(As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/27/2000)
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We come once again to our annual year-end audio essay on the music world as seen from our increasingly skewed perspective, skewed, that is, if the music at the top of the pop charts could in some way be considered normal. In any case, having just passed yet another of those birthdays with a zero at the end, I guess I have a little more of an excuse to be curmudgeonly. But I also think that there are quite a few of us in a similar situation, including a lot of young people, who are finding themselves increasingly disconnected from the "product" -- as they call it in the music biz -- dominating the top of the commercial pop charts. But the reason you listen to this program is not to hear the commercial mega-media-conglomerate manufactured audio bulk goods, but to explore our little corner of the music world, wherever that may be. So, as we have been doing over the last many years in these audio essays -- no let's be honest, tirades -- we'll take a somewhat jaundiced look at the music world and make sometimes pointed but usually pointless observations as we come up on what really is the beginning of the 21st Century.
Despite the year's continuing domination by the teen pop bands, the biggest buzzword in the music business in 2000 was Napster. I hate to say I told you so, but back in my year-end special of 1994, I predicted that the Internet would fundamentally alter the way music is heard and distributed, which could essentially eliminate record companies as we know them. It took a few years, but events coalesced this year when a teenaged computer programmer created an Internet protocol that would allow what the computer folks call peer-to-peer file sharing of music. With more and more computers on-line, especially on college campuses, where many dorms are now wired with high-speed Internet connections in every room, the idea of sharing files between computers is only natural, it's a concept that has been going on for as long as there were networked computers in business and the academic world. But Napster provides a means of cataloguing and searching for specific audio files, usually in the so-called mp3 format. The interesting thing about Napster that had the major record label conglomerates up in arms is that there is no central repository for those files where they could bring in their lawyers to try to shut down, to protect their control and profits. The files just moved from one ordinary person's computer to another. It was like being able to share tapes you made with everyone else in the world. Napster caught on like wildfire. Computer systems on campuses became clogged with all the music files being zapped back and forth, and Napster had millions of users within just a couple of months of its introduction.
Of course, one person's definition of sharing files is someone else's claim of piracy, using the music without paying for it. Napster users argued that by having all this music available to hear on the Internet -- music that the tightly controlled commercial media was not playing -- they were in fact being inspired to purchase more actual CDs, and there was some statistical evidence to support that. But there were also figures produced by the record industry claiming that Napster was hurting record sales. Naturally, before all the country's lawyers went to work on the presidential election, the major record labels started suing Napster, since it was an actual entity, even though it did not have any of the music files on its premises. An injunction was issued, and there were huge protests from music fans. Napster continued on, but other peer-to-peer file sharing systems were developed such as Gnutella and Freenet, which are even more difficult to go after, since there is no central point at all. By the end of the year, the major record labels were beginning to see the light and started making some tentative moves toward distributing their music on-line.
Artists were of mixed opinions about Napster, with some high-profile bands like Metallica taking a strong stand against file sharing, while many up-and-coming artists saw it as a great opportunity to have their music be heard, outside of the control of the increasingly centralized commercial media conglomerates.
Another facet of the same issue involved a popular website called mp3.com. They offered a combination of free and paid downloads, and also offered a service allowing one to listen to one's own music on-line. They offer a software program that would read the unique ID code from a music CD which you had already purchased. Once that code was registered, which supposedly confirmed that you actually purchased the CD, you could then listen to that CD on line wherever you were. Once again, record company lawyers swooped down, suing mp3.com saying that it was pirating and making illegal copies of the music. Toward the end of the year, mp3.com worked out a deal with some of the record companies in which they would pay a royalty for each CD that users would put in their so-called lockers, and pay a fee each time that music was downloaded or streamed to the user.
One of the more arcane but interesting controversies that happened more or less behind the scenes this year in the music business concerned something called a "work-for-hire" provision that was surreptitiously slipped into last year's big last-minute federal budget without any Congressional hearings, or indeed without any Congressmen seeming to know anything about it. It was apparently done by a Congressional staffer at the behest of a media company lobbyist, and what it did was to define a musical recording as a "work-for-hire" meaning that under the copyright law, the recording would not revert to the ownership of the artist after a certain period of time, as it would otherwise, but stay the permanent property of the record label. When some prominent artists like Cheryl Crow and Don Henley found about it, they mounted their own lobbying campaign, which eventually got the work-for-hire provision repealed in the fall. This controversy came at a time when the record industry was trying to enlist prominent artists in their fight against Napster and mp3.com, supposedly in the name of helping artists who would lose royalties from the free downloads, but the behind-the-scenes move to deny artists ownership rights to their recordings left the record labels with a lot of egg on their face.
Although a lot of the controversy concerning music downloads on the Internet involved the big record companies and their million-selling artists, the interesting story was that the Internet really is becoming an alternate means of distribution of music directly from artist to listener, bypassing record labels, distributors, and unfortunately, even your friendly local record store. There are numerous artists who have developed a fan base and distribute songs to those fans through the Internet, and don't bother to make a regular CD, or at least do it less frequently. And with the ease of producing a CD on your own these days, there are thousands of artists and bands recording CDs on their own, without any record company involved, having them manufactured by any of dozens of companies who duplicate CDs, and then selling them on-line from the artists' own websites. Chances are that they are not going to be million sellers, but it is making a lot of music available that does not fit into the business plan of the media companies, who are under increasing pressure by their stockholders in a volatile stock market to make lots of profits quickly, and thus have no incentive to stay with artists to allow them to develop a career. Looking back over the albums on our Best of 2000 list, remarkably, only a handful are on the major labels. The great majority are on small independent companies, and many were released by the artists on their own. So the Internet is coming to the point that it is starting to realize its potential to alter fundamentally the way music is distributed, and I think that's exciting, even though the Internet has also has made available huge amounts of really bad music.
While a kind of guerilla action was taking place by artists under the noses of the big labels, those record companies were going though their share of corporate turmoil. This year there was the announcement of the merger of Time Warner, and its various record companies, and AOL, the largest Internet service provider. That had an interesting potential for the convergence of music and the Internet, but it was also quite alarming for just the same reason of convergence -- having all the different kinds of media, from book publishing to cable TV to Internet service suppliers under the same corporate control. The merger was still awaiting regulatory approval, as this is being written. Meanwhile, the largest music company, Universal, formed from the merger of MCA and Polygram a couple of years ago was sold to a French multi-media firm, cable and internet supplier, and two of the remaining major labels, the Warner Music Group and Capitol/EMI announced their intent to merge, but that was derailed due to monopoly concerns by European regulators. Somehow I form the mental picture of a series of ever-bigger dinosaurs thrashing about, trying to devour each other, while in the underbrush, the first little mammals are scurrying around getting ready for the future of the world in the new Internet music environment.
Now, on to the music. For someone with the tastes catered to by this radio program, the commercial pop music scene was indeed a wasteland. Each year, I like to look at the number of albums in the top regions of the chart that we played on this program. A couple of years back, I lamented that not one of the top ten, and only one or two of the top-20 albums were of music that would find a home here. This year, not one of the 50 top-selling CDs on the Billboard pop charts was considered in keeping with the stylistic approach of this program, though if you look down to number 52, there was one CD we did feature prominently, the joint B.B. King/Eric Clapton album Riding with the King. For your information and lamentation, the artists comprising the top 10 Billboard albums in their annual cumulative record sales charts, which cover a period from November to November, were: #10: DMX; #9: The Backstreet Boys #8: Christina Aguilera; #7: Celine Dion; #6: Creed; #5, Dr. Dre; #4: Britney Spears; #3 Eminem; #2: Santana; and #1, as you might expect and fear, N' Sync. Interestingly, toward the end of the year, after the eligibility period expired, at the top of the charts were the Beatles again.
This was obviously another year of vacuous teen pop dispensed by carefully recruited, groomed and manufactured boy and girl stars. But as I observed last year, teen acts have been part of rock music since the beginning, and whether they will become significant and durable artists in the future remains to be seen, though the record of longevity is not good if history is any indicator. But of course, when the Beatles first appeared in the early 1960s, they indeed were considered a teen-pop boy band, and now they are back on the charts with yet another repackaging of their hits.
Speaking of the 1960s and 70s, they certainly seem to be making a comeback, yet again, in various guises, from the now-ubiquitous bell-bottoms worn by the daughters of the original hippies to the return of jam bands and the proliferation of decent Beatles influenced melodic pop bands. It's another set of flashbacks for Baby Boomers.
And as far as I'm concerned the rock musical trend of 2000 is definitely the return of the jam band. The end of the Grateful Dead following Jerry Garcia's death, left a hole, just as the group was finding a whole new generation of fans. The group Phish quickly moved into the void, attracting the same kind of "happenings" among their audience that marked concerts by the Dead. But it also opened the door for younger music fans, perhaps rebelling against the constant barrage of the two-second images of commercial music videos, to lengthen their attention spans beyond three-minute pop songs, and enjoy the pleasures of extended instrumental improvisations. This year, there were excellent releases by The String Cheese Incident, Moe, Frogwings, Gov't Mule, Schleigho, Entrain, and Strangefolk. With a kind of underground resurgence of acoustic music, there were a couple of interesting acoustic jam bands, including Hanuman and Acoustic Syndicate. And there was the return of another 60s phenomenon, the funky organ combo, a la Booker T. and the MGs, with the considerable cult following of Medesky, Martin and Wood, plus some other notable recordings in the same vein by jazz guitarist John Scofield, the organ combos Soulive, the Voodoo Dogs and Sugarman Three.
Among the Beatles-influenced retro-pop bands making worthwhile music during the year were Scout, The Lucky Bishops from England, Bottlefly, Tahiti 80, the Lehigh Valley band the Villas, and those great long-time British innovators, XTC. There was also something of a revival of the dreamy, laid back pop of the Sixties with records by a group called Dusty Trails, The Aluminum Group, Clem Snide and International Airport.
Meanwhile, some veteran performers made some artistically notable comebacks, though because their music was so good, these previously million selling artists settled for low positions if any on the pop charts. Steely Dan made a triumphant return, after twenty years, with, Two Against Nature, an interesting and satisfying album that had a direct continuity to their previous work, but featured different players and in some ways was even more lyrically sardonic than their earlier music. Paul Simon made You're The One one of the best recordings of his career, with a wonderful mix of musical influences from world music and beyond, Mark Knopfler made an outstanding CD called Sailing to Philadelphia, and Little Feat marked their 30th anniversary together with a great record called Chinese Work Songs. Needless to say, none gave N Sync or Eminem any serious competition for record sales.
This was definitely a strong year for the blues, with the commercial success of the joint B.B. King/Eric Clapton CD Riding with the King. Also selling quite well was a boxed set of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan's music called S.R.V. which came with a DVD along with the three audio CDs. One interesting effort was Willie Nelson's largely successful plunge into the blues, his CD Milk Cow Blues. For me, two of the most notable blues albums during the year were a great high-energy record by Koko Taylor and a wonderful acoustic duo album by a pair of New Orleaneans, guitarist Corey Harris and pianist Henry Butler.
There was also a bit of a revival in the Art Rock or Progressive Rock scene, which has never entirely gone away since the 1960s. But this year, the scene was making new inroads with an outstanding new release by a group called Transatlantic, with members from the US and Europe creating symphonic rock on a grand scale. The first track on their CD runs over 30 minutes in length. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was the site of the second annual Northeast Art Rock festival, which was sold out weeks in advance and attracted fans and groups from around the world. Making a notable appearance was a re-united Happy the Man, who put in a remarkable performance.
This year, the world music scene was increasingly diverse, bringing forth some worthwhile music, and interesting combinations of styles, beyond the pseudo Latin sounds that made the pop charts. One intriguing blend that caught my ear was a combination of Brazilian with electronica dance elements, with CDs by Zuco 103 and Suba. But there were also fascinating albums with styles from Africa, South America, the Middle East and Scandinavia. For me, the year's best Latin-American band, Guaco came from Venezuela.
If the year 2000 brought a bumper crop in any genre, it was in the area of singer-songwriters. We received dozens upon dozens of recordings by artists ranging from acoustic folkies to more electric performers. The plethora of such recordings really raised the bar in quality -- with so many out there, we just did not have the time to play them all, and we ended up being more selective, which in a way is too bad for the artists, who in a less crowded situation, would be more likely to heard. The year did bring some gems by such artists as Merrie Amsterburg, Richard Shindell, Chris Rosser, Louise Taylor, Ned Farr and the aforementioned Paul Simon.
For me, another bright spot on the music scene is the so-called roots rock scene, with young performers eschewing any synthesizers or other sonic trappings of anything later than about 1973, and performing honest music based rock's on tried-and-true ingredients of folk, country, rockabilly and even some blues. In the past couple of years, there seemed to be a glut in the style, with there being something of a fad in avoiding current fads. But this year, the scene settled down with some outstanding released by Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love, Ryan Adams and Trent Summar. Especially notable was a fine album that Dave Alvin released called Public Domain with tasteful, mostly acoustic versions of old folk songs.
For some reason, this was a good year for enjoyably funny albums that you could actually play in front of your kids, with humorous material from Christine Lavin, Modern Man, the Austin Lounge Lizards, the Four Bitchin Babes, Mike Agranoff, and Homegrown Music veteran Carla Ulbrich. Perhaps this year's election will provide material for a raft of new satirical songs.
And speaking of Homegrown Music, this year, I counted at least 31 CDs by artists we have had performing on our Homegrown Music series. It was another great indication of the strength of the regional music scene.
And now on to my annual audio technology review. This year finally saw the introduction of the long-awaited DVD Audio format, which allows digital audio on a DVD disc with much higher quality than conventional CD, with for example 24 bits of precision, as opposed to 16 on a CD, and higher sampling rates of up to 96 Khz, as opposed to a conventional CD's 44.1 Khz. Most people now associate DVDs with video. But DVD actually stands for "digital versatile disc" not "digital video disc," and it was always planned that the medium could be used for an audio-only format with much higher resolution digital sound than current audio CDs can deliver. Warner Music is committed to releasing DVD audio recordings of some of the popular artists. The question arises, though, whether there would be any audible improvement, given the decidedly lo-fi sound of most pop music CDs these days. DVD audio can provide a breathtaking dynamic range from the quietest whisper to the loudest crescendo. The problem is that most pop CDs, as you hear me complain almost weekly on my album review series, are produced with heavy compression making everything loud all the time, including the parts that should be soft. The apparent reason is so that the CDs will sound louder than the next artist's CD. That may work from some styles like grunge, but for most music, it really takes all the life out of a recording. One wonders if with the more than 100 db dynamic range of DVDs, whether they will be compressed to sound like a bad cassette, like most commercial pop CDs.
I was reminded about just how much the quality of sound has deteriorated on CDs when earlier in the year, I did one of our listener participation sets and asked you to vote on a year from the 1990s whose music I would play for an hour. You picked 1994, and it was really remarkable just how much consistently better the recordings made in 1994 sounded than those from the year 2000. It was a great letdown to go back to the restricted, heavily compressed sound of this year's CDs after hearing the much more open, accurate sound that engineers and producers went after six years ago.
Of course, the other big technology issue in 2000 was the Internet, which we talked about at length. Increasing numbers of portable MP3 players are being sold, designed to hold digital music files in memory and play them back wherever you are, usually on headphones. It's another of the quick consequences that digital music on the Internet has spawned.
In the broadcasting field, while digital radio broadcasting is already on the air in Europe, there is still little progress toward over-the-air digital radio in the US, though companies promoting competing technologies have combined forces to try to come up with a system that would work. On the other hand, direct satellite radio broadcasting is moving forward. NPR has raised eyebrows among Public radio stations around the country with their plans to develop direct digital satellite programming. Of course, satellite radio will not be able to offer the local and regional service and attention that real radio has always prided itself in doing, at least public radio.
On the terrestrial radio front, Congress sneaked into this year's big budget bill a measure that would essentially derail plans for a whole new class of low-power FM stations that had given the green light by the Federal Communications Commission. Commercial broadcasters, who feared that their increasing monopoly of the airwaves through their multiple ownership of radio stations in a region might be in some way diluted, opposed the introduction of any new voices onto the airwaves. Interestingly, National Public Radio also opposed low power FM, on the grounds that even though a good idea in principle, the presence of lots of low power stations on the edges of the a public radio station's coverage area would cause interference and significantly reduce the number of people who would receive a clear public radio signal.
In that other medium, our colleagues at WVIA-TV have embarked on an ambitious and innovative technical project, putting the region's first digital TV station on the air, capable of providing high-definition video and outstanding digital sound. WVIA-DT, channel 41 will be on the air officially at the start of the new year.
Well, there you have our annual philippic about music and sound at the cusp of the 21st Century. Coming up, the year's obituaries from the world of music.
(c) Copyright 2000, 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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