Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Kindle's Impact on the Music Industry?

The two most interesting things to me about the new Amazon e-book reader, the Kindle are:

(If I understand Bezos correctly...)

A) Once a person makes an e-book purchase, Amazon allows the buyer free access to all his or her purchases via storage on their server, at no additional cost. So if you own 300 e-books and carry around 200 at any given time, you can always swap out any titles any time you want to. In effect, your library rests on their servers.

B) Kindle is completely self reliant, no personal computer required.

Therefore a person can purchase and own all the e-books they want, forever, so long as they pay for them once; and so long as he or she accesses the content via hardware which isn't connected to the Internet, thereby preventing the copyright content from unauthorized duplication.

To me, this actually sounds like a reasonable model for distributing music files and other digital media.

I don't mean to suggest consumers should be prevented from amplifying the music they own from more than one device. Rather, if one allows that one can dock an iPod, for instance, on a variety of playback devices, from boom box to home stereo to car audio system, then allow that another similar device might also allow the consumer to amplify the music anyway they cared to, without also permitting them the capacity to move the actual files themselves from drive to drive.

This is unlike a subscription model whereby consumers 'rent' music, and lose access to it if they stop payment. Some suggest subscriptions as a viable future distribution method, but I like the Kindle plan better, where consumers pay once and retain free access to their music forever.

It follows that as long as one has unlimited and eternal access to his or her music, and the capacity to carry on their person as much as can fit on a given device at any given time –hundreds and thousands of selections– then both music producer and music consumer are served.

One member of an online discussion where I first initiated this idea (Kindle's Impact on Music Industry) queried how this model differed from previous protection technologies, such as copy protected CDs and DRM?

Here's the answer:

Consumers resist Copy protection on CDs because they want to be able to rip CDs to portable hard drives in order to customize playback. Of course, some also want to be able to copy content so that they may freely distribute it to others. I suspect that widespread general resistance to the format weighed more heavily on the former, although I do not have sufficient data to argue one way or the other. In my own case, I thought: if you can't listen to the music on your iPod, then what good is it?

I think it's also fair to say that even CD manufacturers don't believe copy protection works, or doesn't work for long anyway. Sooner or later, someone always cracks the code.

But even if it did, such CDs (at least as music transportation devices) would still only protect new music recordings, not recordings already ripped. Not to mention that generally speaking, CDs are simply becoming obsolete as the world goes increasingly digital.

As for Digital Rights Management, does DRM even work? Again, certainly not for files you’ve already ripped from your own CDs.

An ideal content distribution scheme must be easy, acceptable and convenient for producers, manufacturers, distributors and consumers alike, –even as it secures the rights of copyright holders.

As it happens, the Kindle appears to promise just that to authors, publishers and readers of the digital equivalent to novels, e-books.

The actual physical device aside, the content distribution and consumption model created by Amazon for Kindle content rests on these three points:

1) Consumers own the e-books they buy; free digital copies remain accessible on Amazon's server: They must purchase content from an authorized seller; in this case, obviously, Amazon. But once they do so, they are free to the change the content on their playback device at will, provided that the content –the e-book files– rest either on an Amazon server, or in their Kindle. Since a Kindle can hold upwards of 200 novels, plus access to a dictionary and Wikipedia, readers are guaranteed a virtual bookshelf of books and references to carry with them at any one time.

2) Proprietary file format: If a consumer purchases more than 200 e-books (@$9.99/e-book), the e-books that do not fit on their Kindle are stored on an Amazon server. The device is outfitted with a USB connection and spillover can also be stored on an SD card, but it's not as though you'll be able to open those files on Sony's e-book reader, Sony Reader. Back in September the New York Times explained "Amazon is using a proprietary e-book format from Mobipocket, a French company that Amazon bought in 2005, instead of supporting the open e-book standard backed by most major publishers and high-tech companies..."(NYT: Envisioning the Next Chapter for Electronic Books).

So, one wonders if the convenience of free storage at Amazon will be enough to dissuade consumers from trying to crack the files in order to make their own digital copies –if they know they can go back to Amazon at any time in the future in order to swap out any number of e-books for other previously purchased selections, at no extra charge, as many times as they like, forever (provided the number does not exceed the Kindle’s physical storage capacity). Further, one doesn’t actually swap out books off the Amazon server. The Amazon server preserves a copy of the e-book. Like the iPod, swapping off the Kindle amounts to deleting the file in order to make room for new content.

But the fact remains: You bought the book, and therefore you own it. Your copy simply and perpetually sits on Amazon's bookshelf, rather than your own hard drive (where it is subject to damage and accidental erasure, by the way). There it remains until you want to read it, which you may do as many times as you like, now and in the future.

3) Free wireless broadband distribution. Can you lend a book to a friend? Sure, the device allows you to email excerpts, but if you want to loan out an entire novel, just give them your Kindle –as you would a physical book. However, consumers are not given the capacity to rip Kindle content to their computer's hard drive, thereby making wholesale unauthorized distribution theoretically impossible.

Instead content is swapped in and out of the Kindle, and to and from Amazon, via a cellular connection. In this case by way of a direct EvDO radio connection to Amazon (and for which the book consumer need not sign up with Sprint to enable). Amazon makes the transfer of content from their store (or your library) to your Kindle as transparent as possible. Buying a book is just like getting a ringtone.

The bottom line: Consumers get access to all the books they can afford (at a fair price). They get unlimited access to all the books they purchased, anytime they want, forever. Perhaps most importantly, they can experience the books on a portable device that apparently fulfills reader experience expectations in every way that matters.


Of course, we can't literally use a Kindle because while it plays mp3s, its slow E Ink display isn't the optimal choice for navigating through a music library. Nor can we use the current Apple or MSN (or other) set-ups. We need a new device that operates within a suitably closed system: Let’s call it a 'kPod' (although I’d rather call it a Cryptonomicon [nerdy humor alert]), and you fill it up with content at the kTunes store. (For the sake of this overview: Despite some cries of monopoly, Apple's iTunes/iPod set-up is defined as an open system here because although Apple's AAC files are theoretically copy protected, a consumer's own files are not; not to mention the set-up is connected to the Internet, allowing files to move freely).

I imagine that a consumer might access the kTunes store via a Mac or PC in order to peruse selections, make purchases and manage their library. But the kPod itself will not connect to one's computer. Rather the Ktunes store sends the kPod content, just as Amazon sends the Kindle content, over a free wireless cellular broadband service.

As consumers retain eternal access to their purchased content they can therefore access previously purchase content at no additional cost. You bought the music; you own it.

If a consumer damages their kPod, they will certainly be liable for the cost of a kPod replacement, as they would be with any consumer purchase. But they will not be required to re-purchase music that they already own. All they have to do is log into their kTunes account and download their content from their library.

While the kPod is incapable of burning CDs, or making readable copies to external drives, secondary kPods or home computers, consumers will nevertheless be able to dock their kPod to any number of commercially available playback devices, such as their home stereo, a car sound system, or some other 3rd party amplification system. Docking will allow consumers to amplify the audio from a kPod, but it will not allow them to actually transfer digital files from a kPod to another device (capable of reading those files).

The bottom line is:
Consumers get access to all the music they can afford (at a fair price). Unlike a music subscription, they get unlimited access to all the music they purchased, anytime they want, forever. They will certainly have to pay for any new music they desire, but they will only have to do so once. They will never again have to purchase the same song twice. Perhaps most importantly, they can experience their music on a portable device that fulfills listener experience expectations in every way that matters, and still protect the rights of copyright holders.

Add to that a store that offers every single recording ever made, from anywhere in the world, and free content from the public domain, and you may be on to something big.

One question remains: How will current owners with existing digitized collections of music get this content into the kPod without giving the kPod reciprocal ability to export content to distribution channels? Maybe there is no way (to do so). Or maybe imported content will be automatically transformed into the kPods proprietary file format before becoming functional (which in effect would also take care of DRM).

Whatever the decision or method, if producers of music can convince young consumers to choose kPods over iPods, they can offer those consumers something Apple isn't even doing: They can help a new generation begin building non-destructible music collections, and from a very young age, saving every title they purchase for future and unlimited use, on and from a perpetually accessible server, in an account in their possession –if not on their person– for their entire lifetime.

Or maybe music should just be free.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Breaking Into the Ad Music Biz

While browsing the Sound-On-Sound Music Business Forum recently, I came across a conversation regarding the trials and tribulations one might expect attempting a career creating music for advertising. As it happens, I have had to give the subject considerable and repeated thought given five earlier commissions over the last five years by clients seeking to gain entry to the industry, or by established firms seeking to expand services. This as a result of having held the position of Executive Producer for two leading U.S. production companies, and the entrepreneurial experience I later gained as co-founder and Executive Producer of a pioneering interactive music outfit in the late nineties called Blister Media, and whose uniquely combined studio practices the publishers of Mix Magazine, in their April 2001 Internet Audio supplement, suggested was a portent to ‘The Future of Music Production’.

Sound-On-Sound is a British publication and while I'm not deeply familiar with the U.K. scene, I do have a passing familiarity with it as one client I provided consultation services to was and is a U.K. concern interested in setting up shop in the United States. As I'm not currently bound by any non-disclosure agreements, I therefore decided to throw in my two cents and offer some background and advice to the aspiring freelance or newly independent commercial composer or young music producer. As my post to the forum turned out to be a little longer and detailed than I intended, I thought it might make for good reprint here on the CRITICAL NOISE blog.

So with minor alteration and enhancements, and without out any further ado:

Having produced music, sound design and sonic branding projects for two leading US production co.'s., perhaps I can offer some helpful background and advice to those looking to break into this arena:

It's increasingly difficult for an unknown composer to break in to the business of writing music for advertising for at least three reasons:

A) More and more commercials use licensed tracks from recording artists or license libraries. That means fewer commissions for original music.

B) While commissions have diminished (for TV Commercials), competition has increased by an exponential number. When I started my first job for Elias Arts in 1991, ten U.S. music production houses of note were listed in a national industry registry. By the time I left Machine Head in 1998 to start my own shop, Blister Media, there were at least fifty good ones nationwide I could name –and now it seems there are also hundreds of boutiques located in every major production center, such as LA, New York, London, etc.

Moreover, as a result of a strike by the Screen Actors Guild in the late nineties, U.S. agencies began producing more work overseas. Once exposed to talents in Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, South Africa, England and elsewhere, –and receiving top shelf creative at a lower cost–, US vendors in every area of production found themselves having to adjust their bids in order to compete with new overseas competitors. More so than other post production professionals, employees of US music houses suffered especially so because their income was also based (and still is) on performance royalties. As you might imagine, the Internet (and global access to non union talent) has, among other things, made the competition pool that much wider. Not only is the pie smaller, there are more people who want a piece of it.

In an attempt to gain an advantage over the increasing competition, established houses began providing more demos for the buck to their clients, and presenting them nearer to what might call the final stages of completion. What was once an original fee for one semi-produced demo now has to be amortized over several full-up tracks, only it really can't. And what was once the possibility of a profit on demo budgets, now has dwindled to the break even point, and often not even that.

In 1993 the company I worked for produced an average of four or five demos per project. By 2001, it wasn’t unheard of to deliver up to twenty demos per project –from a single house! Multiply that by the three or four other houses and you realize advertising agencies may consider forty, fifty or sixty original tracks in demo stage, before they settle on one.

Fortunately the quality of samples is much higher than it once was, saving the cost conscious composer from having to hire session musicians for demos, (or even finals much of the time). But that circumstance comes with its own set of problems (When Marketers Hear Double). If you think you have a hard time as a composer getting work, be thankful you're not trying to make a living strictly as a studio drummer.

C) Errors and Omissions. Agencies generally now require composers to carry insurance against the odd claim of copyright infringement. E&O is essentially malpractice insurance for musicians. It may be that it was always required of vendors, but when I first started in the business no one ever demanded that I actually produce evidence of holding the policy. Now agencies regularly ask new, prospective vendors to produce a copy before allowing them to participate in the bidding process. In the 'old days' some people I know didn't really carry the policy, but said they did in order to secure work. Rather, they signed the agency's work-for-hire agreement that stipulated they carry the policy, even if they didn't. Then they crossed their fingers and prayed they wouldn't get sued.

Of course, most composers will tell you they are highly original and that they would never plagiarize another musical work, so carrying an E&O policy isn't an issue for them. But as I've mentioned elsewhere in this blog (The Cinematic Reincarnation of Classical Music), composers of music for film and video, –whether they are scoring a two hour movie or a thirty second TV commercial– are frequently asked to use another work as a model and reference. In fact, such temp tracks often arrive with the rough cut, and the expectation is that the commissioned composer's new music will work with picture bearing a substantial degree of similarity to the temp track, without actually infringing.

If you don't want to carry an E&O policy, or can't afford to, remain freelance and solicit work from the big production companies that do carry it.

The good news is that what was bad for the big boys –i.e. union strikes, lower production budgets, non union workers, global competition, etc– actually sometimes works in favor of those trying to break into the business, whether they are local or working over the Internet. And increasingly, the big houses are moving from –if they haven't already– from hosting exclusive staff composers to representing armies of freelance independent talents. Recently SOS published a profile of Amsterdam based music house Massive, describing the company as having relationships with "a worldwide pool of approximately 75 freelance composers".

Ten years ago a company might exercise discretion regarding any use of freelancers, fearing outward perception that the core of the brand lacked the necessary wherewithal to execute a given creative vision internally. It's sort of like hearing your favorite band had to call in a session guitarist to do the leads. But today, that notion has been completely turned on its head, and the stigma (of using freelancers) faded. Music houses have become less like film studios retaining exclusive talent, and more representatives of free agents.

Naturally, this has good and bad aspects for the modern independent composer. It's good, because you now have a better chance of succeeding than you did before: Someone, somewhere is likely to give you a shot, eventually; but the negative is that you're also up against an even greater amount of competition than your predecessors, and everyone is equally and adequately armed with ProTools.

In the April 2001 issue of Shoot Magazine I argued that while the broadcast advertising pie was getting smaller, and the amount of competition increasing, there was still room for everybody (Too Many Notes To Choose From?). I still think this is true, but as I said then, only if your business model allows for multiple streams of income. If you're relying only on thirty second TV advertising commercials for income, then it's likely you have already gone out of business. A music house today, even a freelance composer, needs to be able to solicit work for, and accommodate projects from, across a wide swath of media options: advertising, film, electronic game, interactive media, theme parks, special venues, in store locations and other on site platforms, as well as get into the business of licensing a library of works. It can be a daunting exercise.

By the way, if you think of yourself more as a songwriter who would like to license tracks rather than as a composer who takes on commissions for original music, follow this link to read more about How To License Your Songs.

It bears mentioning that the barrier to entry is indeed lower than it once was, at least when it comes to equipment and building costs. So long as you work as freelancer to other music production companies, no one will care what you made your music on so long as it sounds great, does the job, and you are able to deliver it according to the technical specifications required of you. Additionally, if you've been retained by a music house, your employer is the de facto client liaison, and thus you won't also need to lay out the cash to build out a gorgeous facility for entertaining said clients. One day you might: Tomorrow you could very well be a first call Sonic Branding guru. But for now, let's concentrate on getting your foot in the door.

Regardless of whether you chose to solicit work from music production companies, or directly from agencies, studios and other clients, you will need to build a reel demonstrating your talent. Your 'reel' may not be an actual reel. It may simply be a website with quicktime samples of your work. In all likelihood you will need to create hard copies for distribution as well, in the form of a DVD.

Some question whether it is ethical to build a demo reel by scoring existing TV film, adverts or video footage. I say: Do it, do it, do it. Get on the Internet and find ten to fifteen beautiful or über cool TV commercials to download and score them, and/or add sound design. If you can't mix, have someone else mix them down for you. To be honest, if you want to compose music for advertising, you are going to have to learn how to record and mix. Schedules often move too fast for anyone to wait around for a dedicated engineer to do his or her thing. Your demo reel has to sound ready for broadcast, and you should really be capable of executing such a task. But even if you do mix yourself, get another pair of ears to judge your work. In advertising you will have many people review and criticize your work before it goes final. Get used to accommodating other people's opinions now.

That said, pairing a musician/composer with a musical engineer or creative producer makes for a great team, but no one's going to pay you twice as much to get the job done. You'll have to split the budget between you. Mind you, many established music houses were founded by dynamic duos, so if you do work as a duo, money may be tighter at the beginning but your collective energies may pay off later as you build a business.

As for the reel you build, as you gather video also collect the agency and the director info for each spot. Once you've assembled the credits, note them on the label and/or on your site, along with the title for each spot or project: Each item might be therefore be labeled something like this:

Product/Title/Length/Agency/Director/Demo or Final

For instance:


1) Title: Adidas ‘Sport’ :30
Agency: Harajuku Worldwide
Dir: Ridley Scott (Demo)

But if what happens if you then send your music to the actual music house that produced the actual track that went final, or the ad agency that produced it? Well, they might like it, they might hate, they might ignore it. The music house might even think that your score was a demo the agency had someone else do, which happens all the time as I mentioned above. As for the agency, I suspect they will probably be flattered –if the people who review your work are even the same people who created the original spot. Given the number of people who work at a large multinational advertising agency, and the growing number of freelancers working at these agencies, the creators of the original spot may never come across your reel. In fact, it's unlikely that they will unless i) Someone at the agency recommends they look at your reel or ii) You actually contact them personally and ask them to review the music and/or sound design you composed inspired by their work (this is actually a good way to make a connection as it provides a reason for what is otherwise a cold call).

Anyway, as you weren't formally commissioned, you therefore didn't need to consider any branding issues or need to work around a Voice Over. Ostensibly you were free to treat the video as art. Theoretically then, your composition, in contrast to the final music, is not compromised by any utilitarian marketing function and is therefore creative for its own sake. I suspect agency and production people will undoubtedly appreciate your efforts (assuming you are competent, and if your work is also engaging as an entertainment piece, as it should be).

In fact, if you sent me to your web site and I couldn't help but notice that all the featured work was demos, I wouldn't necessarily know that you weren't formerly commissioned to participate in the demo process. For all I would know, you were one of several participants, and it so happens that this particular work did not go final.

Also, presenting demos doesn't mean you haven't ever produced a final. What do you think plays better on a reel? A demo for a cool car spot or a final for toilet paper? Even established houses will present a demo that didn't go final if the picture is better than anything else that went final. The trick though is to make sure you present the demo music against final picture, not the rough cut. How do you get the final cut? Off the Internet. The companies who produced the spot will often host them on their site, as will the Industry trades. Or you make friends with someone who works in the business and they serve as your connection to quality video. Sounds like a dirty little business, doesn't it?

Another word about not going final when you haven't actually gone final: Not going final is not an indication of quality. It does not mean you or your work is incapable of the task. Assuming you are actually competent at scoring picture and/or experience, it simply means your work did not adequately score the brand or support the story in the way someone at the agency wanted it to, on that particular day. For whatever reason, something else went final.

By the same token, if a track did go final, that in and of itself doesn't mean that everyone who participated in its production is happy with the final music. This happens ALL the time. That's why even the directors who shoot TV commercials, or the editors who cut the spot, or even the advertising agency staff themselves will sometimes have a different composer score the spot for their own reel (the director’s cut, the editor’s cut, the agency cut, even the animator’s or designer’s cut, as opposed to the final version).

In fact, doing director’s cuts is an excellent way to build up a reel, not to mention make contacts. To do this, offer your creative services for free (or for no more than a typical demo budget if it requires live musicians/technical personnel/studio other than yourself and your rig) to produce a full up direction of music that fulfills the director's (or whomever’s) musical vision. You find these people by approaching production companies, 'repping*' firms or agents who represent directors or production and post-production companies and pitch them on your availability to compose treatments for director's cuts. If you find them on MySpace, shoot them an email with a link back to other samples of your work.

*Reps and Repping firms are individuals or companies that represent talent to the advertising agencies. Typically reps represent directors, film production companies, post production companies, editorial firms, and yes, even music and sound design houses.

On your website, or printed label, you would then neither notate ‘Final’ or ‘Demo’, but ‘Directors Cut’ or which ever party you composed the alternate version to. Make no mistake these alternate versions have a bit of caché to them, sometimes even more than the Finals, depending who you did the work for and who is viewing it. Do you think that anyone in the business cares what went final, if Ridley Scott uses something else on his own reel? Only the composer of the former and his or her mother cares about what went final.

But if you really don't want to produce a track that already is final, you can still find killer looking video by working with designers, who now amazingly seem to outnumber musicians these days. Here's a link from Digital Thread that purports to feature the Best of Breed Design firms. If you begin by offering your services for free (or a very nominal cost covering fee) people who to this creative group, in a year or two you may have a show reel that will get you work and launch your career.

By the way, I don't just mean to approach the businesses that you'll find if you follow the link (which span the gamut from one man shops to multimillion dollar operations); but rather in the case of a multimillion dollar shop, try approaching individual creative artisans who work for those businesses and who are likely doing independent work of their own. How do you get the names of individual creative artisans who work at multimillion dollar sites? Well, check out the websites first. You can run searches on major social networking sites, too. Run the name of a business on MySpace for instance and see who comes up. Or simply run a search on your favorite search engine that pairs the name of the design firm your interested in with a likely job title like 'Art Director' or 'Junior Designer', etc. In other words, you need to dig.

Along the way you will make contact, acquire acquaintances and make friends and build your professional network. Don't expect first contact to result in a job unless you are very lucky. Typically the people you want to work for may already have booked other professionals for the jobs on deck for months on out. You will need to keep at it without being annoying. A rep will do this for you, but at this stage you are likely your own rep, as well your own intern, producer, composer, receptionist. The silver lining in this is that the relationships you make will be your own, not your reps. It will feel right when it feels social. It will be feel wrong when it feels like selling. This too takes practice.

One disclaimer before I close: as you might imagine, it is not enough to simply follow the steps outlined here. One must also be talented, and I think immensely so, and in ways that are specific to the nature of the form. You won't possess all the skills when you start out, but you can learn as you go, and you should learn all you can.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Music As Collateral: Concepts in Co-Branding

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the three-part November 2007 MUSIC AS COLLATERAL series exploring exploring the new paradigms for Music Distribution:

Part 1: Compatible Archetypes
Part 2: Collaborative Marketing Concepts for Musicians
Part 3: The Hottest Brand in the World

This Series link also includes the May 2006 explaining Camelback Collateral.


* * *

Like this Topic? Click on any link below to read all the articles in the four-part Fall 2006 AUDIO AS ADDED VALUE series exploring exploring new paradigms for Music Distribution:

1. The Compact Disc Is Dead
2. Saving The Music Industry One Brand at a Time
3. Self-Referential Jingles are not Content
4. Synergy = Energy

Music as Collateral: The Hottest Brand in the World

This article represents the final part of a November 10, 2007 post on the subject of music as collateral.

Read Part One here: Compatible Archetypes.
Read Part Two here: Collaborative Marketing Concepts for Musicians.

The three posts together continue a series explored throughout this blog discussing potential uses of Audio as an Added Value Component .

In the past I’ve attached the label ‘Strategic Audio Partnerships’ to the general concept of subsidizing musical artists by companies that produce products or services; the artists that accept such subsidies ‘Rock Brands’; sponsors, foundations, contributors and even ad buyers who commission musical works with a return promotional effort as a requirement, as following a ‘Medici Model’; and the method by which the music is distributed via as an accompaniment to another purchase as ‘Camelback Collateral’, because the music isn’t selling itself, but rather being carried into the home via another sale.

In the current parlance, individual aspects of these related concepts are increasingly being re-bundled into the separate ideas and executions known as 'Branded Content', and '360° deals'. However, at its essence, Branded Content , " ideas that bring entertainment value to brands and that integrate brands into entertainment". And 360° deals typically describe a relationship whereby a record label will theoretically lay a larger role in an artist's development in return for a share of profits that includes merchandise, touring and other streams of revenue.

To learn more about Branded Content, click on either of the Branded Content links above.

To learn more about the positive potential of 360° deals, read Jeff Leeds' excellent New York Times, November 11, 2007 article, The New Deal: Band as Brand. (As it happens, I've commented on a Jeff Leeds article before. Check out my November 14, 2006 post, Diplomatic Corps Rock Fest). Also check out Bob Lefsetz's Music Analysis blog, The Lefsetz Letter, where he writes in response to Leeds': "Under the guise of artist development, the major labels are spinning this fantasy that 360 deals are good for the artist when the real story is they’re a land grab, a desperate attempt to insure the labels’ future."

Like Branded Content, the concepts of Strategic Audio Partnerships and Rock Brands describe Artist relationships with 3rd party sponsors for the purpose of bringing entertainment value to brands but excepting collaborative promotional ventures, the models stop short of recommending reciprocal integration of those brands back into the artist's entertainment or works.

In contrast to 360° deals, third parties may or may not be active participants in the production of a collaborative marketing venture with an artist: they may simply be sponsors, following a Medici model, with no marketing plan proposed or required). But in the event of a commercial project in which an artist is commissioned in the support of promoting a brand, the artist (and his or her creative and/or management team) will certainly be active participants, if not take on creative leadership roles, and perhaps even manage the production of the effort.

In effect, Brand and Band commission each other in the creation of media of some sort, which serves a dual purpose of promoting both partners to the venture.

The intent is to thereby define the Artist not simply as musician/s under contract for a traditional endorsement or production deal, but as an independent creative and marketing consultant/s at the helm of their own brand –with their own agenda, and inclusive of the professional responsibilities such titles suggest– regardless of what kind of relationship they might have in place with a record label.

Strategic Audio Partnerships and Rock Brands describe an alternate music industry, one supported by sponsors, contributors, arts foundations, patrons, and other strategic or 'brand partners'; and when partnering with advertisers, the Artist (and their creative/ production/ management team, i.e. the 'Rock Brand'), takes on a creative leadership role, as a partner, expert and authority, in the development of any commercial endeavors. The Artist isn't directed by an advertising agency because the Artist is the Advertising Agency (although the deal between Brand and Band may certainly be (and probably will be) brokered and supervised by a traditional communications firm. That is to say, acting at the bequest of Brand, Agency will play line producer to Artist's (or Brand/Band) Creative Direction.

As you might have guessed, I believe the future will indeed resemble 360° deals, but my model positions the Artist/Rock Brand at the hub, with label and partnerships representing but individual revenue streams/spokes in the wheel; as opposed to the model as it is proposed now with the label at the hub, –unless it's worth it to the artist to accept such a contract, and it very well may be in some cases.

There's a reason why I keep using the term Rock Brand. In contrast to traditional endorsement models, the term Rock Brand implies the notion that the artist is not just reading from a script, but that he or she and their team is assuming many –if not all– of the functions typically handled by creative consultants, marketing agencies and commercial production companies. I rarely mention management in this equation, but my supposition is that artist management will represent the fuel cell, build or manage 'the team', and provide much of the energy in this model. In fact, a great place to assemble brand and production consultants under one virtual roof is via management. That said, there's no reason a successful artist might simply start their own production or marketing companies independent of their management's control, and possibly retain other artists as clients or even partners in these businesses.

The question remains: Why would an ad buyer want to forge a strategic audio partnership with a Rock Brand? Certainly that money might be put to better use if spent on a traditional print or TV advertising campaign. Wouldn't it?

Let’s address the issue of budget: In the case of television, consider that production for a national TV commercial might cost between .25M and 1M, not including the media buy, and perhaps run for 13 to 26 weeks. Then it's over and finished, and once it is off the air it quite often erases itself from the popular consciousness. In fact, given the ubiquity of TIVO and other hard disc recorders it may never even connect with (and deliver its message to) its intended target demographic. Likewise, print suffers a parallel effect that TV commercials suffer at the hands of TIVO. People simply turn the page, if they’re even reading print anymore. Suffice to say that every dollar in any advertising budget is gambled.

I often consider how far a million bucks would go if spent on a young emerging artist or band –one perhaps overlooked by the record labels, but identified by an ad buyer's in house A&R team as having the potential to capture the public imagination –or even one small segment of it.

And I've also wondered how long thereafter that a band's young fans might connect a brand endorsement with a band's music. Might that connection continue so that it is able to influence a purchase not now, –not in the next 13 weeks, nor even a year from now; but well into adulthood? It's only conjecture but I have to imagine that two music instrument manufacturers continue to sell a significant bit of product today because thirty years ago a generation of kids read in the liner notes that ‘The Hottest Band In the World’, –KISS– "uses Gibson Guitars and Pearl Drums because they want the best".

Likewise, in a March 30, 2001 article I wrote evangelizing the use of Sonic Branding, titled Branding With Audio, and published by Internet marketing resource, I wrote: Oats may be oats, but if I'm making babies to your music, then chances are my babies will be eating your oats.

And keep in mind that not every dollar of any given ad buyer's promotional budget is necessarily meant to translate into a direct sale. Coca Cola's sponsorship of The Charlie Rose show doesn't translate into direct sales, but it does translate into a general feeling of goodwill that may spur a Coke sale in the future, and perhaps even a lifelong relationship with the brand. Isn't a lifelong relationship with the people who enjoy their music what every artist wants, too?

For a band, if a relationship with a product or service can be contextualized by the public as a collaborative promotion rather than as a paid endorsement by one party of another ('selling out'), then perhaps a band can benefit from being framed as representing the essence of a certain aspirational lifestyle. The worst that can happen is probably not a career killer for the band, nor the brand. Even if the public does not wholeheartedly embrace the relationship, then at the very least one might expect a bit of fame, notoriety and/or interest to sustain the next stage of market evolution for either party, even if the two partners chose to part ways after one campaign.

Consider rockstar Sting's collaboration with Jaguar. The campaign left no doubt that both Jaguar and Sting are luxury items. Maybe you can't afford a Lexus, but you can afford a Sting album. Press play; close your eyes, and now who needs a car to bask in the rich and global lifestyle package Sting represents?

True, I may never listen to Sting again without thinking of Jaguar, –and such associations would be problematic for some artists– but in the case of Sting and Jaguar, this pairing doesn't necessarily distract from my enjoyment of the artist's music. This means that Jaguar's dollar, or pound, stretches quite far, well beyond the actual campaign and will possibly even resonate across the Artist's new works and future appearances. For Sting, the association reinforces the public perception of his position as a celestial body in the Rock universe. It is precisely because the collaboration paired two equitable archetypal figures, and presented them as creative collaborators, that their past partnership will continue to serve each to great mutual advantage.

* * *

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the three-part November 2007 MUSIC AS COLLATERAL series exploring exploring the new paradigms for Music Distribution:

Part 1: Compatible Archetypes
Part 2: Collaborative Marketing Concepts for Musicians
Part 3: The Hottest Brand in the World

Collaborative Marketing Concepts for Musicians

In the past I’ve defined the following general concepts: ‘Strategic Audio Partnerships’; the artists that participate in them ‘Rock Brands’; sponsors who commission such works regardless of a return future endorsement or mention, as following a ‘Medici Model’; and the distribution method ‘Camelback Collateral’, because the music isn’t selling itself, but rather being carried into the home via another sale.

Aspects of all these concepts are increasingly being referred to as Branded Content, and can also be found in '360° deals'. That said, the term 'branded content' as often as not refers to works in which the content itself integrates the brand in some way, for instance as presenting a name brand product as a pivotal plot element of a TV show, or a scripted use by an actor; –and not simply as presented in ads during commercial breaks.

According to the London based Branded Content Marketing Association, "Branded content is ideas that bring entertainment value to brands and that integrate brands into entertainment."

Branded content has been around a long, long time. As media strategist Tessa Weggert reminds us in her article, Advertorial's Kissing Cousin, branded content can also refer to entertaining or informative content produced, controlled and published –and therefore 'framed' or 'contextualized'– by an advertiser. Think of, for instance, the articles you might find in a health and fitness newsletter provided by a pharmaceutical company, or even your local gym or family doctor. The actual content maybe factual and otherwise neutral, but it's been brought to you by a brand, even if that brand is your own family doctor.

360° deals typically describe a relationship whereby a record label will play a larger role in an artist's development in return for a share of profits that includes merchandise, touring and other streams of revenue.

To learn more about 360° deals, read Jeff Leeds excellent New York Times, November 11, 2007 article, The New Deal: Band as Brand.

In contrast, the concepts of Strategic Audio Partnerships and Rock Brands describe Artist relationships with 3rd party sponsors for the purpose of bringing entertainment value to brands but stopping short of a reciprocal integration of those brands back into the artist's entertainment or works. These third party sponsors may or may not be active participants in the production of a collaborative marketing venture with an artist, but the artist (and his or her creative and/or management team) certainly is; and this thereby defines the Artist not simply as musician/s under contract for an endorsement deal, but as an independent marketing consultant/s at the helm of their own brand, regardless of what kind of relationship they might have with a record label.

* * *

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the three-part November 2007 MUSIC AS COLLATERAL series exploring exploring the new paradigms for Music Distribution:

Part 1: Compatible Archetypes
Part 2: Collaborative Marketing Concepts for Musicians
Part 3: The Hottest Brand in the World

Music as Collateral: Compatible Archetypes

In previous articles I’ve suggested that collaborations between artists and ‘Ad Buyers’ –businesses that provide products and/or services (and their advertising agencies– are one way musicians might be subsidized by corporate sponsors other than a traditional record label; or alternately serve as their record label; or work in tandem with a record label or management company, but 'outside' the traditional music industry universe.

I’ve also knocked around ideas in an attempt to forecast how future Ad Buyer/Artist relationships might veer away from the current endorsement deal model, and become more collaborative. Traditional endorsement responsibilities can be perceived as hawking by fans and thus damage credibility. Likewise, sponsorships appear most effective when sponsors appear carefully selected by an artist, –and not accepted on the basis of monetary valuation alone.

Consider National Public Radio: Sponsorships are never construed as inherent endorsements by a program, host, celebrity or even the network. But the context in which such sponsorships are presented results in all sponsors framed if not as caring contributors concerned with 'giving something back', then simply as neutral supporters of the arts.

In like manner, I think that providing music as a complimentary gift that accompanies a purchase of either a product or service by a provider who also subsidizes either the artist or artist production may be but one method that music production and promotion in the future will be funded and distributed, with positive effect for both artist and sponsor.

You don't need a strategic partner to make this happen, however. An independent artist might move product in combination with the sales of their own branded merchandise.

What is important is that whether the music is distributed via Artist merch or via a relationship with a partner, it should never be referred to as a ‘freebie’. Perhaps it is framed as a gift, –perhaps as ‘complimentary’ with one’s purchase, or some other term or tag to be decided, but never as a valueless giveaway. A giveaway yes, but one that came at some expense to the giver, and from a giver who actually cares and connects with the gift. This is important: both music and purchase must relate to one another in some credible manner, as I’ll explain presently:

Presently when we purchase music, we buy it for it’s own sake. For instance, you buy a Jay-Z CD because you like his music. And when we buy a product or commission a service, we buy that for it’s own sake, too. One purchases a certain car because you like that make and model, or it serves a utilitarian purpose in one’s life. I think there is an increasing opportunity for both artist and ad buyer to connect with consumers and fans by providing what I might call a ‘lifestyle package’.

In an advertisement for a lifestyle package, the product might be a car, and the soundtrack a licensed piece of music by a certain band. But in contrast to the yesteryear model, whereby the licensed music supported the filmed story, product demo or brand message, in the new model the product and the artist whose music is being used will support each other. Sting's 2000 promotional collaboration with Jaguar represents one relatively recent and notable example of lifestyle packaging between auto manufacturer and rock brand. Likewise, the 2007 Lexus campaign featuring Elvis Costello and Diana Krall.

Ideally, both brand and band serve to sell each other.

Core Costello fans from the artist's punk past might feel affronted by the ads, but his new base probably thinks it's wonderful to see their favorite artist on TV again, in any capacity. Televised promotions are additionally beneficial to the artist because commercials serve to function as an artist's video, and are produced at no cost to artist.

For an example of a lopsided pairing, recall the popular 2000 VW ad that used Nick Drake's song PINK MOON as its soundtrack. In the end, the ad proved better as a music video for Drake than it did as an ad for VW. Simply put, the commercial did more to rehabilitate Drake's career than it did to sell Volkswagens. Not to mention that no one at the time could seem to remember that the ads were actually promoting a specific model, the VW Cabrio.

I suspect that the entire VW 'Drivers Want It' campaign, which featured exceptionally tasteful music choices across a series of quirky spots, did much to keep the music industry afloat with new sales at a time when Napster was biting off big chunks of its bottom line. Meanwhile, VW fired the ad agency that developed the campaign because their cars were collecting dust on lots.

For a strategic relationship between brand and band to work, and benefit both parties, both brand and band must represent compatible archetypes. It will not work when an artist is used to drive sales by overtly pitching products or services directly.

Reciprocally, it will not work when the artist’s fan base does not align with an ad buyer’s target demographic.

But it will work with positive effect when both partners in the relationship are a natural and logical fit for each other, and so long as they remember the silent parties to the contract are fans and consumers. Further, advertiser and artist must not appear to promote each other, but rather fulfill roles as symbiotic symbols in a given lifestyle arrangement, for which the target demographic is shared between both consumer base and fan base.

* * *

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the three-part November 2007 MUSIC AS COLLATERAL series exploring exploring the new paradigms for Music Distribution:

Part 1: Compatible Archetypes
Part 2: Collaborative Marketing Concepts for Musicians
Part 3: The Hottest Brand in the World

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Cinematic Reincarnation of Classical Music

If you’re already familiar with Gene Weingarten’s Washington Post article Pearls Before Breakfast, then you’re also probably aware how often it has been picked up, transmogrified and distributed since its April 2007 publication. But if you could care less about the state of classical music, you likely missed it. Here’s a recap:

The author convinced internationally acclaimed virtuoso Joshua Bell to busk inside the terminal at L’Enfant Plaza, a metro station at “the nucleus of federal Washington.” For 43 minutes beginning at 7:51 AM, Bell would play six ‘classical’ works, performing it at a level befitting his genius, and do so using a superbly crafted $3.5 million Stradivarius violin. Though Joshua would be somewhat incognito under a cap, one would think that the music would speak for itself.

As arranged by The Washington Post, this exercise was constructed as an “experiment in context, perception and priorities – as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

In other words, of the 1,097 people that passed by Joshua Bell, how many would then stop to savor the sublime beauty of a ‘classical’ performance?

As it turns out, one person recognized Bell, and a handful of others seemed to enjoy the performance, but most ignored him leaving him confounded (they didn’t stop for 'Chaconne'?), and with only a mere $32 bucks for the virtuoso’s efforts.

Forgive me if I re-frame the experiment with a bit of sarcasm, but when Washington reporters send dispatches from the nation's capital regarding the lack of taste in America, I believe one must respond with proportionate Plebeian skepticism.

Isn't it absurd of Weingard to suggest there is anything ill with our culture, based simply on a demonstrated lack of interest in anything during rush hour, other than one's commute? This is not one of those moments where we must stop and ask ourselves what does this say about us as a people. Or have we become morally bankrupt? Maybe we are, but maybe we are just busy.

The story is now getting a second life as a result of an article by Richard Taruskin wherein he makes mention of it in Books: The Musical Mystique, (from the October 22, 2007 issue of The New Republic). The article itself is a review of three books by three separate authors whose recent works all share the common lament that if classical music is not dead, it is in need of some very serious life support.

The books in review are:

Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value
By Julian Johnson

Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer’s Ears
By Joshua Fineberg

Why Classical Music Still Matters
By Lawrence Kramer

Taruskin writes an excellent article, but in delivering each author’s arguments, he neglects to define for us what any of them mean by the term ‘classical music’. He must assume readers of the article will intuit his own understanding of the term, and I’m not sure that’s the case.

It’s unclear if authors Johnson, Fineberg or Kramer mean subscription sales to regional orchestras are down? Or if interest in new musical works no longer spark interest by a ticket buying public? Or if the problem is simply that orchestral music in general no longer retains the cultural significance we think it once did… When was this? Two hundred years ago? A hundred years ago? Was anyone alive today when this mythical Golden Age took place?

Since Taruskin doesn't provide a definition, I will offer one, which will suffice for this article and an argument that follows briefly. First let me suggest that definitions are not born in an Oxford English Dictionary Think Tank, but rather arise out of general usage. If we accept this assumption –I think it is a fair one– then I will further suggest that generally speaking, ‘classical music’ is considered to be any music that sounds ‘symphonic’.

Music historians will argue the term 'classical' may only apply to those works composed from the middle eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. But that would mean J.S. Bach is not a classical composer, and that may in fact be the case, strickly speaking. Regardless, any explanation directed at the masses whereby experts draw an imaginary line between Bach and Mozart is going to sound a lot like trying to explain to fans of blues music how techno and electro are completely different. Such differences may be strikingly evident to aficionados, but they are ignored by the general public. Get used to it.

That said, far be it from me to dissuade anyone who can offer a better, concise definition of ‘classical music’ that meets a standard for general usage. Meaning, such a definition would have to be broad enough to include Mozart, Weber and Reich, yet narrow enough to exclude Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and the other Weber, –Andrew Lloyd.

You know what? ‘Symphonic’ works for me, too, and even allows Drew to the party.

Of the Washington Post experiment, Taruskin tells us he thinks for all its weaknesses it was nevertheless ‘instructive’. He explains: “It offered answers to those who wonder why classical music now finds itself friendless in its moment of self-perceived crisis--a long moment that has given rise in recent years to a whole literature of elegy and jeremiad.”

But I think it therein lies a problem. It is only instructive if one is not just a member of those interested in classical music, but a member of those interested in preserving classical music in its current format –and I’m not so sure once we get these people talking to each other, that we'll arrive at any consensus about what that is.

If one takes a broader view, one might actually come to the conclusion that classical music is not dead, but actually thriving. This is an idea I’ve also suggested about jazz (Jazz is Dead! Jazz is Dead! Long Live Jazz!), in response to hearing some cats bemoan of that genre’s apparent lack of notable press and pubic prestige.

Unlike jazz, though, classical music has always been sponsor driven, the church and royal benefactors being notable examples.

May I suggest that such sponsorships have been replaced by movie producers, advertising agencies and creators of electronic games, and that the modern version of the proverbial boor who ‘hates classical music’ often as not enjoys both the theme to Star Wars and the theme for Final Fantasy.

In a very real way, classical music, musicians and composers have flourished as never before. Only now, the music serves a utilitarian use as support or enhancement to other multimedia platforms; the musicians pay union dues; and the composers find inspiration locking to picture. Cinema, one could say, if only in retrospect, is Opera configured for the 20th century mass audience.

It's arguable that only a small percentage of scores are engaging on their own, once we remove the visual element. Hmm, not unlike Operas, I’d wager. But given the global output of such media, even a very tiny percentage of works would more than prove the point: Classical Music is alive and well, thank you very much.

By that I don’t just mean that there remains a subscription audience for reinterpretations of 18th century works, but that well-paid professional composers are creating new works every day and there are numerous compositions which have been well received, and their recordings purchased, by a general public.

Maybe you were too swept up in the accompanying car chase to realize you were also listening to a timewarped march for Timpani and French Horns?

As to the issue of ticket sales for live performances, consider that the current regional orchestra sustains a rather limited repertoire of ‘popular classics’. Meanwhile, one could easily find any number of contemporary film scores to enhance that repertoire, and which might possibly serve to generate interest in new, younger potential patrons (if that is your goal).

Several possibilities immediately come to mind: Gottfried Huppertz’s score for Fritz Lang’s Weimar classic, METROPOLIS; Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score for Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO; Music from the STAR WARS Saga by John Williams; and Philip Glass’s minimalist work for Godfrey Reggi’s KOYAANISQATSI.

For other ideas, look to John Caps’ article SOUNDTRACKS 101, from the November-December 2003 issue of Film Comment magazine offered up an ‘Essential List of 101 Great Film Score Milestones from the years spanning 1933-2001’.

If there is any obstacle keeping more substantial scores from entering the classical canon, it is not the fact of their inherent utilitarian purpose, but rather that so many of them were actually modeled on pre-existing works. Such modeling from 'temp tracks' (usually thrown up against picture during editing) is a common process in the making of film and video. While some scores born from a model might actually turn out to be highly original works, many suffer from mediocrity. Not so, however with Psycho, for though it bears striking similarities with Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ it is a singularly brilliant work, even in comparison.

Another score may possess the necessary brilliance for live performance, but its elements remain disparate musical cues all but waiting for the composer or a gifted arranger to assemble them into a suite, perhaps, or some other conventional form.

The funny thing about Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi is that Weingard actually mentioned it by name in the aforementioned Washington Post article. However, he did not offer it as an example of classical music with mainstream popular appeal (because his point appears to be that there's no such thing). Instead he suggests the movie’s theme, imagery and content (an examination of ‘Life out of Balance’) compose a filmic parallel to the Washington Post's foray into busking.

“Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggie takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere. Now look at the video from L’Enfant Plaza, in fast-forward. The Philip Glass soundtrack fits it perfectly.”

The Philip Glass soundtrack is also a classical work (at least by the definition I set forth here) –the movie itself is essentially a music video for Glass– and enjoys worldwide sales of the CD and DVD. That I think makes a stronger statement regarding the status of classical music –and its future– than trying to find meaning in the lack of interest with a fiddler at rush hour.

The fact of the matter is, Koyaanisqatsi is a popular work by any standard, and has probably been seen and heard by more people in the 25 years since it was released than the number of people who have heard J.S. Bach’s complete repertoire in the composer's own lifetime.

Technology has made everything more popular. Even classical music.

I know what you’re thinking, that neither Star Wars nor Koyaanisqatsi are ‘classical’ enough (for you!). If that is the case, allow me to reiterate my presumption that the likely standard held by the general audience is: Classical music is music, which sounds ‘symphonic’.

With obvious exceptions, cinematic scores frequently meet this standard. Within the body of such scores, there are a significant number which are suitable for concert and possess the wherewithal substance for consideration into the canon.

The music is alive, I’m sure of it. Maybe it's the intellectuals that are dead.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

It’s a Cut and Paste World

From Photoshop to ProTools: We live in a Cut and Paste world.

Modern music making tools –synthesizers, samplers and digital audio workstations– draw a striking parallel to cameras, scanners and software applications such as those provided by Adobe; Illustrator and Photoshop for instance.

Think of a camera or scanner as samplers, and Photoshop a Digital Workstation for its ability to manipulate, enhance and process media elements into a composite whole.

One interesting side effect of modern image and audio production tools is that their use often allows amateurs to create images or sound works that are as entertaining and engaging to behold as those produced by a master artisan.

Some argue audio samples and their use by electronic musicians cannot even be described as a legitimate art. [The Artistic Legitimacy of Electronic Music]

Consider, though, the photographer who captures an image. You might say he samples it. He may present it later unadulterated, as a journalist might, or manipulate it into a unique photo collage. Who would deny the photographer his claim to art? Not I. After all, the camera didn't take the picture, the photographer did!

I've come to consider samples in the same vein I think of stock photography: Convenient and useful when producing commercial art under a deadline and limited budget; or as source material for a collage.

Being a Rauschenberg fan I absolutely consider the art of collage to be Art with a capital 'A', and I think of it is every bit as substantial as masterwork paintings, sculptures, or any other kind of work.

I tend to think of every human action as resulting in art, too, but I'll leave that one for another blog entry.

Not everyone feels the way I do. Some will argue that a collagist begins with found elements, and beginning with 'something' therefore makes one's job 'easier' than say, a traditional painter who they will argue must create an image from scratch, –'out of nothing' so to speak.

But master collagists aren't simply reproducing verbatim the existing works of others and then offering exact reproductions as their own original works of art. Rather, they modify and manipulate images into something new; they may certainly build on existing images by adding their own original enhancements, too; but what I find really intriguing is how they create new context around existing media that somehow transforms them by transforming the very idea of them.

The result can be extremely engaging and intellectually sustentative, and otherwise engages a viewer to an equivalent degree as would the original source/s, and perhaps even more so.

One could argue that curators and people who frame pictures do the same thing. Well, there is art in that, too. Oh, I hear a collective groan out there, but consider this:

In a very elemental sense art is nothing more than the presentation of one or more ideas whose juxtaposition against one another serves to communicate a composite concept. The addition of a frame to an artwork often serves to underscore, emphasize or otherwise enhance the artist's original communique by demanding that one focus on the presentation itself, at the exclusion of other concepts competing in the space. Examples follow: A frame around a picture; a stage in a theater; a movie or television screen; or even the civic space around a city sculpture. Anyone who is a fan of dance or drama has experienced the marked difference of watching the same choreography or play performed in a black box contrasted with under a proscenium arch.

A curator selects several complete works as his or her palette. Using the exhibit space itself as the 'frame', their juxtaposition against one another implies a connection, or causes us to create one. The curator's work results in the transmission of a new communication. Perhaps it is an idea about the works themselves, –their relationship with one another. Or perhaps once completed the display conveys nothing about the works themselves, but rather uses the collective artworks to deliver some sort of unified social commentary.

Hip Hop artists, for another example, use loops to frame samples, and may juxtapose samples from various sources within a single musical work. The individual samples themselves may be unmodified by the musical collagist, but their inclusion within one single work changes the context by which our brains consume them. The result is a transformation of the original communication into something new and if not wholly different, potentially and substantially original in concept.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Artistic Legitimacy of Electronic Music

Rap collective Wu Tang Clan made pop music history the other day by winning the right to license a sample from the Beatles. This event precipitated an argument in online music industry forum, the Velvet Rope, which pitched music production traditionalists against electronic musicians regarding the artistic legitimacy of modern production techniques.

Essentially the question is this:

Is music created by electronic means as legitimate as that which is created by traditional means?

It seems like a straightforward enough question, but given the relatively short history of recording itself, I was only able to arrive at a definition of ‘traditional means’ after some thought. And it’s quite an unwieldy definition, but here it goes:

Traditional Means of Music Production: Performed by live musicians expertly interpreting a previously written musical composition, whether together or one at a time, at the direction of a dedicated Producer, Engineer and/or Creative Director, which is then recorded in a multi-track environment; and its component elements modified, mixed and prepared for radio, broadcast or other distribution so that the resulting composite recording is simultaneously experienced upon playback as both a precise document of that moment in time, and as the best and most definitive performance possible of the composition in question by the artist/s performing it.

Contrast this process with the philosophy that defines ‘modern electronic music production’:

Modern electronic music production accepts that all sound sources –music, machine, noise, environmental sound, conversation and even prerecorded sounds– constitute viable elemental material for the experimental collage and composition into audio works, and that such resulting works are in fact musical in nature.

The irony of the contrasting definitions is that the latter methodology, in the form of musique concrète, wasn’t an afterthought but born nearly simultaneously alongside traditional means of music production. By this I mean the development of musique concrète occurred at roughly the same time as reel-to reel recording gained popularity. By this perspective so-called modern production isn’t so much traditional music production’s younger sibling as it is its fraternal twin.

That said, let us say that traditional musicianship, composition, arranging, theory, engineering/audio production are unique and expansive fields of study such that any one will consume one’s entire energies in order for a person to master it to one’s fullest potential. This has been demonstrated to substantial effect countless times.

By that standard, an electronic musician, being one whose craftsmanship draws from across all these skill sets, cannot possibly master them all, or even just one if he or she attempts to continue a cursory study of each. Therefore, the syllabus of an electronic musician results not in a virtuoso but produces a musical generalist.

This is by no means such a bad thing:

Walk into any modern music production facility and you’ll invariably find a musical jack-of-all-trades playing all the instruments of a composition he or she composed, arranged and/or programmed; dropping in samples and sound effects; directing other various musicians, singers and sound designers; producing a broadcast ready arrangement work. The result may sound like an experimental electronic music band one day, or it may sound like a jazz ensemble, classical orchestra or hip-hop track the next.

One might further note that any performance, no matter how traditional, –how live or alive– once transformed into an electrical current by pickup or microphone becomes ‘electronic music’.

This last point is exceptionally demonstrated by African band Konono N°1, founded over 25 years ago and who play traditional instruments through a handmade sound system –built from old car parts, megaphones and discarded amps (!). Each band member’s individual performance is traditional, but the effect of the collective amplified performance –as it spills out of the speakers– is a distorted, distressed Pan Africa Post Modern sound that is deeply infectious and absolutely electronic.

Follow this train of thought long enough and one invariably loses one's mooring regarding what is and isn't traditional; what is and isn't modern; what is and isn't electronic. In fact, come to think of it:

Isn't all music, once conducted through a pick up or microphone, electronic?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sound Byte: Singing Dunes, Seismic Sands and Dirt that Goes Boom

Bedouin, desert dwellers, sand surfers and those just passing through –like Marco Polo– have heard the eerie phenomenon of shifting sands. In National Geographic’s Why Sand Dunes Go Boom, Stefan Lovgren writes:

"Tribes of the Sahara in Africa are said to have thought God was speaking to them through the sand."

As it happens, there are several theories revolving the source of the sound, God simply being the earliest documented conjecture. A 1954 hypothesis suggests the effect is achieved by the production of electrical currents by quartz grains under mechanical stress. –Sort of like a pick up on a classical guitar, I'd like to imagine, whether true or false.

Modern theories were aggregated in a September 1997 Scientific American article Sound-Producing Sand Avalanches. In that article Paul Sholtz, Michael Bretz and Franco Nori ( Department of Physics, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) provide an ‘Analysis of the theories and experiments done so far on sound-producing (e.g., roaring, booming) sand avalanches’. The authors begin with an encapsulated history of the topic:

"There exist two distinct types of sand that are known to produce manifest acoustic emissions when sheared. The more common of the two, known colloquially as "squeaking" or "whistling" sand, produces a short (< 1/4 sec), high-frequency (500-2500 Hz) "squeak" when sheared or compressed. It is fairly common in occurrence, and can be found at numerous beaches, lake shores and riverbeds around the world. The other, rarer type of sound-producing sand occurs principally in large, isolated dunes deep in the desert (Nori et al.,1996; Criswell et al., 1975). The loud, low-frequency (typically 50-300 Hz) acoustic output of this "booming" sand, resultant upon avalanching, has been the subject of desert folklore and legend for centuries."

Even more esoteric:

"Marco Polo (1295) wrote of evil desert spirits which "at times fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms." References can be found dating as far back as the Arabian Nights (Carus-Wilson, 1915), and as recently as the science fiction classic Dune (Herbert, 1984). Charles Darwin (1889) also makes mention of it in his classic Voyages of the Beagle . At least 31 desert and back-beach booming dunes have been located in North and South America, Africa, Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and the Hawaiian Islands (Lindsay et al., 1976; Miwa and Okazaki, 1995).

Sharply contrasting differences between squeaking and booming sands have led to a consensus that although both types of sand produce manifest acoustic emissions, their respective sounding mechanisms must be substantially different. More recent laboratory production of "squeaks" in booming sand (Haff, 1979) has nonetheless suggested a closer connection between the two mechanisms. A satisfactory explanation for either type of acoustic activity is still unavailable."

Even a decade later, in Matthew Chalmers' November 2006 Physics World article, The Troubled Song of the Sand Dunes, we learn the basic question of what makes the sand sing still hasn’t been answered. Chalmers writes of a researcher, Stéphane Douady, having to ‘trawl’ through the scientific literature in order to come up with a meager 10 papers relating the acoustic emission of sand dunes:

"But despite some articles also predicting that the sound comes from the relative motion of sand grains, none offered a convincing explanation of how this happens…Singing dunes, he thought, were the result of air being pushed in and out between the synchronized grains… effectively turning it into the membrane of a powerful loudspeaker."

Douady’s idea was supported by an observation that sand only sings when sand layers above a certain thickness slide over one another.

"This, he reasoned, means that the sound must arise from a resonance within the shear layer itself, whereby grains bump over each other at the same frequency and set up standing waves that, in turn, synchronize the grains."

But Douady’s equally passionate colleague, Bruno Andreotti, looked at the same evidence and arrived at quite different conclusion:

"...the collisions between grains excite waves outside the shear layer on the dune surface that then synchronize the collisions via a mechanism called wave–particle locking."

And lets just say Andreotti backed up his argument with a bit o’ math.

Returning to National Geographic’s Lovgren, that author offers us yet another take on subject: While scientists have long believed the friction between surface grains of sand avalanching produces the sonic phenomenon, Melany Hunt, a mechanical-engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, noticed that dunes continue to sound even after surface movement has stopped, and that such sounds differs depending on the season.

So what gives?

Hunt postulates that the sometimes musical frequencies of moving sand are created when "the friction between sand grains creates a noise that reverberates back and forth between dry sand on the surface and wet sand below."

Knowing this, it is difficult not to feel a bit of irony when rereading the 1997 Scientific American article. Note of the authors' early observation:

"Booming and squeaking sands each show a markedly different response to water exposure. Booming occurs best when the grains are very dry, preferably several weeks after the last rain. Small amounts of atmospheric humidity, which creates a fluid surface coating on the grains, effectively preclude booming emissions in these desert sands (Lewis, 1936). Even mixing as little as five drops of water into a 1-liter bag full of booming sand can silence the acoustic emissions (Haff, 1979). Similarly, squeaking sand that is visibly moist is not acoustically active either.

However, sound is most easily produced from squeaking sand immediately after the grains have been "washed" in water and subsequently dried. It is not clear whether this is due to the washing away of fine impurities in the sample (Brown et al., 1961) or to the creation of a looser, more natural grain packing (Clarke, 1973), although it may explain why squeaking sand typically does not extend inland more than 30 m from the shore (Richardson, 1919). This process of cleaning can also "revive" squeaking sand that has lost its ability to squeak, a condition that often occurs after repeated compression (Hashimoto, 1951). Finally, squeaking sand can emit sound even when completely submerged in water (Lindsay et al., 1976; Brown et al., 1961), suggesting that intergranular cohesion in moist sand precludes acoustic output."

Ah, so close and yet so far: They must be kicking themselves! If Hunt is correct, it’s not that the sound is connected to the relative cleanliness of the sand, but rather to the water that sits beneath it.

I am not a scientist, of course, but as this discussion appears to be an ongoing one, I won't rule out the possibility that some combination of all the above theories is at play. Wouldn't many like think that IT IS God's voice heard in the sand?


Click the link to listen to an impressive sample of Seismic Sounds, recorded by John N. Louie, Associate Director, Nevada Seismological Laboratory.

Stéphane Douady and Bruno Andreotti, both, have also created their own respective great pages to hear dune sounds–

Stéphane Douady: Chant des Dunes
Bruno Andreotti: Morphodynamics Lab The Song of Dunes

Friday, August 10, 2007

Six Requirements for Sonic Logos

According to his company's website:

"Steff Geissbuhler is among America’s most celebrated designers of integrated brand and corporate identity programs. His work for a broad spectrum of international and national clients includes identity systems for Merck, Time Warner Cable, NBC, Telemundo, Voice of America, Toledo Museum of Art, National Parks of New York Harbor, Crane & Co. and the May Department Stores Company. Prior to forming C&G Partners, he was a partner and principal at Chermayeff & Geismar Inc. for 30 years".

I agree with Geissbuhler when he suggests during a presentation at the HOW Conference in Atlanta, that:

“A successful mark is informed by a deep strategic understanding and is deliberately designed to provide a distinctive, memorable and appropriate visual expression of the organization it represents.”

Geissbuhler’s breaks logo requirements down into six main categories.

Each category can also be applied to Sonic Branding and Audio Identity assignments (perhaps change #2, 'Legible' to 'Articulate' or 'Clear', in order to more fully relate to audio expression).

1. Appropriate
2. Legible
3. Memorable
4. Flexible
5. Consistent
6. Lasting

To my mind, Geissbuhler only falls short when neglecting to also add that a great logo also requires acceptance (by audience/consumer/user). Maybe he does so elsewhere. Personally, I'm of the opinion that a logo doesn't actually become BRANDING until it becomes an accepted currency by consumers. –Meaning that ideogram or audiogram becomes synonymous with company, product or service.

For instance: Consider what it must take to coin a word for a heretofore-unarticulated concept. It's not enough to point out the necessity of the concept, or to even come up with the actual neologism. You must also create a word that other people will agree to use.

In other words, the word/symbol has to circulate.

Regardless, Geissbuhler gives good advice, and members of the creative class engaged in sonic branding, sound identity and audio mnemonics –be they music designers or brand analysts– would ignore it at their own peril.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sound Byte: Tonal Rain Falling From Cathedral Space

I would not say it was a religious trip, but when I first visited St. John the Divine, in 1991, I was blessed to be present for a profound acoustic experience. As soon as I entered the Cathedral I noticed an oddly beautiful music drifting through the sanctuary. As I made my way from the back of the nave, I naturally assumed my visit coincided with an experimental rehearsal of some kind.

The music emanated from an unseen location near the altar. It was certainly chromatic, even microtonal, and I could not decide if I was listening to a harp or sitar. Either way, it did not strike me as dissonant.

The melody of the unknown artist moved in un-metered fashion, which is to say, it had no particular rhythm or tempo.

It was New Age but not naive.
It was complex without being overly intellectual.
Fractal-sounding motifs simply floated in the background, like a gentle tonal rain.

Its effect on me was absolutely transcendent. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to find the source of this incredibly different music.

When I finally I arrived, I stepped upon the altar, and I discovered:

A man tuning a piano.

Guided by the tuner's ears, each awkward tone echoed over the next, until the sum created a constant blanket of sound waves whose only connection with each other, was that each represented an approximate step closer to what you and I think of as being ‘in tune’.

It occurred to me then, as it does so now, that we who live in a post modern age, where musicians often play through computers and effects; where jets and media enable both physical and virtual travel to cultures quite distinct form our own… perhaps now even the public's ears are so open that there really is no longer a distinction between sound and music, but rather –to paraphrase French composer Edgard Varèse– between sound that is well organized and sound that is not.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Sacred Jazz Modern Jazz

If one had attended the Ascension Ceremony for Alice Coltrane at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, in New York City last night, and unwittingly entered that sacred space head filled with boy bands, pop tarts or rock stars; then the performances by Rashied Ali, Ravi Coltrane, Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden and Cecil McBee, among others, would have turned your head off its axis, emptied it of crap and filled it up again with soul-satisfying inspiration.

Actual performances aside, I found it intensely interesting to experience jazz music in a Cathedral space –or what ever that thing is that Alice Coltrane called her uniquely styled be bop. As it happens, the music producer in me never turns off his ears.

Sound engineers and music professionals perceive large floor spaces, tall ceilings and hard surfaces as problematic, because such architecture causes sound to reverberate, and therefore reduces intelligibility. Contemporary music in particular –where every voice pursues a discrete sonic thread, and perhaps even dances along to its own polyrhythm– suffers greatly from reverberation produced distortion. (Assuming one is of the opinion that such music is not inherently made that way, either by intent or error).

That said, composers who write for such venues must necessarily compensate for echoing enclosures. It is no coincidence that music written specifically for church, such as chants and hymns, work as well as it does. That is because those who conceived such music take into account the particular acoustic issues presented by the architecture, and may actually rely on the space’s natural ability to produce reverberations.

Our modern or popular equivalent is the stadium, or sports arena. These spaces also present the same problem to both musicians and listeners. However, as with faith-based composers, popular artists have learned to create music that plays especially well in such venues. Rock bands like U2 certainly bear stadia acoustics in mind when constructing their songs. When the reverberant energy produced by The Edge’s guitar returns from the bleachers, it seems as much a part of the original composition as the source information, so perfectly does it fit within the music’s made-for-stadia form.

However, those who write with smaller or less reverberant venues in mind, might be disconcerted when hearing each note or phrase of their work return corrupted by repeating audible echoes slamming back a moment later from far off parallel walls.

Perhaps some at Alice Coltrane’s memorial service, performers and audience alike, thought as much, too.

However, though the delayed and repeating echoes may have proved problematic for others, they did not spoil the performance for me, but just the opposite. Rather, I heard music contoured by a greatly interesting aural effect. It struck me then that a musician playing in a church may as well be playing through the church, if you can think of the space as an effects unit of mammoth proportions, and if one is talented enough to understand what material works in such a space.

The result was that the distorted echoes of each musical phrase returned off the walls to layer, and therefore accompany, every musician's evolving performance, so that a Rashied Ali drum fill, a Charlie Haden motif or a Coltrane sax passage –to serve as various examples– echoed over an evolving score, and seemingly in time, as if one rhythm or phrase were being consciously looped over another.

This was different, I thought, this music in this setting, hearing it with open ears: and yet, not so different, because the net sonic result so closely resembled the way contemporary music is often made today –with layers and loops, artfully or oddly processed as the case may be.

All of which is to say, this be bop may be old hat to some – but last night, far removed from its usual setting of velvet lined dives around the world, jazz transformed by the mysterious acoustics of St. John the Divine suddenly sounded very new, very modern and very much alive.

And it may be that Alice Coltrane will always deliver us a revelation.