All posts by Stephen Macaulay

Objects in the Mirror May Be Closer Than They Seem

The Road

While it might not seem to be, when bands go out on the road, touring, that’s business travel. They’re not out there because they want to sleep in a bus or collect loyalty points at a chain motel where the room smells like cigarette filters and feet. It’s their job the same way the proverbial traveling salesperson is racking up the miles on that rental Impala that has a mysterious noise coming from under the hood that increases slightly with every mile clocked on the odometer.

The musicians show up at the venues large or small, hoping they’ll make the nut that will continue to allow them to make it.

Although bands aren’t corporations per se (of course, I’m talking here about bands that are clawing along in buses, vans and beaters, not those who probably have empty office space in Delaware that is the address of their incorporation papers), they are businesses, in effect, that face the same sorts of logistical challenges on the road as the aforementioned salesperson.

Good news, such as it is, for those bands who are facing the consequences of COVID-19 is that as McKinsey points out in an examination of business travel trends of the moment, “For Corporate Travel, a Long Recovery Ahead” by Andrew Curley, Rachel Garber, Vik Krishnan and Jillian Tellez, “Looking first at the distance of business travel, regional and domestic trips will likely see a return before international travel does.” So odds are for the foreseeable future, competition with non-domestic brands bands will not be much of an issue. And for those who may have car sickness, better lay on a bigger supply of Dramamine because the McKinsey report continues, “Within domestic travel, trips that can happen in personal or rental vehicles may replace short regional flights until companies’ comfort with sending employees via airplanes increases.” While taking the Delta Connection may seem a bit extreme for many bands purely from a financial standpoint, there are those musicians who need to get to a gig that would be outside the realm of a drive—although that verb should have been in the past tense—needed—because it is still the case that most venues are closed and will continue to exist in that state for the next several months—or they’ll simply stop existing.

All of which means that this whole discussion of business travel is a moot point because if bands have no place to perform, it just may be that they’ll have to disband.

That is a consequence of C-19 that will silently echo for years after the vaccine has been injected into our systems.

Continue reading Objects in the Mirror May Be Closer Than They Seem

Random Notes

You’ve probably received emails from the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post encouraging you to subscribe in order to support the investigative journalism that the papers perform. Yes, while there’s lots of stuff that you can get for free online, paying people to do the work is not free, so if you want to get that information, you have to support it. (Ironically enough, you are getting this for free and I am getting nothing for it. Go figure.)

I recently received a subscription solicitation in my inbox with the subject line:

Support the journalists speaking truth to power

One of those papers or The New Republic or The Atlantic or National Review or Mother Jones?

No. Rolling Stone.

While I know that the solid work of Matt Taibbi appears in the pages of RS, here’s the question: If the objective is to support solid political reporting (assuming, of course, that speaking truth to power doesn’t mean the heads of record companies or Daniel Ek), is getting a subscription to Rolling Stone the right place to spend?

Well, there is that tote bag.

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In 1997 David Bowie created, working with Prudential Financial, “Bowie bonds.” When issued, they had a face value of $1,000 and were a long-term investment, as they had a maturity of 10 years.

The purpose of the bonds was to raise money so that Bowie could buy back the rights to the music on albums released between 1969 and 1990.

There was $55 million raised.

This approach became something like the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) phenomenon that is now all the range especially in tech circles, as variants were created for James Brown and others. (One would have thought that the King of Soul could simply mint is own money, but alas. . . ).

Bowie bonds came to mind as the management company for BTS, Big Hit, went public on the Korean stock exchange and had an immediate valuation of initially $7.6-billion, which then dropped to about $4-billion, and while the number is probably something entirely different right now, odds are that unless something completely unexpected happens to the seven-member band that has been performing since 2010, odds are Big Hit will continue to be a big hit, as the members of the band are undoubtedly fungible.

The thing about music that isn’t often taken into account is the fact that it is the “music industry,” just like, say, the “auto industry.”

The $55-million of Bowie 1997 would be worth about $89 million today.

Or $3,911,000,000 short of Big Hit.

Continue reading Random Notes

Listening to The Drifters in the Age of COVID

Back in the 1960s, there were a number of songs that were about places rather than people, many of which were performed by The Drifters, a group that was highly influential but for some reason not as widely known as they should be (e.g., “Who’s singing that song?” “Don’t know.”). Their performances of these songs is often heard in things ranging from commercials to movies—and if it isn’t The Drifters, it is by performers who cover it close to The Drifters’ approach.

In 1962 The Drifters recorded “Up on the Roof,” written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, which became a hit in 1963, and later became named by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock”. (The Drifters also made the list with “Money Honey” and “There Goes My Baby.”) The lyric of that song could have been written to describe this past summer, when New York City was a COVID-19 hotspot:

When I come home feelin’ tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat race noise down in the street (up on the roof)

In 1963 The Drifters had a hit with “On Broadway,” a song written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller. While they weren’t the first to record the song—as The Cookies and the Crystals had beat them to it—their version was the most popular, having reached 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

What’s interesting about this song is that while “Broadway” connotes what is referred to as the “Great White Way”—the section of the street between 42nd and 53rd streets—because of the lights that shine from the theater marques (“They say the neon lights are bright/On Broadway”. . .”I’ll have my name in lights”), the lyric goes on to say that while the protagonist/narrator is told that the possibilities are dim—“They say that I won’t last too long on Broadway”—he (in The Drifters’ version) doesn’t believe that:

But they are wrong, I know they are
I can play this here guitar
And I won’t quit till I’m a star
On Broadway

While Bruce Springsteen performed at the Walter Kerr Theatre from October 2017 to December 2018, the notion of someone making it performing on Broadway with a guitar is certainly something that seems unusual today, as it must have been back in 1963, when shows that opened that year included Brigadoon, Oliver! and Pal Joey, things that are more of bravado than ballads.

Continue reading Listening to The Drifters in the Age of COVID

Looking at Lists

Although ranking lists are common and therefore something to be ostensibly sniffed at, let’s face it: we all fall to the allure of the ad populum. We want to see what groups of other people think, either in order to justify our own positions or to maintain that the wisdom of crowds is actually the stupidity of crowds.

Or, at a more superficial but just as important level, it is like eating potato chips: non-nutritious but damned tasty. (Lists are actually less deleterious to one’s well being than the chips are, as while there may be fat in the list, there is likely no salt, so you have to bring your own grain to the assessment of the results, and the size of that chunk may be rather large.)

When I Googled “richest musicians,” the featured snippets box, that thing that sometimes shows up at the top of the results page, listed:

1. Paul McCartney
2. Andrew Llyod Webber [sic]
3. Jay Z
4. P-Diddy
5. Madonna
6. Herb Alpert
7. Dr Dre
8. Celine Dion

and while the top of the snippet indicated that the list included 17 more that were just a click away (i.e., it is a list of the top 25), I noted that the domain was “.ng,” something that I was not familiar with.

So I Googled that and discovered it is for Nigeria. I wonder if a prince who has millions of dollars that he would like to put into my bank account is in any way involved in creating the list. After all, McCartney and the others have serious money, too, so they undoubtedly hang out with that guy who needs a place to park his immense fortune and it could be that this list is simply a list that he created to keep track of his pals.

There are plenty of other sites with their versions of the “richest musicians,” including the monetary sounding “ledgernote.com,” the musical “playback.fm,” the institutional “gobanking.com” and the financially hip sounding “wealthygorilla.com.”

I don’t know if my virus protection is up to any of them, so I decided to forego additional research on that area of listed information.

Continue reading Looking at Lists

The Importance of Numbers & Events

One of the things that is not well known about many publications is that they don’t make money—or at least much money—from the publications themselves, be they the physical object that we know of as a magazine or as a digital variant. You’ve probably noticed various subscription offers—tote bags notwithstanding—that have a phenomenally low price. That’s predicated on the publications needing to get high circulation prices so that they can “sell the audience” to advertisers: “We have X + 1 readers, which is better than our competitor, which just has X, so buy our space.” Cheesy tote bags can go a long way.

Another way that they make money is to hold events of various sorts. They capitalize on the brand that they have otherwise established.

One of the consequences of COVID-19, at least for the organizations that care about the health and well-being of their supporters, is that there have been a vast number of in-person events cancelled or postponed. Let’s face it: any event needs to have a critical mass of attendees in order to pay the venue rental and so on, and that critical mass would be difficult to achieve if there is social distancing involved. Of course, there is the possibility of some promoter thinking, “Well, since we can only have 50% of the attendees, we’ll have to double the price of the event.” And that is unlikely to work particularly well for a variety of reasons, ranging from the fact that there is still a high level of trepidation among those who still have jobs regarding how long that’s going to last (I find it interesting that of late when jobs numbers are reported it sounds as though only low-wage individuals have lost their jobs when there are regular reports, for example, in publications like Adweek about agencies shedding people and offices), to say nothing of the millions who simply have lost their jobs and that restaurant or club just isn’t coming back.

So the alternative that some publications are taking is to hold virtual events. One of them is Variety, which describes itself as “the most authoritative and trusted source of entertainment business news, reaching an audience of affluent influencers. For 113 years, influential producers, executives and talent in entertainment have turned to Variety for expert film, TV, digital, music, and theater business analysis and insights.”

In an interview with Morning Consult, Dea Lawrence, Variety’s chief marketing officer, said that since COVID-19 they’ve held more than 60 “Variety Streaming Room Events.” What’s striking is that there are significantly more people “showing up” for the virtual events than there were for the physical ones.

That is, pre-COVID, only 10% of those who bought tickets for the physical Variety events actually showed up. For the virtual events, the number is 43%. As Lawrence said, “We started pitching all of the advertisers immediately. . . .”

And those numbers look good (i.e., 72,091 unique registrants; 31,238 unique attendees), which undoubtedly make the sponsors of the events happy. What’s more, the virtual events cost Variety less than the physical ones did, which undoubtedly makes Variety‘s chief financial officer happy.

Continue reading The Importance of Numbers & Events

The Question of Spending During a Pandemic

This week I received another offer. This time, it wasn’t for a tote bag. Rather, it was a picture, an 11 x 14-inch print. It was clearly one hell of a deal in that there on the page was $433 and directly beneath it “Only $39.”

A couple of points about that. First of all, who comes up with a price like $433 for something, in this case a photographic print. Obviously the print as object doesn’t cost $433, as there is a piece of paper, 5.5 inches wider than a piece of what has historically been known as “typewriter paper,” and some glossy ink on it. Now the photo as subject and as execution certainly might have some value, but again, given that this is a proposal that was widely emailed out to who knows how many people, it is not as though there is some sort of exclusivity to it, unless you think that ordering a McDonald’s without pickles makes it somehow different than the billions sold. Then there is the question of going from $433 to $39. That is a $394 difference. Or approximately a 90% discount. What can you buy that has a 90% discount? It all seems rather bizarre, and all the more so when you know that if you buy the photo for $39 you get (actually this should be in the past tense because by the time you see this the “deal” will have expired) something that the purveyor says is worth $39, so your effective cost is $0, which is a whole lot less than $433 or even $39.

The picture is that of The Who, taken in 1971 at the Oval Cricket Ground, Kensington, London. There’s Roger with his hands above his head in the foreground, with the Ox slightly behind him to the left, presumably moving nothing but his fingers. Between them in the background is Keith, holding a pair of drumsticks crossed above his head. And to Roger’s right and several feet behind him is Pete in flight. It is an oddly static black-and-white photo, and as it is shot from stage left across the stage rather than from the front of the stage, there isn’t a particularly good sense of the musicians at that particular moment.

Which leads me to wonder about who is going to be interested in that picture of The Who, whether it is for $433, $39 or $0. I suspect that it might be people in my generation (no allusion there) who might want it, but then I wonder. I had the opportunity to see The Who—yes, the real The Who, in that it had that lineup, which is the only authentic one in my estimation, though I will accept the post-Moon Kenney Jones band as somewhat legit—and have an interest in music (or so it seems) yet that photo would hold no value for me. Perhaps had I been at that show on September 18 , which was in support of the people of Bangladesh, I would have been interested in the picture, but having learned that the lineup also included The Faces, I might be a bit more interested in a photo of that, though that is unlikely, too. Presumably some fans would be interested.

Continue reading The Question of Spending During a Pandemic

Somewhat Like a Rolling Stone

1967 was the year The Doors released its self-named album. Elvis and Priscilla were wed. Jimi came out with Are You Experienced? And before the year was out, the Beatles set out on The Magical Mystery Tour. 1967 was the year that Kurt Cobain was born; the year that Woody Guthrie died.

1967 was the year Rolling Stone was launched.

Although the newsprint biweekly seemed rather unusual in a period when Life magazine was thick and glossy and The Saturday Evening Post had some of the best writing going, it became an important voice because Jann Wenner and his editors had the good sense to give assignments to Tom Wolfe—The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities were consequences of writing Wolfe did for the publication—and Hunter S. Thompson, a man who we could use right now to chronicle the mendacious beasts that are slithering on the political scene today. In 1973 Annie Leibovitz became the chief photographer for the magazine, creating images that have become both signature and timeless.

Fifty-three years later, Rolling Stone still exists.

But like anything 53 years on, it isn’t what it once was.

Today Rolling Stone is owned by Penske Business Media, a privately held firm that is headed by Jay Penske. His father is Roger Penske, perhaps the most legendary still existing person in motor sports. Penske pere, for example, as a racecar team owner, has not only won more Indianapolis 500 races than anyone (18 times), but last year he bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The family does it big. To its credit, Penske Business Media owns a range of magazines, from Art in America to Variety. Anyone who keeps journalism alive deserves our thanks.

I recently got an email solicitation from Rolling Stone that said that were I to subscribe post-haste I would get “instant access” (once there would have been a tongue-in-cheek reference to “instant karma”) to:

• Exclusive interviews
• Award-winning features
• Trusted music, TV, and movie reviews
• In-depth political commentary
• Stunning original photography

And I suspect that while all of those areas have sufficiency and probably sometimes excellence, Wenner’s own interviews in the early years are rightfully legendary; the feature writing isn’t Wolfe in his prime; Thompson has never been eclipsed; and, well, Leibovitz.

But let’s put all that aside.

Here’s the thing that really drove the stake through any possibility that I would have considered achieving “instant access.”

Were I to have signed up, in addition to saving 50% on the publication, I would have gotten a “FREE Rolling Stone Tote Bag.”

Yes, the sort of thing that PBS and AARP provides to members who sign up for things.

But then again, it is 53 years old.

Continue reading Somewhat Like a Rolling Stone

The End of Ownership: Material Gives Way to the Ephemeral

Here we are living through social distancing. Living through a period when we interact with people, primarily, unless those people are part of a small group we are confident of, via Zoom or Teams or from behind a mask, ideally six or more feet away. Masks and sweatpants have become increasingly important to people, the former because of the need to go out and the latter because somehow the “office” is something that is only evident from the waist up.

And when we have to encounter surfaces, there is a frantic look around for some means by which the object is sanitized or our hands are. Or both.

If we need stuff—like, say, food—then it isn’t a matter of just going down the street to the local bodega or hopping in the car and buzzing over to the supermarket. It is something that is carefully planned and executed. And while time has dulled the edge of the potential virus, there is still some hesitation regarding whether the objects should be brought in to the kitchen right away or whether those cans, boxes and bags should be permitted to settle for a period of time.

The material has become suspect.

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But it wasn’t COVID-19 that had the effect on the music industry in the U.S. that is unfolding. It seems that people have decided that when it comes to music, most are not particularly interested in any sort of ownership. The transient is sufficient. And when the numbers for 2020 are calculated, odds are that what occurred in 2019 will be nothing if not magnified.

In a report from the Recording Industry Association of America for overall economics of 2019, the trade group found “Total revenues from streaming music grew 19.9% to $8.8 billion in 2019, accounting for 79.5% of all recorded music revenues.”

And more telling: “The streaming market alone in 2019 was larger than the entire U.S. recorded market just 2 years ago in 2017.”

The biggest chunk of the monies in 2019 streaming were for subscription services, accounting for $6.8 billion. That in itself is 61% of total recorded music revenues.

Continue reading The End of Ownership: Material Gives Way to the Ephemeral

Napster and the State of Crowds Circa Right Now

One of the more-entertaining caper movies is the 2003 The Italian Job, a remake of the 1969 film (which I argue gets more credit than it deserves as it has Noel Coward and Benny Hill, with the former mailing it in and the latter giving it all that he has, which was generally more than enough when he was reeling it it). The movie features Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Donald Sutherland, Jason Statham, Edward Norton, and Seth Green. (Note I said “entertaining,” not Citizen Kane.)

Seth Green’s character—the obligatory computer hacking genius—is named “Lyle.” But Lyle insists that he is called “The Napster.” He explains that Shawn Fanning, who he says was with him at Northeastern University, was not the person behind the peer-to-peer file-sharing service launched in 1999.

Lyle rants: “I should have been on the cover of Wired Magazine. You know what he said? He said he named it ‘Napster’ because it was his nickname because of the nappy hair under the hat. But he. . .it’s because I was NAPPING when he STOLE it from me!”

Ah, Napster.

The company was sold last week by RealNetworks an internet streaming platform provider—which also owns SAFR, which it describes as “the world’s premier facial recognition platform for live video”–to MelodyVR, a British firm that streams virtual concerts.

It was a $70-million deal, with $15 million in cash, $44 million to be paid to music publishers and labels and $11 million in MelodyVR stock. Which seems to be pretty much a case were RealNetworks is getting $15 million in money, $44 million in what could be argued is debt-relief and $11 million in something that seems not to be, well, $11 million, because reportedly MelodyVR had a £16.1-million pretax loss in 2019. Hard to imagine things are going to be much better in 2020.

(One wonders: were The Italian Job to be remade again, would Lyle want to be called “The Napster”?)

But perhaps the virtual concert model is going to gain some traction in the pandemic world.

Continue reading Napster and the State of Crowds Circa Right Now

Musicians in a Time of Trouble

My sister, who is far more pragmatic than I, told me of the plight of a friend’s daughter. The young woman has received a graduate degree in liturgical music. Yes, as in playing organ and suchlike in places of worship. In the best of times that can’t be something where there is a whole lot of demand. In these times when there is but a slow return to churches and non-trivial concern regarding the spread of projected droplets from those who are lustily singing, finding a paying gig (she didn’t undertake those studies purely out of an interest in the subject; this was/is intended to be a career) is something that escapes her right now. She is working at a daycare center. Not as a musician.

While I am certainly sympathetic to her plight, I, unlike my sister, am glad that there are people who are studying things that don’t necessarily have an ostensible direct connection to a career. One could—and I will—make the argument that if we have learned anything over the past three-plus years is that we could probably use more poets and fewer politicians, more musicians and fewer cable blowhards.

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My niece, my sister’s daughter, entered the conversation. She quipped that Yo-Yo Ma recently had a live-streamed concert that was viewed by people who bought “tickets” to the performance. Cellists who aren’t Yo-You Ma or who are liturgical musicians would undoubtedly have a problem getting on a streaming platform like IDAGIO, which has an extensive suite of classical music performances lined up for its members to purchase. But for those classical musicians who have made it onto the platform, I couldn’t be happier because we need them, too.

Do you think that rock musicians have it tough? Consider this, according to Classical Music Rising, which describes itself as “a collaborative project of leading classical stations to shape the future of classical music radio as the field confronts evolution in delivery across multiple broadcast and digital platforms, demographic and cultural change, and significant disruption throughout the music industry,” the entire state of California has three classical music stations. Three. New York State: four. Plenty of states: zero. And were it not for pubic radio stations that have some classical music programming, the availability of hearing a bit of Beethoven would be non-existent for terrestrial broadcast listeners.

(My niece, incidentally, recently obtained her degree in instructional design and the company that she had been interning at, which she had intended to be employed by, one day folded up its tent and pretty much disappeared, leaving another large bit of commercial real estate full of pods, a contemporary version of Roanoke Island in the 16th century: seems like even the churches of commerce are taking it hard, as well. Had she gotten an art history degree she’d probably be in the same position she is right now: unemployed.)

Continue reading Musicians in a Time of Trouble