The Next Track, Episode #85 – How Much Music Is Too Much?

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxAs we amass music in our physical or digital libraries, it can reach a point where it doesn’t make sense to keep adding more music. How much really is too much?

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #85 – How Much Music Is Too Much?.

Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at The Next Track website. You can follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast, to keep up to date with new episodes, and new articles from the website.

The Next Track, Episode #69 — Brian Brandt of Mode Records on John Cage, Morton Feldman, and the Music Business

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxWe talk with Brian Brandt of Mode Records about releasing recordings of avant garde music, and the difficulties of the music business.

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #69 — Brian Brandt of Mode Records on John Cage, Morton Feldman, and the Music Business.

Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at The Next Track website. You can follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast, to keep up to date with new episodes, and new articles from the website.

Essential Music: Amigos em Portugal, by The Durutti Column

Amigos em portugalThe Durutti Column (aka Vini Reilly) recorded an album in 1983 for a small Portuguese record label. Entitled Amigos em Portugal, this record has been hard to find since its release. (I actually still have an original vinyl copy of it.) Recorded in just a few days, Vini laid down some tracks, mostly instrumental, of some works in progress. The music was similar to what he would soon record on Without Mercy, and Vini made some of his finest music in these few days.

Unfortunately, this album was never really supposed to be released, and Vini never earned any money from it. For many years, it was one of the most collectible Durutti Column albums. Now, Cargo Records has reissued the album, which is available in a package containing an LP and a CD, each of which has been remastered with specific masters (i.e., one for the LP and another for the CD).

If you’re a Durutti Column fan, you must own this. Even thought it’s mostly a collection of sketches, these are some of Vini’s finest songs. (One of my favorites is Wheels Turning, with Vini’s slightly off-key vocals over a piano accompaniment.)

The same label has also reissued Live at the Venue, another limited LP release from the same period. Recorded in 1982 at The Venue, in London, this record features Vini Reilly and drummer Bruce Mitchell. The sound is rough, but it gives a good picture of what the band sounded like live, back in the day.

Will You Be Streaming the Beatles for Christmas?

BeatlesThe Beatles (or, more correctly, their rights holders) have always been reticent about embracing new forms of music distribution. It wasn’t until 2010 that the group’s music was available on the iTunes Store, and they haven’t been available on streaming services yet. However, Billboard is reporting that the band’s music will be available to stream starting on December 24.

The article discusses a six-month exclusive with one streaming service, but it doesn’t say which one. None of the services were willing to comment, so we’ll know in a few days.

My guess is that Apple is the company willing to pay the most to secure this music, but it could also be Spotify. Since Apple was the first to offer Beatles records as downloads, if it’s not Apple that gets an exclusive, it would be a blow for the beleaguered Apple Music.

Of course, this Billboard article about music royalties was very wrong, so perhaps this prediction about the Beatles is wrong too…

Great HD Video of Genesis Live in 1973

If you’re an old-time Genesis fan, you probably prefer the early days with Peter Gabriel as the frontman. I only managed to see the band live once, at Madison Square Garden in 1978. Phil Collins was singing then, but Peter Gabriel came on for the encore.

I really liked the early albums that Genesis did, and after Gabriel left, I felt the band quickly turned into a pop band (and a very successful one at that). Nothing against Phil Collins; he was a great drummer, as you can see in the video below; it’s just that the music he made after Gabriel’s departure wasn’t to my taste.

Recently, on YouTube, a video has surfaced of a concert Genesis performed in 1973. This video was available before, but not it’s been upgraded to HD. The audio is good, but a bit harsh at the high end. Nevertheless, it’s a pro-shot video just over an hour long, showing Genesis playing some of their best early songs: Watcher of the Skies, Dancing with the Moonlit Knight, I Know What I Like, The Musical Box, and Supper’s Ready.

It’s great to see how theatrical the band’s concerts were back in the day. And Peter Gabriel brandishes a light saber at the end of the show…

Enjoy.

Music Review: Max Richter’s Eight-Hour Sleep

Richter sleepMax Richter has released a new work called Sleep, and it’s available in two versions. The first is a one-hour version that you can get on CD (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), or stream on Apple Music, and the second is the full 8-hour, 24-minute version, which is only available by download from the iTunes Store for $35. The one-hour versions consists of excerpts from the longer version; it’s not just tracks from the eight-hour version, and each track on the short version has a name that’s not in the long version.

As I mentioned last week, when I wrote about the availability of this work by download, I’m quite enamored of long musical works. I’ve listened to all of Sleep over the weekend, in a variety of situations: while working, when reading, and when lying in bed just relaxing. (I have not, however, listened to it when sleeping.)

While Sleep is on the Deutsche Grammophon record label – a classical label with a long history – it’s certainly not classical music. It’s an attractive ambient composition for piano, strings, electronics, and vocals. It’s not the Brian Eno kind of ambient music, which is often generative, or created using randomness, but which has more texture and depth. And it’s not the new age tripe that you hear on the speakers in health food stores.

The 31 tracks of Sleep range from melodic cello melodies over a subtle background to slowly evolving drones, to sections with minimal vocals. In some ways, Sleep makes me think of what Philip Glass’s music would sound like if you sanded down all the arpeggios: it’s got the same types of chord progressions, and there are parts of Sleep that have a melody that reminds me of Glass’s soundtrack for the movie Koyaanisqatsi. But while Glass has a melodic drive in much of his music, as though he’s trying to get somewhere, Richter is content with just being where he is.

The whole thing about it being designed for sleeping is a bit of a gimmick. You can certainly use it for that, and, in doing so, you’d miss out on a lot of good music. But that gimmick stretches the work out to a length that it doesn’t need. Richter talks about the piece being made up of variations in the liner notes; they’re not really variations, they are rather different arrangements of the same melodic material. There’s a lot of repetition, but that’s all right. You’re not going to listen to the entire work at any one time, and the repetitions remind you of Sleep’s themes.

I respect the fact that Richter doesn’t present this music as something that needs to be listened to, but rather touts it as background music. In the composer’s mind, this music might help create dreams; or it might simply be a soft, subtle accompaniment to your sleep. But it can also be background music for your day, or you could listen to an hour of it when you want to relax.

This may sound a tad critical, but I actually like the music. There are some parts that sound a bit like filler – the drone sections, for example – but much of the melodic material in the work is catchy, in a slow kind of way. There’s probably about three or four CDs worth of music in this set, and it’s been padded to get past the eight hour mark, but that’s okay. If you buy it from the iTunes Store, you pay $35, or the cost of three and a half full albums.

Sleep is functional music, furniture music, a soundtrack for relaxing and sleeping, and as such it’s successful. It’s not “classical” music, and shouldn’t be judged as such. It does what it claims, and it’s enjoyable, and that’s a good enough recommendation to anyone who wants some light music to listen to when taking a break.

The Real Risk of Music Streaming Services to Contemporary Musicians: Being Ignored

I recorded a segment for WQXR’s Conducting Business yesterday, discussing how classical music fares with music streaming services such as Apple Music. One of the topics that came up in the conversation was the fact that there’s simply too much music. We don’t need yet another recording of Beethoven’s symphonies, or Chopin’s √©tudes, and new artists face a great deal of difficulty if they have nothing new to offer.

Bob Lefsetz pointed out something similar in his article Neil Young on Streaming. He says:

That’s your challenge, getting people to pay attention, not pay for music.

Getting people to pay attention to new artists isn’t easy, and it’s even more difficult with streaming services, where listeners have the (more or less) entire history of recorded music available at their fingertips. If you like a certain genre of music, you may be attracted to listening to the musicians who helped define that genre. If you like blues-rock, you might want to hear Eric Clapton, instead of some newcomer. If you like folk music, you might tune into Woody Guthrie, instead of the latest singer-songwriter.

Granted, this won’t affect a large number of listeners, but with Apple Music, part of the service is recommendations in the For You section. Many of these go back to the past, offering playlists about influencers, or thematic playlists which often feature artists that are not contemporary. (The Jackson Browne playlist below is because I listened to one of his albums the other day.)

For you past

This will have a large effect on streaming revenue for both established artists and new artists. The older artists whose music gets included in all of these “curated” playlists will get bumps in their plays. Newer artists will find that it’s harder to get their music streamed, since there are only so many hours in a day.

This effect may be even more pronounced with genres like jazz and classical music. Many people feel that jazz is boring, at least today’s jazz is, since it isn’t very different from jazz back in the pre-electric days. Why listen to some new jazz artist when you can stream anything by Miles Davis, Theolonius Monk, or John Coltrane? And what about classical music? If you want to hear, say, some Beethoven piano sonatas, you can choose from dozens of great artists’ recordings; why pick the new one?

Naturally, I’m simplifying. There are some people who do care enough about new music to choose the recent artists, but, since most people use music as wallpaper, they’ll gravitate to the curated playlists to fill their sonic space.

This could have a major effect on the viability of new artists. Unless their music is truly different, unless they can get attention, it’s going to be a lot harder to compete with the huge library of recorded music that is now available to listeners for ten bucks a month.

Why Classical Music Can’t Make Money from Streaming

As Apple Music nears its launch date of June 30, a lot of attention is being paid to the way streaming music subscription income is shared among record labels, artists, and songwriters. One thorny issue was the fact that Apple wasn’t going to pay labels during the three-month trial period they are offering (which the major labels had agreed to), in exchange for a slightly higher long-term payout. But Apple has backtracked on this, after a popular singer penned a missive to the company threatening to withhold one of her albums from Apple Music.

But what about classical music? How does this type of music fare with streaming services? Streaming payouts are calculated based on albums of songs, on average with about ten tracks each. Most songs are from about three to five minutes long, and a listener can stream a dozen songs in an hour.

With classical music, the timings are very different. Take a simple example, Beethoven’s 9th symphony. With five movements, this symphony generally lasts for about 70 to 80 minutes. Streaming this symphony leads to a payout, for a record label, of five tracks, as though it was five songs. Those five songs, on a pop album, would be about 20 to 25 minutes at most. As such, the same time period, which leads to five classical streams, results in about a dozen pop songs.

(The above is simplistic, and doesn’t only affect western classical music. Much Indian classical music has pieces that last from 30 to 60 minutes or more; much improvised jazz has tracks that are 20 minutes or longer; and any Grateful Dead concert has a couple of tracks that are in the same range.)

But it’s not just the length of the tracks. Klaus Heyman, head of Naxos Records, told me:

That’s the other problem; we don’t get the multiple listens pop tracks get: a teenager may listen to his favourite track hundreds of times. Classical music lovers listen to the same recording perhaps only three or four times.?

Many classical label see streaming as a serious threat to their future. Brian Brandt of Mode Records, a label specializing in 20th century and contemporary music, told me:

Streaming is surely the death of classical music, and most music in general. Income from it is a pittance.

Mr Brandt also said:

I’ve often thought of pulling Mode from streaming services. It yields only about $300-400 a month for the entire catalog. But, yes, I can use and need that $300. And, as my distributor advises me, not having the titles on streaming might increase the chance of piracy. Some Spotify fans begged me not to pull Mode from the service because it is a way for them to “sample” and hear music they don’t know. It’s a dilemma.

Mode Records makes recordings of niche music; not just “classical,” as such, but composers like John Cage, Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier, and others. Mr Brandt originally founded the label with a goal of recording all of John Cage’s music. This is a label that is unlikely to ever have a best-selling album, and which is run by a man with a mission.

Klaus Heyman of Naxos Records said:

Unless services like Spotify change the method of payment where the labels actually get paid? a share of what consumers of classical music pay instead of throwing their money into the big pop/rock pot, streaming is not a viable business model for our industry. If we got three cents per track (which is what the current classical consumer pays) instead of the 0.3 cents per track paid by the pop/rock people, streaming would be a viable business model for us. Obviously, as it is, it will become almost impossible to produce new recordings.

Another label head, who wishes to remain anonymous, highlighted one oddity of the way streaming is paid for classical recordings. Streaming services like to say that they pay out around 70% of their income to record labels and artists. (Though they obfuscate this payment, because they don’t pay artists directly; record labels pay artists.)

Streams are paid in two different ways. One payment, of about 12-13%, is made to a publishing rights clearinghouse, to pay the songwriters or composers. Another payment, around 58%, is made to record labels. Yet for classical recordings whose compositions are in the public domain, only that 58% is paid out; labels don’t get the full 70% (average payment) if there are no rights to pay. Since much classical music is in the public domain, one needs to take the aggregate amount and reduce it to see how much a label gets when its recordings are streamed.

The above actually means that public domain classical music is more profitable for streaming services than pop, rock, or rap. So perhaps the streaming companies should improve their classical offerings, to attract more classical listeners (assuming they pay the labels more)?

Not everyone sees streaming as a negative. A consultant to classical labels and artists told me :

From a consumer’s standpoint, anything that makes it easier to hear music is a good thing, and after a slow start, the market has enthusiastically embraced streaming audio.

For the labels, this means more changes. Streaming subscriptions are a great deal for users who like to listen to lots of things once or twice. Conversely, they’re bad news for labels who made all their money selling recordings to people who didn’t listen to them very often. Provided you’re in the business of making recordings people want to hear, streaming needn’t be anything to be afraid of.

Klaus Heyman echoed this in a 2011 interview on New Music Box. He said:

Yes, there’s too much repertoire chasing the same very limited circle of specialist collectors. There’s pretty much a consensus in the industry that there’s maybe a million [classical music] collectors in the world when you define a collector as someone who buys at least 10 CDs a year. That means 10 million [classical] CDs are sold every year.

So, part of the problem is the classical music industry in general. There are only so many recordings of a given symphony or opera that anyone can own.

For classical labels to be on a level playing field, their streams need to be paid differently from “songs.” But the real problems go much deeper. The classical music industry is suffering for a number of reasons, and streaming is just another factor making their business more fragile. But as the shift to streaming continues, it’s a good idea to not penalize these labels because of the nature of their recordings.

New Big Grateful Dead Box Set Explores the Band’s 30 Years of Performing

30 trips around the worldYou knew it had to happen. As the Grateful Dead celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary, the ever-ingenious people at their organization had to come up with a big box set, something even bigger than the 2011 Europe ’72 box set. And they have.

30 Trips Around the Sun, to be released in September, is the biggest box set the Dead have released; perhaps the biggest rock box set ever. It contains 30 unreleased live concerts, one from each year of the band’s performance history. Starting in 1966 – there are no tapes from 1965 – this 80-disc set covers concerts from all around the world.

It’s not cheap, however. Limited to 6,500 copies, it is selling for $700. There’s also a 1,000-unit USB version, which contains MP3 files and high-resolution 24/96 files, at the same price. Here’s what the Grateful Dead website says:

We are more than pleased to announce the Grateful Dead’s most ambitious release ever: 30 TRIPS AROUND THE SUN. Available as both an 80-disc boxed set and a custom lightning-bolt USB drive, the collection includes 30 unreleased live shows, one for each year the band was together from 1966 to 1995, along with one track from their earliest recording sessions in 1965. Packed with over 73 hours of music, both the boxed set and the USB drive will be individually numbered limited editions.

The 80-disc boxed set is individually numbered and limited to 6,500 copies, a nod to the band’s formation in 1965. Along with the CDs, it also includes a gold-colored 7-inch vinyl single which bookends the band’s career. The A-side is “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)” from the band’s earliest recording session in 1965 with the B-side of the last song the band ever performed together live, “Box Of Rain” recorded during their final encore at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 9, 1995.

The box also comes with a 288-page book that features an extensive, career-spanning essay written by Nick Meriwether, who oversees the Dead archives at the University of California, Santa Cruz, along with special remembrances of the band submitted by fans. Also included is a scroll that offers a visual representation of how the band’s live repertoire has evolved through the years.

Here are the dates of the 30 concerts in the set:

1966 – 7/3, Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA
1967 – 11/10, Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA
1968 – 10/20, Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA
1969 – 2/22, The Dream Bowl, Vallejo, CA
1970 – 4/15, Winterland, San Francisco, CA
1971 – 3/18, Fox Theater, St. Louis, MO
1972 – 9/24, Palace Theater, Waterbury, CT
1973 – 11/14, San Diego Sports Arena, San Diego, CA
1974 – 9/18, Parc des Expositions, Dijon, France
1975 – 9/28, Lindley Meadows, Golden gate Park, San Francisco, CA
1976 – 10/3, Cobo Arena, Detroit, MI
1977 – 4/25, Capitol Theater, Passaic, NJ
1978 – 5/14, Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI
1979 – 10/27, Cape Cod Coliseum, South Yarmouth, MA
1980 – 11/28, Lakeland Civic Center, Lakeland, FL
1981 – 5/16, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
1982 – 7/31, Manor Downs, Austin, TX
1983 – 10/21, The Centrum, Worchester, MA
1984 – 10/12, Augusta Civic Center, Augusta, ME
1985 – 6/24, River Bend Music Center, Cincinnati, OH
1986 – 5/3, Cal Expo Amphitheater, Sacramento, CA
1987 – 9/18, Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY
1988 – 7/3, Oxford Plains Speedway, Oxford, ME
1989 – 10/26, Miami Arena, Miami, FL
1990 – 10/27, Zenith, Paris, France
1991 – 9/10, Madison Square Garden, NY, NY
1992 – 3/20, Copps Coliseum, Ontario, Canada
1993 – 3/27, Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY
1994 – 10/1, Boston Garden, Boston, MA
1995 – 2/21, Delta Center, Salt Lake City, UT

To be fair, I’m not a fan of the later period of the Grateful Dead, but I won’t miss out on this set. I’ve ordered mine, and I expect it to be sold out very, very quickly. So if you want one, act now; you won’t get another chance (except on eBay).

Here’s a preview from the 9/18/87 Madison Square Garden show; the great Morning Dew:

Why Tidal Doesn’t Matter

Yesterday, musician Jay-Z and a number of other millionaire musicians announced the (re)launch of Tidal, a streaming music service. It had initially gained some small amount of traction in the audiophile market as a lossless music streaming service (under the name WiMP), notably with a good selection of classical music, before being purchased by Mr. Z. While it still offers lossless streaming – in a more expensive plan – the basic Tidal offers 25 million tracks for the standard price of $10 a month. What sets it apart is the fact that it is the fact that the majority of the company is owned by artists.

This ownership means nothing, though, in the broader scheme of things. Unless these musicians – and there are some big names, including Rihanna, Kanye West, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Jack White, Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, and Beyonc√© – have become Marxists, the company won’t pay out much more to artists than other streaming services. Even if they can increase royalties by 50% – which probably isn’t difficult, given the low royalties paid to artists by other streaming services – that won’t help fledgling artists very much. What it will do, however, is help continue to line the pockets of the artists who do sell lots of music. I find it suspicious that when launching a streaming service that is supposed to be fair to artists, they’re unable to say what they’ll be paying.

Mr. Z – whose real name is Shawn Carter – seems to have a flimsy grasp of economics. He is quoted by the New York Times as saying, “Water is free. Music is $6 but no one wants to pay for music. You should drink free water from the tap — it’s a beautiful thing. And if you want to hear the most beautiful song, then support the artist.”

Perhaps Mr. Z doesn’t realize that most people pay for water; perhaps that is not the case for him. But comparing music to water shows that his liquid-based business model needs a bit more fleshing out. Also, what music costs $6? An album? A download? Most CDs cost more than that, as do most albums sold as downloads. Mr. Z’s albums are certainly not $6 each.

I wholeheartedly agree that artists need to be paid more fairly, and that streaming music services are just another way for record labels to exploit artists. But there’s no way that Tidal will change that, at least not unless these millionaire co-owners – who, according to the New York Times, have not invested their own liquidity in the company, but have been “granted shares in exchange for their good-faith efforts to supply exclusive content” – are prepared to not take profits in order for smaller artists to be able to afford to pay their water bills.

Mr. Z is also quoted as saying: “I just want to be an alternative. They don’t have to lose for me to win.” Actually, they do. Because very few people subscribe to more than one paid streaming service. So the only way for Tidal to win is for them to attract users from other services. It’ll be a tough slog.