Friday, October 26, 2007

The Perfect Drug

Thanks to kureman over on antville for posting this clip.

Here is about thirty minutes of behind the scenes footage on the making of Mark Romanek’s iconic 1994 video for Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer.” The featurette is broken into three separate sections and is overall relatively interesting.

Romanek was always a great MV director who I wished worked more and this is a decent glimpse inside the mind of a super-talented guy.

What I found to be even more valuable, especially to MV directors working today, is the accompanying clip of the finished video for “Closer” with commentary from Trent Reznor. Not that many bands/artists are at all likeReznor, but it is instructive to hear what parts of the process (and Romanek’s skills) he was drawn to.

Romanek is a major talent, and that often comes with elements of self-indulgence – like using an antique hand-cranked silent movie camera that often broke down, rather than shooting with modern equipment and making the final film “look” old. Also, the set with built-in practical lighting and skylights (so no “movie lights” on the set) looks great in the behind the scenes footage, and must have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in art department. So is that self-indulgence or attention to detail?

Watch "Closer" with artist commentary here.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

A Single Cell

Businesses come and go. They are born and then they fold. The “Conestoga wagon construction and repair industry” fell by the way-side. At some point, a sweaty man hauled the last block of ice up a flight of stairs to chill the last real “ice box” – perhaps someone was sad about that. Certainly the “airbrushing things on the side of Dodge vans” industry has seen better days. Perhaps those jobs were replaced by “mall kiosk that sells ugly, off-brand face-plates for cell phones” – that seems a LOT like the van painting to me, just with less Pink Floyd marching hammers.

Birth and death – blah, blah. Well, the record store is certainly a lot closer to death than birth. Tower Records has closed its doors – a chain store, but one that “Championship Vinyl” types could at least acknowledge as “real.” Now that Tower is gone, the greater Los Angeles area (when not being evacuated due to brush fires) is home to a single shining beacon of music sales-dom – Amoeba Records.

Amoeba is a massive place filled with new and used CDs and records. The fact that the DVD section grows by the month shouldn’t worry you, move along, nothing to see here. Amoeba is a fun place to go and kill an hour or seven. There are seemingly endless racks of music and shopping here takes on a weird, adrenaline-fueled communal vibe. Many people comment along the lines of “Amoeba is wonderful, but it is almost a sensory overload.”

Amoeba is a great place and I am glad that it exists. But it almost isn’t a record store – it is more like an amusement park. And not a flashing lights and over-priced lattes kind of amusement park – but a hardcore amusement park for people that are really, really into music. A Civil War re-enactors amusement park, if you will.

A casual music fan going in there to find the latest Timberlake CD is probably going to end up running for the door as fast as they can find their way back out. Amoeba is NOT for the faint of heart. There are more racks of African music at the Hollywood Amoeba than there is racks of all CDs just down the street at Best Buy.

Overall, this is not a good sign. Normal record stores went under, but this mighty mutant of excess survives and even prospers because there are people who want this kind of intense experience. Just not enough people to keep this experience going in normal sized towns and cities. Not every town can support a massive amusement park like Disneyland. They tried to put a Planet Hollywood in every town – and that didn’t work out too well. The record store has become a tourist attraction, a place of worship, an oddity.

Music fans (usually the kind that read blogs like this one) go into Amoeba when they are visiting LA and say “Why isn’t there a place like this in MY town?” And the answer is – because you wouldn’t go to it, at least not enough to keep it open. The Amoeba experience doesn’t work on a smaller scale – it needs the swirling hyper-activity that comes from 800 people, all clickety clacking through the “Used Ska” section at the same time. Amoeba is a destination, not a place to complete an errand to pick up some music you like. Few cities have the population to support a store like Amoeba, and one of the reasons it works even in LA, is because it is a tourist destination – so the churning masses of visitors keep the doors open.

Amoeba is the exception that proves the rule – the rule that brick and mortar record retailing is going away. Like Madonna is the exception that proves how the new Live Nation plan won’t work for a young band.

Amoeba isn’t going anywhere. iTunes cannot kill something like this. Amoeba will still be doing brisk business when people are wandering through in the year 2028 to buy Aztec Camera and that “Good Charlotte: 20 years of Hits” compilation. Assuming there is still anything physical to sell. Maybe we can just line up in Amoeba to get the tunes injected into our brains.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Will the last Famous Musician to leave please turn out the lights?

The business side of the music industry has been getting heavy coverage the past few days. From Britney’s video adventures with the vertical brass cylinder, to Radiohead’s groundbreaking (groundbreaking, I say!) new strategy and Madonna’s new school all-in-one deal with Live Nation. There has been plenty of hype, but …

The Britney thing? Next.

Radiohead and Madonna are intriguing because these are about new ways of music getting distributed and money being made off the music, tours and celebrity fragrances. The self produced digital-only record is definitely the direction of DIY music careers and I also think that (at least on some level) Madonna and Live Nation (LN) represent the way that “labels” will look in the future.

I have no idea how these experiments are going to work and remember that no one else does either. No matter how many orders Radiohead got the first day or how sure someone is that Madonna took LN to the cleaners – these are massive, complicated deals that cannot be classified as successes or failures for years to come. What they are, for now, is a new direction – and that is exciting.

I am always one to be skeptical of hype, a side effect of being in the hype business. Both Radiohead and LN employed the power of the press release to perfection these last weeks. They got massive coverage for their new ventures, with very little outlay for newspaper or TV ads. Free press is great and there has been lots of it over the past few weeks.

That being said, we all need to take a chill pill. Remember the iPhone launch? That was madness. Surely the world was about to end. My favorite story from then was the Mayor of Philly getting caught camping out on line (what, no assistant?!?) to get a glorious world-changing cellular thing-a-ma-jig. Well, time has passed and many people have an iPhone, more don’t – the world continues to spin. The cell phone marketplace is different, but no one in that industry thinks it is all sorted out yet. That is where we are with the “game changing” Radiohead and Madonna deals, it is still very early.

These new ideas are intriguing but you know who they work for? Established megastars. Say again – established acts with massive pre-existing fame.

The Madonna deal is all about concerts and other merchandise – so that kind of thing could work great for Dave Matthews or the Eagles – not so much for Talib Kweli or Kelly Clarkson. The Radiohead model of self releasing (heh, heh – self releasing) on-line might work for Linkin Park, but probably not for a new act.

These strategies are a refreshing change from the tired label group-think, but they are (at least so far) strange new directions that don’t really apply to most of the music industry. Selling your own record on your website happens all the time already (though the “name your own price” part is kinda new) and by and large no one cares.

All kinds of acts you have never heard of are already doing things very similar to what Radiohead is trying with this. Thousands of bands sell their music for nearly nothing on-line 24/7 – so why is it a big story now? Not because the strategy is so new, but because a very, very famous band is doing it. This is actually not a story about a “bold new direction” for the record industry, it is a story about a beloved band and their music that everyone is eager to hear.

The Madonna signing with LN is similar – not all that new. The deal that 19 Management strikes with the American Idol finalists is similar (I believe) regarding the sharing of various income streams, though the dollar values are much, much lower for Ruben Studdard and Fantasia than they are for Madonna.

Radiohead and Madonna are doing something new-ish – but what happens with their experiments is largely meaningless for the real future of the record industry. Maybe if Madonna cleans up then John Mellencamp and Mary J Blige may want/get similar arrangements – but what happens when all the famous musicians are gone?

U2 and Usher could find audiences releasing their own “digital only” recordings – but even if it works perfectly, what does that mean to a new band no one has heard of?

Everyone that can truly benefit from these deals (at least in a way I can imagine in the present day marketplace) is already super-ultra-mega-famous. Only the most established and renowned artists need apply.

Telling a new band or a newbie singer that self-releasing and all-in-one manage-labels are the future – is like telling a poor family struggling on food stamps that they need to make money – by purchasing an apartment building. Buying a nice six-unit building IS a good investment – but you need to already have a big bundle of cash to even make it into that game. Your friend’s band who plays down at the corner bar/roller-rink/basement is probably struggling to afford a twelver of beer. The idea of owning rental properties as a “solution” is pure fantasy land for them.

These “new strategies” are great things to try, especially if you are already wealthy from the old strategies of the traditional record label. Without the backing of Capitol, can Radiohead get every major newspaper to write about their website? People are eager to hear Radiohead’s new music because Thom Yorke is very talented AND because their “old” label invested lots and lots of money to make that talent into fame. Capitol got rich too, far richer that the band ever did off Yorke’s songs – but ask Radiohead if they want to start again at zero without major label support.

Like people that remember V-J Day, the artists that were made super-stars by the old label powers will die out and slip into unimportance. Can these new business models make stars, or just profit off and enrich existing ones?

What happens when all the famous musicians are gone?

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Check Ya Net!

Gotta love Busta Rhymes getting down like a Senator. No, not in a "wide stance" kind of way but in a "Intranets is a series of tubes" kind of way.

Check out the onsmash clip of Bussa Buss decrying the good ol' days (hey, that's my gig) and remembering the time when he spent millions on recording before "the computer caused that fuck up." Busta is, as always, hilarious and gives voice to the rarely heard "wealthy celebrity" demographic. Plus he is right about them ringtones!

Absorb the knowledge and be prepared for NSFW language.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Gimme Less

Hey, did you hear? There is a new Britney Spears video. It hasn’t been getting much press (well that and the Radiohead pick-a-price adventure) – so I thought I would let you know about it.

I do not want to get into piling onto Britney’s personal life or pointing out all the substandard elements of the clip. Anyone with eyes can see that. This is an actually decent pop song with a flat and effortless music video. Not much more needs to be said about the clip itself.

How and why this particular video got made does interest me, though. The director is listed as Jake Sarfaty. Some have said this is an Alan Smithee name for Jake Nava, a director who has worked with Britney before with some success.

The director of “Gimme More” is not the well known director of highly professional clips for Beyonce and Mariah. Jake Sarfaty is a real guy, a gaffer/grip with a reasonable amount of below-the-line credits on a variety of productions. So how does this guy end up directing a video for one the most (in)famous artists around? I certainly don’t know for sure – but my guess is that no one else would do it.

There had been talk for months and months about Britney making her OWN video. Jive didn’t want to pay (they thought the market wasn't ready for a "comeback") and yet Britney wanted to get out there right away and answer her critics. Is answering one's critics ever a good idea? How about answering the critics with a pole dance? That'll do the trick.

So this other, never produced, self-made Britney video was probably a different song, but I recall the story being that she wanted to shoot a clip where she was crucified on a cross made out of tabloids. Brilliant! This rumored video was supposed to get shot at Britney's own house and she reached out to some real directors – who came back with budgets and the like but it never took off. The story was that Britney was paying with her own money, so perhaps a professional was gonna cost too much or maybe someone talked sense into her and she decided to wait a bit on her “comeback.”

But finally, Britney gets the video she has been wanting to make - over the protestations of Jive it seems. There are soooo many mistakes with "Gimme More." Britney clearly needs some time off, both personally and in the marketplace. I don’t think people are ready to see her as an artist again, right now. She is still the “train wreck” in most people’s eyes and we are not ready to hear what she has to say musically. We are still more interested in whether or not she wears shoes into public restroom or gets her kids taken away by Sheriff’s Deputies. This is too soon, but it seems like Britney is not getting the best advice these days, or at least not listening to it.

Spending one’s own money is almost always a mistake. Anyone that casually watches Entourage must know this. It makes sense that Britney wouldn’t want to spend too much of her own money on a music video, so that is how a gaffer with zero directing credits gets the job.

The whole thing comes across so half-assed it is actually more like quarter-assed. It seems thrown together and almost completely unplanned. The song ain’t bad, but this isn’t gonna spark any kind of lasting comeback - despite the current surge of popularity on iTunes. Videostatic posits that we are watching for all the wrong reasons – and I have to agree.

The video for "Gimme More" doesn’t come across like a career move, but rather a desperate grab at keeping the mercurial flame of fame alive. All I can say is that Britney’s gonna need to find some more flammable stuff to throw in to keep it smoldering, because our attention is gonna burn through this balsa-wood thin distraction in way less than fifteen minutes.

Watch "Gimme More" on

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Hooray for White People!

The music industry has a long history of white people “borrowing” the coolest cultural elements from black Americans and using it to make money. I’m not even gonna get into all the examples, they are legion.

In Chris Rock’s 1996 stand-up specialBring the Pain” he talked about how there weren’t any cool white people any more, just white people trying to act like they are black to be cool. I believe Rock's references then were Fred Durst and Kid Rock. Hard to argue with that logic. And shame was upon the white folks for their lack of creativity.

But now things have changed and the Vans are on the other foot. Cool Kids just released a new video with the title “Black Mags” – a reference to the magnesium rims on BMX bicycles. Hard to get whiter than BMX bikes. Maybe one of those rappers is named Earl.

All through hip hop there has been a recent surge in the combination of urban culture with X Games style. Early on there was Skateboard P and his own BMX-ing in “Lapdance” (NSFW link). Lupe Fiasco kicked and pushed and the Pack rapped about their love of Vans – Spicoli’s favorite shoes. I saw the expression “skurban” used on some talk show and I knew this phenomenon had picked up steam.

In the Cool Kids clip there is even a rapper wearing post-modern skate inspired nuthugger jeans. Damn! White folks MUST be cool again.

Side note - the Cool Kids clip seems to "borrow" a lot of elements from the Pack clip. Black and white photography, tight shots of various middle school girls mouthing the lyrics, etc.

What is the next element to be absorbed into the new urban landscape? How about surfing? Sounds impossible, but check out top-level pro surfer Bobby Martinez – he has all the tatts and gangsta bonafides, plus he is an amazing surfer. Martinez has a ghetto background more real and gritty than many rappers, so it seems like an obvious choice.

I can’t really predict what will be next, but for now “Hooray, white people are cool again!” (quick take photo, sure not to last).

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