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Lin火: Talib Kweli on why he left major labels

Talib Kweli is a hip-hop artists that I’ve known from the band Black Star, a collaboration between Mos Def and him. In this piece he recounts the process of going independent and the kinds of influences he has today.

So the question for the artist who is making a living from their art is: how do you monetize cultural relevancy?

It’s generally agreed that this is a problem for the artist, not the consumer of art, to solve. To find the answer I began to pay attention to indie artists with integrity who still make a good living, and I found myself paying attention to comedians. When Louis CK filmed a stand-up concert and made it available for stream and download on his website for $5, he made a cool million and gave half of it away to charity. I thought it was a genius idea, but when I tried to apply the realities of releasing a hip-hop album thru this kind of platform, the task seemed daunting. Louis CK comes up with jokes in his head and delivers them solo, on a microphone to an audience that is paying for seats. His only costs were probably the filming, the streaming and getting the website built, but the money he made from the concert could have probably covered these things. Louis’ hit show on FX and the success of his past comedy specials did the marketing for him, so he didn’t have to spend a lot of money in that department. He had no producers to pay, samples to clear, studio time to pay for, engineers, musicians, etc. There are no royalties that he has to pay out to anyone once the product is released as well. I scrapped the idea of being a hip-hop version of Louis CK, until singer/producer Ryan Leslie tracked me down to share an idea with me.

Lin火: Zoë Keating on the power of Youtube

What if, for years and years, you use social media as a tool to interact socially with your fans and friends? And what if that tool suddenly presents you with a big fat contract outlining who the boss is? Well, as Zoë Keating discovers that Google is boss, at least where it concerns publishing your content on it. The only problem is that the type of people like Zoë Keating… the type that woud use YouTube because it’s a convenient medium to reach many people… these types of people don’t necessarily believe with that dogma.

I found these words particularly striking.

The catalog commitment is the biggest issue for me. All these years I’ve yet to participate fully in any streaming service although I’ve chosen to give a handful of recordings to a few of them. If anyone wants more and they balk at paying for it, they can always stream all my music for free on Bandcamp(*2) or Soundcloud or they can torrent it (I uploaded my music to Pirate Bay myself many years ago). I’ve heard all the arguments about why artists should make all their music available for streaming in every possible service. I also know the ecosystem of music delivery made a shift away from downloading last year. Streaming is no longer advertising for something else, it is the end product. It’s convenient. Convenience is king. Yup, got all that, thanks.

This is the important part: it is my decision to make.

Is such control too much for an artist to ask for in 2015? It’s one thing for individuals to upload all my music for free listening (it doesn’t bother me). It’s another thing entirely for a major corporation to force me to. I was encouraged to participate and now, after I’m invested, I’m being pressured into something I don’t want to do.

P.S. Zoë Keating is one of those few artists that I bought music from just via her website. Powerful music, maybe not for every moment, but an artists that deserves serious recognition.

Publishing: Steve Albini on the Music industry

Via the Guardian (and Waxy.org), Steve Albini on the history of the modern (1960s to now) music industry, the roots of independent music, John Peel, the problems and opportunities of the internet. I collected some quotes.

That’s where I cut my teeth, in that independent scene full of punks and noise freaks and drag queens and experimental composers and jabbering street poets. You can thank punk rock for all of that. That’s where most of us learned that it was possible to make your own records, to conduct your own business and keep control of your own career. If a bunch of pimply glue sniffers could do it, we reasoned, then anybody could.

The number of records released this way was incredible. Thousands of small releases made their way into the “mom and pop” independent speciality stores, which then provided a market for independent distribution. It was the beginnings of an alternative to the label paradigm. It was cumbersome and slow but it was more efficient than a shotgun approach with the big labels, whose answer to every problem was to spend more of the band’s money on it.

It was the beginning of what we would call the peer network. By mid-90s there were independent labels and distributors moving millions of dollars of records and CDs. And there was a healthy underground economy of bands making a reasonable income owing to the superior efficiencies of the independent methods. My band, as an example, was returned 50% of the net profit on every title that we released through our record label. I worked it out and that earned us a better per-piece royalty than Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna or any other superstar operating concurrently. And we were only one of thousands of such bands.

So, that was the system as it was. That’s what we lost when the internet made everything available everywhere for free.

On the internet, the rise of consumer choice and of much easier production and distribution mechanisms:

There’s a lot of shade thrown by people in the music industry about how terrible the free sharing of music is, how it’s the equivalent of theft, etc. That’s all bullshit and we’ll deal with that in a minute. But for a minute I want you to look at the experience of music from a fan’s perspective, post-internet. Music that is hard to find was now easy to find. Music to suit my specific tastes, as fucked up as they might be, was now accessible by a few clicks or maybe posting a query on a message board. In response I had more access to music than I had ever imagined. Curated by other enthusiasts, keen to turn me on to the good stuff; people, like me, who want other people to hear the best music ever.

This audience-driven music distribution has other benefits. Long-forgotten music has been given a second life. And bands whose music that was ahead of its time has been allowed to reach a niche audience that the old mass distribution failed to find for them, as one enthusiast turns on the next and this forgotten music finally gets it due. There’s a terrific documentary about one such case, the Detroit band Death whose sole album was released in a perfunctory edition in, I believe, 1975 and disappeared until a copy of it was digitised and made public on the internet. Gradually the band found an audience, their music got lovingly reissued, and the band has resurrected, complete with tours playing to packed houses. And the band are now being allowed the career that the old star system had denied them. There are hundreds of such stories and there are speciality labels that do nothing but reissue lost classics like that once they surface.

Now look at the conditions from a band’s perspective, the conditions faced by a band. In contrast to back in the day, recording equipment and technology has simplified and become readily available. Computers now come pre-loaded with enough software to make a decent demo recording and guitar stores sell microphones and other equipment inexpensively that previously was only available at a premium from arcane speciality sources. Essentially every band now has the opportunity to make recordings.

And they can do things with those recordings. They can post them online in any number of places: Bandcamp, YouTube, SoundCloud, their own websites. They can link to them on message boards, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter and even in the comment streams of other music. “LOL,” “this sucks,” “much better,” “death to false metal,” “LOL”. Instead of spending a fortune on international phone calls trying to find someone in each territory to listen to your music, every band on the planet now has free, instant access to the world at its fingertips.

On faux problems and solutions (garbage in, garbage out):

Let’s start at the beginning. “We need to figure out”: the subject of that sentence, the first-person plural, sounds inclusive but the context defeats that presumption. Who would have the power to implement a new distribution paradigm? Who would be in the room when we discuss our plans for it? Who would do the out figuring we need to do? Industry and consumers? Consumers is a likely response, but did the consumers get a vote about how their music would be compressed or tagged or copy protected or made volatile? Did anybody? Did the consumers get a choice about whether or not Apple stuck a U2 album on their iTunes library? Of course not. These things were just done and we had to deal with them as a state of being. Consumers rebelling or complaining about things – “market pushback” – isn’t the same thing as being involved in the decision to do something. Clearly the “we” of this sentence doesn’t include the listener. I believe any attempt to organise the music scene that ignores the listener is doomed.

How about the bands? Do the bands get a seat at the “we” table, while our figuring-out needs are met? Of course not. If you ask bands what they want – and I know this because I’m in a band and I deal with bands every day – what they want is a chance to expose their music and to have a shot at getting paid by their audience. I believe the current operating status satisfies the first of these conditions exquisitely and the latter at least as well as the old record label paradigm.

So who is this “we”? The administrative parts of the old record business, that’s who. The vertical labels who hold copyright on a lot of music. They want to do the figuring. They want to set the agenda. And they want to do all the structural tinkering. The bands, the audience, the people who make music and who pay for it – they are conspicuously not in the discussion.

It’s really powerful stuff and if these lengthy quotes haven’t put you off, please read the whole article, which is a gazillion times longer.

In Movies: Scriptnotes talks Superhero Movies

Superheros are mainstream now, so like many of you, I have witnessed this pretty amazing blending of visual storytelling, innovation in the effects area, and allround blockbuster-money-exploding movie releases. The Scriptnotes podcast, in light of the recent “forecast” for when what 30 superhero movies will be released until 2020 (MarvelDC), is pretty insightful in explaining what “pillars” made all of this possible.

They begin with Brian Singer’s X-men, released in 2000, which was perhaps the first non-cheesy looking mainstream (!) comic book movie. He brought these characters on screen, focussing less on costumes and more on characters we care about.

Secondly, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, released in 2005, which again brought a realistic, but hard-to-replicate gritty tone to the superhero scene. To me, this Batman is like the Indiana Jones of adventure films—an impossible character (in a good way) in a well-written adventure. If X-men was characters, I think writing is the key contribution here.

Third, Joss Whedon’ and Kevin Feige’s the Avengers, which really brought together the universe of these characters, much more so than X-men did. Craig Mazin says on Feige:

He’s like, you know, you have to go all the way back to like, I don’t know, Thalberg, and guys like that to find these really powerful, very smart guys that actually made like a good creator-like impact on the movie business. He may be our generation’s, I don’t know, whatever you want to call it, Zanuck or Thalberg. One of those guys.

… which I thought was really powerful stuff!

It’s hard to argue with John August and Craig Mazin, these two “pillars” of movie podcasting and scriptwriting, so I won’t. Like Lost or Battlestar Gallactica lead audiences into watching science fiction, something amazing has happened for comics as well. It’s nice to hear an analysis of what these contributing factors were and perhaps a discussion point for another time.

火 in TV Shows – Interviews with the Simpsons on the Fresh Air Podcast

Great podcast episode in anticipation of an insanely long 552 ‘The Simpsons’ marathon on FFX. What?

I love the Nancy Cartwright (Bart, Nelson) interview.

In Music: Enjoying the 8tracks service

From the company website:

8tracks believes handcrafted music programming trumps algorithms. Think radio in the 1970s, mixtapes in the 1980s, and DJ culture of the 1990s through today. DJs share their talent in taste making, providing exposure for artists. Listeners get a unique blend of word-of-mouth sharing and radio programming — long the trusted means for music discovery — on a global scale.

After highlighting the Guardians of the Galaxy movie as a must-watch, it’s resparked my interest in curated playlists, such as on mixtapes (note: there are some other ones, but these often get taken down through copyright legal complaints). The 8tracks concept comes pretty close, it’s free (with ads), has an iOS, Mac  & web app, and keeps me entertained throughout the day.

In Music: Records fight the digital age with Sleevefaces

I found this on Facebook: a collection of Sleevefaces, 1970s answer to the Selfie. I’m happy to say that it’s not the only use I found for records. If you’re willing to live with changing side every four songs, it makes for an excellent audiovisual accompaniment to any candlelight dinner.

sleeveface-vinyl-sleeve-optical-illusion-4

Link-up In Music: Jay-Z’s favourite albums ranked by … Jay-Z

Arguably, Jay-Z is the smartest dude on the planet, a close second being Arnold Schwarzenegger, before he reached too high too early, but that’s another story. So Kottke linked to this, hence I just re-link to him with some other comments.

Jay-Z’s book, Decoded, is not the greatest ever written. It’s no “Road to Freedom,” but I read it because I do believe it’s a smart dude. So, in his works, you could argue it’s a piece of long-form poetry,  I would rank that maybe around Blueprint 3.

I came across him during Blueprint 1 & 2, as well as the Black Album, all of which were great and continue to be re-listens. I’m also, for some reason, a great fan of American Gangster (movie & soundtrack), which is kind of like a fairy tale of a gangster movie, where you root for the bad guy, even though you know the man’s eventually going to get him.

Do I really think he’s smart? Yes, absolutely. The smartest? It depends on context, but I do think he’s got an empire state of mind (much like Arnold) and moves the chess pieces accordingly. So he deserves my respect for that.

OK, I’m out. 

In Music: Nirvana

One of the most marking thing in my life has been the passing of Kurt Cobain in the 90s. I don’t really know why this event was so important to me as a 17 year old. It was a man that died under questionable circumstances at the other side of the world—I was in the Netherlands at the time—but since music was such an important part of my life, grunge in particular, perhaps a decade passed before I listened to another Nirvana song.

When I read the letter that Steve Albini wrote to Nirvana about producing their last album, it struck a chord, particularly the phrase “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s f######g up. Oi!” Albini actually presses this point for most of the first two pages and it fits how I feel about Nirvana and about good music. It has to be spontaneous and raw, rather than over-produced and clinical, in order to really touch your soul. 
Even if you’re not into Nirvana, I think that what Steve Albini writes is interesting and relevant to whole bunch more in life than just one band. So check that out.

I hope that I’ve stated my love for Nirvana enough. While it isn’t a band that I listen to frequently, once a year would be generous, there are plenty of bands that are inspired by them and they did have that raw talent that is hard to reproduce. It was unique for its time, much like Bob Dylan was unique for the 60s (perhaps more on him at another time).

In Music: Ute Lemper Live in Dublin

Just before we went into the concert, my sister told me that it would be ok if I wanted to leave early. I told her that this would only happen if the artist was very, very bad. OK, let’s flash back a month before. I received an SMS from my sister that she had booked tickets to Ute Lemper, yay! (paraphrasing). I kind of forgot about it because I had never heard of Ms. Lemper.

Back to last night. Ms. Lemper starts her music with a story, a story of ‘Le petit Piaf” (Edith) that had to find her way in the world, in Paris, until she was finally discovered while singing on the street. I think the first song of the concert was “Ma Vie En Rose,” a movie I still have to see, and the second “Padam… padam!” (see Piaf’s original performance below). Which brings me to the conductor of the symphony, Mr. Robert Ziegler.

Now as much as you can say that Ms. Lemper has got style, she’s got flair, Mr. Ziegler is clearly her equal in as far as conductors can have a presence on stage. From the moment he appeared in his more colourful attire than you would normally expect, you knew this guy was different. And he was! Which you noticed most of all in Piaf’s Padam. If music is a wave, it was as if his entire body was a ship floating through it. It’s hard to describe, but he had this way of keeping rhythm and tilting his heels ever so much when a musical climax was to occur. Oh, and if you didn’t know who Robert Ziegler is, he conducted the music for “There Will be Blood” and collaborated with Radiohead.

“Padam… Padam” was easily a master-piece, but it didn’t stop here. Ute Lemper took us on a journey through the 30s, 40s, and 50s, interpreting German and French artists that sometimes sang as if it would be the last sound to pass their lips. She told us about the hidden cabaret that formed a not so silent (but hidden) outlet for people when WWII was the worst. And even that was not to last. All this emotion could be felt clearly in her words and in the music.

Something about Ms. Lemper herself. Apart from being an established singer, she’s an actress and a painter. I haven’t seen her latter works yet, but her acting skills manifest herself in her presence. From Marlene Ditriech’s “They call me naughty Lola” to the sad ‘hidden cabaret’ ballads like “Die Ballade vom Wasserad,” she impersonates that artist in all its might and plight and it’s powerful, like you’re really there. Next to that, Ute Lemper is a beautiful woman and knows how to dress in style.

Why I knew I would enjoy the concert most of all was because she would be singing a number of Jacques Brel’s songs, such as “Amsterdam” and “Ne me ne quite… (pas).” You don’t know this about me, but I grew up with hearing Brel on my dad’s record-player every weekend and he is to me what to some people is The Beatles. So I loved it!

The concert finished with Van Morrison’s Moondance. She received a standing ovation, after which she came back for one more untitled song, after which she received another standing ovation.

One of the greats!

I warmly recommend buying her music (e.g. here) and even more seeing her live. It’s likely to be an experience you’ll never want to forget.

In Music: Thievery Corporation live vs. Massive Attack live

About five years ago, I watched the band Thievery Corporation live in Cologne. Last night, I saw Massive Attack in Luxembourg. The cycle is nearly complete. All that is missing is the Future Sound of London, which I grooved to on the way back.

T.C. and M.A. have similar styles of performing. Both use a lot of live instruments, more so Thievery, and both use a lot of different (styles) of singers. But if I had to compare the two, they are completely different. Compared to Massive Attack, Thievery Corporation is like the happiest sound imaginable. Massive Attack on the other hand, seems literally (see Nicolette’s performance at the end) like a sad clown. Case in point: “Splitting the Album”

While the crowd was quite energetic in this video, the Lux. crowd was (typically!) more lullabied, the band too seeming in some kind of undead trancey mood.

Let’s contrast this with a video from a live performance by Thievery Corp.: “Warning Shots”

Completely different kind of energy!

Perhaps it’s to do with Massive Attack being around for such a long time. A lot of hits were being played last night and while the crowd ate it up, I’m always reminded of Adam Sandler in the Wedding Singer, regurgitating the same song over and over again. The clown makeup that the female singer, Nicolette, was wearing, not a smile on her face, didn’t help either.

All in all a great concert, don’t get me wrong. From the light show flashing messages in the background, from what drugs would be good to take right now (pcp?) or how much it costs to sponsor a nurse in Africa (2.500 per year), vs. buying a diamond iPod (39.000) or paying the Lehman CEO (somewhere in the millions). To the different styles of singing, lullabying vs. energizing, from psychedelic reggae to rock to techno. Everything was in there and it was an amazing experience.

In Music: 88-Keys’ "The Death of Adam" and Mixtape

According to my iTunes smartlist (called ‘Rate these?’), I should mark every track on their official album, “The Death of Adam,” as at least three stars (That’s how I remember what I like and don’t on my ‘pod). Actually, I can tell you exactly how that is calculated:

The tracklist:

  • “Morning Wood” – Played 16 times
  • “Nice Guys Finish Last” – played 18 times
  • “The Friends Zone (feat. Shitake Monkey)” – played 15 times
  • “Handcuff ‘Em” – played 12 times
  • “Stay Up! (Viagra) (feat. Kanye West)” – played 13 times
  • “There’s Pleasure In It” – played 11 times
  • “(Awww Man) Round 2?” – played 15 times
  • “Dirty Peaches (feat. J’Davey)” – played 17 times
  • “Close Call (feat. Phonte)” -played 14 times
  • “The Burning Bush (feat. Redman)” – played 11 times
  • “Ho’ Is Short For Honey (feat. Kid Cudi)” – played 11 times
  • “No. I Said I LIKED You” – played 15 times
  • “M.I.L.F. (feat. Bilal)” – played 9 times
  • “Another Victim” – played 16 times

This is of course just statistics, which only tells you so much. Add to that that I’ve had it for a month, that the total album time is 45.7 minutes, and the average number of times I played this album is at around 12.8 times, that’s approximately 588 minutes of playtime. Spread over a month, that’s 19 minutes a day! If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

My favourite track is, according to my own rating system, “Stay Up!” (see vid. below). According to the number of plays, which is random, it’s “Nice Guys Finish Last.” Perhaps, I’m trying to tell myself something… o_O

Just to give you a taste, the mixtape, “Adam’s Case Files,” can be downloaded for free here. I haven’t listened to it that much yet, but it’s not bad.

Featuring Kid Cudi, Izza Kizza, Tanya Morgan, Guilty Simposn, Grafh, Mr. Bentley, Serius Jones, and more. Adam’s Case Files is the precursor to 88’s first solo album release The Death Of Adam, hitting stores this October on Decon Records and executive produced by Kanye West.

In Music: The last track of ‘Six Feet Under’

The last track of the show was a beautiful piece of ambiance while the final scenes of the show were shown. So sad! I wrote before how I wondered whether this show, which is about death, desensitised you from the death-experience. I think that it does the opposite, that you become more sensitive to it, but that ignoring it is worse—you have this constant shadow hanging over you, especially when you get older. I didn’t realise that Alan Ball, who also wrote and directed ‘American Beauty,’ had done the same for this show. A marvellous piece of art and I feel privileged to have been allowed to see it (as I feel with many of HBO’s shows).

Enjoy the track!

In 2008: a year of media

My media memory only goes back so far, but the great thing about the human brain is that it’s self-selecting, automatically dismissing that which isn’t noteworthy.

Memorable this year were a few things in tv-shows, films, and music.

The year in TV-Shows:
My highlight this year is definitely finishing “The Wire“, which I managed to do over the period of several months. A genius piece of writing and it made me a big fan of HBO, which, as I recently found out, stands for Home Box Office. A great name!

Another gem that stood out was “Damages,” with Glenn Close, which never let up in the tension. I’ve only seen the first season and can’t wait for the rest.

Comedy-wise, I’ve been left pretty disappointed since Seinfeld and the early Friends, but I can warmly recommend “How not to live your life.” It only aired a few episodes this year, but it was laugh-out-loud funny British comedy.

The year in Films
Last Christmas, I actually made it my resolution to focus on the classics in 2008 and beyond, and can’t really recall any brilliant films coming out (of course, I’m wrong, but my brain only holds that much space).

Classics that stood out were:

  • The Public Enemy, which I liked because it’s the oldest thing I’ve ever seen and I’m fascinated at the idea of looking through a window into life when my grandparents lived.
  • Rebecca, which was also tension non-stop.
  • A few Jean Arthur movies, whom I’ve developed a mini-crush on.
  • Lawrence of Arabia, which just seems like the optimal adventure movie to me.
  • And Casablanca, which is just a classy flick.

I’m trying to strain my brain for some more recent films, perhaps you can suggest some. Did Juno come out this year (no), in which case, that’s worth a watch, as well as Mongol (the life of Genghis Kahn).

The year in Music
Similarly, I think it is hard to form a valid opinion as to an album is great, when it has only recently been released. Thinking back at 2008, only two albums stood out:

Everything else, I still have to think about.

In music: Spoon & The Black Keys

Two albums I liked today:

Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Favourite track so far: The Ghost of You Lingers

The Black Keys – Attack and Release

Favourite track so far: Lies

In music: Ziggy Marley’s "Beach in Hawaii"

Somebody in my street blasted this song this morning and woke me up. I’m sure that makes me biased, but I liked it. That said, Ziggy M. has the artistic bandwidth of my left foot: always the same rhythm and always the same theme: love.

In Music: tracks U can dance 2 like Daft Punk’s ‘Around the World’

In Music: best Beck songs

Interlude: Copyright or the *Right to Eat*

copyright right to eat.jpgRead it on Tech IT Easy!

Musical interlude: Róisín Murphy parties like it’s ’99

This is as much a celebration of technologies like MixWit, which make publishing playlists (legally) possible, as it is a spotlight on one of my favourite musical discoveries last year.

Róisín (Pronounced “Roshiin”) Murphy, former lead-singer in the British band Moloko, with a voice that reminds me a lot of Annie Lennox. I have to confess that, except for some remixes, I wasn’t a big fan of either of these artists back in the day.

Still, Ms. Murphy is a breath of fresh air in what often seems like a stale and regurgitated pop-scene (I exaggerate). And… I simply can’t get the first song on this playlist, “Dear Miami“, out of my head!

Not for you, if you don’t like electronica or pop.

Enjoy!

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