Perhaps I’ve Been Too Harsh On Pandora

Or perhaps not. Roped you in with the title though.

However! I have a newfound appreciation for their musicologists’ attempts to analyze “an ever-deepening collection of catalogue titles” with “up to 450 distinct musical characteristics” (there were 250 when this article was written). Basically, if you weren’t aware, the way Pandora works is somewhat like the following: Pandora trains musicologists to know the way they analyze a song within the Music Genome Project’s ever growing song-scape, and then they do just that. Every song is rated in hundreds of different categories, and when a user types in a song name or an artist that they like, a computer will dig around finding songs with similar characteristics based on the musicologists ratings. One example of a musical “gene” is how “emotionally intense” a given solo in a song can be. Most characteristics like this are measured on a scale out of five.

This Stan Getz solo received a 4.

Every instrument in a given song receives some kind of assessment. “We have a number of characteristics for vocals. Is it a smooth voice, is it a rough, gravelly voice, is it a nasally voice?” explains Nolan Gasser, one of the Music Genome’s chief developers. A staff of 30 musicologists analyze 10,000 songs per month and add them to Pandora’s collection of over 700,000 songs (which is remarkably smaller than Spotify’s).

These things are all well and good; It is very important to study music and classify it, you might say. But the biggest single problem I have with Pandora is it’s unusefulness. (No, that’s not a word.)

When you create a station, Pandora limits the number of times that you can skip a suggested track (or a song you’ve heard before but don’t feel like listening to at the moment) to 6 skips per hour per station, and 12 total skips per day. The number is the same for people who pay for a subscription, but they can create 100 stations, so you can in fact ninja your way out of listening to things that you might not want to if you’re willing to pay.

But discovering new music on your own is not hard at all. Pandora just makes the process more time consuming. Once you run out of skips, you have to sit through songs you already know (not bad unless you’re tired of it or not in the mood for it), songs you haven’t heard but don’t want to listen to (not all new music is good new music), and of course, ads! When you could be flying through Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought Items in Your Recent History Also Bought” section or iTunes “Listeners Also Bought” section, the “Related Videos” section on Youtube, any number of music blogs,  or even turn on the radio.

And my final beef with Pandora is how many times I’ve been disappointed at parties or elsewhere when I find out that the music I’m listening to was not consciously picked by whoever owns the devise from which the music is playing. Conversation about musical taste comes to a halt. I had this conversation once with a girl I was somewhat interested in.

“Who’s iPod is that?” -Me

“Oh it’s mine, it’s just Pandora.” -Girl

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Nick Hornby Is Out of Touch – A Cheap Shot

I haven’t read all of “31 Songs” or whatever that book is called, but I don’t plan on reading it. (Not because I think it would be a bad book, I just don’t read books for fun.) I did however, read his article called “POP QUIZ” from the New Yorker in 2001. Maybe I just didn’t like it because it picked on some of my favorite artists (Blink 182 and Linkin Park), but when I read this article, I couldn’t help but think of my friend Jack when we watched the Super Bowl in 2011. Jack wasn’t aware of the Black Eyed Peas’ existence. In his article, Hornby admitted to not having heard of some very important artists.

“I had never previously been exposed to the work of Blink 182, D12, Lil’ Romeo, Staind, Alicia Keys, or Linkin Park. In fact, I had to ask myself, Who are these people? What do they sound like?”

Image

I sent this balloon to his credibility.

I understand that many of those artists are much bigger now than they were at the time, but still, if I ever read another music review by Hornby, I will take it with a grain of salt.

“Actually, the truth of it is that neither Staind nor Linkin Park nor Limp Bizkit is dissimilar to just about any other band that has played an electric guitar very loud in the past thirty years, which means that there is very little to be said for or about them, though I wish them no ill.”

Lol okay Nick.

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Royalties And The Changing Music Industry

“You might as well walk into a record store, put the CD’s in your pocket and walk out without paying for them.” -Mark Knopfler

I searched twitter for the key words “illegal” and “downloads,” and the results were just about what I expected. Some people were raving about the convenience of downloading media illegally, others were complaining about copyright laws, and some users, both fans and artists, condemned the act of internet piracy. One interaction particularly stuck out to me, concerning both sides of the predicament.

“I just wonder how many of y’all will really support when I finally drop something for sale!” Tweeted one artist. Another user (presumably a fan) responded: “I’m sure you’ll go platinum in illegal downloads!” Whether or not the artist found this funny remains unclear, but the question lingers, how many people will pay for her music when it can be easily accessed for free on the Internet, and not just illegally?

In the early days of Napster and illegal downloading, many record labels did not hesitate to sue people who illegally downloaded music, and court cases like this continue  today. Century Media, a Metal and Rock label based out of Germany, announced its plans in September of 2012 to take 7,500 fans to court for illegally downloading music from artists Lacuna Coil and Iced Earth. According to an article published on NME.com, “If found guilty, all 7,500 file sharers could face a large fine or a payment of $2900 (£1,790) to avoid going to court.” All of the accused downloaders are referred to as John Doe in the court papers, but their IP addresses are listed.

It is clear that times have changed for artists, fans, and especially record labels. And it’s not just illegal downloading that has everyone rethinking old business models. Online services like Pandora, Last.fm, Grooveshark, Spotify, and YouTube have people spending way less money on music than they used to. At least Spotify, iTunes Match and Pandora pay the artists whose music gets played though, right? Well, sort of. Although Spotify pays artists per stream, the number of plays it takes to earn much of anything from putting your music on Spotify is very daunting. A classic example of this is Lady Gaga’s royalty check of $167 from Spotify after “Poker Face” was played on the service over one million times. If you’re surprised, you’re not the only one. Swedish musician Magnus Uggla, upon learning of Gaga’s minuscule compensation, said that he would rather his music be pirated, and removed his music from the service.

Since then, Spotify has played around with the amount of money paid to artists per stream, and should the current rate have been in place upon “Poker Face’s” Spotify debut, Lady Gaga would have instead earned somewhere between $1,315 and $1,855 for her million plus plays. Although Spotify keeps the algorithm they use for compensating artists from the public, many artists have revealed their pay rates online to draw attention to the issue. Josh Davidson of Parks and Gardens tweeted on September 3rd of 2012 about royalties that his band receives from iTunes Match and Spotify: “iTunes Match pays $0.00330526797710 per stream. Spotify actually pays us more, at $0.00966947678815 per stream.” Those numbers are very low, and for them to break even (Parks and Gardens uses a service called TuneCore to distribute their music) they would need 5171 plays, a slightly discouraging number.

Very few artists are excited about the opportunity to make money on Spotify and other streaming mediums, but for newer artists, sometimes it seems like a necessary evil. In his band’s blog, James Lynch from Bomb The Music Industry! writes: “And what is any artist supposed to do? NOT have your music on Spotify (or Mog, or Rdio, or whatever) and not have anyone listen to your music at all?” Interestingly enough, some big players have chosen to do just that. According to Spotify’s own help page: “Some frequently requested artists that are not in Spotify include The Beatles, Pink Floyd, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. We hope that they change their minds regarding streaming soon!” And I’m sure many other people agree. Pink Floyd’s manager Paul Loasby feels that Spotify just doesn’t compensate artists well enough for them to put their music up. “The music is so undervalued. The rights-holders, in my opinion, have sold it too cheaply. I would like to see the money paid to artists dramatically increase.”  The incentive is just not there for Pink Floyd and many others to put their music on Spotify, but this has hardly slowed Spotify’s growth.

According to Alex Luke, executive vice president of A&R for the Capitol Label Group, the holes in Spotify’s catalogue aren’t a problem. “For years iTunes didn’t have Madonna or Dave Matthews or the Beatles and did fine. I would argue that the [streaming] space is still finding itself and the jury’s still out on how big these services are going to get and whether or not a missing artist or a missing catalog will make a huge amount of difference. It didn’t in the case of iTunes.” Perhaps Spotify will renegotiate terms, or maybe some of these bands will change their minds after a meeting with Spotify representatives. The Red Hot Chili Peppers did. “It wasn’t a negotiation, it was more of a ‘guys, here’s what’s happening,’ and really showing them Spotify is beneficial,” Sachin Doshi, Spotify’s head of development and analysis says. “They start to get it once they see the numbers.” But until AC/DC, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd “get it,” you might have to (gasp!) listen to them on YouTube.

Other artists simply choose to delay releasing new albums on Spotify with the hope of increasing digital and physical sales in the first few weeks of releasing them. Taylor Swift’s newest album “Red” was withheld from online streaming services such as Spotify during the early stages of its release. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Scott Borchetta – the man who “discovered” Taylor Swift and started the label Big Machine Records – explains the logic behind such a decision: “We’re not putting the brand-new releases on Spotify,” he said. “Why shouldn’t we learn from the movie business? They have theatrical releases, cable releases. There are certain tiers. If we just throw out everything we have, we’re done.”  And he isn’t the only one who has been releasing albums to online streaming services at later dates. This has become a trend among labels, and albums such as Adele’s ’21’, Coldplay’s ‘Mylo Xyloto’ and the Black Keys’ ‘El Camino’ have all been released later on Spotify than when the physical copies were first released. It cannot be certain that this strategy works, however.

According to Spotify’s head of development, Sachin Doshi, Mumford & Sons’ Babel was streamed eight million times in its first week and then sold 600,000 copies. “That goes to prove streaming services do not take away from unit sales and, in fact, can be additive for major artist releases…That’s our point and we’re sticking to it.” It will take time to determine which business model is best, but there is no denying the fact that online streaming revenues have grown incredibly fast and are continuing to do so.

Data collected by a research firm called Strategy Analytics suggests that streaming music revenues will grow to about $1.1 billion (compared to $3.9 billion from downloads) by the end of 2012, at a rate about five times faster than downloads. Interestingly, the research firm also predicts that total digital revenues will overtake those of physical copies by 2015. Of course, physical copies will never become obsolete, and it is extremely unlikely that downloadable music will completely go away either, but if CD’s overtook vinyl and tape, and if downloads are going to overtake CD’s, will these streaming services overtake downloadable music? One can only speculate. Either way, artists are still getting the short end of the stick.

With over 24,400,000 monthly users, it is puzzling to comprehend why Spotify doesn’t have the money to compensate artists with higher rates. Spotify has experienced amazing revenue growth – 151% from 2010 to 2011 – reaching $244.5 million in total sales. In that same timespan, however, Spotify’s “cost of sales” (including royalty fees, distribution costs and other expenses) grew 98 percent in 2011, and salary costs for Spotify’s 311 employees rose 173%, pulling in a net loss for Spotify of a little more than $59 million. How can a company stay afloat despite it’s continuous reporting of losses?

The short answer is its massive potential. Spotify is hot, with over 24 million monthly users, but a huge portion of it’s revenue – most of it actually, 97% just last year – goes to record labels. According to researcher Alice Enders: “Spotify is now finding that legitimate free services can lure fans away from piracy, but at the expense of investor capital.” The free music is, well, expensive. The tricky part is finding ways to get more paying subscribers, specifically in the United States. In most of Spotify’s markets, the free account has a listening cap of 10 hours per month, but not in the U.S. Spotify had planned to enforce that listening cap 6 months after its U.S. release in 2011, but alas, there is still none. The British research firm Ender’s Analysis claims that this listening cap will be enforced in July of 2013, but according to the New York Times, a Spotify spokesman claimed “there were no such plans for the United States. Plans or not, Spotify’s potential is undeniable. According to Steve Sovaca, Spotify’s content head, “more people are paying for Spotify in Sweden than are using the free service.” What would it look like if this were true in Spotify’s other markets like the United States? Plans to make Spotify profitable are obviously still in the works, and until there are profits to be made, negotiations for royalties will most likely continue to stagnate, leaving artists in the dirt.

Internet radio isn’t the only radio in the United States that has been underpaying artists and labels. In fact, terrestrial radio broadcasters aren’t required to pay labels royalties per play at all – just songwriters and music publishers. The debate over radio royalties goes back to the days of Frank Sinatra, who was outspoken about fair compensation for artists and labels himself. Not much has happened for decades in the courts – both labels and broadcasters have lobbied incessantly. But recently, a deal was made between two big players in the music industry, Clear Channel Communications (the United State’s largest radio broadcaster) and Big Machine records (Taylor Swift’s label, among other country acts). Because of the agreement – for the first time in the history of radio – a label will be able to collect a royalty when it’s song is played on the radio, treating all forms of radio “holistically,” to use the worlds of Clear Channel’s own CEO Bob Pittman. In the short run this will hurt Clear Channel, but in the long run – as more listening takes place online (right now only 2% of Clear Channel’s does) – the corporation expects to benefit.

Perhaps this deal will set a precedent for future relations between labels and terrestrial broadcasters, but to the founder of Pandora, Tim Westergen, deals like this need to be required. “It is time for Congress to level the playing field and to approach radio royalties in a technology-neutral manner,” he said. “The current rate-setting law is unfair to performing artists, unfair to record labels, and unfair to Pandora and Internet radio as we compete every day with broadcast radio and satellite radio for listener loyalty and advertising and subscription revenue.” An interesting thought, but perhaps unrealistic, and certainly easier said than done.

Meanwhile, Serious XM radio, the only Satellite radio in America, has been sneakily getting away with only paying 8% of their revenue for the use of sound recordings, but that is set to rise to 11% by 2017.

The moral of the story is that dead weight loss is still very much alive in the world of digital music, and consumers are getting way more music for their money than they used to, and that has artists and labels scrambling to find ways to penny pinch. A lot of artists make most of their money from touring and playing shows, but for upcoming acts, prospects still look dismal – even if you have a lot of people listening. On October 3oth, 2012, Chan Marshall of Cat Power announced on Instagram: (she uses all-caps regularly) “I MAY HAVE TO CANCEL MY EUROPEAN TOUR DUE TO BANKRUPTCY & MY HEALTH STRUGGLE WITH ANGIOEDEMA. I HAVE NOT THROWN IN ANY TOWEL, I AM TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT BEST I CAN DO…” This is an artist who released a Top 10 Billboard album and played sold out concerts all across the United States. Although it is not new to hear that making a living off of music and performing is not easy, Cat Power’s situation is alarming. How can an artist of such status not be able to carry on because of financial situations?

Cat Power isn’t the only underdog who’s experiencing financial conundrums. Many of the members of the band Grizzly Bear, despite their modest success in recent years, are uninsured medically. According to Nitsuh Abebe’s article in the NY Times, Grizzly Bear Members Are Indie-Rock Royalty, But What Does That Buy Them in 2012?

“The band’s had a song on a Twilight soundtrack, been repeatedly praised by Jay-Z, appeared on The Colbert Report, and opened for Radiohead… [and] Veckatimest has now sold around 220,000 copies in the U.S.” It is difficult to measure the success of a band or musical artist, but it would be foolish to presume that Grizzly Bear hasn’t had a good swing at it so far. It is all the more shocking, considering these things, to know that some of the members have admitted to being uninsured. Would they be insured if they made more from Internet royalties? Probably not. But perhaps, if more people paid for their music.

One of the comments left below the NYT article caught my eye:

“I’m all for musicians making decent money, but I think they need to make decent music. I’ve heard of the rave reviews for Grizzly Bear, but I don’t get it. It’s not bad…but it’s not very interesting, catchy or appealing to me. I couldn’t help but read this and think ‘yeah, you’re not making pop music…and you’re not making rock music…you’re making squiggly, noodling arias that go nowhere and some people like that, but not quite enough to make $100,000 a year.’”

I was not at all surprised by this comment. The bottom line is that people like Top 40, and it sells. As the music industry becomes more centralized and as labels get more cautious in signing new acts, it will only become more difficult for new/indie artists to get any kind of share of the musical money pie.

According to one blogger, it wasn’t always like this: “…A working act could have a middle class lifestyle and maybe some future performing rights income and other royalties. Now, you’re either starving or fighting to hold on to what you’ve got…It’s desperation all the time.” Within this desperation, bands and musicians who decide to stay in the game are becoming more cash-savvy everyday. The Ragbirds, a band from Ann Arbor, Michigan, take pride in their vegetable oil fueled tour van that saves them thousands of dollars annually on travel expenses and has about a ninety percent smaller carbon footprint than that of a diesel fueled van. And they’re not the first; Many other musicians choose to travel in vegetable fuel powered vehicles while on tour.

Another huge way that artists save pennies in the age of the Internet is by crowd-funding their creative projects. Anyone who has dabbled in recording knows that it gets expensive, and fast. Websites such as Kickstarter allow artists to upload videos describing their creative endeavors. In return for some funding, they offer fans incentives such as pre-ordering privileges, exclusive t-shirt designs, personal performances, and anything else, really. The only catch is that if the project doesn’t get 100% funded by a certain deadline (anywhere from 1 to 60 days later), the artist receives none of the funding. Many well known artists have gone this route, such as Amanda Palmer who raised over one million dollars in the most funded musical Kickstarter of all time, an excellent example of the power of the internet.

Many artists have learned that because of the power of the Internet, they need not worry about labels at all, at least while getting started. Bon Iver is the go to example of an independent artist nowadays. Lead singer Justin Vernon is said to have written most of their debut album in a cabin in northwestern Wisconsin, and released it himself in July of 2007. The band has gone on to win the Grammy for “best new artist” and has been an almost-mainstream success since. Other bands choose to abandon their labels after experiencing success. One of Blink 182’s lead singers, Tom Delonge, announced their independence from Interscope Records on the 23rd of October, 2012 via twitter: “Freedom!! Blink as of today, is now an independent Artist!!!!!” The benefits of Blink’s independence aren’t entirely clear, but one can imagine that they now receive more of a cut from Internet royalties and download revenue, and that they have all the say in almost everything regarding the business end of things.

Blink 182 can be found on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, you name it. Their music has been illegally downloaded millions of times, and they’ve simultaneously sold hundreds of thousands of physical albums, including vinyl. Through many of the changes that the music industry has undergone, Blink 182 has endured, and so has music in general. As the music industry changes even more, labels, artists, and distributors will have to be smarter and smarter about the decisions they make regarding money and music, and they know it. The sheer amount of creative potential on all sides, from business to artistry, is immeasurable, and it is certain that music as an art will thrive within the changes that industry itself is going through

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Why Your Friend’s Band Broke Up

You know that kid you knew in High School who started a garage band with a couple of his friends? He wasn’t that great of a singer, and the rest of the band mates weren’t the best at their instruments either, but they seemed to love what they were doing so it almost didn’t matter. You only went to one or two of their shows, and now you’re wondering what happened to them.

The music industry today is unfortunately governed – like so many other things – by money. If I told you that a skilled producer could make that garage band sound their best after a couple weeks in the studio, you’d probably believe me considering all the technology that experienced producers have access to. The fact of the matter is, to enter into the music industry, it is very helpful to have money and connections.

10 Miles of Blue, an up and coming rock band from Atlanta Georgia, recently got the opportunity to work with a well known producer and sound engineer, Shawn Grove. (Shawn is known for recording the bands Matchbox Twenty, Collective Soul, and Sevendust, to name a few.) In the summer of 2011, I got to meet the members of 10 Miles of Blue before a very lively concert at the Bling Pig in Ann Arbor. I was intrigued by their story, and afterward I was able to stay in contact via email.

As we wrote back and fourth, I learned that co-lead-singer Parker Rehklau (Saxony Rehklau, his sister, shares the role) began his musical career at a young age. He started a band with a bunch of his friends when he was fourteen called “Tease the Moose,” and the group went on to win a regional battle of the bands and was featured on Fox News for their success. Soon after, Parker was offered a contract with Warner Brothers – but only Parker. Warner Bros didn’t seem to have confidence in the group’s ability to perform together at a professional level – because, after all, they were fourteen – but nonetheless, they were interested in Parker. As a part of the deal, he was promised vocal lessons from Jan Smith, who has worked with singers Usher, Nikki Minaj and Justin Bieber, to name a few. It was certainly an exciting opportunity, but Rehklau was uncomfortable with leaving his band mates behind and never signed the contract.

Tease the Moose, like many garage bands, eventually went their separate ways, but Parker didn’t stop writing. During his solo years, he was offered a contract by Colombia records, but he turned it down because he wasn’t interested in recording and performing songs that he hadn’t written. Throughout, Parker stayed in touch with Jan Smith, and she told him to let her know if he found a band that he could see himself going all the way with. Eventually, Parker formed the band 10 Miles of Blue (cleverly abbreviated “T-MOB”) with his sister Saxony and five other friends.

On the night of one of their gigs, Parker invited Jan Smith. Smith invited many other music executives, and after the show, T-MOB had earned the confidence of Jan and the others and the deal was set. Saxony told me about the rest in an excited email: “The music execs gave the nod concerning 10 MILES OF BLUE… And Mama J (Jan Smith) told me that night that I needed to start lessons with her the next week.”  Later in the email, Saxony told me that T-MOB was to record with Shawn Grove for around $10,000 per song, and with the help of Jan Smith and Plumbline Music Group, T-MOB set up a low budget tour around the Midwest.

Signing a record contract can be a huge financial risk, and without a considerable amount of fundraising and support from their parents,  T-MOB might not have ever made it off the ground. Don’t get me wrong – every member of Ten Miles of Blue is incredibly talented – but how many bands of comparable talent are never given opportunities like this because of a small budget or a lack of connections?

In an article published in Time Magazine called “Want to Be a Rock Star? You’ll Need $100,000,” Abner and Harper Willis write: “It turns out that breaking into the world of rock and roll is like launching any career in a field with high barriers to entry: It’s expensive. And unlike law school or medical school, the school of rock doesn’t offer financial aid (not even loans).” So why has the dollar gained such a pivotal role in the industry?

For one thing, our standards as listeners are just too high. The expectations for the human ear have been set and are regularly reinforced by the music that is played on the radio, and as a result, up and coming musicians are constantly having to battle the standards of their listeners.  People compare what they hear to the “best” in the industry without even realizing it. The emotion and liveliness of a melody can too easily be ignored by a listener who is distracted by the unfamiliarity of a recording’s imperfections.

Fair or not, people have been comparing songs to other songs since they started listening to them. Listeners aren’t used to and don’t like hearing a guitar that’s just a little too distorted and perhaps balanced incorrectly with a poorly miked drummer who’s slightly out of time. They are not interested in listening to an untrained and slightly pitchy singer who sang a little too far away at times from the mic, and they are not interested in hearing a sloppy bass line accompanied by an out of tune piano. Moreover, they wouldn’t buy a song with a combination of these things mixed together by an incapable engineer, and would be even less likely to want to attend a live concert where the band had the potential to sound even “worse.”

Many, if not most homegrown bands start out with a little bit of a rough edge in one-way or another, and it takes time, practice, and better equipment to smooth them out. 10 Miles Of Blue’s original demo is free of most all of the previously mentioned recording “errors,” but the average person would still be able to tell that it wasn’t professionally recorded and would perhaps lose interest and tune out.  When it comes to the studio, the difference it makes to have professional recordings is not ignorable. After a region-wide tour and recording sessions with Shawn Grove, T-MOB’s online fan base more than doubled to over 2,000, and after the album release, the band will have reached at least ten times the amount of people they are currently connected with today.

A perfectly mastered CD does a great deal for a band’s publicity, but it is usually not enough for most bands to get off the ground on their own. Advertising and distribution difficulties always stand between the musicians and those who they wish to reach with their music. People who seek out music for the sake of music outside of what they already know are of a dying breed. It is almost entirely up to whoever makes the music (or whoever is responsible for its distribution) to make sure you get to hear it, and that costs money. For the underdogs, it’s hard to get people to listen.

10 Miles of Blue is lucky enough to have the support they need to reach their target market, but most people who want to step their foot into the music world have very few connections. T-MOB is under the guidance of those who understand the market of potential listeners very well. They know that if they are going to take T-MOB to new heights, they have to take the songs they’ve written and record them without flaws like they have already started to do. They know that getting T-MOB up and running is going to be a huge investment of time and money. If they want people to hear their music, it’s going to take advertising, and lots of it. After the release of the album the band plans to sign to a major label that will advertise the album and set up another tour schedule. The music will have been brought to the listeners, polished and ready for listening, and the people who hear it most likely won’t be the ones who sought it out.

That band your friends started in high school? Maybe they gave up; maybe they’re still trying. But chances are they didn’t or don’t have the money to record their songs at the level of “perfection” necessary to get people listening to the point where they can then decide if they like the song in its own right. They also probably don’t have the connections they need to take their music to those who might want to listen to it. All of this (almost always) takes money and time. So keep your ears out, and always know that the “small” bands more than appreciate you listening.

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Fleet Foxes at Hill Auditorium on September 29th, 2011

I only knew two songs by Fleet Foxes, but when I saw ads for their concert at Hill Auditorium, something made me buy a ticket.  Whether it was their three part harmonies, their folky, yet modern, nineteenth century/nineteen seventies sound, or the fact that they were playing in an acoustically perfect hall, I knew I had reason enough to go. Naturally, I bought their most recent record, Helplessness Blues, before the concert so that I knew what I was getting into. It’s no fun to go to a concert if you can’t sing along, so I listened.

The day of the concert I was on my way back to my dorm from a lecture and I stopped by Hill Auditorium to see if anyone was around, perhaps setting up for that night. Sure enough, their tour bus was parked on a side street, and I headed back to my dorm and grabbed my guitar. When I returned, there was no one near the tour bus, but I noticed that the back door to the auditorium was open. There was someone by the door, but I walked in with confidence. They didn’t ask any questions, most likely because I was holding a guitar, was dressed like a hipster, and offered a smile and a “Hey!”

When I walked in, I could see a rack full of guitars, an upright bass and countless other pieces of equipment. I walked down the hall to my right, sneaking past anyone who might have raised a finger. I entered the auditorium on the main level and sat a few rows from the front, along with a few other spectators who were actually supposed to be there. The stage crew and some members of the band were setting up for the show. The lights and speaker cabinets were being raised, the height of the white backdrop was being adjusted, and the piano was being meticulously tuned. I sat for probably fifteen minutes observing the spectacle of stage preparation, with all its complexities that I knew nothing about.

It was my hope, of course, to meet and talk to members of the band, so I continued exploring the halls. As I exited into the main lobby area I could hear a flute in the distance. It took me several guesses before I found the stairwell that it was coming from, and after hesitating for a moment I unabashedly revealed myself.

“You play flute in the band?” I asked.

“I do.” He replied.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to be up here, but I couldn’t help myself. Are you just practicing?”

“Yeah, actually. I was just finishing up.”

“What’s your name?”

“Morgan. You?”

He gathered his things and we began to walk back downstairs. We talked about how the tour had been going, how he joined the band, and the new record. The conversation wound down:

“You know any good places to get a burger around here?” Morgan asked.

“Yeah, there’s a Five Guys around the corner there.” I replied.

“Thanks, nice meeting you.”

“Same, can’t wait for the show!”

I walked to the tour bus to see if anybody else was about, and sitting on the stairs, wearing a brown jacket over a wool sweater, smoking a cigarette, was Robin Pecknold.

“Are you the lyricist from Fleet Foxes?” I asked, ninety nine percent sure.

“I am.” He replied. I proceeded to ask him to sign my guitar, and then we got to talking about the album, specifically, the song “The Shrine/ An Argument.”

Toward the beginning of the song, the mood is minor, deep, and thoughtful. Pecknold’s voice, accompanied only by guitar, sings of pennies thrown into a well by children, and he asks the question “What became of them?” Shortly thereafter, the song reaches one of its many climaxes as he lifts his voice with the words “Sunlight over me no matter what I do” in a powerfully sung melody. Interestingly, the mood of the song immediately changes to a major, nostalgic feel. The lyrics change, too. “Apples in the summer all cold and sweet.” I asked about the sudden changes.

“Well, you see, it’s foreshadowing. To the end of the song where it goes ‘Green apples hang from my green apple tree. They belong only to me.’

“Oh cool,” I exclaimed, “it gets me every time.” As we continued talking about the new album, I asked him how to play Helplessness Blues, the title track from the record. It had to be played in an alternate tuning (D, A, D, F#, B, D) with a capo on the first fret. I offered him my guitar and he briefly showed me the various chords that I would forget and relearn later on.

“You know a good place to get coffee around here?” He asked. This time I was of no help, but as if I knew, I asked,

“What kind of coffee?”

“You know, just like a really good espresso.”

Luckily, I didn’t have to look very far. I looked up, and there was Espresso Royale. On the way over, I pointed out Wazoo Records, a local music store. Over coffee, (I got a hot chocolate) I continued badgering.

“How’d it feel when you got signed? Was it exciting?” He went on to explain how they had all worked so hard on their first record and had put in hours upon hours of time into it, that by the time they were finished with the album they were almost tired of their own songs.

“So it was more like ‘It’s about time?’” I asked

“Yeah.”

“Did you wanna sit down, or…”

“Actually I was thinking we could check out that record store.” He pointed.

“Sure, awesome!”

We walked down the street toward the signature yellow Wazoo awning, and as we headed upstairs, I asked about his influences. He began looking through vinyl and picking things out.

“Anything from like ’65 to ’71, you know, around there. Psychedelic Folk.” I was not aware that such a genre existed. He went on to list off artists from that time period/genre. I noticed Helplessness Blues on one of the shelves and I pulled it down.

“Are you guys going to that concert tonight?” a costumer asked, unaware of Robin’s role in the band.

“Yeah, I replied.”

“You?” he asked Robin.

“I’m actually in the band, so.” said Robin, shyly.

“Oh my gosh are you serious? I didn’t even… oh my gosh I feel so stupid.” he blushed.

“So, I kind of have to go to it. I mean I don’t have to, but…” he replied. We all laughed. On the spot, the surprised costumer bought Helplessness Blues and had it signed. He also asked me to take a picture of him with Robin.

After Robin finished picking out which albums he wanted, we walked over to the register.

“These ones are on me.” said Forest, one of the storeowners.

“Thanks, man.” said Robin, “and these are for you.”

He handed me three of them: Astral Weeks by Van Morrison (“Perhaps the greatest record of all time,” he said), Attempted Mustache by Loudon Wainwright III, and Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan. (I told him I wasn’t very familiar with Dylan). Forest and Robin hit it off really well and they talked about a record store in England, among other things.

Soon after, Robin had to head back to the auditorium for a sound check, so we said goodbye.

I could hardly believe it. I just spent the afternoon with the lead singer of Fleet Foxes and he gave me $44 worth of vinyl.

The concert was nothing less than the best concert I have ever attended. I had balcony seats but I managed to sneak into the front row until the actual ticket owners asked for their seats. Before they played “The Shrine / An Argument,” Robin looked out into the audience and asked “Is my friend John out there?” I screamed my head off.

All crazy experiences aside, their musicianship was professional, as expected. Instrumentation included upright bass, piano, electric/acoustic guitar, bass guitar, a drum kit, lap steel guitar, bass clarinet (played in a rather unconventional way), flute, and mandolin, among others. Pecknold’s vocals were top notch, and harmonies filled the hall.

At other concerts that I have attended, the performers kept to themselves as far as verbal band-to-crowd interaction. Fleet Foxes was very receptive toward the crowd, to the point of holding conversation with them. The audience absolutely loved it.

I yelled out “I wish I could grow a beard!” (Many of the members have substantial facial hair.) and a woman across the way yelled out “Me too!” The whole place erupted with laughter.

A couple of my friends and I waited outside the venue for them after the show, and after taking some pictures of him with my friends, I asked him if it bothered him, all the autographs and photographs and conversation.

“No, not at all, you know? I figure if people are going to come all the way out here and pay thirty bucks or whatever then we should give them our all.” And they certainly did.

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The Adventure

Tom Delonge had begun writing songs for a band he hadn’t yet named while on tour with the widely known punk rock band Blink 182 in 2004. After leaving Blink 182 in February of 2005 for personal reasons, he set out to start his most ambitious project yet.

“There’s no room for anything other than ten times bigger and better than anything I’ve ever done.” Tom explains in the documentary Start The Machine, a film outlining the formation of Angels and Airwaves and the breakup of Blink 182. “It can’t just be different, it has to be better. I don’t know how to explain that, I just have to do it.” (Start the Machine, 2008)

And he did. Track four, The Adventure, was the first song the world heard from Angels and Airwaves’ first album, We Don’t Need To Whisper, after it was leaked on the internet when Delonge’s email account was broken into. The Adventure outsold every other song on the album and was praised by new fans around the world.

The song begins with a call for attention from a distant, pure-sounding synthesizer that picks you up and leads you into an atmosphere of delayed guitar and unconventional percussion. Then, out of a rolling cymbal sound, a roaring descending guitar melody tears through the noise, accompanied by power chords on another guitar and a driving bass line. Relentlessly, but not in a harsh way, the verse begins with the same intensity as the intro. It is as if there is a very important message that needs to be given, and the messenger has waited a long time to give it.

The lyrics themselves present the listener with an amorphous sense of hope and an incredible future.

“I wanna have the same last dream again, the one where I wake up and I’m alive,” Tom sings, over the continued spacious guitar chords and unreserved, punctual drumbeat.  Unexpectedly, after a fill ridden with sixteenth notes and full of cymbals, snare, and toms, an atypical chorus is presented, anticipative and hopeful in nature. It seems to be the most critical part of the message.

“Hey oh, here I am, and here we go, life’s waiting to begin.” The words carry meaning – ideas about new beginnings, and perhaps the first day of a new life.

“Even if your hope has burned with time, anything that is dead shall be re-grown, and your vicious pain, your warning sign, you will be fine.”

One of the beauties of this song is that it is not connected to any smaller idea than hope. There is no message of culture, race, sexuality, gender or politics. The vague lyrics compel the listener to reject any predispositions of reality with regards to disunity and propel him into his idea of hopefulness, while simultaneously implying that each one of us has the same underlying conception of it.

A sense of unity is achieved through these words, and is only emphasized by the combined feel of the synth, guitars and drums.

But it isn’t only the lyrics that are full of meaning. Tom wrote the lyrics after the melody and much of the rest of the song came to life:

“It’s going to be rad. I’m going to think of some really good words.”  (Start the Machine, 2008) Tom says, after presenting the melody to guitarist David Kennedy. The idea was there, even before it was paired with lyrics. The dissonant guitars and elusive synth, combined with the power of the drum set and the melody that fits hand in hand with the timbre of Delonge’s voice, create a sound that evokes a kind of nostalgic cocktail of emotion in the listener.

Tom’s vocal delivery in and of itself adds meaning to the song. The Adventure would have had a completely different feel if any other singer sang it. The edge achieved in Delonge’s punk style of singing in Blink 182 often carries through to Angels and Airwaves. Intentional style alterations and studio effects such as auto tune and reverb are what gives Angels and Airwaves a different sound from the same vocalist. He sings in a sincere, longing, and confident way, which is exactly what this kind of a song calls for.

The drummer’s style also plays an important role in creating the overall feel of the song. In The Adventure, Atom Willard chose to emphasize floor toms and the kick drum during many parts of the song, adding power. His style also depends heavily on the fills he uses between phrases and important parts of the song. Every fill is heartfelt, intense, and complex. There are also auxiliary percussion parts that change the mood of the song entirely. At the suggestion of their sound engineer, Angels and Airwaves used household items to create organic sounds that play a huge role in the intro and chorus of the song. These rhythmic choices are a central part of creating the overall structure and feeling of the song.

Effects pedals that were used with the guitars such as distortion, reverb, and most importantly delay pedals, are arguably the most important way (aside from the vocals) that The Adventure achieves its overarching sound.  These three effects together create the distinct sound that is characteristic of the guitar tracks in The Adventure. 

Last but not least, the bass guitar plays a significant role in rounding out the overall tone of the song. The low tones are a less recognized but still critical part of shaping musical phrases and building up to musical climaxes.

The Adventure is full of meaning, the concrete and the abstract, the musical and the lyrical. Its allusions to hope and a better future both literally and musically give it that universal appeal that makes it a song worth talking about. We Don’t Need To Whisper sold over 600,000 copies, and Angels and Airwaves has since released three more albums. Had Tom Delonge created something that was ten times bigger and better than anything he had ever done? Was it not only different, but better? Well, he was certainly off to a good start.

Works Cited

Start The Machine. Dir. Mark Eaton. Modlife Films, 2008. DVD.

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Everyone’s a Writer, and Everything is Writing

John, just like everyone else, started writing before he knew the alphabet. When John was in the womb, he wrote by kicking around and wiggling his fingers. When he was old enough to walk, he wrote about all the places he had been with his mom through his curious facial expressions and smiles. When he was older, he learned more ways to write – through speech, actions, thoughts, and music.

When John was starting to learn the alphabet and just beginning to formulate words, he was overcome with the feeling of accomplishment that came with finishing a conventional piece of writing. One of his first papers was near a page long and was written out of an interest in dogs. It read, “A pup is a pup is a pup is a pup is a pup is a pup…” and so on.

He was very proud of his work, and he read it aloud to his mother and father at the dinner table. As any good parents would, they were very supportive of his efforts and encouraged him in his newfound interest.

One of his later works was certainly more abstract. In his attempts to embrace technology in a changing world, he wrote it using a computer. The paper was of considerable length, and was nothing but a seemingly random string of letters, numbers and symbols. Some critics ridiculed him for wasting ink upon its publication, and he became discouraged.

In third grade he was required to write short stories. He wrote one story about a fly, and how it changed the outcome of a baseball game by flying around in the pitcher’s view. John was intrigued by the idea of such a small insect changing the outcome of the game. Another short story was about an evil lumberjack who wanted to cut down all the trees in his town.

Writing was adventurous for John. As he wrote he allowed his mind to wander into fictional worlds. He accomplished the same sense of adventure by drawing mysterious maps of nonexistent lands, thinking up new alien species, making box forts in the basement, and constructing entire towns out of Lego. He concerned himself with riding his bike, school, Pokémon, playing outside and other activities that boys of his age enjoyed. All of those things, in a way, were writing.

One day, he wrote a story about what life would be like for a dollar bill if money were alive. The main character and many of his friends were trapped in a cash register at a convenient store. They dreamt of escaping every night and would tell each other stories about places they’d been. Characters recalled what it was like to be put through a vending machine, or how it felt to be dropped in a supermarket.

For English class John was required to write things that he hadn’t exactly wanted to write, such as informative essays and book reports, but he still wrote for fun in other ways. He wrote a poem with his friends in the summer by running around outside in the rain, and he wrote another by ice-skating on the pond in winter. He wrote by sneaking out past midnight with his friends and running around the neighborhood ringing people’s doorbells.

The ways in which John knew how to write expanded further when he picked up the guitar. His sister got an old classical guitar from her voice instructor. It came in a leather bound case with two very old books. He was the singer in a garage band that he and his friends started, and he wanted to learn guitar for himself, so he jumped at the opportunity. After a couple hours, he had learned a few basic chords. He continued to practice frequently and he began learning songs on the Internet.

He really liked the guitar and he started to try to write his own songs. The first song he wrote contained the following lyrics:

“The wild horse is tamed. What more is there to chase? I dreamt I ran side by side with them, but the wild horse is tamed.”

He had found a new way to express himself as a writer, and he ran with it. He continues to write almost everyday and has written many songs with his garage band. When he hasn’t found a melody to accompany his thoughts, he writes them down as a poem. Sometimes words are more powerful without music, and other times music can be used effectively to give the words more meaning. Sometimes music is more powerful without words, and other times words can be used effectively to give the music more meaning. John has a drawer in his desk where he keeps all the lyrics that he writes, regardless of whether or not they have a melody to accompany them.

John thinks that everyone is a writer and that everyone can write a beautiful song. Just because someone might not be able to sing very well or even at all doesn’t mean they don’t have a beautiful melody inside of them waiting to be sung. Similarly, just because someone isn’t a very good writer or just because someone can’t physically write at all doesn’t mean there isn’t a poem in their head waiting to be recited or a story waiting to be told.

One person that John points out when he is explaining his theories about writing is an author named Christopher Nolan. Christopher was born with cerebral palsy and was paralyzed from the neck down. His father and mother raised him like any other child and read him stories and poems at night. One day a drug was developed that allowed Christopher to move his head and neck just enough to type using a pointer that was attached to his forehead. It turned out that he had been writing poems in his head for years. He put them together in a book titled Dam Burst of Dreams. The human mind is a powerful thing.

U2 wrote a song about Christopher Nolan’s early life called “Miracle Drug.” John grew up listening to U2 and he’s known this song since he was little. The music itself, excluding the lyrics, is pretty pregnant with meaning. The melodies really grab the listener. He paid little attention to the words, and only recently discovered what the song was about. When he finally knew, the song became ten times more powerful.

No matter the weight of our words, we all have something to say, and that is what makes us all writers. Every aspect of our lives is a way of writing. When John began to understand this, his outlook on writing and the people around him changed.

With this newfound view of writing, he began to realize why he found the idea of evaluated writing in schools disagreeable. He began seeing requirements and criteria for papers as the enemy of free creative thought. Writing was less of an art in school and more of a math. His teachers would explain to him year after year the proper way to write an essay and he would do his best to spit one out, but in the end, was the writing as true to its author as it could have been otherwise? John’s first piece of writing was perhaps more expressive than many things he has written for school. This is not to say that John thinks English programs are unnecessary and unhelpful, only that they can sometimes compromise originality for structure, organization, and like-mindedness.

John wrote many things though that weren’t graded in his high school years, and it didn’t matter what someone else thought about them. He wrote a short comedy with his friends by building a snow fort and ordering pizza from it after spray painting an address on one of the walls. He wrote a crazy, fun, and emotional poem with a girl. He wrote an adventure story with his sister by chasing some thieves down the street one night after they broke into her car. He wrote another comedy by accepting a bribe to leave school and jump in the pond across the street during class. He wrote a tale of sorrow and longing when his dog died by mourning. He wrote poems about the way the sun reflected off of the winter ice on the windshield in the morning after it was only partially removed by a scraper that was held in the hurried hand of his sister. He wrote about the way the Corolla sounded when she turned the key and just how fast she would go in a thirty-five mile per hour zone because school started at 7:50 and it was 7:38. He wrote about her iPod and the songs she’d play on the way there, and just how skilled she was at driving a manual.

He wrote memoirs of everyday life. He wrote all of this without picking up a pen. His passion for writing has not and will not go away. John, just like everyone else, continues to write, everyday.

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