Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The State of the Industry

Last month, Angela Poe, Online Marketing, Promotions and Social Media Director at Eenie Meenie Records, an independent (“indie") record label based in California, was laid off.

Instead of using conventional job-search methods, Poe used her publicity background to market herself, sending out an e-mail that linked to her resume. The message was picked up by blogs, including those she had worked with as a publicist. Much like a hot new band that gains online buzz, Poe found herself approached by numerous interested employers.

“Part of the job, working for the label, has always been finding a creative, inexpensive way to make an impact, to find an audience,” Poe said. “Marketing in general isn’t about a user purchasing a product. It’s about them enjoying the experience - they needed it all along, they just didn’t know.”

The music industry is in a bewildering state of contradiction. There is no consensus on what business model will emerge from the current confusion, but the Internet has shattered major label hegemony and ushered in an era of great uncertainty, but also great opportunity. There’s no arguing that these are interesting times – especially for those willing to seize opportunities. Even amidst downturn, there are encouraging signs.

Physical record sales are plummeting, with a 17 percent drop in the shipment of CDs in 2007, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the major U.S. music labels. Yet digital downloads, both legal and illicit, mean that music has never been able to proliferate so quickly. Job prospects are bleak, and the problem is compounded by the financial crisis, yet actual musicians aren’t necessarily doing poorly.

“It’s purely a financial issue. Indie labels suffer when the economy is bad. People who own and run them have to invest elsewhere. When there’s an economic crisis, no matter how well the artists are doing, the staff has to be downsized to hold up,” Poe said.

Major labels also have suffered. EMI announced in January that it would cut its 4,500 person workforce down to 2,000, and laid off employees at affiliate labels Caroline and Blue Note this summer.

Record stores are disappearing, particularly in New York. 3,100 record stores have closed in the United States since 2003, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a market research firm, including 80 in Manhattan and Brooklyn. However, live music is immensely profitable, with LiveNation, a concert promoter juggernaut, reporting a 17 percent increase in live concerts produced compared to last year, and a 9 percent increase in revenue. A slew of new venues, both large and small, have recently opened in New York, where LiveNation competes with the Bowery Presents.

“New York has its own economy. It doesn’t seem like the city is affected. Even after 9/11, we were packed a week after,” said Scott Koshnoodi, owner of Littlefield, a new music venue opening in Brooklyn. “The economy here is just so powerful; you have so many young people who don’t want to stay at home. Even in bad times, people want drinks.”

No doubt aided by alcohol, the ”recession-proof” commodity, the Bowery Presents opened a new small venue in Brooklyn, the Music Hall of Williamsburg and a massive 3,000-person club in Manhattan, Terminal 5, a year ago. It has recently expanded to Montclair, New Jersey with another large venue, the Wellmont Theatre.

Unsurprisingly, record labels have attempted to cash in on live revenue. Traditionally, ticket sales and merchandise sold at concerts would go directly to the band, but record labels have initiated “360 deals,” in which the record label gains revenue from merchandise and concert tickets sales as well as CD sales, in return for more career support.

“Turn-around comes from licensing, venue sales, and 360 deals,” said Poe. “As far as the actual sale of the record goes, not a whole lot of money comes from that anyway.”

Thus, in order to stay commercially viable, there are many stores that sell more than just CDs. Massive “big box” chains such as Virgin Megastore and Best Buy also offer clothing, video games, books and DVDs.

“I think companies like Virgin have this ‘we’ll just move with the times’ mission statement. Even though they’re enormous, that doesn’t feel bad to me,” said Poe. “Where else would you find an autobiography of Bob Dylan next to Beatles T-shirts next to a $9.99 Sex Pistols record, with Donny Darko in Limited Edition DVD downstairs?”

The diverse merchandise has paid off. In 2007, Virgin had a 10 percent increase in music sales through fourth period, and an 11 percent increase in DVD sales and a 26 percent increase in video games sales, together with an average increase of 30 percent in fashion and electronics, according to a press release.

But in New York’s competitive real estate market, such a large operation may be unsustainable – not so much because of sales, but rather, because prime real estate is so valuable. Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust are the landlords for the Virgin Megastore’s Union Square and Times Square locations, huge, iconic store that are flagships for the brand. In September, the two companies finalized their purchase of the 11 nationwide Virgin stores from the Virgin Group. The buy has fueled speculation that the two New York stores, which are underpaying per square foot, will close. Winick Realty Group, a New York-based commercial real estate firm, is handling the Union Square property, according to their website.

A spokeswoman for Vornado declined to comment, but Megan Heckard, who has been working in the music product department of the Union Square store since June, confirmed the imminent closure of the Times Square location in 2009. The Union Square store may last longer – ironically, it may have been saved by the financial crisis – but she suggested that closure was inevitable.

“Because of the recession it is unlikely that any other retailer will want to sign the lease, so we are probably going to keep the whole thing up and running,” she said. “But I mean, it is the general thought that it is only a matter of time though, whether it be months or a few years.”

Kim’s Video Underground is a small video rental and music chain, with its largest location at St. Mark's Place in the East Village. It will be moving at the beginning of the new year to a smaller location on First Avenue. The move includes a 30 percent discount on videos and CDs, and owner Yongman Kim is looking for an organization that will take the 55,000-video rental collection. On signs inside the store, he requests 3,000 square feet of space to maintain the collection, and continue to allow members rental access.

Kim declined to comment for this article, but in an interview with WNYC, he said, “Business is declining. Our lifestyle of entertainment is changing as well.”

But again, it’s not entirely clear if the move is based on declining sales, or an effort to capitalize on prime real estate. Kim owns the building, and a sign advertising “space available” hangs above the store, on its unoccupied upper floors.

In September, a Kim’s Video closed near Columbia University on the Upper West Side and donated its video collection to the university. In 2004, a Kim’s Video closed at Avenue A, in eastern Manhattan.

Other Music, a tiny independent music store, has hung on. It is located across the street from the former location of Tower Records in Greenwich Village, which closed at the end of 2006, and has outlasted its much larger neighbor.

“It’s slower, but we still have our hardcore fans,” said Scott Mou, who works there. “We’re trying to be special.”

In 2007, Other Music opened a digital music store, similar to Apple’s iTunes store, but stocked with obscure and rare releases. “It’s doing well. We’re filling it up with things you expect to see, but also more exclusives,” Mou said, adding his speculation that one day the store could exist entirely online.

Right now, one of the store’s biggest assets is vinyl records. According to the RIAA, in 2007, there were 1.3 million shipments of LPs, compared with 511 million shipments of CDs. While minuscule in comparison, shipments of LPs still increased 36 percent compared with 2006, while shipments of CDs dropped over 17 percent, according to the same data. While vinyl sales are relatively tiny, they appeal to music fanatics who praise the format for its superior sound quality and impressive packaging – the sort of costumers that Other Music attracts.

“The storefront is more important to this store than Virgin Megastore. People still come here to experience music, whether it’s talking about it or listening to it,” Mou said.

Local artists can also use the store to promote their own work, even without being signed to a label. Jon Shina has been performing music for six years, and discovered Other Music at its Cambridge, Mass. location. When that store closed, he came to the New York, and was discussing with the store about carrying his new album, which was self-released.

“If you have a favorite local record store, there’s more of a community. You want your stuff in a community,” said Shina. “You can’t get this at Best Buy. You can’t get it at Virgin.”

His priorities, however, are not sales so much as exposure. “I’d just be happy if anyone listens to my stuff,” he said.

But the record store experience has only a niche audience, particularly with the popularity of digital downloads.

“It’s like describing color to blind people. It’s not like they won’t appreciate it, they can’t,” Poe said. “They don’t know a world without an Internet. They don’t know how to buy music without iTunes. It’s not that they won’t appreciate buying music at a record store, they don’t have the frame of reference of it.”

As for Poe, she has a new job at the Gary Group, a marketing firm that works with concert promoters, record labels and other entertainment outlets.

She described her success this way: “Here’s what I can do for you, because here’s what I can do for myself.”

Angela Poe blogs at music is my boyfriend.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Lead: Music as Equalizer

The front page of today's New York Times contains a story from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, about an all-female band called Accolade - unprecendented in the "ultraconservative kingdom." The band's name is inspired by the above painting. (“I liked the painting because it shows a woman who is satisfied with a man,” Guitarist Dina says in the article.) While hardly a huge force of revolution in itself, the existence of such a band is encouraging and another testament to the potential of music as a force for social change.

While reading the article, I thought back on an interview I had with Ellen Allien last year, and how techno was such a powerful force in post-unification Berlin. In essence, music became the language of nationalism, and the language of liberation. Particularly on Ellen's earlier albums, one of which was entitled Berlinette, her lyrics explore such themes. She's particularly special, not only as one of few women in the male-driven DJ world, but as boss of the great label, BPitch Control.

It remains to be seen what sort of impact Accolade end up having. They're currently unsigned, according to their MySpace, but have over 37,000 plays of their first single, "Pinocchio." It reminds me of Lacuna Coil - a piano introduction that soon turns heavy, and slightly accented vocals. Nothing extraordinary, but created under pretty extraordinary circumstances.

Much-blogged Duo Floats Above the Hype

This is a review I did a few weeks back, actually for class, and while a bit late, I like this record and think it's worth posting about.

Brooklyn duo High Places has a friendship that most of us can only dream of. Mary Pearson and Rob Barber met in 2006, and moved in with each other two days later. Their beguiling, abstract pop took longer to emerge - earlier this spring, they released a shimmering collection of singles, entitled 03/07-09/07, which referred to March to September 2007, the time in which the songs were created. The album, which was released exclusively through digital music store emusic, receiving quick online praise, include a 8.4 from Pitchfork. With Pearson singing “of dinosaurs and seagulls' wings” and other whimsical phrases, High Places might be considered child-like, if not outright childish. But her voice is wrapped around surprisingly sophisticated instrumentation, courtesy of Barber, who uses a variety of synths, drum effects and reverb to create backdrops suffused with mood.

Their MySpace page cheekily labels themselves “Surf/Hardcore/Trance,” but such disparate genres aren't entirely off the mark – Barber grew up with punk music and Pearson initially studied the bassoon. Jeff Meltz, a music blogger and photographer, approvingly called High Places “indie jungle” after an early performance at the Bowery Bowery last fall, and subsequent internet reactions range from delight to admiration, albeit with no real consensus on genre. If there was one popular complaint with 03/07 – 09/07, it was that the compilation lacked cohesion – that despite the similarities music, there was no common thread to united the tracks.

Now signed to Chicago-based label Thrill Jockey, High Places' official, self-titled debut is more focused, but retains free-spirited experimenting that makes it an effortless listen. While not a great divergence from earlier work, the album cements the band's appeal. Opener “The Storm” has Pearson floating up to high notes over a playful beat, “Vision's the First...” loops her sublime vocalizing, and closer “From Stardust To Sentience” is a cinematic outro.

Although High Places is unlikely to play anything larger than cozy clubs and dive bars, along with the occasional indie-minded festival, their modesty isn't necessarily a bad thing. In a hype-crazed industry, starved for the next big thing, High Places have circumvented the backlash. Despite their ethereal music, their promise is concrete.


MP3: High Places - Head Spins
Blog: High Places


These days, it seems pretty easy to fade away. I've lost my focus here, from a combination of school, work and perhaps being a little burnt out. It's not that I write or report less - I'm trying my hand at real estate - and I listen to plenty of music, but there needs to be some changes here. I still love live music, but reviewing show after show becomes a burden when you're constantly falling behind. That's not to say I'm not going to catch up eventually, but there needs to be some variety. The more I occupy this world of music, the more I realize how much things are changing. And the more I want to be a part of it. Essentially, what I'm looking for is some sort of dialogue. The simplest thing is just linking to other people, but I'm not interested so much in aggregation as commentary.

Anyhow, watch this space - I'm going to be more active and I'm going to try to be more creative. And let me know what you think.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

CMJ 2008, Day 1

My long overdue writeup for CMJ begins on Tuesday, when brooklynvegan took over the Music Hall of Williamsburg. British singer-songwriter Emma-Lee Moss of Emmy the Great opened the night with appealing, acoustic pop, echoing the past success of Kate Nash and Lily Allen. The Sammies, the self-described "rock portion" of the show, followed her with Southern accents hollering alongside galloping drums, as frontman Frank Backgammon leapt into the air and struck poses atop his monitor. The majestic Shearwater brought a more tranquil intensity, with singer Jonathan Meiburg's quavering falsetto erupting into an occasional snarl. But drummer Thor Harris was the real star. His flowing hair and bare forearms contrasted jarringly with the rest of the band's tailored suits, but that didn't stop many cries of "I love you Thor!" and "Thor, you rock!" Good stuff.

Emmy the Great
MySpace: Emmy the Great
Official Site: Emmy the Great

The Sammies


MP3: Shearwater - Leviathan, Bound
MP3: Shearwater - Rooks
MySpace: Shearwater
Official Site: Shearwater

Friday, November 14, 2008

Interview: M83

This feature appears in Washington Square News.

Brian Eno called his watershed ambient album “Music For Airports.” By that logic, M83’s fifth album, “Saturdays = Youth,” is music for high schools.

From the album cover’s “Breakfast Club” teenager doppelgangers to its ’80s synth-pop sound, “Saturdays” is a celebration of being young. But M83’s leader Anthony Gonzalez isn’t from America, the land of angst-ridden teen movies. Instead, Gonzalez resides in Antibes in southern France, where American culture has bridged the Atlantic most prominently on the silver screen.

“I’m a big fan of movies,” Gonzalez said. “Cinema is a big influence for me and also soundtracks.”

Fittingly, the album includes vocals from Morgan Kibby, the lead singer in Los Angeles-based band The Romanovs, who has also appeared on soundtracks for M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

“Saturdays” was produced by Ken Thomas, who has worked with Sigur Rós and dream-pop primogenitors Cocteau Twins, and Ewan Pearson, who has remixed countless artists and produced Tracey Thorn, The Rapture and Ladytron. A live guitarist and drummer complete M83’s touring quartet, but Gonzalez is as much a producer as a member of a band.

Prior to “Saturdays,” he released “Digital Shades Vol. 1,” an ambient release indebted to Eno but created with a program that wasn’t available in 1979: Pro Tools.

“For the ‘Digital Shades’ project, I can do pretty much everything alone,” Gonzalez said. “I’m free to do anything that I want to do.”

He says that he worked alone as M83’s primary composer even during its early existence, when Nicolas Fromageau was still a member of the band. The two formed M83 in 2001 after meeting — where else? — in high school. But Fromageau left after the group’s second album, “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts.”

Despite an affinity for electronic music and a common home country, don’t mistake Gonzalez for the bottom-heavy crunch of Paris’ Ed Banger Records, home of Justice.

“I love their music, but I think my music is really different from them. I never met those guys,” Gonzalez said. In what was perhaps a telling sign, Gonzalez moved to Paris but quickly came back to his native Antibes.

M83 is signed to Mute Records, but despite the financial woes of parent company EMI, Gonzalez’s stance on illegal downloading is laissez-faire.

“I don’t mind. I’m downloading music off the internet as well,” he said. “It’s not a problem, as long as people love my music.”

The generosity seems to have paid off. The band is currently on their second American tour in support of “Saturdays,” playing Webster Hall tonight with School of Seven Bells. Gonzalez says that the stateside audience even surpasses his home turf.

“The crowd in America is a bit more attentive to the music, and I think they’re more passionate,” Gonzalez said.

Then again, there are a lot of movie buffs here.


MP3: M83 - Kim & Jessie
MP3: M83 - Teen Angst
MySpace: M83
Official Site: M83

Sunday, November 09, 2008

CMJ: In This Year's Fest, Esoteric Acts Ruled

From Washington Square News' CMJ Roundup.

Last Friday I found myself in a strange part of town for a CMJ show: Chelsea. I was there in hopes of seeing the Irish singer Roisin Murphy, a European import who sings like Kylie Minogue. She was playing at Mansion, on 28th Street and 11th Avenue, and my hopes of getting in were fading as I came across a staggering mass of people.

“Hey, is this the line for Roisin Murphy?” I asked no one in particular.

A woman scoffed, “Uh, yeah. Who else would it be for?”

I navigated past the line but on the other side of the entrance were only a handful of press and industry people. They were letting in CMJ Music Marathon badge holders, but only those who were 21. My underage self was straight out of luck.

CMJ doesn’t change the rules of New York City’s concerts so much as it magnifies attention. Spanning last Tuesday to Saturday, it featured over a thousand bands playing in dozens of venues, some clumped in the Lower East Side and Williamsburg, others scattered in obscure locations, like Mansion.

For music fanatics, the week is part-marathon, part-juggling act. You can either camp out at one place all night, as I did on Wednesday night at the Bowery Ballroom, or sprint from one venue to another, trying to catch a variety of acts.

For more casual music fans, this year’s CMJ was a head-scratcher, devoid of big names, with only Broken Social Scene and Coheed and Cambria registering more than a blip of mainstream recognition — definitely less buzz than last year’s marquee performers, Spoon, Justice and M.I.A.

This year, it was a week of esoteric thrills, including some New York debuts. On Thursday, London’s Lucky Soul played its first stateside show. I also witnessed the U.S. debut of Chilean DJ Luciano (check out the “Fabric 41” mix), who played a mellow set at Irving Plaza.

School of Seven Bells played a mesmerizing set at Le Poisson Rouge in the last hours of CMJ, where it meshed shoe-gaze blasts and heavenly vocals. Ghostly International labelmate Matthew Dear closed out the night, strutting around with a mic stand when he wasn’t manipulating his laptop.

Sure, these two artists, and many of the other performers, play in New York all the time. But when it comes to seizing exposure, CMJ is special.


Full coverage coming!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Interlude: You Can Play These Songs With Chords

Irving Plaza has become a pretty popular stop of late, actually eclipsing the stalwart Bowery Ballroom, and I have to give Live Nation and pals some credit for booking some interesting acts over the last couple months. I do have to say that the lighting is pretty terrible, though. Anyhow, Stereolab played a bunch of shows here at the beginning of October, and I was fortunate enough to catch their final show on the 4th. Thanks to Catherine at Beggars!


Stereolab's singer Lætitia Sadier also fronts Monade, which admittedly isn't much a divergence from her main band. The songs aren't quite as immediate, but Sadier's francophone vocals are always wonderful. Their third album, Monstre Cosmic, came out in March, and while Stereolab deservedly gets more attention, this band is quite good as well.

MySpace: Monade
Official Site: Monade

Le Loup

A acquaintance that I ran into during last year's CMJ Marathon raved about Le Loup, but I never managed to give them a proper listen until this night, despite acquiring their verbosely titled album, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium Assembly. I didn't see Nicole Keenan, who may or may not still be in the band, but they played a strange and appealing set amidst the dark stagelights, with frontman Sam Simkoff hopping around like an M.C., before settling down with a banjo.

MP3: Le Loup - We Are Gods! We Are Wolves!
MySpace: Le Loup
Official Site: Le Loup


It's a shame that Stereolab has never attracted more than an underground following. In a fairer parellel universe, their techy, breezy music would top charts. But for now, they remain a medium-sized band that is replete with warped pop gems. What surprised me was the amount of muscle behind the songs, old and new, as the band erupted into gratuitous jam after gratuitous jam. Perhaps if people knew how much this band rocked out, they'd be playing a bigger venue. As good as they are, the band probably has hit a bit of a plateau. Emperor Tomato Ketchup is regarded by some as their best work, and it's the one I'm most familiar with - "Percolator" and "Cybele's Reverie" are great - and their subsequent work hasn't quite hit that peak, but I need to do some digging.

Here's a live set, recorded on March 21st, 2007, at Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 club. Enjoy.

1. Come and Play in the Milky Night
2. Eye of the Volcano
3. Vonal Declosion
4. Visionary Roadmaps
5. Need To Be
6. Interlake
7. Pack Yr Romantic Mind
8. Excursion into Oh, A-Oh
9. I Feel The Air (Of Another Planet)
10. Mountain
11. Miss Modular
12. Widow Weirdo
13. U.H.F. - MFP
15. Vodiak
16. Cybele's Reverie
17. ...Sudden Stars
18. Outer Bongolia

MySpace: Stereolab
Official Site: Stereolab

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Ocean Between Us: Trembling Blue Stars Live

Our long CMJ hangover is finally over. Full coverage is coming up, but first, here's a short and sweet acoustic set from Trembling Blue Stars, a band that unfortunately seems to have given up touring. That's a shame, because their most recent album, The Last Holy Writer, is filled with pretty, jangly pop songs. The highlight is "Idyllwild," which ranked pretty high on last year's song list, and that's a great place to start - the song really showcases Beth Arzy's lovely vocals. But it's her counterpart, Robert Wratten, who sings lead on most the songs, and his wistful voice gives the band much of its character. This set is from a while back, recorded around 2001 in something called Sesion Polar. Enjoy!

MP3: Trembling Blue Stars - Idyllwild

1. The Ghost of an Unkissed Kiss
2. Moonlight On Snow
3. Kensington Gardens
4. If I Handle You With Care
5. Missing the Moon

MySpace: Trembling Blue Stars
Official Site: Trembling Blue Stars

Monday, October 20, 2008

Interlude: MBV

During “You Made Me Realise,” the last song of My Bloody Valentine’s second show at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, the venue grew eerily quiet. In actuality, the band was creating punishing waves of feedback, but with earplugs stuffed in firmly, it felt like the eye of a storm. The atmosphere was foreign to a rock concert. Instead of exultation, there was serene anticipation.

Fans of the Irish quartet are used to waiting. My Bloody Valentine’s watershed 1991 release, Loveless, smeared glorious dream pop with a distorted haze of guitars and soporific vocals from singers Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher. The band has not released an album since, but Loveless has become the primogenitor for shoegaze, a term that originates from the abundance of foot-operated effects pedals. (Shields reportedly used 30 pedals on this tour.) They had not played in the United States for 16 years.

The setlist contained songs from Loveless and the band’s 1988 debut, Isn’t Anything, which the band delivered like a hurricane. Shields and Butcher’s breathy vocals were barely audible under the blast of guitars and blistering percussion. The band almost disappeared under the lighting, which flooded the stage. Shields would give a quiet “thank you” to the crowd in the middle of the set, but his presence was ethereal: the songs spoke for themselves.

From the overcharged “Only Shallow” to the acid-tinged cascades of “Soon,” the performance was an affirmation of how well My Bloody Valentine has stood the test of time. Loveless took over two years to craft, bankrupting the band’s label, Creation, in the process. But its influence has only grown in the nearly two decades since its release. Shields has said that the band will attempt to record a third album this fall, but no matter what they produce in the future, their legacy is cemented.

The calm of “You Made Me Realise” was broken by a final squall of feedback, followed by a bassline so massive that a tremor devoured the packed stage floor, leaving feet reverberating. Leaving a residue of feedback, like the afterglow of a dying sun, the band departed, fading away as fleetingly as they arrived.

Here's the band at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles on February 4th, 2002, the last time they were in the States. However, if you're new to MBV, I strongly sugest starting with Loveless, which kicks off like this. Enjoy.

1. Intro
2. When You Sleep
3. Only Shallow
4. I Only Said
5. Slow
6. Nothing Much to Lose
7. You Never Should
8. Blown A Wish
9. Honey Power
10. Soon
11. To Here Knows When
12. Feed Me With Your Kiss
13. You Made Me Realise

MySpace: My Bloody Valentine
Official Site: My Bloody Valentine

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...