Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why Music Stopped Growing

The musical sky is falling. CD sales have disappeared and iTunes barely keeps the industry from falling off of the radar entirely. Did music stop, did people stop caring about music, or did the music business just shoot itself (starting with the feet and working upward)? I vote for the latter option.

One place where that is most evident is in concert ticket sales. Sellouts are about as common as unicorns, where they used to be expected. Part of the blame for that has to come from ticket prices, typically in the range of a working person's daily income. I was reminded of how dramatic a change this is when I attempted to nail down a date for a show I saw in Denver in 1994. I was surprised to see that the all day 1994 LoDo Music Festival, that headlined James Brown, and was previewed by the Radiators, WAR, Marcia Ball, and the Sundogs cost  between $24 and $28 and there were no bad seats. JB was at the peak of his reincarnated career, still cruising on the Livin' in America popularity bump and promoting the 1993 release, Universal James. The Radiators were also doing well, riding on the resurgence of R&B and New Orleans funk. War, of course, never fails to attract their core audience. It was an amazing day and JB's band was unforgettable. It was the last time I had an opportunity to see the King of Soul and it was as good as every other time I'd seen him. (This would be when I normally might say, "Fuck the critics, I still love Gravity." I guess I did, didn't I?)

In his intro to Behind the Glass, Volume II, George Massenburg wrote, "What happened was that in the late 1980s large music corporations were consolidated, and often bought5 out, resulting in debt requiring a great deal of cash; cash that labels of the day were hoarding after the huge success of re-releasing their catalogs on CD. Music men--people like Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker, and Bob Krasnow, among others-- were ousted, to be replace with accountants, themselves responsibly only to new managers; managers who simply saw no reason to continue old policy, methodology, and style. Among those axioms bushed aside were the importance of building an artist's long-term career and the expectation that no more than one out of 20 recordings would turn a profit. Labels' bank accounts were stripped of cash to pay off corporate debt, leaving nothing for development, let alone artist support. Projects were directed by numbers alone; gone were the men and women who made decisions from their instincts, quick brains, sincere heart, and guts." That's a pretty good wrap-up of the decline of the American Empire, let alone the reason why the music died.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Offensive Technique

In my field recording class, we recorded a 3-piece rap/hip-hop/dj sorta thing with a jazzy rhythm section. It's safe and honest to say this music s out of my normal territory. I get so little of it that you'd be fair in saying I don't get it at all. The usual simplified rhythm and shortage of musicality, based on the restrictions was typically overbearing, but I can live with that. Back in the 70s and early 80s, I recorded a collection of "poetry" performance artists in southern California and that was a similar experience: lots of angry women and upset boys cursing the bad luck of being born of educated middle class parents and suffering the usual slings and arrows of affluence. All done with a background of meandering saxophone "jazz" or electronica. Rap is more authentic than that, so I can sympathize if not appreciate. I don't love it, but I'm OK with it.

The usual black on white conflict was a good part of the act, but that doesn't bother me. Most of that complaint is true and I sympathize and appreciate that struggle. Ever present were the strings of four-letter words, apparently intended to shock either the college-age audience or the small percentage of instructors in the room. I work on my own mechanical devices and electrical/electronic equipment. I can cuss the chrome off of a Harley and strip the bare metal suitable for primer. Nothing any kid can say will come close to the noises coming from my garage when I smash a finger or drop some expensive piece of hardware. I'm ok with that.

After the show was over, the mc came back to FOH to thank us for doing the show and asked if he'd offended us with the language.

"Nope, I was offended by your mic technique, though."

It's a fact, I am not OK with that lack of skill. Design engineers work hard to design microphones that convert acoustic energy into electrical signals. It's not a simple task to accurately reproduce the movement of air into electricity and back again. When an "artist" disrespects the effort that goes into the equipment they use, I can be offended.

For some reason, a generation of modern black artists have decided to toss off the skills of 40 years of R&B and imitate a marginally talented white boy. Mic Jagger taught scores of R&R kids how not to use a microphone and that lousy technique seems to have filtered across genres into rap/hip-hop/dj/whateveryoucallit. Worse, the music they are promoting is, supposedly, all about the lyrics. Since they have banished melody and harmony, and the lyrics are unintelligible, it seems to me that what hiphop is selling is noise and attitude. Nothing new there. Teenagers have been making noise and pretending to be something they aren't for centuries.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Another Current Show: Kill the Vultures

Februrary 10, MPR/The Current and Dave Campbell ran another of the school's Soundbite shows, this time with Kill the Vultures. The student who recorded and mixed this show, Darren Prentice, did an outstanding job and David gave him well-deserved credit for the work. It starts at about 56 minutes (

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.