You Can’t Take That Away From Me

In today’s Los Angeles Times, there is a fascinating article by Randy Lewis comparing physical vs. download sales of Michael Jackson recordings in the wake of his death (which I came upon via ArtsJournal). Lewis states that 2.5 million downloads of Jackson songs have taken place in the days following the announcement of his death which is an all-time record. But at the same time, Lewis also points out that 800,000 physical copies of Jackson albums have sold during the same period of time. According to one of his interviewees, a floor manager for my beloved Amoeba Records in Hollywood, Jackson’s grieving fans have been pouring into the store because they wanted to be able to hold on to something tangible and were also looking for in-person contact with others who felt the same way, neither of which is possible in the isolated non-corporeal realm of online music transactions.

But according to an article by Derek Thompson published yesterday on The Atlantic‘s business channel—with the provocative headline “Why Aren’t Kids These Days Downloading Music?“—even a download is too much of a burdensome possession for millennials and arguably for future generations. He cites a report stating that there’s been a trend away from downloading and keeping tracks on personal hard drives toward visiting streaming sites such as Pandora and YouTube where you listen in a less committal way.

Last night my ears were blown away by a live set performed by an octet of mostly South Dakotans now based in Astoria who call themselves Dirty Mac and the Bumper Crop Boys. I wound up coming home with the merch, a $5 self-produced handwritten CDR weirdly contained in plastic kitchen wrap kept sealed by a knotted rubber band. In a world where all recorded music can only be accessed in front of a computer, how many people would attend such a gig and remember to surf for these folks after they got home in order to get their music?

In Lewis’s L.A. Times piece, Keith Caulfield, senior chart manager for Billboard, claims that album sales during the first half of 2009 have still been overwhelmingly physical: 78.5% versus a mere 21.5% for complete album downloads. I for one was happy to see 45rpm singles go the way of the Edsel and I refused to ever sacrifice any personal real estate to make room for CD singles. But I will forever rue the day, if indeed such a day ever comes, when there are no physical recorded albums for me to buy and treasure for the rest of my life as well as to give to friends, family members, or professional colleagues and in the process potentially expand their world view.

One thought on “You Can’t Take That Away From Me

  1. mclaren

    Too many postclassical record labels insist on marching forward into the past, pushing their costs sky high for no reason.

    Nowadays, a CD booklet costs 4 to 10 times the cost of phsyically stamping the aluminum CD in a pressing plant, depending on the size of the booklet. Stockhausen’s ridiculously overpriced CDs cost a fortune solely and exclusively because of the mammoth CD booklets, which are actually more like small books.

    There’s no reason for that today. Buyers can (and should) download the text from the record label’s website. In fact, text itself as liner notes remains ridiculous and outdated — there’s no reason for it. Instead, liner notes should use the full range of audio and video, with free service vimeo and YouTube available to put up liner notes explaining each track on the CD.

    Today’s postclassical record labels refuse to add value. A physical CD is just a chunk of polycarbonate-coated aluminum, offering nothing aside from liner notes beyond the streaming audio you get from sites like last.fm or pandora. That’s dumb, dumb, dumb. A physical CD should offer a gateway to a host of added-value services, like streaming interviews with the composers discussing each piece, audiovisual discussions of each piece on YouTube, downloadable bonus tracks containing alternate tracks and outtakes.

    Postclassical composers time and again moan and wail about how the majority cultures ignores them. Well, it’s mostly postclassical composers’ own fault. Take a look at composers like Allen Schindler and Laetitia Sonami — superb composers, truly wonderful musicians, WHO DON’T EVEN BOTHER TO MAKE AVAILABLE A SINGLE COMPILATION CD OF THEIR WORK.

    Take a look at wonderful contemporary serious composers like Michael Gordon — arguably one of the best composers of his generation, but a total failure at self-promotion on the web. Type in “Michael Gordon” into google, and where does that take you? To Bang On A Can, _not_ to a Michael Gordon composer’s page listing his available recordings. Want to get a score of Michael Gordon’s music. Here’s how you do it: [Step 1] go into the kitchen; [step 2] open the kitchen drawer; [step 3] take out a serrated steak knife and cut your throat and pray there’s a heaven to go to when you die, ’cause that’s the only place you’ll ever be able to afford to get a Michael Gordon score. Hsi publishers charge a fortune and only rent ‘em. Talk about self-destruction… To judge by Michael Gordon’s web presence, there are no such things as CDs — only live performances,a nd if youcant’ pony up between a few hundred and several thousands dollars for the score rentals and if you don’t live in downtown Manhattan, baby, you’re SOL.

    Compare with John Adams. You type in John Adams, and google takes you to a professionally designed John Adams composer’s page showing everything youd’d expect to find — links to buy his CDs, links to buy tickets of his upcoming concerts, links to interviews with him, the whole 9 yards. John Adams gets it. He understands how to promote himself. He recognizes that most people who are interested in contemporary music cannot attend his live concerts, and consequently that CDs are the basic way he interacts with the public. Michael Gordon doesn’t get it — he doesn’t know how to promote himself. He thinks renting his scores and putting out a list of his upcoming live performances will do the job. News flash: I live 3000 miles from Michael Gordon’s upcoming live performances. I will never hear a Michael Gordon live performance. Ever. Period. Neither will most other Americans who enjoy serious contemporary music, so we need to deal with that reality. Adams’ CD sales may have tanked but they’re still light-years ahead of Michael Gordon’s, and the reason isn’t the quality of their respective music — Adams remains a mediocre composer. It’s the quality of their self-promotion.

    The situation is even worse for composers like George Perle. I like the guy’s stuff, especially his wind quintets, but do you realize there is _not_ one single track available of his music for streaming on last.fm? Not one. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Diddly. Nada. Bupkiss. Okay, okay, Perle’s dead and he was an old guy and he probably didn’t “get” the web, but still…the world we live in today offers a vast range of tools for a postclassical composer to promote hi/rself, yet all too many postclassical willfully refuse to take advantage of ‘em.

    Try finding tracks by Teri Hron. It’s like pulling teeth. She’s superbly talented, a wonderful composer (judging from what I’ve heard of her work, which ain’t much, despite heroic efforts on my part), and as for Trimpin…hah! Forget it!

    Compare with pop composers like Beck. When Beck released his recent CD, he primed the pump by spraying out a who buncha tracks from his upcoming release, including alternate takes. Compare with indie/alternate pop composers like Imogen Heap who put up 20-odd HD YouTube videos to promote their upcoming CD before it ever gets released. You tell me…how many postclassical composers put up even one (1) HD YouTube video to promote their upcoming CD before its release?

    One? Can you even name _one_ postclassical composer who does that?

    Pop composers get it. Postclassical composers don’t seem to get it. Postclassical composer seem to labor under the delusion that contemporary music revolves around live concerts. I gotta tell ya, baby, unless you live in downtown Manhattan or HelL.A., contemporary music does _not_ revolve around live concerts. 99% of the listeners who adore contemporary music do _not_ hear it by live concerts — they hear it by downloads, by streaming music, by CDs. Until postclassical composers wake up and smell the latte they’re continue this self-destructive set of traits: i.e., refuse to even put out compilation CDs (William Schottstaedt, Laetitita Sonami, Allen Schindler, Allen Strange, Teri Hron, the list goes on and on), refuse to promote themselves using YouTube and Pandora and last.fm, refuse to jettison expensive bulky paper liner notes and move instead of audiovisual downloads, refuse to provide added value, refuse to provide samples of their music to prospective buyers online.

    The litany of self-destruction rolls on for mile after mile. And postclassical composers wonder why they’re stuck at 3% of the overall market? Well, goll-ee, Sarge, as Gomer Pyle was wont to say, there might be a reason for that…

    Reply

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