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I don't even know where to begin with this one.
Ms. Digby's simple, homemade music videos of her performing popular songs have been viewed more than 2.3 million times on YouTube. Her acoustic-guitar rendition of the R&B hit "Umbrella" has been featured on MTV's program "The Hills" and is played regularly on radio stations in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Portland, Ore. Capping the frenzy, a press release last week from Walt Disney Co.'s Hollywood Records label declared: "Breakthrough YouTube Phenomenon Marié Digby Signs With Hollywood Records."
What the release failed to mention is that Hollywood Records signed Ms. Digby in 2005, 18 months before she became a YouTube phenomenon. Hollywood Records helped devise her Internet strategy, consulted with her on the type of songs she chose to post, and distributed a high-quality studio recording of "Umbrella" to iTunes and radio stations.
"No one's going to be searching for Marié Digby, because no one knows who she is," Mr. Bunt, the Hollywood Records senior vice president, reasoned. So she posted covers of hits by Nelly Furtado and Maroon 5, among others, so that users searching for those artists' songs would stumble on hers instead. Her version of Rihanna's "Umbrella" proved a nearly instant hit.
As Ms. Digby's star rose, other media outlets played along. When Los Angeles adult-contemporary station KYSR-FM, which calls itself "Star 98.7," interviewed Ms. Digby in July, she and the disc jockey discussed her surprising success. "We kind of found her on YouTube," the DJ, known as Valentine, said. Playing the lucky nobody, Ms. Digby said: "I'm usually the listener calling in, you know, just hoping that I'm going to be the one to get that last ticket to the Star Lounge with [pop star] John Mayer!" The station's programming executives now acknowledge they had booked Ms. Digby's appearance through Hollywood Records, and were soon collaborating with the label to sell "Umbrella" as a single on iTunes.
So we've gotten to the point where the major labels' plan of attack is to encourage their artists to appear to be diy and not actually associate themselves with the majors. Is this what Rubin's "word-of-mouth department" would devise?
Let me guess your first thought in reaction to this article: bu-huh?
As the dictator of a nuclear-armed nation, Kim Jong-il should be a busy man, preoccupied with weighty matters of state.
But a bizarre museum in Pyongyang suggests that the North Korean autocrat may reserve his greatest zeal for his biggest obsession: the movies.
The museum, located on the grounds of the country's biggest film studio, is a majestic 16-room ode to the 65-year-old Dear Leader's enthusiastic love of cinema. In every room, huge portraits show Mr. Kim overseeing every aspect of movie production in North Korea, from camera placement to scripting and acting.
The article goes on to describe Kim Jong-il's groundbreaking work on the film Sea of Blood, for which he innovated the idea of using more than one camera, and making the actors read the script a hundred times. It's a bizarre thing to imagine—almost as bizarre as the most advanced nation in the world electing a star of Hollywood westerns to lead them!
The funny thing is that Kim is not the first leader of an Asian nation to harbor filmmaking aspirations. In fact I think you could write a dissertation on the subject. Cambodia's Norodom Sihanouk, who was in power prior to Pol Pot and then assumed power again after Pot was deposed, was (and is!) a director. IMDB lists five films under his name, including See Angkor and Die (!!). In fact he has done more than that. According to David P. Chandler's book The Tragedy of Cambodian History, Sihanouk's hobby began in the 1940s and was reignited in 1965:
In 1965, Sihanouk revived a hobby he had taken up in the 1940s: making feature films. He may have been pushed into it by his envy of the success of an American production of Lord Jim made in Cambodia in 1964. The French director Marcel Camus, who had made a film in Cambodia in 1962 [L'Oiseau de paradis], also encouraged Sihanouk to move in this direction. Between 1965 and 1969 the prince wrote, cast, produced, and directed nine films. Because he had no formal cinematographic training, monopolized the stage, permitted no criticism, and listened to little advice, the films turned out to be amatuerish and self-indulgent.... The first of them, Aspara (The Goddess), was screened in May 1966 and starred Sihanouk, his wife, and Nhiek Tioulong [former Prime Minister of Cambodia] cast as a philanderer. The last two, Joir de vivre and Crépsuscule (Twilight), were screened in 1969.
Sihanouk screened Aspara at a time he was telling the nation to tighten its belt and get to work. The scenes of the film... included "Scene 5: A Facel Vega, driven by a pretty young woman; Scene 6: General Ritthi and Rattana get out of his Jaguar; Scene 10: Along a fine asphalted road... drives a black Cadillac convertable," and so on. As Charles Meyer has written, "Official vehicles, planes, ships, infantry, youth, ministers, generals, and officials... were all requisitioned for the needs of the production." Aspara, like Joir de vivre and Crépsuscule, depicted the raffish behavior of Sihanouk's circle. None of the films, including the ostensible historical ones, had any footage of ordinary people.
Perhaps Sihanouk was a formative influence on Kim; according to Chandler, when Sihanouk was exiled from Cambodia during the 1980s, he lived in North Korea and continued to make films there. He returned to the throne in Cambodia in the 90s—and made even more films! Best of all, he has his own website, where you can actually watch some of his films if you so desire. Kim Jong-il, meanwhile, has yet to dial up, so you'll have to just read the description of Sea of Blood in the article. More from that article:
The Dear Leader's fetish for film has only grown deeper since Sea of Blood. He is reputed to have a personal collection of some 20,000 videotapes, including The Godfather, Rambo, and every James Bond film ever made.
In the early 1970s he wrote a 329-page guide for filmmakers, entitled On the Art of the Cinema, which is still on the shelves of North Korean book stores today.
"Begin on a small scale and end grandly," he tells filmmakers in the book. "Conflicts should be settled in accordance with the law of class struggle. ... Show the new noble lives of the backward characters after their re-education. ... A film should always demonstrate that the revolution is continuing and that the struggle is being pursued ever more vigorously."
In the late 1970s, Mr. Kim fulfilled his film obsession by serving as director of the North Korean Bureau of Propaganda and Agitation. And in 1978, in one of the most bizarre episodes of North Korean history, his agents reportedly kidnapped a South Korean film actress and her director husband, imprisoning them and forcing them to produce propaganda films for North Korea until they finally escaped.
Kim's love of cinema, coupled with his propagandist insistence, recalls China's infamous Jiang Qing— Mao's wife, so-called "White-Boned Demon," and part of the Gang of Four. Qing was an actress prior to getting into politics. In the early 50s she took on a position within the government as part of the Film Steering Committee of the Ministry of Culture, according to Craig Dietrich's book People's China: A Brief History. During her tenure she singled out a film called The Life of Wu Xun, based on a Chinese folk hero who rose from poverty to wealth, then used his fortune to create schools for the poor. The film was deemed anti-Marxist and newspapers began printing lengthy criticisms of the film and the real-life nineteenth-century subject. According to Dietrich:
Wu Xun was unmasked as a wrongheaded, idealistic reformer who imagined that education and reform could save China. Marxism taught that only revolutionary class struggle could truly change society. Thus, the film violated proletarian thinking. There could be no defense of it as being apolitical. Filmmakers had no right to indulge in private expression. A person "is either progressive or reactionary—there is no third way."
The maker of The Life of Wu Xun was ultimately driven to publish a self-criticism in the People's Daily. According to wikipedia, "During the Cultural Revolution, Wu Xun was attacked as a supporter of "feudal education." Red Guards exhumed his corpse and carried it to a public square where it was subsequently given a trial and ordered burned. Red Guards broke the body into pieces before lighting it with gas."
Kinda puts my loathing of Dreamgirls into perspective. Could you imagine if the Bush Administration hated the upcoming Across the Universe so much that they exhumed the body of John Lennon and immolated it?
And now that you've read this post, let me guess your reaction: bu-huh? I came here cuz I wanted to read about Feist and turntables! Pretty goes with pretty , folks. Pretty goes with pretty.
I was going to do a post on the Rick Rubin article that appeared in the New York Times this past Sunday, but plenty of others have beaten me to the punch. Plus, surely you know how I feel about the industry by now.
Suffice to say that the words coming out of Rubin's mouth are right on the money, but the very act of taking a job at Columbia makes me wonder how much he believes himself, or else how misguided he is in what he thinks he can accomplish. I think Columbia is looking for a figurehead, not someone who can implement anything. Sad to say but, like that IBM commercial I've been seeing lately, I think Rubin is merely "ideating."
So here are some other places to look for reactions: Lefsetz goes on a rant. GloNo hails Rubin's new gig as a good thing. The folks at ILM weigh in. And over at woxy, too (including me, posting as Joseph Scott).
[Edit: Forgot to mention
Maureen Maura Johnston's take at Idolator, which is nicely written. I'm glad to see Idolator employing bloggers that can take an intelligent pass at their subject, rather than sticking 100% to the snarky tone of the Gawker et al. family.]
Part of the reason I've been fairly inactive hereabouts lately is that I've simply not picked up much from the record store that's inspiring me to shoot a little shit. I haven't bought a new album—i.e., an album released in 2007—since some time in June. (I have, however, acquired a shit-ton of blindspots, which I'll be going on about in a future post). I just returned to my post from six weeks ago looking forward to the summer releases, to see if I'd missed something.
I do still intend to pick up the new Spoon album. It's been streaming at Merge's site and I definitely think it's terrific—a step up from Gimme Fiction, which I liked but I don't return to the way I do Kill the Moonlight. I'm also supremely stoked for the upcoming New Pornographers album. But my anticipation for the rest from my list have all cooled, based on a single mp3 from each. The new Okkervil River seems to be getting rave reviews but based on the one mp3 I've heard it's not going to shatter my world.
So, has anything come out this summer that has turned out to be essential listening? What've you been digging for the last few months?
If you miss my overlong ruminations, check Noel Murray's post at the AV Club... it's just like mine, with multiple subsets and a fair share of personal handwringing over that which he loves and what it means to love it.
I blinked and suddenly three weeks went by since my last post. I don't think I've ever gone that long between posts before. Anyway, blog not dead. Simply gone fishin'. Check back later this month and I'll likely be hummin' along by then.
As a p.s. to this week's posts [part I, part II], Catbirdseat notes sales figures for a few recent indie (and/or "indie-esque") releases. Spoon debuted at #10 on the Billboard charts this week, with 47,000 units sold. They were all over the mp3 blogs for the last two months, including the full leaked album quite a while ago. That must say something about the effect of downloading on indies vs mainstream groups, right? Catbird got its data from IndieHQ, a site I've never seen before but am now bookmarking.
[Yesterday: Part I: Cleanup on Aisle 7]
The industry’s allegiance to Wal-Mart has been the case since the 1990s, when Wal-Mart and its ilk began selling music at prices music retailers (indie or not) could not compete with. It remained the case in this decade when, as the Rolling Stone article details, the industry had the opportunity to make a deal with Napster but capitulated to its top retailers instead:
It all could have been different: Seven years ago, the music industry’s top executives gathered for secret talks with Napster CEO Hank Barry. At a July 15th, 2000, meeting, the execs—including the CEO of Universal’s parent company, Edgar Bronfman Jr.; Sony Corp. head Nobuyuki Idei; and Bertelsmann chief Thomas Middelhof—sat in a hotel in Sun Valley, Idaho, with Barry and told him that they wanted to strike licensing deals with Napster. “Mr. Idei started the meeting,” recalls Barry, now a director in the law firm Howard Rice. “He was talking about how Napster was something the customers wanted.”
The idea was to let Napster’s 38 million users keep downloading for a monthly subscription fee—roughly $10—with revenues split between the service and the labels. But ultimately, despite a public offer of $1 billion from Napster, the companies never reached a settlement. “The record companies needed to jump off a cliff, and they couldn’t bring themselves to jump,” says Hilary Rosen, who was then CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America. “A lot of people say, ‘The labels were dinosaurs and idiots, and what was the matter with them?’ But they had retailers telling them, ‘You better not sell anything online cheaper than in a store,’ and they had artists saying, ‘Don’t screw up my Wal-Mart sales.’”
It’s worth noting this. The record labels were ready to embrace the technology and “their retailers” said “you better not sell anything online cheaper than in a store.” Now, which “retailers” do you think said that? Was it Tower, where a CD cost on average $15.99, or was it Wal-Mart, where the same CD cost half that? This was Tower’s (and, of course, the indies’) own lament years ago when Wal-Mart first decided to start selling music. The record stores ability to compete was impinged upon because the corporate labels saw dollars via quantities of CD-sales-as-impulse-buys. Now that the same threat—vast quantities of impulse buys—faced Wal-Mart, the industry should have stuck to what it knew how to do: screwing over the people and businesses that do well for it. But it bowed to almighty Wal-Mart. Why did it bow this time but not when record stores made the same threat regarding Wal-Mart in the 1990s? Because Wal-Mart doesn't need the music industry, and the industry knows it. Major labels have become the bitch of grocery chains. And when Napster was destroyed, like a mama spider it laid millions of little illegal downloading sites that the labels had no hope of getting a handle on.
Keep in mind the chronology here, and the choices the majors made. First it tried to make peace with Napster, but the big boxes shouted it down. Then the majors sued its own customers. Bask in the power of Wal-Mart.
So now the industry is wringing its hands over filesharing like never before. A few years ago everyone was filesharing in one place—but the industry sent them scattering and now have little hope of stamping them out. I was talking about this with my brilliant wife and she had great insight on this angle. During the whole boy band era—roughly 1997–2003—the industry was pumping out singles-based artists by the truckload, but it wasn’t economically feasible to buy a CD single—one song and a couple b-sides for $6.99 vs. the entire album for only a few more dollars (depending on where you bought it—great deals at Best Buy!). So album sales went up while CD singles went down. Bully for the majors, since the production costs were essentially the same but the markup was higher for full-lengths. Plus you had the industry cash cow Now That’s What I Call Music—this little piece of plastic that you could throw your best-selling singles on and just make that much more money without having to cultivate new artists. The NOW series was charting at #1 at its peak. Mind you, these are tweens and teens buying these comps—the very kids that today are freely downloading whatever they want. When Napster came along it was a no-brainer; the industry had already bred its audience to prefer the singles and eschew the filler. And now the record industry is bemoaning the dearth of album sales? It’s their own fault for not cultivating artists who knew how to make albums.
Rosen offers her take:
“That’s when we lost the users,” Rosen says. “Peer-to-peer took hold. That’s when we went from music having real value in people’s minds to music having no economic value, just emotional value.”
The gall of that quote. The gall! Rosen is equating “real value” with “economic value,” and that it’s a shame for us all that music only has emotional value. Yeah, pity. The music industry, by their unmitigated support for grocery stores over record stores as their preferred retail venue, has implicitly devalued the emotional worth of music. They are not concerned with the notion of a trip to the record store as sacred pilgrimage. To them it’s an errand. Drop off dry cleaning; buy milk; pick up Fergie CD.
What Rosen and the industry at large are obsessing over is the fact that the “casual listener” has stopped valuing music economically. But that’s what you get when you value the retailer that sells your music two aisles down from Charmin Ultra and contact lens solution above the retailer that cares about music, that hires knowledgeable staff to sell you albums you’ve never heard before and, perhaps, turn you into a fan. But those aren’t the stores the industry supports any more—they left bona fide record stores to wither and die years ago.
The “casual listeners” who no longer value music economically are the same listeners who preferred a NOW comp because the last time they bought an actual full-length is was all sketches and dogs. Half-baked albums by artists that were encouraged by their labels to make a minimum number of radio hits—"we'll only pay for three Neptunes-produced tracks"—this is the shit that the companies are pouring millions of dollars into. That’s millions and millions of dollars spent on maybe a hundred artists who keep the behemoth afloat. These are the artists who are suffering. Again, Rolling Stone:
In 2000, U.S. consumers bought 785.1 million albums; last year, they bought 588.2 million (a figure that includes both CDs and downloaded albums), according to Nielsen SoundScan. In 2000, the ten top-selling albums in the U.S. sold a combined 60 million copies; in 2006, the top ten sold just 25 million.
It's a myopic view to only look at the top ten, or even top 100. Because all signs are pointing to an indie music scene that has never been more thriving. Indie bands are appearing in the top forty with more and more regularity, and a band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah isn’t even on a label at all. I would wager that there are more musicians making an honest living than ever before. Their ability to survive is not being impinged upon; the people who are hurting are the select few who are expecting millions of dollars on their bottom line. Those artists, and the machine that supports them, are by and large not responsible for the best music (I’ll grant that there are exceptions to that rule, but not enough to change my point), so if the apparatus that supports them goes under, so be it. But I really don’t think the New Pornographers or Jason Molina are going call it quits because too many people are filesharing. The people with passion, whether they be buyers or sellers, will remain. Maybe I’m just being too idealistic about the whole damn thing, but art has never suffered for wont of luxury.
The real malaise of the corporate industry is its slow realization that it is mere middleman. Artists can publicize themselves, can sell their own music, and manage themselves. Even if CYHSY is a brilliant exception to the rule, it remains the case that a smaller label with less overhead can still support a band to a satisfactory degree. The lower the operations costs, the wider the profit margin. The more streamlined behind the scenes, the more financially stable musicians; the more music.