In Search of Sasquatch...

I was reading a thread that Yglesias has over at his site about music downloading and IP law. It is an interesting read, and you should go check it out. This post is about a sentiment expressed in the comments section, that I have seen else where, best put by Scott Free, that with file sharing we will have “No more mega-wealthy, self-indulgent, spoiled rock stars. Just people drawn to a calling.”

I started to think about my own experiences with creating music, and toiling in a small unknown band. My band played together for about four years. We recorded two albums in that time and played up and down the East Coast. At no point did we have anything even remotely approximating a manager, so we did all of the booking ourselves. We funded all of our equipment, posters, and albums with money earned from other jobs. During my tenure with this band I played a Goth metal bar in Erie, PN where our sound guy had contacts the blotted out his pupils in an attempt to appear like a vampire, while also running a Heroin den in the back of the club. I played numerous exclusive concerts for bartenders and waitresses. We had our guitars stolen from our van in New York City. We spent thousands of dollars on an album that no one bought or listens to.

I relate these experiences not to get pity, but because I believe that every band has these types of hardships when they are starting out. Some bands manage to get over the hump and start making money and having a reliable fan base, most don't. This is where the “mega-wealthy, self-indulgent spoiled rock stars” come in. I will confess that while I was moving drums out of a small bar in Indianapolis I was thinking about what it would be like once I had a roadie. While falling asleep on a friend's sofa I imagined being interviewed by Rolling Stone. At my other job, I fantasized about being rich. We need the spoiled rock star or else we might never get out of Erie.

I am sure that some musicians will reply that they do it for the love of music, or to serve some internal muse. I can understand that, music pretty much dominates my life. I think about it, write about it, and practice it constantly. But here is the thing, you can serve the muse in your basement. When you step on a stage, you are not serving your muse, you are looking for acclaim, I was. And when you are in Columbus, OH playing for 20 people, most of whom are just waiting for their turn on “Golden Tee,” you need the dream, or why would you be there?


The Bays

There is an interesting article over at the Guardian about a band called The Bays. They are a British band that doesn’t rehearse or record albums. They create music at every concert based on the crowd and interactions with each other. They create “ a compromise between what we want to play and what they [the audience] want.” They point out that recorded music is “an aberration in the history of music.” For The Bays, “the performance is the product.” If you join their mailing list, you can get access to mp3s of their concerts.

While I find their stance regarding recorded music interesting, I am not sure that I agree with it. I do agree that music has been a performance art. Before Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, it was impossible to hear music without someone physically performing it live. Unlike plays, one can’t read a score in any way that adequately reproduces the effect of experiencing the performance live.

I also find it disappointing when I go to a concert and a band, whose album I like, is just not very good live. The thing is, I also find it disappointing when I see a band that I like live and bring their Cd home only to find that it is flat, boring, or just not that good.

The advent of recording technology has created two distinct, and equally valid, artistic mediums in the music world. To say, or imply, that recorded music is bad for the artistic health of music is wrong. There are things that can be done while recording that can’t be done live. There is an art to layering sounds, panning instruments, overdubs, etc that can create a new depth to music. There is also an art to listening to band members and reacting to them live, conveying an emotion live, and a myriad of other things that go into a great live performance.

I was talking to my father when I was recording my last album. I was telling him that I was adding pianos and organs, multiple guitar overdubs, percussion, and other things to some songs. He asked me how I planned on reproducing these new sounds live. I told him that I didn’t. When I am recording I am focused on creating the best album that I can. When my band got on stage, we were only focused on creating the best performance that we could. For us these were to separate actions. While I would like to think that my last band was good at recording and playing live, our poverty and subsequent break up doesn’t allow me that delusion.

The Beatles played their last concert n San Francisco on August 29, 1966. Almost a year later they released “Sgt. Peppers.” Most of their greatest music was recorded without any intention of playing it live, and never was performed. The innovations they accomplished on their later albums, I believe, are possible only because they didn’t plan on performing the music live at all.



The Medications have two free mp3s up on their website. They are a Dischord band that, like Q and not U, are breaking away from the traditional sound of the label.

The first thing to notice about these songs is the time signatures. Twine Time is in 5/4 and manages to do so without sounding obvious, or like Take 5. In fact, I had to sit and count just to pick up on the time signature, it didn’t jump out at me at first. Safe and Sorry has a bridge with shifting time signatures that would make Rush jealous, without sounding as irritating or pretentious as those damned Canadians. The time signatures don’t sound forced in either of these songs, and they manage to keep the energy level of both songs up. To me that means that they were really playing these songs when they were recorded, not standing there counting 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and in their head. The time signatures must feel natural to them, and I like that.

The songs are also surprisingly melodic for a Dischord band. There is no screaming, one could actually sing along to these songs. The bassist and the drummer do an excellent job playing together. All in all the musicianship is impressive on both these songs. They are worth checking out, and free dammit.

Standing in the Shadows

I saw “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” last week. For those who don’t know, it is a documentary about the Funk Brothers, the house band at Hitsville, U.S.A. They were a collection of mainly Jazz musicians recruited by Barry Gordy. They played on more number one hits than The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Elvis combined. If you think of a Motown song, any song, there they are creating that sound. They are unquestionably among the greatest musicians of pop music. Jack Ashford deserves a place in music history based on his tambourine playing alone.

I am not going to bother reviewing the movie, you can find numerous reviews if you would like. I will say that it should essential viewing for any musician. What I want to discuss is one of the movie’s theses is that anyone could have sang on top of the tracks that the Funk Brother’s laid down and had a hit. They attempt to prove this by having current musicians sing old Motown songs with the Funk Brothers. Michelle Ndegeocello sings “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” Joan Osborne sings “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” etc.

I must say that I agree with the thesis. The songwriters at Hitsville wrote fantastic, timeless music. The tracks that the Funk Brothers recorded pop and groove, you can’t help but tap your foot. The songs are dynamic and alive and the sound they created is infectious. Above all, a Funk Brothers’ song is unique. Numerous people have tried to copy the Motown sound, including an effort in my home town, but none have been successful. These songs are hits as long as you have someone who can hit notes standing in front of the microphone.

That being said, the great songs in Motown are more than hits. A number 1 song is a hit as far as I am concerned. Hits from the 90s include: “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”, Bryan Adams, “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)”, Los Del Rio, “Believe”, Cher, and “Too Close”, Next. All of these songs sold large numbers of records. And while they are clearly hits, they are not “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” or “Tracks of My Tears” for example. The Funk Brothers recorded hits, but Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, and Diana Ross created masterpieces.