Thursday, August 02, 2007

Back in Your Head

Song: Back in Your Head
Artist: Tegan & Sara
Album: The Con

I recently read that CD sales are down 20% from last year, a super steep decline even given the downward trend that’s been happening over the last ten or so years post Napster and the birth of the MP3. As a music fan and someone that has spent what can only be described as “a fortune” on music throughout my life I have followed this issue, the trend, how the industry is reacting, and have also given a lot of thought to how I feel about it. On one hand, I am a supporter of the arts and the artists that make them but also as just a huge music lover, the advantages of being able to listen to so much music is a dream, and something I could never have fathomed (i.e. afforded) fifteen years ago.

When I was young, and I mean like starting at eleven, I fed the dog and mowed the lawn for $10 a week. This let me buy one new cassette a week which I did for years. When I started working part time at sixteen, and then full time during the summer, into college, etc. I bought music at a regular (if alarming) rate. This is no different a story from any other music nut, something I learned in my brief stint at a label and met people as much (and more so) into tunes as I. While buying music the day it comes out, spending every last dime, and literally going insane from waiting for a new record by an artist I love to come out is deeply ingrained within me, the internet and information sharing age has changed all that.

Napster was the jumping point which got the industry freaking out. But mind you, they also thought the cassette was the end of the industry, why are they always so nervous? But when Napster came out and I got to use it during its heyday it was a revelation. I was getting songs I always wanted (for free! and fast!) as well as super hard to find stuff I had only read about. I was really into Robbie Williams at the time and remember chatting with someone via Napster and sharing all the hard to find obscure stuff with some dude in Sweden. It was hands down just awesome. But unlike the cassette, Napster did effect the business and music sales have been declining ever since. Despite digital music sales finally being worked out, and Napster shut down and then re-launched as a pay site, the majority of the tech-savvy really liked getting tunes for free so other peer-to-peer services cropped up and the decline continued.

As blogs became more well know, then exploded, then became ubiquitous, MP3’s were just a click away. Labels sent cease and desist orders, files were taken down and then “re-upped” and as more and more cropped up the industry wanted to know one thins: how can we control it? The internet and web are a creation of the people and we get to control it. It’s one of the best and worst things that have happened in the last thirty years. And now, with the onset of large file downloading websites such as rapidshare and megaupload, old, new, and albums that haven’t even been released yet are a simple link away. Blogs now post them, people share them in chat rooms, and message boards are littered with these links. Has the new White Stripes leaked? Well it did before release, and as the way these files work it just gets multiplied and multiplied. You can literally find ANYTHING that is new, old, or yet to exist… why buy?

So as a supporter of the arts and a crazed music nut as I mentioned, I am torn between getting and hearing music I am interested in or can’t/couldn’t wait to hear, and supporting the very artists that make, in all honesty, my life a little bit better to live in. Music feeds me, inspires me, and partly makes me want to get up in the morning. So over the past six months or so I have, given in to my impulses, downloaded these albums, songs, etc. and enjoyed the freedom of not being tied to my bank account in regards to how much music I can listen to. Now only time and hard drive space are my worries. But, while this is amazing it makes me miss out on things. For example, Beck is an artist I have followed and loved since high school. I have, in my memory, waited anxiously and gone out to get at least four of his albums on their day of release. I remember tearing open the packaging for the first time, putting it into the CD player and experiencing it as an album, and possibly the way “it was designed.” For his last two I got early leaked versions online and lived with them for as much as a month before I was able to get the actual album, which I did buy. For both, Beck released versions that had tons of extras, DVD’s that you couldn’t download… making it a sound purchase. But more on that later.

Has this way of experiencing his music “ruined” the “intended” use at all? And does that really matter if I actually do purchase the music? Because I still have not gotten over the joy of opening an album, seeing the artwork, and holding it in my hands, I still buy music. Yes I download these albums and listen, if I like it, I buy it. Does this mean that I am buying as much music as I used to? No way, probably not even half. Does this mean that I am still supporting artist and music that I like and think is good? I think so. Does this mean that I have stopped being disappointed by music I buy that turns out to be garbage (one great song, lots of great marketing, mostly filler) because I get to preview it first, for as long as I want before hand. Absolutely. And that I dig.

So let’s talk about the artists and specifically those that have been very vocal in their dislike of music downloading. I feel for you, to a degree. Let’s say I make a birdhouse I am happy with and proud of. I put it up and the next day I find that it has been stolen. I’m pissed, I spent a long time on that birdhouse… who do you think you are that you can just come and steal my birdhouse! You owe me! I get this, and also understand the disappointment that must set in when you plan and work on a project for months or maybe years only to have a simple leak “ruin” the whole thing. And I also wouldn’t want someone to admire and judge my birdhouse before it was finished. In the age of the leak, many artist are finding unmixed, unfinished, and incomplete work being passed around and then JUDGED for the world to read before they have a chance to complete it to their vision. That really sucks, and would piss me off too.

But let’s talk about being a rock star, a celebrity, and the lifestyle difference of say Bono to someone like myself. While I work forty-five hours a week at a job I care little for working paycheck to paycheck, Bono gets to travel the world, work on his art when he wants to, (something I assume is his passion) meet fascinating new people, and also save the world in his free time. Sometimes when I go out to eat I get the modestly priced chicken because the $25 steak is out of my budget. I love Bono, I love him music, and seeing U2 live was one of the more pleasurable and memorable moments in my life. I love that they lead the rock star lifestyle… but is it fair? Yes he, and other rock stars work hard, do they work as hard as you or I? Do they have the same worries and fears as you and I? Do they have the feeling of little control of their lives that you and I might have?

This difference in lifestyle is what always drives me crazy when I hear those guys from Metallica cry about their music being stolen. Yes, okay… you and your record label executives aren’t making as much money as you used to. But come on… isn’t being able to work on something your passionate about, being able to travel and see the world in top fashion, take almost any amount of time off you’d like, having people that look up to you, being able to inspire, and just not worrying day to day if you can AFFORD life and the future lives of your children enough?! Yes you work hard and should be rewarded but I am sorry… since I have spent more than half of my life and what could have been my life savings on your music, concerts, and videos I say… give me a break. I’m sure you have problems, I am sure things can be difficult for you, but I can not believe that your day to day, week to week, year to year is as difficult as those that actually are BUYING your product. When are the personal rewards you receive from making over… let’s even just say $500,000+ a year just not enough. And how do you justify this when there are people in this world living in utter poverty literally hoping they can get through another day? And while I use Bono as an example of the rock star lifestyle I would also be hard pressed to find someone as privileged who has worked just as hard for people WAY less fortunate as I. Way to go Bono.

Speaking of Metallica, one of my favorite stories I tell when discussing illegal music downloading is something that happened to my good friend Bob when Napster was out and being used by millions and Metallica as a band was one seriously vocal critic of the service and the trend. They put some of their heavy legal muscle (affordable given their multi-million dollar bank accounts, because justice can be bought… hi O.J.!) and forced Napster to have any of their files removed from the service as well as the accounts deleted of anyone who had ever downloaded any of their music. [It is important to remember that at the time, Napster was the only way to really get music illegally (aside from shoplifting I guess) blogs and rapid large file sharing didn’t exist.] Anyhow, my friend Bob, who I would describe as a “super-fan” literally owned everything Metallica had ever released. Every album, VHS, singles, t-shirts, you name it. He spent what little extra money he had on this band and when he downloaded an obscure remix of their song “One” (which was unavailable commercially) his account was shut down. For this one song. He is no longer a Metallica fan.

The irony of being a millionaire in Metallica is that other millionaires probably don’t listen to your music and certainly don’t buy it. Metallica fans, by and large, are the poor, disenfranchised, and angry at the world because they have little control of their lives, and their angry music speaks to them. So fans of the band got to hear their rock star idols complain about losing out on some money that was being stolen from them while they live in mansions, drive fancy cars, and use the hard-earned money that they have taken from these poor fans and blow it on cocaine. Metallica have not since been as popular or relevant post this entire debacle. And justice for all…

So how does this get fixed? And given my points above, SHOULD it get fixed? We have, since the birth of the corporation, done our best to delete the American Dream. The Mom and Pop modest-sized businesses that have allowed certain people who have worked hard to build something and live a “comfortable” living for themselves and their families are dying. Why go get a cup of coffee you’re not familiar with from a stand-alone coffee shop when you can get a $5 frappachino© from good ol’ Starbucks which are conveniently located every other block? Why spend $500 on a stereo system at a small store with a knowledgeable staff when you can get the same system at Wal-Mart for $200 because they can buy in ridiculous bulk and get it cheaper? Why go to that small single record store and pay $20 a CD (because they had to buy them for $10-$14 each) when you can go to the aforementioned Wal-Mart or Best Buy and get it for $10? Actually… why pay at all when you can download it for free?

What the music industry fails to acknowledge is that music is just too darn, and always has been, too expensive. A DVD costs $1 to manufacture and anywhere from $9 to $35 dollars to buy. CD’s are even less to create. So why do you get to charge so much for something that doesn’t cost that much? My mother used to own a gift shop and could mark-up a product from its wholesale price by 50% or what is known as a “keystone” mark-up. Within that 50% profit she needed to pay rent, pay her employees, buy future product, and also live off it. Let’s just say that my Mother no longer has the store. And while she use to carry music because she enjoyed it, she did, as I mentioned, had to pay anywhere from $9 to $14 a CD. So how could she NOT charge $20+ a unit? And why would ANYONE pay that much when they can go to Best Buy and get the same thing at half that price? So how do you rationalize an upwards of 2,000% mark up? I suppose the reason is, you really like being rich. I understand, I’d like to be rich too… and my Mom would probably like to have her store again, and a little control of her life.

Okay, before I get too sucked into this downward spiral of the haves vs. the have-nots, let me get to why I started this post… the EXCELLENT new album by Tegan & Sara…

So yes, about a month ago the new album leaked before release date (leaks used to be news, at this point they are expected) and as it was one of my most anticipated albums of the year I got it and have been listening to it ever since. At first I was unsure how it was going to hold up to the excellent “So Jealous.” The fist two tracks, “I Was Married” and “Relief Next to Me” sure were not the new-wave upbeat pop that I was wanting, and expecting. But things kicked in with title track and third cut “The Con.” I’ve already discussed how much I like it, and despite being catchy like most of their work I love, it is layered, complex, and the best of what I want and expect by these blossoming singer-songwriters. The rest of the album was starting to grab me, even those first two tracks but it didn’t truly sink in until the album I bought came in the mail. Yes, the album I BOUGHT.

Since I had spent some time with the record and realized I was starting to dig it I decided to spend the additional $5 and get the special edition off Amazon. It came with special packaging and a DVD, which I didn’t know anything about until I opened it. To my surprise instead of the obligatory (and usually disappointing) DVD content of a special edition Tegan & Sara made a 70 minute documentary about the making of the record. And it’s amazing. (They did a shorter version of this embedded as a digital file on the CD itself for “So Jealous.”) The movie is broken up into “chapters” (which follows the book theme of the artwork and structure of the album) and basically goes through the album from start to finish, track for track, as they record, discuss, and create the music. Not only was this amazing to behold, I am hard pressed to site another example where an artist was so open to exposing themselves, their creative process, and their art in this way.

Getting a glimpse into their process and the birth of this album was simply a revelation. There was a moment when Tegan, with just a guitar, her voice, and one person accompanying her, played her song “the Con” for what appeared to be the first time for the producer and others working on the record. In essence it was the rawest example of the artist and their art and I am not ashamed to say that it made me cry. It is moments like these that speak to all that music means to me, all the emotion and personal weight that a melody, voice, and lyrics can hold. It was hands down a beautiful moment and one that has (obviously) stuck with me. Since watching this, I have not been able to put the album down and think it is their finest work. It has everything that I have grown to love about their music, voices, and lyrical complexities… and also pushes their art forward. But this glimpse into their creative process was nothing short of amazing.

Here is Chapter III in which I refer for “The Con” from the DVD:

So, because I think you should see this movie and OWN the packaging with the artwork, written lyrics, & credits, go BUY this album. The extras are good, the music is excellent, and it could be one of the more import records of the year. It could be the year for these twin Canadian lesbians. (And yet I hate myself a little for feeling the need to mention that, but a spin is a spin.) I think that artists need to look at Tegan & Sara and their model of being working artists. While they are indie, and do not have presumably the paycheck of say Rihanna, they are most likely making a comfortable living and in my mind the “right” way. They had a modest budget for the record (I’ve heard $50,000, in comparison the Guns and Roses debacle that is Chinese Democracy STILL isn’t out after over a decade in the making and has cost upwards of $13 Million) have created product that is worth buying, and have set up an extensive tour in which to further build their fan base (they did the same for “So Jealous”) and also make them, eh-hem… money.

In closing I will address one last point on the role of the musician in society and how I truly feel they should be compensated monetarily. I do think that an artist that creates a piece of art and releases it, as well all the people that put it together and get it out there, should be compensated for their efforts. Now, do I think they should be getting millions of dollars for this? No. While I don’t argue that creating an album is in fact ‘work’ I can not understand why someone should be paid an unbelievable amount for this. You are getting to work on your art full-time AND are being paid for it. You are getting the chance to be surrounded by gifted talented people with creative minds, and you are living, as I would assume, your personal dream. Now, what you SHOULD get paid for, and maybe a lot depending on what you’re putting out there is touring. Touring is, despite whatever rock star conveniences you may be afforded, serious work. It is physically draining, and a lot to put yourself out there for a crowd… no matter if it’s 100 people or 100,000 people. I also have no issue with an artist making money on merchandise. Should a t-shirt be $60? Maybe not… but I pay that as a token of my memory of the event. That’s cool with me.

What the internet has done is put some control into the hands of the people. Information and ideas are able to be communicated, sent, and discussed in ways that have never been possible thus far in the history of the earth. In the world of the music business, yes it has taken some small joys out of the process for me, but that is because I allow it. It also has put a bit of a dent into artists and industry types from making a killing off the public, the audience, and those that actually buy the music… you know, the ones that make their careers exist. In the end I don’t feel bad about this. One thing I learned in my brief stint in “the business” is that those in the business don’t even buy the product themselves. “Friends” from other labels will routinely send all the latest product to others and vice versa. Can’t these music fans understand that another music fan also would like to enjoy the benefits of getting to absorb other music without going broke as well?

But go out and buy Tegan & Sara’s new record. They deserve it and so do you.


Here is the video for first single “Back in Your Head”

1 comment:

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