easier to transport, and you can skip to your favorite songs. Same with VHS to DVD–no need to rewind the tape, and it’s really easy to skip around, rewind, freeze, and so on. The quality is higher, but that’s a secondary consideration.

So Eliot can say it’d be “easy” for Apple to release a new generation of 24-bit players, but only the hardcore audiophiles would buy them.

A similar train of thought came up when I saw that Microsoft is offering a high-definition version of a South Park episode through the Xbox Live Marketplace. Of all content that could benefit from high definition, an aggressively low-budget 2D cartoon (that’s part of the joke) would be near the bottom of my list. But the bigger point: I’d argue that high-definition video formats, particularly HD DVD and Blu-ray, are dead on arrival. Consumers aren’t willing to switch formats simply for higher quality.

But a co-worker made a good point: big screens are becoming common–even Costco offers a 42-inch high-definition plasma set for less than $1,000 now. Standard-definition video simply doesn’t fill up those big screens. So people will move to high-definition simply because “standard” now looks like junk. He could be right.