“Money, It’s a Hit”

Food and time off aside, the last week has been exciting on the internet regarding the music industry’s economic realities, particularly surrounding various levels of indie music. (I use “indie” lightly, so don’t waste time getting in touch to nit-pick stylistic differences.) In short: Jack Conte of Pomplamoose wrote a frank article detailing the finances of a recent tour, breaking down how much was spent, how much was earned, and what remained (or, in this case, didn’t remain). I was glad he wrote it, even if I did find some of the expenses suspect. (Boiled down, taking music on the road is a large expense in more ways than just financially, but at least light is being shed somewhere.) Quickly, however, a bevy of critical and informed responses were written, including those by Spencer Lee on Medium, Nick Woods on Noisey, and Will Stevenson on Alternative Press. Each response, like the original article, had its pros and cons, but I must admit that I overall side with the respondents, particularly Stevenson. (And I went in completely ignorant of and agnostic about Pomplamoose’s music. I made a cursory attempt to listen after reading the post, but quickly finding an original tune was like finding a needle in the band’s haystack of covers. So I gave up.)

The above four articles speak for themselves; I needn’t summarize and fisk them all here. I encourage you to read them if you have the time. And if you don’t, at least read Conte’s and Stevenson’s. This blog isn’t a link repository, and regular readers should know that I don’t try to throw out click bait to chase the day’s stories. Also, I’m not a road warrior living life on tour. But, regular readers may know that I’m an advocate for paying for music and musicians getting paid (e.g., here, here, and here), so this discussion very much grabs my attention. Besides, it touches upon a related area that I’ve been meaning to start exploring for some time now.

Before continuing, it’s worth mentioning the recent brief but jam-packed Borghi | Teager East Coast Tour in the above articles’ context. Our completely DIY affair had us on the road in my Honda Fit for one week to perform seven sets over four days (or five, depending on if you count 4:00 AM Sunday to be Saturday night or Sunday morning), bookended by a day of travel (i.e. driving) on each end with a day of partial rest before returning home. We stayed with friends except for one night in a hotel that was redeemed with points, three of our seven sets were radio engagements (i.e., no payment of any sort), and we managed to come home with a net profit. A noteworthy feat, considering we perform a style of music that lacks a thriving live scene (ahem, aforementioned indie musicians). We benefit from being a nimble and easily mobile outfit, but it’s still notable.

I mentioned that this whole mess related to something that’s been gnawing at me for a long while, particularly in recent months, and that’s the role of money in artistic creative work. More specifically, the intersection of:
– The real and necessary costs associated with making art (in my case, music).
– The economy of real “indie” and local/regional music and musicians.
(- The evolution and nurturing of a “scene.”)
– Higher education and work as an adjunct professor.
– What “making it” actually means to me, if it means anything.
– Public and private financial support of the arts.

Answers to these issues and questions certainly won’t be offered or discovered in this quick post. And most questions will remain untyped also. If nothing else, I’ll at least mention what got me fixated on this topic more acutely than before…

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to see the gallery exhibition of Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. (I was unable to see the actual film/opera, but the associated artworks were in a standing show for several months. This is an interesting video about it should you have the time.) Without getting too tangential, I was in awe of the work and would love to someday have the opportunity to see the opera. Some of the sculptures on display in the gallery were a result of the largest non-industrial molten pour on record, engineered by Barney himself. That’s more than just an inspired man or woman in a private studio with marble, hammer, and chisel. Rather, it’s a robust micro-economy and industry functioning to realize one man’s creative vision over years. Barney can of course afford to do this, but there are few others who can. That, in itself, is okay. I was and remain moved by this work. However, in just a few rooms in a gallery in Munich, the financial and time-consuming demands of art were perfectly crystallized.

Yeah, I know…all this coming from a Wagnerian. Good point. But what would’ve come of dear Richard if it weren’t for wealthy patrons?

Barney and Wagner (and all other A-listers) aside, how can local or regional (or internet-equivalent) artists secure the considerable capital needed to positively invest in their work? (And by “positively invest,” I mean walk away from the project’s end in the black, not the red.) Kickstarter and FundAnything are nice, but it’s the digital passing of the hat. I don’t see how that can be predictably sustainable in the long-term, especially when Big Art co-opts them (e.g., Zach Braff and Amanda Palmer). Streaming and the cloud threaten purchased, curated libraries. Exorbitant fees and everyday life interfere with live performances. Hope remains, of course. Louis CK and Thom Yorke have helped lead the economic front lines in their respective fields to chart new territory, among others. (Yorke’s latest album is heaven, by the way…) Comedian Paul F. Tompkins‘s model of crowdsourcing live performances is also novel. Possibilities abound, but we’re still very much in the discovery phase (and will likely always be, to some extent).

More to come…


Jake Shimabukuro in Ann Arbor on 11.19.14

A heads-up on another interesting show coming to Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium. Ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro will, like Bob James last week, make his UMS debut Wednesday evening.

Jake has been recording and touring since the late 90s. While it seems as though the music industry has reached peak ukulele saturation over the last few years (e.g., Eddie Vedder and Dave Matthews catching up with Paul McCartney), Shimabukuro was well ahead of that curve. His fame was initially limited to Hawaii and Japan, but the pan-stylist broke through US media in 2006 by becoming one of YouTube’s first viral stars via his compelling solo rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” (13M views and counting…) Curiously, It’s interesting that Jake first broke through to the mainstream by covering a song by Harrison, whose ukulele now tours with McCartney.

If you’re new to Shimabukuro and even the slightest bit interested in the man or the music, I suggest the 2012 documentary Life On Four Strings (which is available via Netflix, among other outlets). It not only covers his biography but also offers a glimpse into the touring musician’s solitary life on the road. Here is a trailer:

His music has something for everyone: musicians can enjoy the virtuosity, connoisseurs will appreciate the content and arrangements, and his accessibility will draw in the everyday listener of all stripes. This cocktail promises to make Wednesday evening at Hill Auditorium a treat for all who attend.

See him Wednesday evening at 8:00 PM. Ticket info here.

MTH-V: Bob James Live | UMS Debut on 11.15.14

This post is also a plug for a show happening in Ann Arbor this Saturday. Legendary keyboardist Bob James will be returning to his alma mater for a night of music in a quintet setting. This performance caps off his recently being awarded the 2014 School of Music Theater & Dance Hall of Fame Alumni Award.

Some readers may consider James to be an odd choice for this blog, but there is a related thread that’s run through a few posts here. I do have a soft spot for so-called “smoother” styles. For example: an early video post featured David Sanborn, Marcus Miller has had a couple posts, a recent post extolled the virtues of Steely Dan, and Tom Scott & The L.A. Express have also been highlighted. And, coming down the pike, I intend to throw more Sanborn, some blue-eyed soul and more yacht rock, and even a dash of Candy Dulfer into the mix. What does this have to do with Bob James? Well, though I was completely unconscious of it at the time, his “Angela” was the first tune to get that sound in my head while I regularly watched Taxi reruns as a small boy. And I remember the first time I knowingly heard the full studio cut of “Angela” in the wild (on the radio), and having a name to associate with the tune, was while night-driving solo through Seattle in my early twenties. (I had heard Fourplay and other groups of his, but didn’t really put the pieces together to know it was him.) I remember thinking that after so many years of hearing short clips of his music, I was very impressed – stunned, even, – by just how hard it grooved. And, coming full circle, the aforementioned “smooth” figures and their associates, many of whom have been featured on this site in some capacity, round out the Bob James milieu of the late 70s, having been in his orbit in one way or another. 1978’s Touchdown is a good example of this.

Here’s a somewhat recent live clip of James performing in Seoul, South Korea with bassist Nathan East and guitarist Jack Lee. It’s nice to hear him performing it on piano:

I mentioned at the outset that this is also a plug for his upcoming show at University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium Saturday night as part of this season’s UMS series. (UMS has provided great memories for me over the years as well as some good content for this blog, particularly regarding Einstein on the Beach – one of this site’s through lines – and Charles Lloyd.) In fact, it will be the alumnus’s UMS debut. He talks a little about his music, background, and upcoming show here:

I particularly enjoy (and agree with) this quote: “You gotta make people dance first. If [the audience] are not pattin’ their foot, there’s something wrong with what we’re doing: we’re not in the pocket.” Piggybacking on that, UofM’s Professor and Chair of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation sums it up nicely:
“There are these straight-ahead jazz artists and their aficionados who can sometimes become snobbish and talk about categories – they can be snobbish in their tastes and look down their noses at music with wide appeal. But every time I put on one of Bob’s ‘smooth jazz albums’ or other albums, I’m constantly noticing the hip chord progressions, the slick arrangements, the fantastic rhythm section playing, and the wonderful improvising.”

Catch Bob James Saturday at 8:00 PM.

Sax at 200

Time for another bicentennial post. First Wagner and now today’s honoree: Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. I briefly considered some long-winded ode to the instrument but 1) I don’t have the time for something so comprehensive and 2) how can I sum that up in one blog post? I’ve written a fair amount about the sax over this blog’s last five years (more on that below) and will continue to do so. Instead, for the time being, just a gripe…

NPR’s All Songs Considered put together a saxophone listening quiz for today’s birthday boy: eleven examples from a variety of styles. (I scored 10/11, btw — I actually knew the missed answer but overshot with my mouse. Oh well; I don’t think that’ll keep me from any future job interviews.) Some of the examples were impressive surprises, but the string of pop selections left me wanting. For an outlet that seemingly prides itself on being hip and clever, the Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, and Lady Gaga (feat. Clarence Clemons) triumvirate couldn’t have been more cliché. All they do is perpetuate the saxophone-as-honky-rhythm-and-blues-novelty-cameo stereotype, which is of course alive and well without NPR’s help. I concede that this is a sizable and personal crusade that I carry with me at all times, but it was present nonetheless. (This is surely amplified by my focusing on styles that don’t normally include sax…) And no mention of Dave Matthews Band, the attendance, airplay, and financial titan of the last two decades that features a saxophone (and violin) instead of lead guitar? (Again, yes, I’m a DMB fanboy, but still. I have a point here.) I guess that doesn’t drive the click-throughs as much on NPR. But you don’t have to go the DMB route. The folks at All Songs Considered LOVE (and rightly so) Bon Iver, so why not include a little Colin Stetson? Curious. No, instead they touch on jazz and classical (of course) and non-Western styles. Shorter’s solo on Steely Dan’s “Aja” was a good inclusion, but that’s of course more jazz than rock in that instance. Why not throw in a wild card like Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, or Mats Gustafsson? To its credit, All Songs‘s Borbetomagus feature did go in that territory, but it seemed partitioned (e.g., “sorry, birthday boy…“).

[Is All Songs Considered now officially a nuisance for me? Earlier complaints here and here.]

It just annoys me because the saxophone is such a versatile instrument, and yet even on a noteworthy date its given a relatively narrow presentation. Bummer. So, to counter this in my humble corner of cyberspace, below are links to various sax-centric posts from over the last few years.

• Saxophone and style: here, here, here, here
• Why I’m not a gear-head here
• Dave Liebman archive here
• Reviews of PRISM Quartet’s Antiphony and The Singing Gobi Desert
• Reviews of albums by Chris Potter, Dave Liebman (here and here), Tore Brunborg, and Stan Getz
• Posts on saxophonists LeRoi Moore (here and here), Jeff Coffin, Michael Brecker, James Carter, Bob Berg, Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Mats Gustafsson (with The Thing), and Jan Garbarek
• Some good-to-great sax solos alongside Miles, Fagen, Jack, Joni, Warren, Elwood, Tord, Manu, and more Miles
• Shameless plug: I talk a *little* sax and style on the Jan. 9, 2014 episode of the PRI: Echoes Interviews podcast

Thank you, Mr. Sax. I’m still trying to figure out your invention…

MTH-V: Steely Dan’s “Black Cow”

Over the last several weeks I’ve gone down the Steely Dan rabbit hole. (And you could arguably say that I’m still in it.) It started with the blind purchase of Gaucho, followed quickly by Aja, Katy Lied, and Pretzel Logic. And I’m sure that others will soon follow. For years Steely Dan has been little more than a George Carlin punchline for me, having only a peripheral knowledge of their music at best. It seemed that the closest I got was the deluxe edition of Elton John‘s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the full live performance of which (on disc 2) includes Jeff “Skunk” Baxter sitting in.

For whatever reason I decided to explore the band’s material, and I began with 1980’s Gaucho simply because of the personnel, particularly: Tom Scott, the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Hiram Bullock, Don Grolnick, Michael McDonald, and Steve Gadd. (Many of these are folks have been featured on the blog before: Tom Scott here and here, Breckers here, and Sanborn/Bullock/Grolnick here.) Honestly, my initial impression after one listen was: for a band (core members Donald Fagen & Walter Becker) so obsessed with production and studio perfection, you’d think Fagen would be a better singer… Anyway, that aside, I was immediately attracted to the songs and arrangements. I don’t know if I’d use “jazz rock” to describe Steely Dan, but it’s a close description. Interesting harmonies and melodies, catchy tunes, and solid players. There are some occasional misses (e.g., the rendition of “St. Louis Blues” on Pretzel Logic…yuck), but overall I’m quite taken with the library.

A song that quickly became one of my favorites is “Black Cow” from 1977’s Aja. It features the aforementioned hooks and complexities, and the studio recording features an outro solo by Tom Scott. Here’s a very nice live version from possibly 2003 featuring solos by keyboardist Ted Baker (whom I may have seen at Einstein on the Beach – I’ll have to check my program) and saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus.