All posts by Stephen Macaulay

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.

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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

Why Dolly Parton Matters More Than Most You Can Name

Back in the 1960s there was a war going on. A physical war. One with guns and bullets. With American kids being shipped literally to the other side of the world and plopped into jungles where the terrain was in itself rotten, to say nothing of the fact that there were other kids shooting at them. Some of those kids had volunteered to service. Others were selected by lottery, sort of like Theseus and the Minotaur—or The Hunger Games.

And in the 1960s and early ‘70s there were protests in the streets of America by other kids who wanted the war in Vietnam to be ended. They didn’t want their friends to be killed. They didn’t want themselves to be killed. Of course politicians—Johnson and Nixon—did what politicians tend to do, which is to worry more about themselves than others. They rolled out a rationalization that were Vietnam to fall, then it would be the first of a series of dominoes. The North Vietnamese were “communists.” That would mean there would be a whole bunch of commies created as a consequence.

On April 30, 1975, there was the fall of Saigon. The Americans left. The North won.

And now everything from clothes to hair extensions, from computers to shoes, are being produced in Vietnam and shipped to places around the world. Including the U.S.

Now the government is against production in China. Vietnam has become a more acceptable source.

Funny how times change. Countries and people.

During the 1960s and early ‘70s music was changing, as well. A simple way to think about this is that there was AM radio on the one hand and the nascent-but-growing FM band on the other.

AM radio played 45-rpm records. They were capable of handling approximately 3 minutes of music, so that’s why there were so many short songs. FM radio played cuts from LPs, which at 33.3 rpm, were capable of handling approximately 20 minutes per side. So the AM stations played the “hits” while the FM stations—at least those that were considered to be “underground”—would play entire sides of albums at a time. Very subversive, that.

Musicians that had their music played on FM, musicians who were chronicled in the pages of publications like Rolling Stone when it was literally a tabloid on newsprint with gritty coverage, were often openly anti-war. Which was a tricky situation for them to be in back then, because on the one hand they were trying to gain traction in what was still an AM-hits-driven market and on the other, as righteous as that position may seem, at the time there was a majority of Americans who didn’t have that point of view. Yet “The Man” wasn’t going to keep them down, so there were festivals and concerts where the peace sign (as in the pointer and middle fingers forming a V, which Winston Churchill had used about 25 years before to signify “victory”) and the circular graphic version (which was actually created in 1958 by a designer Gerald Holtom, who came up with it as a nuclear disarmament symbol: one interpretation is that it is based on the semaphore communication system that uses flags; the sign for “N” has two flags down at a 45-degree angle and the “D” is one flag straight up and the other straight down) proliferated everywhere.

Jimi Hendrix didn’t play “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock just because he thought it would be a clever cover.

All of this is to get to something that is highly laudable that happened this past week, when Billboard published a cover story on Dolly Parton, the 74-year old country singer, songwriter, actress, and apparently all-around good person.

Perhaps the most widely reported quote from the interview is “Of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No. Everybody matters.”

She also said, “All these good Christian people that are supposed to be such good Christian people, the last thing we’re supposed to do is to judge one another. God is the judge, not us. I just try to be myself. I try to let everybody else be themselves.”

And with those two quotes she has arguably said more than I’ve heard from any number of musicians, and those who are speaking out seem to be more interested in doing it in some metaphoric ways than Parton’s clear, unambiguous statements.

She had named a dinner attraction named “The Dixie Stampede.” She dropped the “Dixie”—in 2018.

“There’s such a thing as innocent ignorance, and so many of us are guilty of that,” Parton told Billboard. “When they said ‘Dixie’ was an offensive word, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to offend anybody. This is a business. We’ll just call it The Stampede.'”

Woke well before others.

Continue reading Why Dolly Parton Matters More Than Most You Can Name

Concerts: We’d Rather Not Go, It Seems

Although this is certainly not a news source—or at least it ought not be unless you have a rather peculiar sense of what news is, although if it is indeed the case, we’re not being critical here because we certainly want to encourage readership—results from a survey that was just released by Morning Consult are germane to one issue that we’ve been looking at for the past several weeks (which, admittedly, feel like the past several years, as time has taken on a different characteristic), so we thought we’d get this out sooner rather than later. So, yes, arguably, this information is news.

They asked a statistically significant number of U.S. adults about their plans regarding a variety of outdoor/social activities, ranging from Going out to Eat to Going to an Amusement Park.

What’s more, they asked the people to identify as to whether they’re Republicans or Democrats.

One of the questions was about their plans for Going to a Concert.

The survey starts at April 29-30 and ends at August 4-7.

In April 6% of Dems said they’d go. In August the number remains the same.

The Republicans are a bit more bullish. In April 14% said they’d attend a concert, and that has gone up five points to 19%.

And looking at “all” Americans, they started at 10% in April and just inched up 2%.

What is notable is that the only activity that scores lower than Going to a Concert is Traveling Abroad. In this instance, the number of Democrats at the start was 5% and it has grown to 6%; the number of Republicans started at 11% and grew to 15%; the number of “all” started at 8% and went to 12%.

Going back to the topic of concerts: Turns out that Millennials are more likely to go to a concert than Boomers, with 16% of Millennials saying they would and just 9% of Boomers. Interestingly, both age cohorts have had a 3% rise in their willingness since April 29-30.

Still, no matter whether it is young Republicans or old Dems, there are hardly the numbers that would make it particularly economically viable for there to be a return to concerts anytime soon.

And that’s the news right now.

Music, Politics & Iggy on a Cruise Line

So a question is to what extent does a musician “own” her or his music, not necessarily in a legal sense–which is certainly more than a trivial consideration vis-à-vis the livelihood of people–but in that the music represents, one suspects, though can’t be certain of*, what that person’s beliefs are.

This thought occurred as a result of the law suit filed in the Southern District of New York by Neil Young against the Trump campaign for the campaign’s unauthorized use of “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Devil’s Sidewalk.”

Other musicians who have objected—not all in court—against the use of their material by the Trump campaign over the years include Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Pharrell Williams, Tom Petty (his estate) and The Rolling Stones.

Which brings me back to the original question. Why does an organization like Trump’s campaign think that those musicians in any way represent the thinking, beliefs or social mores of Donald Trump? Aren’t many of these people antithetical to that?

Would, say, the Biden campaign use—unauthorized or otherwise—music from Ted Nugent or Toby Keith?

Music is a fundamental part of our culture. As such it reflects, in many ways, our values.

While one could argue that music has long been co-opted for reasons political and, more substantially, commercial. For example, right now you can hear “Magic” by Pilot in a TV commercial for diabetes drug Ozembic and Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” in a spot for Anoro, which is a COPD medication.

And who can forget the soundtrack for a Royal Caribbean cruise line ad from a few years back: Iggy’s “Lust for Life”? A waterslide? An endless buffet? Umbrella drinks? Sandals, socks, Bermuda shorts and overstuffed swimsuits?

In those cases, of course, the songwriters are undoubtedly being compensated for their work, and it is hard to imagine a political case being made against ads for medications (unless, of course, one is anti “Big Pharma,” which Trump has declared himself to be, so one wonders what pop song his people will roll out for that position—the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”: “And all the politicians making crazy sounds. . . “?).

One interesting aspect of the Neil Young situation is that it wasn’t until January of this year that he became an American citizen. “Rockin’ in the Free World” was released in 1989. “Devil’s Sidewalk” was released in 2003.

Which means that the Trump campaign has been not only music from a man who does not reflect or support the candidate’s ostensible positions, but from a man who was, at the time he released those songs, was a foreigner. And we know how Trump feels about them.

*This is problematic in some regards as let’s face it: many songs are written about fictional situations so it is impossible to say that anyone is making authentic statements in their songs, as it may simply be a reflection of what seems to be relevant in the market at the time of composition.

Continue reading Music, Politics & Iggy on a Cruise Line

Surveys and Selflessness

If there is one thing that is well known it is that Americans like to eat. They may not always eat the best of foods (predicated on the proliferation fast-food restaurants), but be that as it may, they go out to do it. Yes, there is an explosion in delivery service demand, but there is the reopening—and reclosing—of restaurants across the country.

The researchers at Morning Consult asked a statistically valid group of Americans about when they’d feel comfortable doing certain things.

And when it comes to “Going out to eat,” the number of Americans is robust.

That is, 30% of those answered “Next month.” And the information is as fresh as July 20-22.

In addition to which, 18% said next two or three months, 9% next six months, and just 28% said more than six months. Only 14% didn’t have an opinion.

But when it comes to concerts, things are not as robust. A full 46% said it would be more than six months. Eleven percent said within the next six months. Twenty-four percent had no opinion. The remainder is split between next and the next two to three months. Doing the math, that says 55% are looking at early next year and if we add the uncertain 24%, that means that there is only 21% who are saying they’ll go soon.

So this means about a fifth of those surveyed are ready to go. That should be contrasted with the 38% of the hungry who are going to be served within the next three months.

(In case you’re wondering, going to the movies is slightly less challenged, with 52% saying six or more months before buying a seat and a bucket of popcorn.)

Perhaps what some music promoters ought to do is to bring back dinner theater.

Admittedly a cringeworthy idea, but they’re going to need more than 21% to make their nut. So maybe they need to forget the whole concerts at drive-ins and setup concerts at restaurants.

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In both economics and philosophy there is an interest in the notion of altruism, doing something selflessly for someone else.

As it is described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Behavior is normally described as altruistic when it is motivated by a desire to benefit someone other than oneself for that person’s sake. The term is used as the contrary of ‘self-interested’ or ‘selfish’ or ‘egoistic’—words applied to behavior that is motivated solely by the desire to benefit oneself.”

It goes on to say that there is a question of whether that is ever really the case that one behaves in such a manner: “According to a doctrine called ‘psychological egoism’, all human action is ultimately motivated by self-interest. The psychological egoist can agree with the idea, endorsed by common sense, that we often seek to benefit others besides ourselves; but he says that when we do so, that is because we regard helping others as a mere means to our own good.”

In other words, if you have $5 in your pocket and are on the way to Starbucks to buy a beverage but then see someone who is evidently needy and panhandling, by giving that person your $5 are you being selfless and altruistic—forgoing that delicious drink—or is the act of giving that person the money even more satisfying to you than the beverage, therefore providing a benefit to yourself?

Which brings me to Garth Brooks.

Continue reading Surveys and Selflessness

An Odd Couple Create a Lifeline for Venues

“Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”

“The Mourning Bride”, William Congreve, 1697

It may be hard to conceive, but there was actually legislation presented in the US Senate this week to help keep the spotlights on and the amps operating at small music venues.

Why is what is literally named the “Save Our Stages” act so surprising is because it is sponsored by two people who seemingly have nothing more in common than the fact that they work in the same building.

One of the sponsors is Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the woman who had been running for the Democratic presidential nomination with the message that a bit of common sense and decency (contrasted with the ways and means of the current resident of 1600) are in order.

The other is John Cornyn (R-TX), the man who is generally seen only standing behind Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, positioned in such a way that you have the sense that he would take a bullet for Mitch, the senator who has proven to be as craven as is conceivable.

The word from Klobuchar is “Minnesota’s concert halls, theatres, and places of entertainment, like First Avenue in Minneapolis, where Prince famously performed, have inspired generations with the best of local music, art, and education. This legislation would help ensure that small entertainment venues can continue to operate, and serve our communities for generations to come.”

Which has a sense of Midwestern practicality and forthrightness about it: she evidently understands that the arts are not superfluous to the education of people of all ages.

Cornyn said, “Texas is home to a number of historic and world-class small entertainment venues, many of which remain shuttered after being the first businesses to close. The culture around Texas dance halls and live music has shaped generations, and this legislation would give them the resources to reopen their doors and continue educating and inspiring Texans beyond the coronavirus pandemic.”

Given that the reopening of Texas—based on the explosion in the number of cases of COVID-19—occurred a bit too soon thanks to Governor Greg Abbott’s evident fealty to the King Who Is Wearing No Clothes, one hopes that this means that the reopening Cornyn is referring to is something that will happen only after there is control of the virus.

Cornyn strikes me as the kind of politician that only Hunter S. Thompson could have adequately described.

What is interesting (and laudable) about the act is that it would provide six months of financial support to venues (including paying employees; it would allow the Small Business Administration to make grants that are equal to the lesser of either 45% of operation costs from calendar year 2019—you need to base the amount on a normal year—or $12 million) that are not arms of giant organizations.

Continue reading An Odd Couple Create a Lifeline for Venues