Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rocktober: Naive Disillusionment & the Data Mining of Music

This summer I attended a semi-exclusive A&R event in midtown Nashville, where a collection of up-and-comers and hopefuls on the country music scene performed for a small crowd and hobnobbed with label reps, hoping to get the right one’s attention and be offered a contract and a path to the big time.

While there, I got into a fascinating conversation with a guy who has begun a start-up company specializing in data-mining hit music.

Basically, he said, making chart-topping music is more science than art. It’s no different than cooking. You need to know the precise ingredients and measurements required to make any specific dish. Then, and only then, can the supremely gifted chefs add their “little something special” that vaults a simple recipe into another stratosphere. But even the “little something special” things can be measured, tracked, investigated, analyzed.

Likewise with music. Hit songs are, truly, recipe driven, and it’s more true in contemporary, mainstream country music than anywhere.

So his company takes hit songs and breaks each one down into hundreds of different data points. Beats per minute. Primary chord and chord progression. Number of words per verse, per chorus, per song. Time length of verses, of chorus, of bridge. If it can be isolated or categorized, they’re doing it. Song by song, note by note, data point by data point, all going into columns and rows for comparison and contrast.

“Once we’ve built up a sufficient database of hit songs, we will be able to take someone’s new song, run it through the analysis, and identify the precise likelihood of that song becoming a hit,” he said. Even now, he explained, with the limited database they’d built up, their predictions were stunningly accurate and were only going to improve as they tweaked the system. They could isolate the comparison to the past year's worth of hits or the past two decades' worth.

Surely they’re not the first ones to try this, to come up with scientific formulas as a means of dissecting hit music, I said. No, he said, but the music industry is not unlike professional baseball.

“Have you seen or read Moneyball?” he asked. And he had me. Because I frappin’ love Moneyball.

“How long did it take baseball, a sport swimming in statistics, whose popularity is built around statistics, to wake up and realize that you could use those same stats to build championship teams rather than relying on the judgment of scouts and GMs? It took a long time, right? Because they were in denial.

“That’s where the music industry is. They’re just waking up to the reality that they’ve spent lots of time crunching music stats, but they’ve been looking at the wrong numbers in the wrong ways and relying on A&R reps and talent spotters rather than using the stats to build championship teams.”

It's cool. It's believable. It's utterly depressing.

Music isn't baseball, dammit.

Inside the scaffolds and structure of a song, the innermost part of myself can seek sanctuary, that endless hunger for inspiration and insight can often be fed. Music is my real church. Like love and faith, I perceive my relationship with music as a mystical experience, not a scientific one. I don’t need to understand why I like a song or a band, only that it moves me somehow in a way I seek to be moved.

My heart wants to believe you can't do this. You can't entirely make art into a science. But I'm sad because, and my heart hurts because it's probably true.

But. If it were completely true, if science was vehicle by which we could all be pulled back together into a shared love of particular songs, why are we more splintered musically than ever? Why is everyone fighting for ever-smaller slices of an ever-smaller pie?

No no. There's still plenty of magic in music. Or, as Olivia Newton-John would say so well, "I have to believe we are magic."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Rocktober: Billy's Lilith Fair, a.k.a. Bilith Fair

When Sarah McLachlan attempted to revitalize the late 90s modest Grrl Power success story of Lilith Fair for a v2.0 run in 2010, things didn’t go as planned. A third of the dates were cancelled, and several artists backed out for fear of not getting paid. Taking full responsibility for the failure, McLachlan told The Globe & Mail:
"Bringing the same thing back last year really didn’t make any sense, in retrospect, without due diligence being done on how women have changed... In 12 years, women have changed a lot. Their expectations have changed, the way they view the world has changed, and that was not taken into consideration, which I blame myself for.”
She’s right, of course. Add to this the not-minor fact that the music scene is in the midst of an armageddon of sorts, an earthquake that has megastars giving away their music and nobodies rocketing to the top of the charts but making minimal money in the process. It hasn’t been all bad for women, though.

The 21st Century music scene has mirrored the rest of corporate and artistic America in that women are no longer the lessers. In most cases, they’re neck-and-neck if not outright ahead of their male counterparts.

College-educated women make up a lower percentage of the unemployed than their male contemporaries.

Fifteen of the Top 20 NYTimes bestsellers are authored by women (yes, I’m counting Nicholas Sparks as a woman), and four of the men are there by riding the coattails of long-running characters Virgil Flowers, Stone Barrington, Michael Bennett and Jack Reacher. All 10 of the 11-20 sales are by women authors.

All of the top 5 Billboard Top 100 spots are currently claimed by women, although their numbers dwindle noticeably after that. Very soon Taylor Swift will probably occupy every spot in the top 10 with static.

(Amusing side note: Only two of the Top 10 Country songs are by women. The Age of the Country Woman has begun to dwindle. Then again, Country is currently in the Glam Rock phase of mid-80s rock, and no one sane and interested in making good music really wants to compete for the drinkin’ sleazin’ boot-scootin’ truckin’ competition that currently marks the race to the top of the country charts.)

With the exception of Bonnaroo, it seems that the time of music festivals and events with a Star-Studded Lineup of Musicians is in the past. Unless you count the never-ending string of music awards shows on network television that exist solely to cover up the fact that their regular programming sucks. I don’t. Count music awards shows.

The lovely and talented Sarah McLachlan was right, though. Her attempt to revitalize Lilith failed because she failed to realize that the landscape of feminism and music had changed underneath her. I can fix that.

I would like to propose Billy’s Lilith Fair, or BILITH FAIR. Two-days per stop. Eight cities. Done. General ground rules:
  1. Instead of stubbornly creating a lineup built to attract women, build a lineup that would play like the best kind of Ladies Night at a good bar. Aim for 35% attendance by males who believe they can find an impressive and appealing assortment of heterosexual women in the audience.
  2. A wide mix of styles should evolve throughout the day, from folk and country to rock and electronic, but with of course the bigger names at the peak hours.
  3. Start smart, end wild. Start smooth, end with a party. It's gotta end by partying like it's 1999.
None of the acts can be so strong and popular that they sell out big venues by themselves. This should be the Kansas City Royals of female musicians, not the Yankees. It should be Texas Christian, not Texas. It should be Trapper John, M.D., not M.A.S.H. It should be a celebration of music that just happens to be female-led, not a celebration of females who just happen to play music.

My lineup for the 2-day, 2-stage Bilith Fair tour. Eight stops. The order of acts could be improved. You could add a few and drop a few names and lose little of the pull or punch.

Day One
(acts on alternate stages throughout the day, 90-minute sets, noon to midnight)

  • Lori McKenna
    • Boy
  • Holly Williams
    • Haley Bonar
  • Lucius
    • Ingrid Michaelson
  • Kacey Musgraves
    • Jenny Lewis
  • Sleeper Agent
    • Sara Bareilles
  • Garbage
    • Sleigh Bells

Day Two

  • Caitlin Rose
    • Jenny Owen Youngs
  • Shovels & Rope
    • Broods
  • Lake Street Dive
    • Haim
  • ZZ Ward
    • Chvrches
  • Brody Dalle
    • Tegan & Sara
  • Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
    • Paramore

Additional acts for consideration or substitution:
Tift Merritt
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Katie Herzig
Lana Del Rey
The Royalty
Neko Case
Zola Jesus
Lykke Li
K.T. Tunstall
The Rescues (or just Kyler England and Adrianne Gonzales)
St. Vincent
Against Me!
Patty Griffin
Brandi Carlisle
Indigo Girls

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rocktober: Musical Alchemy

A Boy And His Guitar--"Interrupted Prayer For A Lost Friend"

And what would Rocktober be without a discussion of the act of still trying to rock?  And so the greatest musical joy of this particular Rocktober has been the arrival of a Bugera V22, a new amplifier to me, but an old-style amplifier in terms of its tube-driven sound and classic features.

The amp has a clean, clear sound, if that is what I want, but it can also get dirty like a panda, if that is the sound I'm after.  And anywhere in between.

As pleased as I am with this amp, this praise is neither an endorsement nor what I really want to write about.    Nope, today I'm jazzed about musical alchemy, the explicable blast of discovery and creativity that occurs when I plug one of my old guitars into that new amp and all that was old becomes new.

But it doesn't have to be an amp.  It could be a different guitar.  It could be the ukulele that you bought to take to Korea.  Or the harmonica that you pick up at your friend's house.  It could be Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place," where they all swapped instruments and came up with a "naive melody."  It could be the "vibe" Neil Young felt when he bought Hank Williams' Martin guitar.

Ask any musician and he or she will confirm, I am certain, the indisputable magic in the air around a player with a different instrument, an fresh effect, a better sound reproduction system, a new set of strings, a vintage purchase.  It can lead to a song, a riff, a combination of chords you've never tried together, a run or a reach you couldn't get to before.

Nor is this some kind of bogus, romantic superstition, at least not to me.  It has simply happened too many times.  When I received a dulcimer for Christmas while I was in college, messing around with it that day, before I knew chords or patterns or anything else, I got a pretty interesting, intricate song out of it.  Same thing when I first got a 12-string from my brother.

Same thing with this amp.  Since plugging it in a week ago, I have come up with three song structures different from anything I've come up with.  Songs I haven't played for years by other artists have come back to me strangely in different keys than I've played them in before.

And I am absolutely convinced that these would not have happened had I not plugged my old guitars into this new amp.

Take the fragment I've posted above.  While I would claim neither that it is genius nor that it is poised to change the direction of modern music, I do think that a listener would be hard pressed to miss the excitement and the joy in the playing that comes from the little lead run and from my discovery of a C#m-Cm-A chord progression that I've never put together before.

And the sound.  The sound of the guitar coming out of the amp is key to the alchemy, the bit of distortion, the subtle reverb, the sustain that allows notes to flow into and over each other.

Like any good alchemist, I'll be back in front of that black box, trying to get gold out of it, before nightfall.

(Producer's note: The ultimate in lo-fi, the track was recorded using the Voice Memos app on the iPhone 5s.  The impromptu title shows both a desire to give the piece some weight and the reality that an incoming phone call interrupts the recording on this app.  While I call it a prayer for a lost friend, my daughter says it sounds like the theme music to a mid-season replacement television show.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Rocktober: Flood Warning

Editor's Note: it has been a few days since I started this post.  Where I live, the storm did not achieve original predictions, my basement "flooding" consisting of mere rivulets that I was mostly able to wipe up with a towel.  Still, the impetus for this post had me looking for a great batch of related songs, so I'll carry on with the original concept.

It has been a strange, rainy October around here, not typical at all.  Right about the time when we might be expecting an Indian Summer, instead we've been getting a fairly regular soaking over the past several days.

Tonight, we await a long, fierce storm that continues to make its way from the west.  The storm has already brought tornadoes and punishing winds, as well torrents of rain.

Tonight, I have preparing my basement for the inevitable flooding that will occur.  Maybe it won't be deep, but it will be wet. And with the ground already wet, we don't really have any way to stop it.

If what happens to my basement is the worst thing that happens in this area, that will be just fine.  Recent years have brought too many storms, devastations and deaths, floods and downed trees, and I imagine all of us feel a certain amount of trepidation when a major storm approaches.

Still, I have to try to find s little bit of good news in all of this imminent water:  we are trying to grow grass in our backyard and it was seeded a week ago.  Now, if the seed has rooted. Another dose of rain could be great; if it hasn't, our seedlings will be washed to who knows where.

But on to the music.  For those of us aging rockers, music has provided a soundtrack to so many events--painful teenage breakups, holidays, car trips, rites of passage.  Tonight, as I'm thinking of all of the rain and potential flooding headed this way, I realize that such storms have provided the basis of any number of great songs.  And while I know this would be more effective if we could all click on the songs, I still offer my favorite storm songs (some winched in to fit contextually).

1.  "Stormy Monday"--the Allman Brothers' version.  The storm here is emotional, the beginning of a long week where something goes wrong most every day.  Along with Derek and The Dominoes, this song introduced me to the blues.

2. + 3.  "Texas Flood" and "Couldn't Stand The Weather" from Stevie Ray Vaughn.  The full range of Vaughn's genius in just a pair of songs, one a cover with all the power of the original and more and the other a blues update with a riff built around a long pause (warning: not for beginning bands) that shows off the tightness of his band.  And a blistering solo.

4.  "Higher Ground" from the Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's CD, Wildflowers.  One of those great Perty songs buried in the middle somewhere that just makes you say, "Holy shit, this rocks!"

5.  "Rain" by The Beatles.  One of John's greatest songs driven by Ringo's best drumming, a complicated pattern like no other.  And one of John's most dismissive couplets: "When the rain comes, they run and hid their heads/ They might as well be dead."

6.  "If I Had A Boat" by Lyle Lovett.  And if I had a pony, I would ride upon my boat. Exactly.

7.  "Shelter From The Storm" by Bob Dylan.  Like "Tangled Up In Blue," another star-crossed lovers song with a killer, double-edged last line to every verse.  "In a little hilltop village/ they gambled for my clothes."  Only Dylan can get away with that one.

8.  "South Central Rain" by R.E.M.  I have no way of knowing what an early R.E.M. (or late one) is about, but with a chorus of only one repeated word ("Sorry") this one achieves that mythic level of high art.

9.  "Drowned" by The Who.  A yearning, a cleansing, a primordial desire, an escape.  Townshend loads the water with the full weight of symbolic possibility.

10.  "I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement" from the first Ramones album.  I don't what was in their basement, but I know what will be in mine, and it will involve fans, towels, dehumidifiers, mildew, and a whole lot of work.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Rocktober: Hope Amidst Ashes

The music is what matters. Period.

The artist’s real name, or the band’s behind-the-scenes drama, or the reason the lead singer formed a band, or whether the drummer is sleeping with college-age girls… or boys, or whether the singer is messing around with the backup singer, gets divorced, marries the backup singer, then begins a string of affairs with other women. (Which, by the way, would make a great sitcom titled "Who's The Boss?")

If we were to judge music on the personalities and backstories of the people making said music, most of what we love, artistically, would wither and die swiftly, replaced by a vastly different kind of music. And that music would be known as "Lawrence Welk Music."

So it’s dangerous to let a band's story influence liking them. Which is why I’m sort of glad I fell in love with Augustines before I found out why they’re Augustines.

Their 2014 self-titled release caught my notice when their video for “Nothing to Lose But Your Head” landed somehow in my Twitter feed. Totally random. A sampling of their album on eMusic led to a quick purchase. It was love at first listen. It is without question a top candidate for Album of the Year.

My immediate description of the Augustines’ music: Frightened Rabbit, ‘Merca-style. Not surprisingly (or coincidentally?), they opened up for Frightened Rabbit for a while. I wish to holy henna I’d been able to witness such a combination, but alas. Maybe my heart couldn’t have handled it.

Only recently, in researching the Augstines’ first album, the 2011 Rise Ye Sunken Ships, did I discover that its genesis was inspired by the suicides of the lead singer’s brother and mother. The kids never knew their father.

Some could argue that the Augustines' brand of rock is sentimental. Melodramatic.

Like the FRabbits, Augustines play a brand of rock music where the heart is duct taped onto the sleeve, where the world is a harsh and heartbreaking place full of disappointment and disillusionment, and where the only way we continue driving down our road is because we hold out hope beyond reason, that those fleeting orgiastic moments of joy we seek are enough to keep us warm in the cold dark night.

Perhaps it’s nothing spectacular or unusual, for someone to suffer the loss of a loved one, to suffer excruciating pain, to suffer from the loss of self or purpose, and to find a way out of it. People do it every day, right? We all fall down, ashes to ashes, and many of us find a reason to get back up and keep going.

I will never grow weary of such stories. Nothing, and I mean nothing in the universe, so singularly calls me to celebrate and dance in the midst of our imperfect humanity like these stories. Of redemption. Of recovery. Of following the light at the end of that long tunnel.

It is the story of childbirth.
It is the aftermath of natural disasters and most human ones.
It is, believe it or not, the reason for “The Walking Dead.” For most great TV dramas, I'd argue.

As their probably inspiration St. Augustine wrote, "God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist."

That search, that message, infuses everything the Augustines have recorded. Sometimes, in a song like “Kid You’re On Your Own,” when he growls lines like, “Here everyone you love slips through your hands like sand,” and “Everyone feels so far away,” his growling vocals and the aggressive punch of the music buffer the desperate words, as if they simply can't accept the words being uttered.

Sometimes, like in “Walkabout,” the song I consider to be the cornerstone of their album and maybe of the band, it’s blatant. The hope -- the sentimentality, if you’re jaded -- is screaming at you through your earphones.

(Side Note: A fun challenge with Augustines is trying to figure out WTF he’s singing. Their songs are, admittedly, begging to be misunderstood. The only more unintelligible singer I can think of at present is Sia.)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Rocktober: The Rise and Fall of eMusic

eMusic might not see the dawn of 2016.

I've been a loyal member of the online music club since 2009, paying them $12/month, plus another $20-30/year for extra purchases, and have never been anything but complimentary of their business. The occasional technological glitch is counterbalanced by an attentive and responsive customer service model.

When I joined, eMusic prided itself on being a hub of independent music and castaways, a sort of hipster online Columbia House. Everything was done in credits instead of dollar amounts, and the selection forced a mainstream-loving guy like myself to stretch my tastes and take chances. The business took a leap and opened its doors to the bigger music groups -- Sony, Universal, Warner -- offering most new releases at lower cost than Amazon or iTunes. While this decision kept a customer like me from moving on from inevitable boredom, it angered their indie distributors, many of whom backed out, and their indie-loving collectors, who backed out in response.

eMusic gambled on getting more customers like me -- loser sellouts with questionable and easily-manipulated musical tastes -- at the cost of guys who prefer vinyl, don't use deodorant, and insult all bands who have been heard of by people living in more than a single state.

Two weeks ago, I signed into my eMusic account, something I do once every week, on Tuesday evenings. My monthly account was set to wrap up in the coming days, so it was time to find some music. Except I was greeted with a message, the Cliff's Notes version of which goes like this:

"Effective immediately, we will no longer carry 92% of the music you'd marked as wanting to buy. Instead, we will return to our roots and only provide independent music you've never heard of. Have a nice day."

I put my account on hold two days later. Ninety days from now, my five-year membership in eMusic will likely be done.

You can never go home again. I don't care if Thomas Wolfe says it, or if Battlestar Galactica names an episode after it. In the world of business, once you grow, or attempt to grow, you cannot shrink. It doesn't work with shirts, or with skins, or with online music clubs. (Or record stores, bookstores, restaurants, clothing stores, or bars.) Backpedaling signifies the moment you've dug your own grave deeply enough that you can no longer crawl back out. And unless someone comes along who can pull you out, you'll be in that hole 'til you starve to death or give up.

For the company's sake, I hope I'm wrong. I hope they reconfigure their payroll and their budget, and enough VIP indie labels return to them, and enough unbathed hipster music lovers rejoin their ranks, that they maintain a sustainable business model. eMusic will never be a BFD, but world domination should never have been in eMusic's mission statement to begin with.

I wish them well as we part ways. It's the kind of breakup that good indie songs are made of, where I'll remember our time together fondly, and where I'll hope they find whatever it is they're seeking for meaning and purpose, and maybe, who knows, our paths will cross again down the road.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Rocktober: What IS "Good Songwriting"?

“Good songwriting.” I’m not sure I really know what that means. As a phrase. As the adjective and noun music critics and fans use to describe an essential quality in most music they identify as “good,” as “worthy” of their attention and listening ears.

Many music lovers carry this assumption that popular music cannot have “good songwriting.” Oftentimes I find music critics who call out one verse as brilliant songwriting, another verse as trite or derivative or bad, and I swear to God half the time I can’t tell the difference.

Let’s take a song from the latest Ryan Adams eponymous album, an album that I love as much as my blog partner. “Feels Like Fire” is the catchiest (and maybe best) song on the album for me. It encapsulates, to me, the panicky feeling of loss, a kind of pain that doesn’t translate to the epidermis, but rather feels like someone using a pickaxe on your soul, some deep internal recess that has no nerve endings but still somehow seems akin to searing agony.

But I don’t believe it’s a particularly well-written song, lyrically. Take the second verse:
Feel the sunlight
The sunlight on my face
It’s cold out here
Lost in outer space
I mean no disrespect to Ryan Adams, but if this verse were in a Miley Cyrus song, people would mock it. They’d be flat-out brutal about how awful it is. But Adams is considered by many to be an excellent and mature songwriter and churns out song like Stephen King does books, so he generally gets a pass.

As much as I love the chorus, as much as the line “driving past your church and all the houses in a row” feels deep and meaningful to me -- it reminds me of driving away from my high school girlfriend’s house night after night in high school -- it’s difficult for me to proclaim that it’s proof of genius.

So, do I love the song because of the songwriting or despite it?

What makes “good songwriting”? Is it the turn of each phrase in a song or the feel of the whole? The poetry of the collected lines rather than the occasional predictability of a couplet or rhyme? Is “good songwriting” entirely about how the instrumentation of the piece breathes additional life into mere words?

Lyrically, is “Sweet Child O’ Mine” even a fraction as brilliant a song without the music? Does that make it “good songwriting” or entirely the opposite? Is it the song or the writing or their inextricable interconnectedness?

I’m not being flippant here, or smart-alecky. These are genuine questions to which others seem to have a confident answer while I barely know where to start.

One of the things I immediately notice and frequently appreciate in songs are the use of barbaric yawps and primitive utterings, the heys and yeahs and oohs and boo-bop-gowl-do-wop-kachow moments that aren’t lyrics. Those moments are the rare moment when I believe maybe there’s something to churches that speak in tongues, because when Steven Tyler goes into ki-ki-ki-ki-kow mode, I know what he’s saying, sorta, and I love him for doing it so damn well. The only thing that cushioned the fall of my disappointment discovering how many songs Aerosmith had written for them by others was the realization that the gutterals and nonsensicals Tyler injects into songs are not things anyone could write for him. They are his. That’s his best songwriting (again, I'm not being sarcastic or cruel here).

But does that make Steven Tyler a good songwriter? Dunno. How much is "good songwriting" in the ear of the beholder?

Anyone care to help me out? Is there a definable criteria for “good songwriting,” or is it just a safe way for people who don’t like an artist or song to criticize or celebrate while sounding intellectual?