Thursday, February 25, 2010

The February Mailbag!

Sure, it's February 25. Sure, it's 35, raining, gray, bleak, and generally soul-sucking outside. Sure, the lingering sidewalk snow is caked black. Yes, you got tired of Iron & Wine two weeks ago. Of course, all of this makes you wonder if Floridians know something you don't. Sure, it's been this way for weeks and yes, absolutely, it'll continue through March.

But in here (pointing to my noggin) and in here (pointing to my hearticles), it's time for spring. Hang tight, dear readers, you're in good hands: nobody enacts self-delusion better than this blogger. What better way to pre-empt the growing season than with some Mailbag spring cleaning?

(As always, these are actual emails from actual readers. If you'd like to be in a future Mailbag, just drop me a line: I promise that I read every email, so ask away!)

Chris, I'm writing as a longtime reader and fan, but I am mad today. I am mad because you didn't give us Songs for February, and I fear you won't give us Songs for March. I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore. Give us Songs for March, or I'll quit reading, or at least send a strongly-worded email to the made-up editor! --Matt, Jackson
First of all, the editor is all-too-real, and more than a little insulted right now. I think we all just need to take a deep breath before things escalate.


Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Got a machinehead?

I feel better. Here's the deal with the monthly playlists: I wrote each one hoping it might be definitive. In other words, of all the music in my iTunes that I've listened to and have identified with different seasons for many, many years, I finally wrote the comprehensive list for each month. Of course, they're not definitive for anyone but me. Everyone has their own Songs for March; that's the beauty of it. But my Songs for March were largely written last year, and if I tried to list them now, I'd repeat 91% of the picks.

Still, there's always room for an update. So, here now are Six New Songs for March (which may or may not be new):

Jayhawks, "Sixteen Down"
Everything--from the "thawing out" intro to the sadly-sung first word ("sunshine") to the major-minor/loud-soft/hopeful-gloomy conflict throughout--sounds like March. This song is one foot out of winter, but nowhere near the sunshine it's singing for.

Elliot Smith, "LA"
How do you dial up the melancholic anticlimax of March in song? Take one part sunny subject matter (Los Angeles). Add an upbeat guitar riff. A dash of instrumental harmony. And a LOT of Elliot Smith doing what Elliot Smith does. Pitch-perfect.

Lyle Lovett, "It Ought To Be Easier"
Leave it to Lyle Lovett to say what so many other songwriters dance around: "it ought to be easier." Yes, yes, and yes. While he's detailing a relationship that's harder than it should be, I'm wondering why getting to spring seems nigh impossible. When it comes to life, love, music, and the seasons therein, nothing good should feel like pulling teeth.

Whiskeytown, "Easy Hearts"
Whenever I think I prefer Whiskeytown's catalog to Ryan Adams' (sadly, the ultimate litmus test of alt-country hipsterdom), I remember it has more to do with Caitlin Cary's vocals than Ryan Adams' songwriting. My favorite of their many gorgeous duets, and a nice coupling with "It Ought To Be Easier."

R.E.M., "Near Wild Heaven"

Mid-tempo? Check. Themes of longing, frustration, wasted energy, and impatience? Check. The obligatory R.E.M. pick? Check.

(Sidebar: Longtime readers will recognize a growing R.E.M. obsession here. I once had a professor who said, "every eight to ten years, I fall in love with Walt Whitman again." Bypassing the unadulterated nerdiness of that statement, I know what he means. Every five or six years, I revisit R.E.M.'s catalog and hear it again for the first time. They never stop giving me something new.)

White Stripes, "Red Rain"
You knew a "rain" pick was coming. I picked the White Stripes because:
1) This list needed a rock-shot in the arm.
2) This was always my sleeper favorite off Get Behind Me Satan.
3) It has "rain" in the title.
4) It just came on my iTunes.

Sometimes it's that easy.

What are your Songs for March?

Chris, I'm a music business student in Nashville. You've talked in the past about the Nashville music industry and that side of the business as a whole. If you were in the Suits' shoes, what would you do differently? Everyone knows the industry's questions--you got any answers from the artist's perspective? --Jeff, Nashville

Wow, I am in no way prepared for this question. I have no music biz experience, and no formal business education. I've avoided math (subsequently, econ) classes at all costs. While I've worked with many industry pros over the years, our conversations are more along the "how good a drummer is Meg White" variety, than the "what's the emerging business model" variety. So, I'll just speak/type from experience, and hopefully we can find the Music Industry Miracle everyone's seeking.

If you put me in charge of Sony Music (or Universal, or any other major) today, I'd immediately do five things:

1) Hire a financial team of young, bright, Napster-generation music-lovers, and tell them to brainstorm new business models. More importantly, tell them to invest a little on a lot of different ideas. Break some eggs. See what works.

2) Fire everyone over fifty. Handle age-discrimination lawsuits by paying them with fiber coupons and calling cards. (Note: Not really everyone over fifty, but everyone who still wants to do business in 1978.)

3) Tell my legal team: "we're doing A&R differently...find a way for us to accept unsolicited demos."

4) Do A&R differently. Accept unsolicited demos. Which brings me to my biggest point...

5) Scout talent. Redistribute money, hiring, and energy towards A&R. Scout A&R talent first (as in, an army of A&R reps who love pop music and have a good ear/eye for new artists). Then, tell that army: "You listen to everything. You don't listen to all of everything, because 99% of it will be bad in a way that will never get good. But you listen to everything."

The goal is to monopolize talent. We'd take, probably, a 1-2 year hit (like a new football coach at a program waiting for his recruits to come in and develop), treading water with pre-existing artists we've retained. But if the scouting's done right, we could have a veritable monopoly on the biggest, brightest careers of the next 10-20 years.

This, of course, is the opposite of the reigning A&R philosophy. Because labels are hemorrhaging money, they're unwilling to take risks on new artists. They figure, reasonably, they can let the good, dedicated artists build up fanbases over several years, then sign on once they're a proven commodity. In a way, this makes sense (it minimizes risk). In a way, it makes no sense (it requires the artistic types be business types for half their careers). It's often a better judge of talented marketers than talented artists (one reason so many label execs scratch their head when the "biggest hometown band" doesn't blow up nationally).

But what if you used all your resources on recognizing the best unproven talent, then focused your business acumen on developing and selling that talent? Or is that too crazy?

An example: I know a guy (who will go unnamed) who worked for several years at a major label (which will go unnamed). He said that work stopped at 3PM every Friday for an in-office party. He said that every week, there was at least one label-hosted soiree for an artist's release, or anniversary, or signing, or whatever. He said there were more ridiculously expensive and self-congratulatory parties than you would believe. It was as if the label was owned by Billy Madison.

Now, what if you took away half that party budget (keep in mind, 95% of it should be taken away). For our purposes, we'll take away 50%. With that money, let's tell eight of our best A&R reps: "You will spend three weeks on the road. Each of you has a separate region of the country. You will go to as many concerts as possible in that region. You will see artists of every genre. You will see hometown heroes, and you'll see complete nobodies. You're diving into mosh pits, and you're sipping lattes in empty coffeehouses. The goal is to find the person that could be a great pop artist, regardless of genre, experience, or relative local popularity. You're scouting potential. Take note of everything, and report back constantly. You'll be paid slightly more than your normal salary for this time, plus a per diem, and points on any artist that ends up signing with us through you. Go get 'em."

You do this every six months, or every four if you're willing to further cut the party-budget. Sometimes you use the same scouts in the same region, sometimes you switch.

What's the downside? You blew the money on a 3-week A&R tour of America that you would've blown on champagne for a month? What's the upside? You're out-hustling your competition for talent they can't--or are unwilling to--find.

I think, right now, the opportunity's there for the right major to effectively put the others out of business over the next generation. It'll come down to two things:

1) Visionary, adaptive business models I'm not prepared to dream up.
2) Creative talent.

It's always about talent, except when it's not.

Chris! How excited are you about the May 4 releases (Josh Ritter, New Pornographers, and the Hold Steady)? --Karen, Cincinnati

Somewhere between "definitely" and "extremely." May 4 will be the grand finale for a great spring of new music. To wit:

Bonnie Prince Billy - March 23
--Pretty excited.

She & Him - March 23
--A little interested.

Dr. Dog
- April 6
--Genuinely eager.

MGMT - April 13
--Extremely stoked.

Then, the Main Event on May 4:
--Josh Ritter, New Pornographers, and the Hold Steady. In the words of Ron Burgundy, "beep, bop, boop." Early releases have already leaked for the Ritter (download "Change of Time" free at his site) and the New Pornographers (via Pitchfork). Nothing yet--that I've seen, anyway--from the Hold Steady, but I'm sure it's a matter of time. From everything I've heard, there is reason to be excited. I think we're in for a good spring for new music.

Who am I missing? Found any (legal) pre-release releases yet? Let me know!

Fine, I'll bite: what's the deal with George Harrison, and why is he suddenly everyone's favorite Beatle? (P.S. Matt in Jackson, how dare you. I'm very real, and 140 pounds of vicious. Slow your roll.) --Your Editor, NY

What a grumpy editor I have! Matt in Jackson: just because you can take him doesn't mean you should. He's litigious.

To catch everyone up: the Editor is referring to my Fan of the Month questionnaire, in which I ask each FOM who their favorite Beatle is. Remarkably, nearly 80% of FOMs have picked George Harrison.

1) I expected to see a fairly even distribution, with Ringo in last. Maybe John 35%, Paul 30%, George 25%, Ringo 10%. So, this surprised me.

2) While it's interesting that there is a clear leader, it's fascinating that the leader is George. George. George Harrison. George. That guy.

3) I like George. In fact, I love him, frequently as a songwriter and always as a guitarist. I love everything about the Beatles. I've never understood Beatles fanatics who were John-or-Paul partisan: the Beatles were the Beatles because of the unique chemistry of all four guys. You can't love the band without appreciating what they each brought to the table. But...

How did the least famous Beatle become (among FOMs) the most popular? How did the guy who was once "remarkable for being the least remarkable" become the runaway favorite? What gives?

I've got three ideas:

1) It's just George's time. If you think about it--and want to force it (like I do)--every decade since the 60's has leaned toward one of the four Beatles. The 70's--clownish, muddled, and self-deprecating--link nicely to Ringo. The 80's--clean-cut, careerist, goofy--belonged to Paul. The 90's--serious, ironic, mercurial--were all Lennon. But the Oughts, especially the last few years, might finally be George's decade: it's been a time when the pop world values the non-pop artist. Everyone's selling 10K, but nobody's going platinum. It's not the anti-hero we love (that was the 90's); it's the non-hero. And George is the non-hero. Which brings me to...

2) George is us; we are George. The same thing that made him the least famous Beatle might make him the most relatable today. That is, he's less of a star, but so are we. It's effortless to relate to the music of the Beatles, but John, Paul, and Ringo were harder to relate to as humans. Every Beatle was incredibly famous, of course, but John and Paul were the "stars," and Ringo was more "walking metaphor" than "person who eats breakfast." Those three were larger than life, and made to represent a segment of contemporary culture. George was the lead guitarist in the biggest band on earth, the runt of the litter, and prone to earnest--if excessive--spiritual crises. In 1967, he was the fourth-most famous guy on earth; he just happened to constantly hang out with numbers 1-3. He wasn't us, but he kind of was.

If you want to push it further--and, as always, I do--it's not George's non-celebrity we relate to; it's his semi-celebrity. His fame is totally relative depending on his company. Similarly, everyone with a computer, internet access, and a Facebook account effectively stars in their own show. Their friends are wacky co-stars and supporting characters. Everything is public narrative, but only as public as they want to make it. In 2010, everyone is a little famous, relative to their context and company. As the oft-overlooked guitarist for the biggest band in history, George was too. So...

3) George wins, because today accessibility matters more to the average music fan. We're more connected to musicians than ever, and it's important for musicians to feel relatable. Because George Harrison might seem like the most relatable, he's frequently the most-favorite.

Two more side-notes here:

1) I love George Harrison as a guitarist, and his latter songwriting. But at no point of his career was he a better songwriter than John and Paul. And, really, it wasn't until Abbey Road (when "Something" became the wedding song Paul always hoped to write), that he even got close. He knew this, they knew this, and it was this crucial dynamic that helped him develop into a good songwriter. He wouldn't have written "Something" if he hadn't gotten tossed aside for eight years with the occasional "You Like Me Too Much." Which brings me to...

2) To be fair, February's FOM was right: I have teased George in this space before. There's one reason why, and it has nothing to do with music: George is the last Beatle I'd want to hang out with. The same thing that makes him relatable now (simultaneously uber-famous and overlooked) made him, for a time, hard to be around. John was moody, Paul was self-absorbed, Ringo was ridiculous, but George was volatile. The word "pipsqueak" comes up frequently in oral histories. Allegedly, being the youngest, smallest, and least famous of the group made George spikey.

Of course, these are just the rumors, and what the guy was like in a green room in no way affects the music I love. As a Beatle and solo-artist, I rank him third, which feels obvious, the way most right things are.

Am I right? Wrong? Ridiculous? Who's your favorite Beatle? Hit up the comments and let me hear it.

And, as always, just email to be in a future Mailbag!

Until then...


Sarah Smith said...

Happy Birthday George!
love, Sarah

Chris Milam said...

Wait, seriously--it's George's birthday? You've gotta be kidding me.

Sarah Smith said...

i don't kid about birthdays...or GH.

ross k. said...

Good timing! Now to find a jukebox with "Set on You"...

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