Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What Ethan Says

Here on the Tyrannosaurus Mouse blog we have conversations with Ethan. I'm presenting you a pair of emails in essay form of Ethan's response to my post about Good for You.

And this is
Ethan's Notes on The Big Whack:
Interesting point about The Big Whack and, earlier, disco ruining things by their ubiquity.  What I find interesting about it is that there's nothing intrinsically bad about either one.  It was nothing more than their overuse by people not creative enough to have another idea for people who were willing to settle for them over and over again.  Sad, really.

In the past several years, I've been able to revisit disco and appreciate that some of it was quite good and most of it was extraordinarily well-played, but I doubt The Big Whack will age as gracefully for me or anyone else.  Disco was a style of artistic expression whereas TBW is just a noise that people add to things.  An effect.  They both apply to mainstream pop and, specifically to dance music, but there's no context to TBW.  It's just cut and pasted onto everything.  There are several other cheap, easy tricks that "producers" are using to make everything sound the same.  It's working; everything sounds the same.  But none of it has any context within the song and iconoclasts who stand up to that sort of sausage-making are fewer and farther between these days, and I'm speaking both of artists and producers.  

I have always believed that, in any era you pick, 90% of popular music was always crap and the only reason we look back at certain eras with fondness is because we only tend to remember the top 10% that actually was good.  I think that's true today as well, but the difference today is that the good stuff is the stuff that isn't getting radio play.  Somehow, the whole business got turned upside-down and all the good stuff now sinks to the bottom instead of rising to the top.  Or maybe that was always true and I just worked harder to find the good stuff when I was younger and had more time.  I dunno.

Artist management, record labels, booking, concert venues, radio stations and most advertising vehicles all being owned by the same company certainly isn't helping anything.
Chic made great records.  And don't even get me started on how great Parliament was, although they had a little bit more stuff going on than straight-up disco.

The industry would like nothing more than to have complete control over popular taste and homogenize it.  It makes their job easier.  They don't have to put any effort (that means money) into anything. If no one is exposed to anything interesting, they won't be every demanding.  It's always easier to manufacture things if they all use the same parts.

I think it's already been proven out by current listeners who've grown up with all the sameness and don't seem to mind.  Think about it: enough generations have grown up with McDonalds and Burger King that they actually think that's what a hamburger is supposed to taste like.  They fell for it!  Now everybody can make their burgers that bad and still sell them!  Awesome!  All records can now be as bad as (fill in just about any current top 40 artist) because that's all anybody expects of us!  YAY!!!

The thing that I wonder about is whether or not it was always like this, and I just didn't notice because I had bothered to seek out the good stuff and had little interest in the mainstream.  I didn't notice Bryan Adams because I was listening to XTC.  It goes back to my 90/10 theory.  90% will always be crap.  And that means there will always be a 10%, whether the industry likes it or not.  It will just find different ways to distribute itself.  Creative people will continue to find ways to create things.  There will always be a next Brian Eno or Peter Gabriel or David Byrne.  We may just have to dig deeper to find him.  Ironic, since one would think the internet would make that easier, but it doesn't.  Now there's just more to weed through.


Althea is a later Grateful Dead tune -- it came out in 1980. It's a very pretty number.
And I am in need to play it with City Samanas.

Bm  A \  E A 
Bm  A \ E 
Bm A  \ E A
Bm A\  E
A \ C#m\  D \ A\ 
C#m \ E \ Bm A \ E

D \ G \ E \ E
D \ G \ E \ E
Bm A \ E

Bm  A \  E A 
Bm  A \ E

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Good For You

I have a lot of complaints. One of my complaints is about how hip-hop had such promise. I mean really, the whole idea of taking finished recordings and then re-working them and putting them together to make new compositions is freaking brilliant. And yet. And yet the idea is squandered because of how conservative popular music has become.
Another complaint is with the ubiquity of the Roland 808 drum machine. The machine itself is cool, but for some reason the dictates of pop music involve us only having one kick drum sound as though some god of music laid forth the edict that if the drum soundeth not like an 808, it shall not be heard upon the radio.

Raphael Rudd used to call the insistence of those stupid beats which were Minimum Basic Requirements for songs on the radio "The Big Whack". It's gotta have The Big Whack. And except for a brief interregnum in the early 90's, we've been in The Big Whack era for a while now.

Songs which become hits despite refusing to obey the fiats of pop sound mixes like Gotye's "Somebody I Used To Know" could not be played on New York radio. That's right, it was a number 1 hit, a massive massive hit, and the Hot 100 stations could only play a version which had an 808 drum track providing The Big Wack throughout.

Lorde's "Royals" is another song notable for being an exception (although the percussion in it may in fact be an 808, the whole song is a critique of hip-hop's mindless conspicuous consumption and is missing The Big Wack.)

So. Is there literally a conspiracy making pop music so conservative? Yes. Yes there is. But I'm not here to talk about that. Not yet anyway. So let's continue:

Not every song needs a rap. But for the last 25 years pop songs seem to have raps forced on them.
Like disco, rap has ruined a lot of things simply because of its ubiquity. The commercial considerations of a song make people think things like this: "Oh man, we gotta add a rap to this song to push it over the edge!"

I really like this song recorded by Selena Gomez. Good for you is a nicely performed and cool tune with a beautiful melody and a subtle rhythm section.

So why am I complaining about this song?
Well you'll notice that it's one of those songs which has the same chord structure over the verse, bridges, chorus, and the "Oh oh..." sections. That's cool. The orchestration builds subtly from section to section. There's no big wack. But the tension builds beautifully to... nothing.
The song itself never resolves.
Now in the radio version there's a rap over the end. It also does not work. It does not add anything. It does not lift the song up in any way.
But we're not allowed to use any of our solutions to those kinds of problems. R&B is way too conservative to let us break into any sort of real up finish for a song like this. Of course, "Edge of Seventeen" by Stevie Nicks has exactly the same problem, so it's not exclusive to modern pop music or R&B.
But dear god-of-the-big-wack, please let us put a giant instrumental finish on this song. Please?
It would be so good for you.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Virtual Record Companies

The sheer amount of law involved in music intellectual property is kind of staggering. There are two copyrights and a half-dozen rights involved with any piece of recorded music. And then there are a world of automatic and semi-automatic ways to be paid royalties (as a composer and as a musician).
It's nutty.
Having never had a proper recording contract, and being stubborn to the point of pigheadedness, I have had my own (vanity) record label for... dear heavens... over 25 years now. And I've done everything from pushing records to college radio (through Peter Hay's Twin Vision) to harassing DJ's with 12" singles.
The facts are that 1. everyone I've known who had a proper record contract was miserable and 2. my real goal is to get music "out there" in some way so I can say "Yeah, I did that" and not be constantly worrying over it, 3 the whole "digital distribution" thing has really altered our relationship to physical (and expensive) media. This is why it's so nice to have a service like CDBaby which will handle all your licensing and things for less than a hundred bucks. They deal with a fantastical amount of logistical nonsense (like getting music on iTunes) which would be majorly aggravating to do on one's own.
Pleasure for the Empire | The Oceans of Ganymede | CD Baby Music Store
Between CDBaby and, say, Amazon's Createspace, the life of the vanity label A&R guy (er, me) is vastly better. And cheaper too.
Anyway. I just finished convincing CDBaby that the cover of The Oceans of Ganymede isn't porn. I now have to convince Amazon the same thing. We'll see if they listen.

Moving the Blags

I'm re-consolodating my blogs.  I know, you wanted them separate. But my little mind just doesn't work that way. All my blogging -- ...