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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Digital Era of Music: Quantity over Quality

Convenience is a highly valued attribute for any product, but often comes at the expense of sacrificing quality.  Portable music started with the Sony Walkman during the era of cassette tapes, followed by the Discman after the introduction of the Compact Disc.  The digital era arrived at the dawn of the mp3, which allows users to carry a much larger variety of music on smaller devices like the iPod or other mp3 players.  The trade-off for this innovation in portable music is sound quality, and unfortunately the majority of today's users are so desensitized by the convenience they no longer care about the dramatic loss of sound they're experiencing.

The mp3 is a compressed audio file generated from a computer algorithm that basically removes portions of the source audio in order to maintain a smaller file size.  This allows the user to store more songs on their portable media device, thus putting more value on quantity over quality.  The highest quality attainable with an mp3 file is a 320kbps sampling rate which probably means nothing to most people unless compared to the uncompressed sound of a CD with a sampling rate of 1411kbps.  Even without an explanation of what those numbers mean, it's clear that the rate of the mp3 is significantly lower, and that translates to a greatly diminished listening experience.  Streaming music on Pandora and similar sites is no different, because the music is presented in a highly compressed format so that playback is smoother, mostly to account for various Internet connection speeds.  The best analogy for this is the difference between hearing the same song on a high-quality sound system vs. a cheap pair of speakers or earphones.  For those who prefer a visual example, it's like the difference between standard definition and high definition TV.  Standard Definition (cable TV) is displayed at 480p, while High Definition is displayed at 1080p.  The same image is presented through both outputs, but obviously High Definition presents it with far more clarity and color depth.  If you apply that concept to music, it's easy to imagine how much more dynamic and rich your favorite music sounds if listened to without compression. 

The film "Distortion of Sound" provides an in-depth look at the sacrifice of sound quality in portable audio, from both mp3's and streaming music, much to the dismay of artists who regret having their music heard with significantly compromised quality.  Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park discusses the frustration in pouring time and effort into his music only to have it heard through poor quality mediums that compromise the work that went into creating it.  I consider that film to be a great companion piece to another film, "Sound City", which focuses more on the recording process but shares the emphasis on quality.  Both films are equally important for educating people about just how much is being lost in translation as listeners become more detached with the importance of music and the experience it can provide.  Meanwhile, they're less concerned with the quality of the music they're listening to despite the amount of effort being made by artists to put their best work in the hands of their fans.  Hip Hop artist Snoop Dogg and Rock guitarist Slash discuss the overall musical experience that has become significantly devalued in the digital era as physical media like CD's and vinyl have been all but forgotten except by audiophiles (people who value and appreciate hearing music as intended).

Beyond the loss of audio quality, music as an art has become horribly devalued in the digital format.  Listeners rarely purchase an album and listen to it from start to finish, taking the journey the artist was on while creating it.  The convenience of buying individual tracks has replaced the immersive experience of holding the physical album in your hands and turning the pages of the liner notes as the album plays.  While illegal downloading has been the undisputed catalyst for the hobbled music industry, a great deal can be said for those who stopped appreciating music as the most powerful and unifying form of art it always has been and will continue to be.  Music cannot be truly appreciated when it's not heard as it was created by the artist, and the proof is in the sound.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What is "celebrity"?

The stars of film and music, known as "celebrities" and "rockstars", as well as professional athletes or basically anyone in the media spotlight, start and finish their day like everyone else.  When the final score is on the board and cameras are off and the encore is over they're just people; parents, husbands and wives, siblings, family and friends like the rest of us.  This seemingly moot observation is surprisingly hard for some people to grasp, thanks to the glamorization provided by media outlets working tirelessly to keep us "connected" to them.  Paparazzi lurk behind every corner to capture the next headline-grabbing image of these everyday people, thanks to the demand and fascination of those who perpetuate the "line in the sand" that separates the stars from their followers.
This is the so-called "price of fame", the irrational movement that prevents celebrities and public figures from being able to live their life as a person but rather as a character or persona.  Their ability to manage the moments when their person and professional life overlap determines how they're viewed or judged.  For the average person, this would be like leaving work to go home and being followed by everyone who is affected by your work one way or another, expecting some kind of unwarranted interaction as if you owe them a moment of your personal time; the undisclosed cost of your career choice.  Grammy-winning, multi-platinum selling Rap icon Eminem has mentioned the cost of fame in his song "The Way I Am" with the following lyrics...

But at least have the decency in you
To leave me alone, when you freaks see me out
In the streets when I'm eating or feeding my daughter
Do not come and speak to me...
I don't know you and no,
I don't owe you a motherf***ing thing

What are "celebrities" really?  In most cases, they're just uniquely talented people who followed their dream and achieved success in any industry that's followed by media.  Professional athletes are just the kids on the playground who had a special gift which helped them to excel in their favorite sport; with hard work and determination they earned the right to play professionally and make a living doing what they love.  Our favorite movie stars were just kids who were starstruck by the people in their favorite movies and aspired to do the same, and their talent was developed and recognized so they could live their dream.  Rockstars were kids who grew up with posters on their walls of their favorite artists and bands, whose vocal or musical talents caught the attention of people in the business and they became the faces on the wall of the next generation.  In other cases, they're merely people who ended up in the spotlight through the fame or attention of others and remained a public figure, or became famous from a single headline-grabbing event.  There are "good" and "bad" figures in the public spotlight, some of whom become unwilling role models when their actions inspire bad behavior or they are blamed or criticized for what they do in their personal life.

Dave Grohl, founding frontman of his post-Nirvana band Foo Fighters, urges the next generation of dreamers to cross that line in the sand and his message makes the impossible dream seem perfectly within reach for anyone.  During a passionate and inspiring keynote speech at 2013's SXSW Music Festival, he walked the crowd through his own personal journey from hearing a simple guitar riff to joining an underground culture of musicians who managed all aspects of their career while working to become signed artists.  During Nirvana's recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction Grohl took advantage of another opportunity to blur the lines by telling the crowd

"...You look up to your heroes and you shouldn’t be intimidated by them; you should be inspired by them. Don’t look up at the poster on your wall and think, "Fuck, I can never do that." Look at the poster on your wall and think, "Fuck, I’m going to do that!" 

In all corners of the entertainment industry, there are people like Dave who haven't forgotten where they came from and stay connected to their humble beginnings, and then there are those who abuse the fame and fortune they have and choose to dig that line in the sand deeper.  Sadly, the spotlight seems to aim more at the latter because it sells more magazines and generates more Internet traffic.  For those who appreciate Dave's advice and approach and choose to be inspired by your favorite stars, choose wisely so you're among those who work to inspire and erase the lines because they only exist as long as we allow ourselves to be intimidated by those we look up to or admire.

Monday, May 5, 2014

"Better To Burn Out Than Fade Away"

For the fans, bandmates, and families of iconic Seattle-based Rock band Nirvana, the year 2014 presented the perfect convergence of events to celebrate their music and remember frontman Kurt Cobain on the 20th anniversary of his death.  The timeline almost makes their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (in the first year of eligibility) seem suspiciously opportunistic, but occasionally it's perfectly acceptable to accept such timing as fate.

Not only has the anniversary of Kurt's death and their induction re-ignited the passion of Nirvana's fanbase, but also refueled rumors of foul play surrounding his death, ruled a homicide by Seattle PD following a very short and flawed investigation.  For 20 years, fans, conspiracy theorists and detectives have challenged the investigation and conclusion, insisting on foul play and almost universally pointing the finger at Kurt's widow Courtney Love.  This movement has increased with the recent release of images from rolls of film that were undeveloped until now, as well as an additional note written by Cobain which was logged but never released.  The note, mocking his vows to Courtney Love, paints a far different portrayal of their marriage than what was written on the note found near his body on April 8th, 1994.

Nirvana was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame on April 10, 2014 by R.E.M frontman Michael Stipe.  After their acceptance, drummer Dave Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic (on accordion), and guitarist Pat Smear played a 4-song set of Nirvana tracks featuring an all-female cast of guest vocalists, accomplishing the same kind of uniquely unorthodox result they had achieved with their appearance on MTV's "Unplugged" series.  Among the highlights of their induction was a gesture given during Courtney's speech as she hugged Krist and Dave, ceremoniously ending their headline-grabbing public feud.  Following their induction, the same lineup performed a secret invitation-only 16-song set at Brooklyn's Saint Vitus club.

As a fan of the "Big 4" from the Seattle music scene of the early 1990's (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains), I recognized and followed them all, but my allegiance weighed most heavily towards Pearl Jam.  That's not to say that I didn't recognize the impact that Nirvana's massive breakout album "Nevermind" had as its early buzz quickly escalated to a thunderous ripple in the musical landscape.  The success of the album occurred so quickly that the band was still driving a van with a U-Haul trailer on tour as the album reached Gold status.  Their 3rd album "In Utero" was released in September 2013, followed closely by their acclaimed performance on "Unplugged", which has become one of the most highly regarded of the series.  At the peak of their career, Kurt was found dead in his home by an electrician, after leaving rehab early and flying home alone about a month after Nirvana's final show as a band.

Kurt's contempt for the fame and business associated with the music he made, likely exacerbated by his heroin addiction, was highlighted in the original note he left.  The line in his note "better to burn out than fade away", borrowed from a Neil Young lyric, offered a glimpse into his struggle with the trappings of success and how it left him disenchanted and unable to enjoy or appreciate the connection his music made with fans.  Neil has said that seeing his lyric associated with Kurt's death affected him deeply, and that he had attempted to reach out to Kurt to offer some advice.  There's no telling to what level Kurt had wanted to achieve success (or fame, if any) but when it comes at such an accelerated pace, along with the other stressors in his life, it certainly had him existing in a very unhealthy frame of mind in his final days, regardless of the true circumstances of his untimely death.  

There are several cliched phrases which can be attributed to that feeling of finally appreciating Nirvana as they bask in the afterglow of their induction and enjoy this renewed attention.  While I wasn't among their biggest fans, I certainly enjoyed their music but somehow never embraced it quite as much as I have in the past few weeks while re-visiting their catalog, mostly the Unplugged album.  There is no doubt that Nirvana's music will capture future generations with no end in sight.  Whether the recently released new evidence
changes anything about the the circumstances of his death, this year will prove to be monumental for celebrating and appreciating the magnitude of Nirvana's impact.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Downfall (and Potential Revitalization) of the Music "Industry"

Since the dawn of the Digital era, the mp3 has been the scapegoat for many problems related to the downfall of the music "industry", at least from a financial perspective.  
To those who purchase music, whether in physical form (CD's, vinyl) or through online retailers like iTunes and Amazon, the mp3 is simply the method for enjoying music while mobile.  The blame for the massive shift in the business model that has made platinum-selling albums a rarity cannot be placed on a medium, but rather the people who use it irresponsibly and don't support artists or the facets of the industry that are vital to its longevity.  Today's musical landscape is a mixed bag filled with the artists of previous generations fighting to protect their legacy against a never-ending barrage of new artists who gain popularity with the power of the Internet at their disposal and the technology to help some of them achieve undeserved success.

The dying concept of the album is a far more accurate gauge of how the mp3 and digital sales have played a direct role in changing the way listeners and artists connect.  Buyers have the option to not only pick apart new releases with their ears but with their wallets,  which could mean nothing more than a motivational challenge for bands who were still striving to make their best album.  However, illegal downloading can understandably hinder any artist’s desire to pour their soul into crafting an album knowing it will either become listener road kill or be stolen entirely via online piracy.  Even before illegal downloading became a sales-shattering epidemic, record labels started the trend of pushing "singles" to create an early demand for new releases which led to huge sales, sometimes record-breaking.  Adversely, it also conditioned casual listeners to stop focusing on the album as a whole by only spotlighting the more radio-friendly songs, ignoring the "deep cuts" which typically showcase more depth and musicianship from the artist.  These are not to be mistaken for the "filler" tracks which do nothing more than spotlight an artist or group's focus on quantity over quality.

Meanwhile, the once beloved "record store" has become an underdog as retailers like Target, Walmart and Best Buy (to name a few) have cut into the business by selling a variety of music at prices that independent stores can't compete with as foot traffic is diluted to hardcore fans and audiophiles.  This can be viewed as a theoretical parallel to the evolution of recording music as it transitioned from analog to digital.  There is an integrity that resides in the old ways of recording on analog, as documented in Dave Grohl's "Sound City" film, and the same idea can be applied to the independent stores that stand as the last hope for reviving this horribly hobbled art form.  Back before online purchasing and downloading, the local record store was the place everyone flocked to every Tuesday to pick up the highly anticipated new releases without the early overexposure of Social Media.  Although California-based Tower Records met its end at the hand of price wars many years ago (as well as many others), there are still independent record stores and chains in existence, and they hold the key to exposing fans to better music, and reviving the slumped sales model.

It all starts with the listener, and with a promise to support not only the artists whose music enriches our lives but the record stores that play a vital role in the musical eco-system by keeping us connected with our favorite bands while helping us discover new music as intended.  This cannot be achieved when you toss today's new release into a cart filled with discounted clothing, pantry staples and household items, just as the quality of music will never improve nor will the concept of the album return if we don't show artists that we want to hear all they have to offer, not just what radio will play.  Buy the album, not just the song, and even if you buy your music digitally visit a record store once in a while.  Most stores (like Dimple Records in Sacramento) do a great job to promote new and noteworthy music with a "staff picks" section, and by playing those "deep cuts" that you won't hear on the radio they may turn you on to an artist or album you may never have considered before.
The music business model changed in order to adapt to the available technology, and unfortunately a lot of people took advantage in negative ways.  Real fans have the power to restore the business, and as an extension the industry, to what it once was by supporting artists and the local record stores that promote great music, and by inspiring others to do the same.  As Zack De La Rocha from Rage Against The Machine shouts on the track of the same name, "Take the Power Back!".

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"They're baaaaack!"

"Could you please get your head out of your ass? It's not a hat!"

Sorry, that wasn't directed at you, unless of course you don't already have all of Season 1's episodes of the Tales From The Crate podcast downloaded, and already tuning in to Season 2!

They're also on iTunes and spent some time during Season 1 in the New And Noteworthy section!  Here's the description:

Tales From the Crate is a weekly show born from the acclaimed ConcertDaze podcast. Each week hosts Tony and Jeremy discuss fun music news, review albums and spin vinyl tracks from their collections. The show is heavy on comedy and beer and takes the listener back to a time when you would hang out around the HiFi throwing a few back and discussing great music. Join us each Mondays for your weekly fix.

The reviews speak for themselves, this show is great, these guys play great music, sample great beer, and love fan interaction.  Sign up at the Groovepods link to interact with them and post in the comments of each episode or the forums...pick their next topic, give 'em hell, or just thank them for being awesome!  I love watching That Metal Show on VH1 Classic, and I thoroughly enjoy the TFTC podcast and I'd be willing to bet that if Eddie Trunk himself downloaded a few episodes, it wouldn't be long before you'd see him driving around with a TFTC bumper sticker on his car right next to his TMS sticker!  Turn it up to 11, grab a beer, and join the fun!