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by Rob Horning

8 Oct 2008

I tend not to be sentimental about the loss of great packaging for music. Stripping music of its container is of course impossible, but it remains in my mind the ideal worth trying to approach, so that in listening to songs I am not merely vicariously experiencing the thrill of getting to pretend to be the rock star who made it or believe I’ve joined some subversive cult of insiders or that I’m living some glamorous luxe life. But in some ways, pop music is the province of consuming cultural images and claiming ownership of certain aspects of the zeitgeist. This is why it is often inseparable from the hype that otherwise seems to encrust and suffocate it. If I were serious about approach my ideal, I’d probably invest more time in classical music, which comes with far fewer signaling aspects—aside from the great big one that you consider yourself to good for common contemporary culture. It would inevitably betoken an unwillingness to participate in the now.

Anyway, the only place I see album covers in the flesh these days is in thrift stores, and I never know what the album covers of new records look like. I couldn’t possibly tell you what a My Morning Jacket album cover looks like, even though I am pretty sure iTunes has downloaded little jpegs for them automatically. This hasn’t affected my appreciation of the albums at all, and may in fact have enhanced it. If I knew how they were trying to represent themselves, I’d probably be annoyed; as it is I can pretend they are Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

But when I look at posts at the excellent LP Cover Lover blog, I realize that some album covers were far more important than the music contained on the vinyl within them, and that that music is basically unthinkable and certainly would have been unsellable without the context-establishing images the covers provided. Consider this cover, for A Moment of Desire  by Jay Clever and his Orchestra. It’s on the sleazy end of the spectrum, to be sure, but it’s emblematic of scores of easy listening albums from the 1950s and 1960s, when adults made up the bulk of the record-buying public. The cover gives no indication of what the music will sound like, but that makes it even more likely that it will determine what we hear when we listen. Obviously the goal of the cover is to persuade consumers that this record will make a sexy soundscape in the immediate proximity of their hi-fi set. I’m skeptical whether music can be inherently “sexy,” but the ambiguity of that question makes covers like this one effective; it opens the space for images to be created in one medium and translated into an entirely different experience. This is also how ads are meant to work; through contiguity and juxtaposition, products are associated with more or less unrelated emotional states. They tend to work because we want to believe its true, that instrumentally conjuring a feeling is just that easy.

by Jason Gross

8 Oct 2008

As I was reading through this Advertising Age article about how the recession is going to hit local publications, an unsettling thought occurred me besides the very frightening fact that my retirement fund was quickly disappearing.  It’s obvious that this economic downturn is going to have a terrible impact on the music industry, which already hasn’t been seeing a lot of rosy days lately.

- MUSIC SALES
Already, the trend was that while CD sales were slumping, digital sales were rising but not enough to take up the slack.  That’s been the big thing hurting the majors other than their short-sighted digital strategies (which kind of goes hand in hand actually).  Obviously with people having less money to spend on music, in CD or MP3 format, what do you think’s gonna happen to sales?  Yep, they’re going to sink… even more. 

What that means is that people will buy less and may migrate even more to the unauthorized download services to get their music when they want it.  Even Apple won’t be immune- less money flowing means less money for iPods, which is where they’d ideally be cashing in.  It may also mean that the big retailers who sell almost as much physical product at their stores will cut back on CD’s even further with less demand.  It may also signal even more music stores (big and small) closing down which were already suffering from the digital competition.  It’s especially bad timing for MySpace who just opened their digital store and were hoping to become an even bigger player in the music marketplace- at least they can blame their crappy sales on the economy as opposed to their flawed business model (which gives them pennies for songs which they have to overpay for sale).

For the big labels themselves, even after all the bloodletting that they’ve done in recent years, they’re going to have to go into overdrive printing out pink slips- cutting even more and more staff to keep their masters on Wall Street happy.  Needless to say, they’re gonna become even MORE selective about who they sign now- it’s getting to be a smaller and smaller number and having to shrink that even more is gonna make it even harder to squeeze more money out of less artists.

One solution?  Even if Apple isn’t happy about flexible pricing, artists and labels may fiddle with the idea until they find the right balance that gets them some money at least and keeps the fans buying something.  Also, going with singles or EPs for now and spacing out more the time between albums might be a good idea unless you wanna experiment with the pricing for the later.


- MERCHANDISE SALES aka Merch
Yep, this is going to sink too, as fans will have to decide how much they need a shirt or poster or special edition thingy compared to paying for gas, bills and the other vital things of life.  This is especially bad for bands who are relying more and more on these kinds of sales as album sales plummet.  Because many of these kind of items are designed and ordered in advance, these groups are going to be stuck with a mountain of merch that they probably can’t sell or be forced to try to push them at cut prices, which might mean a good bargain for consumers, but tougher times for musicians.  Another idea might be to start selling some more modest, cheaper items that are easier for fans to shell out for- buttons, wristbands, frameable photos, pendants, voodoo dolls, etc..


- CONCERTS- TICKET SALES
Ouch again.  There was already a shake-up coming with Live Nation breaking away from Ticketmaster but with fans having less money to spend on shows, every player here is going to hurt.  Pity any stadium band about to launch a big tour now and finding that fans can’t dish out $100 for the cheap seats anymore. 

Fans are going to be more picky about who they’re going to see, which might actually hurt smaller bands worse- if a consumer has to chose between an old favorite and a newer band that they’re going to take a chance on, most people are gonna probably go for the ol’ faves.  But that’s also going to be a problem if more than one big act is touring at once with similar fan bases, making fans having to chose which one to see instead of going to both shows.

One solution might be package tours which give fans more bang for the buck (sorry, I hate that phrase too).  A great recent example was Kanye West who toured with Rhianna & N.E.R.D. & Lupe Fiasco- any one of them would have been headliners otherwise in most venues but having them all together for one night was an amazing package that’s hard to resist.  There’s also ‘house concerts’ (aka private shows) that a group of fans might be willing to dish out for and there’s also a neat widget at MySpace that allows people in a certain area to vote if they’d come out to see you (if you have a lot of people giving the nod in a certain town, then maybe you should be booking there).

- SONG PLACEMENTS- TV & MOVIES
Less money = smaller budgets and less money to spend on music for films and shows.  Bad news, right?  Maybe not.  Entertainment on the big and small screen needs to have tunes but less money for it might benefit small, less known bands who don’t have to command big advances for their music.  Nevertheless, as money dries up, producers looking to tighten belts will also have to decide on using less music for their projects, which will mean less opportunities out there for bands to make money this way and get their name out there.

- ADVERTISING OPPORTUNITIES
Less profits of course mean less money for advertising, which again means less budgets for ads and less money to spend on music for ads.  But again, this might benefit the li’l bands that don’t ask for a big advance to have their songs included in ads.  It may also mean less money for them when their songs are used in ads and also less opportunities once again.

- SO WHAT’S A BAND TO DO?
It’s obvious- you should break up and join a more lucrative business immediately, if there’s any left.

OK, let’s be a little more positive here… I tried to outline a few silver linings and opportunities but it’s obviously gonna get harder and harder.  The most important thing you might be able to do now as a performer is to be practical and realistic.  You’re not gonna sell as many albums or shirts or tickets as you did before so you’re gonna have to scale back.  That doesn’t mean that you should take down your MySpace page or take your songs off of iTunes or withdraw from imeem, last.fm or elsewhere.  You’ll have to scale back on costs such as production or the amount of touring you do (instead targeting areas that you’re comfortable with) and what you offer for sale.  You’ll also keep your eyes and ears open for other opportunities that come up online or offline as technology is still marching ahead with new ideas.

Most of all, don’t throw in the towel.  In bad times like this, we need good music more than ever.  And for you consumers, try to support bands as you can and when you can.  You’ll miss ‘em and you’ll need ‘em, trust me.

by Bill Gibron

7 Oct 2008

Throughout the years, there have been certain movies where hype has played a more significant role in its popularity and notoriety than the actual film itself. One such area where this occurs frequently is the horror genre. When it was released in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a major commercial success. But it also developed a reputation as being the goriest, most disgusting exercise in excess ever created. Anyone who has actually seen the film can attest to the fact that it’s rather tame by today’s effects standards and is more unsettling in tone than in its use of blood.

A few years later, a cheapo Italian horror film called Pieces, again about a chainsaw killer, sold itself to the public based on the tagline “it’s exactly what you think it is.” And true to its word, it was a repulsive exercise in human vivisection. Now another title long debated for its content and its context within society makes it to DVD. The subject of a report on 60 Minutes, numerous episodes of talk shows, and bans by British and other foreign markets, The Toolbox Murders boasts a title perfect for terrifying exploitation and a reputation as a grueling exercise in sleazy, demented cinema. But the question is, does this film earn its infamous status? Or is it all just propaganda?

An apartment complex in Southern California is hit by a string of gruesome murders. Each of the women is killed by a man in a ski mask wielding various tools: a hammer, a screwdriver, a drill, and most shockingly, a nail gun. Seemingly unconnected, the police are baffled. However, when a teenage girl is kidnapped, there is an entirely new mystery to solve: why was she taken, and does it have anything to do with the string of killings? The answer brings the apartment owner, his nephew, and the missing girl’s brother together in a showdown over who and most importantly why this all happened.

It is 1977. Producer Tony Didio is reading the Los Angeles Times when he notices that some three years after it first played in town, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 hit is back for a second, seemingly successful run. He contacts the distributor and Mr. Didio discovers that this genre classic is still earning untold sums of money. This fact compels him to try making one of his own. He gets in touch with a writing team he knows, hires out a print of the film, sits them down in a theater, and gives them one simple mandate: create a variation on this idea and movie. Thus The Toolbox Murders is born.

When it is released, it creates a sensation. Angry protests denounce its misogynistic view toward, the victimization, and the exploitation of women. Critics complain of its sleazy and graphic violence. Fans, in these innocent days before Dawn Of The Dead, Friday The 13th, and a bevy of other splatter films, relish the gore and makeup effects. Britain, long notorious for its banning of so called “video nasties,” makes The Toolbox Murders one of its lead offenders.

But then a funny thing happened. Time, that criminal to all “of the moment” material, took the film and shuttled it off into afterthought land. Once Jason and Freddie and their bastard kin took over the movie screens of the 1980s and ‘90s, The Toolbox Murders became a forgotten “classic,” and then merely forgotten. Video releases of the film extended its life for a while, but soon, just like many titles in a local or chain rental outlet, it became another silly, sloppy horror film. Sure, videotape undersold its visual style with lousy prints and cropped images, but just like most exploitation motion picture product, created to fill the market and make a buck, any significance or lasting appeal it had within the culture seemed gone once the final balance sheet was tallied. The film became buried and dismissed under a mound of knockoff maniac murder movies.

In many ways, The Toolbox Murders is a cut above (no pun intended) your average exploitation horror film. The cast here are all television and film veterans. Cameron Mitchell plays the apartment superintendent with a bad habit of murdering his tenants. Wesley Eure (Land of the Lost), Pamelyn Ferdin (too many TV and movie credits to mention), and Nicolas Beavy (The Cowboys) are the hapless teens caught in the middle of the carnage and chaos. They are all outstanding. First time film director Dennis Donnelly, another old pro from television, does a good job of creating mood and setting tone. He does rely a little too often on the made for television medium shot, but there are times when he opens the frame and creates interesting widescreen compositions. Even the special effects, for the mid-‘70s, are fairly good. While not overly bloody, the film does have several upsetting shots of gore, much more than other films from its time (like Chainsaw, or Halloween for that matter). Still, the jury remains out on this film. While it is effective, it is also bisected into almost two completely different stories. And there is a crucial scene that may, or may not, hold them together.

The first tale indeed revolves around the tool murders. We go through a good thirty minutes of stalking and slaying. No explanation, no exposition, just an over the credits set up followed by four gruesome killings. As they stand, they are par for the cryptic course. There is ample nudity (and even some sexual content, although it is only of the “self-loving” variety) and the prerequisite cat and mouse mechanics over where and when the killer will strike next. Donnelly even adds some weird sequences, like the masked maniac taking the victim out into the stairwell to kill her, only to bring the bloody body back into the apartment, to underscore the disturbed nature of what is taking place. But once the police begin their investigation, and Pamelyn Ferdin’s character (Laurie Ballard) is kidnapped, the film takes a more introspective, psychological thriller turn. And as stated before, it all rests on one key scene to hold it together. (Those who do not want to know more about the plot or the surprises may want to stop reading here and pick up the review in a couple of paragraphs).

The scene in question lasts over fourteen minutes and takes place in Cameron Mitchell’s home (his character’s name is Ben Kingsley). Some time before the killings, Ben lost a daughter in a car accident. The loss eats him up inside. So one night he goes on a murderous spree, slaughtering residents in the apartment complex he owns. When he returns the next evening to commit even more atrocities, he sees Laurie Ballard. Instead of harming her, he kidnaps Laurie and ties her up in his house. To Ben, Laurie is his long dead daughter, and he must protect her. He dresses her in frilly clothes and surrounds her with stuffed animals and dolls. After making her lunch one day, Ben sits on the bed and tells Laurie that he is doing to protect his “little girl,” including the murders of those “bad women” in the complex. Bound and gagged, Laurie can only sit in utter shock and silence as Ben pours out his heart, and his insane brain, in long soliloquies of pain and perversity over the loss of innocence and the death of his family.

Acting wise, Cameron Mitchell and Pamelyn Ferdin are excellent in the scene. Mitchell chews the scenery and then hits the film stock for a little more cinematic mastication. He is determined to sell the sequence as being an honest peek into a very disturbed mind. Pamelyn Ferdin, on the other hand, does a brilliant job of portraying silent terror using only her body language. The rigid manner in which she sits, the glazed and alarmed look in her eye, the single tear dripping down her cheek, underplays everything that Mitchell’s method is shooting into the ionosphere. The two competing styles create a consistent tone of realism to the scene, so that we begin to understand and sympathize with the characters. But the real question becomes this: do we buy it? Do we willingly throw away what we came to see—toolbox murders—for this new twisted tale of mental illness and psychological torture?

Unfortunately, the answer is a kinda sorta almost. Indeed, the last half of the film is an exercise in tension and unexpected plot turns, never once cheating or swaying from hinted at character motivation. In essence it’s a narrative bait and switch. You came to see naked women getting hacked up by a madman. Do you now want to stay around and watch the powerful acting and subtle suspense? They even hint at the theme of incest (not with Mitchell, thankfully) to further expand the psychological dimensions.

Indeed, if The Toolbox Murders has one major flaw, it is in the division between the gory slasher and neurotic thriller film. Imagine if, after the first few killings, Dr. Loomis and the rest of the cast actually caught Mike Myers and spent several minutes discussing Mr. Shape’s problems. Or what if, after a couple of campfire crushings, Jason decided to exorcise his internal demons to a group of captured campers, not with a machete, but with a monologue? Do we want our murder getting on our psychological mind games and visa versa? This is the quandary facing Toolbox. The first half is gruesome. The last half is unsettling. But they really are almost two different movies. Once the kidnapping occurs, there is no physical reference back to the initial murders. The last few killings are with fire, knives, and scissors, and even one of those occurs off screen.

It feels like the makers of the film are saying, “Okay, you got your toolbox killings, we roped you in…now sit back because it’s time for the real story.” And it all begins with the scene between Ben and Laurie. It is at this moment where you as an audience member will either stay with the film (this reviewer sheepishly did) or decide you have been had. If you accept it, you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying, startling conclusion. If you don’t, the last forty minutes of the film will drone on and on.

by Rob Horning

7 Oct 2008

I stopped getting the Sunday New York Times several months ago, mainly because having Sunday Styles in my apartment made me feel gross. The news is depressing enough and it’s far too easy to be cynical about the intelligence of Americans without being goaded by inane trend pieces, navel-gazing personal narratives, and painfully earnest and hyperbolic fashion coverage. If I accidentally began reading anything in the section, I would become irrationally angry and start ranting as if someone cut me off in traffic or something. Other times I feel like the wounded Kyle McLaughlin in Blue Velvet and whine desperately, “Why are there things like Sunday Styles in the world?” Complaining about it only makes it worse, raising its profile and playing into its transparent effort to be talked about. The best thing to do would be to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Slate’s Jack Schafer notes that the section exists to “advance the bogus” but even he couldn’t tolerate this especially idiotic Sunday Styles story by Abby Ellin about straight single guys who own cats, an article which includes this priceless data point: “Many women agree that guys with cats are extra special.”

(I wish I could believe this article was written ironically, but nothing else that’s ever run in Sunday Styles justifies such a view.)

Schafer systematically demolishes the piece in an essay that’s reminiscent of an angry rock critic reviewing a piece-of-shit record track by track, spewing venom all over it. He’s particularly irritated by the use of the word seems as a crutch (one of my favorite tactics when I feel like making a speculative assertion with scanty support).

How can it be made to “seem” that the number of single, straight, male cat owners is increasing? By presenting the most anecdotal of evidence, which Ellin does. An executive at the Humane Society of New York alleges that “she had seen an increase in the number of single, straight men who are adopting cats.” Does the Humane Society of New York really determine the marital status and sexual orientation of cat adopters? If it does, I demand that a picket line be formed around its office now. If it doesn’t, I want the executive’s finding stricken from the record.

I found it suspicious that several of the anecdotes in the story involved people in the magazine industry, which suggests that what is represented as a citywide trend is most likely just a trend among Abby Ellin’s friends.

Of course, Abby Ellin is probably having the last laugh and will most likely have many more articles assigned to her, as this gem is currently the most emailed style story on the NYT website.

by David Pullar

7 Oct 2008

There’s a funny scene in P.G. Wodehouse’s classic Joy In The Morning, in which Bertie Wooster tries to find a copy of Spinoza in a bookshop.  On asking the bookshop employee, he’s met with blank incomprehension.

`You do not mean “The Spinning Wheel”?’

`No.’

`It would not be “The Poisoned Pin”?’

`It would not.’

`Or “With Gun and Camera in Little Known Borneo”?’ he queried, trying a long shot.
`Spinoza,’ I repeated firmly. That was my story, and I intended to stick to it.
He sighed a bit, like one who feels that the situation has got beyond him.

I think of this story a lot when dealing with the staff in bookshops.  To be honest, I’ve never had much use for them.  These days I’ve got a pretty good idea what I’m looking for in the way of books.  I’ve got my magazines and newspapers and websites that give me tips.  Sometimes I just want to browse and I’m pretty sure that I can read a blurb unaided.  I need someone to scan my selection and take my money, but that’s about the extent of it.

Sure, the presence of staff can help you out with identifying the location of a book—particularly something that’s difficult to classify.  Even this isn’t strictly necessary in some branches of Borders, with their library-style computer terminals.

Getting advice and recommendations, though, is another matter.  There are thousands and thousands of books in the world—who’s to say that the taste of a random person in a bookstore is anything like yours?  How can they be expected to be even aware of the kind of book you might be after?

For all that, I have a certain affection for the “Staff recommendations” that some shops attach on cardboard under the shelves.  At the very least, it’s interesting to see how they line up with my favourite books.  I get a small feeling of companionship with the staff when I see a glowing referral for the works of Kazuo Ishiguro or Vikram Seth or Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.

There’s an element of snobbery at work.  I’m inclined to think that I’m the expert when it comes to the kind of book that I’ll enjoy.  Maybe I’m underrating the taste and discernment of the average bookshop clerk.

My feeling of superiority did take a beating recently while in the George St, Sydney branch of Dymocks and was looking for the next volume of Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time.  Now, I never expected to get through the first volume and it sat unread on my shelves for five years.  The fact that I read it and enjoyed it still astonishes me.  I picture the kind of people who read and enjoy Proust as being grey-haired and wise-looking—English professors at the end of a long and distinguished career.

So picture my surprise when a young-looking employee with an American accent came up behind me and intoned, “Ahh, Marcel Proust.  That was my favourite volume.”

“Oh yeah?” I responded, only half processing what he had said to me.

“Yeah.  I really enjoyed the next one, The Guermantes Way, too but I thought it went downhill after that.  You know, he only edited the first couple of volumes in his lifetime.  The rest were done by his brother or something.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  A guy about my brother’s age had apparently read all the volumes of a gigantic work of French literature and had a favourite volume.

My friend Tim was unsurprised by this story.  He used to work at that very bookstore and said more than half of the staff were completing postgrad studies in literature.  Tim was the marketing student who read Robert Ludlum.

So maybe there’s a role for them after all, at least the staff who have read the later volumes of massive novels and can save you the trouble.

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