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Monday, September 27, 2010

An instrument to end the war of strings

The fretted harp!

12 strings exist since quite some decades. On those every string has a second one, an octave higher, except string 1 and 2 which are simply doubled. They have a very rich sound, but playing them is not different than usual ones.
Then came 7 strings, 8 string and 9 strings to add more scale. Also 5 string, 6 string and 7 string bass guitars aren't that uncommon anymore.
In stage 3 the chapman stick and warr guitar and nowadays the stringstation rule.

So, being Stringray, I gotta find some more strings!

The idea is simple: attach a fretboard to a harp.

1. playability:
But how can one play that if not standing in fron of it, with your back to the audiene, constantly movin up and down and showing them your fat ass?
So, you still had to play it like the harpist does, from both sides. For achieving this, a normal fretboard is imposible. But there's still a way. At first, -yes- double the amount of strings. Every string must have its twin, sitting behind it. In between the string layers would be steel bars that carry the steel frets, one on each side of the bar, so each of the twin strings can have frets.

good playability, a pretty cool looking artist, and --- MORE SRTINGS!

2. Tonal set up:
The harp is constructed to transport the strings' frequencies to the sound body on both ends, so it's quite tricky.
Now attaching frets brings of course the 'problem' that it will always produce 2 notes, one on the upper and one on the lower end of the string.
There's only one way to gain control over this. The fret distances must be set in a way that a harmonic is always given. Both ends of a string must be in harmony in every given scenario.
That also gives options. Since there are many strings in similar tonal range, you can have different string set ups for different dual harmonic scales.

Advantage: nobody will ever be able to play this.

3. Construction:
I swear, if you ever build that, I will not die until I've learned to play it! 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The flagship loses its captain

So Portnoy calls his quits?

I'm not shocked. Not this time.

I'm saying for a couple of years now that the band needs a break to charge their batteries of creativity. Now Portnoy, the band leader, is the one who does it while the rest doesn't. That's quite a surprise as I always thought it was MP who sailed the band into those commercial sell out shores. So was it the other way round and MP simply saw that they were going the wrong way and tried to get back on the right track? We will see.

It will be interesting who will step into his shoes as there aren't too many out there who could replace him, and I bet quite a number of them won't even try to compare themselves to him.

On the other hand the best times of DT in the past have always been the ones when they had to replace a member and merge new creative aspects to their musical identity, so there's hope that DT now find another spark that brings them back to their old strength.

Let's see what the future will bring.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The (public) library vs. the (private) RIAA

In another in a seemingly endless series about the present day music industry, I had a new thought cross my mind. Not new information, but maybe a new metaphor to apply to the recording industry situation. I've make reference before to the idea that massive record sales of the 80s and 90s are an anomaly, not the norm, for music as a consumable product. People have moved on the DVDs and Tivo. I've watched in amusement for the last few years as the RIAA tries desperately not to accept this.

I have visited the Littleton public library several times and it's an excellent resource for a smaller library. While browsing the stacks last week I was reminded of how many hundreds of books are released every month. Even if all new book releases were stopped today it would take me decades to read everything in the speculative fiction section alone. It applies to music as well. Online radio like Progulus lets me get a good sample of a lot of music. I enjoy most of it, and I could never afford the money or time to actually buy all of it.

So why keep writing books? Well, for authors it may be a mix of artistic compulsion and a job. For publishers, they hope for the occasional huge hit, but they can also publish books in moderate quantities and not put a lot of money up front. With new digital options, there's almost no production cost at all beyond paying the people who worked on it. It's similar to something I read about Jazz back in college, that Jazz labels considered a record successful if it sold 20,000 copies. Make your money back, make a small profit, and move on the the next gig. The RIAA can't tell the difference between success and MASSIVE HIT EVERYBODY PARTY! No one should be pressured not to write a book, paint a picture, or record an album because it won't make someone else rich.

After a book or any creative is done, it enters the culture at large. Whether 10 people or 10,000 people read it, it's there to be used. Libraries now also have a lot of music and movies. Libraries are storehouses of culture. It's a place that holds a record of a people and their creativity. Storytelling is one of the few things left that humans do and animals don't (as far as we know). As an artist, I am more interested in being part of the creative conversation and part of the cultural record than in diluting my intentions to make money.

Do authors lose money when people borrow a book from the library rather than buying it? Sure, it seems obvious. But, as others have ably written, obscurity is far worse an enemy to art than whether or not people get it for free.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

For the Ones Who Will Succeed

Topic: Methods of success.

"The night was hot... wait no. The night... the night was humid. The night was humid. No wait, hot... hot. The night was hot. The night was hot and wet, wet and hot. The night was wet and hot, hot and wet, wet and hot... that's humid. The night was humid. The night was dry, yet it was raining."

That's a quote from a funny scene in Throw Momma From The Train where author Larry (Billy Crystal) has a case of writer's block and spends days trying to come up with the opening line of his new book. It's not too far from the truth though. Staring at a blank canvas and trying to come up with the next work is a bit like the zen student trying to understand zen. One must capture little bits of their fleeting imagination in a real and finite form, and once the first line of music is written or the first brush stroke is applied to the canvas everything else must come from that. Moving toward a finished piece is a series of diminishing possibilities the last few notes are placed which fit only into that one work and no other.

In my last blog, I wrote about how and why musicians and bands often fail and quit. In this article I want to discuss the other side of creating music, and that is to discuss some methods and tools for success and staying motivated.

It's important to know that music is and has always been written by ordinary folk in their own place and time using tools that were readily available at their disposal. Our point of view and the starting materials that we use are a product of the world we live in. For example, the temples of Angkor Wat would not have been created if the 12th century Cambodian's didn't have a knowledge of sculpture and masonry and a strong passion in Hindi Buddhism, and and the Death Mask of Tutankahman would have not been made if early Egyptians had no belief that it wouldn't be needed in the afterlife, didn't have a large supply of gold, and hadn't developed the necessary skills to create it. We are not compelled to build similar things today because our set of beliefs and level of technology have changed. What the modern form is to us comes from our own realities and personal frame of reference. Todays 12-bar blues form of music would have made as little sense for Bach to write into his secular music as it would be for us to try and write a six-part fugue into a blues song today.

Furthermore, it's quite rare for a musician to invent a new music form right out of thin air. More typically a new or perfected form of music is born out of existing styles from the present day. For example, John Philip Sousa wrote military marches mostly because he grew up in a military environment and his father played in a military band and he later joined the Marine Corp and conducted his own marching band. His life experience taught him the marching band style and how to write in it, and hence the majority of his musical output was writing in this form and he ended up defining the style for future generations. By the same token Chopin didn't invent the marzurka but he perfected and defined it by writing 58 of them. History is full of cases of people who start out by following an existing style and then later breaking out of that mold to create a new style or form. It's the great ones who make the next set of rules for the generations that follow, and follow they do. There have been countless modern progressive rock and metal bands today who have followed in the footsteps of Dream Theater because they are inventers of the modern form we use today. There are a handful of other bands that are heavily borrowed upon which I won't name here. This strategy helps us gain a foothold on what we want to accomplish and where we take it from there is up to us. One of the problems with this is, as I addressed in my last blog, is that many bands end up quitting before they find their own voice so we are left with a lot of bands that are unoriginal copies of others.

Up to this point I've made the case that music is written by ordinary people and have refrained from using the 'T' word... "talent". We've all probably seen the videos of the 5-year old drum prodigy or the 10-year old who can play 64 notes a second on a guitar, but how many times do we hear of them going on to become productive musicians? I want to state right here and now that talent is indistinguishable from hard work. There's always going to be the rare band who can put out an amazing record on their first try or the musician who comes along once a generation who is far away superior to everyone else. But for the rest of us talent only goes so far. Think of the race between the turtle and the hare. The hare got a faster time off the starting blocks but in the end it was the turtle who dedicated himself to task at hand and ended up winning the race. I once read an interview with Al Dimeola where he said that when he wanted to learn how to play the guitar the first thing he did was to memorize every scale at every position on the neck. It's said that the difference between an amatuer and a professional is that the amatuer practices until he gets it right, and the professional practices until he never gets it wrong.

I've mentioned before that it's very difficult to write music or produce art in a vaccum. For this reason it's a good idea to become involved in peer or critique groups or to make friends with people who share similar interests. These groups not only give you a venue for your work, but also valuable critique on your progress. Fortunately today there are many different groups available widely on the internet via MySpace,, forums, and many other places where feedback can be almost instantaneous. Porcupine Tree and Ozric Tentacles both got started by distributing free cassette tapes of their music for people to hear. Of course, having a record deal in hand can be a great motivator. But most prog labels want to hear the finished product before they commit to anything.

In addition to peer support and critique, all artists need a good and constant dose of self-editing. When Van Halen recorded their first album they recorded something like 20 songs and only used the best 11 for the album. Unfortunately many artists feel that every idea they come up with is a good one and should be slapped on plastic and sold to the fans. But even with critique and self-editing artists might feel misunderstood when there is a lack of interest in their work, and some have even taken on the faulty notion that lack of interest in their work is a necessary form of self-persecution for the sake of their art. But the truth is that artists must produce a large amount of mediocre work that nobody really cares about much in order for them to produce those few works that really soar.

Another popular technique to get yourself started and maintain momentum is to work within a theme. For example, pianists will sometimes try to write one work in each key. In photography one of the popular trends is to do a "photo a day" project or a Photo365 diary. Another example is photography groups that set up themed contests with a different subject each week. There are many variations to this, but the general strategy is to avoid writer's block and stay motivated by always leaving a little bit of something unfinished to come back to. You can set measurable goals such as writing and recording one complete song each month such as what Mindflow did recently with their "365 project". Also, artists who remain students of their medium are often more motivated because they experiment with the new things that they have learned.

A musician or other artist must at some point come to terms with making music for themselves as opposed to making music for others. Consider what happens in a "sophmore slump" which is a common occurance for bands. A band might begin their musical career with a sense of self-purpose, taking their time and enjoying what they do for just themselves. After they reach a level of notoriety they might to begin suddenly taking themselves "seriously", or worse yet freezing up because now have a whole new audience of fans that they must write music for. After the success of their first album they are now under pressure from their management or label to produce more of the same work as before, but different. Try making a conscious effort to do that sometime! All of the motivations have changed as a result and it's no longer a matter of creating for the sake of enjoyment. The only way to overcome this is to realize that good music comes out of making your music for yourself and nobody else.

Musicians are also constantly evolving and changing. There is the notion for them to believe that their past work is not up to par with their current work. This is a good thing and a sign of progression as an artist. An artist is a bit like a boat moving forward through the water and creating a wake in its path. The wake spreads out behind the boat and eventually disappears back into the water. Like the boat, an artist is constantly moving forward, speeding up or slowing down, changing directions, and the displacement of what they do creates a wake that remains and dissipates behind them. Another aspect of growth is that there are usually long periods of stagnation followed by rapid quantum leaps in understanding and inspiration. For example, as a photographer I started out pretty much like everybody else to learn the technical basics such as aperture, depth of field, dynamic ranges, flash techniques, etc. My first attempts would be to try to create photographic records of particular scenes. A short time later I came to realize that my pictures in print were never the same as what I originally saw. So my next leap in understanding came for me to learn how to predict how what I saw would look in print or view things with a "photographic eye," as they say. Later on I began to realize that my pictures weren't so much creating a photographic record of what I saw, but were in fact creating geometric figures out of subjects on a 2-dimensional space. After that I began and learning how to form these shapes in a visually pleasing way. A final moment of understanding for me came when I began to see how the borders of the print were also creating geometries within the image. Once those kinds of revelations have been realized they cannot be "unseen" and I from each point forward I could never look at a photograph in the same way as before. I'm sure there are probably other insights coming down the road too that I have yet to understand. But for each leap there was also a diminished sense of pride in the work I had done before. My point is that growth as an artist is an inevitable and desireable result of totally immersing ourselves in our work. We should take that path wherever it leads us even if it means acknowledging that we have already created our best work, because it may very possibly lead to even more growth and understanding down the road.

I mentioned communication in my last article. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to get a handle on because an individual artist often has little control over the actions of his peers and is totally dependant on them. Very often the pool of potential bandmates are fairly limited within a region, so people get stuck with one another for lack of any better options. Success in this fashion often comes down to luck of the draw. The one recurring theme to success I've seen over the years is that bands make it clear to eachother that they must have a strong work ethic and must each bear a share of the workload. Set certain times during each practice session to just work on new material, share new song ideas and critique them. Make it a rule that each band member must bring a new song idea to each proactice session, etc. Band members must be able to critique eachother in an open forum without creating conflict. Very often one band member grandstands or tries to control the others. This is not conductive to a good working relationship. Good communication is really the key to success. Band members can be a great internal source of motivation, though it's also still a good idea to seek critique from outside groups as well.

Creating the few works of ours that really soar are the result of a complete understanding of our medium, hard work, building on and correcting ourselves from our past failures, and most importantly staying motivated to continue in light of all the challenges in which we are confronted with.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Open letter to Roger Waters concerning ticket pricing

saw that screen capture of the ticket pricing for the northamerican "The Wall" tour:

Sorry Mr Waters, 500 $$?

That makes 3 1/3 progpower europe festivals, or, in other words, I could see 51 bands playing live, each of those playing 100 x more notes than you do - for the same amount of money.

I've been to the show on PF's Division Bell tour (yes, I know it is another band...) I've payed 69 Deutschmarks back then which would compare to 120 Euro as for today. I've had a surround speaker array in my back that easily blasted my ears, while the music, that came only from the stage PA wasn't nearly at the volume one has in a living room. Every time such a surround ambient came up, the music was unaudible.
The upmost lighting happened inside an area that was covered on three sides (obviously to keep the remaining sunlight away) and I was too far on the side to look into. At half of the show we went to the area opposite of the stage because we wanted to see the lighting and it was very many lamps, but nothing impressive one would expect from a "psychedelic band".
All I could say about the waste of money: I saw (not) Pink Floyd live (really?).

I saw Tool on their 10.000 Days tour for 43 Euro, and probably the only bass player who manges to play a 5 minute song per feedback only (on purpose, of course). The band was overly awesome, the sound was absolutely perfect. The lighting was a multimedia show with 4 video screens on stage, a custom made rig of lighting that appeared like a spaceship, tons of laser cannons and and and.... The band had to have a 15 minutes break, that was needed to load the next pack of lighting data into the RAM. It was a 3 dimensional multi media performance as psychedelic as can be. I was stoned without taking any drug.
PL can be proud for the rest of his life for such a giant birthday party!

again.... 500$$?


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

To The Ones Who Have Failed

Somewhere in the city, somewhere in the room,
a silent man, a work undone, a plan that went astray.

Somewhere in the limetime of a yearning reverie,
Words have lost their meaning on the fragile stage of fame.

- Sieges Even

This is the first in a series of articles I wanted to write about the state of making music today. In this article I want to look at a few of the reasons behind why bands break up and musicians quit. Progessive bands today seem come and go at a steady pace. For every band who releases music I can't begin to estimate how many bands have disappeared before they produce anything tangible. In music it takes a considerable amount of time energy to develop the technical skills required to write and record good music. Those who would care to make music today had better take note of those who came before them because most who have tried, quit.

I've been practicing art in one form or another for most of my life and have hit roadblocks and gone through dry spells along the way. We often leave our work unfinished, put things off, and we get frustrated. Bands break up, musicians stop practicing, artists stop producing art, photographers stop making pictures, and the list goes on. To explore why this happens I want to look at some of the obstacles that get in the way as musicians go about accomplishing their work. I think it's important for us to understand why making music today is not easy.

Musicians differ from most other artists like painters, sculptors, poets, photographers, and writers in that they typically must form a band in order to practice their art. For them good communication and interpersonal skills are essential in the exchange of ideas between the band members. But sadly it's an area where many musicians are lacking and can be a source of friction. Let's face it, people can be downright nasty with one another. They can be egotistical, selfish, socially withdrawn, narcissistic, stubborn, or have many other negative traits that create barriers to effective communication. In addition to that band members may can have differences in their beliefs or religions, political ideology, level of perfectionism, or on the use of drugs. Human beings are just often times conflicted. But if we were all perfect, there wouldn't be much point in making music in the first place because writing music about our flaws is often what connects listeners with their music.

Developing the skills necessecary to play an instrument takes time, and those who take up the challenge must sit and practice alone for countless hours. For this reason it's a task best suited for the introverted. After all, the socialites would rather be out with others than sitting in a room by themselves. It's a sad irony then that lots of these people who have taken the time to get good at playing an instrument have insufficient social skills to work effectively as a part of a team in a band. I'm generalizing here. There are probably lots of cases of introverts being good communicators. But generally speaking it's not the case. According to Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen, "People with introverted personality traits feel overwhelmed more quickly than extroverts do - especially in group settings." In any case, I'll cast my ballot that human conflict is probably the biggest reason why bands break up.

Aside from communication, unrealistic expectations might play a part in why bands break up. Imagine for a moment a young new band who are eager to write and release a record. After a great deal of practice, toil, and expense they finally create a finished product. With great excitement and anticipation they send off their CD to some reviewers, radio stations, music stores, and of course friends and family. Then they wait... and they wait. After some time they may find their original expectations were unrealistic because sales of their work are only coming in at a trickle. They did not gain the notariety they expected, or maybe they received some less than flattering reviews. They may be discouraged at having gained only a small fan base. The harsh reality of the situation is that for a new band with a new album there is no good reason why anyone should deeply care about their music except for the band themselves, their managers, and perhaps their close friends and family. Why should the listeners care when there are hundreds or thousands of others CDs out there just like it that they can choose from? The listeners have not witnessed first hand everything that went into it's creation. But these young bands have a certain degree of naivety and might start to question themselves and whether they made the right choices when they made the album. This scenario is probably an all too common pitfall for a new band and an easy excuse for them to break up.

Let's talk for a moment about a much deeper topic. Fear. There are many reasons why fear might have a bearing on why bands quit. Making music or any art is a very self-revealing activity. A musician must bring forth the skills that they've developed over the years and are typically expected to reveal some very personal feelings in their lyrics. This makes them vulnerable. It's natural to be uneasy about how their very personal work will be received by others. They might have an underlying fear that they aren't good enough or as good as others. It might seem to them like making music comes much easier for others so maybe they are just faking it and aren't 'real' musicians. Making music is hard after all, and they're just ordinary people. They might even begin to fantasize that these other bands that they look up to are extraordinary or have some kind of magical gift from which all of their work flows out of them effortlessly.

Statistics show that young drivers of motor vehicles are much more apt to get in accidents. These drivers are new to the rules of the road and are a little unsure of themselves and how to control their vehicle in a variety of situations. As a driver matures they learn, hopefully through more trial than error, how the car behaves and how to effectively anticipate and avoid hazards. As musicians writing music we begin the same way. It's only through lots of hard work that people can hone their abilities, omitting what doesn't work and sticking with what does. It's also called style. The only way to make good music is to start making music and lots of it. Ansel Adams once said that no good photographer is worth his salt unless he has 10,000 bad negatives under his belt. The problem is that we often fault ourselves for our mistakes and use it as a reason to give up.

But what if, as in the previous analogy, the rules of the road kept changing? We now drive on the other side of the road. Stop now means right turn only, yellow light is go, you must stop for all turning cars, and the rules kept changing all the time. You could try and stick with the basics but each time you drive your car you make mistakes and you begin to doubt your ability or even wonder if you really know how to drive a car at all. It sounds silly but it's an even worse situation when you write music, especially progressive music, because there are no rules. It's a stifling affair and it's easy to see why there are so many 'clone' bands out there who are following the rules of others instead of inventing their own.

Another big factor is when musician's lose the venue or audience for their work. For me this was the day I went to college and I moved away from my bandmates and friends. All of the reasons I had for making music were suddenly gone. I did continue studying music in college and eventually received a music degree, but getting a college degree for many art and music students can also become a loss of venue. After carefully cultivating their talents with hard work, peer support, and critique over four years, graduation day comes and they are suddenly left all alone in the world trying to make a living. It's very difficult to write music in a vacuum with little support, encouragement, or feedback from others.

Bands might also quit when their vision doesn't meet reality. Artists have vivid pretty imaginations and it can be frustrating to have the perfect idea floating around in their heads that they can't seem to bring to life. Its's a constant chase trying to form reality around the visions from their mind's eye, but the reality is the mind's eye is always faster and better. As a result they might convince themselves they will fail before they can finish so they give up trying.

Lastly, people quit because they get bored. Part of the joy of creating something is learning how to do that something well and to explore all of the avenues to achieve technical perfection. It's a sad fact then that once we master the medium and it's time to get busy, we lose our motivation and quit.

When people suddenly stop making music or art it's often a subconscious act. That is to say they don't just decide one day "that's it, I'm finished." Instead they lose motivation, postpone, and delay. It may be after some time before they consciously realize what has happened, but by then it may be too late. There may be little motivation left to try and go back to where they were because they might have already move on to something else or grown out of it.

With all of this adversity, is quite remarkable that some bands can stay together, or importanly they have learned how not to quit. Many bands can get along together quite well and have learned how to get beyond their past mistakes. They have accepted who they are with all of their flaws and still continue to plod on despite whatever differences they might have with eachother. They realized that their job is to make music and not to care so much about what others might think. Rush is still together after 35 years and 19 studio albums, J. D. Salinger continued to write novels until he died at age 91, Monet was painting water lilies in his 80's, and Ansel Adams pursued photography until his death. Learning how not to quit. That's the key.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In Praise of Small Groups Within the Prog Community

Clive Thompson wrote a short article in the Feb 2010 issue of Wired Magazine called "in Praise of Online Obscurity" where he talks about how social circles begin to break down as they increase in size. He says that in small groups people are more intimate as they are part of a community where they can contribute and express their feelings and ideas openly, but in larger groups they become just another member of an anonymous mass. The article got me thinking about just how valid his points related to the various prog circles on the internet.

He writes:

"After all, the world’s bravest and most important ideas are often forged away
from the spotlight — in small, obscure groups of people who are passionately
interested in a subject and like arguing about it. They’re willing to experiment
with risky or dumb concepts because they’re among intimates. (It was, after all,
small groups of marginal weirdos that brought us the computer, democracy, and
the novel.)"

In a related research study, it was determined that 150 friends is upper limit on what the human brain is able to simultaneously keep track of.

I frequently visit certain small forums dedicated to prog music where people discuss new and old releases, give short reviews, and alert others to good bands that they have recently found. The interesting aspect of all this is how close-knit the communities are and the wide variety of people within them. Friends in these groups can be musicians, record labels, graphic designers, album reviewers, management agencies, web site representatives, and of course fans. The importance of these communities is that there's a feeling of togetherness where they can speak out with relative impunity and the rest of group will listen to what they have to say. When a hotly anticipated new release comes out everybody weighs in their thoughts on it and the people who made the CD are right there to read the critiques. These groups function as a think tank that can effectively sort out the good and the bad, so they become a self-correcting influence on the people within the group who are making the music.

Another interesting aspect of these small groups it that people in the group become advocates of certain bands and act like their personal promotion agency. From what I've observed it's an amazingly effective way at getting the word out about new music, more so even than the various web sites dedicated to reviewing CDs. I think a person is more apt to take the advice of a friend they know and trust over others on other web sites who they don't. I have little doubt that I have increased the visibility of some bands and even helped a few get signed by agencies or labels as a direct result of my own posturing in some of these groups.

If there's a downside to all of this it's that within these small groups there's a familiarity between members and they tend to view newcomers as outsiders. Depending on the person's background it usually takes a long while for somebody new to gain enough respect within the group for people to start calling them a friend. Another potential downside is that these groups tend to be somewhat rigid in their ideals, so the focus of one particular group is often for a similar look and sound.

It's interesting to think about how these small groups might play a role in how music is written and composed. From my experience some of the most creative and unusual music was created in a relative vacuum of outside influence, while 'popular' music generally must conform to a larger community/industry standard. The prog world is filled with thousands of niche bands with their own unique sound. I think a good deal of the individuality of prog music comes as a direct result of the bands interacting with a very small number of influences and supporters.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Follow up on the future (I call shenanigans)

I'm going to address now the massive logical fallacy put forth by the music (and movie) industry. Illegal downloads are taking money away from them and out of the pockets of the creators. They want the public to think that if everyone who downloaded an album or a movie didn't do that, they would buy it instead. I can only speak for myself, but that's bullshit. I reserve my movie dollars for very few things I really like. I go to the big screen for something like Star Trek. I'll buy something I really love, like The Shawshank Redemption. If I download, the most I'm doing is taking a dollar away from Redbox. And I use Redbox, too (see below to see what the MPAA thinks of Redbox). Or I go to the library. At least half of my cd collection is either copied from friends or bought used. No money to the RIAA there. Of the music I've acquired from friends, the library, or otherwise not paid full price for, I'd say most I would have never purchased at all. These days I'm doing a lot of online radio listening. I hear tons of music I like but I'll never buy. I throw a little money in every now and then to help my favorite independent stations, but that's it. Let me see if I can summarize my point:

It's not a matter of buying vs stealing. It is a matter of experiencing vs not experiencing. 

I'd also like to take a moment to give a shout out the the original, old school, grandaddy of us all "analog" Torrent site, the Library. (with special nods to public, college and high school libraries)

Just a few more tidbits for thought on my posts about the state of the music industry. The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) has been raving, like the RIAA, about how illegal movie downloads are killing the movie business. The MPAA has even opposed cheap services like Redbox despite the evidence showing just the opposite. So how can the MPAA say downloads are hurting when, yet again, 2009 was a record year for box office profits. This during the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.

If movies and music are analogous, why hasn't the music industry seen increases in the same way? Several likely reasons:

Many studies including this one have shown that illegal downloaders spend more money on music than those who don't download. Other studies show that digital sales are increasing. So why is the RIAA in a twist? Music is too expensive. $12-15 for a cd and $1 or more per song download are just too much. And studies are backing this up. For some reason, rather than charging what the market will bear, the music industry has picked artificially high prices. The consumer is finally catching on and deciding they don't want to pay that much for a cd. If you want people to pay that much, you have to give more than a little plastic disk.

The way we deliver music is outdated and being replaced by a system we don't fully understand yet. Brian Eno made the fine comparison of records to whale blubber. Oil replaced whale blubber as fuel. Cars replaced the horse and buggy. Transistors replaced vacuum tubes. We make ice in our own freezers rather than having it delivered. Technology moves on. In some cases the old ways die out, in others they adapt to new niches. My desktop computer would fill the room if it still had tubes, but many a guitar player would be lost without a tube amp. You can still ride a horse and buggy, but you do so for fun, not because it's the best way to get around.

People just don't like music that much anymore. It's a hard pill to swallow but I think it's true. I'm forgetting where I read or heard this, but it's related to the Brian Eno remarks. In the history of music, the multi-million album sales and heaps of money thrown around in the 80s and 90s are an anomaly, not the norm. Operating an industry on that scale wasn't sustainable. Video game sales have outpaced music for a few years now, and have passed home dvd sales. Internet, cable, satellite. There are so many sources for entertainment and information. Music is going to have to accept that it isn't on top of the heap anymore.

So, back to the artist. What do I think? I think I make art and that's a lot better than not making it. I'd feel sympathetic towards those who can't make a living anymore in music, but so far I haven't found any examples. I'm not entitled to make a living at music and neither is anyone else. I'm not entitled to anything but the right to make art. Hell, even Ray Alder of Fates Warning had a day job during their heyday. I have a job so I can make art. On one level, only making a small part of my income from my art makes me an amateur and not a professional. On the other hand, being free to make whatever art I want, when I want, to make myself happy, means that I am successful. And being successful in my art makes me happy with what I have to be happy with.

(is it perhaps ironic that these people are watching television and not listening to music?)
(slightly related, I link to Techdirt a lot. A great read for tech/copyright/what's next/that's a dumb law info)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

About Tastes, Arguments and Judging - grrroOOOOOoowwwwl it OUT!!!

"And you should get more into growlers... just ignore the growling if you want, there's usually lots of dynamics in their music!"

This is a posting by "Blueprint", and has been agreed by "Ayreonaut" on the forum of Progpower Europe as a final comment to my ppe reviews. I want to memorize Lamneth's article Tribalism in Progressive Circles.

What I can say about the growling is that it is not my favorite art of expression. I am listening to growlers since a couple of years, and it will never be my preferred vocal technique. There are some I can enjoy pretty much, and some I cannot stand at all. I divide them in four categories:

1) The expressive ones - Used to create a sonic vision of something evil in a story to be told, such as Amaseffer use in their outstanding prog metal bible soundtrack epic trilogy. I love them one hundred percent.

2) The atmospheric ones - used alternatively to clean vocals for creating a dark or evil atmosphere in genres where guitar alone (or even with keyboards) cannot achieve it. Why not? If it turns out any good...

3) The "for-the-sake-of-it" growlings - In the beginning there was the growling, the came the lyrics. All music gets written around it so the growling has a base to float over. I dont' have any sense for it, there is no beauty in the music for my music analyzing neuronal patterns.

4) The production enhancing growls - Now we have produced a very strong album, but what can we do to improve sales results? We should bring some growling in, that will attract the other half of the metal fans as well. I call them - like they are meant to be - evil. Evil commerce.

So, what happens if those cookies come along when I'm tuned in to progulus radio? I get tears in my eyes (1), just let the music play and wonder if and how it will please me (2), press the mute button because the music bothers me (3) or consider the band being lost to the deeps of capitalism (4).
If it fills the air at such a genious festival like Progpower Europe, I have a great option: I walk through the door and do the second thing I came for: talking to some of the great people I have the opportunity to meet.
Concernig to Blueprint's idea of just ignoring the cookies, well, I can't. At least unless one offers a growling filter implant.
But all in all, Blueprint is right, many bands really do great music, and the fact that I can't stand the growling and therefore will not listen to them is a tragedy.

So much for my statement about cookiemonster vocals. I will not say silly things like "I hate people shouting at me this way" or something like that. There is this one thing in man that has no reason: taste. It is the way it is, and one cannot say why. In this human here, a strong growling intolerance is given. but hey, it is my taste! I don't actually am against it on purpose! I just don't like to hear it. I would never say it is a bad thing because of reason xy. Bad for me in person only because I miss some great instrumental work, but I will never tell anybody to not growl unless he/she were in a band I've founded.
Lamneth complained about one who said that Opeth are killing the death metal genre by bringing in some clean vocals. Well, I bet it was a young one who's overly supportive to that genre so he doesn't want to go beyond it one little step. It was an opinion, nothing more. A person with a rather narrow range of taste. That won't make this person a bad guy at all. I bet if I meet that one, we could have a great time together.
We here are proggers. We love this kind of music and support it in all ways we can. In common we share tastes. Even if we have sort of tribalism, which I tend to call differences in taste. Is that bad?
If I made friendship only with proggers here in Munich, where I live, I would be a rather lonely person.
Imagine a person that is highly intelligent and smart, has a high class job that makes him a 1st class income, but is straight to the ground and simply a great friend. And then you find out he's a country fan. Would you turn your back on him and call him a moron? I don't think so.
In the nineties there was a great guy being sound engineer at the studio where I worked. We were hanging out in bars and street cafes pretty often, simply having a great time. one day we began a discussion about how a good radio show would have to be made, how much variety it should have, and all that kind of ideas. It took some two hours and we agreed in simply every aspect, until we came to the point where we started to name bands to be played. We've found out that I was the metal guy and he was a straight to the heart hip hopper. Man, that was a laugh!! But we've remained good friends and spent plenty of great time together until life tore us apart 10 years ago. I still think of him often.

All we people on this planet have different tastes and should respect each other's. Some 25 years ago, when I was into jazz (among other genres), I turned and walked away because of the elitism of the jazzers. In the here and now I experience the same elitism in prog fans and gotta shake my head.
Intelligent music - being open minded - convert the sheep to prog - no hope for the morons ... I hear and read terms like these way too often in the progressive corner. Are we really that better than the rest of the world?
The doctor who saves your live loves classical
The bakerman who produces your bread loves marching music
The farmer who grows your vegetables loves country
The constructor who built your house loves trip hop
---> All morons? Not worthy?

Stop the elitism! Stop evangelizing! Or you are the moron...
Yes, play your preferred music to people you like. But when they ask you to stop, then stop. Respect their tastes.
Taste cannot be controlled, neither can it be manipulated. Gladly! If that were possible all our governments would do it. A horrible scenario.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The 5th Season - a diary, Day 3

My friends must have felt my suffering and saved me some hot water for the shower on this Sunday morning. What a difference, brain starts working, body is ok, the day will be a good one. Except, again I got up too late for breakfast in the progpower breakfast room. Bummer. In the years before I've always been the first one getting up. That role belongs to the Brits this year. But I can rely on Dario. He's still asleep, though he was the first one in bed. Hope he'll be doing better today. Out in the courtyard, the circle's up. Aaah, I'm at home. Jeroen comes along and joins, he's managed to get some food, by simply asking the staff if there's something left. Guess they were unable to leave a young guy hanging out hungry. But there was no coffee left. I offer some espresso and his eyes start glowing. " Isn't it spoiled, having your own espresso maker in a hotel?" he asks. I agree, but it's convenient too. And then he says it's quite strong. Oh my. Would somebody complain about a Porsche being a fast car? Gary says to someone "We're not Brittish! We're English." Oh yes, I've heard Simon talking about having been in Europe last year. Separatists they are. What? someone needs coffee? Ok, I'm back into our room. Too much action for Dario to keep sleeping.
I gotta care for the beerbox and the bottles, so I'm heading towards the party room. 2 closed bottles are standing there on the floor, right at the wall. Oh my, those poor devils were unable to open them? I had no idea that is seems almost impossible to the rest of the world to open a German beerbottle.
Whoa, the room still is a total mess! I guess staff really are waiting until we're gone before cleaning up. And quite some Oktoberfest beer left! Are they as picky concerning beer as we Germans are? Or are they kind enough to not drink all my beer? I decide for the second option. Although... really...? Nah, they're a nice bunch of guys.
I placed the beer in the middle of us and hand out some. I say something about being old. "No you're not old, you're retro" says Jeroen. Shall I feel flattered? I guess so. He tells us that his Finnish roommates locked the door last night,
and he had to find a free room for sleeping (without finnish snoring...) Next time I'm gonna put up a big sign: spare beds at room number xxx.
"Who was the headliner today?" "Evergrey". "Evergay" shouts a Swede. "Nevergay" says Dario. Kalle has an Oktoberfeest beer, looks at the label and says "wow, half a liter of beer with 5,9 % alcohol on my way to the venue. This may become a hard day!"

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Classical Fusion?

If you've never heard of him before, I would like to introduce you to the music of Bear McCreary. You might better know him for his writing of the score of four seasons worth of the 2000's remake of Battlestar Galactica and the upcoming 2010 Caprica series. I loved the series and part of what I loved about it was the excellent score.

According to wiki, Bear McCreary worked under Richard Gibbs to make the score of the original 3-hour Battlestar Galactica mini-series. Gibbs' played keyboards in Oingo Boingo in the 80's along with Danny Elfman. Gibbs opted out of writing music for the regular Battlestar Galactica series, so the duties fell to Bear to write the music who did so all the way though the end of Season 4. He also wrote the score for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

I'll try and explain what the music sounds like. Imagine tribal drums pounding to a beat along with acoustic guitar and middle-eastern sounding melody, at first with a gritty saxophone and then joined in by a bagpipe. Or imagine a minimalistic Philip Glass sting ensemble meets up with a celtic flute. Or a full orchestra joined by bass guitar and dramatic percussion. Some of the arrangements he uses sounds crazy but it works for me at a very emotional level. Some songs are sad, some dreamy, some are hauntingly beautiful, others dramatic and powerful. The reason one could label this fusion is because of the conglomeration of many different musical styles all colliding together into one body of work, though the technical term music like this is post-modern. One of the tracks that drew me into his music in the first place was a song called "Something Dark Is Coming" which could best be described as Porcupine Tree-ish. Season Three even has a interesting rock track that is a deconstructed version of Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower." Is it progressive? You bet.

According to Bear's website: "His Galactica score has been described as "sharp and sensitive" (The Wall Street Journal) , "a key element in establishing the show's dark, complex tone," (The Hollywood Reporter) and "rich, raw, oddly stirring... kick-ass and powerful as hell," (E! Online). It "fits the action so perfectly, it's almost devastating: a sci-fi score like no other," (NPR) . Seasons One, Two, Three and Four of his best-selling Battlestar soundtrack albums have rocketed up the Top Music Sales Charts, reaching the #1 sales spot in both television and movie soundtrack lists, many weeks prior to their releases. The most recent album, Season 4, cracked into's Top 5 Music Sales and charted in the Billboard Top 150."

I don't know exactly where one should start with all of his CDs because the are all excellent. They are all great but Season Four gives you the most bang for the buck because it contains two full CDs of music.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Future You Were Waiting For (part 2)

"Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society. It would be curious then, if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property. If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property."

Thomas Jefferson had a lot to say about copyrights and intellectual property.  In fact, Jefferson and James Madison laid the groundwork for our copyright laws. There is a good snapshot of what they did and what the result was here. They were clearly concerned that the flow of ideas should always remain free. Even the compromise they agreed on to allow exclusive ownership of an idea or invention clearly states that it has to have a benefit to the society. Otherwise it should not be protected. Should an inventor make money from his invention? Sure. Should a giant company take an invention away from an employee and give that person no credit while they make money and keep innovation away from everyone else? Hell no.

So what does this have to do with music? Music is ideas is the form of audio art. For centuries musicians made a living at it by being orchestra players, teachers, and composers. J.S. Bach, essentially the foundation of western music, would have been unemployed if not for the church and rich patrons. Like today, a lot of performers and composers struggled to make ends meet and had jobs other than music. Technology has changed but it is still a struggle for the people making music. What has changed is technology. With the advent of the piano roll people didn't have to see live music or play it themselves to hear it. And, pretty much from the beginning there were people who took advantage of the artists to make money (not always, some composers like Scott Joplin were very successful). You, the industry, waived just enough money under our noses to make us think we needed you. And not much changed until the internet. The long, tall wall the music industry built had finally been cracked. For real, and they weren't going to be able to hold back the flood this time. We didn't need the gatekeepers anymore. Actually, we never did. We, the musicians, could go right to the fans.

I go back and forth about how I feel about illegal downloads. I hate the industry, but I still feel it's wrong on some level. Superstars are so big they aren't hurt by downloads. Small guys like me benefit greatly from the exposure. As long as no one takes credit for the writing or the recording, fine. I can see the mid-level getting squeezed hard, as seen by Lion Music's recent news post. I can see how someone who just barely made a living at it could be hurt. I've never actually made a living at it. But I'm not opposed to new business models, including free. The business model we have now sure isn't working.

In the argument against illegal downloading the loudest point against it that the industry shouts about is that downloads hurt artists. This may sound bold to some, but I am telling you that is a bald-faced lie. Don Passman wrote a great book on the music industry. His section on a standard deal (with LA recording studio, well known producer, lots of bells and whistles) can be summarized thusly: Band A sells 500,000 cassettes (my copy of the book is from 1997) at 10.98 retail price. Woohoo, lots o' cash... right? Well, after the bands pays for all the bells and whistles the label insisted on, they go home with $58,000 at the end of the year. That's before taxes and before it's split between all the members of the band. The record industry had NEVER been about the artist. So all the labels and men in suits and all the big stars who toe the company line can go the the kitchen, open the fridge, and grab a bottle of STFU. You never spoke for me.

Where does this leave me now? Pretty much where I've always been. Relatively unknown, plowing ahead because writing and recording music is like breathing to me. I can't not do it. All of my solo music going forward will be available for free download. My electric instrumental cd already is. Donate if you feel like it, if not, enjoy the music anyway. I'm working on another acoustic cd. It will be free. If I have a physical product to sell in addition to downloads, I will offer you something way cooler than just a shiny plastic disk. You don't owe me anything. I owe you for being open to listening to me.

 I haven't yet spoken to Chad and Brad of Strange Land to see what they think the band's future approach should be, so I can't speak for them. We've always been independent though and will continue to be so. (An important note: distribution is an entirely different animal than a record deal). But for me, sharing my ideas with you is far more important than any monetary gain someone else can make off me. Ars gratia artis.

Tribalism in Progressive Circles

"As I experience certain sensory input patterns, my mental pathways become accustomed to them. The inputs eventually are anticipated and even missed when absent." - Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I've often wondered about why there are subgroups within the prog movement who endlessly complain and berate other people within other prog subgroups. There are some in the progmetal group who don't like classic progrock. There's some in the progrock group who don't like anything classified as metal. There's those from both groups who dislike fusion, and undoubetly fusion lovers who dislike prog, people who don't like instrumental music, neo-classical, female-fronted bands, zeuhl, deathy growls, avant garde prog, shredders, and the list goes on and on. If there's any truth today in prog it's that it's hard for all of these subgoups to get along and accept one another, and I think I know part of the reason why.

The progressive rock movement was born out of rebellion. In the late 1960's the baby boomer generation rejected the ideals of their parents and formed their own unique 'hippie' culture, set of radical beliefs, mannerisms, way of dressing, and most notably for us their own form of music. We can listen to their music today and is still very much relevant but I don't think we can still share that feeling they had of all belonging together in a way that gave them their sense of purpose. On a related note to my discussion in Colorado and regions of the Soutwest US today there is a subset of the population who live what is called the "Western" lifestyle. They are pretty easy to spot. They predominantly buy their clothes at Western clothing shops, wear cowboy hats, Wrangler jeans, leather boots, listen to country music, drive pickup trucks, eat their own kind of foods, and attend rodeos. I'm generalizing of course. But acceptance to this group of people is fairly straightforward. One simply has to adopt their principles and mannerisms in order to belong.

For whatever reason these subgroups are formed, whether through a desire to rebel, sharing in a common cause, or a need to fit in there is tribalism at play here. This being the unique set of norms each of carries with us to in order to belong to whatever subgoups we feel connected to. In the past I've included myself in many of these different groups with friends, musicians, photographers, schools, and professional organizations. Today there are endless clicks within the prog genre who have each created their own set of norms, what is acceptable within the group and what isn't. Those who do not adopt the same musical preferences as the group are viewed as outsiders to that group. Undoubetly within these groups there have always been the code-enforcers who are quick to point out others within the group and are all to happy to ridicule or berate them if they violate the accepted norm.

Let me throw out a few specific examples to drive home my point. My first example is probably one of the most divisive today in prog circles, and it has to do with the use of death metal or "cookie monster"-style vocals. I was reticent the first time I heard them and probably would have rejected them had it not been for the constant prodding of a friend of mine to listen to Opeth and the fact that I had read somewhere that Mike Portnoy loved Opeth's Blackwater Park album. It's ironic that the push that was needed for me to get over accepting the vocals for what they were had practically the opposite reaction among Opeth fans when the Morningrise CD first came out. Fans of the band at the time were upset at the band for "ruining" their death metal by including clean vocals in the music. In both cases the listener was forced to make choices that affected their own set of beliefs on what music should or shouldn't sound like. Some countries like Holland and Sweden seem to more readily accept this vocal style than other countries, so culture may play a role.

My second example relates to a few years ago when I made the decision to remove 5-10% of the music from the Progulus Radio library. I removed many power metal, classic rock, AOR, and heavy metal albums that I felt did not contribute to my vision of what a progressive radio station should be. After protests from a few of the listeners I did end up adding back some of the music that I had originally taken off. I did this because I realized that I had been following my own set of tribal norms and predjudices. Right or wrong this tribalism is is an unavoidable part of life. Even though I felt it was the right thing to do, I acknowledged the fact that my own views differed from that of other listeners. That is not to say that I'm ready to start adding back non-progressive albums like was done before, because tribalism does have its place and the line has to be drawn in the sand somewhere.

Progulus Radio today has a very wide range of prog subgenres, perhaps more than many listeners are accustomed to. I think this variety is one of the reasons that Progulus Radio has such a hard time attracting new listeners. The radio station that a listener is seeking must fit within their own predetermined set of ideals or else they are quick to lose interest. The now defunct UK70's radio station is a case in point. As their name implied, they played all old 70's UK progrock bands and they had a huge following. Likewise other internet radio stations today with a more focused playlist have many more listeners than Progulus Radio does. That's not a good thing or bad, but it does show how certain stations resonate to a greater or lesser degree with certain groups of listeners.

I would like to point out here that even with all the bickering and lack of acceptance within the subgroups in the prog genre, the listeners at Progulus Radio are some of the most open-minded people that I know. There will always be disagreement, but the jovial nature and willingness for people to get past their differences makes the radio station something special. We do get the 'tagboard police' on occasion who are quick to point out what they feel does or doesn't belong on the radio station, and that is fine because now we know the reason for it. Personal taste in music is affected by many factors, and tribalism and acceptance by peers is probably only one facet of it. Just like Data from Star Trek said: "your neural pathways have not yet become accustomed to our sensory input patterns".