Friday, August 31, 2012

Does space make the music?

In the TED talk entitled “How architecture helped music evolve,” Rock and Roll Hall of Famer David Byrne tries to explain how venues and spaces have molded music from the early times of man all the way to the current digital age.  Byrne is able to effectively comment on this due his status as an internationally known musician and the knowledge that he has played in several different venues. He uses this to his advantage to open the talk by commenting on probably his greatest known era, playing the legendary rock and roll club CBGB’s in the late 1970s. It’s a place deep in the heart of any rock and roll fan and Byrne describes how the room was for music. He states it was a “good sounding” room and its lack of reverb helped retain the qualities of the music performed. He then links it to another legendary venue, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville. This broadens the scope of his opening statements to show that at that time period, even among musical differences, a good room can mean a lot to music and that for rock and country, you just had to play loud enough for people to notice. It’s an effective start because it’s what most people want to hear a rock start talk about, playing legendary venues at their peak.
                        Byrne then changes gears. He talks about playing “nicer” venues, concert halls but finds that his music didn’t sound great in those venues. So he turns the question on himself first and then to a larger issue. Is music created for a specific venue in mind? Byrne seems to think so as he traces the path of music. He says that tribal drums fit the needs for a loud sound in the open air of West Africa. The long flat tones of 15th century religious pieces fit the huge space of a gothic cathedral. Bach’s organ fugues fit smaller local churches. Royal salons fit Mozart’s more intricate pieces in the late 1700s. At the same time, operas became more and more bombast as audiences made the occasion a social event. The reflection of this was Wagner’s opera house, which was smaller but allowed for a larger orchestra. Then, a reversal happened. Concert halls became larger as the classes became larger. With more space, they had more reverb. Therefore, audiences now had to be quiet in order to hear the dynamics being introduced in music at that time.
                        Moving onto the arrival of modern popular music at the turn of the 20th century, Byrne explains that jazz bands were playing on riverboats and in clubs at this point and like back in the salon days of Mozart and heyday of opera, would have to play over noisy audiences. He also links opera to jazz in that in opera, people would call for an encore on the spot, in the early days of jazz, dancers would call for a section to be played again which in turn got monotonous and led to improvised sections, creating what we know as jazz today. With the introduction of the microphone and the radio, music venues changed. You could now have music anywhere. Also, music could now be written specifically for recording and playback. Byrne’s example is “My Funny Valentine” by Chet Baker. The dynamics of being right into the microphone is an excellent example of being able to broadcast right into listeners’ ears. With music now firmly split between recorded music and live music, people flock to see popular artists and are forced to play poorly sounding larger spaces such as sports stadiums and arenas. Some bands, according to Byrne, try to fit these larger stadiums creating arena rock. Also, there are now spaces dedicated to enjoyment of recorded music, most notably the discotheque. Byrne then links the dancers of jazz wanting to hear sections again to early hip-hop, as MCs would rhyme over the best part of disco hits. He then says there is music written explicitly for car stereos, mostly today’s hip-hop music with heavy bass and today’s pop written with extreme detail but no dynamics for today’s MP3 players.
Byrne is highly effective at tracing the venues of music. There are some small holes from making such a larger generalization such as U2 only makes music for giant stadiums or using Chet Baker as the best example as recordings shaping music. I would choose something more layered or nuanced like the Beatles. In fact, the Beatles not playing songs from Revolver on their 1966 tour is probably the best example of live vs. recorded music. Regardless, it’s an important topic because they way we interact with music has changed immensely in the past 100 years and more so in the past 15 years. A recent article from the San Jose Mercury News shows that music even shapes venues where music isn’t the most important part of the experience. It’s an article about how music consultants are being hired by restaurants to set the right tone for their establishment. A lot of stores and restaurants are using Pandora or SiriusXM to set a basic mood but with this specialization technique, it could grow to be a larger field. Also, as someone who is interested in the live music industry, to hear the people have always talked and been rowdy at concerts gives me the realization that being quiet at a show is a newer demand and probably is a losing battle as one is fighting years of behavior.  Many acts have started to shy away from large stadium tours as of late, which is an interesting trend but also as acts sounds have changed to those, which no longer fit the stadium setting. Hopefully this is a turn to trying to play rooms that better suit their own sound.  It also would have been interesting to see David Byrne address such technological advancements as the Constellation Sound System by Meyer. As demonstrated by Bob Weir, formerly of the Grateful Dead, in his TRI Studios, he can make the space sound like a club or a cathedral all with the touch of a button. It’ll be interesting to see if more spaces adapt this technology so a recording artist could make their recording feel like the venue they imagine their playing.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Presidential Music Selections

            As the 2012 Presidential races come down to the wire, once again the candidates’ use of music becomes a hot issue in the industry. The latest issue is over Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan using Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” at a rally in Pennsylvania, per an article on Snider released a statement saying, “There is almost nothing he stands for that I agree with except for the use of the P90X.” This is not the first time the Romney-Ryan campaign has been in trouble this year over their use of music. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Los Angeles-based band Silversun Pickups issued a cease and desist letter over use of their song “Panic Switch.” The Romney campaign went on to say the song was not used during the actual events and would not play it again.
            This issue really first made news in 1984 as explained in article from That year, Bruce Springsteen was ruling the pop charts with his album Born in the USA. With it’s aerobic backbeat and singsong chorus, Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign thought it would be the perfect anthem to back “Morning in America.” Famously, the Reagan campaign must not have listened the verses, which hauntingly tell of an America in shambles and how poorly the country treats its war veterans. He would also explain his stance to Rolling Stone magazine, "I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what's happening, I think, is that that need -- which is a good thing -- is getting manipulated and exploited. You see in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, 'It's morning in America,' and you say, 'Well, it's not morning in Pittsburgh.'"
            The 2008 election also had its share of issues. Singer Jackson Browne, for using his song “Running on Empty” in a campaign ad, sued Senator John McCain. Heart went on television asking Sarah Palin to stop using “Barracuda.” Sam Moore was apparently disappointed in Barack Obama’s use of “Soul Man.” How are these campaigns allowed to just pick up music for their events without any legal issue? The NewYork Times explains the answer is blanket licenses from ASCAP and BMI. The campaigns buy these licenses similar to a restaurant or performing arts venues. So it’s not an issue of royalties. The problem becomes does the candidate’s use of their music mean that the artist has supported the candidate?
            Personally, I think a candidate should reach out to an artist before selecting their music for a campaign. With the rise of campaign videos, authorized and unauthorized, making rounds on the Internet, an artist is more likely to find out who’s using their songs. It makes that approval more critical. Artists should be able to position themselves either politically or apolitically by themselves without some campaign manager changing that perspective for them. It's also critical because music is such an important part of many's people lives and has such deep emotions that to have it tied to someone else's ideology is a strong signifier. That's why this is a hot topic and I feel that link should be direct from the artist.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Does the Closing Ceremonies reflect the music industry today?

            Another Olympics has come to a close and with it, the buzz this week has been around the London 2012 closing ceremonies. Director Kim Gavin decide to place the focus on Great Britain’s contributions to popular music since the last London games in 1948. It’s hard to argue that, with a list of bands such as The Beatles, Queen, Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash just for starters, Gavin isn’t wrong in wanting to put together a “Symphony of British Music” for the world. In the United States, a lot of the social media and blog focus had been about NBC and how they failed to properly capture the event. This post will not be about that but you can read all about my reaction to that on my Twitter feed.
            This post will be about how the closing ceremonies reflect the music industry as it is right now. Just recently, based on Nielsen Soundscan info and reported by Stereogum, old albums are outselling new albums. The artists within were able to use this platform to propel this trend for their own gain, a trend highlighted in article in the Daily Mail. The Spice Girls were hesitant to reunite but with Viva Forever, a West End musical featuring their songs opening soon, the opportunity to draw attention proved too strong. According to the Guardian, the Who turned down performing twice but the recent US tour announcement helped change that decision and they ended up begin a great closer. George Michael used the moment to split the difference, performing his hit “Freedom 90” and also debuting a new song called “White Light.” So far, “White Light” has outsold “Freedom 90” reaching number 2 on iTunes according to his own Twitter feed, a rarity in today’s market.
Further proof came the following day in the numbers. Reported by NME and the Music Network, the Spice Girls Greatest Hits re-entered the iTunes UK album chart at #11 the Monday following the ceremonies and rose to #8 the following day. Following a performance of “Wonderwall” by Liam Gallagher and former members of Oasis in their new band Beady Eye, their 1995 classic What’s The Story, Morning Glory re-entered the charts at #34 but dropped to #50. Kate Bush, who didn’t perform but a version of her 1985 song “Running Up That Hill” was a key part of the ceremony saw her best-of compilation The Whole Story re-enter the chart at #16.
That’s not to say there wasn’t any room for new British artists. Emili Sande whose song “Read All About It” bookended the “London rush hour” sequence found herself with the #2 spot on the iTunes UK album chart and the song at #3 on the singles chart. Jessie J, who performed her own music and sang with Queen, saw her album Who You Are rise back up to number 22. Newer artists Tinie Tempah, Taio Cruz, Kaiser Chiefs, Muse and Ed Sheeran all performed at the ceremony but did not see any major sales changes as of the time of these reports. This could be interpreted at how hard it is for newer artists to break through even if they have the world's largest stage to perform on.
With most of the story being older artists, it’s interesting how sales would have been affected for those who turned down the event. Most notably, David Bowie’s 1980 single “Fashion” was in a huge spot but how much larger would the impact have been if he’d actually showed up to perform. Bowie is notoriously reclusive as of late after having had angioplasty surgery and was not a total surprise that he did not perform. If David Bowie had made an appearance, it more than likely would have sparked a huge interest in his back catalogue not seen in ages. Also rumored by the Guardian were The Sex Pistols and the Rolling Stones. The most interesting thought would be the Stones marking their 50th anniversary with a one-off gig at the Olympics. With most of the sales stories tipped toward how the older artists impacted that charts more than the newer ones, it appears as if this trend that older artists outselling newer ones will continue.