Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Future of Music (Biz), Part I

Now that this month's song is out, time for more thoughts, musings and opinions as I prepare the next one.

The landscape of the music industry - at least when it comes to the mainstream consumption of music - is changing, and with those changes come a great number of questions. The source of the questions below I will reveal in a future post (I like to add some mystery; I'm like the movie Memento, only without the kick-ass plot), but for now I'll just take a second to explore them.

How can the people who used to work at labels continue to have careers bringing valuable services to artists now that the landscape has changed?

Are labels going to disappear? I highly doubt it, though it wouldn't surprise me to see a noticeable reduction. But what I do believe is that the market has shifted. In the old market, artists had to chase labels with all their might; you'd push your best friend in front of a car if it meant a slim chance that an A&R guy from one of the labels would show up at your show. If you were lucky enough to get the attention of the label, you had to be prepared to take a wafer-thin sliver of the pie, and the rights to your music were forfeit to publishing companies.

In the new market, the Internet and social media have turned the services offered by labels, agents, and publishers into a luxury rather than a necessity. Recording, marketing, distribution, merchandising... all of these areas are available to artists directly such that they can quite easily develop an independent career. In this new climate, we may see more labels courting artists rather than the other way around, and there will be far greater negotiating power in the hands of the artists.

So how can former label employees survive in this scary new world?  Even if an independent artist doesn't require the full suite of services pitched by a record label, it is quite likely they will still need assistance in one or more areas, even if it's simply because they don't have time to manage it themselves. What I expect we'll see is the formation of businesses providing specific services directly to their end customer. Artists will commission their own music videos, order their own merchandise, etc. In this age, the businesses that survive will be the ones that recognize that these days, the musicians are the ones in control.

How much money is actually being made in this space that never gets tracked as part of the music industry?

I can't begin to guess at the amount, but I bet it's growing more significant by the day. When independent musicians avoid conventional entities like Ticketmaster as well as contracting goods and services outside the umbrella of a label, a lot of money won't show up in the industry charts.

One big mystery is the cash flow from patronage. While sites like Kickstarter almost certainly have metrics that can be tracked, I'm sure this currently shows up nowhere in the mainstream numbers. Then there's money that's almost impossible to track that comes from fans who hand their favourite musician or band a $20 after the show or send them some money via PayPal, either as compensation for some downloaded music or simply as an act of supporting an artist they care about.

What percentage of full time professional artists are making a living, and how does that compare to the old record biz?

At the recent eG8 conference in France, John Perry Barlow - Founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and former Grateful Dead lyricist - gave a stellar performance as a last minute invitee to a panel on Intellectual Property and Cultural Economy in the Digital Age. At one point, he makes the claim that right now there has never been as many musicians without day jobs in our history.

I have little doubt he's right. Never has it been so easy for artists to reach their audience. Never has it cost an artist so little to produce a professional product. Never has data and statistics been so readily available to make productive and efficient choices in professional endeavours. The barriers for entry are the lowest they have ever been to make a decent living at your craft.

I'm still fairly sure that the number of musicians without day jobs is still in the single digit percentages, and I would guess that to date the increase couldn't be more than a percentage point or two. But I suspect that this is partially due to a lack of awareness by many musicians of this shift in the marketplace or how to deal with it. Once this awareness kicks in and some growth in knowledge and attitude takes place, we'll almost certainly see the percentage of full-time professional musicians extend into double digit percentages.

Anyway, that's my two cents. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to fire off something in the comments; I enjoy discussing this stuff.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Song #4 is here!

That's it. Papers over, pencils down. Sign it, stamp it, ship it. Stick a fork in me, 'cause I'm done.

Seriously though, enough is enough. There comes a point where I just have to cut myself off. Am I 100% satisfied by the end product? No. But if I demanded that, there never would be an end product. I also find I can start to make things worse as I continue dwelling on elements of it. This tune was difficult to mix; I suspect it may have required a lot more adjustments to faders and EQ's, more than my amateur attempt at engineering could achieve. It may not be perfect, but it at least captures the spirit of what I was going for and won't make anyone wish they were born without ears (I hope). And when it comes right down to it, I can always come back to a song later if it turns out it's worth coming back to.

Anyway, on with the song.


Creative Commons License

I'm not entirely sure where this song came from. I believe at the time I was thinking about Hokum tunes. The euphemisms and innuendo are certainly included, but looks like I left out the humour. Oh well...

I didn't have a funky groove in mind when I initially conceived of the song, but somehow my love of early ZZ Top - numbers like "Just Got Paid" and "Cheap Sunglasses" - worked its way in, especially in the modulations during the solo. When I grow up, I'm going to play just like the Reverend Billy Gibbons (this is assuming that life expectancies are dramatically increased through medical advances, and adulthood now starts at 95). Where the rest of the sound of this tune came from, I don't know.

Time to continue on. Hopefully it won't be anywhere near as long for the next one.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Update for the iCrowd

For the iPhone/iPad readers out there, I managed to fix things so that those without Flash will now get an HTML5 player to stream the music. Hopefully everybody is covered now.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Progress on the Next Track... and a New (But Old) Song

The next tune should be ready within the week. With the exception of taking another stab at the guitar solo, everything has been tracked and it's now just a matter of getting it mixed and mastered. It's not the tune I talked about last month; I was working on them both, and this one just happens to be the one that got the attention. I won't say to much with it just around the corner, but it's a rock tune with a thick vein of funk throughout, and I hope you'll enjoy it.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share something to tide you over. It's not really a tune to be considered part of the project, more of a reflection back to my early musical endeavors. When I was recapping my trip to New Orleans, I talked about performing a swing tune I wrote with my old band when I was back in high school. Our placing in that battle-of-the-bands won us a two-song demo's worth of recording time at the home studio of one of the organizers. That swing tune was one of the recordings, and it's the one you hear below.

Mean Left Hook

Creative Commons License

So where did the tune come from? I'm somewhat prone to what are called styes, which can cause an angry-looking bump on the eyelid. I'd frequently get asked what the deal was with my eye, and after a while of giving the same old straight answer, I started having a bit of fun with my answers.  On one particular occasion when asked what happened to my eye, I responded, "never mess with a woman with a mean left hook". Afterwards I realized it would make a good lyric, and I managed to form a song around it.

The recording itself was pretty tough. Due to the fact that the "recording booth" was a basement room that couldn't have been more than 8 feet by 6 feet with a 9-piece drum kit taking a substantial portion of the space, we had to track the instruments one by one rather than play together as a group. I don't think a single one of us had ever been forced to record in such a degree of isolation before. It was certainly difficult, but somehow we managed to pull the parts together.

I could try to re-record this tune - and at some point I might - but this recording of the tune is special to me. The song wouldn't be a fraction of what it is without the other members of the band I was a part of. They were three of the finest musicians I have had the opportunity to play with. I respect them greatly, so if any of them somehow stumble upon this post and do not wish their name associated with it or their performance used, I will gladly edit their name out of the post and/or remove the tune.  Until then I want to give my heartfelt thanks to Jeff Graville (drums), Matt Schrock (sax), and Alan Fiddler (bass) for helping give life to a tune that never would have seen the light of day if it weren't for your contributions.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Week in The Big Easy, Part Three

Okay, last one...

Day 6:
Today was another trip into the Garden District on the Magazine Street bus. After a few stops which included a guitar store and pawn shop (I didn't find anything of interest), we decided to again venture outside of Louisiana cooking and had a great lunch at Nacho Mama's Mexican Restaurant. It's worth repeating: it's really hard to go wrong with dining in The Big Easy.

Another goal of this trip was a return to Jim Russel's Record Store. While I don't own a record player, I had decided that some vinyl and sleeves might make inspiring wall decoration for my meager recording studio. There are a number of other stores in the city that sell vinyl, but none of them had them same vibe as the organized chaos of Jim Russel's.  While I missed out on the Jimi Hendrix album, I did manage to pick up a B.B. King album, a live Cream album, and a copy of Led Zepplin IV, which was another one of my early cassette acquisitions.

Following a second helping of the Storyville Restaurant's killer po' boys, we made our way to Woldenberg Park for the final stop Railroad Revival Tour.  My wife Denise had heard our local rock station running a contest for tickets to this show - headlined by folk-rockers Mumford & Sons - and we decided we'd guarantee ourselves attendance to the show. While I prefer the intimacy of small clubs to large outdoor stages,  the bands involved did put on a stellar show.  I don't consider myself much of a country fan, but I must admit I enjoyed the old-time Americana style of openers Old Crow Medicine Show (which included some guest appearances).  The second opener, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, have a musical style I can't figure out how to describe, but they were also neat to listen to.  Despite having nowhere near the roster of musicians of the large ensembles opening the show, Mumford & Sons managed to still fill the stage with their sound.  The encore saw every member of all three acts on stage - at least 20 musicians in all - and demonstrated that a jam-packed stage makes for one hell of a party.

Day 7:
We tried to fit a few more events into our last full day in the city.  The first was a tour of the New Orleans Rum Distillery. Having sampled some of Cuba's finest rum (an experience I can enjoy as a Canadian), I was pretty impressed with the distillery's offerings; their unaged white rum was one of the most drinkable white rums I've sampled, and their spiced rum was dangerously tasty.  Needless to say, some bottles came home with us.

After an excellent lunch at Magnolia Grill, we went for beignets at Cafe Beignet.  Beignets are a New Orleans staple, similar to a doughnut and covered in powdered sugar. We had tried beignets at Cafe Du Monde on our second day, but were later told that Cafe Beignet's version were much lighter and closer to the original recipe.  Between the two, I give Cafe Beignet the edge.  On our friends' good word, we tried Huck Finn's for dinner. As this would be my final dinner before leaving, I went full tilt on the Louisiana fare: a trio entree of Crawfish Etoufee, Gumbo, and Alligator Sauce Piquante with a side of cornbread. Magnificent.

Haunted Walks are fun; in addition to being entertaining, they often include great details about the history and architecture of the city. We've done them in Kingston and Ottawa previously, and New Orleans was the best yet. In addition to displaying an excellent knowledge of the cities history - both factual and paranormal - our guide Andrew was an absolute riot.

I was worried that on the eve of the New Orleans Jazz Festival that Frenchmen Street would be jammed, but The Spotted Cat once again had enough room to accomodate us. The New Orleans Moonshiners put on a great show (Denise had actually bought a copy of their disc at Ben Polcer's show earlier in the week, who is a member of the Moonshiners).  After a while, the smoke and perfume became too much for Denise and we headed out.  I wasn't disappointed by this for two reasons.  Firstly, I hadn't expected to be able to take in any music at all tonight, so just getting to see the Moonshiners was a treat.  Secondly, had we not left at that exact moment and been walking down that exact street back to our room at that exact time, I wouldn't have passed one of my favourite guitar players in the world, Jeff Beck.

I'm not a star gazer; I could care less about catching a glimpse of Brangelina, Nicholas Cage, or other New Orleans celebrity denizens. But walking by one of your most admired guitarists as he makes his way to enjoy some local jazz before headlining the opening night of the jazz festival still felt pretty damn cool. It also gave me a pretty good sense that if this is where Jeff Beck hangs out when he comes to town, I had been hanging out in the right place. To be clear, I behaved myself and walked on by; the man just came for the music, not to be accosted for an autograph or photo (neither of which I was concerned about anyway).

Day 8:
The final day, and nothing to much of note as we had to depart for the airport early in the day. After a last trip around the French Market for souvenirs, we stopped at The Marigny Brasserie for a quick lunch before saying our goodbyes to our wonderful hostess at the B&B and heading to the airport.

That's pretty much it. If anyone has questions about New Orleans, by all means, feel free to ask them in the comments; as you can tell, I enjoy talking about the place.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Week in The Big Easy, Part Two

I honestly thought this was going to be a two-parter at most, but it appears I can blather on at length; expect one more after this.  Anyway, getting to it...

Day 3:
Being Easter Sunday, we knew we weren't going to be in for a very busy day, but there was still quite a bit open.  We started off the day (after another amazing breakfast) walking through the French Market, which is essentially a flea market geared at the tourists.  That's not to say it wasn't neat to walk through; I ended up picking up a souvenir or two later in the week.  At the end of the French Market, we stopped for a snack of popcorn crawfish at the Market Cafe.

After walking about the French Quarter a bit more to see what was or wasn't open, we stopped at the Royal House Restaurant. It was here I had my first taste of alligator with an alligator po' boy. You often hear that alligator tastes like chicken, but I would argue it has a taste of its own.  After a bit more walking around and a brief break back at our room, we decided to take a little break from the traditional Louisiana cuisine and go for a bit of Thai food at Sukho Thai in the Marigny neighbourhood. As I said, in New Orleans, it's very hard to go wrong when picking a place to eat, and Sukho Thai was no exception.

After dinner, it was back to Frenchmen Street.  This was our first night at the Spotted Cat, which quickly became our favourite hangout for the trip.  Drawn in from the street by the sound of some killer dixieland jazz, we spent the evening enjoying Ben Polcer & Friends.  I'm not quite sure what else to say about them other than they were fantastic to listen to.  Piano, banjo, and quartet of horns proved that neither drums nor bass were critical for churning out an incredible rhythm.

One thing that's very different about the way they do things in New Orleans is the way the live music is funded. Very few places charged any sort of cover despite having several acts a day, some starting as early as 2:00 pm (there was, however, usually a one drink minimum per set). The bands also make heavy use of a tip bucket, with one band member often taking a break while the rest of the band plays, working the room with the bucket. You got the sense from that while they likely did get a bit of pay from the club, they relied heavily on the tip bucket for their pay.  I'm not sure if it's an approach that would work in a place like Toronto (though as I don't take in a lot of shows, for all I know you may see it up here), it looked like a fairly successful way to do things in New Orleans. Of course, that's the view from the outside; when I'm there again (and I will be) I may have to get the scoop from the musicians themselves.

Day 4:
The day before, we booked an afternoon tour of the Honey Island swamp with the Cajun Encounters tour company. While the airboats with the giant fans may look exciting, we were told that speeding around on them doesn't give you much of an opportunity to enjoy the sights of the swamp itself, and the wildlife hate them. So we stuck with the riverboat.

It's not hard to understand why the Louisiana swamps and bayous have a great influence on music; in contrast to stereotypes that swamps are dirty and dark, they are beautiful.  As we wound through the cypress forests, Spanish moss hanging from the branches, our guide Ted Gauthier shared stories of the plant life and wildlife in this unique ecosystem, the conservation efforts to preserve them, and the effect of Katrina on those who live their lives in this place.  He also pointed out a honey-producing Tupelo tree, the source of inspiration for a Van Morisson song. Though everyone comes for the alligators, they really are a very small part of the majesty and history of the swamp.

After getting back from the tour, we had a late lunch at River's Edge Restaurant of seafood omelette filled with crawfish. If it seems like we were going heavy on the crawfish, you can't get them up here, so best to get them while we could.  We toured the city on foot a bit more before having a late dinner at Deanie's Seafood Restaurant.  Despite the apparent popularity of the place, we weren't actually as impressed with this place as we were with most of the other restaurants.  It wasn't terrible, and it could have simply been a fluke, but it didn't live up to the expectations we had.

Back to Frenchmen Street again, and back to the Spotted Cat. Tonight we caught the set of Dominick Grillo and the Frenchmen Street All-Stars. Initially playing some Davis-Mingus-Coltrane era free jazz when we arrived, they quickly branched out into blues and swing as the night went on. At one point, a nearby swing dance troupe decided to grace the club with their presence, putting on a lively show for the rest of the night as the band played on.

Seeing the swing dancers reminded me of an experience I had back in high school. The band I was a part of was playing a battle-of-the-bands hosted at the high school. As a band focused on jazz and blues, we were very much the black sheep of the show in amongst the punk, grunge, and metal bands. Swing had gained a bit of popularity at the time with "Jump, Jive and Wail" and bands like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, but I was still feeling unsure of the reception we would get.  Halfway through our first tune - a lively swing number - I looked down into the audience. Not only did it seem like people were taking in interest in us, a couple were feverishly swing dancing together directly in front of the stage. Seeing those two dancing so happily along to our music was one of the greatest feelings I've ever had making music.

Day 5:
Today started off with a cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking. No, I was not dragged there kicking and screaming. New Orleans is considered to be the one of the best cities in the world in terms of cuisine. There's a reason that songs have been written specifically about Louisiana dishes (it's actually a Hank Williams Jr. tune, but I like Healey's version even more). So I was actually looking forward to the prospect of learning Creole and Cajun cuisine. The instructor, Anne Leonhard, was excellent; beyond the cooking itself, the entertaining 10-15 minute history of more than 200 years of New Orleans culture and it's impact of the development of Creole/Cajun cuisine was fascinating. By the end of the class we had been shown the preparation of (and ate) jambalaya, gumbo, bread pudding, and pralines.

After an afternoon trip to the Audobon Zoo (which is nowhere near the size of the Metro Toronto Zoo, but was fun nonetheless), we took in the Red Fish Grill for dinner. Not only had our friends eaten there earlier in the week and loved it, but our cooking instructor also highly recommended it. Louisiana seafood is excellent, and this restaurant did wonders with it.  For anyone going there, Red Fish Grill is a must.

When we arrived at Frenchmen Street, the Spotted Cat was packed, and most of the other jazz clubs seemed to be between sets. Cafe Negril still had space, and John Lisi and Delta Funk with Jason Ricci were putting on a great show.  While an interesting funky groove was being laid down on a electrified resonator guitar when we arrived, we were also treated to some Chicago-style blues as the set went on.

If it seems like I'm glossing over the musical acts in these posts, it's not intentional; it's just difficult to describe in words what they were like.  All of them were great, and I'd recommend checking them out to anyone.