(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 26, 2007)
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This is Mixed Bag and this is George Graham, and we come once again to perhaps one of the most scrupulously evaded parts of Mixed Bag all year for our listeners, our year-end review and the richly deservedly overlooked Graham Awards.
In past years, I used to spend a fair amount of time going on about this and that in the music business, noting trends and talking about statistics on record sales, who were the biggest concerts draws, and the ongoing battles between emerging technologies versus the traditional music business. Well, for all practical purposes, it's all over. The paradigm of big record labels dominating the market for music is for all practical purposes, a thing of the past. As most people know, CD sales are declining in a big way, while sales of downloads are skyrocketing. iPods are everywhere, and there is a whole branch of electronics consisting of accessories for iPods, and a lot of young people would hardly know what to do with a CD. I can't resist the impolite temptation to say I told you so, but I remember back in the 1990s when the Internet started to become available to the public, I noted that it could eventually mean the end of the stranglehold of the major labels. It most likely was a lucky guess. But it has come to pass. The major labels are still there selling a lot of downloads on iTunes and still a few tens of millions of physical CDs, many by manufactured "stars" who won so-called "talent" shows on commercial TV, but the music appearing on the corporate labels is so far removed from what we do on this radio program, that it has really become a kind of alternate universe or completely different culture. So I'll try to refrain -- mostly -- from kicking them while they are down, or criticizing what they are releasing, since it really does represent a different market, audience and paradigm. Except perhaps to say that the domination of the iPod and the digitally compressed audio file as a medium for distributing music has resulted in a really discouraging decline in audio quality.
But, as you might know if you listen to this radio program and if your taste runs to something other that commercial corporate pop, there is a huge universe of worthwhile music being released -- and being released on CD. This year, we have received over 2600 CD titles for airplay consideration, only slightly fewer than as last year, which was a record. And 2007 provided anther bumper crop of great new music.
Of course, now it is incredibly easy for almost any artist to make his or her own CD. A laptop computer, some software, microphones and a small mixer, and you can make what used to take a 24-track $100-per-hour recording studio to do. And you can distribute your music on-line for very little cost, and even manufacturing CDs is quite inexpensive anymore. Of course, from my perspective, as I have observed before, this complete independence from record labels has eliminated the A&R department, the people who filter the talent, and provide a polite rejection letter to bands and artists could not sing or play their guitars in tune. Now, all the bands with off-key vocals, inept musicianship and dumb material are putting out their music. And believe me, it's amazing how much of that kind of thing comes in our direction. But at least, for those who might appreciate such things, it is available, just not on our airwaves.
Well, to look at some of the other perhaps inexplicable developments in music, we turn to the 34th or so annual edition of The Graham Awards. <<>>
Yes, long-suffering listeners, it's time for that solemn ceremony of desultory sophistry, fustian galimatias, and specious prolixity that is the Graham Awards, one of the most widely disregarded of all the many awards shows. As usual, these awards were most carelessly prepared by the panel of one utterly biased and partial curmudgeon. The winners of these awards have the great embarrassment of having the news of their accolade broadcast on our valuable airwaves for the few seconds it takes and then to proceed to go off into the ether and perhaps go off into space where they will in all likelihood dissipate before reaching any significant body in out there in the universe. Of course, now the ignominy will remain on the Internet.
We'll start with another of those tiresome "this is the new that" awards. We're definitely not the first to observe that You-Tube is the new MTV. Since the commercial cable network pretty much got out of running music videos, the Internet do-it-yourself video phenomenon has largely taken over that function. I have never been a fan of music videos, but You-Tube does provide a means for some music to get exposure that would probably never make it to the corporate broadcast media.
"This is the New That" award part 2: The iPod is also the New MTV, in terms what I think is the damage done to the quality of music. Music videos twenty five years ago put visual appearance ahead of musical content, and I have never forgiven that. The iPod culture I think is having a similar effect, deconstructing the album as an art form, further reducing attention span and making music even more disposable.
The democracy in action award, or at least as it applies to government officials appointed by the Bush administration, goes to the FCC, which after being inundated by many thousands of letters and e-mails from the public asking them not to do so, nevertheless relaxed corporate media ownership rules allowing further consolidation of media with more newspapers and commercial broadcast outlets to merge. Toward the end of the end of the year, there was a move in Congress to try to undo the ruling.
Though I said I would largely avoid it, I can't resist taking one more stab at the industry: The "finally seeing the light" award goes to Capitol EMI records which announced in 2007 that it would start selling downloads without so-called DRM, or Digital Rights Management, the maddeningly frustrating way the major labels and iTunes would sabotage tracks you buy on-line to prevent copying, and also prevented them from being played on many kind of players. They came up with what I think is a reasonable solution: pay a little more and not only get the file unshackled from DRM, but would also be higher in quality. Of course, a lot of independent artists have been selling DRM-free downloads for some time now.
On the subject of downloading, the "Empire Strikes Back" award goes to Jammie Thomas, the 30-year old mother who was sued by the major labels in 2007 for downloading tunes for free. Instead of buckling under the threat of the lawsuit, she took it to court, where many thought she would prevail. Instead, she lost, and was obligated to pay $222,000, or $9250 for each of 24 songs she had on her computer.
Continuing on the Star Wars motif, the "gone over to the Dark Side" award goes to Apple, whose enormously successful iTunes service takes a 30% cut in everything they sell. So for full-album downloads, most artists get even less per sale than they would at a major label, and on i-Tunes there is no expense for a physical CD, artwork, etc.
The "Isn't That How Public Radio Works" award goes to the popular band Radiohead, who although they were not the first to do so, created quite a stir in 2007 when having divorced themselves from record labels and iTunes, announced that they would make their new CD available for download, and invited their audience to pay what they could afford or what they thought it was worth. That way of providing audio content does sound familiar to those of us in this business. Without all the middle men, the band reports they are making more income with this CD than any of their previous releases. A decidedly different approach was taken by the Eagles, who reunited in 2007 and released a double album independently. They sold it at a low price point, but exclusively through Wal-Mart, where the idea of "pay what you think it's worth" will probably not fly.
The "inverted economy" award goes to the sales of cell-phone ringtones. People pay two or three times as much as a whole song download, for a snippet of music from a hit artist to use to annoy people around them when their cell phones. Go figure. I don't know how true this is generally, but one thing I have noticed recently is that the people least likely to have ring tone recordings on their cell-phones are musicians. I guess I'm not alone in thinking that the ring-tones cheapens and in a way defiles music.
The "Milli Vanilli fake pop-star" award goes to electronic pitch corrector technology. Some of you may remember the scandal involving with the band Milli Vanilli who won a Grammy Award, only to have it revealed that the people on in the video and on the album cover were not the people who actually sang on the record. The front-men were just chosen by a casting director for how they looked. Now something along the same lines is happening though the increasingly ubiquitous use of electronic pitch corrector technology which transforms off-key vocals to on-key, allowing once again for so-called artists to be recruited by central casting. It used to be a dirty little secret, but now it's being flaunted in many commercial pop albums. When you hear that slightly robot-like vocal sound that jumps suddenly from one key to another, that's a pitch corrector in action. Just remember that sound is a clue that in all likelihood, that pop star you see couldn't sing on-key to save his or her life.
Our "This Geezer Takes Solace" award goes to the proliferation of retro music that took place in 2007. There were lots of young bands and artists that took up styles from Beatles-influenced pop to Sixties-style folk to classic soul. A lot of young musicians have been listening to their parents' record collection.
On more or less the same subject, our "All the Good Songs Have Already Been Written" award goes to a several artists who are worthy composers who decided to make albums of cover tunes, including Judy Collins, who did a collection of Beatles songs, Patti Smith, Richard Shindell, Lisa Lauren and the duo of Lowen & Navarro.
Our "Art Imitates Politics" award goes to several artists, including Bruce Springsteen, and Mike Farris, who as secular artists, released CDs featuring Gospel tunes prominently. With politicians of a certain party trying to peddle their religion as much as any policy, it seems only natural that there be an interest in the old Gospel songs. <<>> Susan Werner took a rather different tack, doing a CD of songs in the Gospel musical style, but lyrically taking a skeptical and even agnostic approach.
Our "maintaining the family business" award goes to quite a few musical offspring who have released CDs in 2007, including Salvador Santana, son of Carlos; Crosby Loggins, son of Kenny; Bethany Yarrow, daughter of Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul & Mary, and the duo Bethany & Rufus; also a different Rufus, Rufus Wainwright, son of Loudon; Ben Taylor, son of James; and Amy Helm joining her father Levon on his 2007 comeback release.
Our "playing in the bluegrass" award goes to Robert Plant who made a well-received CD with bluegrass luminary Alison Krauss, and Bruce Hornsby, who made an outstanding joint album with Ricky Skaggs.
Our "not fade away" award goes to Joni Mitchell, who during 2007 released her first CD of new songs in several years, and also was involved with a ballet based on her music, an art exhibition of her paintings. and was the subject to two tribute albums, one of which was by jazz piano great Herbie Hancock, on which Ms. Mitchell herself also appeared.
Our award for the most prominent chanteuse to sing protest songs goes to Norah Jones, who on her 2007 release Not Too Late departed from the love songs and songs of introspection to include some at times pointed commentary.
Our "Baby Boomers will not quietly depart" award goes to an almost dizzying number of artists whose career started in the 1960s and early 1970s who released CDs in 2007, including Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, who released two new CDs, John Fogerty, Loudon Wainwright, Neil Young, John Hammond, Levon Helm, Toots and the Maytals, and the Eagles, among others. Other veteran artists from earlier decades with new CDs in 2007 include Steve Forbert, Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, Robert Plant on that CD with Alison Krauss, Steve Earle and Linda Thompson.
Now for some of the at-least semi-serious awards for noteworthy recordings. In the World Music category, I had two favorites, Ojos De Brujo's Techari, a fascinating blend of flamenco with everything from Eastern and Indian influence to hip-hip, Angelique Kidjo's Djin Djin, which was a delightful recording of sophisticated African pop, with a remarkable mostly a cappella version of Ravel's Bolero.
In the blues category, we'll give the award to Koko Taylor, for her Old School, which was brimming with energy in the classic Chicago electric blues style. At 79 years old, she bounced back after some medical problems, and is sounding as good as ever.
This was also a good year for debut recordings, or almost debut recordings -- with previous work by these artists and bands not widely available. Our picks for approximate debut releases go to the Infamous Stringdusters, a great new bluegrass band, Jason Reeves, who created some great sophisticated Beatles-influenced pop, as did the band called the Red Button. Also Thomas Dybdahl, from Norway, who made his US debut recording likewise featuring sophisticated pop.
Our award for the most distinctive debut recording goes to the Born Again Floozies, a band that included tuba and in place of a regular drummer, a tap dancer.
Now for our sonic honorable mention awards for CDs marked by decent sound quality in a year of sonic deterioration: Norah Jones for Not Too Late, Judith Owen, for her CD Happy This Way, Susan Werner for The Gospel Truth, and the David Zoffer Differential and their CD Release.
And now for my top dozen CDs for the year, this time ranked by how much I liked them:
#11: The Red Button: She's About to Cross My Mind
#10: Koko Taylor: Old School
#9: Eddie Reader: Peacetime
#8: Angelique Kijdo: Djin Djin
#7: Round Mountain: Truth and Darkness
#6: Susan Werner: The Gospel Truth
#5: Fountains of Wayne: Traffic and Weather
#4: Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby
#3: Ojos de Brujo: Techari
#2: Jamie Leonhart: The Truth About Suffering
#1: Marcus Eaton: Story of Now
And there you have it, our take on the year, and the traditionally insufferable Graham Awards. Once again, a great number of artists are now able to breathe easier knowing that they will not have to deal with the crush of fame, or rather the crushing infamy that receiving the Graham Awards entails. But maybe next year will loom for the lucky escapees.
(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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