Archive for the 'politics' Category

Musical Musings

With 2008 and all the music that came with it steadily speeding away in our rear view, I got to thinking a lot about what we did and didn’t see last year in the musical world, and what’s coming. When it comes down to it, 2008 was largely defined by some of the musical trends we saw, the continuing struggle over DRM and the ever growing attempts to market, brand and distribute music in ways that utilize multiple media and social platforms.

Musically, there was a greater push towards mash-ups (AmpLive Interview) and punk fueled Indie rock. Bands like Fall Out Boy and Bloc Party among many others kept driving guitars, sometimes melancholy lyrics and music that’s in your face in terms of pace at the forefront of the radio mainstream. Hip-Hop continued its usual pond-like trend: scum on the surface, beautiful water underneath with “artists” like T.I., T-Pain and Flo-rida topping the charts while rappers like Akrobatik, eLZhi and Black Milk continued struggling to boost their word of mouth. The line between Hip-Hop and Pop was continually blurred as radio Rap brought in more Rock and World music sounds into their songs.

We saw Kanye West rebound from a personally disastrous year to re-vamp his sound with 808s and Heartbreak, and we saw Guns ‘N Roses dig themselves out of a nearly 20 year grave to release the much anticipated Chinese Democracy album, something that many fans thought they’d never hear. Of course, most fans expected to hear either a new Eminem album (Relapse) or the long awaited and highly anticipated Detox album from Dr. Dre, and they got neither.

The DRM battle raged on in 2008, and in even just the beginning weeks of ’09 we’ve seen a nice movement in the area. For most of 2008, the IFPI (2) and the RIAA battled downloaders, both large and small, in court. Looking for lost compensation, they took to trial serial filesharers and spent massive amounts of time and money scaring college kids into settling out of court for fear of an expensive and punitive sentence against them. In the end, these efforts were largely useless, and in my mind, a joke, as they claimed to be fighting for the artists, while we all pretty much know how little the labels show the artists from individual song downloads.

The record industry spent months wringing their hands over lost profits and ways to control music that they long ago lost almost all control over. You have to wonder if, looking back now, they aren’t thinking of all their recent efforts as merely shutting the barn door after all the animals already escaped. And the change in tune has been brisk… Now, just two weeks into ’09, Apple has announced one of the broadest and most accessible withdrawals of DRM and price restructuring of MP3s in years. The four major labels have helped produce this movement, and it shows the increasing power of the consumers in the music marketplace. Once tied to hard copy formats like CDs with an average price table, consumers this year found diverse and creative ways to obtain their music, forcing the hand of the labels to recognize that DRM is not what the people want. How this lack of DRM will effect iPod sales or iTunes downloads remains to be seen. The launch of the App Store on iTunes also took music mobile with an incredible number of music related apps (and a few apps that are just plain incredible) designed for the iPhone.

The idea of Take Away shows and having artists perform live in unconventional venues took off. Nine Inch Nails picked up on Radiohead’s experiment with a free download format of an album, but they’ve taken it a step further now by offering over 400 GB of HD video footage from their concert tours up on torrent streams for fans to remix and create DVDs. This fan interaction has become tantamount to bands in the last year with MySpace including music, and a large number of acts going from conventional websites to social networking platforms.

And while these social networking sites and the bands that use them were beginning to become increasingly entwined, musicians were getting in the mix as well, literally. Late in 2008, MixMatchMusic officially opened its doors to musicians from all over the world to create, upload, collaborate and work with stems to broaden the ways people approach making music. With the DemoGod award at Demo ’08, a write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle and the ever-popular RemixSarahPalin.com, this vision of worldwide musical collaboration and the power of mixing and matching steps closer to being a full-fledged reality. (MixMatchMusic)

So what’s next? With the DRM barriers falling, the new foundations of band and fan interaction being laid and Web 2.0 casting a wider net over the ‘net, music in 2009 could be anyone’s game. Personally, I’m just waiting for The Detox… And now a moment for the outstanding musicians we lost this year, Bo Diddley and LeRoi Moore, among others.

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John McCain: Music Thief pt. 2

Several weeks ago at the height of the election race, I posted concerning McCain and Palin’s unauthorized campaign use of songs by several different artists. Well, the campaign is over, McCain has lost, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to throw in the towel on the lawsuit brought against him by Jackson Browne. McCain (or, as McCain claims, the Ohio Republican Party) used a 30 second clip of the Browne song “Running on Empty” in a commercial televised in Ohio. While a majority of McCain’s usage of music by groups that are Democrats and in other ways don’t support this aging war-hawk isn’t eligible for trial as it was broadcast live and publicly at venues that traditionally have rights to use songs, Browne’s lawsuit is the exception because it did it in a nationally televised with without asking for rights to use the song.

But who would for a second think that McCain, despite making campaign promises based around honesty and integrity, would actually be honest and have integrity? That’s why, rather than admitting he did wrong and seeing to compensate Browne for it, he’s counter-suing claiming that these are frivolous lawsuits. McCain claims that, “Given the political, non-commercial, public interest and transformative nature of the use of a long-ago published song, the minuscule amount used and the lack of any effect on the market for the song (other than perhaps to increase sales of the song), these claims are barred by the fair use doctrine.”

That defense is contrasted by Browne’s claim that the use was a violation of his publicity rights, copyright infringment and a false endorsement. My question is how can McCain claim that his use was public interest? It certainly wasn’t in the interest of the person who made the song, a longtime Democrat. The use of the song didn’t help the public in any way. You can say that there was a minuscule amount of the song used, but 30 seconds of a 2 minute spot, or 25% of the commercial, doesn’t seem minuscule to me. But to me, the greatest threat here is the unauthorized use of a song to give the appearance of promotion on the part of the artist. If an artist is clearly against what a politician stands for, then the “political” fair use argument shouldn’t stand. Of course, this counter suit and the failure on McCain’s part to take responsibility for what he and his party did simply makes me more certain that the country picked the right President. But where do you stand on “fair use” and politicians using musicians’ songs without their knowledge?

America Welcomes Barack Obama

Finally the months of campaigning are over and we have our new leader. People across the country (and the world) are rejoicing. And of course the DIYers are making remixes and editing videos! Hot 99.5 posted a good one, “Welcome to DC (Barack Mix)”, on their blog.

Here are a couple more video tributes to Obama, celebrating his victory:

Update: Had to add Will.i.am’s new video, “It’s a New Day”, to the list.

Yuri Lane: Beatbox + Harmonica Phenom

It’s hard not to be a fan of the harmonica. From John Popper to Bob Dylan, many big name artists have popularized the instrument, but it still doesn’t get quite the attention it deserves. Have you ever seen someone play the harmonica and beatbox at the same time? We looked at beatboxing flute previously, which was interesting, but check out this guy Yuri Lane:

If you like blues, give this one a listen. Or for a dub-influenced jam, this one.

We see more and more musicians using their art as a way to communicate a message – oftentimes in the vein of political or social commentary. Some think of music as their weapon. Yuri has created a “hip hop travelogue of peace” called From Tel Aviv to Ramallah (see the promo video here) to that end. The somewhat nerdy, very approachable, and obviously talented kid is creating an interesting niche for himself.

John McCain and Sarah Palin: Music Thieves

We’ve been told at numerous points over the past couple months that John McCain and Sarah Palin are the correct people to run our country for the next four years. While I usually try to keep my political leanings out of the EvolvingMusic blog (I mean, we’re here for music, right? There’s enough politics already), I find it absolutely shocking that the McCain campaign continues a practice that is both disrespectful and illegal.

We hear them talk about “shaking up Washington,” bringing the idea of ethics back to politics, and a chance for change. We hear Palin all the time tell us that she’s going to “talk straight to the American people.” Basically, they’ve run their campaign on the idea of honesty, transparency, and a return to basics. If that’s the case, then why are they blatantly, without permission and regardless of the wishes of the musicians, using songs they have no right to use throughout their campaign?

For those of you unaware, an artist with a copyright on a song has to give permission for the song to be used. McCain’s camp has now used, without permission and frequently with strenuous objections by the performers, songs by Heart, Foo Fighters, Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp and most recently, Survivor. What’s worse is that they aren’t limiting this illegal use to just playing the songs on campaign stops… they’ve gone so far as to include a few in television ads.

What this practice demonstrates is not only a willingness to steal music from the artists, (and therefore a pre-election demonstration of how rigidly McCain wants to follow the laws of our land) but a blatant attempt to sway public opinion and perception based on the popularity of pop music. McCain is trying to make himself popular by using music that most people know and enjoy. The problem is that when the majority of the artists are against McCain and his policies and don’t want to be associated with him in any way, it amounts to a willful and heinous disregard for the wishes of other people, the legal rights they have over their own intellectual material, and an unabashed attempt to mislead voters by pulling at their musical heartstrings.

While most artists have simply spoken out and demanded the cessation of usage of the songs by the McCain camp, Jackson Browne has stood up and filed suit against McCain and the Republican Party. The problem is that even if the artists request a stop to it or file suit, the song has already been used, the damage has already been done. You can’t, as we’re often told, unring the bell. Just how many people nationwide are even aware when they heard the Foo Fighter’s “My Hero,” that the Foo Fighters would later strongly object to the use and tell McCain to knock it off? My guess is not as many as actually heard it.

Now obviously, my interest here as a writer covering music is the issue of songs being used without the permission of their owners, and what that means for the music industry, and more importantly, the artists. If a man like Jackson Browne has been making music all his life while simultaneously engaging in supporting the Democratic party, he should at least be given the right to turn down McCain’s request. But if McCain doesn’t even bother to request, it hurts the entire industry by setting a standard under which a prominent politician running for public office can get away with whatever he wants musically, until someone like Browne steps in to stop him. The public usage of music, particularly for endorsement, without the express written consent of the musician is a slippery slope that would be very dangerous to start down.

But music and copyright issues aside, let’s look at the fundamental issue here. John McCain and Sarah Palin are thieves. They are stealing other peoples’ work, using it against their wishes and using it to promote themselves. They are disregarding numerous laws in the process and establishing an atmosphere where they demonstrate their belief, as they share with the current administration, that they are above the law. You talk about speaking for the people, but here they are shouting for people that want no part of them. And the really big question you need to ask is this: if a Senator from Arizona and the Governor of Alaska are willing to so blatantly infringe on other peoples’ rights, use things that aren’t theirs for their own political gain, and actively mislead the very citizens they are supposedly “straight talking” to, what outrageous and illegal things will they be willing and capable of doing if they actually become the Executive Branch?

For Part 2 of this story, click here.

Review: Thievery Corporation’s Radio Retaliation

Metromix Louiseville hit the nail on the head when they described Thievery Corporation‘s new album, Radio Retaliation, as “a quietly funky soundtrack for the MoveOn.org generation”.

The album, which was released early on iLike and Facebook, is fairly true to the classic Thievery sound – loungey, organic, multicultural. This time around, however, they deliver a decidedly more overt political message. Properly Chilled posits that they deliver their message “through a swirling, smoky kaleidoscope that will leave most people who listen to it largely unaware of, yet affected (if only subconsciously) by its social and political text”. I couldn’t agree more. After a few listens, here is my breakdown of the album.

First up is Sound the Alarm (feat. Sleepy Wonder) which kicks off with a hair-raising siren. A solid reggae beat, guitar riff and bass line set the stage for the minimalistic but passionate lyrics. Not a whole lot happens in this song, but all throughout it’s an enjoyable dub track.

Mandala features Anoushka Shankar, daughter of legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar. If you are a sucker for sitar, you will like this track. A playful twangy melody glides over the layers of deep driving bass, heavy brass and percussion. Some clubby turntable scratching and electronic beats punctuate the song, giving it a timeless feel.

Radio Retaliation again features Sleepy Wonder. As the title track of the album, this is a good example of classic Thievery reggae. Background instrumentals don’t vary much, so your attention is drawn to the lyrics, which have plenty to say.

Vampires has a funky upbeat feel. As musicOMH points out, “the swaying horns and polyrhythmic drums of Vampires do a commendable job of disguising the song’s clunky political metaphors“. The song very appropriately features Femi Kuti, eldest son of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian “pioneer of Afrobeat music, human rights activist, and political maverick.” (And yes, if you are still playing the Sarah Palin drinking game, you can count that use of “maverick” and have a drink.)

In Hare Krsna, the recognizable voice of Seu Jorge, Brazilian pop samba icon (possibly better known to his American fans as the David-Bowie-covers-in-Portuguese soundtrack guy for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) adds a scratchy rawness to what would otherwise be a little too smooth of a trip hop track. The title might lead you to expect an overtly Indian sound but instead you get classic Thievery muted basslines, looped guitars, brass sections… Only after listening closely do you catch what sounds like a dhol in the background. That, and of course, Seu is singing “Hare Krsna” over and over…

El Pueblo Unido, featuring Verny Varela, is probably one of the best songs on the album. The juxtaposition of jazzy Latin sounds and loungey dub gives it sort of a Buena Vista Social Club meets Morcheeba vibe.

(The Forgotten People) starts off with a sad clarinet intro and quickly picks up the pace with forceful sitar, dhol, and some electronic beats. The bass line gives this track a much darker sound than the rest of the album. A perfect song to listen to when you’re feeling a little dark yourself. Intense, worldly, and pleasing to the ear.

33 Degree features the soft haunting vocals of Zee over mellow trip hop style instrumentals. Part space age synth, part loungey beats, this track utilizes minimal percussion and a smooth blend of sounds to send you on a quiet thoughtful journey.

For Beautiful Drug, think AIR. Heavily reminiscent of the Virgin Suicides soundtrack, this one. The smoky vocals of Jana Andevska, who sounds a bit like Cat Power, gives the track a lazy, melancholy texture. You can almost picture an emaciated bored French socialite lounging in an opium den somewhere unimpressed by her glamorous yet soulless life and yearning for a different reality or perhaps a lost love…

La Femme Parallel is super mellow. LouLou‘s gentle vocals calmly drive this ambient track forward. Suitable background music for a loungey nightclub in any cosmopolitan city. You can imagine hearing this song playing softly while well dressed city types sip their martinis and steal sultry glances at strangers in the dim smoky room.

Retaliation Suite launches into a brassy funky groove with lots of triangle, some smooth sax, and provocative vocal samples. The political rhetoric contrasts nicely with the relaxed head-nodding qualities of the instrumentals. A great listen whether you play it in the background or listen to the words.

The Numbers Game is more of a departure from Thievery’s typical chill sound. Funky percussion, lots of soul and brass accompany the “Godfather of Go Go”, Chuck Brown, as he sings about the “same old game” and tells you to “shake out your mind”. Definitely a toe-tapping number.

The Shining Path is bass-heavy throughout and laced with haunting synths patterns. In the second half of the song, a tabla beat drops giving the song a more organic element, sort of a drum-circle vibe.

Blasting Through the City features Notch, whose earnest lyrics implore you to: “feel the struggle, but don’t give up the fight”. This reggae-infused downtempo track simultaneously makes you want to kick back on an island somewhere and join the a revolution.

Sweet Tides (feat. LouLou) A downtempo groove with a positive and uplifting feel to it. When LouLou sings in English, somehow she loses a bit of her charm, but the vocals are still very pretty. Seemingly uniform at first, a more triumphant hi-hat beat drops about halfway in to pick up the energy. The muted trumpets that fade out at the end of the song give it a nice polish.

In conclusion, we have another great accomplishment by the DJ duo. Some may say they went a little overboard with the number of guest artists, but it certainly adds diversity to the overall sound. The album is unique in that it preserves enough of the elements of Thievery Corporation’s core sound and feel and yet adds some new dynamics including the ramped up political undertones. I say two thumbs up and go buy/download/steal/burn (or do whatever it is you do to get new music) Radio Retaliation. If nothing else, spread the word. It’s worth hearing.

Remix Culture is Exploding

DIY music mashups are becoming increasingly prevalent as more and more musicians see the value of interacting with their fans. Luckily, as DJ Earworm points out, “the music industry is beginning to see the benefit of increased exposure through releasing stems directly to the public”.

Remixing used to be largely the territory of DJs, producers and other “sonic manipulators”, who would typically overlay the a cappella from one song on top of another or sometimes add their own sounds. But now fans are embracing the concept. We owe a big thank you to Radiohead for popularizing the fan remix concept (again) and to all the other musicians who have begun to release stems through various mediums. More and more artists, both underground and mainstream, are warming up to the idea.

Increasingly, average people don’t just want to passively be entertained by media anymore. They want to experience it. Whether it’s pictures, audio, or video, people are manipulating and mashing up media to their hearts’ content. YouTube is a great example. People want to be seen and heard and be free to exercise their creativity in new ways. (Sometimes leaving the rest of us scratching our heads and wondering why they would possibly post a video of themselves doing that… but hey, they should still have that freedom and ideally the tools to do so.)

One has to give some credit to Girl Talk as well. Through his enthusiastic use of unauthorized samples, Girl Talk has been a pioneer in the mashup revolution. While legal remixing is certainly different than the bootleg subculture that grew around unauthorized sampling, these two sides of remix culture seem to be slowly converging. As artists and the powers that be in the music industry begin to embrace the perspective that when someone samples your music it’s not stealing, but rather free promotion, the boundaries begin to melt away. And thus, music evolves.

In an article delving into some mashup history and the growing mashup revolution, Roberta Cruger says:

“In DIY culture, consumers are the producers, owning the tools of production — a laptop instead of guitar, bass and drums. The bedroom is the studio and factory machinery moves out of the nightclub onto the Internet for millions to access. The media monopolies are fighting back, but with the airwaves gobbled up by conglomerates, homespun mash-ups may be the people’s digital antidote.”

When a need becomes apparent (in this case, the desire of fans to remix), naturally the solutions begin to surface as well. Like the MixMatchMusic Remix Wizard, which allows artists (e.g. The Bayliens) to host their own remix promotions easily. As remix culture continues to grow, it’ll be fascinating to see what kinds of creative fusions and deconstructions happen. New genres will evolve, the industry will continue to take unpredictable twists and turns, and who knows what other clever things will surface as the tools and the freedom to explore and create are placed in the hands of music consumers.

For example, someone took the Remix Wizard (created to facilitate music remixes) and set up a page called “Help Sarah Make Sense” where you can rearrange Sarah’s words (for better or for worse). Pretty funny actually. Go make a remix!


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