Monday, February 25, 2008

NMW Spotlight : Larry Lessig On Copyright

If you find yourself on both sides of the fence regarding the issue of illegal downloading, you aren't alone. The R.I.A.A. has made a mockery of justice and their strong arm tactics aren't solving this very real problem. In fact solutions aren't really what the R.I.A.A. is looking for. They want control, but the genie is already out of the bottle. Technology will never be the same and this is a losing battle. What's needed is a creative idea.

Today's post is a level headed opinion from Larry Lessig regarding copyright, the media and the law. Lessig argues that there ought to be a third category of content besides copyrighted content and free public domain content; that is namely, "Freer" Copyright, which allows limited unlicensed use by the public without the legal headaches. "Freer" Copyright would be at the artists' discretion, it would compete with "Free" or illegal downloading (hopefully ameliorating the younger generation's anarchist view of copyright), and would allow, among other things, the kind of creative interaction that music fans are seeking when they do remixes or create custom radio playlists, or Youtube videos. This is a very compelling presentation, and well worth the 19 minutes it takes to watch. You'll probably change your mind about a few things afterwards.

Monday, February 18, 2008

10 Indispensable Songwriters To Study

There are so many obvious choices for a list like this that I decided to focus on some of the less obvious candidates. Hopefully you won't be familiar with all of them, and you'll discover someone who becomes a favorite as you dig deeper into their work.

Dave Carter

The late great mystic and embedded systems programmer's poetic and visionary lyrics won him acclaim from folk music's best. Carter's upbringing and diverse education gave him the kind of broad experience few get in life, and he drew from it richly. He had a remarkable command of language and his often humorous and somewhat wacky take on things made him a songwriter's songwriter. As far as I know, Carter is the only writer who successfully rhymes the word "orange" in a lyric. I won't give it away, but you'll find it in the song "The River Where She Sleeps". He died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2002 at the age of 49.

Bob McDill

If Music Row had a guru, it would be McDill. Never one to shy away from a literary lyric or a classy radio ditty, Bob did it all with the same degree of mastery and originality. His songs were recorded by everyone who is anyone in country music. His classic, "Good Old Boys Like Me" is one of country music's great anthems. McDill is essential if you want to understand what made country music great in the 70s and 80s leading up to it's contemporary heyday in the early to mid-90s. McDill is often credited with inspiring some of Music Row's best writers to move to Nashville by virtue of the appeal of his hit songs which include "Song Of The South", "Gone Country", and "Amanda".

Tommy Thompson

Founding member of the Red Clay Ramblers, Thompson was another poet-lyricist who has received far too little acclaim for his songwriting. His work includes one of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever written titled "Hot Buttered Rum". His gift for rural imagery mixed with a knack for finding the profound in common places make him essential:

"Just across the blue ridge, where the high meadows lay
And the galax spreads through the new mown hay,

There’s a rusty iron bridge cross a shady ravine

Where the hard road ends and turns to clay."
Thompson died in 2003.

Jimmy Webb

We all know this Oklahoma native wrote "Galveston", "Wichita Lineman" and "If These Walls Could Speak", but you have to hear Jimmy's artist CDs to fully appreciate his esoteric approach to commercial songwriting. Some of his lesser known masterpieces include, "Paul Gauguin In The South Seas", "Skywriter", "The Highwayman", "Campo de Encino" and "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress".

Kate Wolf

We lost this California native far too young. She died from complications after a bone marrow transplant in 1986. Wolf was the first musician inducted into the NAIRD Independent Music Hall of Fame. Her voice was a pure instrument, perfect for delivering the plaintive, sweet songs she wrote. Here's what Nanci Griffith had to say after recording Kate's "Across The Great Divide" : "On New Year's evening of 1992, Emmylou Harris and I spoke of the beauty and clarity of the late Kate Wolf's music. We spoke of both the sadness in her passing and the lack of new voices singing Kate's songs. Emmy said songs need new voices to sing them in places they've never been sung in order to stay alive." No doubt Wolf's songs will stay alive as more and more listeners discover her.

Paul Siebel

One of the great enigmas of the singer-songwriter genre, Siebel (often misspelled as "Seibel" in case you search) wrote the classic "Louise". He made only two studio records (both critically acclaimed and still in print after more than 35 years) before hanging it up to become a baker. He was a storyteller unparalleled, and while his output may have been small, it was influential and important.

Laura Nyro

Why must the good ones die young? Laura almost single-handedly spawned the era of the "Brill Building singer-songwriter"-- you know, the ones who can write hits and sing 'em too. Best known for songs such as "Wedding Bell Blues", "Stoned Soul Picnic", "Sweet Blindness", "Save The Country", "And When I Die"; "Eli's Coming", and "Stoney End", Nyro's remarkable output over just a few short years is hard to surpass. She died in 1997.

Eric Anderson

In the late 1960s Anderson had a promising beginning when his whimsical psychodelic-folk masterpiece "Violets Of Dawn" started appearing on LPs by everyone from Rick Nelson to the Chad Mitchell Trio. Anderson followed with more classics "Thirsty Boots", "Close The Door Lightly", and "Dusty Box Car Wall". His repertoire is deep (check out "The Plains Of Nebrasky-O" and tell me it doesn't sound every bit as great as anything Woody Guthrie wrote). In the 70s he scored a minor hit himself with "Is It Really Love At All" from the now highly regarded LP "Blue River". His follow-up record was lost in the vaults of Columbia Records, which temporarily derailed his career. He resurfaced again in the 90s with a brilliant record called "Ghosts Upon The Road". Anderson continues to write and release CDs sporadically. Don't pass up an opportunity to take a closer look at his remarkable body of work.

Richard Thompson

Widely respected and covered in the UK, Thompson is sadly somewhat neglected here in the US. His classics such "1952 Vincent Black Lightning", "Dimming Of The Day", and "Galway To Graceland" put him in a league all his own. His wit and uncanny knack for knowing a good story when he finds one make his songs remarkably consistent over a long career. If we lived in a fair world, Thompson would have several hits to his credit. As it is, we have to find imports and scour CD racks for obscure covers such as Del McCoury's version of "Black Lightning". All the same, the search is rewarding.

Shane McGowan

Not generally thought of when songwriters are discussed, this founding member and songwriter for Irish icons The Pogues has written masterpieces such as "Fairytale Of New York" and "The Broad Majestic Shannon". Raised on a steady diet of Irish Ale and William Butler Yeats, McGowan blazed his own trail in Rock by forging traditional Irish songs with Punk, and delivering them in a gravel-voiced half-drunken brogue while his high energy backup band (picture The Clash doing "Shady Grove" or "Loch Lomond") produced a wall of sound behind him. But listening to the classic Pogues records "Rum, Sodomy and The Lash" and "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" won't help you unless you read the lyrics. What initially sounds like unintelligible gibberish turns out to be poetry of the first order. There are few lyricists in Rock who write this magnificently.

copyright 2008 craig bickhardt

Monday, February 11, 2008

10 Great Hits Nashville (Probably) Wouldn't Have Cut Today

"Pancho And Lefty" - written by Townes Van Zandt. Townes has two songs on this list, and he represents the quintessential writer that contemporary Nashville has eschewed. Why wouldn't this song get cut today? To begin with, who among the slick mainstream artists would be able to hear through Townes's version of the song and think it was a smash? Emmylou cut it first, but she's arguably the best song interpreter Nashville has ever seen and there's no one on the charts like her today. Willie and Merle covered it later, but again, these are two grizzled songwriting veterans. Where can you even find such a pairing of souls in Nashville now?

"The Carpenter" - written by Guy Clark. This brilliantly written song was a hit for John Conlee. Today they'd want this one to have a verse about Jesus.

"Sixteenth Avenue" - written by Thom Schuyler. When songwriters were the true heroes of Music Row this song said it all. Today, the denizens of Music Row's corporate writer rooms aren't considered heroes by most of the industry. The artists seem desperate to hide the fact that they don't write. Others insist on collaborating with the hitmakers to ensure maximum earnings and a piece of the pie. Then there's also that gnarly line : "God bless the boys who make the noise" In today's politically correct world every publisher on Music Row would probably want to change that one. "Persons" is a tough rhyme. Hey Thom, how about, "God bless the ones who write the puns"?

"If I Needed You"
- also written by Townes Van Zandt. Simply gorgeous. It was a duet hit for Don Williams and Emmylou. Today : "We don't want folk songs", "Not enough furniture in the lyric", "Too safe", "Not enough attitude".

"Good Old Boys Like Me"
- written by Bob McDill. Arguably the best song ever written about growing up in the reconstructed south. It was a hit for Don Williams (funny how he and Emmylou were able to recognize greatness), it contains the seminal line "Those Williams boys sure mean a lot to me, Hank and Tennessee" Today : "Who is Tennessee??" Oh, that's right, you're an American Idol winner...

"Old Violin" - written and recorded by Johnny Paycheck. Among my colleagues in Nashville, this song ranks as one of the all time best. Paycheck wrote it as he was about to be shipped off to jail. Today : nobody on the charts except George Strait is old enough to sing this one with any veracity, and I'm sorry, but with that boyish grin it just wouldn't work.

"The Highwayman" - written by Jimmy Webb and recorded by The Highwaymen. A song about reincarnation in the Bible belt today? Are you kidding? Might as well pitch Don Henry's "Dinosaur Shminosaur".

"Stand By Your Man" - co-written by Tammy Wynette and Billy Sherrill and recorded by Tammy. "Derided by the Feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wynette in later years defended the song as not a call for women to place themselves second to men, but rather a suggestion that women attempt to overlook their husbands' shortcomings and faults if they truly love them. Wynette always defended her signature song. The song remained contentious into the early 1990s, when soon-to-be First Lady Hillary Clinton told CBS' 60 Minutes during an interview that she "wasn't some little woman 'standing by my man' like Tammy Wynette." Wynette demanded and later received an apology from Clinton." If this song came along today it would be rejected by every publisher on Music Row on grounds that it was quaint, unrealistic, old fashioned, and unliberated. Or to quote one Music Row sage, "That isn't how women between the ages of 18-30 feel between the hours of 8:00 and 10:00 am". Yes, and you've got all the statistics to back it useless sack of...

"A Boy Named Sue" - written by Shel Silverstein and recorded by the Man In Black, who was apparently quite secure in his masculinity. In an era rife with artists such as Troy Gentry who shot a tame bear in a cage and claimed he bagged the animal on a hunting trip to prove his masculinity, can you imagine anyone playing the role of Sue? Uh about John Rich in his full length mink coat?

"Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town"
- written by Mel Tillis and made famous by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, the song was actually a hit 3 times between 1967 and 1969. Today, soldiers are written about as if they're plastic toy heroes. They die honorably and leave proud wives at the graveside. Bullshit. Many live on the streets suffering from depression, they commit suicide in alarming numbers, they aren't even called "casualties" anymore, in fact the wounded are rarely mentioned by the news media at all. By the way, nearly 30,000 wounded vets have returned from Iraq at the time of this posting. The paralyzed vet in "Ruby" admits to a desire to shoot his unfaithful wife if he could only move. There have never been two more tragic characters in a song lyric. I don't think any artist in Nashville today would have the guts, empathy, or patriotism to record this raw-nerved masterpiece. We all know that what passes for patriotism these days is really just fear mongering. This is a song about the deepest fear imaginable this side of the final curtain.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Monday, February 4, 2008

3 More Reasons Why The CD Deserves To Die

We're all well aware of the obvious reasons the CD should die-- it's over-priced and it's ugly. When the digital age was ushered in, consumers were fed the lie that this new technology meant higher manufacturing costs, when in fact it meant far lower costs. A CD can be manufactured and packaged for under $2.00, but CDs were immediately retailed at $15.95 to $17.95.

These days you can download an entire record from itunes faster than you can open the same CD's packaging. And once opened, the average jewel cases lasts about 15 minutes before cracking. Then there's all those tiny liner notes-- lyrics on a Britney Spears CD. Why?

As if we need further justification, I give you some better reasons to wish the swift and ignoble death of the CD.

It Deserves To Die Because It's A Wasteful, Unreliable Storage Device That Sounds Like Crap.

800 MB on a piece of technology that's physically larger than a 250 gigabyte hard drive? I ought to be able to get all the knowledge known to man on something as spacious as a CD. This is the CD's ultimate flaw. It's the same thing as a file that sits comfortably on about a millimeter of your computer's hard drive. At least with an LP you get analog audio, something, uh, different! Why buy a product like this when you can store a hundred thousand songs in your shirt pocket?

The sampling rate on CDs was set too low from the get-go. They sound thin, two dimensional, and all that "clarity" you think you're hearing is just the absence of surface noise. In reality, all the subsonic and ultra sonic frequencies that give audio it's rich coloration are absent from CDs. CDs are mixed and mastered to sound good on a Discman or an ipod with headphones.

But some of you will never believe me. You'll cling to the illusion that the CD is superior. So, ok, for you the sound quality might be debatable. But as for durability, shame on the industry. About half of my older CDs no longer play. And a skipping CD is ten times more annoying than a few skips in an LP. This morning I was trying to rip one of my song cuts onto a new 250 gigabyte hard drive but my ripper didn't even recognize the format of the disc. It was a Warner Brothers CD from 1987.

And just for kickers, here's something you may not know : A 52X CD-ROM drive spins a CD at 30,000 rpm. CDs cannot handle this much force, they start to warp and can explode into millions of tiny fragments. This isn't a myth. Talk to anyone who repairs computers and you'll get the truth-- they can and do explode in some newer computers. Damage is usually limited to the interior metal casing of the CD-ROM drive.

It Deserves To Die Because It Has Fostered A Disposable Music Mentality Among Artists.

The CD did to music what the glue-bound paperback did to fiction. Very few artists are making music for the long haul anymore. Posterity is a word that never gets spoken inside a recording studio. If you consider that everything Alan Lomax ever recorded was recorded specifically FOR posterity you get some idea of how far we've slipped.

Why is the CD responsible? In the 1990s it became so easy and inexpensive to package music that virtually anyone with spare lunch money could afford to press 500 CDs. There was a glut of new music on the market, most of it bad.

Also, the CD is simply an abused object. It gets left on the floor of your car, or in the trunk (these are things you'd never do with an LP). It gets thrown into the back seat while you're driving. They get damaged by being forced into car CD players, yanked out while navigating the Interstate, and left out of the jewel case in the change tray. They get stuck in CD players (when was the last time an LP got stuck on your turn table?)

Then there's the ability of the consumer to randomize playback order, and to pre-program skip tracks, which has made artists think differently about the music they release. There are more "out-takes" and "alternate mixes" and just plain lame songs on the average CD. Not that LPs never had weak tracks. Of course they did. But not intentionally weak, as in, "this wasn't good enough for the record but we'll throw it out there anyway and you can just skip that track".

While some consumers may treasure these "value added" features, it's hard to see any real benefit to the art of record making that has come from them. Artists think less about packaging, track sequencing, and overall concept than they ever did when making an LP. And most of all, they think less about song quality, because hey, it's just gonna get thrown on the floor of the car, right?

So, will it get worse after the CD dies? I don't see how.

It Deserves To Die Because The Potential Was Squandered.

Between the mid 1980s and the mid-1990s the record industry had an unprecedented opportunity to develop new media and create a new golden millennium for artistry. Profits from the re-issuing of LPs on CDs were astronomical. This is information you aren't supposed to have : the reason the record industry is dying is because the CD is dying, and the CD is dying because it was obsolete from the get-go. This was simply a way for the industry to rake in dollars from catalogs of LPs that were earning pennies. They didn't re-license the songs or re-negotiate the artist's royalties. They didn't have to pay studio costs, promotion costs, or produce expensive videos for MTV. They just put the Beatles on CD, jacked up the price by 30%, and sat back to smoke a fat cigar. "We're brilliant" they thought. And where did all that money go? Most of it went into CEO's and shareholders' pockets. The rest went into bad over-budgeted commercial records. The industry became addicted to these profits like Crack. There was no vision, no foresight regarding the Internet, ipods, or the eventual death of the CD.

What should've happened is the record industry should've used the profits to revitalize the art of record making. They should've alloted funds for artists who didn't necessarily fit the commercial music mold. They should've done field recording and sought out more world music. They should have seen the need for a vital jazz and blues arm of the label and fostered these artists by signing them to long term low-pressure contracts. They should've done what the indies are doing now. The consumer is showing the labels what they wanted all along, and it wasn't a dozen Britney Spears clones. It was pre-war blues; it was Blue Note jazz; it was Brett Dennon and Ani Difranco and Gillian Welch; it was Pete Seeger songs; it was Ska, Reagge, and Celtic. It was, strange as this might seem to you major label morons, REAL MUSIC.