eMusic pivots again, says goodbye to major labels

[eMusic]

Not even a few hours after I posted an entry about why I choose to own my music do I see my point demonstrated.

eMusic announced it would return its focus on independent music, thus taking major label content out of its catalog. WEA-distributed labels have already been taken down. Universal and Sony albums are still listed on the site, but no time table has been given on when those titles will disappear.

The decision to offer major label content back in 2009 sparked a lot of controversy among eMusic users, and it even resulted in a number of labels such as Merge and Beggars Group leaving the service.

I was most interested in the WEA catalog since a lot of the artists I like are signed to WEA labels. WEA was one of the last to sign on with eMusic, and now, they’re the first to go.

I had been saving this month’s quota to use on Sept. 30, when Nonesuch is scheduled to release new albums by Steve Reich and Nico Muhly. Well, that plan is shot to hell.

I signed up with the service in 2006, when iTunes still locked its files with DRM and Amazon was months away from launching its own music download store. I used eMusic as a way to preview albums before I made any decision to buy a physical copy.

The tenor of the site changed drastically when it started offering major label artists. The accounting system changed from credits per download to dollar amounts per album. Slowly, I found myself getting less for the same price I’d been paying.

In the past, I could download 50 files per month. Now, my subscription can net me half that number.

I realized a few months ago that eMusic had become a Columbia House for digital downloads. My subscription was just enough to get me an album or two every month.

But I’m a budget-conscious listener, and eMusic had consistently undercut iTunes and the Amazon MP3 Store on catalog titles. The only thing cheaper would be to buy a used CD. In some cases, even new CDs were cheaper than eMusic. Those bargains are now on their way out.

I plan on keeping my subscription because I’m still part of eMusic’s target audience — indie music fans. But the download market is declining, and this pivot may not come in time to rescue eMusic.

UPDATE, 09/30/2014, 07:58: The New York Times reports Oct. 1 will be the last day major label titles will be available on eMusic.

 

Why I choose to own in an era of subscriptions

[My Google Play Listen Now Library]

A few months ago, I downgraded my Spotify subscription and started one with Google Play’s Listen Now. I was never a heavy user of Spotify, and honestly I found the desktop application poorly designed.

Google Play’s 20,000-song upload library pretty much clinched it for me, since my collection contains music that would be otherwise inaccessible to the streaming services.

I use streaming services as a way to preview music before I decide whether to own it outright. That puts me in a generation where ownership is a viable option. (In other words, I’m old.) I hear tell of an entire generation of listeners for whom their music experience begins and ends with streaming services.

For as much breadth the streaming services provide, I wouldn’t put my entire trust in their reliability. I’m not talking about bandwidth — I’m talking about rights holding and licensing.

A number of artists restrict the availability of their music online. John Zorn’s Tzadik label sells only through iTunes. AC/DC isn’t available anywhere. Metallica exclusively licenses through Spotify.

And what the rights holders give, they can also take away. When eMusic started offering major label content, I downloaded the self-titled debut album by the Stone Roses. A few weeks later, the album disappeared from the site’s catalog.

And if all the digging through record bins has taught me anything, there are vaults of material that will probably never see the light of day. How will I listen to Last Exit’s Iron Path on my iPod? By recording it straight from my vinyl copy.

On many occasions, my hunt for a particular piece of music forced me to seek out a physical copy. Self-titled albums by Animal Logic and Yano Akiko can only be had through used bins.

If my listening habits hewed closer to the mainstream, streaming services would probably have me more than covered. They don’t.

Recorded music is a business, and while the overhead in stocking a digital album is low, labels aren’t going to release product that they don’t perceive will sell. I have the unlucky habit of listening to just those kinds of recordings, and I always assume the services out there will have large gaps where my interests are concerned.

So I’m going to continue to acquire music in whatever forms they come. Streaming services are one such avenue, but for me, they can’t be the exclusive ones.

 

The ones that nearly got away: Idlewild, 100 Broken Windows

[Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows]

Before the Internet allowed listeners to try before they buy on a massive scale, music stores would set up listening kiosks for shoppers to sample a few select albums.

Of course, spots on these kiosks were available to labels who could pay for them, but I didn’t know that at the time. Given the quality of some of these selections, I could very well intuit they weren’t there solely on their merits.

100 Broken Windows by Idlewild was such a purchase. I had been living in Austin for three years at that point, and I hadn’t quite weaned myself off of Tower Records yet.

I gave a few tracks on the album a quick slice test — no more than 15 seconds for the first few tracks — to see if it would appeal to me, and luckily enough, it survived scrutiny. So I brought it home.

The album grew on me the more I listened to it, but part of me couldn’t quite picture myself being an Idlewild devotee. The band hit all the right points for me — lots of guitars, a singer with British brogue, a set of catchy songs — but I could sense I wouldn’t need more than one or two albums from them.

I had semi-consciously decided that if money got tight, 100 Broken Windows would be destined for a used CD bin. In 2002, money did get tight — I got laid off when the dot-com bubble burst, and the few bucks I got for the CD went toward petty cash.

At the same time, I knew the album wasn’t so bad that I never wanted to hear it again. So I ripped it before I let it go, then shelved the CD-ROM in the closet.

Fast forward 12 years later …

My rediscovery of vinyl spurred me to re-evaluate those decisions to let items in my collection wander off. I pulled out the CD-ROMs housing albums I sold for cash — 100 Broken Windows included — and gave them another play.

Yeah, I was dumb.

I may have never been destined to be an Idlewild fan, but I couldn’t deny being a fan of 100 Broken Windows. The album lost none of the appeal in the years since I first encountered it. To be honest, I’d find myself craving to hear “A Little Discourage” from time to time.

The album even got a reissue in the UK, supplemented with b-sides and extra tracks. I just settled to find a used copy for fewer than $5.

100 Broken Windows wasn’t the only victim of my short-sightedness. Maná’s MTV Unplugged, John & Mary’s The Weedkiller’s Daughter and Sugababes’ One Touch were albums that I liked more than I realized at the time.

At the time I sold them, I tried to picture whether ambivalence would set in years down the line. I gambled that my feelings for them would change for the worse and used that supposition to justify culling them from my collection.

They turned out to be bets that I lost.

 

The ones that nearly got away: Last Exit, Iron Path

[Last Exit - Iron Path]

John Zorn’s Naked City set me on an expedition to find as many degrees of separation from the band as I could. Tower Records published a magazine that one year included a supplement about a festival in New York City spotlighting the downtown New York scene.

From there, I learned about Robin Holcomb, Elliott Sharp, Bobby Previte, Marc Ribot — too many names to explore and not enough cash to get them all. And the Honolulu stores wouldn’t have carried these esoteric albums anyway.

When I learned about Last Exit, I thought, “Will this band give me a fix till whenever Naked City make a new album?” All that I read about the band — guitarist Sonny Sharrock, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, saxophone player Peter Brötzman and bassist Bill Laswell — led me to believe that they would rock you the fuck out much like Naked City did.

So I picked up a cassette of Iron Path, the only studio album the quartet would record and the only album released by a major label. I might have played through it a few times, but Iron Path lacked the thing that my unsophisticated teenage ears required — hooks.

For all its chaos, Naked City was a pretty melodic band. That’s not the case with Last Exit. These guys are intense, and they can bring on a mighty mean noise that never flies completely into anarchy. But hummable, they are not.

Iron Path didn’t survive one of the regular purges I made to fund other music. That would have been some time in the early ’90s.

The next time I encountered Iron Path was in 2003. A customer at Waterloo Records asked me whether the store carried it. I had actually heard of the album, which surprised both of us.

I wouldn’t think about Iron Path till recently, when I ran across an album titled Strange Meeting by a band called Power Tools. This trio consisted of Bill Frisell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson. I had never heard of Power Tools, and seeing Jackson’s name in the credits reminded me of Last Exit.

Many, many months later, I would find a sealed copy of Iron Path on vinyl for what could be considered an obscene bargain. Of course, I snatched it.

The problem with precocity is sometimes premature development can be mistakenly conflated with complete development. Yes, I was the audience for an album like Iron Path, but no, not at the age of 17. 29, perhaps. 35, maybe. But not 17.

The album is playing on the turntable as I write this sentence, and I’m enjoying the hell out of it — far, far more than I did approximately a quarter of a century ago. I wanted the wrong thing out of Iron Path the first time around, and I wrongly let it go.

It’s back in my life again, and it’s a pity that it can’t be in yours without a hefty outlay of cash. Used copies for the CD go for exorbitant prices, and the streaming services don’t have it. That pretty much leaves us with YouTube.

Looking ahead: Steve Reich, Nico Muhly, Cocco, Shiina Ringo

[Steve Reich - Radio Rewrite]

In the past, I’d feature upcoming releases that were editorially interesting. That is, they looked interesting even if I would never listen to them. I’m changing that policy to feature only things I plan on exploring myself.

The Drums, Encyclopedia, Sept. 23

I admit — I started listening to The Drums because I caught a video of “Forever and Ever, Amen” and thought Jonny Pierce’s shirt … accentuated his physique. He tripped my gaydar, unreliable as it is. The self-titled debut album was pretty good. The follow-up, not as much. I’m willing to give this third album a shot, now that the band is down to a duo.

Steve Reich, Radio Rewrite, Sept. 30

Whatever Radiohead references Reich throws into this piece will be totally lost on me given my ambivalence about Radiohead, but I am interested to hear Jonny Greenwood’s complete re-recording of Electric Counterpoint.

Nico Muhly, Two Boys, Sept. 30

I was wondering at what point Nonesuch would snag Nico Muhly for a recording.

Sam Amidon, Lily-O, Sept. 30

I look forward to hearing what Bill Frisell contributes to Sam Amidon’s modernized folk.

Cocco - 「プランC」

Cocco, Plan C, Oct. 8

Part of me wondered whether Pas de Bourée was something to tide fans over till a proper album release. The next question is whether it’s a harbinger of what’s to come.

Shiina Ringo, Hi Izuru Tokoro, Nov. 5

Shiina Ringo resumed releasing singles as a solo artist a year before disbanding Tokyo Jihen, and she’s put out four thus far. Taken together, they don’t really hint at a direction her music would go. Her self-cover album Gyakuyunyuu was a fascinating mess. I’m interested to see how she pulls it all together.

My brother’s albums: Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain

[Prince and the Revolution - Purple Rain]

Jurisdiction disputes in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race at times precluded me from liking bands more suited to my tastes than my brother’s — Madonna and Depeche Mode spring to mind. But for the most part, my brother was more than welcome to some of his claims.

He dug Prince. I did not.

I liked a few of his singles, but in terms of overall output, I didn’t see the appeal. I appreciate Prince now, but I still wouldn’t consider myself a fan.

Oddly enough, I did become a fan of Wendy and Lisa. I’m not sure what drew my attention to them, aside from being featured so prominently in videos. (Or maybe I subconsciously picked up on the gay undertone of the pair.) When Prince broke up the Revolution, my brother continued to follow him, leaving me to take up the cause for Wendy and Lisa.

Parade is my favorite of the Prince and the Revolution albums. Sure, “Kiss” and “Mountains” are solid singles, but that psychedelic first side went beyond rock, funk, pop, whatever the hell else. It was thoroughly composed, no less structurally taut than a piece by Mozart or Beethoven. And for the longest time, I thought Parade was all I really needed from Prince.

As I got deeper into expanding my vinyl collection, I thought about those albums my brother had that I too wanted — Graceland by Paul Simon, … Nothing Like the Sun by Sting, Like a Virgin by Madonna. When I exhausted the overlap, I turned my attention to other parts of his collection.

I doubt I would pick up Out of the Cellar by Ratt, or any of his Toto albums. But Prince and the Revolution? Those albums where Wendy and Lisa had the most influence? I was willing to check them out.

The Revolution is credited on only three albums, starting with Purple Rain. The streaming services helped me to determine it was the better starting point in my limited exploration of Prince.

The nine-track album yielded five singles, which were played to death on the radio. At the time, I would have loved nothing more than to never hear those songs again. But after 30 years, their familiarity is comforting.

That left four tracks to explore. The introduction to “Computer Blue” is a running joke among some friends of mine, and it should be one among yours as well. “Baby I’m a Star” is a nice glue between “I Would Die 4 U” and the title track. And of course, without “Darling Nikki”, there would be no Parents Music Resource Council and the marketing coup-de-grace of the “Explicit Lyrics” marker.

Aside: I remember buying an album with an “Explicit Lyrics” label at the Fort Shafter Exchange, and the clerk carded me because the store wouldn’t sell those albums to anyone under 18. The majority of my music shopping had migrated to Tower Records by then, and they sure as hell didn’t care.

While I wasn’t a stranger to Purple Rain at the time of its release, I don’t find it surprising my appreciation for the album comes as late in my life as it has.

I wasn’t schooled enough in race relations in the United States to grasp the divide between “black music” and “white music”. I just knew I dug bands from England, and Prince was not from England.

Now that I’ve learned the history of rock ‘n’ roll, I see how Prince transcends that divide. He’s a bad enough motherfucker that those labels don’t fucking apply.

 

Analog is the new mid-life crisis, a year later

[Shelfie: Record collection, 2013]

It’s been more than a year since I embarked on expanding my vinyl collection, and, naturally, the scope of the effort has changed a lot in that time.

At first, I concentrated on titles I would have bought before I moved away from vinyl. That meant examining the CD and digital collections and plugging holes in the corresponding spots in the vinyl collection.

By the end of 2013, I caught most of the low-hanging fruit, but a restlessness had set in — I wanted the care and attention required of vinyl to extend to recent releases, reissues and missed curiosities. So my wish list grew.

A year ago, I felt ambivalent about buying newer titles on vinyl. Back in June 2014, I downloaded the self-titled debut of Inventions, a side project of Eluvium and Explosions in the Sky. When I decided to get the album in a physical form, I chose vinyl over CD.

A year ago, I balked at the idea of paying more the $20 for a title I would have bought for less than $10 in my youth. On a visit to Austin in October 2013, I dropped $30 on an original pressing of No Depression by Uncle Tupelo. Pedro the Lion’s Control is priced at $15, and I consider that a bargain.

My vinyl collection has tripled in size as a result of these changing attitudes. Oddly enough, it’s increased my CD collection as well.

The price point for catalog CDs is dropping to the point where sometimes, it’s more economical to choose a CD over a download. For example, I had pretty much all the Eurythmics albums on vinyl but few in any digital form. Silver Platters priced those titles competitively enough that I opted to get CDs.

Immersing myself into so much catalog also made me curious about music I should have explored but never did. I hadn’t owned any albums by Neneh Cherry, Peter Gabriel, the Police, De La Soul or Public Enemy — till now.

The original targets of this vinyl renaissance have whittled down to some specialized titles that would require a goodly chunk of change to acquire. So now I’m diving the crates looking for anything that strikes my fancy.

Lately, it’s been modern classical music, especially titles on Nonesuch, CRI or New World. Duran Duran rarities are guaranteed to make me behave irrationally with my wallet. And there was no way I could pass up a beat-up copy of Vicious Rumours: The Album by Timex Social Club.

Next goal: A trip to San Francisco to dig through the stacks of Amoeba Records.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, a reconsideration

[Andrew Lloyd Webber - Variations]

Back in junior year of high school, I got bit by the musical theater bug hard.

My music collection was practically an altar to the two titans of Broadway in the late ’80s — Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Both composers were the gateway drugs to a world of modern classical music. Without either one, I wouldn’t have developed a cozy relationship with dissonance.

Lloyd Webber has fallen pretty hard since then. His last hit show was Sunset Boulevard in 1993, and his work has made nary a ripple in pop culture consciousness since. Hell, I didn’t even know he made a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera.

A few weeks back during my usual crate digging, I ran across a vinyl copy of Variations, his pop/classical album of variations on Nicolo Paganini’s 24th Caprice. Lloyd Webber wrote the piece after losing a bet to his brother. It was later turned into the “Dance” half of the show Song and Dance.

At the height of my Lloyd Webber craze, I wanted to hear this album badly. The original album was released in 1978, and in 1988, it wasn’t available in any of the record shops I frequented in Honolulu.

I did find a cassette of an orchestral version performed by Julian Lloyd Webber with Lorin Maazel conducting the London Philharmonic. I had to use a lot of my imagination to hear a rock arrangement in an 80-piece orchestra.

By the time the work was reissued on CD in the US, my priorities had shifted. I started my own music studies in college, and I treated Lloyd Webber as a phase I needed to get through to find Igor Stravinsky, Philip Glass and John Zorn.

When I finished college, Lloyd Webber was completely out of my system, but my sister didn’t know that when she gifted me a compilation of his greatest hits. Till then, my entire experience with Lloyd Webber was through cast recordings. I listened to his shows in their entirety instead of cherry-picking the showstoppers.

That compilation revealed a weakness in Lloyd Webber’s canon. Well, any song excerpted from a show suffers from this problem but moreso with Lloyd Webber. Stripped from the dramatic context of the story, his songs can get pretty schlocky.

And it doesn’t help when interpreters milk the drama. Michael Crawford really drained that cash cow as much as he could.

So I forged ahead and pretty much forgot about Lloyd Webber. I made sure to get Jesus Christ SuperstarEvita and The Phantom of the Opera on CD, but I wrote off the rest of his canon.

Of course, that meant I couldn’t pass up Variations when I saw it in the record bin more than two decades later.

Lloyd Webber may have been a phase, but he was an important one. At the time I encountered him, I was impressionable enough to be swayed by his use of dissonance. He won’t be mistaken for Elliott Carter in a million years, but Lloyd Webber knew how to balance the showstoppers with the grit.

The overture to Cats isn’t anything you can hum, but to a 16-year-old dipping a toe into the larger world of avant-garde music, it’s not a bad introduction to how all twelve notes in a chromatic scale can be spun into a melody.

Variations was a lesson in how to construct a large-scale work from everything and anything. Some moments were pastiche, others pure sentimental manipulation. But Lloyd Webber threw in some ugly distortion at points, and none of it felt purposeless.

Yes, it was a concept album, but it was more than that.

In its own way, Variations opened up the possibility that music didn’t have to be exclusively high-brow or low-brow. It could synthesize both. It could be ancient and modern, melodic and discordant. It was what a teenager needed to hear to ease him into some thornier discussions about art and life later in adulthood.

 

In pursuit of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11

[Concord String Quartet - Rochberg: Quartet No. 7 / Barber: String Quartet, Op. 11; Dover Beach]

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is one of those classical music one-hit wonders people may recognize without knowing they recognize it.

It’s the piece American media whips out for occasions of national mourning. Oliver Stone used the piece prominently for the film Platoon. It was played at the funeral of Grace Kelley, and I’m sure if I perform my due diligence, a Google search would confirm my suspicion that the piece was performed around the time of 9/11. I won’t do that due diligence because if I were a music director at that time, I would have had an orchestra rehearsing it.

An entire book, The Saddest Music Ever Written by Thomas Larson, focuses entirely on the piece.

What people may not know is the Adagio is actually part of a larger work, the String Quartet, Op. 11. Barber would not write another piece labeled as a “string quartet”.

My introduction to the Adagio was on the Kronos Quartet album, Winter Was Hard.  The piece concludes the album, offering a sonic cleanse after the intensity of the Schnittke Third Quartet which precedes it.

Needless to say, I fell in love with the piece, and in my teenaged precociousness, I sought out the original work from which the Adagio was extracted. The only available recording at the time — we’re talking 1988, here — was by the Concord String Quartet, which paired the String Quartet, Op. 11 with one of Barber’s vocal work, Dover Beach, alongside George Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 7.

So I special ordered the cassette, listened to it and … wondered how the two halves of the piece relate to each other.

The fast, first movement, which is also reprised as a coda to its more popular second movement, isn’t really memorable. Where the second movement has that floating, off-kilter elegiac melody, the first movement seems to be just an intellectual exercise.

The second movement feels like a dialogue between the individual parts, where the first movement seems like the players are parroting each other, if not downright all saying the same thing. (I’m not entirely wrong — the quartet opens with a melody played in unison.)

I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but Barber didn’t seem to know what he was doing with that first movement, all the more evidenced by its return at the end of the piece.

In a way, it’s understandable how the Adagio has eclipsed its parent work. The rest of the quartet feels like an after-thought.

And it’s probably this underdog status that makes me seek out whatever recordings I can of the entire work, of which there aren’t many.

Currently, Emerson Quartet’s excellent American Originals album is the most readily available to contain the entire quartet. In my crate digging, I’ve run across vinyl LPs of Beaux Arts Quartet (paired with David Diamond’s String Quartet No. 4), the Cleveland Quartet (like the Emerson, paired with some quartets by Charles Ives) and that original cassette, the Concord.

Wikipedia alerts me to some others. That reissue by the Endellion Quartet wasn’t around when I was trying to find the work on CD.

I did take the score for the entire Op. 11 and program it into my digital audio work station, which you can listen to at the Empty Ensemble web site.

What I discovered is the first movement is in a very traditional sonata form, complete with modulation in the exposition and a recapitulation. Now that I can pinpoint the parts of the quartet, I’ve developed a better understanding of it.

That doesn’t stop the work from being unwieldy, but I can empathize with what Barber was trying to achieve. Portions of the quartet can get pretty thorny, and while Barber works in a tonal framework, he’s not beholden to it.

It’s those moments of discord arising from its spirited pace that makes me like the first movement just a bit more, and it certainly makes the second stand out.

You probably won’t fall in love with the entirety of the Op. 11, but at the very least, it’s a fascinating study on how a piece of music can exert its identity at the cost of others.

 

Meta: The Great WordPress Migration

Musicwhore.org made the leap to WordPress back in 2012, but a number of sister sites, which are no longer updated, remained on Ye Olde Movable Typpe system.

Well, version 6 of Movable Type did away with its open source license, which means support for old installations will one day bid adieu.

So I migrated those sites to WordPress, including the behemoth Musicwhore.org Archive. I haven’t updated the artist directory that hooks into the old blog since 2005, so I accrued quite a lot of technical debt.

I had intended to update this new iteration of Musicwhore.org weekly, but I got sucked into bringing the old site up to speed. That meant spending a number of weeks learning how to create a custom WordPress plugin and updating the database itself to correct some rookie schema design mistakes.

So now the Musicwhore.org Archive is back. I have no plans to do anything with Filmwhore.org, and my TV watching habits have pretty much disqualified me from authoring a site called TVWhore.org.

The second iteration of this site is also still available.