The ladder of success

October 17, 2007

(Note: this is a revised edited version of an older post. I published it as a guest blogger on the Line Out blog hosted by Seattle newsweekly The Stranger There, it was split into separate entries, making it hard to read start to finish. So here it is all in one.)

God, what a mess, the ladder of success. Take one step and miss the whole first rung.
–The Replacements, “Bastards of Young.”

So you’re in a band. Who isn’t? What I really want to know is are you in a band, like, in your mind? Or is it a real band where you actually write songs and play instruments with other people? Do you play out? Where do you play? Who have you played with?

Amusing anecdote: I once told the co-owner of a small local label that I was playing that night. She wanted to know where. The Rendezvous, actually. Her response: “oh, how cute.” It turned out to be a fun show, and well-attended. But. You know. I was beneath her.

My point: after a while one gets sick of hearing (and asking) these types of questions to assess one’s place in the Seattle music scene pecking order. Hence, I’ve developed a shorthand which I call the “Ladder of Success.” I will be presenting it to you over the course of the day in hopes of shortening these conversations so we can get down to the business of doing whatever comes after these conversations are finished. (“Buy me a drink” is a good place to start.)

Without further ado:

Rung 0: Some Guy With A Guitar. You go to Guitar Center and buy the cheap knockoff version of the guitar that the guitarist in your favorite band plays. You place an ad for musicians who sound like your favorite bands, or at least have heard of them. Or you ask your friends if they know anybody, or failing that, try to talk them into playing the secondhand drum kit you’ve got set up in your basement. You meet a lot of wannabes and flakes, but at least you get some good drug hookups. Or maybe you make it to…

Rung 1: Garage Band You find other people who play instruments and aren’t total assholes. You practice once a week in your garage or a pay-by-the-hour studio. You get the money together to record a short demo, either on the Band Yuppie’s laptop or with a recording school student at some old hippie’s hobby studio. You send the demo out. Your only responses are that bar that’ll hire anybody and a struggling club in a bad neighborhood that has a pay-to-play new music night every Monday. All your friends show up to the first gig and it’s great fun. But your second gig is sparsely attended, and the bookers eventually stop returning your e-mails. The band breaks up and you start over again, or you give up in frustration and sell your gear on eBay. But if you’re any good, you should be able to get to…

Rung 2: This Band I Know. You get a call from a decent club, and not only do your friends show up for the first gig, but the soundguy or bartender or club owner decides they like your music, as do a couple of strangers who work in other bars or play in other bands. Word spreads, and you begin to get gig offers through your MySpace contacts and e-mail inbox. Even though you’re not making any money, you decide to spend several thousand dollars to record a full-length album at a reasonably well-known studio staffed by a Professional Producer who’s worked with some Local Heroes (see Rung 4). When you’ve spent approximately twice as much time and money as you expected (mastering? what’s that?), you print up several hundred copies and send it to local college radio stations and weekly newspapers and boutique record labels who specialize in music like yours. They ignore it. You continue to get offers to play on Wednesdays at the small-but-prestigious club where the staff is competent and pleasant, or on Saturdays at the bar where the soundguy’s paycheck comes out of your door take. Eventually, your friends stop coming to shows and get sick of hearing about your band. The guitarist’s hissy fits are getting on your nerves so you fire him, and the drummer starts spending more time with his other band. You’re stuck with a closet full of very expensive and immaculately designed drink coasters. Or, if you’re really good, and a little bit lucky, you might get to…

Rung 3: I’ve Heard of Them. Complete strangers sign your mailing list, then actually attend future shows. Sometimes they bring their friends, who also sign your mailing list. Your hometown college radio station spins your designated single a couple of times and features you on a local new music hour. The local weekly writes a quick show preview in which they pigeonhole you into the same category as some of your favorite bands and use mostly positive words like “thunderous” or “world-weary” or “pop sensibilities.” A small independent label agrees to distribute your album and offer tour support, which consists of renting you a van that breaks down only in the precise middle of nowhere. On tour, you play small clubs in front of 50 or maybe 100 paying customers, most of whom are there to see the headlining band from their home town. Some of them like you enough to buy merch and sign your mailing list. A handful of them like you enough to offer you sex, drugs, or sleeping quarters. You end the tour in the hole, but return to a triumphant hometown gig with a Local Hero in that big club you always wanted to play. You repeat this cycle for two or three or five years, earning just enough to pay for band expenses and drugs. Then the bassist gets pregnant and quits, and the keyboardist gets a promotion at work that requires more travel. When the band finally disintegrates, you put “formerly of” on your bio, raising the odds that club owners and college radio program directors will listen to the first track on the first album of your new project. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who makes it to…

Rung 4: Local Hero. In your hometown, complete strangers show up at your shows after seeing your name in the paper and buy your CDs from the independent record store near the university. The local college radio station plays several tracks from your CD for several weeks after it comes out, and you get a 100-word review in a local weekly, complete with a clever numerical rating (three stars=frottage; four stars=gloryhole). A national indie label or the boutique imprint of a major label offers you distribution, and you begin to headline shows in nearby cities. Somebody convinces you to hire a manager and a lawyer because everybody else does. You earn a couple thousand dollars per night as the opening act on a national tour for a College Radio Darling, during which other people haul your gear and tune your instruments before you take the stage. Pitchfork gives your album a respectable rating. One day, scanning the “Musicians Wanted” section of the local weekly, you see yourself named as an influence. The music critic for the hometown daily writes a short article about you and begins placing a star next to your shows in the calendar section. You begin to get Aribtron reports with your name on them and BMI royalty checks for $10.38 or $45.12. Your label announces that you’ve sold a respectable multi-thousand CDs, and offers to front the recording costs for the next one. Your band members quit all their side projects and begin taking fewer shifts at work or trading their full-time jobs for temp positions. When you fill out your tax form at the end of the year, you proudly write “Musician” in the “Employment” box, and your accountant introduces you to all sorts of useful and interesting tax deductions. You continue through a few more albums and several lineup changes, but one day find yourself opening for a band that’s younger, better, and more popular than you’ve ever been. The drugs aren’t fun anymore, you can’t maintain a relationship because you’re always on tour, you discover that the music business is filled with criminals and former frat boys, and corporate radio still sucks because they won’t play you. Eventually you move on to become a band manager or radio engineer, and occasionally people recognize your name and ask “weren’t you in that band, what were they called?” Or perhaps you rise into the rarified air of…

Rung 5: College Radio Darling. College radio stations play your music even when you don’t have a new record out. When you tour, music writers and college radio program directors in other towns call your manager to set up interviews. You’re playing 1,000-seat clubs and some of your shows sell out, and even if not, you always sell enough tickets and paraphernalia to pay your roadies. You manage to keep your recording budget down in the mid-five figures, pleasing your label overlords enough so they offer you a tour bus and try to bribe commercial stations into playing you. You sell enough CDs to cover both your recording costs and advances, allowing everybody to earn a buck or two of profit from each additional sale. From time to time, you’re featured in Spin and Rolling Stone, and VH1 plays a couple of your videos late at night. Your BMI checks might actually help you pay rent. Other artists give interviews in which they cite you as an important influence or slag your last album as overrated. Your parents are no longer ashamed to tell their friends that you’re a musician. If you’re lucky enough, good enough, and smart enough, you can continue along this path for ten or fifteen years, earning enough along the way to buy a house in Portland and medical insurance. Years after you break up, you will be asked to play the occasional reunion show. Unless you get suckered into climbing to…

Rung 6: Almost Famous. An aging hipster with expensive clothes approaches you after a show and claims to be an A&R man for one of the Big Four. Much to everybody’s surprise, including your lawyer’s, he’s legit. You sign the contract, live off the advance, and spend several months in New York or LA or Nashvile, recording with a producer whose name appears on the back of several of your favorite records. Market conditions change, and the label decides to sit on the recording. And sit on it. And sit on it. Any money you earn from shows or paraphenalia goes toward paying back your $500,000 advance, and your contract prohibits you from recording or touring under any other name or with any other musicians. Too late, you realize that Steve Albini was right! Your keyboardist quits to take a job at Microsoft and your guitarist commits drug-assisted suicide. But not all is lost: several years later, after a Wednesday night show at a small club with your new band, you recount your story to a tatooed anti-corporate type, who takes pity and goes to bed with you. You move in together, find a day job that’s not so horrible, and begin to raise a family, all while occasionally playing with friends or making recordings on the side—just for the hell of it. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to ascend to…

Rung 7: One-Hit Wonder. The label releases your catchiest song as a single and bribes every radio station in the country to give it a couple spins. Despite this corporate backing, Nic Harcourt plays it. KROQ’s program director hears Nic play it and adds it. Viacom sees that it’s been added on KROQ and starts playing the video on VH1. Clear Channel sees that it’s on VH1 and adds it to their light rotation list. Kids call in every time The Song is played, and they move it up to heavy rotation in several cities, causing VH1 to play it more. The Song appears in various charts, dragging your album into the top 100. You’re suddenly playing 3,000-seat theaters, where you quickly learn to save The Song for the end so people won’t leave. You open your first BMI statement after The Song has been in heavy rotation for a few months and your jaw drops. You call your responsible older sister and tell her to invest half of it in something you’re not allowed to touch for ten years, then spend the rest on musical equipment and partying. Soon, your label owes you money rather than the other way around, but they convince you to put all of that money—and then some—into your next recording, which they and your friends and your lawyer and your accountant and your manager tell you is going to set the world totally on fire. Except it doesn’t. Suddenly, you find it harder to ignore the critical sniping from the local weekly and the jaded indie-rock fans who stand up in the front during your set with their arms crossed. Five years later, you can’t get a gig in your favorite hometown venue. Your label sells The Song for a TV commercial, and the BMI checks continue to trickle in for a few years, keeping you from the dreaded day job. Years later, a TV call-in show with a vaguely insulting name asks you to reunite and play The Song so a bunch of kids who have only heard it at weddings can vote on whether you are better or worse than a bunch of other one-hit wonders from the same era. But the money’s too good to say no. Occasionally when you’re drunk at a party, you pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and bang out The Song, and your friends look away. Unless you had a string of hits, in which case you made it to…

Rung 8: The Big Time. You’re all over the radio and TV. You mess with interviewers by answering the same boring, predictable questions differently each time. You show up late to photo shoots, or not at all. Teenagers sleep beneath posters with your picture on them. Your grandparents brag about you to their friends. An entire cottage industry springs up around you, complete with hangers-on and sycophants. You realize that there’s very little difference between playing for 3,000 and playing for 20,000, except that the lighting is better and the audience is louder and farther away. And your drummer always wears a headset and plays to a clicktrack that’s synchronized with the lights. And you occasionally use triggers and backing vocal tracks to cover the parts you know you’re going to fuck up. But you don’t care if people say that you really suck because you can buy any car you want, as well as a nice house in your hometown and a second home in New York or Hawaii. Even if you never work or play another show again, you will always have enough money for you and your children to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. And someday, you might make it to…

Rung 9: Legend. Your label releases greatest hits albums with words like “Legendary” in the title and nobody mistakes it for irony. You’re embedded in the pop cultural DNA—your songs are familiar even to people who don’t like music, while music fans are required to have an opinion about you. You have your own tribute band. You’re rich, famous, and a total sellout.


EMI offers DRM-less tracks through iTunes

April 5, 2007

Both Jobs and EMI have been telegraphing this move: for $1.29, you can now get all songs in EMI’s digital download catalog as 256kbps AAC files with–ta-da!–no DRM. And while Lefsetz is pissed that that they raised the price for these tracks, I like it as the first small step away from the record industry’s self-defeating efforts to control user behavior with inept and unfriendly technology.

Wired columnist Eliot van Buskirk, anxious for any headline that portrays Microsoft as loser, seems to miss an important point: the Zune natively plays AAC files. That’s right–along with going into direct competition with the players and stores that have long supported Windows Media Audio (WMA), Microsoft went and supported the file format favored by its number-one competitor. Sure, Microsoft would have liked to establish WMA as the de facto standard, but it’s basically acknowledged that particular war is over, and it’s lost. Microsoft is not even pushing WMA for telephone handsets anymore–instead, it’s gone and built a generalized DRM system (or “content access” technology as they call it) and will let the carriers apply it to any file format they want–including AAC.

In other words, Microsoft just hopes you buy a new PC to store all your digital media files. They’re not as concerned as they once were about what format those files are in.

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.

Study: P2P piracy barely hurts music sales

February 19, 2007

The longstanding claim of the RIAA that piracy on peer-to-peer networks is the main cause of declining CD sales has always rung hollow to anybody who thinks seriously about music and technology. Even the RIAA itself appeared to retreat in mid-2006, with CEO Mitch Bainwol suggesting that piracy had been “contained,” being balanced out by growth in legal file downloading.

Now comes a study in an academic economics journal, blurbed here by Ars Technica, suggesting that file-trading has had a statistically insignificant effect on CD sales. The study’s authors suggest that tighter controls on inventory (stores can’t just let huge amounts of CDs sit around on the shelf) and the surge in DVD sales (people buying DVDs instead of CDs) are partly to blame. Microsoft tech reporter Paul Thurott weighs in with a dismissive comment that today’s music just sucks, while Zune team member David Caulton wonders if he’s just getting old.

With no evidence but my own subjective impressions gathered from talking with hundreds of music fans and musicians over the last 10 years, I think the problem is a combination of factors that I would basically sum up as “the MBAs ruined it all.”

1. Radio consolidation. Thanks in part to consolidation allowed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, there’s less local ownership and competition among radio stations today. That’s how you end up with cookie-cutter stations and very narrow playlists all across the country. With playlists squeezed, there’s less opportunity for people to hear new music from the radio, forcing them to learn about new music from reality TV shows, where entertainment value (looks, funny mistakes) are much more important than the sound of the music.

2. Big label conservatism. Rock music fans in their 20s could almost hear the big labels’ business model change around 1995: instead of investing in acts with proven talent–shown by big local fanbases or lots of underground/college radio play or well-regarded releases on indie labels–the companies started pushing junior-level one-hit-wonder bands like Marcy Playground and Third Eye Blind (actually a great song if you listen to the verses) and Harvey Danger. I think part of it was a reaction to the suicide of Kurt Cobain and antiauthoritarian stance of Pearl Jam–why hassle with these serious artists and their complicated personalities when they could find some clone band who they could push just hard enough to make them some money, then discard? Around the same time, they started marketing prefabricated artists like NSync and Britney to the younger kids.

The result? My generation entered our 30s with no connection to any mainstream acts–all the people who loved rock music dove into niche subgenres like jam bands or college radio. And the 90s teens grew up thinking pop music was disposable crap anyway, and entered their 20s with little interest. Meanwhile, technology progressed to the point where anybody could get music for free. If you’ve spent the last five years showing your audience that music’s a disposable commodity, how are you suddenly going to compete with free?

(I am not a huge hip hop aficionado, but seems to me that hip hop was more vibrant during the mid-90s, and remains more lucrative today, but the same pattern of gradual decay appears to be repeating itself with about a five-year delay.)

3. Competition. The authors of the study are absolutely correct that there’s more competition for consumers’ entertainment dollars today, but it’s not just DVDs: I actually think video games are a huge factor. When I was in college, I stayed up all night waiting in line for Who tickets. Now, kids wait in line for Halo 2.

4. Concert ticket prices. Speaking of waiting in line, you think any college kids are planning on going to The Police reunion tour? When tickets start at $100 and good seats cost $225? I’m starting to see some indie rock acts, like Death Cab for Cutie and The Shins (both of whom bore me within an inch of my life) touring with reasonable ticket prices, but for the most part there’s a huge gap between local club acts, which cost between $5 and $25, and big concerts, which usually cost no less than $60. Going to big shows used to be an important community bonding experience, a shared way of reinforcing the idea that music really matters. By cutting young generations out of this experience, the concert industry (promoters, venue owners, and Ticketbastard as much as the greedy artists) essentially dug its own grave.

Microsoft to pay Zune spiffs to Universal

November 9, 2006

This seemingly innocuous agreement, under which Microsoft pays a fe dollars to Universal Music Group (one of the Big Four record companies) every time it sells one of its ZUne portable media devices, could actually grow into something really groundbreaking and important.

The music industry’s current approach is a dead end. DRM is fundamentally flawed technically (there’s no third-party attacker–you must eventually present the content to the person you’re trying to protect it against) and from a business perspective (users pay more to get less). File-sharing is gradually gaining more legal protection everywhere but the United States (which is irrelevant given the global scope of the Internet). CD retailers are going out of business. Consumers are learning to hate the record companies, who sue them and try to take over their computers with malicious software.

Many observers, myself included, believe that the better way forward for the music industry is a pooled-payment system for digital distribution. Add a few bucks added to the sale price of every digital media app or device, and perhaps even to monthly ISP bills. Then, some sort of tracking system could track how many times particular files are uploaded, duplicated, played, etc., and payments disbursed accordingly. Shawn Fanning (Napster founder) is trying to build a business based around this idea but hasn’t had many takers yet.

Microsoft is going ahead and doing it anyway with Zune. Short run, this gives UMG a stake in Zune’s success, and could get them to agree to steps such as eliminating the “3 days, 3 plays restriction” for Zune-to-Zune transfer, allowing Zune-PC-Xbox transfers, enabling the rumored “DJ mode” (broadcast to Zunes within range), subscription-based anytime-anywhere wireless access to millions of songs (the music lover’s dream), and so on.

Long run, if everybody follows suit, this could create a much friendlier world for digital music–consumers aren’t burdened by arbitrary and annoying restrictions, content owners get some compensation instead of nothing (as is the case with piracy).