Wilson & Alroy Rant & Rave
NOTE: This page is an archive of rants prior to 2008. More recent rants are available on the W&A blog Bonus Tracks.
Bitching and whining on this page:
You could say that Wilson & Alroy's Record Reviews is just one big, slimy, noxious heap of opinionated vitriol to start with. But, in fact, this page gives us our only opportunity to rant and rave about Big Important Issues in the music industry - appropriately juvenile and offensive editorials appear in this space irregularly.
Wilson: Y'all Gon' Make Me Check My Messages Up In Here, Or, Let's Get NonchalantI hope this doesn't come across as an "everything's going to hell in a handbasket" piece, but I was genuinely shocked by the crowd's reaction at the David Gray concert I saw last night. Gray is an emotionally raw performer but a polished songwriter, playing moody rock and roll near the intersection of Dave Matthews and Coldplay, and the well heeled, very white, thirtyish crowd adored him. They knew all the words, gave a good response to songs from his new release, spontaneously clapped along when the drums dropped out... all signs of a happy audience. At the same time, though, they were curiously disengaged: streaming out to the lobby to buy drinks; fiddling with their camera-phones; even calling friends to chat - all these activities taking place mid-song, while their hero was pouring his heart out.
Here's my question: should I be disheartened or heartened by this behavior? It's certainly different from what I'm used to: it seems not only disrespectful to the artist, but also betrays a disturbingly casual attitude toward what should be a transcendant, all-consuming experience. Certainly the demographic was a factor... a Metallica fan would probably punch you out if you pulled any of this stuff while they were playing, and I can sympathize. But it's just as easy to read it as a sign of increased sophistication. After all, Cuban music fans are among the most careful and demanding listeners around, and they treat their performers with an astounding lack of ceremony... when I saw Los Van Van in Havana in 1993, I couldn't believe how the entire audience got up and left as soon as the band kicked into their concluding theme song. "Aren't you going to clap and cheer and beg for an encore?" I wanted to ask. "Or at least listen to the last precious notes of the performance?" Perhaps it's very wise and grown-up to treat music as just another diversion, and maybe we're reaching the end of the days when anyone believes rock and roll can save your soul: David Gray's just an entertainer, he's not the Answer, or as Tori Amos might say, "You made me come [to your show], that don't make you Jesus." Please forgive me, though, if I remain adolescent enough to want to get totally wrapped up in a show, to listen in awe, and to believe the next frontman who says, "Don't go anywhere: we're going to keep playing all night!" (DBW)
Wilson: Play "Freebird"... So I Can Download It LaterEvery once in a while, something happens that's so cool, I don't have any smart-aleck remarks to make about it. Imagine if you could hear any show (or every show) from your favorite artist's current tour, without living in your van and following them around the country all summer. Imagine further that the sound quality is excellent, the two-hour show costs ten bucks (the lion's share of which goes to the artist), and you don't have to deal with some insufferable prick at a tape trading network to get it. Thanks to broadband and download technology, a growing number of artists are making that dream a reality. It's the best thing to happen for die-hard fans since the concert T-shirt (affordable fan clubs that give you preferential seating, like Prince's NPG Music Club, are a close second).
I ain't no history professor, but I have the impression that Pearl Jam pioneered the idea of releasing approved soundboard double-CDs of every stop on a tour, sometime in the mid-90s. Of course, this lost money like crazy because of all the manufacturing, distribution and promotion costs, and the experiment wasn't repeated. But since it costs hardly anything to stick a file up on the internet - don't I know it - and promotion is limited to the band's web site and word of mouth, it's now feasible to get a high-quality product at a good price to the people who want it, without paying off a bunch of middlepersons in the process. A pleasant side effect is that artists may be inspired to vary their sets more in the course of a tour, so their fans will want to collect 'em all, instead of just the show they attended (or couldn't afford to attend). If you don't have broadband or a credit card, you're kind of screwed, but the technology has also led to an increase in live CDs: I just got a P-Funk All-Stars triple-CD from Instant Live for $12 or so, and Rickie Lee Jones, for one, is selling CDs from tours spanning her twenty-five year career through her web site.
Now, Wilson & Alroy won't be reviewing any of this stuff, because we only review physical available-in-stores-at-least-theoretically releases. But lately I've been listening to my MP3s of Praxis at Bonnaroo and Metallica at Phoenix, L.A. and Saskatoon (!!) more often than I've been spinning the CDs I'm supposed to be reviewing. And as music consumer advocates (don't worry, I promise neither of us will ever run for president), we owe it to you to spread the word. (DBW)
Wilson: Who Stole The Soul? Or, The 80s: When Rhythm & Blues Had NeitherNowadays it's generally acknowledged that soul music - a smoother version of Ray Charlesian R&B, born in the late 50s with Sam Cooke, matured in the 60s by Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, put through college in the 70s by the Spinners and the O'Jays - died a quick and painful death in the 80s. (A temporary death, as 90s neo-soul artists - Angie Stone, Maxwell, Erykah Badu - proved.)
What's not as clear is why soul disappeared, and that's what I'm concerned with here. First, two myths: 1) the synths did it; and 2) blame it on hip hop. I don't know why people keep saying this stuff.
To be sure, the era's overreliance on virtual musicians was a drawback: you sound ridiculous when, as Terence Trent D'Arby did, you yell "On the beat now, unnh" at your drum machine. And those insidiously bland DX7 tones instantly date most mid-80s pop. But synths didn't keep Stevie Wonder from making engaging, moving records: they helped, by giving him more tools to express himself. Prince (whose "Adore" was probably the best soul song the 80s produced) was famous for staying on the leading edge of recording technology.
The hip hop argument is just silly. Sure, the popularity of the genres reversed, but not because they were competing for the same audience. Soul music is most concerned with romance, vulnerability and pain: three topics 80s hip hop rarely addressed (the odd "I Cram To Understand U (Sam)" notwithstanding). It's like saying heavy metal killed country-western. Also, soul had faded out by the late 70s, while hip hop didn't become a commercial force until the mid-80s.
Writer Craig Werner makes the case that urban renewal and Reaganomics created an "every man for himself" mentality antithetical to inner city family and community, which led to crappy music (I paraphrase). I don't know about that, but it is clear that soul lost its social conscience at the end of the 70s. The 80s produced nothing remotely like "People Get Ready" or "Respect"... no, "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves" and "We Are The World" don't count. This is the one area where hip hop stole soul's thunder, but mostly because R&B singers abdicated. And without the social relevance, the endless stream of love songs started to sound unforgivably trite.
As I see it, the decline came from two sources: aging Baby Boomers, and a lack of new talent. Or to put it more simply, it's Anita Baker's fault. (Well, her and Sade.) Baker shot to stardom in mid-decade with a vapid, soporific blend of romantic cliches and singing so refined that no trace of human emotion remained. She found a ready audience that didn't want the rawness of an Otis Redding - they wanted something gentle and unchallenging. The first time I felt old was in 1990 when several of my friends confessed that they mellowed out to Sade after work.
Radio responded with the Quiet Storm format - named for a Smokey Robinson song that shouldn't be blamed for the phenomenon - which drove all other romantic music off the air. There had always been tepid, MOR pseudo-soul artists - the 5th Dimension springs to mind - but for the first time they became the rule rather than the exception. Anyone who wanted to hear strong, emotional singing had to get out of bed and hit the clubs. Surprisingly, crossover dance artists - Madonna, Michael Jackson - were making better records than the artists confined to "urban contemporary" playlists, like Freddie Jackson (Àngela Winbush is a notable exception). This shift had actually started in the 70s: while disco's instrumental tracks were often simplistic, the vocals were usually powerful and passionate (see Gloria Gaynor or Donna Summer) (In funk, aside from Chaka Khan and Glenn Goins, and depending on how you class Patti LaBelle, great singing was harder to find.)
Fortunately, the story has a reasonably happy ending: in the 90s, a new generation of singers ignored the legacy of Baker and her ilk, hearking back further to 70s figures such as Khan, Wonder and Donny Hathaway (well, nobody's perfect). While influenced by hip hop, folks like Badu - not to mention less easily pigeonholed people like Des'ree - returned to the deep feeling and commitment (if not always the raw talent) of soul artists dating back to Cooke.
Alroy: Sophomore SlumpYou've heard this story before: young starry-eyed rock band slaves away for years in the boonies, builds cult following, gets signed to major label, and produces masterful debut full of road-tested songs that sells a million. But the evil record company pushes our heroes into quickly cutting a follow-up record before their 15 minutes are fame are over, and they just aren't up to it - they haven't had time yet to write another record's worth of solid tunes. And besides, the zeitgeist has left them behind already; their long string of later records all seem out of touch with teen spirit, and none of them really match that magical, fresh-faced debut.
You know something, if there's one thing I've done way too many times, it's compare first and second records. In fact, I've rated 77 debut records - and Wilson has rated 168 (!). Although I never really worried about it, in retrospect I can't really think of too many debut records that were all that great. A couple of exceptions come to mind: Television's Marquee Moon, or Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?. But for every act like those ones that really did spend years honing chops before stepping into the studio, there are plenty more like Stevie Wonder who didn't really mature until they'd already been putting out records for years.
I'm not just speculating, the numbers back me up. The graph below shows our site's average ratings for records categorized by the number of years since the debut album by each act. So, the line starts with debut records all the way to the left and continues out to records by artists who have recorded for more than two whole decades.
Now obviously, we do think earlier records are better records - the curves really fall off at the end, so we don't think much of fortysomething rockers. But that hides the real pattern: the curve is remarkably flat for the first few years of an artist's careeer. And more importantly, the very first year of recording (year 0) isn't the best. The big spike in quality comes in year 2, and years 1 through 5 are all better than average than year 0.
You could argue that this is all due to some weird quirk. But you see the same pattern if you break down my ratings and Wilson's separately, and (more interestingly) if you break the data down by decades, with artists who put out their first records in each decade lumped together. On a technical note, I show only the first stretch of years for each cohort where we've reviewed at least 20 records per year; I left out the 90s because there's just not enough data; and the 70s curve is cut off early because we tend to be spotty on late-career records by 70s acts.
As you might expect, our career slump curve for 60s artists is much the same as the overall curve, because we're pretty solid on 60s artists, and obviously hardly anyone other than those geezers have been around long enough to put out records at age forty- or even fiftysomething. What's interesting, though, is that the 70s and 80s data tell much the same story; year 0 records are always worse than year 1 records, and usually a heck of a lot worse. Artists from the 70s don't seem to have had as much staying power as older artists, but 80s artists actually got better as they went along. That might be telling us something about how totally miserable the 80s really were - if you lasted long enough to make more records in the self-consciously retro, cautiously tasteful 90s, they could only have been more listenable.
What can you make out of all this bean counting? I think the answer is simple: record companies are making a big mistake with their fly-by-night, let's-find-the-next-Britney-Spears approach to signing and selling artists. A much smarter move is to sign an act and just put on a happy face while its first album tanks, then let the kids run wild in the studio and wait for the cash to start flowing in about two years later. It's just too bad you can't trust executives at a multi-billionaire corporation like AOL Time Warner to roll with the punches for all of 24 months. What a bunch of morons... (JA)
Wilson: Talkin' 'Bout FreedomWell, a ten-year old recording of Whitney Houston singing the 150-year old "Star Spangled Banner" is the hottest record in the US. Charlie Daniels has his first hit in years with "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag." Americanophile Brit Paul McCartney says it's now improper to observe that the President is a knucklehead, negating his sung platitudes about our "right to live in freedom." Musicians are too scared to open their fan mail or perform for their fans; Congress heads for the hills the minute of whiff of anthrax makes its way into their building. All men are created equal - unless you appear Middle Eastern, in which case airlines and Ticketmaster employees assume you're a terrorist (what's Paula Abdul up to, anyway?). Americans, led by our artists, blindly supported military action against Afghanistan without seeing any evidence the Taliban was linked to the hijackings, our intelligence and compassion incapacitated by fear, while at the same time, we're patting ourselves on the back for how well we're pulling together in a time of crisis. We're acting like a bunch of weak-willed, alarmist, trigger-happy weenies - I'm not talking about the people who've lost friends and family members; I'm talking about the other 99.9% of us - and when the bulk of the population comes to its senses, a lot of things people are saying and doing right now will look pretty damn silly.
Living in constant danger of attack is nothing new: it's just that people born here - with the exception of some urban areas - aren't used to it. You'd think this was the first time anyone had ever hit a civilian target; actually, indiscriminate killing of noncombatants is not exactly an alien concept to the US government. How about a previous September 11, in 1973, when the CIA engineered a military coup against elected president Salvador Allende? Thousands of civilians were murdered - including Nueva Canción singer Victor Jara - during Pinochet's reign of terror. Or the Vietnamese villages we had to destroy in order to save. Five thousand dead people is a lot, but out of a city of ten million it's 1/20th of one percent of the population. Compare that to the third of East Timorese killed during Indonesia's ongoing occupation, or the staggering death totals in Europe during World War Two, and the extent of our current overreaction is just stunning. How many people have died from anthrax? Four? Yeah, that's all the reason I need to surrender my civil liberties and support indefinite detention of anyone the Bush administration thinks might be a terrorist. (Remember, during the Reagan years Nelson Mandela's African National Congress was on the US list of terrorist groups.) What's more important about the American way of life: the opportunity to argue and organize to advance your vision of a better world, or the opportunity to eat Oreos while watching Must-See TV? Changing our laws out of hysteria and vengeance is a poor monument to the dead.
I'm a critic, and criticism implies dissent: seeking to understand and make sense of the world, putting my own reasoning and conclusions in the public sphere to help sharpen the innate capacity of individuals to make decisions for themselves. You learn through study, analysis and debate, not by sticking your head in the sand and pretending day is night. That's even more critical in a time of crisis - where bad decisions have more severe consequences - than in placid days. The notion that we can't criticize the Administration in time of war is as nonsensical as the notion that we can't criticize Michael Jackson when his career's on the line. And you can tell Sir Paul McCartney I said so. (DBW)
Wilson: Twenty-Some Years Of Hip-Hop, And All I Got Were These Two MasterpiecesThere are so many music fans who dismiss hip-hop out of hand that it must seem to them that I'm constantly hyping it. On the other hand, there are plenty of readers who consider my hip-hop coverage skimpy, superficial and ignorant. Here's why I'm right and everyone else is wrong.
99% of the people who care about music are in one of three camps:
2) Critics who don't enjoy hip-hop at a visceral level but think they're supposed to because the kids dig it. These are the people who are always trying to promote some "positive" artist like Digable Planets.
3) People who still consider hip-hop (which they generally call "rap") an overgrown fad, not real music and unworthy of discussion. These are the people who get on my case for not covering acts like the Flaming Lips.
I'm in a peculiar position in that I like hip-hop - have since 1984 - but I do think the genre's produced strikingly few great albums, considering that it's been around for twenty-odd years and a huge commercial force for fifteen. Truth is, Entertainment Weekly was right when they said this site has canonized relatively few hip-hop albums relative to its prominence in the culture at large. (It's even more true of country-western, but that's a whole other essay.) I've given out just two five-star ratings (Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back) and a handful of four-and-a-halfs. Not bad compared to my totals for disco (no ratings above four) or heavy metal (one 4.5, for Zep's Houses Of The Holy), but puny compared to how I've rated the peak periods of jazz (1955-1965), rock and roll (1965-1972) and funk (1970-1979). The totals are closely comparable to soul (not counting Motown) despite the fact that soul was a viable genre for a shorter period and had far fewer artists and much less industry support. I have handed out many more 4.0 and 3.5 ratings to hip-hop records, but still… I could draw up a chart measuring each genre's Great Records/Major Label Release ratio; to save us all the trouble I'll skip to the conclusion: hip-hop has underperformed in my estimation given the creative and financial resources allotted to it. Why?
First off, I'm not going to deal with the sociological question. Hip-hop, jazz, soul and funk all developed in black communities in the United States, but in different time periods, and it's likely that broad social factors are partly responsible for the different paths those genres have taken. But I'm sure not qualified to speculate about that, and I won't.
Second, it's not the Fifties rock and roll situation where the great records are singles and the album's an afterthought: hip-hop albums are as consistent start to finish as prog rock or any other genre.
I believe the biggest reason I haven't identified many great hip-hop records is simply that I haven't gotten to hear them. The Nineties saw an explosion in available recorded music like we've never seen before - paralleling the sudden ubiquity of books a hundred years earlier - and it's simply impossible to listen to everything coming out. In the mid-Eighties, I knew the repertoire of every rapper of note; by the early Nineties, I could no longer say that, and I'm falling farther behind each day. And even back in the Sixties, great albums were sometimes overlooked: in 1971, no one except Al Kooper realized that the Zombies' Odessey And Oracle was a classic album - by now, that's become a critical consensus. It could take much longer for the best overlooked albums of the Nineties to come to light. (There's been a recent explosion of critical commentary, too, but that hasn't helped much because a) most critics are all reviewing the same stuff, b) there's only so much criticism that any one person is willing to read, and c) most of the web-based critics don't think or write well enough to convince anybody of anything.)
The abominable state of hip-hop criticism is a contributing factor. Not that good criticism significantly promotes the creation of good music, but it can sure help us find it. There are a couple of unrelated reasons why criticism has been so unhelpful in this genre: one is the preponderance of critics who just don't get the genre but keep writing about it anyway. Also, many of the "true believers" are reluctant to criticize any artist, especially underground acts, for fear of harming the Cause - just the way indie/punk fanzines used to be. And hip-hop's critical standard-bearer, The Source, seems to have major conflict-of-interest problems (i.e. managing some of the artists they review) that renders their credibility near-zilch.
In addition to all the foregoing, hip-hop really hasn't been as creative, pound for pound, as post-bop, psychedelic rock or funk. It's been more like pop-rock or heavy metal: occasionally arresting and powerful, but very frequently lame-brained and derivative in the extreme. And I can't exactly explain why. I'd be tempted to make a class-based argument - that genres dominated by artists from poor and working-class backgrounds will be more tempted to go for the easy money than to pursue their muse in potentially uncommercial directions - but it's just not true: Miles Davis aside, bebop was built by musicians from the working class, and there weren't many funksters with advanced degrees. Anyway, the business is so mercurial that no unproven artist is guaranteed financial success, no matter how closely they follow the formulas: cries of "sellout" notwithstanding, no one becomes a recording artist thinking it's the quickest and easiest way to make a buck, 'cause it ain't.
That said, hip-hop is different from heavy metal and pop-rock in that hip-hop heads aren't resistant to change the way metalheads are: mediocrity isn't self-sustaining due to closed-minded fans. Wu-Tang Clan, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and the Missy Elliott/Timbaland axis - to name my three favorite current hip-hop creators - all saw rapid success, despite their novel approaches. The underground critics' darlings - Talib Kweli, Mos Def - stay underground not because their sound is too different, but because it's too the same.
Then there's the possibility that hip-hop is just as rich, creative and vibrant as rock or jazz ever were, and I'm just not hearing it because I'm (take your pick) too old, too white or too lazy. I can only contest those charges by pointing to my reviews of other recent, black-authored and/or difficult albums (start with Year 2000 In Review) - I've never claimed to be objective, but I do believe I achieve the honest, considered subjectivity I aspire to.
You know, I thought by the time I got to the conclusion of this piece I'd have a neat tidy answer, but it didn't work out that way. Hip-hop occupies a singular position in US and world culture, and singularly it's both over- and under-rated depending on how you look at it. But I have got a few lists for you:
Hip-Hop For People Who Think They Don't Like Hip-HopIf these don't change your mind, go back to the Velvet Underground.
Hip-Hop Pushed By People Who Try To Like Hip-Hop But Really Don'tIt's so sad to see critics praise something because they think they're out of touch if they don't. Breaks down into "I hope they succeed because they're PC" and "They're succeeding and I better act like I know why" subcategories.
Hip-Hop That's Supposedly Underrated But Not To My EarsNearly all these acts focus exclusively on rapping, putting little thought and effort into the backing tracks.
Hip-Hop That's Supposedly Overrated But I Like ItThese folks don't get much respect in the hip-hop community, and I get a lot of letters telling me I'm an idiot for taking them seriously.
Wilson: Samples Don't Cheat The Public, Samplers DoI don't know if anybody else remembers this, but in the late 80s there was a furor around sampling like there is today about MP3 swapping. Either you believed sampling was the future of music that freed musicians from mundanities of sound production, or sampling was a blight on the musical landscape that encouraged theft at the expense of musicianship. A million lawsuits later, tempers have come down on both sides, but the basic split remains between people who accept sampling as a legit way to make a record, and people who don't. I've been accused on inconsistency on this point, because I'll criticize one artist for using a sample (Janet Jackson), and then highly praise another artist who's used samples heavily (Wu-Tang Clan). It's simple, really: I take (for once in my life) an intermediate position, that sampling can make a record if used well, or ruin a record if used badly - just like any other technique.
First, a little professorial blathering. Sampling as we know it today blends three different historical traditions:
1) The practice of inserting brief quotes (which are supposed to be recognized) into otherwise original compositions, which was commonly done by jazz musicians by mid-century or earlier, and may go back hundreds of years before that. A couple of rock examples: the Thelonious Monk riff in the middle of the Doors' "We Could Be So Good Together," and Sting's "I want my MTV" line in "Money For Nothing" are quotes, not thefts, because 1) they're used for effect, not as the basis of the entire song; and 2) the listener is supposed to recognize they're not the songwriter's original work. (Whether the listener actually recognizes it is another question, which I'll deal with later.)
2) Sonic collage, the practice of mixing up different "found sounds" to produce a unique result. This goes back to mid-century again, I think, with experimental composers like Cage, Stockhausen and Varese. It's original in that the sequence and combination of sounds is created by the composer, though the component sounds are not. But then, Mozart didn't invent C# or the clarinet either.
3) Just plain stealing someone else's song. "Rapper's Delight" was a particularly blatant example, but there have been lots of cases inside and outside of hip-hop where a songwriter either a) wrote new words for an existing tune with permission (I think Neil Young's "Borrowed Tune" is in that category, as are all of Weird Al Yankovic's parodies), b) stole someone else's song and hoped nobody would notice (a whole lotta Zep songs), or c) accidentally stole someone else's song without the songwriter noticing ("My Sweet Lord").
These three practices - the first two artistically valid, the third lazy at best - were all given a big boost by digital sampling technology. The best hip-hop example of collage is the Bomb Squad, which produced strikingly original music by taking a batch of snippets from familiar or forgotten records, varispeeding or otherwise warping them, and throwing them together to create bizarrely compelling tracks like nothing you'd ever heard before. In the quote category, jokesters like A Tribe Called Quest and the Beastie Boys competed to see how many recognizable sounds they could cram onto an album, almost like a game of "Name That Tune." And in the stealing category, there's MC Hammer and the Verve and everybody in between. As with any technological advance in art (drum machines, photography), ten times as many people use samples as crutches than as tools to realize a creative vision - that's the fault of the artists, not the technology. Sampling doesn't make inspired artists into hacks, any more than studio recording made performing musicians sound dry and sterile.
Anti-sampling folks argue that young listeners are ignorant of a song's origins, and that's accurate as far as it goes - I'm sure there are people who don't realize Missy Elliott's "The Rain" was derived from "I Can't Stand The Rain" - but irrelevant. Cover versions create the same confusion - quick, who recorded "Chains" before the Beatles? - but nobody says that cover versions are illegitimate on that basis. If you pay attention, know some music history and read the liner notes, you'll know where the cover (or sample) came from - if you don't, you won't.
Sure, most songs using samples are crap - but so were most songs in the pre-sample era. Lousy knock-offs, rip-offs and rushed-out cover versions have been with us since the days of 78s, and will be as long as people are under pressure to make a buck in this industry. Ultimately, the creativity of a record is what matters, not how it was put together.
Wilson: The Inevitable Napster Weigh-In
1. Downloading A Song Doesn't Make You Ché Freakin' GuevaraLook, many people I know smoke pot. It's against the law, it's not particularly good for you, but hey, it gets you through the day. Fine. But nobody defends smoking pot as a revolutionary stance against the evil greedy tobacco industry, or claims that it's not really against the law because "pot wants to be smoked." That's what I find absurd about the pro-Napster argument: the attitude that "I'm not just getting a ton of music for free, I'm on the side of righteousness." Submit that argument to the Categorical Imperative or the Golden Rule for one second, and presto-chango, you're revealed as just a self-serving prick.
I've used Napster for out-of-print singles, unreleased live recordings, and occasionally to get a quick fix of a tune I have at home but not in the office. But I'm not going to mourn it or curse Metallica when it goes down the drain. It deserves to go down the drain: it's a for-profit business backed by millions of dollars based on the free exchange (i.e. pirating) of other people's intellectual property. And no matter what new Napster investor BMG says, it won't be easy to reengineer the system to properly credit the artists, because it was built from the ground up for large-scale anonymous trading of uncataloged files of unverifiable identity.
Oh, and the idea that Napster's not affecting sales because sales are still strong is wholly specious: Imagine you own a department store and I'm working in your warehouse and I steal fifty or eighty pineapples every night and sell them on the street. Imagine you catch me carrying a box of pineapples home. Imagine I show you a company balance sheet and say, "Well, you're making big profits, so obviously the pineapples I'm selling out on the street aren't having any impact. Probably people like the pineapples I stole so much that they're coming to your store and buying grapes." Imagine you cracking my head open.
The technology-cannot-be-stopped "cat's out of the bag" argument is just as false, for the same reason it was false when people defended uncompensating sampling as "the future of music" that "couldn't be stopped." What happened was, lawyers sued all the artists who made successful records based on sampling, the sampling artists lost, and artists started to clear their samples to avoid further lawsuits. For a file-sharing service to be popular, you need a huge group of people using it, and that will inevitably attract enough attention to prompt legal action.
2. Of Course Napster's Bad For The Performers And SongwritersOf the musicians who've come out for Napster, probably the most intelligent is Courtney Love, which ought to tell you something. Her recent speech along the lines of "Artists don't get any money from record companies now so Napster doesn't matter, artists make their money from concerts anyway, plus I can now sell my super-cool music on the internet because it's open to all and democratic and power to the people!" totally overlooked the main points: Courtney Love is famous today because 1) Duh, she married that guy who blew his brains out; and 2) She was hyped and promoted nine ways to Sunday by the very record label corporate machine she professes to despise. She didn't build her own label and sell records out of her trunk and tour all year long. Many acts choose to exist outside the major label system - Love didn't. She now has the stature to sell stuff from her own web site because HER LABEL MADE HER FAMOUS, not particularly because of her own merits. New artists coming up won't have that, because no one goes on Napster looking for an artist whose name they don't know and whose music they haven't heard. Artists won't get rich (or get heard at all) from Napster or their own web sites or whatever, unless they first sign a contract with the corporate behemoth exactly as Love did, and that corporate behemoth defends the new artist's intellectual property - or else go the indie route and spend ten mind-numbing years in tiny clubs trying to build an audience. Prince has made vaguer but similarly ignorant comments on file sharing.
The idea that most musicians really make their money from concerts so who cares about labels is total crap - first because most concert tours break even at best, and second because only people who are already famous can headline concerts, and you almost never get famous without a label's promotional help. The real money for artists is in music publishing - something Love conspicuously avoided mentioning in her speech. If you wrote the song (and you didn't sign an incredibly bad publishing deal) and it sells millions of copies, you will be rich for the rest of your life, end of story. The recent high-profile artist bankruptcy cases - Toni Braxton and TLC - all involve artists who didn't write their own material. If Napster took over, the songwriters really would see a huge loss of revenue.
3. Screw The Artists - Napster's Bad For The ConsumerEthical arguments aside, I would never use Napster to collect music for review, partly because you can't tell much about a band from one song - I really want to have the whole album in sequence - and partly because I want to have the cover art and liner notes and (hopefully) printed lyrics. File-sharing services - even legal download of MP3 files - contributes to a lack of appreciation for full-length albums, and reverts to the singles-oriented, short-attention-span situation pop music was in before the mid-60s. There have been so many great album-length achievements I would hate to see that understanding fade away.
Of course, the business that will be hit hardest by electronic distribution is not record companies but music retailers. Music distributors and retailers are responsible for about 3/4 of the price of a CD (see below), so I won't be particularly sorry to see them go. But that said, there are certain advantages to physical record stores, and I'm not talking about the eardrum-assaulting music, the hipper-than-thou service or the little beeping thing that goes off even though you haven't shoplifted anything. What I like about music retailers is random exposure: that you see stuff you never would have thought about buying otherwise. I first got into Tori Amos because I saw Under The Pink in a used CD store for $3.99, and I thought, "What the fuck? Give it a try." If I were just hanging out on Amazon or Ebay or Napster or wherever, I never would have had that kind of experience - and god help us all if our only exposure to new acts is radio and MTV.
As for out-of-print and live material, I would like to see a way for that kind of trading to continue, though naturally the artists and labels should be able to market the stuff they want to market. The only real way to do that would be to create a standardized format so that a "No Commercial Files" server would be able to discard copyrighted files, but would let through files that no label had identified as their own. Metallica said they didn't care about people trading concert recordings on Napster, that they stepped in only to protect the commerical studio recordings - it would be nice to call their bluff.
Alroy: The Inevitable Napster? Way Out, DudeBefore writing this piece I'd never even looked at the Napster web site, much less downloaded anything using Napster, copyrighted or not. But Wilson sounds like he's finally gone so far left that he's ended up to the right of Pat Buchanan.
1. Downloading Ché Freakin' Guevara Doesn't Make Anyone A DimeHey, I'm all for ethics. I'm even nice to small furry animals sometimes. But let's not confuse stolen profits with no profits. Companies like Napster could make money by dishing out stolen intellectual property. But right now they must be losing money hand over fist, because they're making nothing from paid advertising, charging nothing for "membership," shelling out tons of cash for legal fees, and basically acting like a bunch of starry-eyed dot com ninnies.
If they ever do start making money and they don't square with the artists, then they really should have their butts royally kicked - and in a legal sense, that's happening as I write. They will be forced somehow to share their profits with the people who actually write and record the music. Until that happens, I won't even lay eyes on Napster again for fear of increasing their hit rates and thereby justifying investor support for their nefarious "business plan" (whatever that turns out to be).
And hey, none of this has anything to do with storming the Bastille. Napster users don't care about the People's Revolution or anyone's; they're just a bunch of lazy selfish bastards, that's all. I'm happy to let them stay that way - as long as no-one is being screwed out of any money.
2. Screw The Performers And SongwritersSure, there is no question in my mind that 99% of professional success in pop music depends on the efforts of record companies and tour promoters. So screwing those corporate entities would indeed hamstring promotion efforts that make a difference. But the whole argument rests on an utterly vain assumption: that the world actually needs million-selling pop stars like Madonna and caviar-eating songwriting hacks like Diane Warren. I say screw 'em.
For the last two decades, everything good in rock music has come out of the perpetually under-promoted indie scene. Even the hot-selling early 90s grunge bands wrote (and frequently recorded) most of their best material before making the big time. Many major acts in the 90s like Helium and the Posies either failed to sign on major labels or failed to get the promotion they need, but their music still got out to the fans.
I'm not saying I want to rob commercially marginal but artistically pure acts. The point is, if Napster stops consumers from spending money, there won't be any money to rob. Furthermore, serious artists like Todd Rundgren really are finding ways to make money on their own, on the web and outside the corporate PR machine - Rundgren has successfully thumbed his nose at the big labels for thirty years now. And anyone serious about music as a career will find some way - any way - to get their stuff out and still put bread on the table.
If the Napsterization of the universe continues, there may well come a point where even the best and hardest-working musicians can barely make their car payments. But apart from the occasional Beatles record, just how often does great music follow from living a life of luxury? And what would be so wrong with a world where amateur musicians starve out the fat cats who run today's music conglomerates?
3. Napster's Bad For The Consumer? Uh, 'scuse Me?Let's get this straight: Wilson likes buying paper-and-plastic CDs, so he wants the rest of us to follow suit - whether we have to shell out $18 a disc or not. Okay, okay, so I've got the same perverse fascination with groping shiny little boxes and pawing through multi-colored lyric sheets. But just because I'm a sucker for the endless used CD store treasure hunt, that doesn't mean you've got to suffer the same way. If you're happy downloading some digital files and ignoring the performer, writer, producer, and tea & sympathy credits, and don't give a plugged nickel about the lyrics, then fine with me - don't buy the disc. And besides, everybody knows that all of the lyrics and key credits for major albums can already be ferreted out on the web with hardly a click of the mouse.
Wilson's right that a classic album is worth hearing in sequence, and I'd hate to see music go back to its early 60s obsession with saccharine-flavored bubblegum singles - but it already has been heading that way for much of the last decade: witness the endless stream of belly button-bearing teen queens and prancing, primping boy bands that rule the charts. I'm convinced that no matter what happens with Napster, fans who really care about music are going to sit through - and maybe even buy - entire CDs by serious artists who deserve the attention. And it's not up to me or anyone to force the new generation of music junkies to do that.
Wilson: What The Hell Happened to Riot Grrrls?When and if the history of the 90s is written, will anybody remember the Riot Grrrl movement? It developed in the punk underground, briefly got a ton of press, inspired huge-selling watered-down imitators, and vanished almost without a trace, all within about five years.
It's often hard to tell where punk music stops and punk culture begins, and that's certainly true in the case of riot grrrls (though it was often written "girls," I'll stick to one spelling for the sake of readability). Starting in urban areas with strong independent music scenes (Minneapolis, Seattle, Olympia), it was a reaction by young mostly white women against ingrained sexism in punk culture and the world at large, without any ties to or acknowledgement of mainstream feminism. The primary battleground wasn't electoral politics or even specific issues like date rape and abortion, but rather mindspace: cutting loose from restrictive attitudes about gender roles; developing a sense of self not by reading a self-help book, but by starting a band or a zine, seeing what you could accomplish for yourself. Any social group finding its voice for the first time will often rage, and that was exhilaratingly true of riot grrrls. Following the example of Minneapolis-based Babes In Toyland (which inspired Jessica Harper to start her influential zine Hit It Or Quit It), bands sprung up with confrontational lyrics aimed at breaking through clichés and easy answers about sexual politics. Better yet, riot grrrl bands were often able to make good music out of their outrage and confusion - something that's usually eluded explicitly political acts. As the phenomenon began to get more press, all-female rock bands with no connection to the movement became associated with it (L7, for example).
Olympia's Bikini Kill was probably the most politically-focused band associated with Riot Grrrl - they called their first EP Revolution Girl-Style Now - and they're my personal favorite, knee-jerk radical that I am. But it was Seattle's 7 Year Bitch which brought the movement to national attention with Viva Zapata!, an angry lament for Mia Zapata, leader of The Gits, who was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant. Babes In Toyland were the lone female act on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour. Meanwhile in New York, the radical feminist self-parodying punk Lunachicks managed to get almost no press at all, which they say is due to a manager who wasn't paying attention and missed the whole media blitz.
Riot grrrls were never much for courting publicity - in fact, it was standard practice for bands to disavow membership. As Bikini Kill said in liner notes for a CD compilation: "As individuals we have each had different experiences with, feelings on, opinions of and varying degrees of involvement with 'Riot Girl' and tho we totally respect those who still feel that label is important and meaningful, we have never used that term to describe ourselves AS A BAND." Elizabeth Davis of 7 Year Bitch put it more bluntly: "We've sucked too much cock to be Riot Grrrls." But the music press didn't pay any attention, lumping every loud mostly-female punk or rock band into that category, including Hole - much to the dislike of frontwoman Courtney Love, who was quick to dismiss the Riot Grrrl movement as childish.
But the publicity was short lived. With Hole, Liz Phair and sudden superstar Alanis Morrisette, there were soon plenty of young woman rockers who didn't have the troublesome gender politics of the Riot Grrrls - they tended to whine about individual men rather than complain about sexism and stereotyping, and this was more palatable to critics and record buyers alike. (You could put Tori Amos into either category if you wanted to, but her lyrics are so obscure there's not much point in discussing it.) And terrific as they are, Sleater-Kinney continue to be more talked about than listened to.
Before you knew it, all the notable riot grrrl bands had broken up (though the Lunachicks have kept on rolling), but I have no idea what happened to the actual grrrls who went to the shows, bought the records, and generally raised hell. One hopes that they're still out there rethinking capitalist culture - encouraging signs include the continuing popularity of Kristy Chan's Riot Grrrl Zine Review site and the zine it reviews, and the return to radical rhetoric on the latest SK release. But I wonder how many Riot Grrrls finished school, settled down with a boyfriend (a Korn fan) after an experimental polyamorous bisexual period, went on Prozac, got a job at an internet startup, and wonder what they used to be so pissed off about. (DBW)
Alroy: What The Hell Is R & B?Ever wonder just what the hell "R & B" is supposed to mean? How can you even tell these days? Everything you'll hear on an R & B record you'll also hear on supposed rock and pop records: instrumentation, production standards, vocal mannerisms, melodic conventions, chord changes, tempos and time signatures. So why bother even having a separate category?
You know damn well why. R & B is made by and for African-Americans; rock and pop aren't. R & B (a.k.a. "urban contemporary") has its own radio stations, record charts, record labels, and award categories, each of them mirrored by rock and pop equivalents; and you can always tell which is which based on the "race" of the people performing and the people paying attention. Racial categories are so clear-cut in our minds that the question of meaningful differences never even occurs to us.
But in fact, music more than anything shows how intellectually bankrupt these distinctions have become. You can't see Stevie Wonder when he sings "Sir Duke"; you have no idea if, say, his conga player is black, white, Latin, or from Mars. And it doesn't make an ounce of difference - if you don't groove on him, you're tone deaf no matter what your official ethnic category is.
Musicians themselves started to blur these distinctions as soon as they became apparent. All of the biggest 60s and 70s R & B acts were thoroughly ripped off by contemporary rock musicians: James Brown by British Mods like the Small Faces; Ray Charles by a host of singers like Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker; the early 70s Philly soulsters by white disco trendoids like the Bee Gees; the Motown juggernaut by everyone from the Beatles to the Velvet Underground. And Chuck Berry was so thoroughly ripped off that he's not even seen as an R & B player, despite his Midwestern blues credentials.
As for rock, you could argue that it does a lot of things R & B doesn't. But its own expansiveness just proves that the only thing holding it together is the "ethnicity" of the people playing it. After all, can you think of anything but skin color that unites KISS and Carole King, the Band and the B-52's, Green Day and the Grateful Dead, or Yes and Neil Young? If all of those guys are rock 'n' rollers, then why aren't Prince and P-Funk?
But it doesn't matter what the history books say, or what my bleeding-heart whiteboy sympathies might be. R & B institutions have been around for decades - and they'll be around for decades to come - because the public wants to keep a brick wall built around its entertainment. Let's put it in the simplest way possible: "black" people want to have "their" own music, and "white" people want "blacks" kept out of "their" music. And that's the sorriest fact about our society I've ever had to admit. (JA)
Wilson: Radio Programmers Will Burn In Hell
Blame Advertisers, Not Consumers, for Music Industry ApartheidAlroy's certainly on to something here: segregation is basically a bad idea, whether it takes place in schools, armies, or record stores. But I think he's missing a couple of major points.
1) Rhythm and Blues is a specific musical form with a unique history. It predates rock and roll, and has significant differences, both in form and in content: in the 1950's, it was easy to tell R&B stars like Ray Charles from rockers like Little Richard or Bill Haley - the tempo, the instrumentation, the age of their audiences, etc. Those distinctions blurred in the early 60s, and by the mid-60s, the Beatles were playing everything from R&B to rock and roll to pop to country. (While Charles had started singing country & western earlier, it was clearly identified and marketed as such.) Confused radio programmers just expanded the boundaries of "rock" (the "and roll" had mostly disappeared from use by the mid-1970s). With doo-wop, R&B and soul acts incorporating rock influences, it got even more confused, until, as Alroy says, the only way you can tell one from the other is the audience they're marketed to. Which brings us straight to:
2) The love of money is the root of all evil. Nowadays, "rock" and "R&B" are marketing terms, with no purpose but to sell product. This is based on the time-tested marketing premise that the customer is easily confused, and can only follow simple instructions. You're a Rock Fan, which means you like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, so you should pick up the latest Blues Traveller and Black Crowes discs. Or you're an R&B fan, which means you like Michael Jackson and Babyface. (Incidentally, almost all of the Urban Contemporary radio stations are owned by white folks or white-controlled corporations, making their focus on black artists more analagous to Colt 45 or Newport than Afrocentricism per se.) Don't even get me started about pure hype like "Alternative" or "Adult Contemporary."
Artists themselves - on whichever side of the color line - continually rail against these marketing classifications: The Beatles continually plugged artists they'd been influenced by, like Larry Williams and Smokey Robinson. Living Colour founder Vernon Reid formed the Black Rock Coalition on behalf of all the rockers who couldn't get played on rock radio because Jimi Hendrix was already representing their entire race. And in an unusual twist, Joni Mitchell criticized fans who'd been campaigning to get her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because she doesn't really consider herself a rock and roller.
And most record buyers aren't racial purists either: I've almost never met anyone who only listens to artists with the same skin color or ethnicity - we're not nearly as provincial as radio programmers want us to be. We actually do learn from getting inside the head of an artist who's from another background. That's actually one of the most hopeful signs I can see for things improving in the good old US of A. (DBW)
Alroy: 80s Nostalgia - Back To The BadnessJust when you thought it was safe to go back to the 70s, 80s nostalgia rears its ugly fins... I saw two movies in a row this weekend that both had the same dumb 10th anniversary high school reunion gimmick. And you know what? Both movie soundtracks were cluttered with tons of mid-80s rock songs. Huh? Whah? 80s rock songs? What are these guys trying to prove? That 90s movie audiences are even dumber than 80s radio audiences? I can't believe the garbage I had to suffer through: Robert Palmer, Cyndi Lauper, the Go-Gos, Culture Club, even "99 Luftballons" Nena and Kenny "Footloose" Loggins! Hey, at least I got to hear David Bowie and Freddie Mercury duetting on "Under Pressure."
Okay, so maybe the pot's calling the kettle black here. After all, this site is stuffed with 60s, 70s, and, well, 80s record reviews. I myself rarely venture forth from the 60s. But there's a reason for that - the 80s totally, totally sucked. That's what makes it so revolting to see the current crop of teenagers gets subjected to the Big Lie that cruddy 80s rock music is worth hearing all over again.
Not that the 80s were 100% worthless - hey, that was the decade that saw the birth of hip hop, the reign of Prince, and plenty of at least halfway-sincere "college" rock by acts like U2, REM, Midnight Oil, Sonic Youth, Living Colour and XTC. And sure, there has always been lousy, soulless pop music - just look at the Monkees.
But there is a big difference between big-H History and sneering little-n nostalgia - not everything recorded ten, twenty, or thirty years ago is immature tripe engineered for the teen hormonal impulses of the day. Ever since Dylan and the Beatles, rock music has always had legitimate artists with genuine personal visions. And just because recording technology keeps getting better, that doesn't make old music bad music - the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper's on a four-track machine, for crying out loud.
So if you want to indulge in nostalgia at all, you'd do better to avoid a decade like the 80s when a herd of corporate ninnies dictated every last heavy metal guitar arpeggio and every last tinny electronic snare drum on every new "album-oriented" rock record. The problem is, how can you even tell? These days not only the movie makers, but the "oldies" radio stations and mega-chain retail music stores keep trying to convince you that anything recorded more than two weeks ago is only good for having a laugh over the bad old days and dropping a few loose bucks in the process. What's a poor listener to do? Gee, well, is there a critic in the house?
Wilson: Never Pay Retail!You may wonder how we find the time and money to buy, much less listen to and review, so many CDs. I'm not sure about the time part, but the answer to the money issue comes right out of the New Yorker's Creed: never pay retail. The vast majority of the discs we've reviewed were purchased used for $7 or less. As tireless advocates for music consumers, we strongly urge you to buy your CDs used as well. Used CDs typically play perfectly - personally, I've never had to return one for skipping or unplayability, out of more than five hundred I've bought. And they're guaranteed (by every store I've ever heard of) in case there is a problem.
Big chains like Tower trade on your laziness, both physical and intellectual: they assume you want whatever blockbuster is getting media hype, and they assume you aren't willing to do a little work to find discs for half the chains' outrageous prices. (Mail order and web-based "stores" are even more egregious in their price gouging.) Every city I've ever spent any time in, including small ones like Knoxville, Tennesee, has at least a few stores specializing in used CDs. Most of these places have a fairly high turnover, so try checking them out every couple of weeks until you get a feel for how often they're worth visiting.
There are two obvious problems with shopping for used discs. One, if you're looking for one particular disc, you may not find it. This is especially true if everyone else wants the same thing: I had a hell of a time finding Mary J. Blige's new release used. (Also, for some reason I can almost never find Latin music used; I've had to pay $12 or more for nearly every Latin CD I have.) However, the truth is there are lots and lots of CDs that are worth listening to: we've rated more than 70 discs as five-star "must-haves," and undoubtedly there are plenty more where those came from. By picking up something you're not already familiar with, you will get some duds but also you'll make your own "finds," expand your range of musical interests, and develop your critical faculty. And you have one big advantage we didn't have: this review site.
Our Secret Formula: We recommend as a rule of thumb paying a maximum of $2.50 for each star rating above one. In other words, CDs we've rated one star are not worth hearing at any price; two-star records are worth $2.50; three-star records aren't worth more than $5; for a four-star disc you can shell out $7.50; and five-star records are so good even $10 is a good investment. Keep in mind that you may find new CDs at used prices: midlines can often be found for $8 or $9, and they include many terrific albums like Sly Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On. Plus, some chain stores (notably Best Buy) have large cut-out sections where you can get really good deals: I found Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell's United new for $3.88. Also, if you have LP capability, keep an eye out for used LPs - I've found many four-star and even five-star records for $1 or $2. The main point is: don't overpay because you've been duped into believing there's a scarcity of good music out there.
Alroy: Rolling Stone SucksMost people get humbler as they grow up. I've decided to do neither and continue to be an immature brat for as long as possible. Case in point: I used to think that the Rolling Stone guide made our little web site pretty much redundant, except for the fact that those guys are too tight-assed to put their reviews and ratings on the web for everyone to see. They've got a good reason, of course. They make a mint off of that massive four-author Rolling Stone Album Guide you've seen in the bookstores, so why undercut it by putting the same info on the web? Lucky us, I thought, that gives us a great excuse for polluting the web with our own opinions.
Then I actually bought a copy of said record guide, and boy did my head start to inflate. These guys couldn't review their way out of a paper bag. Just look at their Doors ratings - five fuckin' stars for Morrison Hotel, a record that neither sold particularly well, produced a hit single, nor rose above derivative frat boy blues posturing. And five more for a greatest hits album! It's not just the Doors; they've got a downright obsession with these things, giving act after act a higher rating for the greatest hits record than anything else. We don't even review greatest hits records. The whole point of reviewing is to suggest some original albums that an interested reader should buy first, not to steer you guys towards some greatest hits thing you would have bought anyway if you didn't know any better.
This isn't just a matter of taste. These Rolling Stone hired guns really, truly do not sound like they've listened to the records they're reviewing. Neil Young gets consecutive ratings for four mid-80s records that have nothing in common. Carole King gets six 's, five 's, and then they pump up the two obvious choices - Tapestry and a greatest hits. Frank Zappa goes 15 albums in a row without escaping from the dreaded , , and "fucked if I know" zone. This kind of thing goes on all through the book: one key record and a greatest hits actually gets listened to, the rest get the same rating. Hey, at least when we haven't heard a record we admit it. And I haven't even gotten started on what these guys scribble after their list of rated records: it's a poser's mishmash of pop culture allusions, would-be witticisms, and sweeping generalizations, proving that music theory is a foreign concept in Rolling Stone-ville.
The moral of the story? You're only going to get an honest, impartial opinion from someone who isn't getting paid to produce one. So don't waste your money when you can get the real scoop for free on the web. (JA)
Wilson: I Don't Want An Industrial-Strength InternetIs the Internet a revolutionary tool for human beings to communicate with each other directly, bypassing corporate media and forming communities based on common interests rather than flukes of geography? Or is it just a more efficient way to sell life insurance and toasters? It seems most net surfers and "content providers" are in the second camp: site owners are scrambling over each other to hang up banners (the more flashy and annoying the better) and implement "push technology" (i.e. bombarding you with e-mail). Web sites requiring a password are becoming increasingly common, and many sites that don't now are hoping to make big bucks off you in the future, when the Web becomes ubiquitous. (If this sounds familiar, it's the same "free sample" strategy drug dealers use to get you hooked.) And most surfers go along with this, either because they don't know better, or because they're brainwashed cattle who'd rather check out the Independence Day site than engage in anything challenging or thought-provoking.
Am I a sour-faced, newbie-hating, change-resisting crank? Why don't I just let the corporations do their thing? After all, nobody's censoring me. Well, yes and no: Most newsgroups (including the music newsgroups that are most important to me) have been so overrun by excessive off-topic posting from internet entrepreneurs that private individuals don't use them any more. So many bandwidth-hogging small-time operators have hung out their shingle on the 'net that the Web indexing services (now privatized and thus supposedly more responsive) have been brought to their knees: for example, fewer than one fourth of the pages on this site have been indexed by Alta Vista even though we've been at this location for almost half a year. Advertising-hungry hacks have cluttered the Web with music review sites that make this one look brilliant by comparison. And corporate sites are spewing out so much multimedia garbage that the entire 'net has slowed noticably, though ISP's are constantly upgrading their connections. This leads to higher prices for everyone: we may soon end up paying some government agency (or worse, an unaccountable InterNIC-style private business) for each e-mail we send, thanks to all the bombardment by scheming, scamming scum.
Sure, you say, but what can I do about corporate evil on the Internet? Well, I've written the following sample letter you can modify and send to any bandwidth-hogging or time-wasting site, e- mail scammer, or banner-hanging loser:
The world was not created for you to exploit in any way you see fit. I'm not a sponge to absorb whatever lies you want to tell me to get me to buy your crummy product. In particular, the Internet and World Wide Web became what they are today because of uncountable hours of work by individuals motivated not by profit but because they wanted to communicate, to do something just because you can, to make another person's life a little easier or more pleasant. You did nothing to make the Internet usable for the non-technical masses (correct me if I'm wrong) and you have no right to overrun it with your drivel. I will never buy anything from you; if I've purchased any of your products in the past I'm heartily sorry. You're lucky I'm not a better hacker or else I'd [remainder of letter deleted on lawyer's advice].
Alroy: BUY ONE, GET TEN FREE!Boy, those mail order guys sure are sharp. I just moved to DC a few months ago, and I never ever buy stuff by mail order or over the phone. But somehow the marvelous folks at BMG Music Service managed to get my correct address and mail me a no strings attached offer that's too good to pass up. Honest.
Where do these guys get off? "No catch, no hitch and no fine print" indeed. The deal is that I buy one of their outrageously overpriced discs - for at least $15 - and get ten "free," except that I have to pay "shipping and handling on each selection - see, we're even up front about that" (!). But of course they never say what the shipping and handling fee per selection really is.
Fortunately (or not) one of my close friends actually went with their offer, and discovered that the fee is an amazing $2.29. So now you're paying $25.19 plus $15 equals $40.19 for 11 CD's, or about $3.65 per disc. Still sounds good, right? Actually, BMG makes out like a bandit. As they admit, "I'd be surprised if you didn't wonder how we can offer you 11 CDs or cassettes for the price of 1." Of course they never do tell you... the way it works is that BMG, as a distributor, is only paying for one markup on the discs they buy, many of which are cut-outs anyway. Normally you pay for three markups - manufacturer to distributor, distributor to retailer, retailer to you. Each of those markups is roughly a doubling in price. Since retailers still make a good profit on $11 "budget line" discs that are every bit as expensive to manufacture as full price discs, the original cost to the manufacturer is, say, about $11 / 8 = $1.38, and that to BMG is about $2.75 - and probably a lot less for cut-outs. So BMG still at least breaks even on those "free" discs they send you - and then they get to suck you into an ever more expensive series of "deals" like "Unlimited CDs for $7.99." (not including "shipping and handling").
Of course, the consumer always gets screwed in the music industry. Finding a new disc for $3 or $4 in the stores is almost impossible, so BMG's one-shot 11 disc deal is relatively reasonable - or would be, if their meagre selection didn't mostly consist of garbage like greatest hits compilations and KISS records (I'm not making that up either)...
Wilson: Tribute Albums - HellspawnOn the face of it, tribute albums seem to work out well for everyone involved. Every hip act wants to pay respect to its musical forebears, plus it's quick and easy: knock out a recording of a song you already know, and you don't need to tour to support the record. Record companies love tributes, because they can pack a million star performers on a disc without paying an arm and a leg for them. And fans snap the discs up.
So what's the problem? Well, the fans of everyone involved get less than they deserve: Devoted fans will collect any record with their favorite artist on it, even though they only get one tune that's not even new. A dedicated Sonic Youth fan probably has a whole shelf of this stuff. And fans of the artist who's being tributed will be tempted to hear how today's talent interprets their favorite tunes, but usually they'll have to listen to a lot of flavor-of-the-month pop acts with no style or substance. As if that weren't bad enough, you often get nightmare superstar combinations, where the label gets a bunch of stars together who have no working relationship and can't even produce a minimally interesting track (see the Hendrix tribute In From The Storm for an extreme case of this syndrome).
What can be done about this? One possibility is for current artists to actually include a cover tune or two on their real albums, not just toss them off for tribute albums. The Artist Formerly Known As Prince has included four "tributes" on his latest release, without waiting for someone to put together a Stylistics or Bonnie Raitt tribute album. Alternatively, artists can treat their collector fans to non-album B sides; Tori Amos usually packs her single releases with previously unreleased tracks including numerous live covers. An artist can even make a whole album out of cover versions, as Two Nice Girls have done, not to mention Duran Duran. And for those collectors who want to hear every cover version of a tune written by their favorite artist? I don't have a perfect solution worked out, but as an intermediate measure, try a 12-step program.
Wilson & Alroy, shut up.