Monday, November 2, 2009

Just Good Songs

I was having a casual conversation with a friend at the football game on Friday night, and he made the passing comment that he figured that I knew about "about a million places to get free music," but wanted to tell me about another one.

"Actually," I said, I hope not moralistically, "I buy most of my music. Itunes and eMusic and occasionally Amazon."

He looked amazed, even incredulous. I couldn't tell if he didn't believe me or if he thought I was an idiot. Or both. So I tried to adjust: "You know, I do borrow songs from Hypem from time to time to post when I need a song on a particular topic and do a search there."

But this is not a post about the ethics of buying vs. stealing music. I'd venture that everyone is compromised on that one to one degree or another, including the creators and promoters of the music themselves.

Back in the summer in Chicago, when wandering around the Pitchfork Music Festival sipping on a microbrew and waiting for Yo La Tengo to come on stage (Note to self: attending music festivals alone is not fun), one of the many people there handing out stuff gave me an eMusic card, promising me 25 free downloads from that site. I was mildly interested, put it in my pocket, then forgot about it until I was preparing to do my laundry later that week. Within a few minutes of finding it, I was logged on and shopping for music. I quickly learned that eMusic, though the prices are 50% cheaper, is no Itunes.

eMusic is just like Big Lots. While it has some artists and CD that you recognize, most of the site seems to consist of the "off brands" and "remainders" that entice buys to go into that discount store. You type "NeilYoung" into the search engine, you ain't finding him. You type in someone like Ryan Adams, you may only find the occasional song of his from a little-known compilation.

eMusic is just like Sam's Club. When you find a product that you want, you may have to buy in much larger bulk that what you really want. It's the classic bargain that ends up costing you more money. Now, Itunes also will keep you from being able to buy certain songs individually, but usually just because the songs are too long timewise for Apple to justify a $.99 download. Itunes figures you're getting a steal if you can get Yes' 20-minute opus "Close To The Edge" for such a cheap prices. On eMusic, you're more likely to be forced to purchase an entire CD to get one song if that song is in some way "highly desireable." Case in point: the second disc of The Essential Bruce Springsteen has a number of songs that you can't find anywhere else, things like his cover of Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas." So that's a song you can't buy.

You probably think I'm being critical; I'm not. What I've come to really like about eMusic is how its restrictions and omissions push me into directions I would not have gone. While I assured myself back in July that I was going to get the 25 free downloads and leave eMusic forever, the convoluted disengagement process they make you go through kept me on the line just enough that I went for their cheapest monthly package--12 songs for $6. And, as I found out the hard way, if you don't download the 12 songs during that month, you lose them.

So, on or around the 3rd of every month, I go on an eMusic hunt. It's a weird sort of set of conditions--I don't have much time, I'm not going to find what I'm looking for, so I need to look for something else that I'll like just as much, and if I don't do it soon, I'll lose everything.

Here's just a sampling of where I ended up last month:

David Bazan--"Hard To Be" (mp3) If most Contemporary Christian music were anything like this guy, I'd be one of its biggest supporters. But Bazan, unlike most of the current shlockmeisters, is a searcher. Most of his stuff has come out using the moniker Pedro the Lion, but as he has become more questioning, more willing to express his doubts and to challenge himself and us, he has shifted to his own name. This song has quite an interesting melody that sticks with you, but at the same time, he makes quite a journey across his own spiritual landscape.

"You’ve heard the story you know how it goes
Once upon a garden we were lovers with no clothes
Fresh from the soil we were beautiful and true
In control of our emotions to till we ate the poison fruit"

Bobby Bare, Jr.--"I'll Be Around" (mp3) I didn't know and don't know much of anything about this guy. His name made me think of someone from the 60's or 70's, maybe that was his dad (?) and so I didn't pay any attention to him at all. But, again, the eMusic links suggested him as a fine songwriter in the tradition of someone else I was looking for. I can't even remember who it was. And then I started reading on the site and listening, and before I knew it, I had a couple of his songs, including a Smiths cover. "I'll Be Around" should be repetitious and tiresome, given its length and structure, but, instead, it's infectious and rewarding.

"When you can't recognize
your face in the morning light
I'll be around
on your way down"

Robert Forster--"Alone" (mp3) As part of my ever-expanding appreciation for someone's ability to cover a song and make it their own, I came across this guy while searching for a Grant Hart song that had been done by Marshall Crenshaw, but, of course, eMusic didn't have those better-known versions. But their links and suggestions took me to this guy, who used to write songs with Grant McLennan (before McLennan died) in the Go-Betweens and after. Here, he takes one of those Heart ballads from the 80's and gives it his own take.

"How do I get you alone?"

Sometimes, in the high-fashion and high-glamour world of blogging, among all of the accolades and hero-worship I get, I lose focus about what it is we're trying to accomplish here. Somehow, getting onto the eMusic site with six bucks or twelve songs to spend and not wanting to make one bad choice gets me back on track, and then I remember what we're doing. Just trying to write some good writing. Just trying to find and play some good songs.

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