Sunday, March 22, 2009

SXSW: Music Execs Ponder ISP Licenses, Darknets, Kids Today

What the record companies are talking about doing.
By Eliot Van Buskirk March 21, 2009, Wired.

AUSTIN, Texas -- It has become abundantly clear to everyone in music that the business is in drastic need of an overhaul, as consumer habits have outpaced its ability to adapt. Jim Griffin, managing director of OneHouseLLC, has been hired by Warner Music Group to help license first universities and then ISPs, so that students and subscribers can download whatever they want with impunity for a monthly fee of $5 or so, with the proceeds split between rightsholders.

Griffin and four other music luminaries debated the topic at a SXSW panel called "Is Collective Licensing for P-2-P File Sharing a Future Source of Income for the Music Industry?" on Saturday. In my decade or so of digital music coverage, this was among the more interesting panels I've attended.

SXSW_2009 There's a lot to like about this bold approach, called Choruss: it lets people consume music in whatever way they see fit, while making sure that long hours spent in a practice space (and on social networks) eventually result in some form of payment for artists. However, as panelist Dina LaPolt of the entertainment law firm LaPolt Law PC said three or four times over the course of the panel, "the devil is in the details."

This isn't just about music -- it's about the future of the internet, and even democracy.

"We're the first people who have been hit with the problem of anonymity depriving us of our ability to make a living," said Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America. "The way we solve this is going to determine the future of democracy, believe it or not. That's how big these issues are."

And they are slippery issues, to be sure. In order for ISP licensing to work, some sort of system would have to exist for determining who listens to what -- whether it's packet sniffing or client-side software -- in order to divvy up the money properly. This loss of anonymity could lead to Lawrence Lessig's vision of a dystopia in which the internet, which began as an anarchic, open network, could become the perfect tool of control.

In France, suspected copyright infringers receive three letters of warning before their ISP boots permanently them from its network, as part of a "three strikes, you're out" policy. LaPolt proposed an interesting twist on this: three strikes and you're in.

"The first time [you're found infringing copyright online], you get a letter, the second time you get a more aggressive letter, and the third time, your [ISP] fees double," she said.
Jim Griffin is trying to help labels, ISPs and publishers build the music business of tomorrow.
Photo: Keith Axline/

Griffin (pictured to the right) said the problem with that plan is that encrypted "darknet" P2P traffic renders such a system ineffective, because it prevents ISPs from monitoring what their subscribers are doing. His idea, which he emphasized would not be a one-size-fits-all solution but could be tailored to each university or ISP, is to monitor "lightnet" traffic in order to compensate songwriters, recording artists, publishers and labels.

Technology is not the only area of the music business that's in drastic need of an overhaul. The music business also needs to reevaluate its entire approach to marketing to younger music fans.

"The millennials -- these kids are amazing," said LaPolt. "I had a conversation with a 21-year-old kid in Starbucks the other day, and he was talking about going to school for organic farming. When I was 21 years old, I was talking about hookers and coke. These are a whole new generation of people... whose issues are so much more deeper than the things that you or I may have grown up with. We're trying to pimp our bands or sell our CDs to them, and they want to know, 'What do you believe in? Where did you come from?' They want to know your story -- 'who do you like, what are your causes?' These are the people that we're dealing with. As an industry, we're trying to sell these kids things. They're too smart for that."

Finding Fame in Austin in the Internet Age

From the New York Times, March 20, 2009.


AUSTIN, Tex. — Weaving through the thousands of fans, spring-breaking music industry professionals and assorted revelers who clog the streets of downtown Austin this week, you might well think that South by Southwest, the annual music conference and festival here, is nothing but a big party.

Despite the jittery economy and the decade-long recording industry slump, the festival grows bigger every year. Around 2,000 bands are playing in this year’s 23rd installment, which began on Wednesday night and continues through Sunday. Seemingly every paved inch downtown becomes a stage, and from noon until the wee hours the air along Red River and East Sixth Streets is filled with the din of rough rock music and the smell of free-flowing liquor.

But for the young bands that come in pursuit of a big break — or, more likely, a small break — South by Southwest is also hard work, a five-day gantlet of makeshift showcases and insufficient sound checks. And musicians and industry players alike say success is tricky to gauge in an era when fame from a commercial placement or a rush of blog postings can disappear as quickly as it comes.

Crocodiles, a two-man band from San Diego so fresh that the head of their record label was seeing them perform live for the first time, have had an enviable streak of Internet attention in the last few months. In December the underground art-punk kings No Age picked a Crocodiles song as one of their favorites of 2008, and after Crocodiles signed with Fat Possum Records in January two influential outlets, the blog Stereogum ( and Fader magazine’s blog (, weighed in with effusive recommendations of the band’s throbbing wash of guitars and electronics.

Many bands dream of this kind of reception. But over the four or five years that blogs have been the dominant tastemakers of independent music, artists have gradually become more wary of the hype-and-slam cycle of the Web. Brandon Welchez and Charles Rowell of Crocodiles have been so distrustful of the Internet’s fickle power that at first they tried to keep as low an online presence as possible, going so far as to ask fans to remove YouTube videos of their shows.

“The Internet is taking all the romance out of music and art and replacing it with this revolving door that just revolves so fast,” Mr. Welchez, 27, the duo’s singer, said before a 20-minute showcase on Wednesday afternoon. Eventually, though, the Internet found them, and their MySpace plays quickly shot into the tens of thousands.

Artists, labels, journalists and everyone else at South by Southwest now depend on the Internet for almost every aspect of their jobs, from discovery to communication, distribution to promotion. But on the patios and hotel rooftops of Austin the conversation often turns to debates about what the Internet’s role should be.

Matthew Johnson, the owner of Fat Possum, discovered Crocodiles online. But watching the band set up at Emo’s Annex, he said the Web had only accelerated the inevitable.

“The Internet follows the band,” Mr. Johnson said. “The kid who is going to get expelled from school knows the cool band before MySpace.”

The splintering of the music industry has also resulted in altered priorities for many musicians. Until the 2000s, most bands came to South by Southwest with the relatively straightforward aim of getting a recording contract. That remains a goal, although it is often the last item on a group’s checklist.

Afternoons, a seven-piece chamber-pop band from Los Angeles, has lots of buzz at home, a poster designed by Shepard Fairey, a song on the television show “Gossip Girl” and representation by a top independent booking firm, the Windish Agency — everything a band could want, in other words, except a record contract, which the band needs to finance recording sessions, said Brian Canning, who sings and plays guitar. Lacking that support, the group has found itself in much the same financial situation as any unsigned band, spending virtually all its reserves to make it to Austin.

“It’s a tough decision: is it worth it?” Mr. Canning said. “In the end we think so. We don’t have any wild expectations. We’re not delusional. But at the same time it would be nice to play for these people who have been expressing interest in doing deals with us.”

For others, the concerns are more about day-to-day practicalities. As South by Southwest has grown bigger and more decentralized — this year it has twice as many acts as in 2003 — bands have been adding more and more performances to their itineraries, hoping to register the most impressions on the crowd. Shilpa Ray, an unsigned Brooklyn singer with a powerfully raw voice and a fierce technique on the harmonium, has eight showcases lined up, and for her the big question is simply endurance.

“It’s a challenge: how good of a musician are you?” she said. “I wonder if I can do it, if I can sustain my voice for so long and stay consistent.”

For her showcase at Club de Ville on Wednesday night, the audience included at least one record executive who said he was competing with another label to sign her. But Ms. Ray, who canceled a tour to make it to Austin, said she knew that even with a record contract success was far from guaranteed. And besides, she added, she is fine with roughing it at South by Southwest.

“Maybe in the past there were your pampered rock stars hanging out,” she said. “But then there’s the people like us who climb out of clown cars and try to make things work.”

Monday, March 16, 2009

Concert Review: The Eagles, MTS Centre, Winnipeg, MB, 3/13/09

For the first time in 31 years, The Eagles returned to Winnipeg for one of the fastest-selling shows in the history of the four-year-old MTS Centre. This show also had the most expensive tickets at the venue, with the top price $239, likely topping $250 once all the extra fees were tacked on. From my seat in the fourth row on the floor, I had a perfect view, with all the main band members' faces showing up crystal clear in my vision.

With no opening act, the show kicked off with four of their newer songs, from 2008's Long Road Out Of Eden, which met with polite response from the audience. The fifth song began with a solo trumpet opening which led into the first huge number of the night, "Hotel California," as the video screen showed footage of the iconic album cover and similar scenes.

The principal players were dressed in identical black suits and ties with white shirts and the backing four-piece horn section were clad in all-black attire. For most songs, there were nine people on stage, including superb lead guitarist Steuart Smith, a drummer (who sometimes traded off on percussion with Don Henley), and three keyboardists. The audience rose to their feet with thunderous applause after "Hotel California." As was the case with everything they performed on this evening, it was note-perfect and sung flawlessly. Even when Henley sang from the drum kit, his vocals sounded fine.

The balance of the first set saw a couple of solo tracks among other prime Eagles material. Don Henley's 1984 smash, "The Boys of Summer," which featured a lot of guitar soloing as well as Joe Walsh's 1979 track, "In The City," which received among the most applause all night, both sounded absolutely fresh. (While it ultimately found a place on The Long Run, the song was originally recorded by Walsh for the soundtrack to the film, The Warriors.)

From the band's 1972 self-titled debut, "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and "Witchy Woman" made it into the first set, the latter sounding positively hypnotic with it's unmistakable, tribal drum introduction. Timothy B. Schmit still looks far younger than his 61 years and the bassist sang with a remarkable R&B falsetto on some songs, including 1994's "Love Will Keep Us Alive."

The master of ceremonies for the evening was Glenn Frey who often spoke to the audience, reflecting on the origins of songs like "Hotel California" and "Lyin' Eyes." He also joked about songs coming from the band's "Satanic, country, rhythm and blues era." When he was introducing a song about their wives' spending on credit cards, one woman in the audience piped up with the title, prompting Frey to point to her and say, "You got it, lady: "Take It To The Limit." He also remarked that his favorite part of the show was introducing the band members, even stating that Don Henley is the greatest songwriter he knows. The irony here is that MTS Centre officials were told to keep Henley and Frey away from one another during the intermission as the two are still feuding personally.

During Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," the video showed old footage of Walsh and the band members from the golden days in the '70s, which was at times quite hilarious. Timothy B. Schmidt then walked to the front of the stage, his arms clapping above his head and encouraging the audience to follow suit — which lead into Henley's first solo hit, "Dirty Laundry." The video showed many of cable television's most controversial talking heads, appearing as foolish as they consider themselves serious.

This was my first time seeing The Eagles and I was a bit surprised by how Joe Walsh appeared fairly tame and subdued during the opening set. It was also a surprise to see someone else perform most of the lead guitar work, especially on the classic songs.

The second set began with the band seated on stools, playing acoustic guitars to a few of their newer songs. Later on, in a not-so-spontaneous move, they took of their jackets in unison, which seemed just a tad choreographed and corporate.

Great gonzo guitarist that he is, Walsh performed to expectations during the second set, proving himself an absolute monster on lead guitar and demonstrating why he's one of the best players of his generation. At one point, he and Frey were trading licks, but while Walsh's wizardry was always deft and precise, Frey just couldn't keep up. I think the entire point of that exercise was to show was a master Walsh is. True to form, when he soloed, Walsh contorted his body and grimaced, the notes volcanically erupting from his frame.

To add even more fun to the show, Walsh appeared on stage with a helmet camera and proceeded to wow the audience, strutting around and displaying the images on the big screen. Throughout the show, in fact, there were two large video screens suspended on either side of the stage, fed by at least two cameras, one of which was mounted on a remote controlled rig that panned in and out and moved as if it had a life of its own.

As the evening wound down, the band appeared for a two-song encore, "Take It Easy," followed by Henley singing at center stage for "Desperado," which had the audience signing along. They couldn't play every fan favorite — notable songs missing included "New Kid In Town," "Tequila Sunrise," "Best of My Love," as well as Henley's "The End of Innocence" and Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way" — all of which would have been welcomed. As it was, regardless, three hours worth of performance proved quite satisfying. The Eagles are well past their heyday and have been a cherished nostalgia act since reuniting around 15 years ago, but they still put on a superb show by anyone's measure.

First Set:

How Long
Busy Being Fabulous
I Don't Want to Hear Anymore
Guilty of the Crime
Hotel California
Peaceful Easy Feeling
I Can't Tell You Why
Witchy Woman
Lyin' Eyes
Boys of Summer
In the City
The Long Run

Second Set:

No More Walks in the Wood
Waiting in the Weeds
No More Cloudy Days
Love Will Keep Us Alive
Take It to the Limit
Long Road Out of Eden
Walk Away
One of These Nights
Life's Been Good
Dirty Laundry
Funk #49
Heartache Tonight
Life in the Fast Lane


Take It Easy

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