Monday, October 25, 2010

Stepping on Stage

I haven't written about it much on this blog, but I'm a guitarist. I've been playing since I was 9 years old, more or less, which means I've been playing more than 30 years now. And, I'm pretty good. A bit rough around the edges. After all, despite my music department affiliation, I'm almost entirely self-taught. I read music, but like many if not most rock guitarists I mainly play by ear. More to the point, my technique is a bit of a hodge-podge. I more or less flail about with my right (picking) hand, I can play fast staccato only up to a point before I lose my grounding, especially when I have to switch from one string to another. My left hand is more reliable and I can work up a good head of steam when I'm playing in a more legato (hammer-on and pull-off) manner. But there's a lot of imperfection in my approach, which is mostly fine but sometimes I wish it were otherwise.

Here's the thing - because there's gotta be a thing right? In all my years of playing, I've almost never been in a band, and haven't even spent all that much time playing with other people. As a musician I'm something of a lone wolf. Which is how I am in most other areas of my life, I guess, so no harm done. But, it means my playing is done almost entirely in private - my public appearances over the years have been few and far between. And thus, when I do play in public it's sort of a big deal, for me if no one else.

I made one of my rare appearances this past Saturday night. The occasion was typically Smith: the annual "Montage" concert, held during Family Weekend, when all the parents come to visit their collegiate offspring and are shown the College's idea of a good time. The concert is designed to showcase most of the main performing groups at Smith: orchestra, glee club, chorus, handbell choir (!), wind ensemble, and the many a capella singing groups. So where did I fit in? I was a guest soloist of sorts, playing lead guitar for a version of Boston's "Foreplay/Long Time," with a small rock band comprising myself, the orchestra/glee club conductor Jonathan on bass, the department accompanist Jerry on rhythm guitar, and a student named Jamie on drums. Oh yes, and the college organist, Grant, playing the giant pipe organ in the College's biggest public auditorium. Did I mention that we were accompanying the combined glee club and chorus, who provided the vocals? Does this sound as weird as I think it does?

Thing is, it was kind of a hoot, in its way. There's something so incongruous about playing lead guitar at a College event meant to boost the family spirit, and at the same time such incongruities are pretty much what I've based most of my life around. I played through my little 10 watt Line 21 amp and was easily audible above 100 unmiked voices. The audience was pretty big - I'd guess 1500 or so - and genuinely appreciative. And truth be told, I tore it up. Sure I hit a few bum notes here and there but I don't think anyone cared enough to notice. And today when I walked into class one of my students said my solo on Saturday "melted" her face, which I guess is a good thing. So, in tribute to coming momentarily out of my shell, here's some Boston for ya.

Boston · Long Time
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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The State of the Record Industry

Last week, out of the blue, I started getting free issues of Rolling Stone delivered to my mailbox. I have no idea why, but I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so as long as they keep coming, I'll keep reading them. I'm not especially keen on the magazine's music coverage these days - they have some good writers on staff but the choices they make about who to feature betray their Boomer orientation far too much (the lead reviews in the two issues I've received thus far were of albums by Neil Young and Eric Clapton, respectively; not exactly finger-on-the-pulse-of-popular-culture choices). But, they do some of the better left-oriented political reporting to be found in such a mainstream publication, and that's reason enough to pay attention.

What has me writing though, is a piece by U2 manager Paul McGuinness that appeared in the September 30 issue, titled "How to Save the Music Business." [Addendum: After doing a bit of online research, I see that this article is an abridged version of one that appeared in the British version of GQ, which you can access here.]

I should note up front that I'm not much of a U2 fan. Sure, I have some of their albums and there is some very good music on them. But the band's - and specifically Bono's - self-righteous sense of purpose has never sat well with me. I like it when I agree with a band's politics, but I don't like people with messiah complexes and Bono has one in spades, something that came through loud and clear back when I saw the band play in 1987 on the Joshua Tree tour.

So, apparently, does the group's manager, McGuinness, who sets himself up as the man with the plan to "save" the music industry in this article. What the industry needs to be saved from, as I'm sure you can guess, is the free circulation of music that has been growing by leaps and bounds for the past decade due to the expanding reach of the internet. This is hardly news, but McGuiness tries to insist that the time is approaching when people are more willing to see that the free circulation of music has a down side that might outweigh the benefits.

McGuinness makes one salient point in this article: that "free" music isn't simply free, but relies on the availability of high-speed internet service, the provision of which is a major source of revenue for various large telecomm corporations. True enough. And he's also justified in claiming that access to free music and other similar content has been one of the major engines that has led to such a growth in the demand for such services.

Where he loses me and, I'm sure, many others who care about these matters, is in his effort to paint the music industry as a victim within this process. If McGuinness was willing to acknowledge the industry's own power as a cultural gatekeeper and a profit engine that generates a lot more income for record industry workers than for artists, his efforts would be on more solid ground. But he writes from the perspective of someone whose clients are the members of one of the most lucrative performing entities in the history of rock, who have a vested interest in the existing state of the music industry that isn't shared by those on the bottom rungs of the ladder to success.

There is an arrogance in McGuinness's perspective that's hard to miss. It's the same arrogance that I so often detect in Bono, such that even when he's speaking on behalf of something I fully support, I feel skeptical. When McGuinness asserts that "it is facile to blame record companies" for the economic dilemma they face, he just seems to be declaiming any responsibility on the part of those within the industry. He tries to make it sound like "free" music is taking money away from those who rightly deserve it, meaning the creative artists and those who serve them. But, realistically, following the logic of his own argument, it's more about one set of large corporations (telecomm companies) siphoning money away from another (record companies). Of course, even this paints too black and white a picture since in the current media environment, no major record company exists that is not part of some larger entertainment conglomerate. And where artists are concerned, the evidence I've seen suggests that they are just as likely to benefit from the free flow of musical information as they are to lose from it. For every group that loses some royalties they may otherwise have earned, there are probably five who gain access to listeners they may never have reached otherwise, which could mean more attendance at shows, more merch sales, or even sales of music that might otherwise never see the light of day.

I'm no utopian thinker when it comes to the potential of digital media. Like anything, the new technology (which isn't all that new anymore) has its ups and downs. Truth be told, I don't even download much "free" music. As I've written elsewhere on this blog, I'm old school in my listening habits. I like vinyl, I still buy lots of CD's, and I don't own an iPod or particularly enjoy listening to music through my computer. But I think the free circulation of music has benefits that outweigh the costs. The biggest such benefit is that it has brought loads of music back into circulation that had long been unavailable, and the commercial record labels would have no reason to reissue because of the lack of potential for profit. Having such an archive available, unruly and disorganized as it is, is all the justification I need not to let record industry interests dictate the flow of music.