Irony and digital music

So I’m sitting at home trying to organize various things (mostly computer-related) and I’ve been sitting at the computer for hours using Yahoo! Music Engine and dutifully rating various artists/songs and seeing what it spits back at me as recommended music. It’s doing a pretty good job, I have to say. When you’re going about your work and Sonic Youth‘s “Teenage Riot” comes on, you’re doing just fine (for music geeks of a certain age, such songs are a sacrament, an enduring part of the canon for head-nodding indie rock boys who aren’t predisposed to dancing).

Just a minute ago, I was startled to hear “GET OFF THE INTERNET!!” blaring from my speakers, which turned out to be a Le Tigre song (lyrics). Le Tigre has never been one of my favorites but has always been on my radar (saw them open for Beck recently). “Get Off the Internet” is a catchy song. . . I gave it 3 out of 4 stars.

Get off the Internet? I don’t think so. . . but there’s something deliciously ironic about this song bubbling up in the first place.

Bono, Mark Hosler, and lost opportunities

Mark salutes Yahoo! So, Bono from U2 was here at Yahoo! yesterday (here’s the Flickr photo). As I’ve mentioned here before, we had Mark Hosler of Negativland pay us a visit barely a month ago. For the uninitiated, Mark and Negativland were sued by U2 for copyright infringement (see the Negativland entry in Wikipedia for details) in one of the landmark copyright suits in the history of pop music (I’d put it up right there with George Harrison being sued for copyright infringement for appropriating the melody of the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” for his song “My Sweet Lord”). They lost the suit.

If you were to super-impose the Bono photo on the Mark Hosler photo in this blog post (they were both in the exact same lobby — building D on the Yahoo! Sunnyvale campus), Mark would be mock-saluting Bono from behind. I wonder if it would have been a slightly different “salute.” Now that would have made a good photo.

Peter Guralnick: from Elvis to Sam Cooke

Last Train to Memphis Peter Guralnick’s two-part biography of Elvis Presley (“Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley” and “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley“) remains the most compelling work of non-fiction I have ever read (and perhaps the most compelling anything I have ever read). It’s an absolutely sprawling but thoroughly amazing work. Taken together, the two volumes consist of nearly 1400 pages about the life of a man who was obsessively covered by the media of his time and endlessly chronicled after his death. After reading Guralnick’s biography though, while you might recognize an anecdote you’ve heard before (e.g. Elvis shooting his television), the picture of Elvis that emerges is somehow unexpected and surprising (e.g. Elvis taking LSD and sitting by his mother’s grave). I read the first volume in roughly 1996, and it covered from Elvis’ birth until he entered the Army. I had to wait three years for the second, and more explicitly tragic, volume to be released. It picked up where the first volume left off, traveling through the ’68 Comeback Special, the Hawaii and Las Vegas decline, and ultimately ending in Elvis’ lonely and pathetic death.

Careless Love I was reminded of the Elvis biography and Guralnick’s incredible work tonight when I read Charles Taylor’s Salon review of Guralnick’s new biography of Sam Cooke, “Dream Boogie.” In the review, Taylor writes that Guralnick’s magisterial work on Elvis Presley, which can leave you feeling unmoored for days, convinced that you have just read, as Guralnick claims, “the saddest story” he knows, can stand alongside Taylor Branch’s ongoing “America in the King Years” and Robert Dallek’s two-volume life of LBJ as one of the greatest recent accomplishments in American biography. When I read the two books, I remember being so immersed in the overwhelming sadness of Elvis’ life that I could think of nothing else for weeks.

Even if “Dream Boogie” merely hints at the greatness of Guralnick’s earlier Elvis work (and Charles Taylor’s review suggests that might be the case), it’s still a must-read for anyone who cares about music.

My day with Mark Hosler of Negativland

Of the many fun aspects of my job at Yahoo! managing the “TechDev Speaker Series” is pretty close to the top. “TechDev” stands for “Technology Development,” the group I work in along with Jeremy Zawodny, Simon Willison, Ken Hickman, and now Tom Coates (welcome, Tom!) Bradley Horowitz is our leader. Every Friday, we bring in luminaries and generally interesting people from a wide variety of professions and disciplines to do lunchtime talks for Yahoo! employees. This week, I had the pleasure of hosting Mark Hosler, one of the founding members of the “experimental and sound collage band” (as Wikipedia puts it) Negativland. Negativland is most famous to the world for being sued by U2’s record label for copyright infringement — a suit that they ultimately lost (read the Wikipedia entry for Negativland for an outline of the juicy details). There are most famous to me for two reasons: 1) I used to play Negativland cuts during my brief 2-5am college radio DJ shift way back when, and 2) Negativland sampled paranoid preacher Estus W. Pirkle in one of their songs. (Growing up in a Southern Baptist church back in NC, I was actually subjected to Rev. Pirkle’s scare films on at least one occasion — look here for a peek into the Pirkle mind. Estus Pirkle made Sen. Joseph McCarthy look like a Commie-lover by comparison.)

Mark Hosler of NegativlandWe had Mark in on the heels of an incredible TechDev talk last week by Dr. Lawrence Lessig, who mentioned Negativland in his presentation and said they were “fantastic” when I told him Mark was coming in to speak the following week. Negativland played a key role in authoring the Creative Commons sampling license, as noted on the Creative Commons site:

Creative Commons first considered offering a Sampling License at the suggestion of collagist People Like Us (a.k.a. Vicki Bennett) and Negativland, the appropriationist art collective that has since served as the public discussion lead during the license drafting process.

Mark lives in North Carolina now and his parents live in the East Bay where Mark grew up, so he was staying with them on this trip to the west coast (Mark and Negativland are preparing for two rare live shows at the Great American Music Hall later this month). I picked him up on Friday morning at his parents’ house. His mom (who shares the same relatively uncommon first name as my mom!) met me at the door — beaming with pride — and said that she regretted that she wasn’t going to be able to see Mark speak this time. As we loaded up Mark’s gear, she made sure that he had a healthy breakfast for the long drive to Sunnyvale (a banana, a hard-boiled egg, and some hot tea). Mark told me that when his mom flew to NY for the opening of their big 25th anniversary show (link to the gallery here, and mention on BoingBoing here), she transported carefully-wrapped homemade brownies on the plane. The jaded New York art world was appreciative. Apparently, homemade brownies are a rare treat to New York art-show-goers. Mark’s mom waved goodbye from the driveway and we headed to Sunnyvale. Mark’s mom is really cool.

My biggest regret about our commute to Sunnyvale was that I didn’t record our conversation and make a podcast out of it (I am certain Mark would have been fine with it), but suffice it to say that it was the most engaging commute I’ve had in a while. Normally, I might be listening to a provocative interview on NPR, but this time I was Terry Gross with two hands on the steering wheel. We covered copyright, technology, the U2 lawsuit, and Silicon Valley culture. . . among many other things. I was verging on disappointed when we arrived on the Yahoo! campus for the real talk.

The intial soundcheck was more or less perfect (thanks David!) so I went to the Yahoo! mailroom to get the DVD that Mark had fedexed for his presentation. The sender was Tim Maloney, a former Disney animator who helped Mark and Negativland produce some of their work. (Whew, the DVD was there.)

A little after noon, I introduced Mark briefly, and from there Mark gave a history of his work with Negativland, peppered with various videos and entertaining stories that went on for about an hour and a half. I can’t even attempt to describe the talk adequately — you had to be there. I’m at a loss for words when it comes to Negativland (though I like this description from their recent show announcement: “Okay, but what, you still ask, is Negativland exactly? That’s hard to answer. Negativland definitely isn’t a ‘band,’ though they may look like one when you see their CDs for sale in your local shopping mall. They’re more like some sort of goofy yet serious European-style artist/activist collective – an unhealthy mix of John Cage, Lenny Bruce, Pink Floyd, Bruce Connor, Firesign Theatre, Abbie Hoffman, Robert Rauschenberg, 1970’s German electronic music, old school punk rock attitude, surrealist performance art, your high school science teacher…and lots more…

After the talk, Mark, Ken Hickman, and I headed to URL’s (the Yahoo! cafeteria), where David Beach joined us for a while for another wide-ranging discussion that would have made a great podcast (note to self: must bring recording gear EVERYWHERE from now on). David recounts the gist of our conversation in his blog:

Subjects included answering machines, cyber kids, ourmedia, oil, war, travel and some other stuff. . .

Lunch was definitely a continuation of the earlier fun. Before we left, I loaded Mark up on some free Yahoo! coffee (photo here) and I dropped him off at a friend’s house in SF (but not before snapping some photos of Mark with the rare Estus W. Pirkle book I picked up a couple of years ago, Preachers in Space. Photos here and here.)

Mark had to leave some Negativland merchandise in my car since he was going to take BART home later that night and couldn’t carry it all. Good news, Mark — I sold $107 worth of Negativland merchandise to my super-hip dog walker on Saturday morning. . . she’s a fan. I’ll drop the cash off with your mom sometime this week.

Links

Quick thoughts on the music selection in Yahoo! Music Engine

Jeremy has a vibrant discussion going over at his blog about his experience with Yahoo! Music Engine, specifically the synchronization feature he recently used. (And there’s some discussion in the comments about the system requirements, but I’ll leave that to Jeremy’s blog for now.) Now that I’m working at Yahoo! and I’m using Windows again, I decided to give YME a shot.

High Fidelity First, I’ll admit — I can be a wee bit of a music snob, and I’ve committed quite a few of the base sins that music snobs commit (especially the sub-species of indie rock music snobs). I briefly DJ’ed at a station with barely enough broadcast wattage to get to the station’s parking lot, yet I took my 2-5am slot very seriously. When I ran a small music venue in college, I probably sneered with contempt as I turned down a bad local metal band who begged to play on an unbooked Tuesday night. And, of course, I’ve turned against obscure bands that have gotten popular because they are actually good. When I watch High Fidelity, too many of the “top 5 list” debates bring back very specific memories. When I’m at a party at a stranger’s house, I could care less about secretly peeking in the medicine cabinet — but I’m not above a quick scan of the spines of someone’s CD collection. (Despite all of the above, I have miraculously managed to avoid a vinyl obsession. When you’re engaged in a conversation with a fellow music snob and you assert that a truly obscure band sounds better on vinyl, time to recalibrate that music obsession).

That being said, I’ve found a lot of indie rock music-snob-worthy stuff on YME: Yo La Tengo, Built to Spill, Guided by Voices, Big Star, Calexico, Sonic Youth, Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill. . . after a few days, I keep finding more stuff I like. I’m very impressed with the diversity.

In reality, I’m not that much of a music snob — on a recent out-of-town trip to a bachelor party with a bunch of equally discriminate music fans, I played a CD that I had labeled “Classic Rock Mix.” This one CD was my own distillation of The Eagles’ Greatest Hits and Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits into one rockin’ CD without the songs that I perceived as filler in the two larger works. After a brief period of indie-rocker indignation, the criticism subsided and there was nothing but appreciative toe-tapping and head bobbing. If “Jet Airliner” and “Take It Easy” don’t move you on one of those perfect summer days when everything is just right, then you’re simply not human.

Wilco, Ken Waagner, and the future of music

Wilco is one of my favorite bands and has been since I picked up Being There sometime in the ’97 timeframe. If you take a look at my Last.fm artist charts and you skip past the Pink Floyd (no apologies, fellow indie rock fans — I enjoy it without irony), Wilco is in the top 20, and at various times, I’m sure Wilco has been on heavy-enough rotation in my household to be #1. (And yeah, my current Last.fm charts might suggest that I hold Prince in only slightly higher esteem than Buck Owens. And that would be right, but maybe it’s because I’ve seen Prince live three times and Buck only two.)

Continuing the speaker series here at Yahoo! that I mentioned last week when we had Mark Pauline with Survival Research Labs, on Friday we had Ken Waagner, the digital strategist behind Wilco.

I didn’t take detailed notes, but this excerpt from this Wired story by Lawrence Lessig gives you a sense of what Ken’s work has meant to the music industry at large:

The band Wilco and its quiet, haunted leader, Jeff Tweedy, is something different. After its Warner label, Reprise, decided that the group’s fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was no good, Wilco dumped them and released the tracks on the Internet. The label was wrong. The album was extraordinary, and a sold-out 30-city tour followed. This success convinced Nonesuch Records, another Warner label, to buy the rights back – reportedly at three times the original price. The Net thus helped make Wilco the success it has become. But once back in Warner’s favor, many wondered: Would Wilco forget the Net?

We’ve begun to see the answer to this question. Wilco’s Net-based experiments continue: the first live MPEG-4 webcast; a documentary about the band in part screened and funded via the Net; bonus songs and live recordings tied to CDs. Its latest album, A Ghost Is Born, was streamed in full across the Net three months before its commercial release. And when songs from it started appearing on file-sharing networks, the band didn’t launch a war against its fans. Instead, Wilco fans raised more than $11,000 and donated it to the band’s favorite charity. The album has been an extraordinary success – and was nominated for two Grammys.

Ken was the guy who put the song files for the unreleased Yankee Hotel Foxtrot up as Quicktime streams on a web server for fans to download for free while the record itself was in limbo. Aside from instigating a flurry of upset messages from his hosting provider (one of those $29.95 outfits) who were surprised at the massive surge of bandwidth usage, the success of the Internet-only (at the time, at least) album led to an appearance on Conan O’Brien. Ken said that Wilco was “the only band to ever play Conan O’Brien in support of a Quicktime stream.”

MAXIMUMROCKNROLL #133 coverThe discussion of major label music reminded me of an old issue of punker-than-thou zine MAXIMUMROCKNROLL (#133, June 1994) that gave a seriously grim and uncompromising punk rock view of major record labels. The image to the left says it all — signing with a major label is like putting a gun in your mouth — one can only assume that a pull of the trigger is imminent. The original issue has been preserved here.

A few additional links on Wilco and Ken Waagner: