The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Blues and the Digital Age: Part One-A Little Background

I'm finally getting around to talking about blues in the digital age...it'll be done in parts that follow my own train of thought on the subject, and of course, please remember that all this discussion reflects my own personal opinion (and knowledge or lack of). For a more scholarly look, I'm sure there's plenty of books on the subject, so here the subject will be treated in a more conversational manner.

First off, the advent of digital didn't begin with iTunes. Records were being made from digital tape for decades before mp3s became common. In fact, most VCRs could be used as digital music recorders (and often were by savvy musicians).

 Technology has always shaped the blues as much as culture. In terms of social impact, the movement of the majority of it's fan base from Afro-American to White in the 60s was the most obvious cultural change, but changes in technology has brought about a revolution in the blues (and music in general) in just about every decade.

The most obvious change is when electric instruments became common. That not only revolutionized Chicago blues, but led to the early rock and roll era.

But digital and buying music in digital form? Not so much...it hasn't changed the genre one bit.

What it has done is give artists as much control as they've ever had since the invention of the phonograph. Not even the concept of copyrighted music as done so much (since the artist's rights were the first thing record companies went after). That may change when the various lawsuits start flying over the 70s copyright law change and those start reverting back to the original artists, but the whole concept of music being sold as digital files and sites like iTunes is a situation that's very new in many ways.

The classic model is that some company puts up the money to have the artist record music, takes care of the product (vinyl, CD, etc) and deals with the distributors (probably the real power in the industry). This was supported by the concept that any self-release or publishing was a "vanity" project. The music was part of a machine, really, and entry into the game took money, and it took the approval of those who controlled the industry.

Since this all involved financial risk, most artists bought into this idea. The concept of "small" or "indie" labels is absolutely no different if it involves third parties. The fact that these small labels support non-mainstream music still doesn't change the basic theory that a record label is in the business of selling music, and that for that risk, they have the right to dictate taste.

It's not that simple, of course. Many records companies have gone under making wrong guesses about what the public will buy, and a lot of vinyl has been wasted recording artists who simply sound like those lucky few who had a hit.

What should be obvious by now, is that the real power in music is only partly money and capital...it's distribution. Columbia Records rarely will make it's artists censor their lyrics...but the biggest U.S. distributor, Wal-Mart, can demand that this or that lyric be changed and 99% of the time, it will be changed without question. That tells you who has "the juice" in the industry.

All the articles you might have read about how much it costs to make a professional level recording is just industry B.S. The real message is that if it costs so much to get into the game, then you have to go to the labels to sell your music. Do it yourself, and you can find yourself sitting on thousands of dollars worth of CDs that the distribution channel may or may not sell. Add to that the popular idea that you'll make your money off live appearances, not recordings. I shake my head when hearing that one...

In these digital times, the situation is now that any person can record anything they want, transfer it to digital and pay a distributor to get it into iTunes, Amazon, and other sites. Promotion is still a problem, but the web offers more potential to a new artist than most publicity agencies could ever achieve pre-internet.

The artist is already protected by common copyright law, can register it with the copyright office to ensure the legal rights, and can either sell the music directly or through a distributor that doesn't charge exorbitant fees. In the old days, if the record didn't sell, it involved no little financial loss, and could even end a career.

If your mp3 doesn't sell, you don't lose much. Even better, you can keep it in circulation until it can find an audience. No company will look at a quarterly balance sheet, decide you don't sell enough and cut-out your record and send it to a bargain bin. Best of all, you still own your songs and it won't get buried into some vault because it didn't go gold, and lost to you forever.

There is one argument I've heard about digital; that the lack of controls has resulted in a lot of bad music being released.

Which is such a silly idea that I won't even discuss it any real detail. The recording industry has put out enough crap that it has no call to be self-righteous about digital releases by independents. That statement doesn't even need supporting facts or arguments, it's something we've always known. Everyone has experienced buying a record because of one good song, and realizing that the rest of the album was made up of filler.

The CD era was worse. The length of the record was upped to an hour or more to keep up profit margins (and subsidize bad guesses or incompetent promotion on other artists), and all manner of "exclusive material," outtakes, demos, and whatnot was packed in. Most of that stuff really only appeals to maybe 20% of the buying public, but you had to buy it all to get this or that song. Many companies didn't even bother to raise the quality of the sound itself, often just making a straight transfer from the analog to digital.

The reason that digital will make music popular again (once the growing pains are worked out) is that it has brought back the "single."

It's no accident that two of the greatest ages in music revolved around singles. The 20s, which dealt in 78s and the 50s with the immortal 45rpm single. The reason is simple...a fan could buy the song he or she wanted, they didn't have to buy a package to get it. If that wasn't possible, it was almost certain that it would be played on the radio by some DJ who had at least some latitude to play outside of the playlist (or was paid to play via payola). Music has always flourished when it was about favorite songs.

If you read a lot of blues books, one of the things you'll hear mentioned is that the 20s was one of the Golden Ages for the music, even if not expressed in those terms. The era's been judged harshly at times by writers from later eras that could take copyrights for granted, but it was the early age of recording, and there was no set business model. For sure, the idea that artists have been ripped off isn't some ancient concept, they're still being ripped off today in many ways, so each era does have to be judged in terms of the times.

In the second part, I'll discuss how the 78rpm record both helped and hurt the blues, and why it's was a time that strikes me as being so similar to today's digital market.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Final Entries In The Top Ten Blues Car Songs: #2 and #1

I waited a while on the last two, as the higher up you go, the more obvious the choices tend to be. However, the final two haven't budged in my mind, and are firmly entrenched as essentials in my iPod. So here goes, the final two.

Number Nine: 

Al Green: "Driving Wheel" ("Can't Get Next To You" CD): This song comes from one of the great R&B records of all time. It also featured the immortal version of "Can't Get Next To You," which was the way most blues bands performed the song (as opposed to the Temptations' hit version), and "Tired Of Being Alone." What the set also featured was some of the greasiest, down home funk Memphis ever produced, by one of it's legendary bands, the Hi-Rhythm section. If you're in any kind of car, the cool but intense opening riff of "Driving Wheel" just fits right into the flow and draws you into one of the coolest laid back funk blues of all time. This song is immortal, but so is the whole album. Treat yourself to the whole dinner, and don't just download the one song.

Caddy Rating: Safe for all speeds, and a sure cure for the boredom of any long commute.


Number One:

Booker T & The MGs: "Green Onions:" There's been thousands of great car songs (and songs that sound good in a car) but none are on the same level as this one. A one off jam based on a standard blues progression, that the label President didn't want to release because it sounded so simple, it creates a musical groove so perfect that even the group could never reproduce it live. A rare cut that is laid back, but also smolders with the blues. A car song so perfect that even in the movie "American Graffiti," it was used in the final drag racing scene even though it wasn't period-accurate. I almost picked another favorite, Freddie King's "The Stumble," but decided that in the case of Green Onions, being the obvious choice was too obvious to ignore.

Caddy Speed Rating: Perfect at any speed, even if stopped (in which case, add hamburgers and fries for the perfect mood).

Coming Soon: Talking about the blues and the digital age, and since it was so fun, another blues list of some sort.

Al Handa
8/19/11










Thursday, July 21, 2011

Music Piracy Part Three: What Is Music Really Worth?

In my rambling discourse on music piracy, I did touch on the subject of how much music is worth. The point was that piracy does exist because music is worth something.

The underlying question is the same, just with extra question marks...what is music really worth???

There isn't another question or factor...if music isn't worth anything, no one will take it. A decade ago, no one would dream of stealing copper wire. Now, it's as common a crime as speeding (well, almost).

The answer is simple: Music is worth what people will pay for it, or give for it. Most people wouldn't dream of stealing big screen TVs, and they buy those as if the things were as necessary as food. If you left a 50 inch screen on a street corner, then someone would probably take it. Same with 300.00 shoes, or iPads...leave it on a bench and it will find a new home.

Which is what file sharing is. People leave music online, and of course people will take it.

But it is worth something. One good indicator of what music is worth is to watch a street corner musician at work. If he or she is good at the trade, then the instrument case has cash in it. Most of the audience throws in quarters, or maybe a buck (the top price of an mp3).

Yet...an accomplished group, maybe even a legendary one, will have it's music shared for free in a peer to peer environment.

This isn't an accident. It has nothing to do with the artistic worth of the music. While that is part of a song's intrinsic worth to some people, it's only part of the thing that people are really paying for, which is value.

A couple is having a nice day at the beach. They top it off by going downtown and having a nice dinner, and as they walk back to the car or are sitting around in the park, they hear music by some street musician. If it adds to the experience, a dollar is thrown into the guitar case. There was some value there, and it generated a cash reward in appreciation.

This scenario isn't too far from the folk music example in the previous essays. That quality of being part of a nice evening is really about community, and there's an sort of democracy in effect. The street musician is really an equal, and producing part of a collective energy that produced a safe beach to enjoy, good food to eat, a safe place to hang out in, and music with the live energy of an entertainer to add to the atmosphere. It's a product that most people understand, and they will generally give what they can. A violinist in a restaurant may seem like a silly cliche to some, but people like it when some talent adds to the overall fun. Music is functional also.

The other end of the spectrum is arguably value also, and let's be the devil's advocate here...

The product of the millionaire star. To enjoy it, the average person might have to pay anywhere from 30.00 to 250.00 to see it live. The CD might cost over ten bucks, and it comes with the stern warning that only the buyer can use it (even if we all know it'll be used in any number of ways that even the musician would have no problem with unofficially). The web will often be full of news about the star, and most of it will reflect the lifestyle of someone who thinks they're pretty special...throwing tantrums at airports, trashing hotel rooms, having illegitimate children without judgement by most of society, getting away with petty crimes, and most of all, the idea that the artist has this sort of special life that puts them at the level of royalty.

If you don't think that attitude exists, then try a little experiment. The next time a big star comes walking by with an entourage, try simply stepping into that person's path and see what happens.

I remember reading about some big rock benefit, and a famous singer's entourage came bursting through the backstage area, yelling for everyone to get out of the way. They cut a path through the crowd, and then came up on Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, and Keith Richards, and began to get into their faces. The three just laughed and the entourage was forced to move in another path.

What struck me about the story wasn't that this famous star's entourage was forced to actually respect human beings, but that it was a classic case of nobility running into bigger nobility, or at least nobility that knew it didn't have to move aside for an equal. I'm sure more than a few commoners were simply shoved aside before that perfumed train hit the immovable objects.

My point is that all this, not just the music, can figure into what the fan perceives as value.

I mentioned buying that star's CD. It goes deeper than that.

Take the Beatles for example. I bought all their LPs in the vinyl days. then I bought all of their CDs. In some cases, more than one in order to get a "remastered" or "original master tape" version. While each assumed that I had bought only a license to play it, the seller never assumed that I had bought a license to own it for life. I had to buy each delivery vehicle separately, even if it was the same song, and if you count the digital age, then there's songs that have been purchased a few times.

In other words, there's some Beatle songs that I've spent around 20.00 or 30.00 just to listen to it from my teenage years to the present.

One of the silliest articles I ever read was about rock stars who complained that when CDs were sold in a used record store, they were being robbed of royalties on that secondary sale. I'd be lying if I said it made me feel some sort of tinge of pity for the star. When you think of how much it can cost the average Joe to be a "fan," trying to collect royalites off a used record is almost like taking coins off a dead man's eyes.

Of course that never happened...the record industry, while pretty obtuse at times, simply isn't that stupid. It was a non-starter right from the beginning.

The problem is that it simply adds to the unflattering picture of an entitled class.

That's an extreme. There's plenty of music stars that I admire also, and the quality virtually all have is gratitude. There's plenty of talented, and lucky, stars...the ones who stay around and have long careers generally know that without some 40 hour a week schmoo putting out hard earned cash for their music, they'd have to contribute something to society that might require showing up to work on time, putting up with arrogant bosses, worrying about layoffs, and having to actually decide what to buy and what not to buy.

The smart ones know that, and that's why the good ones work so hard and show appreciation (or at least make sure their press agents tell the public that). They know that the average person needs to buy food and necessities, pay bills, wear decent clothing and pay taxes...and now they have to compete with the internet, game consoles, sports, literature, television, movies, and even vices.

You can't beat all that by acting like the audience owes you a living...at least for very long...you can't even beat that by producing great art, even if it is great art...you can only beat the competition if you can at least do what that street musician I talked about did...provide all or part of a great moment.

Which in essence, is what a great song is.

A song, like I said, is worth what people will pay for it. Some Beatle songs have been pirated for sure, but the latest reissues with yet another remastered mix did well. Good music will sell most of the time.

As far as always being able to make people pay for it...if we can't keep people from stealing money, copper, jewels or stop them from taking drugs, how do the record labels and artists think they're going to completely stamp out free file sharing?

That audience will pay money for perceived value (like a computer). Sure, don't leave it lying around, but the industry will be better off finding the next new thing that people will buy than to get too heavy handed with an audience that already shells out money for CDs, concert tickets, t-shirts, souvenirs, and ten dollar hot dogs.

Next Episode: Let's finally talk about the blues, the long tradition of ripping off artists done with both good and bad intentions, how file sharing helps and hurts the genre (and small labels in general), and how the digital age will make the blues even better (and how it already has).

Monday, July 18, 2011

Greatest Blues Car Song Continued: Numbers 3 & 4 (David Lindley, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt)

Greatest Blues Car Song Continued: 3 & 4

As the number gets higher, I should note again that this top ten isn't in strict numerical order, but really just ten of the best. In view of how limiting a top ten is, I'll probably add an Honorable Mention list to cover songs that deserve to be on such a list, plus any I simply forgot to put on.

4. David Lindley El Rayo X: "Mercury Blues." One of coolest blues rockers ever, from one of the great cult bands of all time. Lindley had an acclaimed career before Jackson Browne, and with his band El Rayo X, continued to have one. The song opens with a pounding drum beat that's recorded so loud that it might as well be the lead instrument, and it draws the listener in (always a sure sign of a great drum beat). A propulsive rhythm track comes in, with as perfect a slide riff as you're ever going to hear. Lindley's voice is a perfect match for the cut, and the whole thing barrels along with an energy that never lags. This cut has never been off any portable music device of mine since the cassette days.

CADDY Spedometer Rating: Good at any speed, but will make 55 feel like 25, so listen with care.


3. Jackson Browne/Bonnie Raitt: "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" (Warren Zevon Tribute: Enjoy Every Sandwich). One of the hallmarks of a great song; just about any artist can cover it and sound definitive. Linda Ronstadt and Terri Clarke did wonderful versions (both on my iPod), but the best was on a Warren Zevon tribute CD, with that classic cut performed by Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. Instead of opening with a twang, Browne and Raitt decided on the big bang (bad rhyme, but couldn't resist in my quest to avoid cliche). A pumping bass and drum intro lead into a great Browne vocal, and some of the hottest slide I've heard in a decade. Bonnie isn't the fastest slide player around, or the most dynamic, but she's not only one of the most unique (thanks to using a strat) but easily one of the most intelligent. She never plays a solo that's purely an exhibition of chops and speed, and in this case, it fits the song so perfectly that it functions as a song hook. I bought this song almost immediately after hearing it on the radio, and it's never been off my playlists since. Zevon was a great songwriter, and his friends here did one of his greatest songs justice.

CADDY Spedometer Rating: Good at any speed, but it will shorten any freeway drive by 50%.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Music Piracy Part Two: Fan Perception Of Music, It's value, and Musicians

The thing about downloading music for free is probably not about morality...most people know that making music costs money, and that the musician does want to profit from the recordings. I've read various opinions, the worst being that musicians should give away their recordings and make their money from live performances.

Which is absolutely silly...an artist doesn't record a song simply to promote live performances. It also represents the time and money it took to record it, and most importantly, it's the one concrete thing that most artists will leave in this world. If the artist wants to give it away, that's different.

One thing that's obvious...if music is free, most people will take it. If someone puts copyrighted music on the internet in  a file sharing situation, of course people will download it. The reason music is downloaded isn't because record companies rip off consumers (maybe that's true, maybe not), that some artists are too rich and don't need the money, or that a piece of music becomes something the buyer can do whatever they wish with.

The main reason people will download music is simple...it's worth getting for free, as it's something that they would probably pay for if there was no other way to get it. Music has value.

Most people who download also know that when they do so, the musician doesn't profit from it. I've read the various rationalizations, ranging from downloaders also buy music to it being a compliment to the artist. Probably true to an extent, but I also think, and this is my opinion, it also has to do with how musicians and music are perceived.

It wasn't that long ago that musicians were basically servants. There's always been folk music, of course, but in terms of professionals, only the rich nobility could afford music. That's because it had to be performed live, and as a rule, the cheapest way is to make the performers into servants. Common folk could rarely pay for music, and thus it was often created communally. This changed over time, at least for some, and I've read that we're in an aesthetic age, where artists have been elevated into an elite.

That's sort of true...the most popular are treated like royalty. The problem is that unless you are popular, the audience's perception of you will be all over the map.

Some will respect the skill it takes to even present cover numbers in a dance club situation, some won't, and will tend to treat musicians as a servant class (and treat music simply as sound that can be "captured" for free)

I remember my first gig as a musician (unpaid of course). It was as a teen, and at the time I played bass. A group of us had been invited to jam at a teen night at a local recreation center, and the organizers hoped that we could play for a few hours.

Which we did...but my main memory of that special night is that during this one jam (on a Santana number), a girl stood in front me while I was playing, and kept screaming in my face "Play 'Get Ready," Play 'Get Ready," play something we can dance too"!!!! No one else did anything about it mainly because, like most novices, we were playing so loud that I was the only one who could hear her.

I'd have chalked that up to youthful exuberance except it also happened once at a party when I was in my 20s. I showed up to play, and we were just jamming, and this drunk guy waded into the musician area and started yelling at us to play something he could dance to (I'll grant that maybe we weren't). Another time, like at a wedding I once attended, a drunk sat on the drummer's seat (while the band was on break) and began to bang away on the drums while the crowd laughed and applauded. The band came back on and were good sports about it, but I know that it made me cringe to see that. Most musicians absolutely hate it when someone just grabs their instrument and plays with it without permission.

My point isn't that people treat musicans like dirt...most don't, and they truly appreciate the music. It's just that the perception of music even now isn't always that far away from the folk conception, and thus a sort of communal property. Copyright law is a relatively recent concept. Even classical composers like Handel and Bach treated copying someone else's music (or having their's copied) as a compliment.

Prosecuting down loaders is wrong headed. If for no other reason, that's going after the customer and that never works. It just adds to yet another public perception that's just as important to the question of downloading as the public's perception of music.

That perception being that many musicians are arrogant, rich, and have a low opinion of the audience that made them stars.

True enough...in a court of law, we'd have to stipulate that as fact. Which will, right or wrong, give people the idea that taking music for free is OK. It really has nothing to do with whether downloading is stealing or not, but if the industry is smart, they'll realize that they, the artists, and everyone in the industry depends on the public's goodwill. It may not be fair in a sense, but if you produce music in some isolated room for artistic satisfaction, you can do what you want with it. If you want someone to pay for it, then all the usual rules of business apply.

In the case of music piracy, the customer may not always be right, but he or she is the customer...and there is no alternate route to stardom and recognition of the music. If people don't like you, or don't want to buy the music, there is no music industry...period.

Music has been both a public property, and a valued one by the noble class, and in a more democratic situation, the musician is perceived in wide variety of roles, from entertainer to star, from hack to artist. As long as music is being sold, any attitude about artistic worth or lack of it is irrelevant...art is for it's own sake, art for money is in the realm of entertainment, and the customer is king.

Which leads us back to the question (hopefully, if my narrative flow was good), is piracy OK?

Of course it isn't...and if music was worthless, no one would steal it.

The real question is, since you can't put the customer in jail, how do you get them to pay? Frankly, for all the screaming the labels do, most of the customers do pay, and the situation hasn't been made better by arbitrary claims of the financial damage caused by downloading (bootlegging, that's another subject) or imposing massive fines on housewives and students. Getting the ISPs to cooperate (or forcing them to as the government is doing) does help in the short term, though it's really like trying to kill off an ant colony with your feet.

The real solution is to change the public's perception of what music is in the digital age, and to recognize that due to the extraordinary changes in how music is delivered, that a new model needs to be developed, and in the short term, not to punish the consumer too much until the new system is perfected. In a free society like ours, oppression doesn't create obedience, it creates rebellion. Most of the piracy systems (like peer to peer) are not created by the public but by individuals, and their cooperation will make or break any effort to make the digital music industry into a viable one.

...and until the next paradigm, the digital music industry is what we'll have for quite a while. Better to fix and perfect the delivery system, and stop wasting time treating the people like criminals for taking what's there. Plug the holes for sure, and most won't go looking hard for the new one...but fine some single mother or student 100,000 dollars for downloading, and the industry will be kidding itself if it thinks the public will be cheering them on...in the old days, when the principal lectured the students or punished one in public, most sympathized with the punished. Same with the current trend of fining down loaders higher amounts than drunk drivers.

In part three, I'll talk more in detail about mp3s and other digital formats...and more about modern bootlegging which in the long run is the real problem. Once again, these are my opinions and thoughts, and don't represent industry or consumer opinion.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Music Piracy Part One: Radio and bootlegs...

The question, whether or not music should be free doesn't really have a right or
wrong answer, and in my opinion, is really more about how people value and relate
to music. In terms of radio or any broadcast medium, music has always been technically
free (though conditional).

For example, the basic agreement between music makers and listeners used to be,
if you bought a particular delivery system, like a radio, it was free. There
were strings of course; there were ads to listen to, not to mention the hope
that you would buy the record or CD on the basis of the free sample (the
single). On that basis, the record company was willing to have songs played for
free over the air.

That wasn't a bad deal for the listener. Most music, especially in pop, has a
shelf life and you're likely to hear it about as many times as you care to in
the time this or that song stays on the charts. The label took the risk here.

The one thing the record company counts on is that a song or album is even more
pleasurable when it can be heard on demand. Which required a record company to
record an artist, capture a sound, get it onto a medium like a record, package
it and distribute it, and of course, pay the artist (which may or may not have
happened of course). People knew this, and many were willing to pay money for
that service.

There was a clear perception that it was a concrete product, something that not
only held the music one enjoyed, but was an object worth keeping, and it only
provided the service to the holder.

What changed all this didn't come with the digital age. What started it was
access to consumer level tape recorders. Now, a record could be lent out and
taped by another. In effect, a record was no longer a self contained
product...the music could now be separated and given to another, or sold by a
third party. It wasn't easy, and required an investment on the part of both
parties, but it was easier. Especially with the advent of cassette tapes and
recorders, though believe it or not, music pirating has been around since the
days of paper sheet music.

The sale of that copy in vinyl (or tape form) was called "bootlegging."
Bootlegging was sort of common among jazz fans in the 60s, and was mainly
confined to live performances and rare recordings not generally available to the
public. There was a "code," that such recordings were only to be traded or given
out in limited distribution, and as a rule, the recording industry didn't
aggressively prosecute the practice. If for no other reason that prominent music
writers were among those collectors.

Bootlegging began to be more of a business when it entered the rock market. Most
accounts say that the first really popular rock bootleg (it hit gold status in
sales) was the "Great White Wonder," a copy of the tapes Bob Dylan made with the
Band as he recovered from his now famous motorcycle accident. There were
different versions with various collections of songs from the sessions (and
other sources), and even that record was bootlegged under other titles. The
sound quality varied from poor to downright tinny, and it's main appeal was the
fact that it contained Dylan songs during a period where he was as hot as an
artist could get, but wasn't releasing product.

Many of the Dylan songs that artists were performing during that time were
compositions that he hadn't recorded yet, and were taken from that bootleg and
other similar tapes. In other words, even artists bought bootlegs back then.

Still, the practice generally stopped well short of copying legal releases in
the vinyl era. It was simply too expensive and legally dangerous to make a vinyl
copy of an album and still make a profit from the effort.

Where the rock bootleg had it's main impact was with live albums. Countless live
albums have been released, if for no other reason, than a bootleg of a concert
or tour was already out and selling well.

One good example is the Rolling Stones "Get Yer Ya Ya's Out" live disc. Before
it came out, a double set from the Oakland Coliseum gig was out and doing well.
To this day, some feel that it was the better live album.

A good second example is the Crosby, Stills and Nash "Four Way Street" double
LP. It's now considered classic, but at the time, it was described more as a
ragged document by a band that couldn't duplicate it's tight harmonies and
arrangements. The primary reason the band put it out was probably because due to
their popularity at the time, a bootleg of their earlier gigs called "Wooden
Nickel" was already out and selling well. In terms of sound quality, it was one
of the worst of it's era, but it capitalized on the group when it was a top
concert attraction.

The reason most artists and labels gave for countering the bootlegs was that it
gave the consumers access to a better quality product, as most bootlegs were
basically rip offs.

Still, it took a lot of effort to put out a vinyl bootleg, and most weren't put
out in large quantities. One had to take the source recording, get it into a
mold, contract a pressing plant to make the vinyl records (generally under a
fake title or name), package it in an LP jacket, and get someone to sell it (and
taking the risk of being busted).

At this point, it could still be argued that it provided a product that the
label or artist wouldn't have put out, and mainly fed a dedicated fan base.

What isn't always said is that bootlegs are parasitic. In rare cases, it can
document a cult artist's output and keep interest alive, but it's main function
was to captialize on an artist during the period when he or she was at a career
peak. To put out the money to issue a record was a real risk back then, and
bootleggers only bet on sure things.

The basic perception that justifies bootlegs is that it only affects record
labels. Which isn't true.

Even the most popular artists have a period when their earning power is at a
peak. During this time, they're going to make as much money as their recordings
are going to ever generate and as a rule, that income is going to decline.
Artists need this period to pay back the label's advance on royalties and have
something to show for their work. If they don't generate enough income, they
often find themselves in serious debt.

This is also the time when bootlegs of that artists are the most salable also,
and anything the bootlegger makes doesn't go the artist. The argument that such
recordings help the artist isn't true...no one bootlegs unpopular artists,
except in rare cases like cult artists, and even they would benefit more if
royalties were generated by that activity.

The fact is, commercial bootlegs are always parasitic.

Once digital music could be easily duplicated onto CD with perfect quality, then
the nature of pirating changed. Instead of rare or "legendary" live performances
or demos, just about every live gig could be easily put out. "Soundboard"
recordings (from the soundman's console) used to be considered a high grade
bootleg and relatively rare...now, the range of bootlegs easily encompassed any
live recording that could be captured on a small digital (or even analog) tape
recorder, but also illegally obtained soundboard and soundcheck tapes, demos,
unreleased albums still sitting in "the can" in a recording studio, or even
currently available product.

The reason is simple, it's about distribution (as it usually is)...

Like I said earlier, with vinyl, you have to get the tape or bootleg mastered
into a mold, find a pressing plant that would take the job (or fool one into
doing it), package the LP and distribute it. That's a huge trail and it wasn't
very hard to track down a bootleg, or a store that would sell it.

I remember one used/new record store that was an institution in my teenage
years. It was hit by an FBI raid, and the fine essentially crippled it and it
went out of business a short while later. Because the vinyl bootleg was a
concrete item, with a complex trail, it was an easy product to stamp out once
people got serious about it.

CDs are another matter, those can be duplicated privately by a console (in the
old days) or by a computer now. There's essentially no financial risk either.
Copying legal releases and selling those at a lower price became easy, and it's
now relatively easy to make it look like a legal product also.

When services like the original Napster appeared, music pretty much stopped
being a commodity in the traditional sense. The music was now a digital file
that could be transmitted without the traditional vehicle of a record or CD, and
listeners didn't necessarily need radio anymore and the tacit agreement between
label and listener for that service was no longer in effect. The relationship
between radio, the artist, labels, and the listener is a complex one, and that
will be talked about in part two.

Music that once was free to listen to also became free to own with the advent of
file sharing, and even with sites like Napster forced to change to a commercial download or
streaming model or others like Limewire simply shut down, there's no denying that the public's
perception of what music is as a product has changed.

In part two of my thoughts on this subject, I'll talk about the good and bad of
the advent of mp3s...I should note, that everything I've said is purely my
opinion and not intended to be a definitive history or final authority on the
subject.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Greatest Blues Car Songs Continued: Number 5 and 6.

Decided to add numbers 6 and 5 to the top ten list, and introduce the new CADDY Speedometer Rating system, which as a disclaimer, is for entertainment purposes only and isn't a recommendation of how fast you should drive while listening.
Continuing on here with the list.....

6. Paul Gayten & Friends: "Cow Cow Blues" (78RMP Collection, Amazon, etc). As many of you know, or may not know, the word Cow is a popular word in song titles, though not as much as evil women or no good guys. This is one of the most enjoyable swing piano boogie instrumentals ever, and an essential part of any collection. It opens up with a tinkly piano riff, done on the far right of the keyboard, and it pretty much stays there while a great walking bass rolls in, accentuated by a drummer who isn't trying to be too smooth. In fact, that's part of this group's charm, it all sounds offhanded and casual, but it's more a case of music done so well that it sounds easy.

CADDY Speedometer Rating: Perfect at 30mph, but please don't go 30 on the freeway just because it sounds perfect at that speed.


5. Bill Haley & His Comets: Rudy's Rock. Many of Haley's greatest hits compilations have this one, but before buying "Rock Around The Clock," check out this one. Basically it's a loose, very swinging and rocking jam featuring the sax player, and it's like with the Paul Gayten cut, has a loose jam feel. Except, once again, these guys are just too good to sound like they're just jamming. If you like Roomful of Blues, this cut will blow you away. It's always on my iPod, and I may ask Apple to please hard wire it into my next one.

CADDY Speedometer Rating: Perfect at freeway speed, and at 35mph if there's not too many stoplights. Otherwise, use at any speed, or slip it into the queue at a party as the perfect antidote to playlists with excessive amounts of guitar blues.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Greatest Blues Car Songs: Continued....

Continuing along with the top ten list of greatest blues car song...


We were at number seven, for those of you just tuning in...

7. Galactic: "Wild Man" (Other Side Of Midnight: Live In New Orleans). When talking about great New Orleans bands, of course the Meters are on top...but, this hard charging New Orleans funk band is one of the songs that's making commuter traffic feel like a good excuse to listen to music. They have some Meter's influence, but it's a harder funk, with some jazz overtones. This is one of the few live albums I've heard that make you wish you'd have been there. The hot cut, in my opinion, is Wild Man, a pounding medium tempo funk that avoids the usual mistake modern funk bands make, which is, playing too much. Less notes, less beats, lots of soul. Those who download on Rhapsody, iMesh and other sites can't miss with this song. If you're on iTunes, it'll be one of the best dollars you ever spent.

8. Major Lance: "Rhythm" (Everybody Loves A Good time: Best of Major Lance). "Rhythm" is from a 40 track compilation that's pretty much available everywhere on the download sites and in CD. Lance was mainly known for his big hit, "Monkey Time," but those who think that sophisticated Soul music was only found at Motown (and the Impressions) should take a listen here. You'll find a singer who could sing pretty much anything, almost as good as Sam Cooke, and had a absolutely listenable big band soul sound (with conga like a lot of the early 60s soul had) style that sounds as good on a summer night as anything ever recorded. Rhythm opens with a call and response and glides along with a soul-pop mix that goes along with a cadillac better than a whitewall spare tire. You can see where Laura Nyro's early sound came from. Major Lance has to be one of the most underrated singers of all time, this guy should have been as big as the Drifters or the Temptations.

More detailed listening in progress, numbers 5 and 6 coming along....

Vinyl Records: How Sweet The Sound?

There are some good reasons to prefer vinyl records, but let's face it, it's also been turned into a marketing gimmick by labels desperate for new income streams in an age where people are buying less high profit ticket items like CDs.

I've been an avid music collector all my life. Like many of you who owned vinyl back in the day, my record collection often took up most of a room. The thin record covers gave us the illusion that the things were as easy to store as books. Until you filed enough away to go from a few thin items on your shelf to a large square or rectangle of records that were as heavy as a bowling ball collection. Which then ended up in milk cartons or crates, or just on the floor.

But that's another subject...what I find interesting is the notion that the vinyl LP is the best way to listen to music in the digital age. There are geeky technical reasons, generally centered around round and square wave theory, and the concept that sound can have "warmth" and so on.

Labels ushered in the era of CDs with high prices, promises those would become cheaper and kept prices high by adding extra q1content beyond the ability of most artists to provide it. As a result, the CD age inadvertently reverted to the 60s rock era, where artists would be given a decent amount of time and resources to produce singles, and then very little to fill out the rest of the album. In the case of reissues, the music was often dubbed indifferently or in haste to CD, and often sounded worse than vinyl.

When I think of vinyl, a story comes to mind...back in the mid-70s, a friend bought a 2,000 dollar (in mid-70 dollars!) stereo system and proudly showed it off. He went on about balancing the turntable arm, the cartridge needle, and it was set perfectly to bring the best out of an LP. It also so sensitive that the tone arm skipped and bounced around if anyone walked within 6 feet of the turntable.

Then he explained that vinyl needed to be virgin, not recycled (not very green), that pressings for the general public were of poor quality...

...and...didn't fully capture the fidelity of the original master tape...

The sound of that master tape, which contained the music that we all later listened to, had to be transfered to a mold that produced the vinyl record. Depending on a myriad of conditions, the record might or might not truly transfer the sound successfully. That led to a sub-market of audiophile level records that took the sound from the original master tape, was remixed from this or that tape, or whatever.

Then you had the actual process of putting a needle on the record grooves, which then began the process of wearing out the grooves, which made the sound deteriorate, and of course, scratches on the vinyl that often made a popping sound as loud as the music and so forth.

If you read record reviews from that era, those are full of comments like "lousy pressing," and once you got more than 15 minutes of music on each side the volume started to drop as the grooves had to be made smaller, thus producing less sound...and leave a record in the sun? Forget it, it became as useful as a DOS software disc.

The whole thing about the vinyl debate isn't really about how good it sounds. A good pressing combined with well recorded music does create a beautiful product...the point is, that a record is really a mix that makes the music sound a certain way. That warmth is really distortion and how the sound is transmitted and projected, and the appeal of old records is really about how it sounds, not how good it is.

Classical music, for example, depends on warmth. A lot of acoustic instruments are playing music that in most cases was intended to produce blended sounds and textures. That type of music benefits from the lack or separation. Rock, on the other hand, thrives on it. That's how most rock is recorded, with each instrument recorded separately so each element can be manipulated in isolation first, then in combination. Metal music wouldn't sound as powerful unless you took the drums and guitar and made each sound like thunder.

If a digital CDs sounds sterile and cold, and it isn't due to the artist lacking soul (or talent for that matter), then it's really a technical problem. It all started as a digital signal on tape, and then was transferred to vinyl. That process "warmed up" the sound. In guitar amps, reproducing that warm sound is pretty much standard even on cheap amps. If you hear music live, that's probably as accurate as it will ever sound and any warmth due to what is used to amplify that sound.

If you like vinyl, it's probably due to the fact that you like how it sounds on your system.

Are today's CDs actually better sounding? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on how the music is played, how good the mikes are, how well it was produced and engineered, and of course, if the artist can function in a recording studio as well as in concert.

The fairest thing to say is, the reason vinyl is making a comeback is that digital hasn't been an obviously superior product. The labels who moved to digital had a huge advantage in that they could have put the entire digital signal of the original master tape or file onto a CD and do more than even the best vinyl could achieve. The current wave of "remastered" music reflects some technological improvements, but also shows that the industry will only put out as much effort as it takes to get your money.

Like every era of music before it, digital music has been produced with genius, incompetence, greed, carelessness, blatant disregard for the consumer (I mean, does a refrigerator company try to make people not let anyone else use the product), or some combination of the above.

Like a sports team full of high priced talent and still doesn't win the championship, digital music is still only as good as the people who make it. So far, they've only been good enough to make most people prefer it to vinyl.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Blues And The Digital Age: A New Golden Age?

There will come a time when it'll be recognized that the digitial age was one of the best things that could have happened to the blues.

The first "Golden Age" of the blues was the 20s and 30s, when the 78rpm record was the height of technology. Recorded music was a true novelty, and people were as nuts about it as they are about the internet today.

It was one of the few times when the music industry was close to being open to all and a reasonably level playing field for the artists. It still depended on businessmen with money, of course, but in those days, who knew what was good or what people would buy? Since no one knew with any real certainty, just about anybody who could play could find themselves in front of a wire style recorder, or an acetate cutter to make direct to disc recordings.

Thousands of artists were recorded and there wasn't a distribution channel (like Wal-Mart and rack jobbers) that could make or break an artist or label. People even sold records out of the back of a car trunk and as a whole, most of the records made were listened to. Whether or not this process ended up ripping artists off is a subject in itself, and I'll talk about it another time (as artists are still being ripped off now).

What eventually happened isn't a mystery. The business got big, each record had to be a hit, and if it wasn't, the artist was dropped and their music often placed in limbo.

Once the record business evolved into such a high stakes game, particularly in the LP era, the main outlet for the smaller artist became what would now be called Indie or Independent labels. The blues in particular became a mecca for small labels.

Which had it's risks. Many of the smaller labels brought in the one thing that can screw over an artist as thoroughly as having to play for free at an art festival for "exposure," that is "good intentions." In this case, the underlying recogition that a lot of the older blues would fade away into history without a determined attempt to preserve it. More than a few artists recorded music that's still in print for a flat fee or small advance, or wasn't paid at all for a reissue of their old recordings. With some small labels, the profits were often sunk into the next release and royalites not always paid out.

But a lot of the blues from that Golden Age did make it to digital thanks to those small labels, and the people who ran those often made no real money from it and often invested their own limited assets to reissue old 78 music or record a blues artist. Again, a truly fair look at the 60s blues revival would take a book, which is out of the scope of a blog entry like this one.

What is clear is the advent of mp3s as a music technology standard has empowered the average blues artist to an extent well beyond the early 78 era.

The old way of getting your music out, even with small labels, was either find someone who would invest in the cost of putting a record out (plus distribution and promotion), or doing it yourself (and be possibly treated with some contempt by the industry as a self or vanity publisher). The bottleneck was always that your music had to be judge worthwhile by someone else.

That's an interesting subject in itself. Whether or not the record industry is the best judge of music. I recall reading recently that some record executive complained that the digital age had clogged up the market with a lot of junk, or something to that effect.

Which would, to anyone with any, and I mean any common sense, rolling on the floor laughing out loud. Record companies have put out a lot of great and even classic music...but they've also put out as much mediocre and time wasting product as our Congress. The fact is, the business model of trying to find a mega star is a wasteful and destructive process.

That process always ends up in the same place...in front of a listener, who'll then decide whether to buy it or not. Whether or not the music cost a million to produce or was recorded in a living room, it'll be listened to by someone who won't care what it took to bring it to market...just how good it sounds to them...and that person, if they're anything like me, prefers to shop from a wide variety of sources and choices.

Indie level Blues artists, or even a talented New Age pianist like Peggy Leyva-Conley might have had a chance to make it within the industry itself, but the digital age guarantees that even if a label doesn't record them, their music will not only stay in print longer, but will be always available. They can just put it out themselves without the huge financial barrier the industry established in the 60s, and not worry about the tight time frame the labels want to see a return on their investment...it was a barrier designed to make sure the record labels controlled the output, even if the real power was with the distributors (who had the power to control what came out).




In other words, digital made distribution open to all.

Throughout most of the what we call music history, the real power was in distribution. If Wal-Mart doesn't like your lyrics, then 99.999% of the time the label will make you record a PG-rated version for the market. If the rack-jobbers didn't carry you, you were small time at best...period.

Even the constant struggle with the labels and iTunes over pricing is really just a side show, the real conflict is that the labels want to dictate distribution. If iTunes, which controls much of the digital market ever folds and obediently does what the labels tell them to do...watch out.

Back to the blues...The mp3 age has created an environment where a blues artist can not only produce a record, but distribute it at small cost. When I'm on a site like iMesh, for example, I not only see thousands of artists that never would have shown up even at a used record store, but entire back catalogues are available for the classics. It never would have occurred to me to own everything Charley Patton ever recorded, as it would have cost too much. Now, the scope of his genius is available to me, and all the pleasures that having such a complete collection of his music brings.

Before, a small label blues artist would have to spend thousands to produce a record, just to find it a struggle to find places to sell it. Most of the big distributors wouldn't touch a small label record. Now, it can be online, and on a site like Rhapsody, well worth my time to download and sample with a royalty paid to the artist (small as it is, it's still payment). Back when CDs were over 12.00 a pop, it was hard to want to try out a new artist.

Like all Golden Ages, the freedom of digital will pass...but the music industry will never be the same, and for now, about as fair to both the consumer and the artist as it will ever be.

The Virtual 45 Listening Booth: MP3 Samples

One of my favorite record stores in the 70s was this little place in San Jose's Valley Fair, back when it was a sleepy open air mall. It only sold singles, and had the best selection in the valley. Even Tower Records couldn't match it.

What made it especially popular was that it still had the old fashioned listening booths from the 50s. You could take a singles into one, put it on a record player and listen before buying. You couldn't do that with vinyl LPs, of course, but 45s were different. Singles were tougher, made to be stacked higher than shoes in a closet, and could be abused with sandpaper and still play...which was about what the average kid did to a 45.

The digital age has brought that back, more or less. An mp3 never will wear out, so it can played endlessly in sample form before purchase. Record companies have never objected to this, otherwise there wouldn't be radio...but for a while, it wasn't possible to preview a song over the internet (at least easily). The concept of a compressed file helped, of course, but early 30 second samples often bogged down the older computers (if the software could even play a sound file). Nowadays, a 60 or 90 second segment is standard, and on sites like Myspace Music, you can hear the whole track.

The barrier to making sure you hear a good enough sound to fully appreciate the music is now moot. Most computers have speaker systems that make my old stereo sound like a phone speaker, and the average iPod type device puts out better sound than many old time headphones.

When you're dealing with a sample, though, there is the question: does the segment being played really show you what the song is really about? Many of the services now use excerpts instead of just starting the sample from the beginning of the song. Which can defeat the whole purpose of a song intro, which was to draw the listener in.

iTunes, for example, plays 60 second samples, which seem to be geared towards showcasing the most "interesting" part. One of my songs, for example, "Beach Dog," starts right when my mandolin part starts to climb in the progression with a minor passage. We added that part to put a wistful feel into the number, and it's exactly the part I would want someone to hear (as long as you're not going to hear the intro that was meticulously planned to make the listener involuntarily click the "buy" button).

On the other hand, Amazon also uses a excerpt, but the selection process seems haphazard...sort of like putting the phonograph needle down on a random part of the record. One of the Handa-McGraw & The International songs, "Trouble In Tucumcari," opens with a drum part that's designed to draw you in and make you dance your butt off baby, but the sample comes in later, and even I felt a little confused about what that piece was about.

This can be a problem with jazz...most jazz songs state a theme and then improvise from there, and it's common to go into a dissonant section to add tension before moving back to the main melody. Get a sample that has that part, and it can make the listener think it's a free jazz piece.

Blues...even more so...particularly with old Delta Blues. Many were essentially improvs over a rhythmic vamp, much like a modern rap song, and you really need to hear the story in the lyrics in many cases. Luckily, most were also technically mood songs also, so a sample can do a good job of communicating the feel.

Unless you can hear the whole song, it's never certain if it'll please your tastes. But there is important information that can be gleaned from even a 60 second listening.

Even on a computer speaker, mainly used for beeps and other notification sounds, it can be obvious if the song is well produced (for some, that's important) and a good match for what it'll actually be played on. If it sounds good on computer, it'll probably sound good on earbuds or in your car (that means the 90% of us who don't own thousand dollar stereo systems).

A song that sounds dull or quiet will generally need to be played at higher volume, or with the iPod set for "sound check" (amped up to be at the same volume of the louder songs). This is no big deal at home, but having to use more volume can affect battery life in a mobile device, so sound quality counts. Some mp3s show the effects of indifferent mastering and sound flat (illegal downloads commonly have poor sound in most cases), while others seem to just jump out of the speakers.

That quality of "loudness" is important. It can impact battery life as pointed out earlier, and how enjoyable the music is.

An mp3 has less signal and digital data, so enough of the music has to come through to make you do whatever it is you do with music. That's not a criticism, of course...music has rarely come down to the market in it's purest form anyway, otherwise there'd no market for remastered albums. Whatever the artist or label intended you to hear, it was filtered to our ears, generally through small speakers, cheap stereos, and whatever the radio sounded like (and the old radio DJs could control that).

The silver lining is technology...today's listeners generally have standard access to equalizers, pre-set music mixes, better quality gear and music editing software. The aware consumer can always adjust things so the music is to their liking...

...if the music is good in the first place, but that's another subject.

The Internet Is Forever: Old Delta Snake stuff still online

After writing the last blog, I decided to actually see how many old Delta Snake reviews and articles were still online. It's not a comprehensive list, basically first page of a google search and a look at the pipl page, but it's a good view of some of my old writing.

One thing for sure, I'm glad I didn't do something stupid and put it on youtube or something...what you do really does stay online forever...

List:

* Canned Heat "Future Blues" Review

The Canned Heat official page still carries the May 1996 (Vol 3., No.3) Snake
review of the Future Blues album.

http://www.cannedheatmusic.com/future_blues_-_reviews.html

* Fairfield Four "Wreckin' The House"

Using the most spectacular line from a review, which is common practice, and
reviewers know it...we all hoped back then to be quoted. " Breath-taking bass
and high harmonies, and explosive vocal climaxes that send chills down your
spine."--Al Handa, DeltaSnake.com


http://www.somekindofparadise.com/label.html

* Boz Scaggs "Come On Home" Review

September 1997 review, scroll down about 3/4 down to get to that one.

http://www.bozscaggs.org/comeonhomereviews.htm

* Fiona Boyes Press Section

Many blues artists probably don't even remember or realize there's a Delta Snake
quote in their press release or page. Here's one" Some of the most listenable
folk blues I've heard in a long time … a remarkable solo debut by an artist with
a lot of good music to come … who bears close watching in the future – Al Handa,
Delta Snake Review

http://www.fionaboyes.com/pressreviews.cfm

* Delta Snake May 1997 No.19

This issue is still up in it's entirety. Reviewed included Roy Rogers, Percey
Mayfield, Ellen McIlwaine, Darrell Nulisch, Kenny Blue Ray, Son Lewis and many
many more.

http://www.oocities.org/bourbonstreet/delta/2929/05_97.html

* Maria Coyote

One of the things I always tried to do with the Snake was find blues artists
overseas...the first web issues, for example, found an Aborigine Blues artist,
and Maria was another from Sweden.


"For those who love the blues, there is a harmonica and guitarist named Maria
Coyote out of Sweden . Very powerful Delta blues style, with a freedom in
performance that was present in the 20´s when that genre was at it’s peak, and
not so common now. You can find her site at: http://www.mariacoyote.se/blues.htm
Her main is also interesting as she is a talented artist particularly in
watercolor.
AL HANDA, The Delta Snake blues, jazz, world music reviews and opinion, US

Al Handa was the Editor and Publisher of the Delta Snake Daily Blues, and the
Delta Snake Review.

http://www.mariacoyote.com/


* King of Maxwell Street

An old poem of mine that was published on the "Preserve Maxwell Street" Site. It
was part of a blues/jazz poetry work that's actually still in rough draft form
and in progress.

http://oaarchive.jeo.net/maxwell/king.html


* The Colored Aristocracy: The Blues Banjo.

The Preserve Maxwell Street site exerpted from a longer article I had written
about the blues banjo. The title came from a Taj Mahal banjo piece.

http://oaarchive.jeo.net/maxwell/papacj.html

* Back In The Day: A View Of The Blues

Ricky Bush, a writer who used to do reviews for the old Delta Snake, went on to
do a very good blues blog, and he talks a bit about his reviews.

http://bushdogblues.blogspot.com/2008/06/sonny-boy-terry-blues-quartet.html


* Chris Murphy Review

A Sept. '97 review I wrote for issue 20 of the Snake when it was an E-Zine (back
when the Internet was all about the Usenet.

http://www.borncrynmusic.com/DeltaSnakeBluesReview.html

* ReverendGaryDavis.com

The Reverendgarydavis.com page reprinted my review of "Pure Religion And Bad
Company" that ran in issue NO. 19.

http://reverendgarydavis.com/LPs1.html

* Lady Blue And The Tramps quote

Group still uses an old quote from a Delta Snake review: Powerful, sultry
vocals, screamin' guitar, and a tight, dynamic rhythm section. "Listenable to
the extreme" (Al Handa, Delta Snake Blues).

http://www.jambase.com/Artists/9865/Lady-Blue-and-the-TRAMPS/Bio

* Paul Delay "American Voodoo" Review

This was from E-Zine version No.3, you can always tell because the slogan was
always "...bringing the thrill back to ASCII"

http://www.europa.com/~damray/voodooreview.html

Monday, June 6, 2011

Greatest Blues Car Songs (and the truth about "best of" lists): Part One

I'm sure that most of you know that "best of" lists are not anything more than this or that person's opinion. America is addicted to "experts," and music is so monolithic that we all appreciate suggestions as to which artists we should make unbelievably wealthy.

I used to love writing up "Greatest Of All Time" list on my old Delta Snake Blues News. Not only did I get to talk about my favorite artists, but it let me write huge chunks of copy without worrying about narrative flow, structure, or even making sense. It gave me an added return on my often enormous expenditures on new and used records, and of course, showed a readership thirsting for blues knowledge how good my record collection was.

The fact is, we can never really know what the greatest rock songs were, or any genre, if that term is taken as an absolute. There might have been some rocker out there in New Zealand in 1974 (or whenever) who played this song in his or her room, and it might have been greater than Michael Jackson, Prince, Sgt. Pepper and Dark Side Of The Moon combined...sort of a bear in the woods type of question, really.

Of the millions of songs ever created, we've heard (at least till the digital age) what some person thought was a sound that people would pay money for...and many of the hits of the past were discovered by luck. Still, there's plenty of music out there, and more so now. Lists may not truly tell us what's great, but at least it makes us listen instead of gawk at album covers or try to figure out if the liner notes or artist bios contain a clue as to how good the music is (hint...of course not, artist bios and liner notes are designed to sell the record, not tell you how good the music really is).

There is such a thing as a good car song...it may not actually be anything more than what a person thinks is a song that sounds good in a car, but it is a genre. It's been a marketing tool in the past, there was an offshoot of surf called "drag strip" or "hot rod" music. Which sounded like surf but instead of the sound of waves crashing there would be the roar of a car engine or something.

In all fairness, I should add that most publications that publish best of lists do make a sincere effort to determine what the greatest songs of this or that era are and most are arguable, even allowing for the occasional inclusion of artists who just happen to be on the labels of the biggest advertisers.

Since I accept no advertising, and have received no offers of money or merchandise that would make me change that policy, what follows is part one of an unbiased list of the ten greatest blues car songs of all time, subject to change in mood or burnout due to overplaying, or if I drive a different model of car than my Caddy.

The key element is not the lyrics (in my opinion), and any song that complained about the rigors of the road (as if the singer would rather be doing a nine to five job) was immediately disqualified. The criteria is simple; a good car song is one that when it comes on (on the radio or stereo), it makes the motion of the car, and life in general seem like one good feeling, a moment when the mental and physical are one.

10. Bukka White: "Southern Streamline" (Arhoolie Records). This is actually a song Bukka, or as he preferred to be called, Booker, performed over the decades under various titles. The reason I picked the Arhoolie version is not only better sound, but it's the most powerful performance. White's boogie sound was a catchy combination of bass string work that sounded like he was strumming at the same time the slide riff was going, and it was as attuned to the rhythm of a cruising car as any Delta Blues ever written. It's basically the tale of a train ride, and a masterful description of the people and things he saw at the stations, all with a bemused and interested eye. This song was as good as it gets with the Delta Blues.

9. Bo Diddley: "Mumbling Guitar" (Chess). Some of the best songs are throwaways, and this was a casual a masterpiece as anything ever written (except for "Green Onions," the king of cool one off jams). This was also as fast as he ever played, but then, we all have to hit the gas and drive fast sometimes, even in a Caddy. Bo opens up with the usual trademark riff, then the drummer kicks in with a ferocious 1-2 stomp beat and basically he just jammed and made cool sounds on guitar. If one listens to the later "rave-up" sound that the Yardbirds made famous in the 60s, you can see where it all came from. The only problem with the cut is that being a studio jam, it wasn't recorded as well as the obvious singles on the album, and most versions I've heard don't do it justice. The version I favor is a taped copy from the 50s vinyl record, which I managed to hang on to, and later digitized. I made a mistake at the time and left the recording levels too high, and it brought out the highs and drums too much, but I've never heard a better mix that captured the wild sound as well, so I've kept it. If you download a digital copy, use Audacity or some other sound editor to amp up the level, and you'll hear a good song become a great one.

I'll continue with the list in future blogs, though it won't be done in a linear fashion. Whatever pops up next the next time I drive to work.






Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Blues From A Cadillic: Thoughts About "Madame George"

I do a lot of music listening in my Caddy, which is like being in a sofa that happens to have wheels. There's music that sounds best in one, blues being the most obvious, but songs of a contemplative nature also sound good. I like to spend the 40 minutes or so driving to work drinking coffee, listening to my iPod (via car stereo), and generally just waking up. If you happen to see a '90 tan Cadillac DeVille floating along some South SF Bay road towards Palo Alto, you might be wise to give it a wide berth until I'm at least halfway through my coffee. I find the relative bliss of awakening useful in ignoring the usual commuter road ragers also, which is a sort of yin-yang thing if you really think about it.

I like to just channel surf songs until one hits, which is why the 700 or so songs are eclectic. Plus, for all you budding song writers out there, surfing 30 seconds of each song till one catches your ear will give you an invaluable glimpse into the superficial world of A&R. I remember reading articles about A&R people who listen to demo tapes, and the main thing is that they often just listen to the opening of each song and often will begin to lose interest by the third cut. That wisdom cost me nothing, so I pass it along for you all for whatever use you can make of it.

The first song that stuck was the live version of "Madame George," from the relatively recent Van Morrison CD that featured the classic "Astral Weeks" in it's entirety. I have to admit, listening to lyrics tends to be a secondary priority with me, I'm more interested in voice as sound (as Van is, from what I've read), but this morning the words really came through. Part of it might be the mix, the live version is much "brighter" in sound, but Morrison's voice tends to penetrate the consciousness like a good Coltrane cut too.

I'd always seen this classic interpreted as a glimpse of the life of a female impersonator, which it is of course, but what struck me was that Van's narration wasn't sympathetic, but empathetic...it was dispassionate yet focused on small incidents that showed Madame George's humanity and frailty and the overall mood was kindness.

Not the kind where you pat the person on the back or give them money, but where you view the person as-is, their foibles noted without judgement, and purely on what happened. That's a type of tolerance we don't see much anymore. This country has become very partisan, and every fault can become a reason to lose a job or position, and every mistake a stain on your character. Labels have become charged, and we often preach diversity, but find it OK to use the most insulting terms for someone we disagree with, often on a single issue. A woman can be independent and outspoken, but if a Republican, can be disparaged in a way that would normally cause a bar fight in many parts of the country.

Which is what's so beautiful about music, it really never ages like a movie can. It's meaning can change over time, depending on how your point of view shifts with life, and in this case, it made my morning just that much more peaceful hearing a story about some human being that when you think about it, isn't any different than the rest of us. Madame George was the perfect soundtrack to my commute this morning.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What's Up About "Remastered"?

One thing you saw during the CD era was the "newly remastered" album, sometimes classic, sometimes not. In many cases, that remastering was simply what should have been done in the first place...many of the earliest CD reissues of classic albums were simple digital transfers over to CD and sounded about as good as a decent tape copy. It was mainly to meet demand at the time. Later on, it became another selling point in the industry's attempt to keep CD prices high, and that practice has continued on into the mp3 era.

Remastering a CD makes some sense...the medium can accomodate more digital information per song than the older vinyl, and technically makes for better sound quality. The problem, of course, is what that information consists of. A straightforward digital transfer would give you a very wide sonic range on a song, more than vinyl or anything you can think of. In fact, the closest most listeners will come to hearing a song in it's full dynamic range is at a live concert. The thing about digital isn't that it sounds more sterile than, say, vinyl, it's that all the information is there pretty much exactly as the music really sounds like in a pure state.

In reality, there's other factors...the mix, how it's mastered (clean or louder), and of course what you play it on. I remember reading once where Tom Petty said that they always checked the mix on a boom box, figuring that it was going to be one of the more common ways their LP was going to be played. The whole thing about mono recordings wasn't that it was superior to stereo, but that it was the ideal mix for most radios of the time, which only had one channel. Also, some songs will sound better in mono simply because the musicians will have played the song with a mono mix in mind. Otherwise, there's no reason blues, which is considered a mono medium, can't sound fine in stereo or quad if mixed properly.

A good example was decades ago when Columbia accidently released a bunch of Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run" LPs on the west coast, but with an "East Coast" mix. People complained that the music sounded flat.

Which it was.

You see, most albums were released with the dynamic range equal along the whole sound spectrum for decades. With the advent of the West Coast rock scene, a mix that emphasized the low bass and high treble developed, which to west coast ears, sounded more alive. But listeners on the east coast preferred the flatter range mix, and so Columbia released different sounding LPs for each region.

Another good example is Bob Marley's first major record, which had "International" and "Jamaican" mixes. The International version had the bass toned down, and extra instruments added like guitars to give the Western listener a more "musical" sound...but Marley insisted on having the Jamaican release done the way it was always done on the island, with a big, booming rhythm track and less on top (no guitar solos, etc). In a sense, it was watering down his sound, but also, it made him an international star and not a cult artist, like say, Desmond Dekker. Interestingly, many of the old Bob Marley records have been remastered and are closer to the Jamaican mix in feel.

Which brings me back to the idea of remastering. I'll admit, I'm a sucker for any new reissue that claims to remaster the original master tapes or whatever. In many cases, like with the Stone's reissue of "Exile On Main Street," you realize that it was better off with the older mix, but in the case of the new Sam Cooke reissues, it's a revelation.

To a certain extent, the idea of remastering is a gimmick...the constant remastering of the Beatles tracks tends to be a simple moving around of the sound, and in the latest reissues, have made many of those songs sound clearer, but losing some punch and drive in the process. Some songs, particularly the complex ones, do well with remastering. Some, like old blues 78s, certainly sound louder but often less clear, or in some cases, more clear but drier.

I had mentioned Led Zeppelin in the last blog entry...Jimmy Page recently took many of the tracks, and essentially added more compression and level (loudness) and that was the Mothership compilation. To younger ears, the stuff sounded punchier, and in some cases, did improve some of the songs (at least to my ears). However, to someone like me, who had the Led Zep stuff already, the new mixes sounds louder, but a lot of space and tone was lost. Bonham's drums, for example, sounded best when recorded in a natural sound, as his power made the acoustic sound of the drums like thunder or something. Flattening it out, and actually making it louder sound took it away from the realm of genius to that of a well manipulated drum track that sounded almost electronic...but that's stuff only a small percentage of people will notice.

I recently downloaded (legally of course) a lot of acoustic blues, much of which I already had, but wanted to sort of upgrade my collection in terms of sound. In many of the services, like Rhapsody or iMesh, download even the same release a few months apart can give you a different sound. In some of the artists, the music was quieter but cleaner, and you could hear the acoustic instruments better. In other cases, it sounded louder, but more distorted. Which is incidently the key difference between digital and vinyl based music...the reason music on vinyl sounds "warmer" is that there different sound frequencies in play. The sound, or signal, from a vinyl record will tend to sound more natural, as the sound waves are "rounder" or in other words, slightly distorted...that distortion is what makes a lot of rock sound "louder." I remember many times not liking how this or that rocker sounded, so I would transfer it to tape and jack up the recording level a bit to make it sound louder to my ears.

Which in more than a few digital albums, that's what "remastering" is, except for adding more compression, it's often just boosting some of the frequencies. The key thing to remember is that a digitial album is a collection of songs that had 40 megabytes or information or more, reduced to maybe 8 megabyte digital files...so you really can't "remaster" that kind of track. You can make it sound louder, you can make it sound clearer (and sacrifice some volume), or emphasize a particular range (like more bass, etc), but there's not enough room to really bring back the original sound of the master tapes or whatever.

It's a trade-off, and on the whole, I like it...but thanks to free programs like Audacity and other sound editors, you can adjust a lot of these songs to your liking, which I'll discuss in a future blog entry. For example, I almost always edit out the long audience cheering for a encore on live albums, and if I think a song sounds too weak, I'll boost the levels. The digital age hasn't always been kind to blues reissues, in my opinion, and knowing your way around a sound editor will help you make the blues sound like it should. That, plus I'll talk a bit about the various download services and if their different kbs rates for the mp3s really makes a difference (it can, but often it doesn't).

It's not bad stuff to know, particularly as an artist. Being able to distribute digitally has been a godsend for the independent artist, but how the music is heard out there is just as critical as it was during the CD or vinyl eras. Knowing how a song will sound if it's released at 256kbs or 128kbs will often determine whether or not that listener will like what they hear and buy the song.

More on all that later, until then, just enjoy the music and don't mind this old man talking on and on :-)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Blues and the Digital Age: Part One...what do you do when you can have anything you want?

I don't know about you, but the digital age of mp3s is the golden age of blues collecting...I used to cover around a dozen used record shops in a regular weekly circuit in a constant attempt to have the rarest blues. All of which, of course, sounded great, no matter how loud the scratch noises were or tinny the sound.

In maybe a few years, we'll probably see that the digital age was very similar to the 78rpm era. Music became a singles medium again (as it should be), and the sound quality somewhat primitive. The convenience of compressed files is sort of offset by the noticable lack of sound quality. Since I do most of my listening in a car, that's not a big issue, but when listening on a good stereo (or at least as good as I care to buy, I used to play my blues records through a guitar amp) it's obvious that the music is mixed for earbud earphones. The highs are emphasized, the bass range narrowed, drums way up, and everything is compressed within what seems like a 10 mghz range. In other words, the music loses it's "space." On a Led Zepplin song, this is noticable, on an old 78 reissue, not so much.

I'll comment more on this in the future, I imagine, but let's face it, if you like old blues, you were never concerned with excellent sound quality anyway. In fact, my preference on old 78 reissues is that there be no editing of the sound whatsoever...sometimes I'll hear a remastered old blues with the scratch noises cut out (along with a lot of the highs) and it'll sound strange to me...like I'm in a library or something...actually, if you've only been in a modern library you won't know what I'm talking about...I remember sampling some music one time in one and couldn't even hear the music over the screaming of little kids and people talking on cell phones...I treated scratch noises likes the veil one has to see through to look into the past, and frankly consider it a part of the music. I also like electronic music, which is similar...

The one thing that being on services like Rhapsody or iMesh did was make it possible to have all the old blues you could eat...early on I would download the entire Blind Lemon Jefferson catalogue just to have it, and of course, never listen to it. Sure felt good knowing I had every slide piece every recorded, must have had a couple hundred Tampa Red numbers, for example.

Which brought out a stark fact about the 78 era...many of the artists would record dozens of the same song with only a couple of variations because they were paid a flat fee per song. At his peak, for example, Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the best selling artists of his time, but died broke because once the music stopped, so did his income. His catalogue is huge, beyond what a sane person will listen to unless they're a Blind Lemon fanatic.

I eventually had to become a discerning listener when I filled up a couple of terrabyte drives and my iTunes app slowed to a crawl. In the old Delta Snake newsletter days, it was a lot easier...I listened to what was sent to me for review, and even when it got busier, I still had time to listen to each record. In the digital age, my collection is over 500 gigabytes (and that's after pruning out 400 gigabytes in the past year). Also, in the CD era, one had to prioritze...I couldn't get every record Guitar Mac or Roy Rogers ever put out because I still needed to fill in my Chess or Stax collection. Well, now I have all of it, and it doesn't fill up a room, and one of these days I'll stop collecting the stuff and start listening to it.