Monthly Archives: May 2012

MAD MEN’s $250,000 Beatles Sample

So this just ties into the post I did yesterday about Girl Talk’s 100%-sample-album FEED THE ANIMALS: The New York Times is reporting that the cable channel AMC paid $250,000 to air a portion of “Tomorrow Never Knows” on last Sunday’s episode of MAD MEN. It was a great moment, one that perfectly encapsulates how the times are changing and how those times are passing a certain character (no spoilers).  Though $250,000 sounds like a lot of money to most people (myself included) I actually think that it’s a pretty good deal for AMC considering The Beatles are one of the most protective bands when it comes to their catalogue.  You see, the show didn’t just air the song performed by another singer/band–the MAD MEN episode played the ACTUAL song performed by the actual BEATLES.  This is a pretty rare event, as noted by the Times article which states the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” has never been performed on television.

With all those royalties, The Beatles have it made in the shade…

It also turns out that this marks the first instance where The Beatles have allowed one of their songs to be featured on a television series (with the only exception being the ABC animated Beatles cartoon show that ran in the 1960’s, of course).  When I saw the episode on Sunday I was pretty excited that the song was used, being the huge Beatlemaniac that I am, but I didn’t stop and consider just how pricey such a cameo by the band might be.  I feel sorta bad for MAD MEN’s creator/writer Matthew Weiner, after all when doing a show set in the 1960’s it’s pretty much impossible to avoid the Fab Four.  It was only a matter of time before AMC had to pony up the big dough to feature the band.

I wonder how pissed Keith Richards/Mick Jagger are right now?

Tagged , , , , , ,

GIRL TALK & The Art of Sampling

So lately I’ve been listening to Girl Talk’s 2008 album FEED THE ANIMALS.  I know, I’m a little late to the party, but I’ve been busy.

For those unfamiliar, Girl Talk is really one a musician named musician Gregg Gillis who uses unauthorized samples.   Of course, that’s putting it lightly–Girl Talk’s music is damn-near 100% samples.  Now, I love a good mash-up as much as the next guy.  The thing is…there aren’t very many good mash-ups.  A mash-up seems like a really easy thing to create, song 1 + song 2 and you’re done.  But it’s more complicated than that, it takes a lot of time and effort to create a mash-up.  And it takes probably ten times longer than that just to come up with good/interesting song pairings. So understand, I’m not coming from a place where I think Girl Talk creating entire albums of mash-ups is easy or simple.  Gillis has talent, that much is apparent when you listen to FEED THE ANIMALS.  The songs swirls together, blending so seamlessly you literally need a scoresheet to keep track of what exactly you’re hearing.  Luckily there are people who have made such a scoresheet.

Why does Girl Talk hate that man’s lawn?

So if it sounds awesome and it’s not super-simple/requires some consideration what’s my problem? Why can’t I just let go and enjoy?

I don’t think it’s the fact that FEED THE ANIMALS is probably the most illegal record I’ve ever heard.  True, I think it sucks that he didn’t pay the respective copyright holders a dime in order to sample their music, I don’t really blame him.  I mean, for one thing, the number of samples is staggering.  A glance at one of the charts that detail the samples created by Girl Talk fans reveal a massive amount of samples–some of which are only a few notes others complete hooks or riffs.  But let’s pretend the guy had an unlimited supply of money and had asked for permission–many of the artists sampled on FEED THE ANIMALS probably would have said no. Do you think Ace of Base (or their copyright holders) want to be associated with DJ Assault’s song “Ass and Tities”? I don’t think so.  FEED THE ANIMALS features samples from several artists that don’t want to play in the digital age, like AC/DC, who don’t distribute their music in very many digital venues outside of iTunes (and they do that begrudgingly).  It also features Michael Jackson.  Do you think the Michael Jackson estate would let someone mash-up and mangle his music .  Rappers sample all the time, but what Girl Talk does is sampling taken to the next level. Artists that might not be unfavorable to a more traditional sampling (like Jimmy Page appearing on Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me”)  might not like Girl Talk’s 2% usage of a song.  There’s glory in having your stomping rock riff sampled or you chorus used, there is no glory in a few fleeting seconds.

I know that music is a business and that for the right price anyone will sell anything, but I can’t see FEED THE ANIMALS existing as a legal product.  But is it the illegality that’s holding me back from fully enjoying FEED THE ANIMALS?  I don’t think so.  I think ultimately Girl Talk is the harbinger of terrible things.  I recognize that what Gillis does is pretty awesome, but what he’s done is basically stand on the shoulders of giants.  As good as “Give Me A Beat” is, it’s nowhere near as creative as Tom Petty’s “American Girl” or Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” hell it’s not even as creative as Brittany Spear’s “Gimme More” (all three of which are sampled in “Give Me A Beat”).  Taking something from nothing is infinitely greater than building on an existing  foundation (especially if that foundation includes Brittany Spears).  When a rapper samples he’s still written his verses if he hasn’t also created his beats.  What does Girl Talk create? It creates a julienne-cut jukebox.

FEED THE ANIMALS is a work of art and Gillis’ efforts is to be admired, but I can’t help but worry about the next step.  I can’t help but worry about a generation of kids that grow up listening to albums like FEED THE ANIMALS.  Will they bother to learn how to play instruments?  Will they bother with songwriting?  Or will they skip over a few dozen steps and create mash-ups of songs created by samples of other mash-ups.  I feel like Girl Talk is an evolutionary dead-end.  It’s like a platypus,  unique and interesting…so long as we still have other animals.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Spotify, A User’s Review

A few months ago, my best friend told me to about a new online music service called Spotify.  Now I know it’s not the vogue thing to do anymore, but I still like to pay for music from time to time.  Sure, don’t get me wrong, I have stolen music in the past but if I really like something I always make a purchase, especially if it’s a new/up-and-coming band. I’ve been intrigued and tempted by online music services in the past, but thus far I haven’t been super-impressed with any of them.  Last year I joined EMusic, a service that works a bit like an old school CD/record club fused with iTunes.  You picked a membership level and depending on how much you wanted to spend, you got so many downloads a month.  You could always download more if you wanted to, so there wasn’t a limit on how much you could get.  I initially liked the service because unlike iTunes, you got to actually own the music you were buying–the MP3’s were free of annoying copyright stuff (you could easily transfer the files to another computer or MP3-device, you could burn the tracks as much as you liked, etc.) .  The drawback to EMusic was two-fold: firstly, if you didn’t use all your allotted credits by the end of the month you lost them, they didn’t “roll over” which they should have, after all I DID pay for them.  Secondly, while EMusic did have a very nice selection of music, it didn’t have everything a boy like me could want.  But what really made me pull my money out of the service was when the entire system was overhauled and they switched from credits to actual money (which was nice, as the credits were a bit esoteric)  and made everything more costly.  What was once $0.50 cheaper than iTunes was about the same cost.  My computer’s hard drive was also taxed–downloading music requires a BIG hard drive, especially when every month you’re forced (whether you want to or not) to download 20 songs.

This is what Spotify looks like. This is what bliss looks like.

Last FM, Pandora, and many similar services appeal to a lot of people, but I don’t like to just sit and listen to random playlists–I like to hear entire albums sometimes.  Spotify allows you to do both.  The service has an interface that’s very similar to iTunes, with it you can search for artists and listen to whole, entire albums: bliss.  In addition, you can create playlists or listen to an artists “radio” station that gives you a randomized experience similar to what Pandora would give you–you get the artist you choose, plus other artists that are similar.  The Spotify experience on a computer is pretty good, the interface is intuitive and clean.  If you already have music on your computer, Spotify brings that music into your experience as well, thus replacing iTunes as your music player (should you choose). It’s important to note this, because I have a LOT of music already on my computer, having Spotify use what’s already on my computer is helpful, though not as necessary as you might think since Spotify has a staggering catalogue of music.

Spotify does not have everything, but they get damn close.  Basically, the rule of thumb is: if you can’t get it on iTunes you aren’t going to get it on Spotify.  That said, there are some pretty big bands that iTunes has that Spotify does not, like The Beatles and Metallica. Those bands have historically had a poor relationship with selling their music online, so their absence isn’t too terribly shocking.  Same goes for AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Def Leppard.  These huge bands are missing, but pretty much everything else is on Spotify.  Do you like obscure music? I do. And Spotify has a fantastic collection of really hard to find music.  More often than not I’m shocked at what I can get on Spotify rather than what I can’t get, which has not been the case with most online music offerings.

Spotify basically tricks people into thinking they’re going to get all this glorious music for the cost of a very short ad every three or four songs, but in fact, when you sign-up (for free) you are actually entering a 90-day trial where you get unlimited music with ads. Once this honeymoon period is over, you are then limited not only by ads but you get so many hours you can listen daily.  This is a bit nebulous and I suspect that as the service grows in popularity, the length of the unlimited trial will shrink as will the number of hours you’ll be able to listen once said trial is over.  It’s actually really hard to find information on this at all on the Spotify website, so I don’t know what the hourly allowance once the trial ends.  I fell in love with Spotify and signed up for Spotify Premium before my 90 days were up so I didn’t get to discover this on my own.

Behold! Your choices!

And it’s here, with a actual paid accounts, that Spotify stumbles a bit.  First, there are two tiers one that gives you unlimited music on your computer, with no commercials for $4.99 a month.  That’s a really good deal considering all that you are getting (millions of songs with new stuff being added daily).  The Premium service is $9.99 a month and gives you all that plus you can have Spotify on your phone.  Having Spotify on the-go in theory is really cool.  But the app for the iPhone is clunky and cumbersome.  It’s not as easy to navigate as the computer-based version of Spotify.  In addition, it’s greatly stripped down: there is no “artist radio stations” on the current phone app, there is also no way to check out similar artists–a feature I love on the computer version of Spotify.  If, like me, you enjoy hoping from artist to artist exploring new music the phone app will leave you cold.  In addition, the app is designed around the idea that you’re going to use the playlist feature.  Like I stated earlier, I like listening to ALBUMS not PLAYLISTS.  I’m old school, and if you’re old school too you’re going to have to make playlists of albums.  The app also is a data-plan and battery killer.  My iPhone almost never goes dead but with a 45 minute trip to the gym (where I rock out) my iPhone loses 30-45% of it’s battery life.  That’s a pretty noticeable drain.

The data plan also hit because Spotify is a streaming service, which means if you’re not tethered to a Wi-Fi network you are using precious data.  Now what’s awesome about Spotify’s app is that they realize that this might be a problem and they let you synch your playlists (ugh, again with the playlists) to your device so you can listen offline.  They’ll let you “download”/synch up to 3,000 tracks to your device, which I daresay is more than anyone really needs on the go. You can synch when you’re using your data plan but this, I discovered on a long train ride, will devour your data plan (you can switch off this capability, and I recommend you do it). Why would you synch when you don’t have Wi-Fi? Well if you’re traveling through an area with poor coverage (like I was) you might find yourself wanting to synch a few extra songs to sustain you.   It’s nice that they allow you to listen to their music offline (you can do this on the computer version, too if you have the Premium version).

Hope you can spell, the search feature on the iPhone app version is not forgiving.

Lastly, Spotify is also a social network in that you can share your playlists and what you’re listening to with other people.  I don’t like how the service REQUIRES you have a Facebook account, and it must be in good standing, you can’t sign up and then deactivate your Facebook account, if you do it shuts down your Spotify account. As someone who has a love/hate relationship with Facebook this is almost a deal breaker for me. If the service didn’t have so much music I’d probably back out of it. It’s also a bit creepy that everyone can see what you’re listening to on Facebook.  Now you CAN enter a private session, where people can’t see that you’re listening to Brittany Spears…but it will eventually turn itself back on after a set amount of time.  In my opinion, the feature should remain off until the user switches it back on.That said, it’s really cool to see what my Spotify-using friends are listening to.  It’s awesome to send someone a track, artist, playlist, or album to listen to.

Overall, I love Spotify.  I worry that since there was no contract I had to sign for my Premium membership that the rates will jump up with no warning.  If the price stays the same and they don’t strip/limit the current features, then I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who loves music and wants to legally listen to music online.  It’s strange to not own my music, but quite frankly my hundreds of CDs take up too much space.  Now if I want to hear a song or album I don’t have on my computer, I can instantly hear it, without first hunting the CD down (again I have 500 or so CDs, so this is a real problem for me).  I think most people should stick with the middle tier, $4.99 service because the app isn’t as good as it should be (for now at least, I keep praying for an update). That said, if you’re a music junkie like me, the Premium app is a good value ($120 a year for unlimited music? Hell yes!).

PROS: Massive selection of music, high-quality sound, affordable multi-tier membership plans, no more looking through your CDs, no contract to sign up, stream music anywhere even through a home sound system.

CONS: App could be better,  App could kill your data plan if you let it, company is not upfront about the limitations of the free membership, no contract to sign up means prices could change anytime, no more looking through your CDs, you don’t own  your music, you MUST have a Facebook account.

Tagged , , ,

Your Next Favorite Band: Guided By Voices

It was the summer of 2001 when I discovered Guided By Voices.  I had just graduated high school and was working as a cashier at a drugstore.  The job was pretty lousy, with even lousier piped-in music to add insult to injury.  Anyway, the one perk was the magazine rack.  Every day I’d take my break in the employee lounge and read a magazine.  At the time REVOLVER magazine was a real rock magazine and not the rag it’s unfortunately become–anyway I was leafing through an issue with REVOLVER that had a feature on a guy named Robert Pollard.  What I discovered  from reading the article was that Pollard was some kind of prolific songwriter and that his indie-band, Guided By Voices, was about to release it’s second “mainstream” album on a major label. It was a pretty standard article and it didn’t do much in the way of make me curious about Pollard or his band, until the very end.  At the end of the article, the author compared Guided By Voices sound as “The Who performing an arena-shaking rendition of The Beatles’ Nowhere Man.”

As a dyed in the wool  Beatlemaniac, I was intrigued to say the least.

That comparison launched a love affair with GBV and Pollard that goes beyond mere fandom.  Robert Pollard is not the greatest songwriter of all time. Guided By Voices is not the greatest band of all time. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply love Guided By Voices, but it’s not just the music that makes them so special.  The band is a symbol for what it means to be an artist–I mean that in the broadest sense of the word, not just a musician but as a general creative force.  That the music is awesome  only cemented Pollard’s position as my personal rock hero.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  In order to talk about all of this you need to know a little bit about Pollard.

Calisthenics are an important part of the Guided By Voices experience.

Robert Pollard was a 4th grade school teacher in Dayton, Ohio.  He was on track for a pretty ordinary, average life but something was missing.  If you’re an artist and aren’t creating it causes all sorts of problems.  Pollard needed an outlet so he started jamming with friends on the weekend.  Pollard also liked to write very (very) short little songs.  Maybe “song” isn’t the right word, these were almost pieces of songs, snippets.  They were catchy as hell.  Using very primitive home recording gear (like a boombox with a cassette deck and microphone) Guided By Voices was formed and Pollard starting making albums.  The band became critical darlings in the mid-1990s and Pollard was able to quit his job as a teacher and became a full-time rock star.  The band went mainstream for two albums and were then promptly dropped when the band didn’t catch fire and sell millions of albums.

Now, that story probably makes Pollard a hero in the eyes of many, but it was what he did after being dropped that makes him MY hero: he kept making music.  Pollard made a LOT of music.  So much music that he started other bands, a solo career, and recorded GBV albums.  I know a lot of people say they’re prolific, but Robert Pollard is the real deal.  The closest mainstream person I think of who seems to be like Pollard is Jack White.  But whereas Jack White puts out an album or so every year, Pollard usually releases 3 to 4 albums a year (sometimes more).  He also designs his album’s artwork and writes poetry.  Being prolific makes him special, but he’s my hero because he never gives up.  If we all turned out backs on him I know he’d keep writing and recording albums because he’s an artist and that’s all he knows.  He could have done what most people do and give up, push aside childish things like making art, but he didn’t.  As someone who wishes he was a writer and not a office drone, Robert Pollard is my  hero.

But the music is good.  It’s really damn good.

Just like the REVOLVER writer pointed out years later, Guided By Voices sound a bit like The Who and other British Invasion-era rock bands from the 1960’s.  Pollard, born and raised in Ohio, even sings with a bit of a British accent.  However, GBV wasn’t an ordinary rock band playing ordinary rock songs. Pollard’s songwriting generally consists of taking his little song snippets and fusing them together.  A lot of it is very poetic and very catchy, some of it is just bizarre.  Pollard’s songwriting leads GBV to the precipice of art-rock and progressive (“prog”) rock.  In fact, I would say Guided By Voices often sound like The Who meets Peter Gabriel-era Genesis on occasion.  The songs are pretty much 89% hook and chorus.  A major criticism of Pollard and GBV is that the songs feel undercooked or too much like a snippet.  An argument could be made that Pollard and GBV never found massive success because he wrote 20,000 two minute songs instead of 14 killer 3-4 minute polished gems.  I can’t argue with this criticism completely, but I can’t dismiss Pollard’s genius either.  He’s written so many amazing songs that might not exist if he didn’t throw everything at the wall and then run away.

The aesthetic, in regards to recording, can also be criticized.  Back in the 1990’s people didn’t have a lot of options when it came to recording, being “lo-fi” was less a conscious artistic choice and more of a necessity.  Many long time GBV fans became hyper-critical when the band joined a major label and recorded in a proper studio.  I can listen to both era’s of GBV and appreciate it but I can definitely recommend that newbies start with the newer albums and work back to those prehistorically recorded classics.  Since being dropped from the major label TVT, Guided By Voices has adopted a nice balance of lo- and hi-fi sound.  As a true lover of the band I’m perfectly fine with this, but it’s still annoyingly cool to bitch about GBV not being homemade.

Robert Pollard knows that hydration is a key ingredient to successful rocking.

I keep talking about Robert Pollard because he really is Guided By Voices.  I read once that Pollard estimates over 100 different people have been in the band at one point or another.  I’m not sure how accurate that figure is but it seems accurate enough.  For a while guitarist Doug Gillard (from Cobra Verde) was an integral part of the band, but that partnership ended in 2004 when Pollard inexplicably shut GBV down.  He claimed that it was also his plan to stop recording when the band made a “perfect” album.  A lot can be said of 2004’s HALF SMILES OF THE DECOMPOSED but a perfect record it was not–and Pollard must have realized this because in 2010 he reformed the band.  Pollard  didn’t retire during the brief period when Guided By Voices was dormant, he recorded a shit ton of solo albums.  I am a pretty big fan and I can honestly say that I have not heard (or heard of) about 45% of Pollard’s output.  There are simply too many songs.  Too many records.  I haven’t even heard all of the Guided By Voices early stuff (most of which I’ve heard is a bit unlistenable).

You pretty much need to buy this. Right. Now. Don’t make Bob cast a spell on you.

In 2003 Matador Records did newbies a huge favor by releasing HUMAN AMUSEMENTS AT HOURLY RATES: THE BEST OF GUIDED BY VOICES.  They also released, at the same time, a pretty hearty boxset HARDCORE UFOS.  I guess the best place to start is the greatest hits compilation.  I don’t usually recommend that to people, but it’s the best way to dip your toes in the world of Robert Pollard.  From there I recommend you check out MAG EARWHIG! and UNIVERSAL TRUTHS AND CYCLES.  The former being the last album before going to a major label and the latter being the first one the band released after being dropped. The band’s major label albums are not terrible, they’re just a not the best place for newbies to start.  You have, in fact, probably already heard one Guided By Voices song and not even realized it: “Hold On Hope.”  The song comes from the Ric Ocasek (the weird dude from The Cars) produced album DO THE COLLAPSE.  The story goes Pollard did not want to do “Hold On Hope” but because he wanted to play ball with the record company (and get on the radio) he did it.  It’s not a terrible song, it’s a nice ballad.  Anyway, it’s been featured in a bunch of indie-minded TV shows and films (like SCRUBS).  It’s the kind of song a lot of bands would kill to have and it’s nowhere near as good as 99% of  GBV’s other songs.

Guided By Voices is a band I’m seriously passionate about.  On one hand the catchy, weird-ass songs delight me on a pure visceral-level but as an artist, I find I love and respect Pollard for chasing his dream and pursuing his own unique vision of  song and song-writing.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,