Robert Plant exclusive: “I don’t want to be stuck in the ’70s or the ’80s”

December 13, 2014

Iconic rocker keeps turning down millions to reunite Led Zeppelin. He tells us why the future’s more fun than past
Stephen Deusner 12/12/14

Last month a rumor hit the Internet that Robert Plant had turned down $800 million from Virgin Group founder Richard Branson to reunite Led Zeppelin for a proposed 35-date tour. It would have been an easy near-billion — who doesn’t know the words to “Stairway to Heaven”? It may have been eventually shot down as merely an invention of social media, but that astronomical figure doesn’t seem too far out of line for the best band to ever rock a stadium, especially one in the midst of an ambitious campaign to remaster and reissue its formidable back catalog.

Nor does it seem out of character for Plant to reject that offer. Aside from a one-show showing in 2010, which produced the excellent live album “Celebration Day,” the singer has shown no interest whatsoever in revisiting those old songs or reliving previous glories. A solo artist for three decades now—that’s three times the tenure of his former band—he has produced a large and multifaceted catalog that ranges from the pop-oriented sounds of his early albums to the retro-crooner stylings of his sole Honeydrippers release to the American roots rock of 2002’s “Dreamland” and 2007’s “Raising Sand.” The latter, a collaboration with bluegrass artist Alison Krauss, went multiplatinum and won approximately all the Grammys.

Plant could easily have settled into a career as a roots musician, but he has changed course dramatically. His latest release, the oddly titled “lullaby and … The Ceaseless Roar,” sounds like all of his previous records played at once. Musically omnivorous and beautifully sung by a man who at 66 still has one of rock’s most expressive voices, these songs move from the foothills of Appalachia to the dancefloors of Bristol, from the avenues of New York City to the plains of Africa. It might have been a mere exercise in musical cross-pollination if the songs themselves weren’t so sturdy and mysterious, full of graceful melodies and spiritually generous sentiments. As such, it’s one of the most adventurous albums of 2014.

Plant has always been a man on a journey, even as far back as his days with Led Zeppelin, who in the 1960s and 1970s proved themselves imaginative synthesists of transatlantic genres. Many of that band’s songs recount dangerous treks across forbidding landscapes, whether away from some great battle or toward some unknown destination. “They choose the path where no one goes,” Plant sang on “No Quarter,” which anchored the band’s recently reissued 1973 album “Houses of the Holy.” “They carry news that must get through.” Plant has been living up to those lyrics ever since, restlessly moving from one sound to the next, navigating by instinct and with no set destination in sight.

In a year when oldsters like Springsteen and U2 have embarrassed themselves with shoddy albums (so much so that Rolling Stone apparently felt compelled to rescue them), Plant has emerged as one of the few artists of his generation intent on seeing what’s over the next hill or past the next horizon, and that determination lends “lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar” a sense of musical and conceptual urgency. During a recent stop on his American tour with the Sensational Space Shifters, Plant spoke to Salon about his new musical obsessions, his favorite band from Duluth, and his ongoing quest to keep moving.

The album begins and ends with the same song, “Little Maggie.” What drew you to that particular folk tune?

I think it was about 2006 when I was invited to appear at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame presentation in Cleveland with Odetta, Harry Belafonte and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The event was to celebrate the life and work of Leadbelly, and that’s how I got to know Alison Krauss. There had been some talk of us playing that TV show “Crossroads” together, which involves two artists coming from absolutely opposite ends fo the track. What better place to find out how we would get on together than a show that would require just three or four songs? So I met Alison in Cleveland and we rehearsed and played some Leadbelly tunes and had an amazing night. I had asked Los Lobos to come and play with us, but only to bring their acoustic instruments. It was a bit like “La Pistola y el Corazon,” that great album they made, and it was a great experience. Then Alison and I went on to shoot “Crossroads,” and we really did fit together well. So we started preparing an album. “Raising Sand” really surprised us both, and during the making of that record, we tried to record “Little Maggie.” I guess you were wondering when it was going to get around to your question.

How did it go?

We didn’t really give it a lot of time, so we made a real hash of it. It was very funny, a complete mess, and we laughed a lot and just left it. But I thought there was something there in that song. I liked the idea. I liked the lyrics. There are so many throwaway lyrics in American music from a particular period, all those murder ballads and songs like that—“Frankie and Johnny” and that kind of thing. But “Little Maggie” is fantastic. “Little Maggie sitting by the sea, with a .44 all around her and a banjo on her knee.” The idea of a woman sitting there like that is quite evocative and quite funny for an English guy. If you’re in her way, it could be quite unfortunate. I figured the best thing to do would be to spend at least four or five minutes checking that out as a piece of music and see how we would approach it with the Sensational Space Shifters. Nobody’s claiming that we’re great bluegrass banjo players or anything, but we are scallywags and thieves. I liked the idea of visiting the song again, especially since it’s a standard—a piece of American history championed by the Stanley Brothers in the 1940s and so many artists who have passed through Nashville. Which is of course where I had been spending quite a bit of time.

I’m guessing it went better this time than it did during the “Raising Sand” sessions.

It took us the better part of about 10 minutes to record the track. I liked the idea of starting off the album with that song and that sound, then turning it into something far more British, with that Bristol trance beat. It seemed like a good sort of introduction to the album, and also a good finale. For this collection of songs, I thought it was appropriate that we go out the way we came in. The second version is much more of a British-meets-West-African kind of thing, with Juldeh Camara singing in Fulani, the language of West Africa. It’s even more trance, even more far out. They’re bookends, and within all that lies the bed of the structure of the songs and the story of my time.

That song plays like a nice pivot point from your previous couple of albums, which were all confined to American soil, to this new album that explores a more global sound. It immediately announced a new set of stakes.

Exactly. I just wanted to drive a stake through the heart of the whole thing and say, I love this music but here’s another way of looking at it. And it’s so infectious to play live. It’s a great audience moment really, when even the most subdued audience member can be returned to life, given a pulse, and made to get excited.

I appreciate that you’re compartmentalizing these sounds. It’s not like there’s the Bristol trance song, the West African song, the Americana song. Everything flows together more organically.

It’s a mélange. The tabernacle of bluegrass and the tabernacle of world music, all that stuff… to me it means nothing. To me it just represents a lot of great ideas, and sometimes they need to have a shotgun wedding. I think we represent a lot of different experiences in the Sensational Space Shifters. Justin Adams produced the first and third Tinariwen albums and played with Sinead O’Connor and Jah Wobble. The avenues he’s chosen to go down have always been stimulating and exciting. Everybody in the band has got a story that isn’t just going right down Main Street. We compressed a lot of stuff on the record to make it sound more junkyard, more calamitous, but we do our best to build a sturdy shed onstage every night.

How did the Space Shifters come together?

We had played together already in the early 2000s as Strange Sensations, up until I ran off with Alison. Now “Sensation” remains part of the name, but our previous drummer went off with Radiohead, so Dave Smith took his place. And Juldeh brought in those ritti and kologo cross-rhythms. It’s become a really big churning space machine, really. So we’re out there and I’m working this record because I don’t want to end up being compartmentalized along with my peer group. I don’t want to be stuck in the ’70s or the ’80s. I just keep moving. That’s my intention. That’s my stimulus. Otherwise, I’d be at home doing the garden.

And your solo work has always been so forward looking. Even when you’re looking backwards, as with something like the Honeydrippers, you make a point not to repeat yourself.

I’ve been listening to music with an attentive ear for 50-odd years, so there’s always something new coming around the corner. There’s a lot of dross, of course, and a lot of opportunism and a lot of crap and a lot of people who stay with one thing too long. But if you’re born into this great game, you have to stimulate yourself. You have to stay lightfooted and keep moving.

I’m a restless guy who’s happy to be restless. I find that I’m always inquiring and I’m always in the middle of new situations. It’s just life experience, I guess. But I’ve been around quite a while. I realized that sometimes I move so fast I don’t even see where I’ve been with any great perspective. I look into the now and slightly into the future, but rarely into the past. Searching and querying and mining the great terrain of life and relationships is where I’m at right now. I’m pretty furtive, and I guess this record comes at a time in my life we’re I’m having to stop and regroup lyrically. I’m not singing about chicks in truckstops.

With that in mind, have you been reapproaching some of your older solo tunes with the Space Shifters?

We’ve been looking at “Like I’ve Never Been Gone,” which is a beautiful piece of music [from 1982’s “Pictures at Eleven”]. The actual chordal and musical construction is very different from what we’re using now, but when we’ve played it recently it’s been very emotive and evocative. But at the same time it can be very spare. But I don’t like to reinterpret myself. I’m not postmodern. I’m actually very pre-modern, I would say.

It sounds less like a reinterpretation than an artist having a conversation with his younger self.

I did hear a Joni Mitchell selection recently called “Travelogue,” and she did a track called “Amelia” and another called “Woodstock,” which is a song that you wouldn’t think could have any new life breathed into it. But she breathed more life into those two songs that you could possibly imagine. It was absolutely stunning, because her voice has changed from the days when she sang in ’67 or ’68 and they rearranged the songs accordingly. It was a revelation. She had to go back and visit those songs again. It was brave to record. Doing them live is one thing, but orchestrating them is brave. I wouldn’t want to make a career of it, but it’s great stuff.

You sound like someone who follows your musical obsessions wherever they might lead. What are you listening to lately?

Would it be that I could. I did go to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Natalie Merchant and some other people perform with the Kronos Quartet. It was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch Records, and I must say that some of these areas that Nonesuch has been exploring are new to me. So I’ve been checking out some new zones since I signed with them. It’s similar to the adventures of Jac Holzman with the Elektra Explorers series. I remember stealing a lot of it in the early ’70s with Page.

And of course, one of my great loves is from Duluth, the group that is whatever it is that is called Low. On the “Band of Joy” album, we cut two tracks from their “Great Destroyer” album. Their most recent album, “The Invisible Way,” is excellent, too. I follow them because I think their dynamism is amazing. It’s supermusic. I saw them in London at the Barbican. It’s the complete other end of the scale from what I do, because there’s so little physicality to the music. There’s just this great portent. It’s all about mood.

You’re also someone who surrounds himself with good musicians, whether it’s the Space Shifters or Alison Krauss or the Band of Joy. How important is that collaborative aspect to your craft?

It’s all important. These people are all great players, but more than that they’ve all got great spirit and warm hearts, which allows us to be out there on the edge of space and time. In the great fantasy of super uber fame, that’s not always a good place to be. It can be quite a prickly place to be, in fact. I’ve been there. So I have to choose my bedfellows very carefully. It has been paramount that I have a great society—if I can use that term—that is healthy musically, personally, and socially.

“Little Maggie” is one of the only covers on the album. The rest is original songwriting, which seems like a new development compared to your last few albums.

You’re right. “Poor Howard” is a Leadbelly song that was brought over from the United Kingdom. It was a kids’ song in the early nineteenth century, and it had a very different theme but the same melody. The rest I can’t really tell you about. As you keep moving, you come up with ideas and topics and themes: musicality, drama and texture. The previous two records with Band of Joy and Alison Krauss were basically me leaving my gift at the temple of great American music, I guess. Some people leave a harmonica and a bottle of whiskey at Sonny Boy’s grave. I just left my voice in some beautiful American songs.

Ed Sheeran ‘owes career to Spotify’

December 13, 2014

By Mark Savage 12/11/14

Ed Sheeran Sheeran sold more than 1.5 million copies of his debut album + in the UK

Ed Sheeran has bucked the trend for criticising Spotify, saying his popularity on the site enabled him to play three nights at Wembley Stadium.

“My music has been streamed 860 million times, which means that it’s getting out to people,” he said backstage at the BBC Music Awards.

“I’m playing sold-out gigs in South America, I’ve sold out arenas in Korea and south-east Asia.

“I don’t think I’d be able to do that without Spotify.”

“For me, Spotify is not even a necessary evil. It helps me do what I want to do.”

The star’s comments come after artists like Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke pulled their music from the streaming music site.

“I think Spotify are paying the right amount. We’re just not seeing it”

Swift deleted her back catalogue from the service a week before her new album, 1989, came out – helping it become the first record to sell 1.287 million copies in the US, the highest first-week sales since 2002.

The singer, who has been romantically linked to Sheeran, has also criticised Spotify’s royalty rates, which average $0.007 (£0.0045) per play.

“Music is art, and art is important and rare,” she told the Wall Street Journal.

“Rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free.”
Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran “I can understand where Taylor is coming from,” Sheeran conceded

She is not the first to protest. The Beatles, AC/DC and The Black Keys are all unavailable on Spotify, while earlier this week Paul McCartney told the BBC he worried about how young musicians would make a living under the streaming business model.

Sheeran said he respected other artists’ viewpoints, but he felt the current royalty rates were fair.

“I think Spotify are paying the right amount,” he told the BBC.

“We’re just not seeing it, because the labels aren’t making as much as they used to, so they want to keep a lot of the money that Spotify give them, and not pay it out to us. Which is the truth. It is the truth.”

“I get a percentage of my record sales, but it’s not a large percentage. I get [the profits from] all my ticket sales, so I’d rather tour.

He added that many of the artists withholding their music were proven best-sellers.

“Taylor has been around for eight or nine years. She comes from an era where you do sell records – it’s only been in the past five years where it’s really deteriorated – so people buy her records and it doesn’t feel too foreign.

“Whereas I came through in the streaming generation. All my fans started off being students at university file-sharing my music, so it’s a different generation.

“She can sell records and I can get streamed, because that’s the generation I come from.”

The Biggest Music Comeback of 2014: Vinyl Records

December 13, 2014

Sales of LPs Surge 49% but Aging Factories Struggle to Keep Pace

By Neil Shah 12/11/14

Nearly eight million old-fashioned vinyl records have been sold this year, up 49% from the same period last year, industry data show. Younger people, especially indie-rock fans, are buying records in greater numbers, attracted to the perceived superior sound quality of vinyl and the ritual of putting needle to groove.

But while new LPs hit stores each week, the creaky machines that make them haven’t been manufactured for decades, and just one company supplies an estimated 90% of the raw vinyl that the industry needs. As such, the nation’s 15 or so still-running factories that press records face daily challenges with breakdowns and supply shortages.

Their efforts point to a problem now bedeviling a curious corner of the music industry. The record-making business is stirring to life—but it’s still on its last legs.

Robert Roczynski ’s dozen employees work overtime at a small factory in Hamden, Conn., to make parts for U.S. record makers struggling to keep abreast of the revived interest in LPs. Mr. Roczynski’s firm says orders for steel molds, which give records their flat, round shape, have tripled since 2008.

“They’re trying to bring the industry back, but the era has gone by,” says Mr. Roczynski, 67 years old, president of Record Products of America Inc., one of the country’s few suppliers of parts for the industry

Many producers, including the largest, United Record Pressing in Nashville, Tenn., are adding presses, but there has yet to be a big move by entrepreneurs to inject capital and confidence into this largely artisanal industry. Investors aren’t interested in sinking serious cash into an industry that represents 2% of U.S. music sales.

Record labels are waiting months for orders that used to get filled in weeks. That is because pressing machines spit out only around 125 records an hour. To boost production, record factories are running their machines so hard—sometimes around the clock—they have to shell out increasing sums for maintenance and repairs.

Large orders from superstars create bottlenecks, while music fans search the bins in vain for new releases by The War on Drugs, a Philadelphia indie group, or French electronic duo Daft Punk. More requests for novelty LPs—multi-colored, scented, glow-in-the-dark—gum things up further.

Nick Blandford, managing director of Secretly Group, a family of independent labels, in Bloomington, Ind., is putting in orders now to make sure his artists’ LPs are in stores for next year’s “Record Store Day” in April.

To get more machines, record-plant owners have been scouring the globe for mothballed presses, snapping them up for $15,000 to $30,000, and plunking down even more to refurbish them.
Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who studies what he calls “technology re-emergence,” is familiar with this industrial netherworld.
Swiss mechanical watches, fountain pens and independent bookstores all re-emerged from the doldrums by reinventing themselves for consumers and then attracting investment from entrepreneurs, he says.
“The question is whether there’s enough demand for vinyl to make this jump. And it’s too soon to tell,” Mr. Raffaelli says.

There are lots of hurdles in the way of any such reinvention.

Just one company, Thai Plastic & Chemicals , which has a three-person shop in Long Beach, Calif., supplies the vast majority—as much as 90%, the firm says—of the raw polyvinyl chloride compound needed to make records across the country.

Jack Cicerello, TPC manager for North America, says after his old company, Keyser Century, closed in the mid-2000s, there were no suppliers of raw vinyl left in the U.S.

Thai Plastic & Chemicals, a Thai maker of plastic products, tapped Mr. Cicerello to expand its presence in North America, and he and some colleagues proposed launching a side business of shuttling Thai-made raw vinyl to American record-pressing plants.

But things can easily go awry. In October, a truck carrying raw vinyl to Quality Record Pressings, a plant in Salina, Kan., broke down just as the plant was ramping up production for Black Friday. “We almost ran out of vinyl,” says Gary Salstrom, QRP’s general manager.

Another step early in the record-making process—making the “master” record from which copies are made—is even more archaic.

Len Horowitz, 62, is one of a handful of people who know how to fix sensitive electronic components involved in record mastering. In September, one mastering firm’s cutting lathe—used to engrave music from an analog tape or digital file onto a blank disc that becomes the master—broke down. It took weeks to come back online.

“It’s one thing to be short presses, or short capacity,” Mr. Horowitz says. “If you can’t cut anything, everything stops—a real panic begins.”

The actual process of pressing records is surprisingly labor-intensive. During a visit to Brooklynphono, a smaller plant in New York City, the pressing machines required constant monitoring. Minor things kept going wrong, requiring workers to make adjustments.

“Things fall apart,” says Thomas Bernich, who runs the plant with his wife Fern. “I get lots of butterflies.” He could make a new machine, but that would cost him upwards of $250,000, which is prohibitively expensive.

Once the equipment is in place, technicians are needed to train younger staff. But maintaining the industry’s human capital as veterans like Mr. Roczynski retire is another big challenge.
‘They’re trying to bring the industry back, but the era has gone by,’ says Robert Roczynski, president of one of the country’s few suppliers of parts for the industry.

Mr. Roczynski has been in the business since age 16, when he began working at his father’s company. In 1946, Mr. Roczynski’s father, Stanley, was tapped by CBS Records, which pressed records at America’s first LP plant in Bridgeport, Conn., to design equipment. The elder Mr. Roczynski eventually made record equipment the main focus at his factory.

Some 50 years later, Mr. Roczynski is acting as an equipment broker to connect people seeking old machines to those unloading them, for a fee—though it is getting harder to find anything usable. Since Mr. Roczynski has no one to pass Record Products to, he’ll probably sell when he retires—but he says he wants to stay on as a consultant for a while.

“We’ve done all the work,” he says. “Why throw it away?”

The Rise and fall of Dreamworks Records

December 9, 2014

by Pete Crigler 12/14

What started out as one of the most hyped, exciting record labels of the late ’90’s and early ’00’s wound up as a piece of meat torn to shreds before being sold to the highest bidder, in this case Interscope-Geffen-A&M. DreamWorks began as a film studio in 1994, thought of by three of the biggest names in the business: Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg (former head of Disney) and record company mogul David Geffen. Together, the three formed the company known as DreamWorks SKG and set about to make their own kind of films. Shortly after announcing the film studio, the idea of a record company was also broached and with enough capital behind them, the label was announced in 1995 with Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin, former heads of Warner Brothers and Reprise Records, placed in charge.
One of the first signings to the newly integrated record company was George Michael, fresh off of beating the corporate giant formerly in charge of his musical destiny: Sony Music. After suing the company for allegedly for not promoting his material and getting a release from his contract, he signed with the new company and began recording his first full-length album of original material in almost five years. In the meantime, the new label’s A&R reps went about signing a diverse batch of new and established artists including: eels, Powerman 5000, Morphine, Rufus Wainwright and the Rollins Band. The Rollins Band had just emerged from its own legal battle with its by-now bankrupt and near-defunct former label Imago. Morphine had been picked up from Rykodisc and eels, Powerman 5000 and Wainwright had been picked up on the strength of demos and indie releases.

The label at the time had distribution from Geffen Records which David Geffen, by this time, had no real control over, just his name stamped on the back cover. 1996 was the label’s first year of releases and they hit hard with George Michael’s Older, his first full record since 1990. Scoring two major pop hits in America, the album only managed to go platinum, quite a disappointment for the multi-platinum Michael but not a bad start for the label. The eels’ debut, Beautiful Freak came out next and launched a smash number one modern rock hit in “Novacaine for the Soul.” The new Morphine and Rollins Band records wouldn’t come out for another year but already it looked like things were going to be off on a roll for DreamWorks Records.

1997 brought the previously mentioned records as well as debuts by comedian Chris Rock, which became the label’s Grammy winning artist and Powerman 5000. The label also signed two of the most intriguing acts ever seen by a major label in the ’90’s: Dr. Octagon was an electronic supergroup comprised of Dan the Automator on beats and legendary/notorious rap icon Kool Keith on vocals. The duo’s first project, Dr. Octagonecologyst was released in 1997 and garnered instant critical acclaim and the group looked like they were going to ride the same wave of success as The Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers were at the time. But just as they were about to start touring, Keith bailed, citing various reasons and saying he would come back. As a result, the duo missed out on performing with Lollapalooza ’97 and by the end of the year, it was clear that Keith wasn’t coming back and Dr. Octagon ended up becoming the first artist let go from the label.

Forest for the Trees began as the brainchild of Karl Stephenson, who’d begun to make his name known for working with The Geto Boys and most famously for Beck. Unfortunately, he also suffered from mental illness which resulted in more than one breakdown. Starting work on his own album around 1993, Stephenson persevered in making his vision heard. By 1996, he was institutionalized after a breakdown when demos of the now finished record made their way to DreamWorks. Striking a deal with Stephenson’s family, the self-titled album was released in 1997 and launched a hit single in “Dream,” a trip-hop ’90s masterpiece complete with bagpipes. Stephenson’s mental health was bolstered by the great reviews and he began to work on new material. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be as he withdrew from the public eye and a second Forest for the Trees album was never heard or completed.

As the years wore on, Rufus Wainwright released his debut album to critical acclaim and the label signed one of its most important artists, Elliott Smith. Fresh off the disbanding of Heatmiser and a few critically worshipped solo albums, Smith signed with DreamWorks and released XO in 1998 to middling sales but rapturous critical response.

It was also around this time that the label began to break out and experiment, signing R&B and country acts. While some acts like Emerson Drive, Sole, Kina and Jessica Andrews managed to score a couple of hits and then disappear, the label struck pay dirt in 1999 with the signing of Toby Keith, who by sheer will of force became the label’s best-selling artist across any genre. After signing Floetry and resurrecting The Isley Brothers, the label began selling more R&B records and spinning off more hits than previous.

Getting back to their main business, the end of the nineties saw the label start to have more success than ever in the rock department. In 1999, Powerman 5000’s second album Tonight!! the Stars Revolt went platinum and shortly thereafter, Buckcherry, signed right off the Sunset Strip, gave the label a smash debut album and enduring hit with “Lit Up.” The next year, rap rockers Papa Roach released their critically acclaimed major label debut Infest and then were given carte blanche to start their own label, New Noize which soon became known as El Tonal after lawsuits. The label’s first signing, Alien Ant Farm also garnered Grammy nominations after Buckcherry and Papa Roach and had a platinum album almost out of the box.

As the decades changed and the 2000’s began, the label had switched distributors, from Geffen, which no longer existed as a real label after the Seagrams merger of 1998, to Polydor which distributed the label until the end of the line. The early 2000’s, besides Papa Roach and Alien Ant Farm brought about some new successes including All-American Rejects, Lifehouse and Jimmy Eat World, each of whom went multiplatinum and spawned numerous hit singles. The label also released its fair share of failed records including Self, Blinker the Star, Pressure 4-5 and Ash.

Around 2002, Nelly Furtado who exploded into the spotlight with her debut record, 2000’s Whoa, Nelly! was preparing her sophomore record and the label was waiting for the next Elliott Smith. While waiting for these releases, the label released a few more interesting records to fill the void.

The Apex Theory, a rap rock band with one of the most unusual vocalists, a man who became known as Ontronik, were supposed to be DreamWorks’ answer to System of A Down, who’d just broke into the mainstream with 2001’s Toxicity. It just happened that the majority of Apex Theory also were Armenian and had a similar style, musically and lyrically to System. When the album, Topsy-Turvy was released in the spring ’02, it promptly laid a big fat egg because the music was so out there and Ontronik’s histrionics wore thin rather quickly. As a result, the album didn’t sell enough to justify DreamWorks’s spending on them. Add to that a horrible reception during that summer’s OZZFest where Ontronik’s ramblings alienated much of the audience and he was fired from the band that fall and not long afterwards, the band were dropped by DreamWorks.

By 2003, the label had shed some old skin and signed some new acts including Rise Against, AFI, Sparta and country singer Daryl Worley. That summer, the label started undergoing some internal shifts which resulted in less than stellar sales for the label’s previously established acts. Powerman 5000, finally releasing their follow-up to the 1999 smash had seen one album in 2001 shelved at the last minute by frontman Spider One in order to try something more creative. The new result, Transform, was dead on impact and the label threw no real promo power behind it. The same could be said for Alien Ant Farm’s sophomore album, TRUant which, despite some good material, didn’t even sell half of what 2001’s ANThology sold. Then in the midst of all this, Elliott Smith committed suicide, devastating the industry and leaving the label without one of its brightest talents.

By 2004, the walls were starting to crumble. The label’s biggest selling record that year was whatever piece of junk Toby Keith put out. The label itself had recently been bought by Universal Music Group for about $100 million. But DreamWorks was still trying to go about their daily routines. They had recently signed Brand New and were preparing upcoming releases by Sparta (a spin-off of At the Drive In).

By that summer, the merger had been completed and DreamWorks SKG Records ceased to exist. Every artist that had not been dropped, including All-American Rejects, AFI, Rise Against, Nelly Furtado, Papa Roach and others were moved to either Interscope or Geffen. Numerous other acts including Powerman 5000, Alien Ant Farm, comedian Jimmy Fallon and a couple dozen others were dropped outright. The only semblance of the label that was left was DreamWorks Nashville where Toby Keith still ruled the roost until the spring of 2005 when the label was absorbed into Universal Nashville. With that, Keith left the label and started his own label where he still records today.

Over the years, almost every artist signed to DreamWorks has left the Interscope-Geffen conglomerate. As of this writing, Rise Against, Nelly Furtado and All-American Rejects are the only acts still signed to the label formerly known as DreamWorks. Although DreamWorks has not existed since 2004, its legacy and spirit are still alive and the label will always be remembered as one of the most adventurous and daring labels of the last twenty-five years.

Grappling With the ‘Culture of Free’ in Napster’s Aftermath

December 9, 2014

In 1999, a file-sharing program created in a Boston dorm room sent shock waves across the music industry and served notice that a major cultural shift was underway


Once upon a time, a new technology happened along. It was called radio. Soon enough, some people began plucking wireless transmissions out of the air for their own purposes. One clever young man in Washington figured out how to intercept messages that Navy units sent to one another. “He has represented himself to be at distant naval stations or at sea on warships equipped with wireless apparatus,” a magazine called Electrical World reported in 1907. Back then, this fellow’s actions were not unlawful. They amounted nonetheless to a form of piracy.

As radio grew more sophisticated, so did those intent on beating the system. In 1960s Britain, radio pirates flourished on unlicensed stations that broadcast from ships anchored beyond territorial limits. They found eager audiences in young people who tuned in for the latest from the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Who. (Talkin’ ′bout my generation.) Then the world went digital. Naturally, pirates tagged along. One of them, the online sharing service Napster, forms the core of this Retro Report offering, the final installment in the current series of video documentaries examining the consequences of major news stories from the past.

Napster did not last long, two years. But for a while at the dawn of this century it claimed to have 70 million registered users. It spawned a host of Internet music-swapping providers, more than a few of them falling on the dubious side of the law. Most important, it irrevocably altered not only the way in which Americans absorbed music but also their belief system in what they should pay. The conviction theologically held by many boiled down to a single word: nothing. “You have a generation of people now who expect their music for free,” Greg Hammer, managing director of Red Bull Records, a branch of the energy-drink company, told Retro Report. “It’s very difficult to change.”

The music industry is not alone in coming to terms with altered realities. As every sentient soul surely knows by now, the “culture of free” — words borrowed from the title of this week’s video — has turned the print world upside down, pushing newspapers, magazines and book publishers into a frantic search for financial safe harbors. With the advent of broad Internet use in the 1990s came a notion that information should be free. Never mind that the gathering and transmission of information can be a costly proposition and that (dirty word alert) money is needed if the survival of, say, a newspaper is to be ensured. As with music in Mr. Hammer’s observation, a generation now believes that the written word, whether on processed wood or in pixels, should come without charge.

Napster burst forth in June 1999, the brainchild of an entrepreneurial, 18-year-old computer wiz, Shawn Fanning. His creation enabled anyone with a modicum of tech savvy to share audio files in MP3 format — peer to peer, as it was called. Music lovers could download thousands upon thousands of songs, then pass them on to friends or create albums of their own on compact discs. No one paid royalties. To music companies and some individual artists, this was high-tech piracy and a threat to their fiscal well-being. (It might be noted that the commercial introduction of CDs in the early 1980s delivered its own near-mortal blow to an earlier technology, long-playing vinyl records.) The Recording Industry Association of America sued Napster for copyright infringement. So did a few musicians, like the rapper Dr. Dre and the heavy metal band Metallica.

Not every performer thought of Napster as the enemy. Some who might otherwise have been doomed to oblivion regarded the service as a platform from which they might find listeners and build a fan base. Nor were all economists convinced that one free download equaled one less sale of a high-priced CD; quite possibly, some of them said, people were plugging into music that they would never have paid for.

Napster, however, did not have the courts on its side. Ordered by federal judges to stop allowing copyrighted material to be traded on its system, it shut down in July 2001. But from its ashes other file-sharing services arose, some bearing curious names like Grokster, Kazaa and Gnutella. Mr. Fanning tried his hand at new digital media endeavors, including Snocap and Napster 2.0. Few of those companies were unqualified successes. One thing was certain, though: The culture of free was not going away.

A decade ago, Apple established a new order in the commercial music universe by introducing the iTunes store. From its vast digital warehouse, customers could buy any song they wished, typically for 99 cents. The arrangement was perhaps not ideal for the recording companies and for many performers. Among other things, music albums — fixtures since the ’60s and, in many instances, creative masterpieces — were becoming relics; single-song listening ruled, whether through an iTunes purchase or snatched from the ether via file-swapping networks. Still, for the industry, some money was better than none, and so an iTunes reality beat a Napster world.

Now the music business is in transition once more, reshaped by streaming services like YouTube, Spotify and Pandora. Instead of owning songs, a listener can in effect borrow them from millions of titles made available by these operations. A cultural shift seems well underway, with more and more consumers sensing they no longer need to possess certain physical items, like CDs or books. A reliable Internet connection will do

No human will pay for things they can take for free. Guilt is an insufficient motivator. It’s not in our DNA. The short-term losses are..

If the Internet is the primary cause of the piracy and loss of revenues, then the copyright holders should lobby Congress for a royalty fee…
Unlike Napster and the like, the streaming services are not engaged in piracy. They are legally licensed, having paid music companies some money. They themselves cash in by selling advertising or, increasingly, by offering subscriptions to customers interested in a commercial-free experience.

The results have been stark. Data from Nielsen SoundScan, a sales-tracking system, show that consumers in this country listened to 70 billion songs via streaming services in the first half of 2014, an increase of 42 percent from the same period a year earlier. Sales of albums, whether on CDs or through digital downloads, declined by 15 percent. Downloads of individual tracks were down by 13 percent.

Embrace the change, Silicon Valley types say. But even if one does, it comes at a cost. As CDs fade from the scene, so do stores like Tower Records. Thousands of jobs are lost: workers who make the discs, wholesale buyers, salespeople, stockroom clerks, accountants and others. Substitute work for them is not assured in the digital cosmos. And, thus far, the people who create the music on which others build their fortunes often receive mere rivulets of reward. Not everyone is a Beyoncé or a Taylor Swift (who has removed her entire oeuvre from Spotify to keep it behind a pay wall). Many more musicians are like Zoe Keating, a cellist from Northern California who described her situation in detail last year. Over a six-month period, Ms. Keating’s songs had been played on Pandora more than 1.5 million times; that earned her all of $1,652.74. She had 131,000 plays on Spotify in 2012. She took home $547.71, or less than half a penny per play.

Some industry executives insist that, over time, things will sort themselves out, including how to steer more money to performers. Last month, for instance, YouTube announced plans to generate revenue by giving its users an opportunity to pay a few dollars a month in return for extra features that are not available to those who click on songs at no charge. Royalties to artists, in theory anyway, would thus rise.

In the meantime, some oldsters (talkin’ ′bout my generation again) may derive a measure of comfort from learning that vinyl albums still have life. Nielsen SoundScan reported four million sales of vinyl LPs in the first half of this year, a 40 percent increase from the same period in 2013. Go figure. Hey, maybe you can get a copy of “Revolution 9” from the Beatles’ White Album, and check out for yourself if, when played backward on a turntable, it really does tell you that Paul is dead.

Pink Floyd’s ‘The Endless River’ – Why Is It Doing So Well?

December 1, 2014

Nick Messitte 11/21/14

Pink Floyd is having a moment—which is to say that David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and the ghost of Richard Wright are having a moment; Roger Waters, having no part in Floyd’s newest record, is off doing whatever it is he does these days.

But the rest of them are enjoying a surge of popularity unseen since 1994’s The Division Bell. Their newest record, The Endless River has topped charts in a multitude of countries—France, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Israel—and even shattered an Amazon UK record across the pond.

The Endless River has also debuted, in America, with a solid 3rd place ranking on the Billboard 200, right behind two contemporary juggernauts: Taylor Swift (1989) and Foo Fighters (Sonic Highways). In the wake of Endless River‘s success, speculation of more unreleased Pink Floyd material has surfaced, even though Floyd’s surviving members have emphatically said this is it.

Most remarkably, Pink Floyd carry these numbers off the back of an album sporting little of today’s pop trappings:

There are almost no “songs” in the conventional, mainstream sense (much less hooks); all the drums are either real or made to sound real—and quietly, subtly so; the keyboard playing (the real star of the show, as Pink Floyd seeks to honor their late keyboard player, Richard Wright) bears no concession to modernization either, its aesthetic a direct descendent of Floyd’s minimoog heyday (Meddle, Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, Animals) and having nothing in common with the modern-day synth needling of Stargate, Max Martin, or any other Magic Scandinavian currently buzz-sawing our ears.

To be even clearer, this is not the Pink Floyd of The Wall or The Final Cut. This record sports nothing of Roger Waters’ ever-tightening grip—the shorter songs, the thornier subjects, the sound of bass and nasal vocals hovering above all else.

No. This is the meandering Pink Floyd, the elegiac wallowing of Gilmour’s solos and the inchoate suffering of Wright’s keyboards, and all of it offered for as long as you’re willing to listen.

It’s particularly illuminating that a song called “It’s What We Do” displays all the ruminative noodling of Pink Floyd’s extended jams without the bookends of, well, an actual song. This feels palpably different from classics like “Dogs”, which contextualized their lengthy midsections with song-oriented support beams, constructing, in the process, grand pieces of musical architecture.

Listening to The Endless River, One gets the feeling Waters might have been the chief scribbler of Pink Floyd’s blueprints, for without him we’re left suspended, ad infinitum, in a murky pond of minor chords and loss; if any song on The Endless River is less than two minutes, it’s most likely not a song but a smaller piece of a larger sonic puzzle—that’s the governing impression, anyway.

But this is not a bad thing. The album, played in its entirety, sets a certain introspective scene. And not all the songs laze along: a tune like “Sum” also yearns through melancholic and evocative chord progressions, but it holds quite a virtue for any album assembled in posthumous hindsight: the unmistakable feeling—unmistakable to a Floyd fan, anyway—that Mason, Gilmour, and Wright are playing their instruments at the same time, even though Wright died six years ago.

This, in and of itself, is a triumph: twenty years after their last proper record, Pink Floyd have demonstrated that a special and unique sound always rings out when they play together in the same room, or at least, pay homage to an impression of liveliness.

For they achieved this vibe through faithful recreation, listening to keyboard parts left fossilized in Wright’s death, and responding to them as if improvising alongside his spirit; it’s beautiful to hear these musicians gel so completely, even though one of them died six years before the album was assembled.

Still, there is a very real context with which Pink Floyd must contend: the current soundscape of pop, such as it is today, compounded by hard-nosed indie scenes in a variety of cities, towns, regions, and countries; there’s simply a lot of differently minded music out there right now.

So how did Floyd manage to compete with all of this, especially with an album like The Endless River? In an on-demand era such as ours, how did a band so distinctly out of yesterday top (or nearly top) today’s album charts with such meandering, brooding, and above all, instrumental music?

There’s an obvious and easy answer: by being Pink Floyd.

Fine. But if we accept this answer, we have to ask another series of questions: What does that even mean? What made Pink Floyd so iconic in the first place?

Many people have sought over the years to answer that question—for as Pink Floyd inspired some, they’ve infuriated countless others.

Indeed, each listener probably has their individual reasons for liking, hating, or otherwise defining Pink Floyd. To my ears, what made Floyd unique was their specific take on the blues: even within the most longwinded passages of a song like “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” or “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)”, the feeling of a minor blues remained intact. Even their most ambient passages of 70s keyboard work were forged in the moodier, quieter side of blues music.

If there are two essential ingredients to Pink Floyd, I’d reckon they’d be 1) the aforementioned minor blues, and 2) Englishman telling you, over and over and over again, that you are going to die.

A brief list of examples:

“Shorter of breath, and one day closer to death” (“Time”); “hide your head in the sand—just another sad old man, all alone and dying of cancer” (“Dogs”); “mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb?” (“Mother”); “it can’t be much fun for them, beneath the rising sun, with all their kids committing suicide” (“The Post War Dream”); “one of these days, I’m going to cut you into little pieces” (“One Of These Days”—the song’s only lyric).

But even these suppositions on death have a faint, blues-like quality to them; one could say that Pink Floyd took the blues and mired it in the fog of England’s bone-chilling winters.

This is my take. Yours might differ. But if Fredric Dannen—author of the excellent book Hit Men—is correct, one matter is irrefutable: Pink Floyd’s success always came out of left field, at least in the music industry’s eyes.

As Dannen wrote, they became superstars not through top forty radio, which “mostly ignored the band” but through “a vast following on album oriented radio, stations that played album cuts instead of 45s.”

Indeed, many a rock critic scratched their head when The Wall dominated the Billboard Charts for five months, as Dannen observed:

“‘This is very tough stuff, and hardly the hallmark of a hit album,’ wrote one rock critic. Yet The Wall was more than a hit; in record industry lingo, it was a ‘monster.’”

In a way, the success of their newest record echoes the success of Floyd in their heyday: their ascension into the mainstream has always sported the appearance of winning the good fight against an established order. Even in their prime, one could argue their music shouldn’t have been as popular as it was by all conceivable, prevailing logic.

So to answer “how did they successfully compete with today’s pop music?” with “by being Pink Floyd” is both an incomplete answer and a facile one, as the band faced (and embraced) the same off-kilter aesthetic in their peak as they do now: a mainstream musical context largely different from their own.

Also, one cannot credit a phenomenon to nostalgia alone without first acknowledging the void that said nostalgia is trying to fill; you cannot miss something without feeling its loss in present day life—that’s what “missing” means: to look at the current situation and find it specifically lacking in at least one respect.

Therefore, I would ascribe the success of The Endless River not as much to the staying power of Pink Floyd, but to a pop-culture recognizing the deficits of its own sound, now looking backward for a way forward:

We live in an on-demand era of short attention span theater, of quick hooks, of hits literally built off the backs of other hits (in sampling or in just plain rip off), of expensive sounds further and further removed from their acoustic sources.

At this moment, Pink Floyd provides a sound palpably different from their charting peers. Lorde accomplished a similar feat last year with her debut smash, Pure Heroine (the sparser drums, the plaintive melodies, the sorrowful chord progressions, the pads of gorgeous synths—one could argue her sound is informed by Floyd’s aesthetic, though perhaps through many generations of influence).

The artist Hozier is making a similar mark right now. His largely organic, hard-to-classify sound can be found in “Take Me To Church,” currently number six this week on the Billboard Hot 100.

I would say that Pink Floyd is succeeding now for the same reason Lorde broke out a year ago and Hozier is having his moment too: simply put, we need them more than they need us—and we know it.

How Payola Laws Keep Independent Artists Off Mainstream Radio

December 1, 2014

Nick Messitte 11/30/14

There exists, in our country, a chasm between the perceived problems of payola (paying under-the-table for radio airplay) and the actual problems of payola.

The actual problems of payola—or rather, the problems with how major labels, radio stations and independent promoters operate within U.S. payola laws—are far more counterintuitive than you’d imagine.

Let’s examine:

Payola laws were first enacted in the 1930s, and like most legal decrees, their wording is quite interesting when examined under a linguistic microscope: contrary to popular opinion, you can still pay to play a song on the radio in the United States, but the broadcaster must disclose who paid for the tune. Not only that, but said disclosure must be handled in a particular way; from DJ to Station Manager to Program Director and beyond, “the information must be provided up the chain of production and distribution before the time of broadcast, so the station can air the required disclosure.”

Should an artist decide to weather this bureaucracy and pay openly for radio spins, any return on the investment would be scant: an artist would constantly have to pay many individual stations at once (and disclose these payments every single time through the proper channels) in order to compete with the rate at which major label material is broadcasted.

To be sure, certain bands have gotten around this problem in the not-too-distant past. Limp Bizkit’s label infamously purchased airtime for their first single, but their success is the exception, not the rule: since a 1959 congressional investigation into Payola scandals, bribing disc jockeys for radio play has largely gone out of fashion—at least in the conventional sense.

Plenty of unconventional kinds of payola still abound these days, but first, let me ask you a question crucial to understanding the enforcement of payola laws:

Why, after more than twenty years of these laws being on the books, did congress only conduct an investigation in 1959?

The answer lies in the era: Rock’n’Roll was starting to gain traction, gradually winning out over cultural biases against “race music,” and doing so, in so small part, through radio airplay, much of it purchased.

As rock’n’roll rose to prominence, major labels found themselves competing against independent rock’n’roll upstarts like Chess Records, while the performance rights organization ASCAP (who catered to the old, white guard) found itself competing with BMI (who tended to represent a bunch of rock’n’roll upstarts). In response, ASCAP and the labels pushed for the investigation under the guise of evening the playing field for everyone.

But this was a guise pure and simple, as the evidence of our modern day radio landscape would suggest: if the playing field were truly even, any artist would sport roughly the same merit-based chance of appearing on the radio, so long as consumers liked the music and demanded to hear it.

Can anyone with two functioning ears say that radio is a more varied climate than it used to be? Racially, sure, but in terms of artist variation, genre and sub-genre, no; as the Wall Street Journal reported, FM Radio currently broadcasts less new music than ever before.

Why is this the case, given that payola laws were put in place to ensure competitive fairness, at least nominally?

“The fact of the matter is payola laws have not stopped people from paying or compensating others for playing their music,” George Howard told me recently. “Period. Full stop.”

He should know—in addition to being the former president of Rykodisc and managing Carly Simon, George wrote a fascinating treatise on the subject, available here (he’s also the Board Advisor to a company attempting to innovate within the boundaries of payola laws, but more on that in a subsequent post).

Indeed, within radio’s “many, many formats—not all formats, but certainly the higher-level formats—there is a quid pro quo going on,” said George.

The quid pro quo comes indirectly: major labels have historically found a way to circumvent these laws through the use of independent promoters, or “indies” as they’re more commonly known (not to be confused with independent labels, or “indies” as they’re also more commonly known).

“The indies are the shadowy middlemen record companies will pay hundreds of millions of dollars to this year to get songs played on the radio,” Eric Boehlert wrote in an article for Salon some time ago. “Indies align themselves with certain radio stations by promising the stations ‘promotional payments’ in the six figures. Then, every time the radio station adds a Shaggy or Madonna or Janet Jackson song to its playlist, the indie gets paid by the record label.”

Check out those names: Shaggy, Madonna, Janet Jackson—when was this article written? Fifteen years ago?

Almost: the article was published in 2001, and since then, little has changed; indeed, the proper word would be “upgraded”: as recently as October, it came to light that Pandora, entering into a deal with Merlin (a large rights holder for many independent labels), was “‘steering’ its algorithms to perform more music from the Merlin catalogue in exchange for lower rates”—a practice that “sounds uncomfortably like the age-old practice of payola.”

Now in theory, anyone with a checkbook could fork over money to these independent promoters for spinning a specific song.

But, as we indicated before, the problem becomes one of competitive frequency: most individuals don’t have nearly enough money to compete for a healthy volume of spins with major labels, who, up until recently, often kept such promoters on retainer.

As a result, independent artists have found themselves “locked out of that system,” George Howard told me recently, “because the major labels—the ones…doing the quid pro quo—have the resources to do it on a regular basis, and they do it because it’s a good return on investment.”

Indeed it is: common belief has held that radio airplay helps to drive sales, and what little data-driven analysis there exists on that hypothesis largely bears out the claim.

“It’s not even ‘do you have the most money,’” George Howard said. “In the radio world, that won’t even do it for you if you don’t have the frequency. You need both money and frequency.”

Right now, a question might be fomenting in your brain: if so many entities are frequently trying to “get over” on payola laws, why has there been no substantive probe into this matter since 1950s?

There actually have been two: one in 1986, when an NBC news investigation entitled “The New Payola” inspired congressional hearings to reexamine the matter, and one again in the early 2000s.

The latter probe even yielded monetary results: the Attorney General pushing for the investigation—Eliot Spitzer—reached settlements with Sony BMG (10 million), Warner Music Group (5 million) and Universal (12 million). More settlements were reached with other entities (CBS radio, citadel, Clear Channel, Entercom) in 2007.

Yet for all these strides forward, little has changed, at least in my estimation: as recently as January, reports surfaced that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis “hired an independent arm of Warner Music Group, the Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), which helps independent acts get their stuff on radio.” Zach Quillen, manager of Macklemore and Brian Lewis, discussed how “they paid the alliance a flat monthly fee to help promote the album.” Many in the Hip Hop world have remarked on how this tack resembled payola, and how their indie success was essentially a fiction.

If the above narrative displays anything, it’s that our payola laws have enabled the erection of a grey market, one in which shady, quasi-legal deals take place, and independent artists lose out more often than not (again, Macklemore is the exception, not the rule; by the metrics of his independent success, he fell into the ADA’s criteria of “the right artist, the right time, the right record.”)

Clearly payola laws have done nothing for evening the playing field of mainstream radio, because the menu of selection provided by mainstream radio is always shrinking.

Clearly congressional probes into the matter haven’t made much of a difference, because not much has changed in the wake of three different investigations; as Neil Young astutely mentioned at the top of “Payola Blues,” “This one’s for Alan Freed—wherever you go, whatever you do—cause the things they’re doing today will make a saint out of you.”

So the question then becomes, how does an independent artist reckon with such a marketplace, one that is innately stacked against the indies (artists, not promoters—boy that’s confusing)?

Is there a solution to this problem in our newfangled, mixed-up ecosystem of music and tech? Is there any entity which can sidestep the indie promoters, the pay-to-play swindlers (several of whom targeted my old band in the early 2000’s), and the payola laws to allow independent artists greater reach?

Stay tuned—we’ll have an answer for you later in the week.

A legendary producer bridging the old & new in music: Steve Lillywhite

November 30, 2014

Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak 11/30/14

Although he’s a record producer who has defined the benchmarks for the global music industry, Steve Lillywhite says that he is still the same person he was 40 years ago.

He still enters a recording studio with excitement, feeling the joy of working with creative people — even on the other side of the globe from home.

“I’m always trying to feel like when I walked in a studio the first time at 17 in 1962,” said the British producer, who defined the sounds of U2 and The Dave Matthews Band from their debuts. “I was full of awe. Working with great musicians who make something from their heart will stop you from being complacent.”

Lillywhite spoke during breaks as a judge in the Guinness Amplify Talent Development competition, where he was also a mentor for four selected indie bands. He will produce the winning band’s single and local label Musica Studios will distribute it.

He is full of charm and passion for his job and music — as well as good-natured jokes and a lot of stories about the artists he’s worked with — including how he teased The Killer’s vocalist Brandon Flowers a lot on faith and religion.

Lillywhite, a five-time Grammy award winner who has produced more than 500 records since he got his start in 1977, also has worked with The Rolling Stones, Phish, Peter Gabriel, The Talking Heads and Jason Mraz, among others.

He was as in-demand then as he is now.

Of his time in Jakarta producing NOAH’s Second Chance album under Musica, Lillywhite said he had a great time riding unruly ojek (motorcycle taxis) and eating gado-gado (salad with spicy peanut sauce) on the street.

“I have high standards. I always focus on the voice,” Lillywhite said of his craft — and why he first came to Jakarta for work. “For me, [NOAH frontman] Ariel is one of the best voices. I love working with him.”

Another reason was that he saw how the industry was changing from a technical and business standpoint, given that recording studios have slowly been replaced by computers and that art and commerce were no longer so closely tied as before.

“It is a good change, but not for me. That’s why I’m here. Musica is more like a family; everyone is connected, just like in the old times. More than most, young producers don’t know what it was like to create the best records in the 1970s. I know both worlds and I like mixing them.”

However, Lillywhite is no Luddite. He works with ProTools to mix audio, even though he says the process makes him feel like a typist.

He prefers his own way of processing at a recording studio by tracking, a method that he found worked well in finding the right compression for drum ambience — clapping his hands a few times in different spots.

“There is a science to it,” he says. “The best spot to place the drum set is the spot that has more echoes.”

The sound of drums was his signature in his early years, although Steve says he has loosened up after producing the second album of singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.

“At that time I was working with U2, Simple Minds and Big Country. I made [Crenshaw’s] record different, but later I realized that I was putting my sound on it. I should listen to their music and let it grow.”

While Lillywhite was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to British music, he prefers to call himself a captain.

“I don’t build the ship. I’m the captain of the ship. I decorate it. I take full responsibility,” he said, explaining why he didn’t think much of whether he was given too much credit — or the blame — for his works.

“A producer doesn’t go: ‘Ah, that’s a good production’ on a record. They should go: ‘That’s great music.’

“I used to tell aspiring producers to find local recording studios and make them useful. But now, studios are dying. Now, I would tell them to do whatever they do because they love music. They could help a musician friend to make them a record,” he said. “Just get involved.”

As about his best work, Lillywhite cites the Counting Crow’s Hard Candy; U2’s Boy, Juanes’ Loco de Amor — the first Latino pop album to win a Grammy; the Dave Matthews Band’s Crash and This is War from 30 Seconds to Mars.

Lillywhite, who landed a job as a tape operator at a recording studio — the womb, as he calls it — when he was 17, said part of his strength as a producer was that he was a fluent communicator — and a little bit of a teacher.

He has built lasting relationships with his artists, including U2’s Bono and, more recently, Jared Leto, the from 30 Seconds to Mars.

“Jared told me once: ‘Steve, you’re the only man over 50 whose advice I would listen to.’ That’s the greatest thing someone ever said to me.”

Although Lillywhite has a lot to say about the music industry, he says he is not writing a book anytime soon.

“I have started talking with a friend, like in an interview, and he writes it up. But I feel that it needs to be in my language, but I’m not a writer. If I still have to do it, as there are lots of things from the past I have forgotten about.”

“Maybe I have wisdom on something. I would like to talk about the idea of art and how the ideas changed the world.”

Beyoncé Repackaged for the Holidays

November 24, 2014

Beyoncé ‘Platinum Edition’ Adds New Songs and Remixes

BEN SISARIO 11/23/14

Last December, Beyoncé surprised her fans with a new, self-titled album, which after only three weeks sold 1.3 million copies, making it one of the top sellers of the year.

This week, Beyoncé and her label, Columbia, will sell the album all over again.

An expanded “Platinum Edition” goes on sale Monday. In addition to the original album’s two discs, it will have a CD with two new songs and four remixes, as well as a live DVD and a 2015 Beyoncé calendar. The price: about $28.

“Platinum Edition” is only the latest example of the music industry’s long tradition of repackaging hit albums with some extra content to keep sales going. Many such releases come out this week to capitalize on holiday shopping. Iggy Azalea’s recent album “The New Classic” will get a new iteration, “Reclassified”; the band Paramore will put out a deluxe version of its self-titled album from last year.

Also this week, Eminem’s label, Shady, will release “Shady XV,” with one disc of new material and another of hits over the last 15 years; and Coldplay will release a live CD-DVD version of its newest record, “Ghost Stories.”

Beyoncé’s “Platinum Edition” goes on sale on Monday.

“It’s always been going on,” said Chris Brown of Bull Moose, a chain of 11 record stores in New England. “What may be new is that it’s a lot more noticeable when Beyoncé does it than however many times Slipknot did it in the ’90s.”

In a year of depressed music sales, stocking-stuffer rereleases can give an album a second wind of sales. Billboard magazine and the tracking service Nielsen SoundScan will count sales of Beyoncé’s “Platinum Edition” as part of the original album’s total, which currently stands at 2.1 million and is the fourth-biggest seller of 2014 so far.

Repackagings, when done well, can prove popular with fans, and lately record companies have been putting a lot of effort into overstuffed “super-deluxe” reissues. This month Columbia/Legacy released a six-disc version of Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes,” and in June the first three volumes of Warner Music’s complete Led Zeppelin reissues all opened in the Top 10.

“I’d buy an extra copy of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ if it had one outtake on it,” Mr. Brown said.

But are the extras on Beyoncé’s album enough to make fans buy it all over again? Time will tell, said Ish Cuebas, the vice president for music merchandising at Trans World Entertainment, whose more than 300 stores includes the F.Y.E. chain.

“Is it worth the money for somebody to buy this just to get a calendar and those additional tracks?” he asked. Demand so far was light, he said. But he added, “I’m not going to bet against Beyoncé.”

The Shazam Effect

November 20, 2014

Record companies are tracking download and search data to predict which new songs will be hits. This has been good for business—but is it bad for music?
Derek Thompson 11/17/14

In 2000, a Stanford Ph.D. named Avery Wang co-founded, with a couple of business-school graduates, a tech start-up called Shazam. Their idea was to develop a service that could identify any song within a few seconds, using only a cellphone, even in a crowded bar or coffee shop.
At first, Wang, who had studied audio analysis and was responsible for building the software, feared it might be an impossible task. No technology existed that could distinguish music from background noise, and cataloging songs note for note would require authorization from the labels. But then he made a breakthrough: rather than trying to capture whole songs, he built an algorithm that would create a unique acoustic fingerprint for each track. The trick, he discovered, was to turn a song into a piece of data.

Shazam became available in 2002. (In the days before smartphones, users would dial a number, play the song through their phones, and then wait for Shazam to send a text with the title and artist.) Since then, it has been downloaded more than 500 million times and used to identify some 30 million songs, making it one of the most popular apps in the world. It has also helped set off a revolution in the recording industry. While most users think of Shazam as a handy tool for identifying unfamiliar songs, it offers music executives something far more valuable: an early-detection system for hits.

By studying 20 million searches every day, Shazam can identify which songs are catching on, and where, before just about anybody else. “Sometimes we can see when a song is going to break out months before most people have even heard of it,” Jason Titus, Shazam’s former chief technologist, told me. (Titus is now a senior director at Google.) Last year, Shazam released an interactive map overlaid with its search data, allowing users to zoom in on cities around the world and look up the most Shazam’d songs in São Paulo, Mumbai, or New York. The map amounts to a real-time seismograph of the world’s most popular new music, helping scouts discover unsigned artists just as they’re starting to set off tremors. (The company has a team of people who update its vast music library with the newest recorded music—including self-produced songs—from all over the world, and artists can submit their work to Shazam.)

“We know where a song’s popularity starts, and we can watch it spread,” Titus told me. Take, for example, Lorde, the out-of-nowhere sensation of 2013. Shazam’s engineers can rewind time to trace the international contagion of her first single, “Royals,” watching the pings of Shazam searches spread from New Zealand, her home country, to Nashville (a major music hub, even for noncountry songs), to the American coasts, pinpointing the exact day it peaked in each of nearly 3,000 U.S. cities.

Shazam has become a favorite app of music agents around the country, and in February, the company announced that it would get into the music-making business itself, launching a new imprint under Warner Music Group for artists discovered through the app.

Shazam searches are just one of several new types of data guiding the pop-music business. Concert promoters study Spotify listens to route tours through towns with the most fans, and some artists look for patterns in Pandora streaming to figure out which songs to play at each stop on a tour. In fact, all of our searching, streaming, downloading, and sharing is being used to answer the question the music industry has been asking for a century: What do people want to hear next?

It’s a question that label executives once answered largely by trusting their gut. But data about our preferences have shifted the balance of power, replacing experts’ instincts with the wisdom of the crowd. As a result, labels have gotten much better at understanding what we want to listen to. This is the one silver lining the music industry has found in the digital revolution, which has steadily cut into profits. So it’s clearly good for business—but whether it’s good for music is a lot less certain.

Earlier this year, Patch Culbertson, a scout for Republic Records, sat in his New York office and opened the Shazam map on his iPhone. Republic Records is the most data-driven major label in the music business (even an executive at a rival label described Republic as the gold standard for using analytics in scouting and marketing), and Culbertson in particular has proved to be a star at the company

Culbertson wanted to check up on SoMo, an R&B singer from Denison, Texas, whom Culbertson had helped sign last year. Culbertson zoomed in on Victoria, Texas, a small city between Corpus Christi and Houston, where one of the radio stations had started playing a SoMo single called “Ride.” Although a town of just 63,000 won’t launch a national hit by itself, Culbertson was using Victoria as a sort of testing ground to determine whether the song would resonate with listeners. “ ‘Ride,’ ” he told me, “is the No. 1 tagged song in Victoria.”

Pop music is a sentimental business, and predicting the next big thing has often meant being inside that crowded bar, watching a young band connect with the besotted, swaying throng. But now that new artists are more likely to make a name for themselves on Twitter than in a Nashville club, Culbertson is finding that the chair in front of his computer might be the best seat in the house.

New tools may soon further diminish the importance of actually hearing artists perform. Next Big Sound, a five-year-old music-analytics company based in New York, scours the Web for Spotify listens, Instagram mentions, and other traces of digital fandom to forecast breakouts. It funnels half a million new acts through an algorithm to create a list of 100 stars likely to break out within the next year. “If you signed our top 100 artists, 20 of them would make the Billboard 200,” Victor Hu, a data scientist with Next Big Sound, told me. A 20 percent success rate might sound low, until you gaze out at the vast universe of new music and try to pick the next Beyoncé.

Last year, the company unveiled a customizable search tool called Find, which, for a six-figure annual subscription, helps scouts mine social media to spot artists who show signs of nascent stardom. If, for example, you wanted to search for obscure bands with the fastest-growing followings on Twitter, Find could produce a list within seconds.

The top 1 percent of bands and solo artists now earn 77 percent of all revenue from recorded music.

The company has discovered that some metrics, such as Facebook likes, are unreliable indicators of a band’s trajectory, while others have uncanny forecasting power. “Radio exposure, unsurprisingly, is the most important thing,” Hu says. It remains the best way to introduce listeners to a new song; once they’ve heard it a few times on the radio, they tend to like it more. “But we discovered that hits to a band’s Wikipedia page are the second-best predictor.” Wikipedia searches are revealing for the same reason Shazam searches are. While getting a song on the radio ensures that people have heard it, Culbertson says, “Shazam tells you that people wanted to know more.”

To get a song on the radio in the first place, music labels confront a paradox: How do you prove that it will be a hit before anyone has heard it? DJs consider unfamiliar songs “tune-outs,” because audiences tend to spurn new music. In the past, labels sometimes pressured or outright bribed stations to promote their music. Songs became hits because executives decided they should be hits.

But radio, too, has come to rely more on data, and now when label executives pitch a station, they’re likely to come armed with spreadsheets. The search for evidence of a song’s potential has become exhaustive: you can’t just track radio data, or sales, or YouTube hits, or Facebook interactions, or even proprietary surveys and focus groups. To persuade a major radio station to play a new song, labels have to connect all these dots.

“The idea that DJs are just picking songs because they like them is so antiquated,” says Radha Subramanyam, the executive vice president of insights, research, and analytics at iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel), the nation’s largest owner of FM stations. iHeartMedia consults companies like Shazam to figure out which songs are going viral. Nielsen Audio, another data firm that has partnered with the company, offers thousands of listeners cash or gift cards to wear devices called Portable People Meters that track which radio stations people are tuning in to. To know when listeners are growing tired of a song, iHeartMedia conducts weekly surveys using a database of 1.5 million people.

Perhaps iHeartMedia’s most interesting partner in the search for pop music’s next big thing is a 12-year-old subsidiary called HitPredictor, which, true to its name, predicted 48 of the top 50 radio hits last year. Before a song debuts on a major chart—Top 40, urban, country, or alternative—HitPredictor plays key sections for its online database of listeners and rates their responses. Any song that scores above a 65 is considered a possible breakout, though above that threshold, the highest-scoring songs don’t always do best. (Meghan Trainor’s debut single, “All About That Bass,” scraped by with a 68.97 rating but went on to become the top song in the country this fall.)

All of this number crunching is aimed at keeping listeners’ fingers off the dial. “It’s not about eliminating the human element from radio, but rather presenting the most human element—the reaction of audiences—more clearly than ever,” Jay Frank, the owner and CEO of DigSin, a digital record label (it sells music strictly through downloads—no CDs), told me. “This might be the most populist moment in radio history.”

A similar revolution has occurred in the music charts. Take the Billboard Hot 100, which has counted down the top songs in America since 1958. For decades, Billboard had to rely on record-store owners and radio stations to report the most-bought and most-played songs. Both parties lied, often because labels nudged or bribed them to plug certain records, or because store owners didn’t want to promote albums they no longer had in stock. The entire industry was biased toward churn: labels and stores wanted songs to enter and exit the charts quickly so they could keep selling new hits.

The Hot 100 matters because it doesn’t just reflect listener preferences, it also shapes them. In a groundbreaking 2006 study on the influence of song rankings, three researchers at Columbia University showed that popularity can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The researchers sent participants to different music Web sites where they could listen to dozens of tracks and download their favorites. Some sites displayed a ranking of the most-downloaded songs; others did not. Participants who saw rankings were more likely to listen to the most-popular tracks.

The researchers then wondered what would happen if they manipulated the rankings. In a follow-up experiment, some sites displayed the true download counts and others showed inverted rankings, where the least-popular song was listed in the No. 1 spot. The inverted rankings changed everything: previously ignored songs soared in popularity, and previously popular songs were ignored. Simply believing, even wrongly, that a song was popular made participants more likely to download it.

Billboard replaced its honor system with hard numbers in 1991, basing its charts on point-of-sale data from cash registers. “This was revolutionary,” says Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s current director of charts. “We were finally able to see which records were actually selling.” Around the same time, Billboard switched to monitoring radio airplay through Nielsen.

When that happened, hip-hop and country surged in the rankings and old-fashioned rock slowly began to fade—suggesting that perhaps an industry dominated by white guys on the coasts hadn’t paid enough attention to the music interests of urban minorities and southern whites.

Another sea change came in the mid-2000s, when Billboard started tracking music streaming and downloads. Songs that weren’t label-picked singles, like the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” in 2005, began outperforming the tracks that executives expected to do well. “Deep cuts”—songs that labels didn’t hype but that fans nonetheless loved—used to fly under the radar. (There is no evidence that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the most famous rock songs of all time, was ever played on the radio in the years immediately after its release, and it never cracked the Hot 100.) But because the industry can now track what people are listening to, any song that catches on can become a hit.

Everyone I spoke with about the Hot 100—label and radio executives, industry analysts, and other journalists—agreed with Jay Frank’s assessment that consumers have more say than they did decades ago, when their tastes were shaped by the hit makers at labels. But here’s the catch: if you give people too much say, they will ask for the same familiar sounds on an endless loop, entrenching music that is repetitive, derivative, and relentlessly played out.

Now that the Billboard rankings are a more accurate reflection of what people buy and play, songs stay on the charts much longer. The 10 songs that have spent the most time on the Hot 100 were all released after 1991, when Billboard started using point-of-sale data—and seven were released after the Hot 100 began including digital sales, in 2005. “It turns out that we just want to listen to the same songs over and over again,” Pietroluongo told me.

Because the most-popular songs now stay on the charts for months, the relative value of a hit has exploded. The top 1 percent of bands and solo artists now earn 77 percent of all revenue from recorded music, media researchers report. And even though the amount of digital music sold has surged, the 10 best-selling tracks command 82 percent more of the market than they did a decade ago. The advent of do-it-yourself artists in the digital age may have grown music’s long tail, but its fat head keeps getting fatter.

Radio stations, meanwhile, are pushing the boundaries of repetitiveness to new levels. According to a subsidiary of iHeartMedia, Top 40 stations last year played the 10 biggest songs almost twice as much as they did a decade ago. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the most played song of 2013, aired 70 percent more than the most played song from 2003, “When I’m Gone,” by 3 Doors Down. Even the fifth-most-played song of 2013, “Ho Hey,” by the Lumineers, was on the radio 30 percent more than any song from 10 years prior.

The reliance on data may be leading to a “clustering” of styles and a dispiriting sameness in pop music.

And not only are we hearing the same hits with greater frequency, but the hits themselves sound increasingly alike. As labels have gotten more adept at recognizing what’s selling, they’ve been quicker than ever to invest in copycats. People I spoke with in the music industry told me they worried that the reliance on data was leading to a “clustering” of styles and genres, promoting a dispiriting sameness in pop music.

In 2012, the Spanish National Research Council released a report that delighted music cranks around the world. Pop, it seemed, was growing increasingly bland, loud, and predictable, recycling the same few chord progressions over and over. The study, which looked at 464,411 popular recordings around the world between 1955 and 2010, found that the most-played music of the new millennium demonstrates “less variety in pitch transitions” than that of any preceding decade. The researchers concluded that old songs could be made to sound “novel and fashionable” just by freshening up the instrumentation and increasing “the average loudness.”

The problem is not our pop stars. Our brains are wired to prefer melodies we already know. (David Huron, a musicologist at Ohio State University, estimates that at least 90 percent of the time we spend listening to music, we seek out songs we’ve heard before.) That’s because familiar songs are easier to process, and the less effort needed to think through something—whether a song, a painting, or an idea—the more we tend to like it. In psychology, this idea is known as fluency: when a piece of information is consumed fluently, it neatly slides into our patterns of expectation, filling us with satisfaction and confidence.

“Things that are familiar are comforting, particularly when you are feeling anxious,” Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, who studies fluency, told me. “When you’re in a bad mood, you want to see your old friends. You want to eat comfort food. I think this maps onto a lot of media consumption. When you’re stressed out, you don’t want to put on a new movie or a challenging piece of music. You want the old and familiar.”

It would be too simplistic to say that music is racing in a single direction—toward dumber, louder, and more-repetitive pop. Now that labels recognize how popular hip-hop and country really are, they have created innovative new sounds by blending those genres with traditional pop. One of the popular songs of this past summer, “Problem,” combined a dizzy sax hook, ’90s-pop vocals, a whispered chorus, and a female rap verse. It was utterly strange and, for a while, ubiquitous. Greta Hsu, an associate professor at the University of California at Davis, who has done research on genre-blending in Hollywood, told me that although mixing categories is risky, hybrids can become standout successes, because they appeal to multiple audiences as being somehow both fresh and familiar.

Music fans can also find comfort in the fact that data have not taken over the songwriting process. Producers and artists pay close attention to trends, but they’re not swimming in spreadsheets quite like the suits at the labels are. Perhaps one reason machines haven’t yet invaded the recording room is that listeners prefer rhythms that are subtly flawed. A 2011 Harvard study found that music performed by robotic drummers and other machines often strikes our ears as being too precise. “There is something perfectly imperfect about how humans play rhythms,” says Holger Hennig, the Harvard physics researcher who led the study. Hennig discovered that when experienced musicians play together, they not only make mistakes, they also build off these small variations to keep a live song from sounding pat.

The Internet can connect us to an astonishing amount of music—some of it derivative, but much of it wildly experimental, even brilliant. Streaming services like Spotify and Pandora let us sample from music libraries that, decades ago, wouldn’t have fit inside the largest record store in the world. These services aren’t just vast; they’re also searchable and exquisitely personal. “One thing about Pandora that isn’t obvious to people who use our service is that it isn’t just one algorithm,” Eric Bieschke, the company’s chief scientist, told me. “We have dozens and dozens of algorithms that connect people to music in different ways, like genre, and popularity, and repetitiveness. Then we have a meta-algorithm that directs all of the algorithms, like a conductor standing in front of a symphony that’s only playing for one person.”

But while fans can burrow deep into rabbit holes of esoterica, “Today’s Top Hits” is still the No. 1 playlist on Spotify, and Pandora’s most popular station is “Today’s Hits.” Even when offered a universe of music, most of us prefer to listen to what we think everyone else is hearing.


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