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Best of 2016: Music December 23, 2016

Posted by David Card in Media, Uncategorized.
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Photo credit:  flickr user Ryan Atkins

Just like last year, I’m doing this barely in time for stocking stuffers. Following are my 10 favorite new releases from 2016:

  • Radiohead “A Moon Shaped Pool” – this is a low-flying panic attack.
  • Parquet Courts “Human Performance” – slacker punks take a step forward in song-writing depth. And guitar solos!
  • David Bowie “Blackstar” – sad, wise, haunting, experimental. Way to make an exit by one of the all-time greats.
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Skeleton Tree” – absolutely wrenching.
  • Sturgill Simpson “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” – outlaw country meets orchestra, hot horns section, and “In Bloom,” and somehow it all makes weird sense.
  • Angel Olsen “My Woman” – folky singer-songwriter rocks harder, does a little pop, still goes deep.
  • Paul Simon “Stranger to Stranger” – whoulda thunk? Still catchy after all these years.
  • Iggy Pop “Post Pop Depression” – still snarling after all these years.
  • P.J. Harvey “The Hope Six Demolition Project” – just as angry as Iggy.
  • A Tribe Called Quest “We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service” – thou shalt not say “old school.”

Possibly, the gloom and sadness and anger of this list matched my mood for the year.

It didn’t quite make the Top 10, but honorable mention goes Car Seat Headrest’s “Teens of Denial,” hooky indie rock that’s way more rock than mope, even if its lyrics aren’t quite as clever as Pitchfork thinks. And the Stones showed they could still play the blues on “Blue & Lonesome,” but we knew that already. Metallica showed they could still be metal on “Hardwired…to Self-Destruct” where maybe we weren’t so sure.

Not being modern, I still buy albums – 28 this year, 8 from the back catalog, very similar to last year. I like that Amazon will sell me a CD with instant download often for the same price – physical and cloud backup. Some of this behavior is because I want to pay artists better than Spotify does, and some of it’s because I listen to downloads on my phone and an old iPod, rather than streaming my data plan away.

I’m what we used to call back in the Jupiter Research days a “digital music aficionado” (digital user, high spender), so I love the streaming services to experiment and dive deep. But I also agree with Mark Mulligan that $10 per month isn’t a mainstream consumer product, regardless of whether it screws artists worse than their labels used to.

Best of 2013: Music December 21, 2013

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media.
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My favorites of 2013 line up better with Rolling Stone’s than with Pitchfork’s. Must be getting old.

This year I bought about 30 albums, all digital downloads. I don’t go for singles often, even if that is the natural medium for pop music.  (The modern version of the EP is appealing.) That number is a little less than last year, and again this year, almost all new, rather than back catalogue. I’ve got to discover some new “old” favorites.

My downloading may be down due to my use of music streaming services, just like Mark Mulligan and the ex-Jups and I have been forecasting for so long. I still like Rhapsody’s curation and info, but Spotify’s catalogue is starting to be noticeably better. I like Spotify’s apps, especially the ones that link me to reviews from professionals at media like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. I wish This Is My Jam were better integrated, and I usually forget that Facebook aggregates a lot of music info.

Anyway, roughly in order, the following were my favorite new releases of 2013:

  • Parquet Courts “Light up Gold” – easily – predictably? – my most-played. Incredibly catchy stoner punks from Austin via Brooklyn
  • Kanye West “Yeezus” – hurry up with my damn croissants. Pushes a lot of envelopes
  • The National “Trouble Will Find Me” – drones engagingly, and with some feeling
  • Lorde “Pure Heroine” and Miley Cyrus “Bangerz” – two pop divas craft some great singles. Miley might bear more listens; Lorde has more promise
  • Queens of the Stone Age “….Like Clockwork” – heavy-ish rock, not too many power ballads
  • Robyn Hitchcock “Love from London” and David Bowie “The Next Day” and Richard Thompson “Electric” – a trio of old geezers deliver the goods: near-Beatles, near-“Scary Monsters,” and near-guitar god
  • Savages “Silence Yourself” – stunning debut even if we’ve heard it before from Erase Errata
  • Steve Earle “The Low Highway” – one song’s called “21st Century Blues.” That about sums it up
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Push the Sky Away” – minor-key Cave still pulses and throbs
  • M.I.A. “Matangi” – the only kind of world music you should listen to

Best of 2011: Music December 21, 2011

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Just barely in time for stocking stuffers, yet another “best of…” list. But you know you love it.

Not a great year, but we’ll see what ages.

I bought about 45 albums, very few singles, all downloads pretty much exclusively from Amazon. This year my mix was about 55/45 new versus back catalog. I still listen mostly from an iPod or my iPhone.

However, I do have the on-demand streaming services from Rhapsody, Spotify, and MOG. (I’m comped as an analyst but I’d happily spend $10 a month on one of them. Which one is for a later post.) And free Pandora. I love all of them for radio-style new music discovery and casual listening, and for try-before-you-buy analysis. I get a kick out of seeing what my friends listen to via Facebook and GetGlue. This social music thing, it might catch on. If only the artists could make money off it.

But I’m technically a digital music aficionado, as defined by digital behavior and high spending on music, and I often discover unfamiliar bands by – gasp! – reading reviews. Turntable.fm is fun, but way too much work. It’s like trash-talking for music. I am not a very successful DJ, and neither are most people.

My favorite new albums of the year were, roughly in order:

Best New Albums of 2011

  • The Decemberists “The King Is Dead” – add alt-country to their repertoire
  • Black Keys “El Camino” – who knew there were still rock bands?
  • The Vaccines – my latest lo-fi, incredibly catchy, pop indulgence
  • PJ Harvey “Let England Shake” – yeah, someone still does stirring protest songs
  • T Bone Burnett Presents “The Speaking Clock Revue” – rootsy collection from Elvis Costello, Gregg Allman et al.
  • Dum Dum Girls “Only in Dreams” – pop-punk grrls with some depth
  • Jay-Z and Kanye West “Watch the Throne” – sure, it’s indulgent, but it’s fun when two big stars connect
  • Wild Flag “Wild Flag” – I miss Sleater-Kinney, but this is a half-decent substitute
  • Wilco “The Whole Love” – experimenting again, with spirit
  • Florence + the Machine “Ceremonials” – I know it’s hipper to like St. Vincent, but the prog-rock Sinead, well, rocks

You might also like to look at Tune-Yards (I have a thing for female jazz singers that fool around in other genres), Paul Simon (his latest is like a poor man’s – make that an old poor man’s – Graceland), Fucked Up (gotta love a punk concept album), SPIN’s “Nevermind” tribute (half the covers are pretty awesome),  DJ Shadow (channeling Killing Joke of all things), and R.E.M.’s finale (but the Decemberists already did the best R.E.M. album of the year). I didn’t hate the Lou Reed/Metallica team-up, but it was an example of two big artists not connecting.

I was disappointed by The Girls (went from interesting to pretentious in a year 2 years), Airborne Toxic Event (no sophomore slump but nothing new), the Kills (a killer single), and Gang of Four (one of my all-time favorite bands, but what was I expecting?).

Can Social Media Save the Music Business? December 27, 2010

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Sales of recorded music in the U.S. peaked back in 1999 at $15 billion. Since then, the industry has lost half its value. Digital music makes up over 40 percent of total sales, but it hasn’t been enough to return the industry to growth, let alone help recapture its former glory. After getting hammered by the recession, radio ad revenues seem to be stabilizing at around $16 billion, but that’s also well below the industry’s peak.

Online digital music can combine discovery, consumption and retail — all wrapped in social experiences like sharing, recommending and self-expression — in a way that physical goods and stores, and terrestrial radio, cannot. So what’s the problem? Did CD ripping and file-sharing outweigh any potential social media benefits for the industry?

Music Spending Realities

First, let’s look at some of the hard realities facing the music business:

  • While ripping and file sharing no doubt affected sales, the CD artificially inflated the market. CDs raised the price of an album and eliminated singles. Digital music returns popular music to its natural state as a singles business and lowers prices.
  • Although everybody listens to music, nearly half of Americans don’t buy any, and of the remainder, 25 percent account for 75 percent of the spending. A relatively small number of heavy buyers spend $200 a year, while all the other spenders buy an album or two. The heavy buyers are disproportionately Baby Boomers. Boomers are a big generation in terms of absolute numbers; they were raised on rock when it was a cultural phenomenon, and they’ve re-bought their collections in several formats (vinyl, cassette, CD).

Remixing Music with Social Media

These patterns don’t look good for music spending. Nor has the industry harnessed social media to its advantage. Music is inherently social, especially for youth audiences who use it for fashion and lifestyle cues and to express their “tribal” affiliations (e.g., goth, indie, mainstream). Although radio is the number one source of new music discovery, a friend’s recommendation is the second, and recommendations are more important the younger the audience.

New digital services like cloud-based lockers for streaming access and synchronization — likely Google’s digital music strategy — could take advantage of and even speed up the transition to fully digital music, but those offerings don’t appear particularly social. In contrast, YouTube and Myspace have led the way on providing free, ad-supported consumption and embedding of music videos and songs. And they pay much higher royalties than analog radio stations. Microsoft pioneered mobile song sharing with its unsuccessful Zune player — smartly trying to use DRM to invent a new business model rather than lock down an old one. If Apple’s Ping is an example of the future of social commerce, right now it’s missing the mark by using weak social content that’s kept mostly within Apple’s walled garden.

The newer freemium music services like Spotify and MOG focus a bit more on social media integration than original for-pay streamers like Rhapsody and second-gen Napster. That could help, but $10 a month on-demand services have never attracted more than a couple million users in the U.S., mostly selling to a high-spending, digitally savvy music fan that only constitutes 15 percent of the online population. Spotify’s premium business subsidizes its ad-based one, and it can’t get the royalty deals from the record labels it needs to be profitable — or even launch in the U.S.

In a year when the Beatles’ arrival on iTunes counted as “big news,” we’re starting to see more action in digital music, especially with social integration. There are a couple of location-based, socially influenced soundtracks of cities or neighborhoods. Audiogalaxy, a former file-sharing site, is trying to find a legal business, and MixApp has built a hybrid chatroom-listening space. But they all face the currently impossible task of covering royalty costs with advertising. It may be that social media makes its contribution in cost-savings, whether that’s crowdsourcing music videos or making artist development more efficient with online tryouts and audience-building.

Question of the week

How could social media save the music industry?

Best of 2010: Music December 22, 2010

Posted by David Card in Media.
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It’s the time of year for Top Ten lists. I won’t bother apologizing.

I bought a little less music this year than last: about 50 albums and EPs, no singles, almost exclusively digital downloads this year. The Virgin Megastore closed. And I buy from Amazon, not Apple. Amazon’s cheaper and ships a higher bitrate MP3. That’s not to say I don’t do all my playing back on a Mac or iPod or iPhone, and manage my collection in that horrid spreadsheet of a music software app, iTunes.

My purchase mix was about 60/40 new versus back catalog, and I bought a little more jazz and a lot more Americana/roots than last year. I ripped a handful of other people’s CDs, but some of those I bought as gifts. I’m still way above the average American in music spending, even though the stuff I bought ranged in price between free, $3.99 and $5 (thank you, Amazon promotions) and $12-$13. Accent on the cheap stuff.

My favorite new albums of the year, in rough order were:

Best Albums of 2010

  • Titus Andronicus “The Monitor” – as if Springsteen were punk, channeled the Pogues, and did a concept album on the Civil War
  • Surfer Blood “Astro Coast” – lo-fi Beach Boys
  • Paul Weller “Wake up the Nation” – way more eclectic and lively than his recent post-Jam stuff
  • Various artists “Crazy Heart Soundtrack” – the actors actually sing borderline – but not quite – parody country songs very well
  • The Walkmen “Lisbon” – melancholy suits a sad year
  • John Mellencamp “No Better than This” – convincingly rootsy
  • Swans “My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky” – outright dirge
  • Neil Young “Le Noise” – old hippie sounds very modern
  • David Byrne & Fatboy Slim “Here Lies Love” – yeah, it’s a disco musical about Imelda Marcos, deal with it
  • Grinderman “Grinderman 2” – does Nick Cave get hornier the older he gets?

I liked another aging punk, former Sleater Kinney singer Corin Tucker’s “1,000 Years,” another soundtrack, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross doing “The Social Network,” New Orleans funk from Galactic (“Yo-Ka-May”), the collaborative headed by Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse (“Dark Night of the Soul”), another collaboration featuring The Chieftans and Ry Cooder and others (“San Patricio” Latino-Irish!). I was disappointed by the latest from Elvis Costello, the National, M.I.A., the Thermals, the Dead Weather, and Killing Joke.

There’s a Reason It Was So Cheap December 3, 2008

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There’s a reason it was so cheap.

    Alan Gutman, the lawyer representing Axl and Guns N’ Roses, sent a scolding letter (which cited Advertising Age’s coverage of the campaign), to Larry Young, president-CEO of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. The letter stated that Dr Pepper’s campaign had exploited the singer’s reputation and the “eagerly awaited” album, and stated that payment would be sought for the unauthorized use of the Guns N’ Roses brand.

Cheapest Music Marketing Tie-In Ever! November 20, 2008

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PR folks at Dr Pepper swear this gimmick has nothing to do with Guns n’ Roses, Axl Rose, Irving Azoff, Front Line Management, or Universal Music/Geffen Records.

The 17-years-in-the-making album drops on November 23 — probably — as a Best Buy exclusive, and Dr Pepper has 23 flavors. (Not counting prune.) You can hear “Chinese Democracy” early at MySpace.

Latest Zune Moves November 20, 2008

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Microsoft made a series of moves this week around its Zune device and service, including hardware price cuts ($10 below iPods), a new firmware release with bundled games, launching a new TV campaign pumping the software, and a new pricing scheme for its subscription service. Microsoft renegotiated its label deals so that now, for the same $15 a month, subscribers can keep ten songs a month. That’s either a free album or the on-demand service for $5, depending on how you look at it. Everybody but Sony is in DRM-free MP3 format.

That’s a sweet deal, but will likely appeal primarily to the same digital music aficionado customers who’ve always had a spot in their hearts for subscription services. Those high-spending, digitally active music fans represent about 15% of the US online adult and teen population — around 26 million adults and 3 million teens. About 2-3 million people subscribe currently.

I asked Microsoft if it considered just cutting the price of the service, and execs said, sure, but that wouldn’t get over the “rental” hump. I also wondered if the model can be profitable. On-demand music subscriptions can be, if customer acquisition costs are managed, but 99-cent singles are only barely profitable at scale. Microsoft answered that the music biz is all about scraping out a few points of margin from multiple revenue streams. Okay, but subscriptions, niche though they are, are one of the few places where there might be a decent margin for the service and the rights holder. And Microsoft still hasn’t done much about advertising revenues.

Microsoft’s TV campaign features artists like Common, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kings of Leon and is focused on national cable with a few primetime network spots. Its theme is turning your PC into a music discovery machine, and is a move towards Microsoft’s new positioning around “Zune-powered experiences” across multiple “tuners.” That is, not just MP3 players, but PCs, phones, Xbox, etc.

UPDATED: Sony BMG is onboard