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Music Notes


This week’s big read on music should be Dayen’s piece on the monopolies that place the music industry at peril because artists can’t make any money.

Dwarfing all that in significance is streaming, which has become the industry’s primary revenue source, despite giving a pittance to the vast majority of artists. For the main streaming companies—YouTube and Spotify—music is really a loss leader, incidental to data collection, the advertising that can be sold off that data, and the promise of audience growth to investors. “Spotify is benefiting from every single artist on the platform driving fans to them,” said Chris Castle, an entertainment attorney who used to work at A&M Records. “The labels say they give you exposure. The line is that you can die of exposure.”

This radical upending of the industry’s business model has benefited a few stars, while the middle-income artist, like so much of the middle class in America, struggles to survive. The ubiquity of digital recording tools and social media masks this pain; it feels like music is as vibrant as ever. It’s hard to discern an artist’s suffering, until they’re gone.

The pandemic has cruelly brought this home. Performers who subsisted on touring saw their livelihoods vaporized. Some quit the business; others suffered in silence. But a funny thing happened. Musicians who would pass each other on the road began to organize about how to ensure fair compensation for their work.

“We’re trying to continuously put artist needs and rights into the conversation,” said Maggie Vail, a musician, label manager for Bikini Kill Records, and board member with the Artist Rights Alliance, a coalition challenging industry consolidation. “If you don’t have healthy musicians, you don’t have a healthy industry.”

We lost synthesizer wizard Malcolm Cecil this week, whose bizarro gigantic contraption TONTO was key to those great early 70s Stevie Wonder albums. We also lost Freddie Redd, who wrote the music for the great play and then film The Connection, about jazz musicians and drugs.

A podcast on the legacy of soul jazz.

Jazz Times is turning 50 and is starting a series on the top 10 albums from each decade of its existence. That’s starting with the 1970s and while there’s not a lot of surprising picks here, it’s certainly a good starting point for the decade if you are looking to poke around in jazz a bit.

There’s going to be outdoor music festivals in one form or another this year. I dunno, would sure like to see this wait until August or so when he are closer to something like herd immunity, but we’ll see what happens.

Esperanza Spalding on finding healing through music and her work during the pandemic. Always kind of mixed on her work, but she’s certainly interesting.

DMX had a massive heart attack yesterday, probably brought on by an overdose. I can’t say this is a surprising outcome, but I think we all wish him luck. He’s definitely of the generation for whom hip hop saved his life, at least for awhile.

Album Reviews:

Monder/Malaby/Rainey, Live at the 55 Bar

Finally, a 2021 release! My first of the year and it’s only April!

This is a fantastic release that was recorded just before the pandemic shut everything down last year. I’ve seen the saxophonist Tony Malaby a couple of times and he’s just great. Ben Monder is the guitarist and Tom Rainey the drummer. This is an intense, wonderful album of deeply felt chaotic and loud jazz, a riot of noise that perhaps represented the year to come.


Optic Sink, Optic Sink

This is the kind of thing I would probably hate if it was described to me, but which I really quite enjoyed because I gave myself a chance to hear it. This side project of Natalie Hoffmann from the punk band NOTS described in one review as “dystopian minimal synth gems.” Hmmm…… But in fact this album really bangs as the repetitive intense drum machine actually works for once (for me at least) while the synth/bass up top provides the variety in sound. Unlike some sleek synth sound or dystopian quasi-future, these sounds crash us into the chaos of the present. Quite good.


Kali Uchis, Isolation

Solid if not overly exceptional pop from 2018 by this Colombian-American singer. A lot of Best of Lists that year had this in the top 50 or even in the top 10; I would not go that far. But Uchis is a very fine singer who combines the many influences of modern pop (ranging from reggae to Brazil to R&B to soul to so much else) in a package of female-first positivity with strong backing, including quite welcomingly Bootsy Collins on one song.

It’s also of interest to me how mainstream diva pop music has become so critically accepted and revered in, say, the last decade as compared to the 90s and 00s. Could just be that I am listening to it some now so this might be a faulty memory in action. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels as if critics now take this as seriously as they do the latest indie album or perhaps even more so given that guitar rock is not as revered as 20 years ago. I say this as neither a good nor bad thing, simply as an observation.


Duval Timothy, Help

I thought I would have liked this a lot more than I did. Conceptually, it sounds fascinating. Timothy is a pianist who is Afro-British and he draws on his Sierra Leone roots, British club music, and modern jazz to make his relatively sparse compositions. Moreover, it’s quite political music. The highlight of the album is the recording of Pharrell Williams comparing the music industry to slavery and noting the importance of owning the masters of your work. And yet….most of this doesn’t lead anywhere of particular interest. The jazz parts especially aren’t particularly interesting and make it more valuable when there are lyrics, though those are of a mixed bag as well. It’s certainly an OK and sometimes useful album, but ultimately left be a bit cold.


The War on Drugs, Live Drugs

I have no idea why The War on Drugs became so polarizing, as this band of guitar excess. There’s Mark Kozelek’s absurd war of words against the man for being self-indulgent (dude, look in the mirror next time you write a 23 minute song about how you spent your latest cross-country flight mediating on some boxing match you watched in 1998) but also almost a culture war about what this band means.

For me, it’s pretty simple. I like slightly stoned-out guitar rock. I like their slightly stoned-out guitar rock. Thus, I like this live album from last year. I am not sure this is how I would introduce new fans to them. And I still maintain “Accidentally Like a Martyr” is the worst song on Excitable Boy so I’m not totally sure why they chose to cover that particular song. In any case, how you feel about this album will be how you feel about the band in the first place, like most releases.


As always, an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics or disease.

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