Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Haystack Pre-Launch Blog

Friends, neighbors, countrymen... We're gearing up for the launch of our private beta over at Haystack. So for a short while I'm going to be shifting my online punditry to the spankin' new, pre-launch Haystack Blog. I encourage y'all to visit and do whatever subscription thing you do. I'm really excited about it andwant everyone who enjoys what I do here to be an early part of what we're building.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Show Him The Money

Inside the grimy beltway in DC, Lawmakers are currently trying to pass the PERFORM act. According to Billboard:
The Feinstein-Graham PERFORM Act -- the Platform Equality and Remedies for Rights Holders in Music Act of 2006 -- would require satellite, cable and Internet broadcasters to pay the same royalty rates, reflecting the fair market value, for the performance or distribution of digital sound recordings of music. It would also require the use of readily available and cost-effective technological means to prevent music theft.
Two sides (satellite radio v. labels) are lobbying on opposite ends. Bronfman and others argue this is about fairness, while the sat radio people claim this whole exercise is a negotiation tactic.

I don't have a satellite radio. I'm one of those people who likes to pick almost exactly what they are listening to, and thinking of hearing anything without being able to fast forward drives me crazy. As a music fan,being able to download music from streaming broadcasts seems like a cool idea. If I like it, I can have it on demand.

The problem for me comes as a label guy who's trying to fund marketing and new recordings. I'm compelled to agree with Mr. Bronfman that anything that enables someone to download a perfect copy of music and then add it to your personal collection is indeed an alternate method of digital distribution. (Although I do think the "technological means to prevent music theft" aspect of this law is impossible to enforce.)

However, If you look at the big picture, this seems like the first step to the industry at-large bumbling their way into actually doing it right. At it's core, this legislation takes the download fees off the top, so essentially the downloads are painless and free in spirit (if not in reality.)

I've always been a huge fan of the eMusic model. You pay a few bucks and get to download a pretty significant amount of music. They then divide the revenue on a more or less pro-rated basis (after backing out mechanicals.) As their subscription builds, the pie gets bigger and bigger and is a boon for everyone. People get music on the cheap through a reliable service and the artist actually gets paid.

Take this to another level. If household and business ISPs (who take money for providing pipeline for this) and satellite radio (ditto on the pipeline thing) added a somewhat "invisible" music surcharge, ($2 a month?) and then process those payments on a pro-rated basis to the rightsholders (artists/labels) through an entity like SoundExchange. After a small adjustment period, music would wind up being like a water bill. (every time you turn on the shower, you don't think about how much it costs to scrub your ass, do ya?)

I can't wait to see how they fuck it up.

The Velvet Rope

I was looking over my Google analytics today, and saw that I had some referrals from the Velvet Rope. For those of you not in the know, it's a music biz messageboard filled with people unwilling to sign their real names to posts and the random worthwhile discussion of the music biz at large. I hadn't visited the site in years but while I was trolling the site, I stumbled upon an interesting thread concerning MySpace and its ability to really generate a fan base.

Let me start out with a rehash of my current take on non-commercial radio promotion. Dominated by the majors and overwhelmed by digital alternatives, it's a far cry from what it once was in the 80's and early 90's as a tastemaking tool for an underground artist. For the most part, Radio is still great as a network of people into music, but is really more of an extension of a street team. (Note: I'm not talking about web-friendly public stations like KCRW or KEXP, or well programmed legacy stations like WSOU or my beloved WFMU.) But the whole chart business is total bullshit. The only people perpetuating the myth are those who still make their living from promotion and the trade mags. But as long as there is a chart, people with cash to burn will spend money to try to be number one, even if their victory is mostly pyrrhic.

The same "chartiness" (an homage to Colbert's "truthiness") is true with MySpace and the social networks. The 'ropers are so busy asking about ways to cheat the system and how to artificially inflate their numbers, they miss the whole point. If your band is touring, engaging their fans in other ways, and really uses MySpace as a tool for 1 to 1 contact, the fans you build will be worth it. (Check my previous posts or see the page for bands like Grace Gale, The Fire Still Burns, and Vaeda.) But random adding a bunch of people just to spam their comments is ineffectual. Maybe it's just that I grew up in hardcore, so community is very important to me- but most of these guys just don't f'n get it.

Part of it is the poor follow through on MySpace's music section. There are quite a few things that they could do to create a far more compelling music experience for the listener, and really enable the artist to reach their fans without resorting to third party plug ins. But that's a story for another day...

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Buy This Immediately

Att: Rockers! The new EP for be your own PET has dropped. I gushed about them in a previous post, so either check the archive or take my word for it. Check the duly authorized .mp3 here and here.

Also, certain indie stores have a limited edition single you should try to get your grubby little collector paws on.

And Yes Smarty Pants, I DO Live Under A Rock

Glad to see the folks at Billboard are hopping on this new iPod fad.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Illusion Of Bigness

Part of the reason I've made the paycheck jump from indie music to new media is that I remember the days when it wasn't so hard. When I first started my label way back in 1989, the whole scene was different. In addition to the whole hardcore punk genre being a true sub-culture (and thereby more engaged in seeking out music,) the technology and skill barriers to entry into the label biz were significant. (Anyone need a tutorial on how to cut some rubylith?)

At that point Blackout! was one of a handful of labels from NY doing HC with any degree of regularity. It was not unusual for early releases to sell 5,000 - 10,000 copies, and they would sell without a ton of promotion- mostly via ads in a handful of zines like MRR, Flipside, and Suburban Voice. The money generated was always plowed back into the label, so we could record new music, release new stuff, and try to step up the promotion. Even then, I was only able to run the label full time and hire an in-house staff for a very short time in the mid/late 90's.

Since those pre-internet glory days, it's gotten much more difficult to release new bands, spend the money you'd like to make them successful, and actually see a return enough to be self-sustaining, let alone profitable enough to make a real life from. (note about real life: I'm talking about buying a house, paying for a kids college, and medical insurance- not champagne taste and caviar dreams.) My bottom line is that for an unestablished baby band it costs about 5x as much to sell 1/5th of the little shiny things it used to.

Many could argue that Blackout! just has shitty bands now and that I've personally lost touch with what the kids really want. While I'd debate you on the accuracy of the statement, I'd also counter that with ... it's not just me. I've had this same conversation with three other label people over the last few weeks, all three of whom run labels with significantly more annual billing than Blackout! One guy described it as "a war every day", while another said "what the hell else am I gonna do?" It's a perpetual cycle of praying your returns don't outweigh your sales on a month-to-month basis. One hiccup in that cycle and boom- the label is teetering on disaster. Two or three? You get Lookout.

So what's the problem? The perception (and pursuit of) bigness. It's the only source of legitimacy. If it isn't all over the place or a household brand name, then obviously it isn't any good to the industry or the kids.

Labels buy into this. Victory is great at the bigness game and uses it to their advantage. They have massive zine and web ad campaigns, do TV commercials, and lease huge chunks of real estate in primary retail locations. In turn the marketplace responds with success stories like Hawthorne Heights, Taking Back Sunday, and Thursday. All of which wipe away the red ink on losing releases. Lefsetz is right about Victory, it's exactly the major model. I know this isn't possible, but I'd love to know the financial details and what percentage of their revenue comes from "hits" and what their overall P&L is.

Fanzines and big magazines buy into this crap also, cuz it's easy money. Journalistic integrity my ass. Bigger magazines who are regarded as the "alternative bible" are just as much in the pocket of the labels who supply their ad revenue as Republican Senate were led around by the nose by Jack Abramoff. These mags spin it as "we need to show you are supporting your artists with advertising" but the lines are clear- buy ads or we won't write about you. Those who get the press are the ones buying the ads.. or haven't you noticed? Too bad there's really nothing Elliot Spitzer can do about this one. (BTW, all you Williamsburg daddy-pays-my rent bloggers who your cues from NME can step up and join the suck-ass club too. If I see one more fucking Arctic Monkeys post or a glowing review of some other c-list Joy Division rip off band I'm gonna go postal on Bedford Ave.)

Worst of all, the kids, especially the hipsters, buy right into it like the consumer drones they are. Since MTV made rockstars out of the first punk bands- bigness is the name of the
game. It's all about cool. Well little Lindsey Faux-han, you aren't cool becuase of what you buy or buy into. You're still the sheep in punk rock clothing.

The good news? The web is leveling the playing field. MySpace has proven that a social network can be a valuable tool to reach people, albeit with a flawed and selfish model. When someone figures out the equation on how to make it really work for bands and indies, record biz 2.0 will really take shape. Which brings me full circle: I'm just as excited about how these technology advancements will enable music powered by people more and more as I was to hold the colored wax on my first Blackout! LP way back in '89.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Last FM meets Pandora

Techcrunch just posted about a cool mashup of and Pandora called PandoraFM. PFM takes your Pandora page and automatically adds your playlists to your account. This is a great first step in blending Pandora's audio properties based model with the social taste sharing backbone of I'll be taking it for a spin over the next few days and I encourage everyone who uses both services to do the same and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Flight 93 Movie

This post has nothing to do with anything music or band related.

Although I assume this is preaching mostly to the converted, I wanted to encourage everyone NOT to go see that Flight 93 travesty. As a person who stood on the corner of 2nd Ave and 3rd St on 9/11 at 9am, I will never forget the abject horror of that morning, nor the lingering taste and smell of death ash that covered most of the city for weeks following. I don't know if this is some propaganda ploy to keep us fearful and pave the way to an invasion of Iran, or just some douchebag trying to make a buck on someone elses pain. But in either case, fuck them (and you if you go see it.)

We all know how it ends, and this is too close to our hearts to make it into Titanic.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Monday, April 17, 2006

Hey, Nice Package

The first band that I ever was a true fan of, was Kiss. I was in fourth grade when Alive II came out, and I gotta tell you one of the things that really made the band special was all the cool crap that came with their records. Gatefold double 12", booklets, stickers, faux tattoos, and paper love guns made each record special. Recorded music was as much about the tactile experience as it was the sound. With Emteevee and concert-going-age being several years away for me at that point in my life, the record packaging was the only thing.

When I first started getting into hardcore, I recall sitting in my room for hours on end reading the Suicidal Tendencies (Frontier LP) lyrics memorizing Mike's twisted words. Same thing with Minor Threat, AF, and the CroMags demo. This whole affinity for toilet reading material carried into the early Blackout! years, where the booklet we put into the Where The Wild Things Are... was directly influenced by that early experience.

Now we have today, I download music files from iTunes, eMusic, or AudioLunchbox onto my portable music player. My records and a great deal of my CD's are in storage (no room) and although "digital booklets" (i.e. .pdf's) delivered free with a purchase via iTunes are interesting, and watching videos are great for commuting... there's a huge part of me that still wants a better, more tactile experience.

Aside from shirts, toys, and other novelties... is there room for content-based collectibles in this brave new world? If so, what are they? I'd love to hear your ideas.

Intermission...The Taxman Cometh

It's been really nice out, so I've been spending alot of time outdoors playing with my dog. So, I've been pretty reluctant to spend alot of time indoors pontificating. I'm also up to my neck in doing the books for my own taxes and the label, so I haven't been able to blog all that much. I do have some stuff almost finished, so look for a few new posts in the near future.

Oh.... for those of you into the whole online social music experience... I'm getting really excited for the launch of Do yourself a favor and sign up for the mailing list and be a part of the beta. You will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

New Contender In The Recommendation Wars

Musicstrands has just released a beta of a recommendation tool for Mac.
As this is a beta I wasn't expecting a whole lot but I'm pretty impressed. The depth of catalog (based on other users' listening habits) isn't there right now so the recommendations aren't that hot, but I think that as it develops it will be a very interesting competitor for

The console is interesting. When asked to tag a song it gives a pull down list of different "buckets" such as:

* This song is good for:
* This song makes me feel:
* I heard this song in:
* This song reminds me of:

I'm sure as more users join, this will really help them create some great recommendations based on mood and locations and memories. still dominates though. It creates streaming radio stations based on the aggregated neighbor profiles and playlist comparisons. That reduces the barrier to entry and a very compelling service.