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George Graham's 2003 Year-end Audio Essay

(As broadcast on WVIA-FM December 31, 2003)

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And so we come again to the point in the orbit of the Earth around the sun when people decide it's time to change calendars, and thus it's time for our annual year-end audio essay, or to be truthful, radio rant, philippic, diatribe, harangue and anything else you may with to call an opinion piece that was written by someone who can't resist sounding off on matters musical.

And in the music world as in the world at large, 2003 was one of the more eventful years in memory, with some almost breathtaking paradigm shifts occurring, a year with so many things concerning technology, litigation, business developments and just plain odd things happening that the music itself was nearly eclipsed.

This was the year in which the big commercial music industry came close to imploding. But it didn't quite. In fact, it started fighting back with a vengeance, and actually did one or two sensible things, is addition to its usual obsession with shooting itself in the foot by alienating both music customers and artists, something which it has proven to be very good at doing.

In 2002, record sales, as measured by the so-called SoundScan bar-code check-out reporting system, dropped some 14%, but in 2003 dropped only about 4%. Now I should qualify this and say that the SoundScan system, though it is taken as the word of God by the music industry, comes nowhere near reporting all actual record sales. Many stores, especially the smaller ones where savvy music fans tend to shop, are not part of the system. And of course, direct sales of CDs by artists at concerts and other self-distributed music does not get counted. But if one were to believe the figures, the music biz is not about to collapse immediately, and early figures for Christmas sales actually showed a slight increase over 2002.

Of course, record companies for decades have loved to blame technology for all their woes – first it was cassette recorders in the 1970s, then there was the imagined threat posed by digital audio tape decks, which because of pressure by the major media companies, never flourished as a consumer medium. And now, of course, downloads on the Internet, and what computer folks like to call sneaker-net – people personally exchanging CDs they made with their CD-burning computers, really have had an impact on sales. For the most part, the labels have still failed to see the problem that is driving people to seek out alternatives – lousy music, with lousy sound quality, sold at unreasonably high prices. In an age when technology is driving down the cost of so many things in the electronic world, the price of CDs just kept going up. Last year I pointed out how out-of-kilter this are when it is possible to buy a DVD of a 2-hour movie with surround sound for less than the price of a hit CD with perhaps 50 minutes of music, and if you're lucky two decent songs, and sound with no dynamic range at all. And it's so ironic that it is the same media companies who are selling the cheap DVDs movies and the music CDs.

Well, in 2003, the largest record company the Universal Group made a bold move by cutting the list price of their CDs substantially from $18.98 to $12.98, making it possible that most will retail in stores at under $10. But they did it such as way that seriously cut into the margins of your neighborhood record store. Already hundreds of record stores closed during the year, including a number of national chains.

Last year, I observed that after Napster and other download services had pretty much blindsided the major labels, the record industry started to respond, and I called 2002 the year when the "empire strikes back." Labels sued and shut down Napster, and they were working on technology to make CDs copy-proof, doing exactly the things most likely to alienate their now-former customers even more.

After succeeding in shutting down Napster, but finding that other so-called peer-to-peer systems like Kazaa were more difficult to go after legally, the labels and their lobbying organization, the RIAA, took the high-risk strategy of suing 11-year-old kids for downloading music. Their apparent plan was to pick easy targets who were not likely to wage a legal fight that could overturn their tactics, if they lost. Instead, the parents of the young downloaders were offered a chance to settle out of court, and most did, paying the labels tens of thousand dollars a piece. That kind of bull-headed approach was, of course, expected to be a public-relations disaster, but surprisingly it did get a lot of people's attention, and it did create a degree of awareness that downloading music files for free may not be the most ethical thing to do.

However by the end of the year, an appeals court decided that the RIAA could not subpoena the names of customers of Internet companies. Verizon had fought the process by which it was served with legal documents demanding that they provide the names of customers who download music. Now the RIAA can't do that. They can still sue an unnamed John Doe for copyright infringement, but it's going to be a lot harder for them. Also, there is the unstated worry on their part that they might end up suing someone who would fight back, or someone who might just be part of the music industry itself.

Of course, one of the things which drove people to download from peer-to-peer networks in the first place is the fact that the so-called "legal" paid download sites offered by the labels were almost laughable. They were inconvenient, expensive, extremely limited in selection, and left you largely without the ability to burn tracks onto a CD. They treated you as if you were renting the music, and had to give it back after a while.

While a few paid download sites began to make some inroads during the year, it was not until a company completely divorced from the major label music industry made its entry, that paid downloads really took off. Apple computer launched its "i-tunes" service in April, as an adjunct to its popular "I-pod" portable mp3 player. Apple offered many thousands of popular tunes for 99 cents a pop, and have sold over 13 million downloads so far, even when the service was limited to owners of Mac computers. In October i-tunes introduced a PC version and sold a million and a half downloads in the first week. Also, Napster has been reborn, this time operated as a paid download service owned by Roxio, the software company who make popular CD burning programs. And the word is that Wal-Mart is experimenting with setting up a site offering downloads for 89 cents a song.

One consequence of the lawsuits by record labels against peer-to-peer networks, and with their popularity among colleges students causing campus computer networks to choke from all the traffic, is that colleges are now restricting access to sites like Kazaa and Grokster. In 2003, Penn State took the interesting step of providing free service to the new version of Napster, paid for out of student computer use fees. And I recently saw a rating of colleges based on whether access to peer-to-peer networks was restricted or not.

In the past few years, the record labels, in another of their attempts to frustrate their customers have been trying to phase out singles, to make people buy their expensive full albums with one or two decent songs. Perhaps not surprisingly, in 2003 for the first time, paid downloads outsold physical singles by a wide margin.

Meanwhile, the major record labels themselves are going through a further round of consolidation. I remember lamenting when the big seven record labels became the big six. There could be only two big major labels, and two medium sized ones before long. Sony and BMG announced plans to merge their record labels. For those with an appreciation of the history of recorded music, this is in a way a historic development. Since the early 20th Century, the two most important record companies were Columbia Records and RCA Victor. To think that these two historic labels would end up merging would have boggled the mind. They were tied to the great American broadcasting networks, Columbia to CBS and RCA Victor to NBC. Of course, neither of the labels is anything like it was. Columbia is owned by Sony in Japan, and RCA is part of the German media conglomerate BMG. But the fact that these two historic labels are intending to merge really does mark a paradigm shift.

But that's not all. Time Warner, formerly AOL Time Warner late in the year announced plans to sell its music and record interests to generate cash to pay down debt. Earlier in the year, Time Warner sold the nearby Specialty Records factory in Olyphant, PA, one of the largest CD manufacturing plants in the country to the Canadian company Cinram. Then in November it was announced that Warner music, including the Warner Brothers, Atlantic and Elektra labels would be sold to a group headed by Edgar Bronfman, one of the principals in Seagram's whiskey, and also from Canada. Bronfman once controlled Universal Records and movie studios, before he sold it to the French company Vivendi. Now this makes for an intriguing development. Bronfman's company is private, with no publicly traded stock. Many, including myself, have argued that one of the most inimical factors in the music business as it stands today, own by large publicly traded media companies, is the pressure for keeping the quarterly profits up. Though it is certainly more democratic to have many stockholders have a voice in the company, the record labels have been pressured to sign artists who sound just like current hit artists to avoid the risk of a down quarterly profit report, instead of developing artists for the long haul. Many have observed that under the current business climate, artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen would never have been signed, of if they were, they would have been dropped after their first release, since they did not immediately go multi-platinum. So Bronfman, by taking Warner Music private, might just be able to create a climate where artists might be able to grow gradually. But it also means that none of the major labels will be American-owned. Warner Music was the last.

General Electric, the parent of NBC, announced that it was buying most of Universal's assets, but not its music division (which remains in the hands of Vivendi). That leaves the British company EMI, who have owned Capitol Records since the 1950s, as the remaining so-called major label. But EMI has been in merger talks on and off for some time. Some are predicting that the merged Sony/BMG label, and Universal, currently the largest of the major labels in terms of market share, will settle into a kind of Coke-Pepsi duopoly, with the independent Warner Music and EMI becoming relatively minor players. But recently, after the plans for the Sony-BMG merger were announced, two Senators announced plans to hold anti-trust hearings on the music business.

All of this consolidation naturally, comes with a price. Thousands of record company and music retail employees have lost their jobs, and there is no telling how many artists will end up being dropped by the remaining labels.

Of course, all of the machinations of the major labels has become largely of academic interest for open-minded music fans, who view them as just so many dinosaurs thrashing about in some primeval swamp in their last throes before extinction. It's apparent that the vast majority of the interesting, and artistically satisfying music is coming from independent labels, many of them CDs released by the artists themselves.

But the combination of the ability to download individual tracks, either from peer-to-peer networks or from paid services, and the ease with which one can extract tracks from existing CDs and assemble one's own mix, either on CD or on portable mp3 players, has resulted in another potential paradigm shift – or at least got a large number of people thinking about the end of the album as a form. From the earliest days of recorded sound and 78 rpm records, up through the golden age of rock & roll, the principal recorded work was the single. The long-playing album was introduced in the late 1940s as a way to get a whole movement of a classical work onto a single recording, not having to divide up the music on so many discs. Prior to LPs, albums were just that, collections of records sold in book-like bindings. In the popular music world, LP albums started as collections of independent songs. The Beatles, helped to establish the album as an art in itself – rock music in long form. And it has been that way ever since. Albums, of course, are more profitable for record companies. But most pop albums are still collections of independent songs, and the 80-minute capacity of CDs has led a lot of artists to include material that they might have cut from a 45-minute LP. Artists have also complained about a need to fill out a CD, or being pressured by labels seeking commercial radio and video airplay, to put all their effort into one or two songs, and fill the rest for time. So Internet downloading has already re-established the single, and may very well change music fans' and artists' attitudes about music, and why it is necessary to create music in 45 or 50 minute chunks. The elimination of the physical medium means that artists can create musical works of any length. But I still miss the art work on good old vinyl LPs.

Here are some other interesting or amusing sidelights in the commercial music business: I read that artists and record companies seeking to cash in on emerging technologies are looking to the sale of musical cell-phone ring tones as an area of growth. As if people with cell phones ringing in meetings or concerts were not bad enough, the record labels want to sell people tunes that their cell phones will play when they disrupt things. Also this year, the head of the RIAA, Hilary Rosen, apparently growing tired of the battles between record labels and their customers and artists, resigned, and was replaced by Mitch Bainwol, a prominent Republican strategist and lobbyist. That certainly represents a sea change, and speaks volumes. But it is apparent that the record industry is trying to step up its lobbying efforts in Congress to write laws that protect its interests, as other members of Congress are introducing laws designed to enshrine in law the public's right to make personal copies of their music, which the RIAA bitterly opposes. And if that were not enough, the RIAA recently hired the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, Bradley Buckles, as its chief enforcement executive to go after all those 11 year olds downloading music.

Also in 2003, there was the hotly contested decision by the Federal Communications Commission to allow greater consolidation of the media industry, though its effect on commercial radio was not as great as the effect on commercial television. There are still moves in Congress to undo the ruling, though the Bush administration was threatening to veto any such measure. So it looks as if ever fewer, more powerful, politically-connected corporations will be controlling more and more of what most Americans see and hear.

Well, now on to the music – yes there was music in 2003 among all the machinations of the media moguls.

The Grammy Awards in February were quite remarkable, with quality, Mixed-Bag-type artists like Norah Jones and John Mayer walking away with most of the high-profile awards. Obviously this sort of thing was not to be tolerated. Heads rolled, no doubt, at the specter of music fans demanding good music from the record labels. So when the 2004 Grammy Award nominations announced, they were almost entirely devoid of music that people with a sense of eclecticism would be able to tolerate – it was a return to the disposable product that consumers are expected to buy, tire of, throw away, and buy some more. Somehow, Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake are no Norah Jones. Still Ms. Jones sold a lot of records during the year, coming in at #2 on the Billboard annual charts, behind rapper 50 Cent.

Even with the proliferation of manufactured pop singers who were marketed by means of the television so-called talent ("idol") competitions, if you look at the sales charts, you could be excused for thinking you are in some kind of time warp. Among the top selling artists at the end of the year were the Beatles, the Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Cher, Simon & Garfunkel, Tom Jones, and Frank Sinatra. So much for developing new talent.

Of course, perhaps the biggest news item of the year was the Bush Administration's war on Iraq. And not since the Vietnam War has there been such an outpouring of new protest songs. There was the controversy over a remark by Natalie Maines of Dixie Chicks over the war that got the group banned on a chain of corporate commercial radio stations. But the Chicks had the last laugh as their CD came in at #4 on the annual Billboard charts. At the end of the year, the Dixie Chicks released an excellent live CD that will likely appeal to more than just country fans. Also during the year, John Mellencamp released his song "To Washington" in the great Woody Guthrie tradition, first on-line and then on his CD Trouble No More which he said would end his relationship with the major record companies. On the other side was Darryl Worley's Bush-backing song Have you Forgotten?

Out of the media limelight, there were a host of contemporary protest singers making statements with the passion of the Vietnam days, among them Stephan Smith, Ethan Daniel Davidson, Laura Love, Luka Bloom and veteran Canadian folkie Bruce Cockburn. Even that old rabble rouser U. Utah Phillips released a new CD toward the end of the year. It's a good reminder to us Baby Boomers that you don't have to go back to the 1960s to find music that's relevant.

One of the saddest music-related developments of the year was the terrible fire on February 20 in West Warwick, Rhode Island in which 100 people perished at a concert by the metal band Great White, when their pyrotechnic display ignited the building. The lawsuits in the aftermath continued through the year. Let's hope that out of that tragedy some new measures arise to prevent anything like that from ever happening again.

Despite the seeming implosion of the major record labels, independent music is proliferating like never before. So-called desktop audio is making it possible for any band or artists to put out their own CD, and manufacturing plants are only to happy to press up hundreds or thousands of copies. And this is where the musical creativity is taking place. As has been the case for the past several years, music on the major labels has been only a small percentage of the music we play on Mixed Bag, and perhaps an even smaller percentage on our Best of the Year list, which continues to be dominated by independent releases. Of course, the downside to all this independent music is that most of it is being put out by people who for whom there is a good reason they were not signed to a record label. This year again, I waded through hundreds of CDs by rock bands in which guitar volume is used as a substitute for musicianship, with vocals that are badly off-key and compositions that are one cliché after another. Still, it's worth the effort to find the gems, and there were plenty of them this year. Later on, we'll give out the annual Graham Awards, and talk about some of them.

In these year-end commentaries, I like to talk about the various styles of music we cover and how they fared. Since this has gotten rather long-winded already, I'll just touch on a few:

Two-thousand and Three was designated by an act of Congress as the Year of the Blues, and during the year, there was the major public TV series on the blues, whose executive producer was director Martin Scorsese. It was hoped that it would raise the awareness of this great American music form in a way that Ken Burns' "Jazz" series provided a boost of jazz. The Scorsese series, though composed of seven unrelated films by different directors, nevertheless was more relevant to the blues as it is today, instead of treating the music as some kind of historical form the way Ken Burns did on his series. There were several CDs released in connection with the series, and they apparently sold reasonably well, but at the end of the year, there were no genuine blues albums on the Billboard top 200 end-of-the-year charts. Curiously, at the top of Billboard's separate blues chart is John Mellencamp's CD Trouble No More.

Bluegrass, which experienced a great popular revival in following the film O Brother Where Art Thou, continued to enjoy some success, with the Dixie Chicks showing some bluegrass influence on the pop music scene, and Nickel Creek actually getting a little commercial country radio airplay. But the wider public, through the commercial media, got to hear very little of the excellent music that is being made on a prolific scene. There were noteworthy albums by Rhonda Vincent, Sean Watkins, Tim O'Brien and the all-star trio performance by the Three Pickers: Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs.

The jam band scene continues to proliferate, though the music seemed to be at a slightly lower profile in 2003. Still, a reunited band Phish grossed nearly $32 million, selling over 650,000 tickets in a 36-date tour. The String Cheese Incident began releasing every one of their concerts on CD. But during the year they released a very different album, a studio effort produced by a British dance music producer who calls himself "Youth." The result was a mixed blessing.

Once again, for me, one of the most exciting areas in 2003 was World Music. While politicians and religious zealots around the world were fanning the flames of xenophobia and isolationism, there was a cornucopia of wonderfully eclectic world fusion, borrowing and combining disparate elements and making for some really superb listening. Among the highlights were brilliant CDs by Louis Winsberg, from France, Eileen Ivers from the USA, Coco Mbassi from Cameroon, and Kila from Ireland.

The jazz scene was again prolific, but once again, the Billboard jazz sales charts were almost completely dominated by singers. Diana Krall, was the top selling jazz artist, though in individual album sales, the joint album by Tony Bennett and k.d. lang was the top seller. Interestingly, Diana Krall just married Elvis Costello, whose own CD North which I would not have thought of as a jazz album, ended up at #9 on the Billboard jazz charts for the year.

And now on my annual commentary on technology. Once again, I think it is a disgrace what has happened to the sound quality of CDs, with most being compressed more heavily than a top-40 commercial radio station, killing all the life in the music and ruining the sound on any good stereo system, just to be more competitively loud. And it's completely self-defeating since if the music is maximally loud all the time, it has no place to go, and it completely loses its impact. I thought I was something of a lone crusader for sanity in restoring dynamic range to CDs, especially since newer digital formats provide even wider dynamic range, but I have been getting a steady stream of e-mailed "amens" from music fans, recording engineers and even artists themselves over the commentary I posted on my website on the issue. And in the just-published January 2004 issue of Wired, the magazine for the techno-fashionable, there was an article with exactly that point, complete with sound print graphics.

Meanwhile, the SACD format pioneered by Sony as a higher-resolution recording medium is making some progress in getting music released. One of the advantages is that it is will play on regular CD players. The problem is that I have seen little availability of the SACD players to take advantage of the new technology. And most of the new releases are just re-issues of old stuff, for example old Bob Dylan records, some of which despite the importance of the music, were not very well recorded in the first place. Despite the proliferation of the DVD, the most quickly adopted new consumer electronic product in history, the potential of the high-resolution DVD Audio-only format has yet to be realized, with few new releases and not many DVD players capable of properly reproducing the 24-bit audio, or even playing DVD audio discs in the first place. One interesting development was that the car company Acura announced that they would be equipping their cars with DVD audio players. A moving car, no matter how smoothly it rides, is hardly the place best to experience the wide dynamic range that DVD audio offers.

One big negative is the quality of most mp3 audio files. Digital compression, not to be confused with volume compression, which I just talked about, is what makes an mp3 music file so small, compared to the full digital audio files, which would take up over a half a gig per hour of music. Mp3 files are often compressed to a tenth their actual size by throwing away a lot of the data and hoping the decoder will be able to reconstruct the sound. This is akin to trying to save space in a message by eliminating all the vowels in words. Much of the time you can figure out the words from just the consonants, but mistakes are inevitable. This is what happens with the mp3, technically known as a "lossy compression" process. And a lot of mp3 files can sound really bad compared to the original, in unexpected and odd ways, often in the form of sounding vaguely "under water." And if digitally compressed audio files become the standard way of distributing music to the consumer, that will mark another huge step backward in audio quality.

Digital Satellite Radio, however, seems to be starting to catch on, at least from the fact that the receivers are now easy to buy in most electronics stores. The future looks a little less uncertain than it was a year ago, and the choice on satellite radio certainly beats what is on the corporate group-owned commercial radio. Of course, there's still Public Radio. And this particular station had the pleasure of marking 30 years on the air in 2003, with our best year ever for membership support. Apparently there are quite a few people out there who can appreciate the difference.

Terrestrially, digital broadcast radio is beginning, with a few stations beginning to broadcast in so-called IBOC digital, which promises to eliminate static fading and the like. But receivers are still hard to come by, and most radio stations, including WVIA, are taking a wait and see attitude before investing in the special equipment and transmitter required.

And finally, one of the coolest developments that is an upshot of the digital music revolution is a series of new devices and appliances that network audio around your house. Your computer becomes a kind of digital music server, and various wires and wireless devices can tap into your library and bring different music to different people in different parts of the house.

Well, there you have the music world from my own peculiar and distinctly askew viewpoint. Coming up, some of the musical personalities we lost in 2003.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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