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by Rob Horning

16 Apr 2008

Megan McArdle recently had a post about the music business, attempting to debunk the idea that concert revenue can supplant that of CD sales as labels turn into promoter/marketers a la Live Nation. She points out that there’s a limit to the number of concerts a person can see, whereas there are few limits to how many CDs one can own (as my own experience among the record-collecting subculture has amply demonstrated for me). Also, concerts are generally out for most people with families, limiting the demographic for pop music by and large to those under 30. But it has been true since the “invention of the teenager” in the 1950s that pop music has been for the under-30 set; record companies targeted the discretionary spending of kids, who had nothing better really to spend it on and could invest a lot of energy into the identity politics pop music serves as a proxy for—they care about projecting an identity through the music they listen to.

But more baffling to me is McArdle’s concern that “file-sharing culture will kill the music business, making us all worse off.” People in the music business will surely be worse off, but I wonder how much the rest of us will be affected if their ceased to be new mass-marketed music. Inundated with music as it is, I can’t imagine worrying about not having enough of it. I feel like I already have too much to deal with now, more than I could ever need, and I haven’t even started trying to appreciate classical music yet. And it is not like the pop-music business has prompted the creation of innovative and interesting new music; for the most part it has capitalized on innovations made by artists who likely never expected much success.

Major labels have generally served up the same musical styles and simply changed the names and faces attached to them. It works best when dealing with known commodities, because it is essentially a marketing business, and it is easier to sell something you have sold effectively before. The music business’s heyday, after all, came when it got to re-release the music of the past few decades on CD. If anything, the absence of a national music business would spur local innovations and the cultivation of local styles suiting the needs of specific populations and fomenting a stronger sense of community among them—the revival perhaps of local scenes that record collecting types tend to sentimentalize, if not fetishize. (I’m heavily into the Amsterdam scene circa 1966.) There would be less opportunity for participating in a mass phenomenon in the musical realm, but then, that’s what American Idol is for.

Apologists for the national music industry think its investment in talent in necessary to make good music, but pop music is not like pharmaceuticals. It doesn’t take a whole lot of R&D and isn’t necessarily the high-fixed-cost industry McArdle argues that it is. Give four average teenagers a few weeks of studio time and somebody who has a rudimentary understanding of sound engineering, and they could make pop music. What the national industry is good for is promotion and marketing, for making national brands of bands, and unless you believe that that stuff is all pop music essentially is (and I have flirted with the idea myself), the music business is superfluous to music itself. The high costs come in in trying to promote and distribute music on a large scale, but locally, the product sells itself. Hence anonymous, marginally talented bar bands can make a steady living in towns like Tucson and Las Vegas. The idea that major labels “discover” and “nurture” talent is almost entirely A&R propaganda.

Also questionable is the idea that musicians need the promise of big-time success to prompt them to create at the highest artistic level. McArdle puts it this way:

Music is basically a tournament business: a few people get rich, encouraging many others to toil in poverty. This almost certainly generates more new music than paying everyone $18,000 a year for the rest of their lives. If the tournament runs out of prizes, what will happen to those of us who like having a lot of new albums to listen to every month?

Maybe the musicians who toil in poverty are sustained by the fantasy of mega-fame and big bucks. But I suspect that some just do it because playing music for people is intrinsically rewarding when done on a human scale. Whereas when it’s done on the mega-stadium scale, it tends to turn artists into egomaniacs, disoriented drug casualties or misanthropes. (Just watch The Wall.) It seems that musicians start putting money first only when it’s already on the table, when they have already had a taste. (And money incentives may not even motivate the creation of better products: This PsyBlog post details studies that show cash incentives decreased performance.) It’s fashionable to pretend that musicians don’t “sell out,” but let’s face it, they do, unless they have been making product from the get-go. But again, viewing music as a culture industry, and looking at its production from an economy-of-scale, profit-maximization perspective, the conclusion is that the industry needs to manufacture new superstars capable of filling stadiums, the point made in the American article by Jillian Cohan that prompted McArdle’s post.

The assumption is that success can only be measured in terms of moving millions of units, and anything short of that is failure. From a business perspective, this is the case; from the perspective of individual musicians and fans, not necessarily, especially as the environment for selling music changes and the possibility of disintermediating the media conglomerates becomes more realistic. The music business is generally terrible for musicians (exploitative—read Steve Albini’s classic Baffler article if you don’t think so), and not particularly good for music fans, even the ones who want new albums to listen to every month (a strange goal, by the way—as if the point were to consume novelty itself).

It could be that music isn’t meant to be stadium sized. It may have been an oddity prompted by the advent of mass culture, a flowering of the novelty of that social configuration that has now revealed its limitations and exhausted its novelties. The dearth of stadium-size acts, the death of the megaconcert will likely be a good thing, returning music to human scale—why would anyone (other than those drawn to the mass nature of the spectacle, the Nuremburg rally aspects) lament its loss? As Cohan notes, “Historically, the era of the megatour is an anomaly. Baby boomers have come to expect that their rock heroes will put on massive concert events, yet ten or 20 years from now, few heritage acts may have the stamina to stay on the road.”

Middle-aged people may prefer stadium-size events because these are essentially safe spectacles; they require no imagination or aesthetic effort to participate in, and the size of the audience supplies a soothing conformity, reinforcing that the whole thing was worth the trouble—after all, all these other people bothered. But the preferences of the current middle-age cohort may (we hope) be anomalous. When I’m old(er), I hope I won’t give up altogether on the intimate, risky experience of seeing bands in clubs and start going to see “heritage acts” for the mere opportunity to say I saw the legends in person. I feel like I have done too much of this already.

Baby boomers need to believe in the relevance of their megastars, and so does Rolling Stone, which is in the curious position of carrying water for the music industry; they have a vested interest in there being mass culture so that they can promote and comment on it in their mass-culture publication. So they are in the business of propping up the acts that allow for stadium shows,as this post demonstrates with the example of R.E.M.—every album is the redemptive comeback, in Rolling Stone reviewers’ view.

But as this LA Times article points out, no one cares much anymore about what Rolling Stone says. The internet has brought on the democratization of criticism, assuring that “no one is respected simply because of the authority of the institution they write for.” That’s a bit dramatic, but there is truth to it; aggregate opinions matter more than any lone voice, unless maybe it’s a friend’s voice. Many recognize that “criticism” is often marketing copy, especially in consumer magazines. And perhaps they see how arbitrary it all is in the case of pop music. The pleasures of pop can be very personal, very dependent on context. The zeitgeist carries many objectively sucky songs to reputations of greatness, like “Hey Ya” for instance. Often it seems the best critics can do is say give these 20 albums out of the thousands released a careful listen, and their criteria may be nothing more profound than “your friends or people who you imagine you want to be your friends are likely to be talking about them.”

At times when I used to write about music, it seemed to me that caring enough about pop music to write criticism of it was tantamount to caring about the music industry as a whole and wanting to prop it up. I was speaking with the same disembodied authority that is manifest in the A&R decisions that shaped radio playlists.

The democratization of criticism seems related to the destruction of the music business—no longer are either controlled in top-down fashion by culture-industry conglomerates—instead both serve niches and may be sustained in the future by meeting localized needs.

by Mike Schiller

16 Apr 2008

This is actually the third season for the current generation of video baseball games, given the Xbox 360’s head start with Major League Baseball 2K6 way back in ‘06.  It’s the second season for Sony’s PlayStation 3 versions of their own baseball game.  As such, it would be plenty understandable for Sony to choose to put all of their effort into the PlayStation 3 version of the game, leaving the PlayStation 2 version behind.  They could have gone the EA route, putting out almost exactly the same game as last year with updated rosters, put it out at a budget price, and been done with it.

Of course, given the number of late adopters who still haven’t hopped onto the PS3 bandwagon, it’s also plenty understandable that they didn’t quite go that route.

Major League Baseball 2K8, as you might have read via today’s review from Jason Cook, has chosen to take the path of innovation, completely overhauling pretty much every aspect of baseball gameplay that we have come to know.  The hitting, pitching, and even the fielding in 2K8 features a heavy reliance of the capabilities that modern controllers wield, capabilities that the classic baseball sims never truly even tried to take advantage of.  MLB 08: The Show for the PlayStation 3 features highly developed online modes, hard drive-utilizing features, and all kinds of the extra features one would expect from a PlayStation 3 baseball sim.  The PlayStation 2 version of the same game, however, might just be perfect for the players weaned on Bases Loaded and R.B.I. Baseball, a classic experience with updated graphics and just enough game modes to keep you happy if you’re in the mood for something new.

The reason MLB 08 works for the classic players is that its primary game mechanics will be extremely familiar to just about anyone.  Sure, it’s a little bit more advanced than “press ‘A’ to pitch”, but not all that much.  You’re still swinging the bat with one button.  Fielding feels as natural as it ever has, because you’re doing it in ways that you recognize.  There’s no new paradigm, no new control ideal that must be learned; even without a look at the instruction book or an ounce of experience, you’ll be able to step right in to MLB 08 for the PlayStation 2 and be able to play.  You’ll probably lose, yes, but you’ll be able to play.

Where Sony chose to improve the game is in ways that help the digitized men in the game to perform better.  A pitcher can study a hitter’s tendencies, and a hitter can study a pitcher’s.  A fielder can use the wall to his advantage to jump up and rob a home run.  These are things that improve the experience without necessarily taking away from the pick up ‘n play scheme.  It eases you in to the new features, as once you’re used to the basics, you can slowl y introduce the more advanced play styles to your arsenal of moves.  The fantastic “Road to the Show” play style has been updated as well, as the success/fail dynamic of the tasks your manager gives you aren’t quite so cut and dried as they were before, which makes the play experience less discouraging.

As such, it’s obvious that Sony didn’t put the full-on effort into the PlayStation 2 version of MLB 08: The Show, not like they did the PS3 version, anyway.  What they came up with is entirely the polar opposite of the Major League Baseball 2K8 approach to baseball, subtle tweaks that improve the game rather than overhauling.

In short: it’s the perfect baseball experience for the ex-core PlayStation 2 owner who just isn’t quite ready to move to “next-gen”.

by Bill Gibron

15 Apr 2008

Once upon a time, in a freaked-out future that’s already a decade past, the entire planet is in the grip of BIM. You can’t go anywhere without experiencing the magic that is…well, that is BIM. BIM is a pop song. BIM is a mass-marketed body sticker. BIM is a tall triangular glass and the ruby red joy juice drunk from it. BIM is…you have no idea what BIM is, do you? Guess what, neither does anyone else in the pre-Apocalyptic world of…well, the world.

Yes, the planet is run by the music industry (at least one accurate prediction that even Nostradamus, Alvin Toffler, and Jeane Dixon all missed), and Mr. Boogalow is the business’s chief chart-topper. He pairs up innocuous tone-deaf teens with names like Pandi, Dandi, Bibi, and Alphie, and turns their trite tunes into a regular opiate for the masses. But there is more to the demented Don Kirshner than meets the eye. You see, Mr. Boogalow is…wait for it…the DEVIL! And he is trying to hypnotize the entire world toward the ways of wantonness via that objet d’evil - the hit record.

So when a couple of rubes from the backwater burg of Moose Jaw enter the World Vision Song Contest with the hope that their self-penned anthem “Love: The Universal Melody” will whip up on the overwhelmingly more popular “BIM is the Power,” Boogalow uses the infamous red tape (no, not bureaucracy—an actual crimson cassette) to rig the results (apparently, Jem and the Holograms took third). He then applies the marketing-appropriate mantra, “If you can’t beat ‘em, own ‘em,” and tries to get the couple to sign away their souls…sorry, publishing rights. Soon, Bibi is indentured to this hyper-mega-super-duper conglomerate Boogalow International Music (B…I…M…oh, yeah…like BMI. Now it makes…no, it doesn’t) and it’s up to Alphie to save her from an incendiary afterlife. But it will be hard. After all, she’s had a bite of The Apple literally.

Did you ever wonder what the world would be like if God were a white-leisure-suit-wearing tycoon type who drove his solid gold Rolls down from Heaven to transport a commune of hippies over to a brand new planet? Or if Satan were a fey music mogul who resembled Udo Kier’s interpretation of the role of Carmen Ghia from The Producers? Perchance, what if Adam and Eve - or at least a “babes in the woods” folk-rock and roll interpretation of same - were an Australian idiot boy and the star of Night of the Comet? And let’s just say for the sake of silly argument that the Devil employs a few mediocre minions who are incredibly sad excuses for Roger Daltrey, Nina Simone, and Meshach Taylor. Layer on the worst musical score since Sly Stallone’s brother proved why “Staying Alive” is not necessarily a good thing, and you’ve got The Apple, a gamy glitterdome of outrageous kitsch passing itself off as a futuristic fable.

Resembling a stage show version of the Rapture as interpreted by Disco Tex and his Sex-o-lettes (“Get Dancin’,” y’all!), this aimless allegory about the battle between good (or at least kind of decent) and evil (or as construed by this film, the flamboyantly fashionable) has all the subtlety of a steam-powered enema and reeks just as pungently. If you ever wanted proof of the madness that meanders through the mind of Menahem Golan (famous Cannon Films producer of such classical gas as The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington and Breakin’), look no further than this tale of Mr. Boogalow and his plans for a dictatorial fascist state based in and around the culture of the pop song (and this predates boy bands by a good decade).

The fact that this concept did not work out too well for either Brian DePalma (his Phantom of the Paradise is a noble failure) or 1977’s abortive TV series A Year at the Top (costars Greg “BJ and the Bear” Evigan and Paul “David Letterman” Shaffer never got past the first couple of months of the titular time frame) didn’t stop Golan from pursuing his crappy cinematic concept album. Indeed, it appears that the entire entertainment world in the mid to late 1970s was fixated on two divergent, yet still forced to cohabitate together, themes - mainly, that the future would be a dire, dreary place dominated by Bob Mackie’s designs, and that rock and roll would have to step up to save all of our mortal souls.

From the Bee Gees / Peter Frampton flop based on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to the just plain awful Americathon, everyone was predicting that the 1990s would be the time when the population finally paid the piper for lousing things up. Oh, and for making such beat-heavy horsecrap as “Push in the Bush” and “Boogie Oogie Oogie” Grammy Award-winning and popular. And, aside from grunge and the introduction of the mp3, they may have had a point.

The Apple indeed polishes its loopy fruit via this future shock silliness. According to this sci-fi fart, 1994 was to be the temporal space when everyone wore multicolored prism stickers on their faces and caked on more makeup than Boy George after a night at TABOO, and when police give citations for failing to “BIM” (whatever the Hades that anagram really stands for—“Beelzebub’s Irritating Musical,” perhaps?). It will take a group of radicals to stand up to the persecution and provocation of this wah-wah pedal man-goat-backed police state, so you’ll never guess who The Apple pegs for its protectors. Why, the great unwashed, otherwise known as hippies.

That’s right, gang…hippies. Peace, love, and flower power. In the realm of The Apple, when faced with the prospect of Hell on Earth, mankind will turn to a Jerry Garcia clone and his “still somehow relevant” roundup of peaceniks to save the world from eternal damnation at the hands of ersatz Duran Duran (the Barbarella version). Who cares if they live in a cave, avoid soap and water, and warble Moby Grape songs to each other - these are the saviors of the universe!

Worse yet, when all appears lost, Mr. Topps - AKA old Yahweh himself - cruises down the horizon in his sacred stretch limo and decides to send Jerry and his kids to another planet, to start over again without the influence of Boogalow and what he represents (i.e., rock and roll). So the ultimate message of The Apple is that (a) music is bad, (b) the Devil is bad, (c) letting your freak flag fly wins you a ticket to a new cosmic homeland, and (d) producers of B-movie mung should never be allowed to interpret the Good Book via power ballad.

And that’s the main issue here. More important than all the Biblical bull broth is the fact that The Apple is, for want of a better term, a musical. Really, it’s more of a Gilbert and Sullivan light operetta than a rock and roll opus - if, of course, the particular creators you’re thinking of are Gottfried and Annie. Such a spectacular sonic scourge that your tightly honed sensibilities may never recover, the score here is the antithesis of melody and harmony. You name a genre or style - reggae, ‘50s ballad, disco dirge, Broadway-style show tune - and The Apple rapes it like the Sabine women or the swan-serving Leda. With lyrics composed by a random phrase generator, and an old-fashioned Eastern Bloc Iron Curtain interpretation of contemporary accompaniment, the tunes here put us through the aural equivalent of a painful rectal itch.

Lines fail to rhyme, emotions are so spelled out that inbred invertebrates can figure out the meaning, and everything feels like it was produced by Georgio Moroder’s insane brother, Earl. Like a baby watching magic (an actual line from one of the hackneyed horrors here), The Apple‘s musical cues confuse and frighten us - not because of how bad they are, but for how painfully close they come to the Billboard ballyhoo actually arcing across radio dials all over America circa 2008 (add a guest rap or two by 50 Cent or Ludacris, and it would be impossible to tell the difference).

Sadly, The Apple is not a cult classic - unless, of course, you’re referring to the kind of fodder that would actually cause the Branch Davidians to answer their “calling.” It’s not bad/good like Can’t Stop the Music or awful/artful like KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. No, this surreal seminar on the abuse of filmmaking power is in a deranged category all its own. It tends to dwell in the “What the Hell?” or “How Can This Be?” realm of the ridiculous. The film is so unfathomable that you can’t imagine anyone walking away after reading this script and thinking, “Now there’s something sensible.” With an overall design scheme that recalls Blitz kids with leprosy, and a narrative that never really understands the requirements of a parable, The Apple plays more like the fever dream of a deposed priest, an awkward overreaction to the popularity of religiously-based rock musicals (as if we didn’t already have reason to hate Godspell).

Perhaps the best way to watch this film is to turn on the English subtitles and read along with the kindergarten song craft as game performers belt out completely incompetent brain busters. It may be worth a look, and there could be a few who actually tune in, turn on, and drop out - of the gene pool, that is - based on the befuddling film before them. The Apple should be a celebration of all that is camp. Instead, it’s just seriously disturbed.

by Rob Horning

15 Apr 2008

When people are driven to protest because they can’t afford to buy food, it’s pretty unsettling.

Rioting in response to soaring food prices recently has broken out in Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Ethiopia. In Pakistan and Thailand, army troops have been deployed to deter food theft from fields and warehouses. World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned in a recent speech that 33 countries are at risk of social upheaval because of rising food prices. Those could include Indonesia, Yemen, Ghana, Uzbekistan and the Philippines. In countries where buying food requires half to three-quarters of a poor person’s income, “there is no margin for survival,” he said.

The NYT quotes IMF honcho Dominique Strauss-Kahn as commenting that “the food crisis posed questions about the survivability of democracy and political regimes.” According to Strauss-Kahn “sometimes those questions lead to war.” Great. The possibility of a soylent green future is being casually bandied about in the newspaper by some of the world’s most powerful bankers.

“As we know in the past, sometimes those questions lead to war,” he said. “We now need to devote 100 percent of our time to these questions.”
This chart from yesterday’s FT shows all the locations of the recent rioting.

In the article, the authors explain how globalization has made food-importing countries extremely vulnerable to the whims of producing nations, who ultimately have a lot less invested in making sure foreigners don’t starve.

today’s high and volatile prices make it increasingly costly to cushion the blow for consumers and many of the poorest countries’ governments cannot afford indefinitely to hold food costs down. Instead, they have started to remove import tariffs and impose export bans in an attempt to transfer income directly from farmers to consumers – in effect preventing farmers from selling their produce at the highest price they can find on international markets.
Such measures may alleviate domestic supply problems in the short term. But they also create shortages in global markets, accentuating the problems of those who have to depend on imports – particularly when highly efficient net exporters of grain such as Argentina and Ukraine restrict exports. Joachim von Braun, director-general of Ifpri, calls them “starve your neighbour” policies.

Famine no longer depends entirely on natural causes—weather, depleted soil, no arable land, etc.—now economic interdependence itself can create shortages and politicize food supplies on an international scale. Hence, as quoted in the WSJ article, the Indian and Turkish finance ministers direct barbs at U.S. energy “policy”:

“When millions of people are going hungry, it’s a crime against humanity that food should be diverted to biofuels,” said India’s finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, in an interview. Turkey’s finance minister, Mehmet Simsek, said the use of food for biofuels is “appalling.”

The intent of the juxtaposition is clear; people in India or Turkey or anywhere else shouldn’t be starving so Americans can salve their conscience when driving and/or wasting electricity. And it’s not just energy policy that is problematic. Economist Martin Feldstein took to the WSJ editorial page to argue that Fed rate cuts are pumping up commodity prices and fueling global inflation, exacerbating the food problems.

Yves Smith points to this Telegraph editorial by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard for some forceful rhetoric on the subject. “Hedge funds played their part in the violent rise in spot prices early this year. To that extent they can be held responsible for the death of African and Asian children. Tougher margin rules on the commodity exchanges might have stopped the racket. Capitalism must police itself, or be policed…. A new Cold War is taking shape, around energy and food. The world intelligentsia has been asleep at the wheel. While we rage over global warming, global hunger has swept in under the radar screen.”

Though Evans-Pritchard seems to want to discredit worry over global warming as much as raise the alarm about food shortages, the specter of global unrest motivated by famine is pretty scary. It’s one thing to try to convince people to give up an anti-modern and anti-democratic ideology (the alleged purpose of the “Global War on Terror”), but quite another to try to convince them to go hungry.

by PopMatters Staff

15 Apr 2008

Hard Feelings [MP3]

What’s Up [MP3]

The Gossip
Yr Mangled Heart (Live) [MP3]

Kelley Stoltz
Birmingham Eccentric [MP3]

The Dodos
Ashley [MP3]

Alejandro Escovedo with Bruce Springsteen
Always a Friend [Video] (song from Escovedo’s new record, Real Animal, releasing 24 June)

Colin Meloy
We Both Go Down Together [Video]

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