Thursday Night Movie

Last week I ranted about the homogenization of cars, but I don’t want you to think that said homogenization is confined only to the automotive world.

Let me now turn my baleful gaze upon an old bête noire of mine, the poxy music industry, where this homogenization  has become economically critical. (I should say it’s become an “art form”, but “art” and “the music industry” are mutually-exclusive terms.)  It’s even worse than the auto industry, because at least the homo-cars are being driven by something other than pure sales appeal, i.e. fuel consumption efficiency.  Not so for the loathsome bastards who run the music business:  their homogenization is driven by naked profit-seeking — which is all fine and capitalistic, but then don’t try to dress it up as “art”, because it fucking well isn’t.  And they are just vultures — see here for just one heartbreaking example.

From Longtime Reader PeterB comes this excellent video, which explains why modern music sucks to People Of A Certain Age.  More to the point, however, is this:  beyond all the expressions like “timbral decline”, “harmonic compression” and so on, what becomes apparent is how music is being turned quite simply into the aural equivalent of Huxley’s soma:  something which delivers jolts of pleasure, but has no actual nutritional value whatsoever.

I know that manufactured pop stars — people promoted because of their looks rather than their musical talent — are not a recent phenomenon;  hell, that’s been going on since the 1950s.  (As an aside, the exquisite Cass Elliott would never have made it in today’s music world because overweight.) But at least the earlier pop idols could sing or play musical instruments, and record producers (grudgingly) allowed musicians some degree of latitude in the expression of their music — Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Lennon-McCartney and talents of that ilk were allowed to dictate what they sounded like.

No more. Now, Britney/Taylor/Justin are herded into the studio, given a lyric sheet and, having delivered the lines, are ushered out while post-production turns the synthesized noise into something that will be downloaded millions of times on Spotify.

It’s dreadful, it’s awful, and I am so glad that I am no longer a professional musician.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and listen to something which challenges my musical senses.  It may be a classical piece like Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2, it may be King’s X’s Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, or it may even be something simple like Alan Parson’s Pyramid.

But whatever I listen to, it will last longer than two minutes, and it will create a mood rather than deliver a brief dopamine hit.  For that, I’d just watch the wonderfully-talented (and sexy) Grace Potter.  No compression, sampling or any of the usual tricks there, just unrefined talent and ability.

Musician Thoughts

All the way from past Down Under (i.e. New Zealand), Reader Tony H. writes:

Was reading your post about the travails of the guitar industry.
I bet if you looked at the way the piano industry “evolved” from a time in the 50s & 60s where every second house in my street had a piano you’d see some interesting comparisons. As a kid we’d go up and down the street to people’s houses, go inside and they would play Christmas carols and we’d sing along. No parents along for the ride, mind you.
How many actual pianos do you reckon got sold world wide last year? Thousands? Tens of thousands? So if you were one of those British or German piano makers you were on a hiding to nowhere.
Part of the problem is longevity. Once you get up to pro level gear, it basically doesn’t wear out.
I’ve got a 30 year old Fender Strat. Played 100s of shows with it. I use a 1970s Fender amp. OK, I’m a semi pro person, so I bought myself a Gibson Les Paul 12 years ago. I’ve got two 80’s Marshall amps that I use for practice and social playing.
None of this gear is ever going to wear out to a point where repair is not an economic proposition. So unless I break something or it gets stolen, me as a daily user of my equipment represent zero revenue to any of these suppliers.
OK, yes, I go through strings at a rate, but that’s like buying petrol for your car.
If I did write off one of my guitars, in truth I’m much more likely to buy a vintage example than a new one – not even a price decision.
So how are Fender or Gibson ever going to get any money out of me? Self tuning guitar? Nah. Hi tech like Line 6 with built in effects etc? Nah, I like the sound of my old analogue tubes and nicely aged bits of wood.
Clearly I’m not alone, the largest sector in the Gibson catalogue is “reissues”.
Both Gibson and Fender have gone down market to chase volume. There are Epiphones and Squier guitars at every price point.
As a person that really gets their brand proposition, actively uses their products and is in the fortunate position of being able to pony up a few thousand on a new instrument if I wanted to, they have got zero dollars off me in the last ten years and are highly unlikely to get anything off me in the next 10 years either.
OK, maybe a modern amp as lugging around a 100 watt head and a 4 X 12 quad box is starting to tell, and these days I never get to crank it.
So, zero growth potential from me.
Also, anecdotally, the value proposition for Fender and Gibson has been steadily eroded by products from other makers. Yes, I fully get the “wank value” of owning a Les Paul, but objectively there are dozens of alternatives at much cheaper prices and the quality gap is narrowing all the time.
Whats left for them? Joining Harley Davidson in acquiring 100% of a diminishing market? We all know how that works out.
Cheers & keep up the good work.

All true, and I know for a fact that if I were still playing, it would be on my old Rickenbacker 4001S through… well, not my old Roland RB-120, because it died the day before my last gig in S Africa, all those years ago. [cue spooky music]

It was one of the best-sounding bass amps ever made, by the way, and it was one of the very few which could handle the high output from my Rick (which I always played at full volume from the guitar controls).

So much did I love that guitar that if by some miracle I could play bass again (arthritis, don’t ask), I’d be playing that same old Rick… but instead of trying to resurrect the old Roland (great though it was), I’d probably get one of the new amps. Well, I say “new”, but in fact it would be a new version of my old Roland. (You may all return your shocked faces to Sarah Hoyt now.) They stopped making the RB-120 back in the early 1980s, if that helps. Here’s the Cube 120XL:

Note to Reader Tony: forget that valve stuff for gigging; this is the business, with all the different amp effects built in. (I actually owned the smaller 30-watt version of this amp a little while ago, and I loved it.)

See? I can change if I have to. Especially as this amp weighs about a tenth of my older double stacks, and my back still gives me an occasional twinge to remind me how much I abused it back then.

Anyway, here’s a pic of the old band setup at the OK Corral Club, just outside Pretoria, taken in May 1977:

Yeah, that’s me (age 22) on bass at bottom right. I can’t remember what amp I was playing through back then, but it was either a Fender Bassman 120 or a Marshall 100-watt rig (can’t see it clearly in the pic).

Note also the various Gibsons and the Fender Strat. Yes, we supported them way back then too. (Marty’s Les Paul was a ’63 and Kevin’s Strat was a ’65. I don’t remember the year of the Flying V, but I think it was a new one, i.e. 1975-ish.)

Where was I?

Oh yeah. Unlike Reader Tony, I wouldn’t go back to gigging; I’d only play old standards (Gershwin, Carmichael etc.) in a four-piece house band (piano, bass, drums and either a horn/clarinet player or a female torch singer), in an old-fashioned night club where people dressed up and danced cheek to cheek:

You may call me old-fashioned, if you wish. I wear the label with pride.

Happy Together

Watch this video (embedded in the pic), and if these charming young girls do not put a smile on your face, I don’t want to talk to you ever again.

There’s more cuteness in there than a basket full of kittens…

5 Worst Song Performances

The song might have been a good one, but the rendition left a lot to be desired. In ascending order of tunelessness (and no links because projectile vomiting):

  • Whiskey In The Jar — Metallica
  • Danke Schön — Wayne Newton
  • Yesterday — every single person except Paul McCartney who ever tried to sing it
  • Tutti Frutti — Pat Boone

…and OMG, in its own special Hall Of Shame For One:

  • My Way — Frank Sinatra

Look up the performances at your own peril.


Cultural Straws Part 2

In yesterday’s post (Part 1) I looked at the trend in modern music covered by this article. Today I want to talk about the last couple paragraphs of said piece, which really deserve their own discussion. Why? First, the text:

“Music is at its core a social activity. People get inspired to play because they listen to their favorite artists or see them at a live venue. But that experience isn’t translated when you take music lessons. It’s usually a very solitary, one-on-one experience with one teacher and the students aren’t necessarily learning to play the songs they want to learn.”

“We teach students of all ages the same music theory they’d learn anywhere else, but you learn to use that theory with a band [emphasis added]. Students have group rehearsals where they can practice with a band every week. And we also have our version of a recital, which is really a rock show at a live venue. We put on more than 3,000 shows a year across the world.”

I cannot stress how good an idea this is, and here’s why.

It is a truism of education that unless there is relevance, fear or self-interest (or all three) involved, education or training will be a waste of time, i.e. no learning will be retained. (“Retained learning” being defined as being taught something, and being able to repeat the input a year later with more or less 90% facility.) This learning will be doubly successful if it is practical, meaningful and requires frequent repetition.

So here’s why the above approach is so successful.
1.) Pupils are not just learning musical theory (which I can attest is deadly boring), but are immediately required to put it into practice by playing with a group — i.e. it has relevance because the band’s performance will suffer if the pupil under-performs, and thus the band will rehearse over and over until they get it right (which provides the discipline to practice, as opposed to leaving practice to self-discipline — not an easy thing to maintain for months or years). Thus: application and repetition.
2.) Pupils get to play either exactly what they want or a close facsimile thereof by making a group compromise. Thus: relevance for the skills they’re acquiring.
3.) Finally, the audience’s applause provides the reward (i.e. self-interest) for the pupil.

I can tell you from my own experience that when our band really enjoyed a song — both the learning and the playing — we would play it for months or even years until we either forgot about it or got sick of playing it. On one occasion, after an absence of five years from the playlist, we got a request for Radar Love. As it happened, one of us had it on tape, so we listened to it during a break, then went back onstage and played it as though we’d done it the night before. Retained learning.

So I am totally unsurprised at the success of the School Of Rock, if this is how they’re teaching music. If I were a great deal younger, I’d enroll in a heartbeat.

As for the main thrust of the article — that Guitar Center is in financial kaka — I’m not worried, certainly not as far as guitars are concerned. It’s one of the few items remaining where a buyer absolutely has to touch the thing and test it before buying it, so GC should be able to weather the storm, even if in truncated fashion… I hope.

Cultural Straws Part 1

Via Insty comes this article which, in talking about the financial woes of the Guitar Center retail chain, exposes two deeper issues. Here’s the first:

Guitars don’t figure as heavily into chart-topping music as they once did, according to [Guitar Center boss] Gruhn. He ought to know. Over the years, his customers have included everyone from Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Eric Clapton to Neil Young, Vince Gill and Billy Gibbons. Those artists have left indelible imprints on the music landscape, all the way from Clapton’s burning solo on “Crossroads” to Harrison’s signature guitar part on “Daytripper.”
But these days? Well, things aren’t as guitar-oriented.
“Baby boomers are the best customers I’ve ever had. They’ve driven a lot of the guitar trends, but they are aging and many of them are downsizing their guitar collections,” Gruhn added. “This doesn’t mean that guitar sales are dying, but instrument sales in general are under stress.”

And from another guy in the business:

“Rock is almost dead,” he said. “It’s almost nonexistent. And with guitar there’s no almost one to look up to anymore – no one to get you to want to learn. I have three or four guitar students who are about 12 to 14 years old, and I told one of them she should find someone in her class to play guitar with. She said, ‘No one else plays the guitar, and people think I’m weird because I do.’ ”

As a one-time rock musician, I note this trend with sorrow, of course. As much as I detest the modern obsession with 1,000-watt amplifiers in cars, it does allow me to note that I seldom if ever hear loud rock music emanating from cars these days — in fact, now that I think of it, I can’t remember when last I did — because the market in sub-woofer bass played by sub-moron drivers appears to be dominated by rap music and its adherents, Wiggers and and their Black counterparts. (And this in our upscale neighborhoods in north Texas. South Chicago must be just one large cacophony of thumping drums.)

I suppose that the trend away from rock music (and its instruments) is just one of those things — just as in classical music, harpsichord music almost disappeared when the pianoforte became more popular in the nineteenth century. Of course, I think this sucks, but then again if it means fewer hair bands then it’s not altogether a Bad Thing.

What I hate is what the trend means: that popular taste is devolving towards the primitive — but then again, I suppose that classical music aficionados said the same thing when jazz and later rock music began to supplant classical music among young people. One could say that the classical folks had a point:  Buddy Holly wasn’t exactly Beethoven; then again, in today’s world Heavy Z (or whoever) isn’t exactly Freddy Mercury. But on his worst day, Buddy Holly could write better music than the most accomplished rapper, who has to rely on plagiarism (a.k.a. “sampling”) to provide some kind of musical overlay to a soul-crushing, over-amplified rhythm section. Don’t even get me started on the differences between Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and  G-Eazy & Halsey’s Him & I  (errrr Him & Me or He & I, surely?).

Of course, another manifestation of the move away from classical- to rock music was that guitar pupils began to outnumber piano pupils.  After all, the guitar is an easier instrument to play than the piano, just as manipulating a turntable and drum machine is easier than playing a guitar (as the article correctly notes). I mean, when Paris Hilton can be known as a good DJ… those whirring sounds you hear are Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Bonham spinning in their basements.

One could get all upset about how this is just another sign of the Dumbing Down Of Today’s Yoof, but I think this is more a factor of how music has traditionally been taught and learned — which brings me to the second issue raised by the article.

In Part 2 tomorrow, I’ll talk about that. But just to help people know what I’m talking about, here’s a guitarist: