Twenty Feet From Stardom–Six Films About Wanting to Make it Big in Music

Have you ever wanted to be a star?  Have you ever wanted to be on stage in front of thousands of admiring people?  That fantasy is a nightmare for me because I’m so shy, but some people crave the limelight.  Recently I’ve watched five films and read one book with a related film about people getting very close to music stardom but not being famous names to us all.  For these people, this can be crushing, especially the ones who get inches away from achieving their dreams.  Some of these people chronicled in these films actually liked being twenty feet back.  Not every studio musician or backup singer wanted to be front and center on the big stage, but many did.  These films are:

Twenty Feet From Stardom is about backup singers, Standing in the Shadows of Motown and The Wrecking Crew are about the musicians that played on most of the hits of the 1960s.  Searching for Sugar Man and Big Star are about three artists that made artistically great albums in the early 1970s but were completely ignored by record buyers.  And finally, Inside Llewyn Davis is a fictional account of a folk music singer during the heyday of the folk revival who painfully could not grab the brass ring no matter how hard he tried, or how many people he used or hurt.

The gist of these films are about people climbing Mt. Fame, and even having the talent to get within sight of the summit.  Failing to achieve stardom after getting so close creates a psychological crisis that all of these people dealt with in different ways.  To me, the most tragic was Chris Bell of Big Star.  Sixto Rodriguez’s story in Searching for Sugar Man is so unbelievable that its stunning, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s the reincarnation of the Buddha. 

After seeing Darlene Love, Marry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Patti Austin, Judith Hill and many others in Twenty Feet From Stardom I went to Rdio and played their records that I could find, and surprisingly, there were many.  There are so many records out there that never make it to the top of the charts that are still worthy of your ears.  This is the true value of Rdio.  But this also teaches us something.  Evidently there are more great singers than there are hit songs.

Watching Standing in the Shadows of Motown and reading The Wrecking Crew, both about studio musicians who played on the defining songs of my teen years back in the 1960s, just crushed me emotionally.  These guys never even got liner credits for the most part, yet all the wonderful riffs and melodies that are burned deep in my soul were created by them.

All of these people deserve more fame, and luckily we have film makers that are helping them to finally get the spotlight.  And like I said before, there are more great singers and musicians than there are hit songs.  A hit song, the kind that tens of millions will notice, are a combination of songwriters, singers and musicians.  But what makes a star?  Time and again in these films they talk about the drive and ego it takes to become a star.  These films are about many people who had talent, but the lacked something to go the last twenty feet.  What separates Bruce Springsteen from Chris Bell and Sixto Rodriguez?  What separates Aretha Franklin from Darlene Love?

Standing in the Shadows of Motown was illustrative.  It had the original musicians playing the original songs, but got other singers to sing them.  This showed both the importance of the musicians and the singers.  If you’ve ever listened to recreations of original sixties hits it’s so apparent that something is off.  Hit songs are extremely hard to make, and most often it’s accidental I think more than intentional.

Thanks to YouTube, I can give you a taste of each of these films.

 

 

 

My favorite song from Standing in the Shadow of Motown

 

 

 

My favorite Chris Bell song.

 

 

I hope The Wrecking Crew comes out soon because I’m very anxious to see it.  I’m curious if younger people will like these movies, because essentially all of them are about people from the baby boomer generation.  I’m sure one day there will be films about Katy Perry’s musicians and backup singers, but for now, these are the stories we have.  And I’m grateful to Netflix, because documentaries are not widely distributed.

JWH – 3/28/14

Pono? Just What Did They Hear in Neal Young’s Car?

Neal Young, is promoting a new portable sound system, called Pono, that plays uncompressed digital music files, promising sound quality equal to the 24-bit master recording files.  Young claims music consumers are only hearing a fraction of sonic fidelity that goes into producing a song when playing MP3 files on the mobile devices, or even CDs on their home stereos.  Visit the Pono Music site for the full press marketing campaign.

Watch this video.  Just what are those people hearing when they are in Neal Young’s car?  Their glowing comments sounds like it’s 1967 and they weren’t talking about music.  These guys are used to working in studies, recording songs with master 24-bit files, playing them back on the absolute best studio equipment.  They are also used to playing music live.  Why would they claim this is the best sound they’ve ever heard?  Sure, some clarify, the best in a car, but others are saying anywhere.

I can understand the complaints against MP3, but against CD too?  What the hell am I missing?

I’m not going to pledge to buy a Pono at Kickstarter, but when they come out I’m willing to drive over to Best Buy and try one out.  But even if I bring my V-Moda headphones, will it sound as good as Neal Young’s car?  I doubt it.  I can’t help but believe that buying a Pono also means buying a deluxe sound system to support it.

And what about the music?  Once again, I’ll have to go buy my favorite albums all over again.  I’ve bought some albums already on LP, CD, MP3 and SACD, and now I’ll need to go buy them again as 24-bit FLAC files?  See, this is where I wonder about the success of Pono.  I’ve switched to streaming subscription music.  I’ve given up on owning music.  Buying a Pono means going back to owning music again, and I’m not sure I want to do that.  If I hear what those people getting our of Neal’s car claim to hear, maybe I will.  But it’s going to have to be a Hubble telescope leap in high fidelity!

Let’s say I have to buy my favorite 100 albums again.  That’s $2500-3,000, assuming the prices are like current 24-bit files.  Pono could make things cheaper, but only if millions buy it.  Pono appears to be like any other high-end DAC player, but scaled for portability.  If you look at the other products at the Ayre.com site, the company that will be making the Pono player, you’ll see what I mean.

There is nothing technically stopping Rdio or Spotify from streaming 24-bit 192kHz FLAC.  We’d need 24-bit DACs to play such music, but that’s not far-fetched either.  People are streaming HD video, so why not HD sound?

I wish Neal Young all the success in the world for his Pono device because I hope it brings about a new high fidelity revolution.  Two years from now I might not own a Pono, but I might be listening to 24-bit 192 kHz music.

JWH – 3/14/14

Twenty Hours to Playing Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”

I have no musical ability what-so-ever.  But, I’ve always wished I could play guitar.  I tried when I was young, but got easily frustrated, and merely ended up playing chord patterns I made up.  I had no discipline at all.  A complete wimp when it came to practicing.  If I had known about the 10,000 hour to greatness theory of practice, I would never have tried at all.

Today a reader, Andreas, posted a comment about a Josh Kaufman TED Talk, “The First 20 Hours – How to Learn Anything” that was far more encouraging.  What Kaufman claimed from his studies is that it takes 20 hours of concentrated practice to get beyond the frustration stage and see encouraging results.  Watch his TED Talk yourself.

Now, that got me to thinking.  I messed around with a guitar back in the 1960s and 1970s, but I didn’t put in 20 hours of concentrated effort at actually learning anything.  Ten years ago I bought a cheap guitar and was going to try again.  I tried a few of times, probably spent less than an hour, and again got frustrated and quit.  The guitar has been sitting on its stand ever since – untouched.  Well, I dusted it a couple of times.

What if I conducted an experiment to test Kaufman’s hypothesis?  Would twenty hours of concerted effort, applying myself in a systematic way, get me past the frustration barrier?  Would just twenty hours get me to a point where I felt like I was getting somewhere?  If Kaufman’s hypothesis is true, I could apply it on all kinds of little ambitions.

Don’t we all give up too easily?  Is twenty hours of good practice the real solution to getting past the frustration barrier?  

To test this idea, I think would need something very specific as my goal.  Playing “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan immediately came to mind.  If I could learn to strum the guitar and friends could recognize the song, no matter how badly I played it, I think that might be a good enough proof.  It’s only five chords, so I don’t think I’m being overly ambitious.

Just how much would I have to learn in that twenty hours?  Luckily, the web gives me a tremendous head start.   For example, at e-chords, here is the song with chords and words, and even animations showing the finger positions of the chords:  Like A Rolling Stone – full arrangement

And here are two YouTube videos with guitar teachers.

There seems to be an endless supply of guitar teachers on YouTube teaching “Like a Rolling Stone.”  Some offer music and chord theory with their lessons that just confuses me.  There also seems countless ways to strum the song, as well as many variations for the chords used to play the song.  These kind of details are detrimental at this point.  Kaufman advises in his video to:

  1. Deconstruct the skill
  2. Learn enough to self-correct
  3. Remove practice barriers
  4. Practices at least 20 hours

I think I have deconstructed the skill here already.  All I’ve got to do is put on some new strings on my neglected guitar and practice for twenty hours.  I’ll get back to you in about a month to let you know what happens.

JWH – 1/24/14

Hey, Rdio, Rhapsody, Google, Spotify–Add These New Features, Please

I’ve been a streaming music subscriber for years.  First with Rhapsody, now with Rdio, but I’ve also subscribed to Lala, MOG and Spotify.  Each service takes a different approach to the best way of listening to music from a gigantic online library.  All provide the basics, search on artist, album and song, play album in order, random, repeat and repeat one, and create playlists.

New reports claim that music publishers now feel they are making more money per user from subscription services than by selling songs.  This implies that subscription services are succeeding – let’s hope.  I think there are many features that subscription services could add to their product that would make them stand out from each other, and maybe completely kill off the idea of owning music.

However, there’s far more potential benefits from subscription music than just playing music from a rented library.  One recent article claims that most artists will make more money in the long run from subscription music than from selling hit records, but it involves a new paradigm of promoting songs.  The old paradigm was to promote a hit, get as many people to buy it as possible, and then move on to creating the next hit.  The new paradigm is to create a portfolio of songs that are played forever by lifelong fans.  The old paradigm is based on selling the song once, and the new one is based on getting it played the most over time, year after year, decade after decade.

This makes techniques used to find songs and albums from almost a century of music, and adding tunes to personal playlists, the most important marketing tool for bands.  Theoretically, songs from the 1940s could becoming bigger hits than songs from the 2010s, if the right discovery tools were created.

It would be great if Rdio/Spotify/Rhapsody had an AI (artificial intelligent) program that could look at a person’s playlist and then guarantee them a list of songs from the past will be much loved.  Unfortunately, such computer magic doesn’t exist yet.  If there’s a Miles Davis track out there that you’ll play for hours on end in Repeat 1 mode, you’re going to have to find it yourself.

Some recording artists might be protesting streaming music for low royalty rates, and that might be true too, but streaming music is probably the best long term solution for helping new artists be discovered.  Digital Music News reported that 90.7 percent of all artists are essentially undiscovered.

With both Spotify and Rdio now offering completely free ad-supported subscriptions there is no reason not to try them.

So what features could the subscription music services offer to help fans find more songs to love?  Here what I want.

Top 100 Songs/Album/Artists By Year

Streaming music services need to quickly add Year to their search feature.  Having the New Releases, Current Hit Album/Song pages is just too damn limiting.  I need to be able to saying, “Show me what you got 1957!”  What would be even more fun would be to ask Rdio to play me the hit songs from the week I was born.  Or if I felt like returning to the summer when I was 14, tell Spotify to play music from the summer of 1965.

Who were the hit artists for 1938?  What labels were big in 1947?

I would also like to be able to play songs by release dates, and all songs from specific hit charts from a particularly week.

We might also need a composed year field, so I can ask for the music of the 1850s.

Far More Record Charts

Right now it’s possible to know which songs and albums are popular by everyone using the service, but that’s so limiting.  What I like to see is a chart of top songs being played by 62 year old guys who were computer programmers and who love science fiction.  Or if I wanted to sample another demographic, what songs are being played by college freshmen at the moment, what classical music symphonies are being made hits at the moment from Julliard graduates playing them, or what country tunes are being played the most in Nashville versus Austin or Denver, or what songs are loved by retired DJs who worked in the 1960s, or what songs are played the most by people over 90.  See what I mean?

Search by Catalog Number and Label

Now that subscription music services are vast libraries of songs that span decades, and record collectors have probably squirreled away all the great platters, it would be fun to play music historian on the cheap, and listen to music by label, especially all those rare labels put out by extreme music aficionados.

Years ago when I bought LPs, record companies would advertise other LPs on the inner sleeves of albums.  I especially loved the ones by ATCO and Warner Music.  For example, I’d love to be able to call up ATCO albums from 1970s, and just see what Rdio has.

Here’s a screenshot from MusicMatch for a search of Verve, showing a portion of the results near Janis Ian.  As subscription services grow, they will become closer to complete libraries of music history, and searching by label and catalog number will be more important.  Instead of collecting music from the past, it will be all about playing the music of the past.

verve

Browse by Genres and Subgenres

Sometimes I want to play music by genre, especially genres I’m not familiar with, but most streaming services have very limited ways of doing this.  Rdio is pretty nice for genre browsing.  I can browse by “Stations” and pick Jazz, and then have the choice of 10 sub-genre stations, and then a 5 position control that ranges from Popular to Adventurous.  But what if I wanted smooth piano jazz from the late 1950s?  Or to hear the musical heirs of Charlie Parker?  Right now this kind of feature is one of the best ways to discover new old music on Rdio, but it could be infinitely refined.

jazz

Better Playlists and Collections

Right now I can have playlists and a collection to organize my musical favorites on Rdio.  Playlists are just lists of songs.  I’d love to have Album Playlists, to group albums I’d like to play together.  I’d also like to have multiple collections, so I can keep my jazz albums separate from my rock albums.  I was keeping my Collection on Rdio limited to albums I liked a lot, but when I downloaded the local client, it looked at the albums I owned on my computer, and added all of them to my collection, which is now one big mess.

Playlists and the Collection is how I get to remember what I liked on Rdio.  Without them I’d forget tons of music.  When using a subscription music library it’s very hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of music I can play.  20 million songs, which is probably a million albums.  I’m lucky if I could sit down and write a list of my 100 favorite albums from memory.

When playing subscription music I mainly listen to what I already love.  But I, and new artists, want me to try new stuff.  Often I go through the weekly releases of new albums and try as many of them as I can.  There’s always more than I can try.  And if I find a song I like I can at it to a playlist, or add the album to a collection.  What I’d like to have is a personal library, which has unlimited collections.  Now some collections I want to name myself, but others I want Rdio to auto-generate.  So if I add Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen to my Rock Collection, it would automatically add it to a 1975 Collection, and a Columbia Record Collection, because there will be times when I’d love just to play my favorite albums from 1975, or even December, 1975.

Collections and Playlists are the way I distinguish my music from the background library of everything.  I want more tools for organizing my music, and even browsing it visually.

Higher Fidelity

Over time, as technology changes, I want streaming music to offer better fidelity.  It’s wonderful now, but I don’t want to be tempted by any new technology to come along that would make me want to start buying individual songs and albums again, either as digital files or on physical medium.  I’m over owning music.  Renting is so much more convenient.  I’m happy to let Rdio do all the library scut work.  Nor do I want to hop from one service to the next, as new companies promise features old ones don’t.  I’m currently thinking of subscribing to another service, adding Rhapsody or Spotify, for a while, just to see if they offer more.  But I’d rather they didn’t.  I invested a lot of love into Lala, only to have Apple ruin it.  Now that I’ve spent so much time with Rdio I want it to both succeed and keep competitive.

Export and List Features

A lot of work goes into discovering new music and creating playlists and collections, so if Rdio went out of business I’d loose a lot of knowledge I’ve put into their system.  I want to be able to export that knowledge to another streaming service.  Or if I subscribed to two streaming services, I’d like to sync that knowledge.  I’d also love some database tools to just study big data views of my music, or make printouts, like for putting on this blog.

Conclusion

The phrase “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” is an apt one for music streaming technology.  I’ve lived through so much technological change in my life, even just in the music industry, that I know nothing stays the same.  If I live another ten or twenty years I expect amazing things, and since I’m running out of time, I’d rather have them now.

Music Technology News

If you’re interested in reading more about subscription music, try these sites.

JWH – 1/19/14     

Models of Making Money by Making Music

Songwriters and performers dream of writing a hit song that will be heard by millions and make them rich enough to quit their day jobs.  As a life-long music lover I want my song making heroes to make as much money as possible, so it disturbs me when I read stories like “Get Ready for the Streaming-Music Die Off” that report artists are making so little from my favorite method of buying music that it might die off.  I’m upset that the artists aren’t getting paid properly, and I’m upset that I’m losing my favorite all-time method of buying music.

Music is very important to me, it’s brought my life much joy, solace, inspiration, happiness, stimulation, and pleasure.  It’s well worth the money I pay for it, and it’s angers me that so many people don’t.  Anyone who doesn’t pay for their music has no respect for music, or its creators.  Nor do they have any respect for capitalism and our economic well being.  With the music business we want to do two things:  reward the creators of music, and reward the business of promoting, publishing and distributing of music.  Sadly, it appears that the publishers of music have always been greedy and routinely ripped off their artists.  With the new digital technologies of music distributions it appears artists are getting an even shorter end of the stick than ever before.

Most people think little about music, and even less about how it’s bought and sold.  But if you love music, and you know who you are, it’s very important to know how your favorite artists are paid – their songs are the soundtrack of your life.  But we want more than that.  We want to promote economic strength in our country, and we want a vital music industry.  Americans are making less and less to sell to the world, so unless you want everyone working at a fast food counter, it’s important to promote industry too.

What Business Models Benefit the Artists?

There are two basic ways to sell music:

  • Artists sell digital and physical records directly to their fans
  • Artists sign with a publisher that sell their work in a variety of ways

In a perfect world fans and artists would cut out the middle man, but there’s a problem.  Getting a million people to listen to your song is hard.  Getting ten million people to hear it is far more than ten times harder.  If you want to get rich selling music you have to work with a publisher, and that involves working with loads of other people that take a cut out of the preverbal pie.

Every Tuesday new albums come out.  On Rdio I page through so many I can’t count them.  There are millions of would-be recording stars out there, all wanting millions of other people to listen and buy their music.  Most, if not practically all of them, will never make any money, not the kind of money that would let them live off their creative efforts.  In all the articles I read about the artists complaining of unfair treatment by the music publishers, I don’t see any figures on how many fans does an artist have to find to make a living.  That would be very interesting to know.  If a song writer wants to make a million dollars on his song, how many people have to buy the song directly, or listen on the radio, or hear it from one of the ever growing ways of hearing new tunes.

We know if an artist sells a song on their web site for a $1, it will take 1 million fans buying the song.  But how many would it take if the song was sold on iTunes or Amazon?  How many plays would it take to make a million dollars from fans listening on Spotify or Rdio?  Or Pandora or iTunes Radio?  Or just a plain old radio?  Each method of distribution has it’s costs, and investors that want their share of the action.

Artists are complaining bitterly about streaming music services not paying enough, but as the article linked above shows, it’s the music publishers who make the deals with the streaming services, and it might not be the streaming services to blame for low royalties.

I now get my music almost exclusively through Rdio, which I play $9.99 a month.  I’m contributing $120 a year to the music industry and their artists.  It troubles me when I hear that artists get little from this business model.  Would I benefit artists and the industry more by buying $120 worth of CDs?  Or $120 worth of MP3s from Amazon or iTunes?

To complicate the mathematical understanding of this problem, many of the songs I play on Rdio are ones I already own on CD.  I use Rdio as a convenience.  My favorite playlist is just over 200 songs.  I play it 90% of the time, and listen to new albums 10% of the time to find new songs to add to my playlists.  Probably 100 of those 200 songs I own already, so for about $120 I could buy the others, and go the MP3 buying model of business.  If I did that, I’d probably spend about $50 a year on new songs.

It’s doubtful I’d ever go back to buying physical CDs.  That means paying $120 a year to Rdio puts me at my maximum spending, and the artists on my playlist are getting paid a tiny fraction of a cent every time I play one of their songs.  Thus the solution by my standards would be to pay the artists at a higher rate, and the publishers less.

What Business Models Benefit the Fans?

For most music fans, the casual back ground music listeners, radio, whether AM, FM or various internet service, getting music for free is all they want.  They pay for their music by listening to ads.

Let’s ignore the barbarians that steal music.

Next up are fans who love songs enough to buy them.  They might buy a handful of songs a year, just the ones that are catchy enough to keep.  They will spend a $1.29 here and there.  Over their lifetime they will collect and own a playlist of their favorites.

Then we have fans willing to buy whole albums from their favorite artists, either digital or physical.  They are willing to commit $10-15, or more.  These kinds of music lovers often buy one or more albums a month.  However, this model of business is disappearing.  Fewer and fewer fans collect albums.

For the hard core music fan that loves the widest variety of music, nothing beats streaming music at $10 a month.  (Or $5/month if you only listen from your computer.)

How to Grow the Industry?

Streaming music is based on the idea that fans will pay a monthly fee to hear whatever they want whenever they want.  $10 a month gets convenience.  This is the model I prefer.  I was hoping this model would be the one to succeed.  I show off Rdio every chance I get, but I have convinced damn few people to buy it.  The streaming music model is like owning a giant record store for $10 a month.  It’s an unbelievable deal, but it’s not popular.  Spotify is hoping to get 40 million subscribers, but only has six million now.  It would take a 100  million subscribers to make subscription music a 12 billion dollar a year industry, and that’s not likely, but it would make music into a cable TV like industry.

If digital music had never existed, and the only way to own music was via physical media, the music industry would be huge, but I doubt we’ll return to that business model.

Let me tell you a story.  My friend Leigh Ann brought over a stack of old LPs she had.  She thinks she got them from an estate sale.  They were old Broadway show soundtracks from the 1950s and 1960s.  They looked rare, valuable and in good condition.  Most of them were on Rdio.  My $10 a month gets me whole areas of music I’ve never even tried.  Mostly I use my $10 a month service to play the same 200 songs over and over again.  I haven’t even begun to explore 1/10th of 1/10th of the music on Rdio.  $10 a month for unlimited streaming music is the best money I’ve spent in my life.

Leigh Ann and I started playing her albums but it became obvious that it was much easier just to call them up on Rdio.  I could buy her albums, but the artists that created them wouldn’t get paid.  Someone, probably not the original artists, do get paid, even if it’s a tiny amount, if I play them on Rdio.

Artists should get better rates from subscription music, but subscription music should be the model to market music.  It has one fair concept – artists are paid every time a song is played.  That’s better than what they get from stolen MP3s or people buying used LPs and CDs.  And streaming music keeps millions of albums in print that would be forgotten.

JWH – 12/6/13

How Internet Pricing Influences My Buying Decisions

You can go out at night and see a movie for $10.  Watching a movie a night would cost $300 a month.

If you like to own and collect movies, you could buy DVDs and Blu-rays for the same amount of money if you shopped for bargains, ending up collecting 365 movies a year.  But if you’re buying a new movie every night to watch, when would you re-watch anything in your collection?  Ownership ain’t what it used to be.

Then there’s cable TV.  For $80 a month, 24×7 movies, don’t worry about going out, shopping, collecting or shelving.

But for $7.99 a month can join Netflix and get one disc out at a time, and if you watch them immediately, and live in a city with a distribution center, might squeeze in a dozen movies a month, paying 67 cents a movie.  $15.99 a month you can get 3 discs out at a time, and probably cover having a movie every night of the month, getting your per flick cost down to 53 cents.

For that same $7.99 you can get Netflix streaming, and theoretically watch twelve 2-hour movies a day all month.  $7.99 / (12 x 30), which is about 2 cents a movie, or a more realistic 26 cents a movie if you watching only one a night.

Of course, you could just steal movies on the net and pay 0 cents per movie, but hey, we’re not thieves.

In other words, the Internet makes things cheaper.  But does it improve our lives and society to let people watch a movie for 26 cents?

In 1965 I became a record addict, and averaged buying 2 to 4 albums a week until I found Internet Pricing.  In the old days I bought LPs, and then CDs.  At it’s peak I was spending $200-300 a month on music.  Now I spend a flat $9.99 a month at Rdio and get access to over 20 million songs.  Internet Pricing strikes again.

My wife and I used to subscribe to the local paper and over twenty magazines.  Except for a couple e-magazine subscriptions on my Kindle, I no longer subscribe to periodicals and read stuff off the internet for free.

I’d like to get The New York Times, but at $15 a month is too expensive to what I’ve got accustomed to from Internet Pricing.  For $18 a month I get Netflix streaming and Rdio, or tens of thousands of movies, television shows, documentaries, and a couple million albums.  So why would I pay $15 for a single daily paper?  Why isn’t there a company that charges $7.99 a month to read all newspapers from around the world?

Next Issue charges $15/month for access to 107 magazines.  That’s the same price The New York Times charges for 1 newspaper.  Sadly, none of my favorite magazines are available through Next Issue (The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, New York Review of Books, Scientific American, Smithsonian, Harpers, Discover, New Scientist, Sky & Telescope, etc.)

See, I’ve been corrupted by Internet Pricing.  At one time getting The New York Times for $15 a month would have been a tremendous bargain.  Now, I feel it’s too expensive when I compared other content I buy off the Internet.  My innate sense of pricing was also distorted by reading the NYT for free online for years, and the fact there are many good newspapers from around the world that are still free to read online.

Would we have a more vibrant economy, with more jobs, if the internet didn’t exist?

I’ve been corrupted by Internet Pricing in other ways.  Last month I wanted to buy an issue of Harper’s Magazine to read one article.  But I just couldn’t let myself spend $5.99 to read one article.  However Harper’s is tempting me.  For subscribers to their paper copy, they give access to 163 years of back issues on the internet.  I can get a year sub to Harper’s at Amazon for $15.  See how Internet Pricing is disruptive?  $15 for one month of the NY Times, or $15 for 163 years of Harper’s Magazine for a year.  The New York Review of Books recently offered me 10 issues for $10 that included 50 years of online archives.  The Rolling Stone also has a similar deal for $19.95 for a 26 issue sub and a complete run of back issues online.  I don’t want paper copies of anything, but I do want access to complete archives.  However, they won’t sell me just the archive access.  Those savvy magazines publishers have figured things out, sell their old technology at normal prices and give Internet Pricing for free.  I took the $10 deal, and I’m seriously considering subscribing to magazines again if I get their complete archive.

I go into a bookstore now and it kills me to pay list price for a magazine.  I’ve been corrupted by Internet Pricing.  Now I might just be a cheapskate, but what if I’m typical.  How is being corrupted by Internet Pricing affecting people across the world. What is its impact on GDP?

JWH – 9/23/13

Your Pop-Culture Fingerprint

Recently Entertainment Weekly ran “The 100 All-Time Greatest” issue about the best movies, television series, books and albums in the hearts of their editors.  There’s no scientific justification for such lists – they are fun but always biased.  Best-of-lists dredge up delicious memories of forgotten art, or make you growl WTF! at other choices.  For me the real value of such lists is to inspire me to try pop culture favorites I haven’t.  You never know when you missed something great, and finding great pop culture is what’s it all about.

Subscribing to Rdio lets me play most of the albums from their list.  This is why spending $9.99 a month for a music subscription service is such a fantastic bargain.  I’m going to try and play 2-3 albums a day until I get through the EW 100 album list.  I’m also going to use Netflix to go through their movie and TV show lists.  I wonder if statistics at subscription music services, Amazon, iTunes, Netflix will show a bump from the impact of the EW picks?

I did make a playlist of over 90 of EW’s Top 100 albums at Rdio.  If you’re a member you can play it, and if not, you can look at the list of songs.  The EW editors are probably much younger than I am, so their list of great albums follows a different generational path than I did, thus their list is a lesson for an old fart like me.  Over half the list is new to me, so I’m looking forward to playing a lot of potentially great albums.

You’d think such lists would match sales figures, but they don’t.  For example, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is by far and away the best selling album of all-time, but came in as #4 on the EW list.  I wonder how many of those 40+ million Thriller buyers would put it at the top of their favorite album list?  I suppose Spotify could tell us what albums are most played on their popular service, and that might be a realistic indicator of all-time greatness.  Ditto for YouTube plays.

However, in the end, it’s your own love for individual works of art that matter the most.  Just thinking about your own favorites should be a meditation of self-awareness, a survey of your own years, like your life flashing in front of your eyes before you die.

On the top of the EW album list sits Revolver, by the Beatles from 1966.  I’m playing it as I write this now.  It’s a great album, I’ve bought it three times in my lifetime – LP, CD, remastered CD.  But Revolver would never be my all-time favorite album.  I’m not sure it would even make my top 100 album list.  I love so many little albums, like Once in a Blue Moon by Nanci Griffith or Rodeo by Kirk Whalum that would rank higher, albums damn few people know about.

#2 on EW’s top albums was Purple Rain by Prince, #3 was Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones, #4 was Thriller by Michael Jackson and #5 was London Calling by The Clash.  All great albums, but none of them would be on my own personal Top 100 Albums of All-Time list.  I wish everyone made their own top lists of pop culture loves so when we make new friends we’d trade lists as a form of introduction.  I think what we love defines us better than anything else.  Even the things we choose to keep lists of also defines us.

My #1 album is Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan.  An album that didn’t even make it onto the EW list.  Strangely enough, it’s also from 1966 like Revolver.  I can go years without player Revolver, but I play songs from Blonde on Blonde almost every day.  That’s why I know its my #1 album.  I’m sure there are millions of music fanatics that never played it, or played it once and hated it.  I don’t expect my list to meet other people’s standards.

Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde - Vinyl

#2 would be Highway 61, Revisited by Bob Dylan, which did make their list.   But I have no idea what my #3-100 would be.  I just haven’t thought about it that much.  But reading the EW list makes me want to create my own list.  I don’t know if I have a 100 albums that are absolute favorites.  I’ve listened to thousands of albums, and I own 1200-1400 CDs but I’d guess less than 300 still appeal enough to play occasionally, and only a much smaller group would be ones I’d want to play from start to finish, which is the real indicator of a great album.  For example, from London Calling I only love one song, “Lost in the Supermarket,” so it’s doubtful it would be on my list.

Highway_61_Revisited

For an album to be called great I think we have to consider it as a whole.  It has to be more than just a collection of songs.  It doesn’t have to have a single theme like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it should have a coherent artistic wholeness.

Why I’m writing this essay is because I realized that if we each made a list of our favorite albums, each list might be as unique as fingerprints.  Out of 7 billion people, how many are likely to pick 100 albums and put them in the same order?  If we found two people with identical lists, would they also have the same political and philosophical views?  I don’t know, but it would be interesting if scientists would check that out for me.

Making a list of favorite albums is actually very hard and time consuming.  It’s a terrible strain on the old noggin to try and sift through 50 years of album playing memories.  I’m thinking of going through my CDs and pulling out my favorites to put on one shelf together.  It might take me weeks or months to create my list, but it might help to physical hold the albums I love when it comes to ranking them.  Ranking isn’t absolutely important, but it’s part of the game.  Right now I’m thinking my #3 album would be What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye from 1971.

marvin-gaye-1971-whats-going-on-a

No, maybe I’m wrong, maybe Everybody Knows This is Nowhere by Neil Young would be #3.  When I make the final list, it’s going to be very hard to create an absolute ranking.

neil-young-everybody-knows-this-is-nowhere

The trouble is I love specific songs more than I do albums.  That’s why iTunes succeeds, and most people prefer songs over albums.  It’s also why greatest hits albums are so popular.  But I tend to think greatest hits are cheats on a best album list.  Two of my all-time favorite songs are “Fresh Air” and “What About Me” by Quicksilver Messenger Service.  Those songs were each on albums that I considered all filler except one song, so I’d hate to list them as two of my favorite albums of all-time.  If I had to pick just one of their albums it might be Shady Grove.

shady grove

I wonder how many albums on the EW list are there because of a single song?

I can remember two albums, both double albums I played obsessively for years, but I don’t anymore.  Should they count now?  When you make up an all-time best of list, is it the albums you love right now, or the ones you loved the most years throughout your life?  I don’t know if I’d pick any Beatles album now, but they were essential when I was a teen.  These two were very important to me for most of the seventies.

derekandthedominos-layla

allman-brothers

I think Layla and The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East would make my list, but I don’t know at what positions.

EW’s wasn’t very diverse when it came to musical styles.  I don’t remember any jazz, or much country, and little folk, and especially no classical.  And there were many big hits like Breakfast in America by Supertramp that I thought was conspicuous in their absence.   It would certainly find a place on my list.  They represent my psychic fingerprint for the music I love.

The albums I remembered while writing this essay are just a drop of water in lake of musical memories.  Here are what comes to me at the moment.  It will probably take me weeks to think about all my albums.  That will be fun, a fun trip down memory lane.

breakfast-in-america-portada

Nanci Griffith - Once In A Very Blue-Moon

peter-gunn

miles-davis-kind-of-blue

borntorun

animal-cannibal

led-zeppelin

boz-scaggs

emeli-sande-our-versions-of-events-artwork

between-midnight-and-hindsight

JWH – 7/22/13

A Study in Fame–Bob Dylan

Our world is awash with famous people but how many are really worth the notice?  If you live long enough you’ll watch the famous coming and going, maybe not as fast as every fifteen minutes, but its amazing how many once famous faces I can no longer match a name in memory, or tell you if they are dead or alive. Think about it, how many people can you name that have stayed famous your whole lifetime?  One of the strangest of the famous that’s haunted me my whole life is Bob Dylan.

bob-dylan05

Dylan was born in 1941, and I was born in 1951, and he started recording in 1961, so he was in the generation just ahead of mine, who made an impression us boomers as we became aware of the world around us as teens.  Fifty years on, my demographic cohorts are in their sixties, and the generation that influenced us are in their seventies.  Many of the famous people that inspired my generation are forgotten or dead – or both.

Most folks are famous for a Warhol unit of time because they create only one noteworthy event on the world’s stage.  Bob Dylan has written hundreds of songs, an astounding output of artwork, but what makes many of them memorable is how they fit into history at large.  And if you didn’t like his singing, there have been hundreds of performers covering his tunes.  At one time I had a playlist on Rhapsody with over 100 cover versions of “All Along the Watchtower.”  Part of Dylan’s fame is due to influencing so many other people.

Not only is Dylan famous, but he’s legendary, infamous, and mythic.  Although most people won’t think of Bob Dylan when they think of the concept of fame, but if you read his biographies, and there are countless bios to read, you’ll see he’s a perfect example of someone suffering the fates of fame.

Plus Bob Dylan has toured the Earth like no other person in history.  Dylan played 2,000 concerts between 1988 and 2007, and he continues to tour at the rate of about 100 concerts a year.  His constant touring, which has gotten named the Never Ending Tour, will probably end when he dies.  Just look at his tour dates and locations.  Fans now follow Dylan from city to city like hippies used to follow The Grateful Dead.  Dylan tours like Sisyphus rolls rocks.

Has there been anyone in the history of the world that has traveled to more places than Bob Dylan?  Dylan has his own artistic empire of fame.

Yet, to the average person, how many people can name a Bob Dylan song?  He’s not that famous, not enough that all 7 billion people on Earth know of him.  Currently Dylan is only #65 on one of The Most Famous People of All Time lists.  But such lists are bogus, because there’s no real way to measure fame, other than maybe counting daily Google searches.

Of people who listen to rock and roll, Dylan is famous, to people that don’t, I can’t imagine his name coming up very often.

Fame is an odd concept.  Fame is both ephemeral and lasting.  If you look at the 2013 Time 100 list of most influential people of the moment, you won’t see Dylan, and you will see many names you’ve probably haven’t heard of before either.  How many people know of Elon Musk?  You’re famous if the media takes notice of you, whether its because you’re heroic, criminal, mad, inventive, creative, stupid, or whatever catches the public’s fancy at the moment.

Some people consider Bob Dylan a rock star, others a songwriter, and others a poet.  Fame for a poet really means how often are any of your carefully crafted lines quoted or memorized?  Fame for a songwriter is measured by how often do people sing and record your songs.  Fame for a rock star is measured by how many people swoon at your image holding an electric guitar.  Poetry is a dying art form, but poetry was never popularly consumed to begin with, but some poems have lasted a very long time.  A century from now, how many rock stars will actually be remembered?  How many figures from popular culture can you remember from 1913?  That’s after Mark Twain and before Charlie Chaplin.

The Independent gave “70 reasons why Bob Dylan is the most important figure in pop-culture history” on his 70th birthday.  Will any of those reasons be valid in 2113?

Go to this list of Dylan songs at his website, and see how many titles you know.  Then click on the song name and read the lyrics.  You’ll have to decide for yourself if the words will survive like the words of the great poets of the past.  Dylan has lead a legendary life.  I’m sure there will be novels and movies based on his adventures in the future.  Some have already come out.  But his real fame will come from his songs, and the seeds they plant in minds yet born.  Byron and Keats never imagined all the thoughts thought about their lines of poetry, and we can’t imagine what will happen to Dylan’s words in the future.  But my guess is they will be put to uses in ways we could never fathom even if time travelers came back and told us.

The-Ballad-of-Bob-Dylan

I just finished reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan by Daniel Mark Epstein.  It was a compelling read that kept me constantly wanting to find more time to read.  Among the many biographies of Dylan I’ve read, it’s among the best, although my favorites are still Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu and No Direction Home by Robert Shelton, now in a new edition.  Reading about Bob Dylan is like trying to study cosmology, it’s a subject of endless depth.

JWH – 7/14/13

What Makes You Cry?

I don’t cry, not the boo-hoo kind of weeping, I’m more of a Mr. Spock when it comes to emotions.  But I do get misty-eyed from time to time, and as I’ve gotten older, those wet eyed moments come more often.  What makes us cry?  And obviously, we all cry for different reasons.  Yesterday my friend Mike sent me a video, “Bittersweet Melodies” by Feist, that choked me up.  If I wore mascara it would have run.  It had gotten to Mike too.  I forwarded the link to some of my friends and to the online book clubs I’m in.  So far I’ve heard from about fifteen women and a handful of men.  Men get choked up.  Women think its nice, clever, but no tears.  I’m waiting for more responses, but so far it’s quite gender specific.

Like I said, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to observe that everyone has different buttons to push to turn on the waterworks.  But of my  small sample, it seems the Feist video worked with men but not women.  So here’s an experiment, watch this video and let me know how you reacted.  Do you think it’s just clever, or does it choke you up?

[The original photographs used in the video can be found here and here.]

Before and after pictures of people getting older is a definite emotional button for me, but understanding why, is harder to explain.  The wistful Feist song does create an emotional mood, but it’s the photographs that poke me in the heart.  Why?  Well a couple of anecdotes might help.

When I was a little fella, I remember this time I had to get a shot.  I was in a full blown bawling meltdown and the doctor and my mom were trying to get me to cooperate and get punctured.  I remember the doctor patiently waiting for me to settle down. 

When I had calmed down a bit he said, “You don’t have to cry.”

I don’t think I said anything, but I was thinking, “Huh?”

He again said, “You don’t have to cry.”  He had gotten my attention.  Then he came closer and whispered, “You can choose not to cry.”

I thought about it for a moment, turned off the faucets in my eyeballs and let him give me the shot.  I was amazed I didn’t have to cry.  I remember consciously choosing not to cry the next time my mother switched me, and when my dad gave me the belt.  I then learned not crying enraged my parents who would switch and belt harder because of my lack of reaction.  Not crying had a kind of empowerment.  I went with it.

Babies cry, I believe, because they have no other outlets for communicating their needs.  I think as adults we cry when we have no other ways to express what we feel.  Most of the time we do, so we don’t cry.

The other anecdote from childhood that is useful for this topic is about separation.  To kinds of separate.  As a kid my family moved around a lot.  A whole lot.  I’d always make a best friend wherever we moved, but ultimately, that friendship would be torn apart, just something beyond my control.  Starting at an early age, looking back and thinking of lost friends always choked me up.  I think that’s why most people cling to the idea of heaven – they can’t bear that they will never see some people again.  That’s why death tears us up, we can’t communicate our feelings of loss and separation.

When I was very little, I woke up in the middle of the night and went out to the living room where my dad was watching all-night movies.  He let me stay up and I watched a film about two kids being separated when one family moved away, then they were reunited during WWII, in the Pacific.  I was too young to understand this, I just felt it.  That film burned into the core of mind, at the bottom of all my memories.  Years later I caught it again, when I was old enough to remember its name, High Barbaree, and the actors, Van Johnson and June Allyson.  Eventually I learned that it was based on a book by the same name, written by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, the writers of The Mutiny on the Bounty.  The story was about the last memories of a dying man, but of course, in the Hollywood version, he’s rescued from death.  His dying thoughts were about his childhood and teen years.  I think men feel separated from their young selves, in a way that women don’t.  I know there are no hard and fast gender generalities, but this one sort of works.

The key to my deepest emotional buttons are encrypted in that movie and book.  Events in that story resonate at the core of my being.  And that reveals probably my most powerful emotional button, the desire to return to childhood.  We can return home, to the physical location where we grew up, but we can’t return to the state of mind when we called it home.  I wonder if my lady friends didn’t respond to the Feist video because they don’t have that urge to return to childhood.  Women want to be young again in body, but guys want to be young again in mind.

I’ve read there are two kinds of people, those that would pay anything to relive their adolescence, and those who would pay anything to erase the memories of those same years.

“Bittersweet Melodies” is incredibly wistful to me.  When I really like a person I want to see photos of when they were kids.  I want to know what they did when they were kids, and where they lived.  Sometimes I think our true souls are the ones we had at age twelve.

JWH – 6/17/13

Four Little Girls Buy A Jimi Hendrix LP

I was flipping through the “new arrival” bins of used LPs at Spin Street when four teenage girls, all looking about fifteen, showed up to paw through the albums too.  I heard one excitedly tell the others she found a Herman Hermits LP.  My first thought was how did a 2013 teen even know about a 1963 teenybopper group?  I was mildly annoyed at these little girls because they had gone over to the used Rock section, the place I wanted to go next.  So I went to where the used Jazz section used to be, and I discovered that Spin Street had moved the used jazz LPs or done away with them.  So I went to new Rock section, which was now was much larger than before, covering up where a third of the used rock records used to be.  LPs really must be making a comeback.

I was surprised at the flock of girls in the LP section, a room at the back of the store away from everything else.  I assumed their parents were out front, because they didn’t look old enough to drive, but I could be wrong.  I’m used to seeing old geezers like me time traveling through these dusty bins, and sometimes I even saw some hipster thirty-somethings, but never vinyl record buyers this young.

So while the girls were looking exactly where I came to shop, I contented myself to look through the new LPs.  Eventually I noticed they had disappeared, but I hadn’t finished, so I stuck with my systematic flipping of new LPs, going from Z to A.  By the time I had gotten to the I’s, two of the girls were back and jumped into the H’s right next to me, looking for Jimi Hendrix.  They pulled a couple LPs out of the bunch, and one asked the other, “Do they have ‘Purple Haze’?”  The other replied “This one does.”

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They put one of Hendrix’s posthumous albums back, and took  Are You Experience with them to the other two girls, and headed to the checkout.  I really wanted to ask them how the hell did they discover Jimi Hendrix, a guy I discovered at 15, almost fifty years ago.  I thought it very strange indeed, like if I had gone in a record store in 1964 and bought a 1924 Bix Beiderbecke record.  It took me until my forties to work back in music history forty years.

I don’t normally talk to teenagers because I worry about invading their space.  When I was that age I didn’t like old people intruding, so I’m hesitant to do it  myself, now that I’m old.  I wanted to know if they read about Jimi Hendrix in a magazine, or their parents or grandparents played him at home, or they heard him on the radio.  And do teens even listen to radio now-a-days?  Jimi Hendrix is legendary, but is he well known among the young?  I imagined it’s not hard to discover him, I was just curious how.  Is he taught in school?  And why didn’t they just steal his .mp3 songs off the net like normal kids?

These little girls, who all looked alike, skinny, brown hair, dressed in dress shorts and blouses, looking like typical Bible Belt Baptists kids that I often see around Memphis, seemed so young and innocent looking.  What the hell are they listening to Jimi Hendrix for?  I remembering tripping at 16 and listening to “Purple Haze.”  Were these little clean-cut girls doing drugs?  Did their grandfathers and grandmothers tell them about the time they dropped acid and saw Hendrix?

Jimi was the ultimate bad boy of the sixties.  Girls loved him.  So I guess it’s not strange that girls might still love him.  I just can’t imagine these little girls going home, putting Hendrix on the turntable, cranking up the amp, and then lighting up a bong.  If I was a young parent today and my kid brought home a Jimi Hendrix record, I’d wonder if they were doing drugs.  Especially when the album is entitled, “Are You Experience.”

But I really doubt these girls got high.  This is a different world than 1967.  So how do 2013 children see 1967 kids?  Can they ever fathom how we grew up?  I’m living in 2013 and can’t imagine what 2013 kids are like.  When we were young we’d say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”  Decades later we began to say, “Don’t trust anyone under 30.”  Soon I’ll be thinking, “Don’t trust anyone under 60.”

Or is it a matter of what goes around, comes around?

are-you-experienced

I considered long and hard about buying a new LP version of Electric Ladyland, but hell, I’ve already bought it at least three times in my life (LP, CD, remastered CD).  I ended up buying 180 gram version of Ceremonials by Florence and the Machine.  An older young women, in her early twenties, the cashier, was quite pleased with my selection, and told me it was a wonderful album.  She seemed glad that gramps was trying something new, but  I wondered it she was secretly thinking, “Why doesn’t this old fart act his age and buy a Jimi Hendrix record!”

JWH – 5/27/13

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