Payola Then and Now

In November 1959 the U.S. House Oversight Committee initiated hearings. Back in those days of yore it was not about some political malfeasance or attempts to undermine the political order.

Rather it was about radio. Primarily AM radio. Although the first Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license for an FM station went to WDNG on November 14, 1938—in Anniston, Alabama*, which is located about 74 miles east of Birmingham—throughout the 1950s most radios—tabletop or portable transistors—were AM only. It wasn’t until 1958 that Sony started shipping FM-capable transistors to the U.S., so clearly there wasn’t a sufficient number of them in 1959 to get Congress agitated.**

The issue the committee looked into was “payola,” the practice of record companies paying disc jockeys to play specific records a set number of times during a prescribed period. The record companies figured that repeated plays made the music all the more appealing, so if they had to slip a few bucks (yes, there were some DJs who apparently made four figures, which would be about five figures today, based on inflation) to the people who were literally working the turntables, so be it.

Notably, although payola had a long history prior to the advent of rock and roll, which arguably gave rise to the various AM stations that popped up, it didn’t actually become illegal until 1960, when Congress amended the Federal Communications Act to outlaw “under-the-table [turntable?] payments.”

As time has passed, there have been a number of cases brought regarding illegal payments and the promotion of particular music.

And while the notion of transistor radios and disc jockeys like Alan Freed (who was charged early in the period of heightened concern—such that even President Eisenhower spoke out about payola—and was convicted, which led to Freed’s subsequent career being ignominious and his life being cut short, dying at age 43***) seem ol’ timey, last week the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general announced lawsuits against Google and iHeartMedia the settlement of which will require, among other things, a payment of $9.4 million.

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New Weyes Blood video: Grapevine

Video: Weyes Blood – “Grapevine”

Directed by Rick Farin and Claire Farin. From And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow, out now on Sub Pop.

I recently finished reading the big Weyes Blood profile by Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker. (I like to do the deal where you sign up for a six-week print subscription for like $6 and then spend the next six months reading those six issues.) Before reading that I didn’t know anything about Natalie Mering and I’d only heard a song or two. Must not have been in the right headspace because my first impression was it just sounded like boring Fleetwood Mac album filler. But the article inspired me to want to go back and listen closer. Mering is clearly a super interesting person with lots of ideas about music, nostalgia, and sounds. If her voice reminds you of Karen Carpenter, don’t forget that there was always a darkness and a sense of doom underlying those pretty melodies and dopey lyrics.

I haven’t had yet had a chance to dive too deeply into the message of “Grapevine” because I’m so knocked out by the sound of it. The tone of the opening acoustic guitar and bass is so warm and perfect that I find myself starting the track over and over so I can hear it again. It’s almost a minute before any percussion comes in and when it does it’ll blow your mind. Just listen. It’s worth it. (Make sure you turn up the volume. After I initially wrote this I listened to it in the car at “normal” volume and the experience was not the same.)

Weyes Blood: web, bandcamp, amazon, apple, spotify, wiki.

New Soccer Mommy video: Feel It All The Time

Video: Soccer Mommy – “Feel It All The Time”

Directed by Zev Magasis. From Sometimes, Forever, out now on Loma Vista.

Sophie Allison says this song “felt really easy + honest for me as soon as I wrote it. It uses this idea of an old truck to kind of compare this feeling of aging too fast. There’s also these glimpses of light and freedom from something as simple as the wind in your hair making you feel alive.”

It’s kind of a bummer how much time we spend worrying about aging too fast. Young people, grownups, doesn’t matter. Seems everybody is afraid they’re getting old.

And I’ve got a heart that beats too fast
And a shake in my hands and a pain in my back
And I’m just twenty-two going on twenty-three
Already worn down from everything.

The video is a charming vignette of suburban youth with Allison driving around the neighborhood and then cosplaying with a sword and a helmet in a field. Like you do.

Soccer Mommy: web, bandcamp, amazon, apple, spotify, wiki.

Songs, Signatures & Young Love

And may you stay forever young—Bob Dylan

Nobel Prize-winning Bob Dylan recently published a book, The Philosophy of Modern Song. The categories that the Nobel committee presents awards in are physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, peace, and literature. Seems that Alfred Nobel, in addition to being a chemist and engineer, was a frustrated writer, which explains the literature category in his bequest to fund the prizes that carry his name and the medal with his likeness. Economics had not been one of his categories. It was added in 1968, 67 years late, thanks to funding by Sveriges Riksbank, or the central bank of Sweden.

There are several missing categories, like engineering, math. . .and music. Dylan received his Nobel in literature in 2016. In 2015 the recipient was Svetlana Alexievich, a journalist who was born in Ukraine and lives in Belarus; in her work she has criticized the regimes in the then-Soviet Union and Belarus. In 2017 the recipient was Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Japan, raised in the U.K.; the novelist received the prize because, according to the committee, his work “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

Dylan? “[F]or having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The Philosophy of Modern Song is not Dylan’s first book. There were Tarantula, a book of poetry, in 1993 and Chronicles: Volume One, a book of personal reflections, in 2004. There have also been a number of books carrying his name, whether children’s books that illustrators have adapted his lyrics in, or collections of his lyrics.

The Philosophy of Modern Song has become controversial of late not because of, well, the philosophy, but because publisher Simon & Schuster offered 900 limited-edition versions of the book that were said to be hand-autographed by Dylan. The signed versions of the $45.00 book were marked up to $599. Turns out that Dylan didn’t sign them. Which brings to mind that existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was named the 1964 Nobel recipient in literature in 1964. Being the good philosopher of existence that he was, he didn’t accept the prize.*

Simon & Schuster fessed up and is refunding the monies to those who paid.

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New Andrew Bird video: I felt a Funeral, in my Brain ft. Emily Dickinson, Phoebe Bridgers

Video: Andrew Bird – “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (ft. Phoebe Bridgers)

Single out now.

Andrew Bird and Phoebe Bridgers must be pals now. From reinterpreting Emily Dickinson poems to covering Handsome Family classics, these two are already about 1/7th the way to making a whole album together. A very, very sad album. Happy holidays, everybody!

Their Dickinson jam just got a video, made in collaboration with the Emily Dickinson Museum and featuring handwritten transcripts and footage of Dickinson’s lifelong home. See where the magic happened! That sweet, lonely, revolutionary, poetic magic.

Andrew Bird: web, bandcamp, amazon, apple, spotify, wiki.

Continue reading New Andrew Bird video: I felt a Funeral, in my Brain ft. Emily Dickinson, Phoebe Bridgers

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Although you don’t often see barrels anymore unless you live in Tuscany, the notion of shooting fish in a barrel is actually quite bizarre.

There is a 53-gallon white oak container full of bourbon water and for some reason it is full of fish. Someone takes out a Mossberg 930 Waterfowl and begins blasting away. Not only is there going to be a lot of fish viscera inside the barrel, but the barrel is going to be full of holes, so clearly that’s not something you’d want to do.

But the phrase is not cautionary. Rather, it is one that refers to how easy something is to do.

Oddly, however, it isn’t like that description of perch or koi or other gill-bearing animals idly going back and forth in a container.

It seems that it is based on when in a pre-refrigeration age fish were packed in barrels with ice. These fish weren’t swimming anywhere. Were someone to shoot in the barrel, odds were really good that something would be hit.

The phrase comes to mind regarding Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour ticketing and Ticketmaster.

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New Beatles video: I’m Only Sleeping

Video: The Beatles – “I’m Only Sleeping” (2022 mix)

Directed by Em Cooper. From the Special Edition of Revolver, out now on UMG.

Look at this! British director and animator Em Cooper painted every frame of this video individually in oil, 1,300 hand-painted oil paintings. Which is a lot of work! But who cares how much work something takes if the end result is lame? Fortunately, this is not. It’s appropriately dreamy and strippy.

Cooper says, “It was a project that I felt an immediate spark for right from the word go, and somehow that momentum carried me right through to the en. I love The Beatles. We used to listen to this song on a tape in the car when I was a child, and the song itself evokes such a mesmerising, languid, dreamy state. In a way, my job was only to follow its lead with a paintbrush in my hand.”

The new Giles Martin remix sounds good. The bass is more prominent than in the original stereo mix, but it’s certainly not obnoxious. Paul’s yawn is as adorable as ever (If you listen really closely, you can hear John say, “Yawn, Paul” shortly before it.)

The Beatles: web, amazon, apple, spotify, wiki.

Dead Man’s Wallet

The publication that once self-described as “The Capitalist’s Tool,” which eventually had an unfortunate if apt meaning, Forbes, has, like its competitor, Fortune, long been into creating lists. This was something that preceded the clickbait approach of so-called listicles, which are pretty much predicated on short attention spans. In the case of Forbes and Fortune the lists were predicated on numeric data that their readers could use for purposes of comparison and analysis rather than distraction.

Still, times change for all.

One of the things that is tough to overlook about the music industry—and let’s recognize that what is most visible are the industry participants rather than artisans or craftspeople—is that it is hugely measured in the metric of “hits,” which means “sales,” which means “revenue,” which leads to “earnings.”

In the recent Q3 earnings call, for example, for Universal Music Group, during which it was noted that the company had its fifth quarter running of strong earnings (e.g., revenues of $2.68 billion), Sir Lucian Grainge (and know that Grainge wasn’t knighted because of dragons), pointed out that while there are some 100,000 tracks uploaded to streaming services each day, this is really not helpful because it tends to be “low-quality content,” as distinct from 114-million album seller Taylor Swift, about whom he remarked: “You just have to look at the excitement around the world on a brilliant album by a brilliant artist with this week’s Taylor Swift release. That drives consumption, it drives audience and it drives new people to everything to the products, to the platforms, to other music.” And, of course, it drives revenue.

But Swift is still with us, and Forbes has complied a list of the top-earning artists and entertainers who are dead but still minting some serious coin during the past 12 months.

Of the list of 15 people, musicians take eight spots. The first two on the list are J.R.R. Tolkien ($500 million) and Kobe Bryant ($400 million).

But then there is a musician at number three. David Bowie. He (or more accurately, some legally existing entity, but from here on out we’ll just cite names rather than estates, tontines, corporations, and what have you) earned $250-million. This primarily from a catalog sale.

(According to Will Page of Tarzan Economics, which runs numbers related to the music industry, the global value of music copyright is $39.6-billion, which is now 40% more than in 2001, the year of peak CD; now 55% of the value is predicated on streaming.)

At number 4 is a man who has been dead since August 16, 1977. Elvis earned $110-million during the past year. This is mainly a take from Graceland and various variations of Elvis-branded objects. One might image that at some point in the past—maybe 2001—we hit peak Elvis. Consider: 50,000,000 Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong came out in 1959. If they were an average 20 years old then, this means they’re now 83. The only hip shaking most of them are going to do could lead to a fracture. Still, they’ve evidently got some disposable income.

James Brown, the former hardest working man in show business, is in the fifth position, $100-million. This is based on music rights, real estate (evidently hard working and smart), and his name and likeness. Two interesting things to know about him: he was short: 5-foot, 6 inches (according to the CDC, the average male is 5’9”) and he died on Christmas (2006).

Michael Jackson is in sixth position, with $75-million in earnings. Shows in Vegas and on Broadway and his catalog accounts for the major portion of this income. (Speaking of Vegas, while there seems to be an increasing trend toward musicians doing residencies there so they don’t need to travel, it is worth noting that Jackson’s ex-father-in-law performed there more than 600 times, including a run of 58 sold-out shows—that’s entertainment.)

Seventh place, at $55-million, is held by Canadian musician Leonard Cohen, whose “Hallelujah” seems to be a song people like to cover. According to the New York Times Cohen died the night of November 7, 2016, “during his sleep following a fall.” Cohen’s Wikipedia entry has it that “His work explored religion, politics, isolation, depression, sexuality, loss, death, and romantic relationships.” Probably not the life of any party not being held in the basement of a funeral home. Cohen’s earnings were from publishing and his masters.

The most-unexpected musician on the list is in ninth, with $25-million: Jeff Porcaro. Yes, the drummer for Toto. He died in 1992 at age 38 of a heart attack. While some may sneer at Porcaro and Toto, the opening paragraph of article that appeared in 1997 in Drum! magazine by Greg Rule is worth quoting in full because one can only assume that Drum! magazine probably has writers who know a little more about, well, drummers than the rest of us:

“For two-plus magical decades, Jeff Porcaro set the standard. Whatever the session, whatever the stage, when he picked up sticks it was pure magic. Smooth as silk. Deep beyond all comprehension. Taste, impeccable time and attitude for days. He had it all. From his breakthrough sessions with Boz Scaggs and Steely Dan in the mid ’70s to his final notes with Toto on Kingdom of Desire in 1992, the man with the golden groove was consistently brilliant. ‘He was one of the best drummers in the world,’ said Eddie Van Halen at a tribute held for Jeff in late ’92. ‘Definitely the groove master. He was just so heavy.’”

Porcaro’s earnings came from publishing and recording royalties. (Apparently Pocaro’s half-time shuffle beat on “Rosanna” is considered by many to be iconic. Speaking of that song, it was written about Rosanna Arquette, who had been dating Steve Porcaro, Toto keyboard player and yes, Jeff’s brother. Arquette is also the person about whom Peter Gabriel wrote “In Your Eyes.” She’s clearly something.)

Positions 12 and 13, $16-million and $12-million, respectively, deserve a shrug: John Lennon and George Harrison. Royalties and rights for the music in Get Back. One of these days George will get ahead of John. . . .

Bowie illustration by Michelle Rohn for Forbes.

New Monnone Alone video: Stay Foggy

Video: Monnone Alone – “Stay Foggy”

Directed by Lehmann B. Smith. From Stay Foggy, out now on Lost and Lonesome.

Mark Monnone recorded Stay Foggy all by himself on his cassette 8-track during lockdown in 2020. And now the groovy title track has video featuring our bearded hero riding around Melbourne on a cloud. I like the fact that Monnone looks like a Pacific Ocean Blue-era Dennis Wilson these days.

Monnone told Trouble Juice the song’s “skeletal features date back to the mid-00s and may well have ended up somewhere on the next Lucksmiths album had we not broken ourselves up in 2009. As you hear it now, this song was built up around the repetitive bassline that I had originally put down as a demo to test different ideas on. The lyrics are a murky meditation on a summer spent in the San Francisco fog twenty-odd years ago and, in my reverie, imagining my dear friends there all these years later as a bunch of wharf-dwelling ’embarcaderos’ sipping cheap chianti and yelling profanities at the seaside hotdog vendor. The chord structures and melodies all fell together so well on top of the bassline that I didn’t need to come up with any bass variations between verse, chorus, etc, which was good news for me as I’m extremely lazy.”

Monnone Alone: web, bandcamp, amazon, apple, spotify, wiki.

Permanence & Change

The Rijksmuseum on Museum Square in Amsterdam South is considered the national museum of the Netherlands. It is the museum that is probably best known for having Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in its collection. The Night Watch underwent a conservation and restoration project that started in July 2019 and ran for two-and-a-half years. As the painting was executed in 1642, it was deemed necessary to provide restoration and because the people of the Netherlands want it to exist for several hundred more years, conservation work was required. As part of the undertaking the researchers and curators used a macro-XRF scanner to capture information millimeter by millimeter (the canvas measures 379.5 cm x 454.5 cm); it took 56 scans, each lasting 24 hours, to capture that information. In addition to which, some 12,500 high-resolution (0.001 mil) photographs were taken.

In June 2021 the museum announced:

Visitors to the Rijksmuseum can now enjoy The Night Watch in its original form, for the first time in 300 years. Several sections were cut from the painting in the past. The Operation Night Watch team has successfully recreated these missing pieces, which have now been mounted around Rembrandt’s world-famous work. This reconstruction based on the 17th-century copy attributed to Gerrit Lundens was made with the help of artificial intelligence.

The “Operation Night Watch” team noted that there were “a number of differences” between what viewers have seen over the past few hundred years and what has been reconstructed. There are three figures on a bridge that hadn’t been there. The painting’s main figures had been seen in the middle of the canvas when they were supposed to be right of center. And there are other changes.

The Giles Martin remix and expansion of The Beatles’ Revolver, like The Night Watch, deployed artificial intelligence. The album, released in 1966 (324 years after the Rembrandt), had been originally mixed to mono and two-channel stereo, but the multitrack master recordings were not saved. Martin made use of a technique known as “demixing” that had been notably used on Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary; it separates all of the instruments and vocals and applies machine learning to fill in information, information that we hear as sound.

Giles Martin told the BBC, for example, “It [the AI] has to learn what the sound of John Lennon’s guitar is. . .and the more information you can give it, the better it becomes.”

Which begs the question of whether he is referring to the capabilities of the machine learning or of the sound of John Lennon’s guitar.

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Rock and roll can change your life.