Monday, April 28, 2008

The Madness

I've been inspired lately by something I read in a NY Times article by Roseanne Cash. She tells a story about sending one of her meticulously vetted lyrics to the late John Stewart for his opinion. John replied to her, "But Rose, where's the madness?"

This reminded me of my own journal passages (posted at songwriter's journal) where I write about something similar:

February 10, 2004
"People want the writing process de-mystified. First thing I tell them is there's a good deal of mysticism involved in the writing of a great song. You can never precisely pin down why a song is great. It resonates, it says things it doesn't appear to say, it brings powerful emotions to the surface in semi-magical ways. These are all very mystical things. Words are symbols that sometimes have arcane meanings that we interpret at subconscious levels. Melodic intervals can effect our moods. Harmony in chord structure can affect our brain-waves. All of these ingredients get mixed together like sorcery."

Whether madness or magic, writing is not simply a logical progression of thoughts that arrive at a "hook". We can't solve a song like a math word problem. My friend John Mock says that great art is like an opened window. That's a great metaphor for what happens when we experience a great song or poem. It's a revelation of sorts, a new view.

I recall vivid moments in my life when I was overpowered by the intensity of a starry sky, or caught off guard by the pungent scent of the river on an early summer morning. In these brief moments of sensual surprise the balance is lost and we tip slightly into the madness, and it's sweet.

I think our society has a deep sickness caused by the bottling up of the madness. I don't mean violent insanity, I mean the ability to go beyond the boundaries of logical ordered existence and feel beautifully lost in incomprehensible things. It's good for the soul now and then.

Try to accurately describe the flavor of delicious food and you'll quickly see how insufficient normal syntax and meanings really are. Describe the most beautiful face you've ever seen without saying, "more beautiful than words can say".

We need a little madness in the writing because the desire to express inexpressable things will drive a writer mad at least temporarily. Here's another entry from my journals :

Monday, January 23, 2006
"There's a kind of evocative power in mysterious language when it's used skillfully. Words are vibrations that have literal meaning and also a sonic effect. The sonic part is sometimes ancient-- dating back to dead languages-- and some words were contrived based on what an object represented spiritually or how an experience felt viscerally. When you think of vague similarities in meaning and sound in words like "cloud" and "shroud", or how beautiful words like "divine" and "harmonic" sound, or how mysterious the word "mysterious" sounds, it seems as if language must be used with the literal meaning as well as the sonic vibration in order to have full effect. Sometimes the sonic power actually overwhelms the literal. When that happens you get poetry that must be experienced rather than thought about like: "Trailing fingers through the phosphor or asleep in flowers of foam" [Shane MacGowan]. It does mean something literally, but it means more as an accumulating vibration of language in motion. When you speak the words, or sing them, it is almost like an incantation."

Setting aside whether a song is commercial or not and examining the process is important. You don't have to be a poet to recognize that Dylan was lost in the madness when he wrote:

"I stood unwound beneath the skies
And clouds unbound by laws"
("Lay Down Your Weary Tune" Bob Dylan, © 1964; renewed 1992 Special Rider Music)

Sometimes when I'm writing I have to push myself off that safe ledge and free fall into the imagination. Let a feeling find it's own expression rather than forcing words upon a feeling. Forcing words on a feeling is like putting a straightjacket on the madness. It inhibits the writing.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Monday, April 21, 2008

"Rumors Of My Death..."

"Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated" - Mark Twain.

It's in vogue these days to write about the impending death of the music industry. Those who predict such a dire ending for a monolithic industry don't study history too carefully. Other media industries that have been in their "death throes" in the past include : the Radio Industry, the Newspaper Industry, the Film Industry, Madison Avenue, the Magazine Industry, the Local News Industry, the Network News Industry, etc., etc.

The Music Industry will streamline and survive.

The problem with music is that most of it is created, stored and marketed entirely in the digital domain. There's no buffer to prevent instant digitization, which can be file-shared before the creator has a chance to monetize his work. To understand what I mean, consider that a painter paints on a canvas, which can only be photographed, never truly digitized.

Some recording artists have experimented with creating an artificial buffer to prevent this instant digitizing of their work. Bruce Springsteen released his latest record on 180 gram vinyl first. There was no point in anyone digitizing the vinyl record knowing that a purely digital CD would be released eventually. Meanwhile, Springsteen bought himself a little time and some profit from the vinyl collectors.

Another "buffer" is the trend toward advance CD sales. The artist ensures that a certain number of his fans will buy his latest CD before the release of the digital- hence sharable- product.

This buffer concept is bound to take hold as long as attitudes of consumers trend towards illegal downloading. From a recent New York Magazine article : "...according to BPI, for every digital track that is paid for, twenty are downloaded illegally for free. Domestic sales of physical CDs, meanwhile, plummeted 18.9 percent over this past year (2007) alone."

Interestingly enough, recent investigations into, a major file-sharing network that was shut down last fall, determined that some of the music is posted for download by industry insiders-- people who work in mastering labs, CD shipping warehouses, promotion companies, even radio and CD review personel. "The industry, in other words, has to investigate itself. And what it will discover is that some of the major culprits in this crime are the very same people the crime threatens most— those who work in or profit from the music industry. File swapping is, to a remarkable degree, self-sabotage." (NY Magazine) Isn't this a bit like all those middle class voters who vote against their own financial interests because they focus on the wrong issues at election time? I'd say.

The real story isn't the war between "the suits" and "the pirates". Until it discovers the solution to monetizing creative work, at least enough to cover the expense of creation, the "industry" isn't dying, it's simply contracting.

Look at the big layoffs in December 2007 at Sony BMG and Universal Island Def Jam. The layoffs hit the middle and low-level employees the hardest. Those who didn't get the ax also didn't get Christmas bonuses. Warner Brothers stock is down 58%. How long before the layoffs start? EMI, which was purchased by Terra Firma recently, plans to eliminate nearly $200 million in annual expenses before the end of the year. Let's speculate how they'll do this...uh...layoffs? "Almost four months after Terra Firma boss Guy Hands announced plans to lay off as many as 2,000 staffers worldwide at the troubled major label, he has yet to pull the trigger on the bulk of the cuts." (New York Post, April 14, 2008). Don't worry folks, the trigger will get pulled. Who will lose their jobs? Certainly not top level CEOs, the so-called "suits" that "pirates" like to smuggly claim they are doing battle against. The layoffs will be mostly mid-level to low-level staff, probably some of whom are free downloaders and file posters themselves. And by the way, EMI employs 10,000 people. That's a 20% cut in staff in case you suck at math.

By file sharing an otherwise purchasable track or CD we are effectively insuring that people much like ourselves will be laid off, the suits will still have their jobs (nearly everyone who ran a record label in the 1990s still runs a record label today), and eventually when all this contraction is finished, a vastly streamlined and rejuvenated industry will have invented many clever new ways to monetize with buffers.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Power To The Subscriber !

A few things have come to my attention recently. Beginning with the introduction of a new Bill that would require commercial radio to pay royalties to artists (similar to the way songwriters are paid performance royalties by ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC), there could be big changes on the horizon. Ultimately this is a fair proposition-- Satellite radio and Streaming Internet stations already pay artists performance royalties, and European radio only holds out in protest against the American commercial radio model.

This pending law couples with another interesting phenomenon: the trend towards consumer generated playlists at Rhapsody, Last FM, and a new site I am experimenting with called Finetune (note the Finetune player in the navigation area to your left called Ninety Mile Wind Radio, and feel free to enjoy it while you read). It seems that many consumers are leaning away from owning music altogether. If you can find it, why not just program the content that others have provided for you, rather than download hundreds of files? Most consumers do not have time to manage a database of mp3 files anyway. If they can stream rather than own, and if streaming can provide some royalty compensation for writers and artists, maybe this is one of the solutions we are seeking.

Something else has caught my attention, although it will be old news to some, and that is the prophetic accuracy of the Lawrence Lessig book Free Culture (Penguin Press, 2004). In it Lessig lays out very compelling arguments for why our laws should be stimulating the innovative use of intellectual property rather than clamping down on it. He does not advocate copyright anarchy like some, but rather the recognition that limited free use of music and video content not only competes with illegal downloading, it creates a medium unto itself when extended to classrooms that allow for the expression of concepts that have been limited to text-only essays for decades. In the hands of the younger generation, free malleable content has provided a voice that older generations never had. When tragedies occur, websites like You Tube become the means of interpreting these events with music, video and text put to creative use in the hands of the common man. Some of it is more compelling than the slick corporate media presentations by networks like CNN, which literally announced at one point "we don't write the story, we ARE the story in Iraq".

Mr. Lessig also makes the case that in the future it will be even easier to subscribe to, and access services that store content. Much like a very powerful cell phone browser that is always connected to the wireless Internet everywhere you go (keep in mind this was written 3 years before the iphone was released). When this type of fast, roaming, dependable service is available there will be a shift towards access to web based content and away from ownership via personal storage devices.

So what will keep the creators, the film makers, the authors and composers in business if access to copyrighted material is as easy as signing up for Rhapsody or Finetune or some other yet to be founded domain and creating your playlist or your book and film library? Who will pay for the creation of new content if it can all be borrowed indefinitely?

This is where it gets tricky, but solutions have been proposed.

In Lessig's words :

"Rather than seeking to destroy the Internet, or the p2p technologies that are currently harming content providers on the Internet, we should find a relatively simple way to compensate those who are harmed. The idea would be a modification of a proposal that has been floated by Harvard law professor William Fisher. Fisher suggests a very clever way around the current impasse of the Internet. Under his plan, all content capable of digital transmission would (1) be marked with a digital watermark (don’t worry about how easy it is to evade these marks; as you’ll see, there’s no incentive to evade them). Once the content is marked, then entrepreneurs would develop (2) systems to monitor how many items of each content were distributed. On the basis of those numbers, then (3) artists would be compensated. The compensation would be paid for by (4) an appropriate tax. Fisher’s proposal is careful and comprehensive. It raises a million questions, most of which he answers well in his upcoming book, Promises to Keep. The modification that I would make is relatively simple: Fisher imagines his proposal replacing the existing copyright system. I imagine it complementing the existing system."

So there you have it. The majority of consumers in the future will subscribe to, rather than purchase-to-own content, including music. The radio, including Internets and streaming consumer-generated playlists will be required by law to pay a modest royalty to artists and writers alike. And finally, a simple tax or subscription fee could be used to supplement those who might be harmed or who might slip through the cracks in a strict Royalty-Per-Play system.

It all seems too practical doesn't it?