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George Graham's 2001 Year-end "Audio Essay"

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/26/2001)

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Once again, we come to our annual year-end wrap-up, audio essay, tirade, curmudgeonly philippic or whatever else you want to call it, as we look back on what happened in the music and audio technology worlds. And with the music business as weird as it is, it certainly makes an easy target, especially when what we do on this program and the business plans of the music industry are so completely irrelevant to each other.

Of course, the events of September 11 were certainly a reminder of just how completely insignificant the pop music scene is in the big picture. The artistic excesses, lawsuits and counter-suits, star gossip, arrests of rappers and rockers, and much of the music itself becomes ridiculously fatuous in the wake of the historic tragedy, and world-changing events of September. The music world did in some ways rise to the aid of the victims, but by the end of the year, things were getting back to normal, and of course, the themes of country and patriotism that arose following the events of September 11, are being looked upon as a cash cow by the greedy.

But, with that in mind, I think we can safely take a few potshots at the parts of the music world we love to hate.

The big story last year at this time was Napster, the Internet music file exchange system, allowing Internet users to exchange songs with others for free. Many were predicting the death of the record industray as we knew it. I think that the appropriate title for this year's chapter of the saga is "The Empire Strikes Back." The major record labels launched lawsuit after lawsuit against Napster, and eventually succeeded in shutting it down. The last days of its service were marked by furious downloading activities by thousands of Internet-savvy music fans. Before it shut down, though, one of the major labels, BMG bought into it. Meanwhile, another popular download site, mp3.com, which offers a combination of free and pay downloads, as well as the ability for music fans to access their music files from anywhere on the Internet, was bought in May for some $320 million by Vivendi Unversal, the recently merged label owned by Vivendi, originally a utility company in France, which owns MCA, and all the old Polygram labels. The major labels themselves were set to launch their own services called Pressplay and Music Net, which sought to keep the on-line distribution of music firmly within their control. The services are to work by subscription, with the customer paying a monthly fee to allow him or her to download music. But as first introduced, one would not be able to burn a CD of that music, transfer it to anyone else, download it into a portable mp3 player, and the ability to play music itself would expire after 30 days. The fundamental question that immediately arises, which the commercial music industry thus far apparently, like the fabled emperor with no clothes, has failed to see, is why would anyone want to pay for something like that? And how they will do in the wake of the collapse of the dot.coms is also a big unknown.

The collaboration among the major labels, of which there are now only five left in the world, though consolidation, on these on-line services, has also raised some serious anti-trust questions, and the record labels are also raising the hackles of record stores, who have been providing service to music customers for all these years, since the labels seem to be trying to make an end-run around record stores. During the year, the Department of Justice issued a subpoenas requesting information on the services, presumably for an anti-trust investigation.

Now the idea of free music is certainly an inviting one to the music fan, but this is how the artists who make the music, earn their living. Their work is being taken without payment when someone downloads a file for free. But the major labels have diluted the royalty process so much with mind-bogglingly restrictive contracts, that many newer artists never see a cent of royalties from their CD, and may actually end up owing the record company money. So the issue of payment of royalties to artists for the use of their music is certainly a fair one. Earlier this year, in the midst of a flurry of lawsuits over mp3.com's music download system, the record labels won a settlement of royalties, but then announced that they would not share any of that settlement with the artists, which brought a lot of justifiable criticism. BMG then announced that it would start sharing some of the settlement from the mp3.com lawsuit with artists, though the amount was not disclosed.

Obviously, the record labels, from the multi-media conglomerates to the independent artists releasing CDs on their own, are concerned with the amount of CD copying and downloading going on. This year, unit record sales were down 5.4% below last year, so far, but the number of CDs sold is actually up 1.2%. The decline is coming mainly from cassettes, which this year were down 36% from last year. But the declining overall sales have the record companies pointing to CD copying as the reason. That may be part of it, but again, someone needs to tell the emperor that he has no clothes -- one wonders if it ever occurred to the record companies that if you put out one bad album after another, with mindless, tasteless music, sooner or later, people are going to get tired of it, and stop wasting their money on $15 CDs with perhaps one listenable song. With the multi-national multi-media companies in charge of the major labels, and the stockholders looking for quick returns on their investments, there is a great deal of pressure to treat music like any other product, testing it through market research, and putting it out based on the performance of other similar products from their competitors. Art and innovation seem pretty much to have been eliminated as considerations.

But in all this, a fairly fundamental market principle is being ignored: if you want to sell more product, lower the price. A very good album can be produced for about $20,000 or less. If you sold 4000 copies at $5 a piece, you would break even. And at that price, people would be a lot less likely to make downloads. Why record labels spend half a million dollars on a bad album, then more than that on an even worse video, then complain when their profits are down is beyond me.

The slowdown in record sales is having its effect with a good number of layoffs in the record business, and some high-profile artists like Rod Stewart and Tori Amos being let go.

Oh, but I'm not done yet. The latest trick about to be unveiled by the record labels, is the copy-proof CD, supposedly manufactured so that computer CD copiers will not work. Last month, the first CD with the new technology was released. The problem is that many people use their CD drives in their computers to play music, and these CDs apparently won't play in computer CD drives, and it turns out that many of the CD players built into car stereo employ the kind of CD mechanism used in computers, so those CDs probably won't play in many car players, or in many portable players. And of course, it will probably take about one week for someone to hack a software solution to defeat the copy protection, if it had not already been done.

But perhaps the most brazenly arrogant attempt to limit people's abilities to control their own music happened in October when lobbyists from the RIAA, the major labels' trade association, attempted to have slipped into the anti-terrorism bill, the so called Patriot Act, a provision that would specifically provide a specific legal mechanism to allow the record labels to hack into anyone's computer and quote "disable" any computer found with copyrighted music files. Under the provision, if you had one tune you downloaded from for free from the Internet, and you were on-line and the labels found you, they could, under this provision, perfectly legally wipe out your hard drive. The main intent was to hack into websites that offered music they weren't getting money for, and do denial-of-service hacks such as have been in the news, which slow down and damage website servers -- a crime for which hackers have been prosecuted. But the labels wanted to be granted legal immunity to be able to hack any site they did not like. Fortunately, that provision was never adopted, and the RIAA has now lost some of even its pro-industry friends on Capitol Hill. One Congressman called the RIAA's lobbying in the anti-terrorism bill as "in poor taste."

Last year, I likened the recording industry to the thrashing of dinosaurs about to go extinct as the small mammals scurried around about preparing their ascendancy, with the scurrying mammals being the independent, artist-released music sold directly to music fans on the Internet. I still foresee the prediction that I made back in 1994 that the music business will be fundamentally changed by the Internet to the point that the multi-media companies will become irrelevant, and the music will be able to go directly from artist to listener, bypassing all the middlemen. But I suspect that day has been delayed. That vision has obviously occurred to the powerful multi-media companies, who are increasingly owning both the product and the means to distribute it, and they are doing everything to stop the democratization of music. And the fact is, fewer big Internet sites, increasingly owned by or associated with the media companies that own the record labels are accounting for a greater percentage of Website traffic. In other words, more people are gravitating to a smaller number of big corporate music websites, and it's becoming harder for the independent artist to be noticed on what supposedly is the most democratic of media. The empire apparently strikes back. It is to me perhaps the most alarming trend that the consolidation of the media into fewer and fewer hands, the both horizontal and vertical integration of information, culture and knowledge that most people are exposed to, is allowing for fewer voices to be heard. The Internet was supposed to change all that. It may still, and it certainly has for many, but it's probably going to take some help from the government to ensure that the average person will have access to diverse voices.

Well, having vented my spleen, with perhaps even more vituperation than usual, let's move on to the music, and there were actually some slight hopeful developments in the commercial music world. Last year, I remarked that not one album in the Billboard chart Top 50 sellers for the year 2000 would find a place on Mixed Bag. The field was dominated by boy bands and rap by the likes of Eminem. This year, the top of the charts did hold a few releases that would be compatible with Mixed Bag. Because of a quirk in the way the annual Billboard charts are compiled, the eligibility period runs from October to October, and as you may recall, the biggest seller at the end of last year was the Beatles' compilation called "1." As a result, the Beatles are at the top of the Billboard annual charts for 2001. But there were also worthy CDs on the chart by the Dave Matthews band, and perhaps the most interesting, at #23 was the soundtrack to the film O Brother Where Art Thou, dominated by bluegrass and traditional music.

As a result, bluegrass got a wonderful shot in the arm, as record labels, most of them independent, busily released a bumper crop of outstanding CDs. I often find myself grumbling that a style can be played for decades on public radio, and have a steady following across the country, but it takes something like a movie soundtrack, or some media event basically irrelevant to the music, to bring a worthy style to national attention. But when such a thing happens, one can't help but feel pleased that many thousands, or even millions or people are now discovering a great music form that they might never have previously heard on the mass media. In 2001, three major country artists, Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless released very worthwhile albums doing straight bluegrass. And a whole new generation bluegrass pickers and New Acoustic style artists released a series of stunning albums from artists like Chris Thile, Alison Krauss, Matt Flinner, and Bela Fleck that combined instrumental virtuosity, musical sophistication and taste. It was definitely a very good year for bluegrass.

Boy bands, on the other hands, seemed to be fading. Or maybe that's wishful thinking on my part. N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys still sold a lot of records, but toward the end of the year, we were fortunately hearing less of them.

Another big trend of 2001 was the compilation CD, collections of hits by various artists which have always been big sellers in Europe. They have moved into the US in a big way. Perhaps the success of those CDs reflects the way people are searching out and downloading individual songs and putting together their own CDs. It's interesting to note that given the success of those song-oriented compilations and what it essentially the singles-oriented nature of the download phenomenon, the record industry seems to be in a hurry to phase out the single.

Here in the eclectic zone under the radar of the mass media, there were some notable trends. Continuing unabated is the stream of worthwhile singer-songwriter records, most of them independently released. Some of my favorites were from Eddi Reader, Billy Jonas, and the duo of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer.

After becoming ubiquitous in jazz over the last decade or so, organ combos started to invade the rock and fusion world with a number of worthwhile releases. The trio of Medesky, Martin & Wood started it, attracting fans from the jam-band crowd, but this year, there were releases by Soulive, Wingnut, the Diplomats of Solid Sound and Galactic, whose sound ranged from bluesy to very funky.

The retro sound of the organ combo was not the only acknowledgement of music's past. There was 60s/Beatles/Beach Boys-style melodic pop from the likes of the Honeydogs and Linus of Hollywood, and a fellow who calls himself Zoux. Also building on the traditions were some rockabilly and country-influenced recordings by BR549, the Derailers and Kay Moffatt among others, and a bunch of good roots rock artists and bands like Whiskeytown and Cross Canadian Ragweed.

Last year, there was a television commercial that featured the music of the late Nick Drake, an obscure but very influential British singer-songwriter whose contemplative songs and smoky voice have attracted many fans among other artists. Not surprisingly, music in the Nick Drake tradition has been appearing, including a very fine album by someone who was previously in the alternative pop mold, Duncan Sheik, along with a Scandinavian duo called the Kings of Convenience, and a very fine New Jersey band called Jabberpony.

Two thousand and one was also a very good year for Celtic music, with the members and former members of Solas releasing a series of solo albums that raised the state of the art for musicianship. Nashville-based singer-songwriter Tim O'Brien made a second CD in collaboration with Irish musicians with very worthwhile results.

The blues saw a good year, with the 2000 release Riding with the King by B.B. King and Eric Clapton topping the annual Billboard blues sales chart. There were also outstanding recordings by Kelly Joe Phelps, Keb' Mo', Big Bill Morganfield (the son of Muddy Waters), and Robert Cray. Clapton released his own CD this year called Reptile, that had some pop-oriented music, but still had plenty of worthwhile blues to offer. One of the more interesting releases was a mainly solo acoustic blues CD from John Kay, the lead vocalist of the 60s psychedelic band Steppenwolf.

The jam band scene remained active. For the second year, there were the so-called Jammy Awards in New York, which were won by the Grateful Dead and Phish, neither of whom were active this year. But this year's releases of music on a scene that prizes spontaneity and interaction with the audience, were primarily studio recordings by groups with known for their great live albums including the String Cheese Incident, still my choice for best jam band, and Moe.

One potential bright spot was in jazz. The Ken Burns Jazz series, which aired on public TV in January turned on many to the joys of the great American music form. Many, myself included, questioned the series' almost exclusive concentration on jazz' early history and personalities, but it did help to cultivate a new audience. In the Billboard end-of-year sales charts, four of the top-10 CDs were spinoffs from the Ken Burns series. Of the remaining six, two were from Diana Krall, two from Jane Monheit, and the others were anthologies. Somewhat discouraging was the fact that of the Billboard top 10 jazz sellers, there were no new instrumental recordings.

The world music scene continued to have some success, but with so many styles now being available, there were a lot fewer releases this year that struck me as being quite so innovative. One of my favorite world music CDs was the one by Cameroonian-born, New York-based bassist and composer Richard Bona called Reverence, and there were some fascinating releases incorporating Scandinavian and Finnish traditional music from groups like Varttina and Väsen. Interestingly, two of the World Music CDs on Billboard's annual cumulative world music sales charts were by classical crossover vocalist Andrea Bocelli. Topping the 2001 World Music charts, again because of the quirk in Billboard's eligibility dates that runs from October 2000 to October 2001, there was the CD by the Baja Men and their amazingly annoying Who Let the Dogs Out.

So-called classical crossover was big this year, the idea of doing essentially popularized music that somewhat sounds like classical music. In addition to Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church found a place on the Billboard top 100 annual pop charts.

The events of September 11 did have a far-reaching effect on the music business, as it did for many parts of the economy. A number of artists cancelled fall tours, record sales seemed to turn down even further, and there was a whole raft of patriotic-oriented releases that got to be hits from country artists to a singing New York policeman. There was also the extraordinary performance-broadcast "America: A tribute to Heroes," carried on most of the country's radio and TV stations on September 21 featuring an unprecedented range of musical talent, with even the most outrageous showing remarkable taste. Of course, it didn't take long for patriotic themed for-profit recordings to be released to cash in on the mood of the country.

And toward the end of the year, came another rather profound event for generations of music fans, the death of George Harrison. His health had been declining for months, and there were persistent reports that he did not have long to live, but still, when the news came that the Quiet Beatle had passed away, it was a cause for sadness, and perhaps ironic given the sales chart showing that the Beatles had again topped the charts for the accounting year. There were unconfirmed rumors that George had completed one more album before his death on November 29 at the age of 58. We'll have our complete musical obituary page a little later.

Homegrown Music 25th anniv. logo And we like to take note of the regional music scene. This year, our Homegrown Music series celebrated its 25th anniversary as a weekly series on WVIA-FM, and it was also a good year for CD releases by artists who have appeared on the series. I counted 29 CDs by artists we have had on our series, and more are coming next year. Once again, we have proven that the regional music scene offers music every bit comparable in quality to what is released on the national scene, and in most cases, much better in musical content than the records at the top of the commercial music charts.

And now on to our annual audio technology review. Of course, we have already dwelled at length on the implications of the Internet and its effect on music. But there were some other interesting developments. For the past several years, I have been awaiting the unveiling of the DVD audio system, using the higher capacity of the digital versatile disc, to hold digital audio of much higher quality than the conventional CD with its 44.1 Khz sampling rate and 16-bit audio. DVD Audio allows doubling of the sampling rate and up to 24-bits of audio. Last year, DVD-Audio was finally introduced, after a delay precipitated, not surprisingly, by record labels' efforts to make it copy-proof. But at about the same time, Sony introduced its own incompatible system called Super Audio CD. So once again, we are going to have a VHS-vs-Beta-style format war situation, and given the sorry state of audio quality on pop music CDs, I now consider it highly unlikely that either format will catch on to the point of superceding the CD, which is now coming up on its 20th anniversary. Instead of moving toward higher quality audio standards, the sound of CDs continues to get worse, on average, with producers and record labels pumping up and compressing the sound to the point of almost no dynamic range, and thinking that distortion and noise are somehow cool. Another discouraging development is that a generation of fans are now hearing much of their music from mp3 files on the generally crummy speakers and audio cards that come with most computers. The mp3 format is no match for a CD, and the quality of most downloaded audio files is really quite bad. What we have are hundreds of thousands of people who think that this sorry state of audio is somehow normal. The one bright spot is the proliferation of home theater systems with surround sound. Now if people would just shut off their videos and listen to the music on their new surround sound systems, they might again begin to appreciate what a wonderful medium that sound, delivered in high quality, can be.

Digital FM radio is getting closer to reality. Tests were conducted on the so-called IBOC system for digital FM radio. The technology is not fully proven, mainly because of the desire by US commercial broadcasters that the system use as much of existing facilities as possible, and the resistance by the military to give up spectrum space already used in Europe and Canada for a much higher quality digital FM service. But it may still happen.

Meanwhile, Internet radio, which had been proliferating in 2000, allowing people to hear radio stations from around the world, albeit in usually terrible audio quality, greatly diminished in 2001. The reason was a court decision that said that Internet radio stations would need to pay the same program and rights fees as regular over-air-air broadcasters, especially to the actors heard in commercials. Some commercial stations set up sites that filtered out the commercials, while most stations that are part of the large broadcasting conglomerates that now own most of the commercial radio stations in the country, just discontinued Internet broadcasts, figuring it was not making any money for them.

This year saw the literal launch of the first of two proposed, competing direct satellite radio services, designed mainly to serve car radios. They are supposed to offer a variety of services, but for a price, around $10 a month. For that price, you get an angel membership in public radio and a service that does not require a special receiver, provides great sound on your home stereo system and provides real people on the air with a regional service. Obviously, I'm biased in this, but have my doubts about pay satellite radio services for the car. It may provide an attractive alternative to commercial radio, but another homogenized wall-to-wall service, albeit with probably fewer commercials, for me is not worth the price, especially for those in the range of public radio.

And, by the way, this year, WVIA-FM upgraded its facilities with all new equipment from the point where our signal leaves the studio with an all digital signal path including audio processing, a digital studio to-transmitter link, a new solid state 10 kilowatt transmitter, and a new antenna, to replace our old antenna that was damaged by ice falling from our tower. Many listeners report that our signal is improved in many areas. One of the features we have added is RBDS, or radio broadcast data service. Specially-equipped receivers will display our call letters, and other information about the station. Information about our translator frequencies is also available, so that special RBDS car radios can automatically switch to our different translator frequencies, as you drive from one region to another.

Well, there you have our annual completely non-authoritative year-end polemic on things musical and auditory. Stay tuned, coming up, the musical obituaries of 2001.

(c) Copyright 2001, 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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