So beautiful. Such harmonies. So ridiculously laid back. National anthem of reggae, some say.
I usually don’t play music when I write–too distracting. With one exception. When I want to get serious, I put this on repeat and listen to it over and over. I don’t know why but for me it’s perfect–perfect tempo, perfectly spacious. Love.
From the “Diva” soundtrack from about 20 yrs ago.
This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.
Upside Down: What Really Killed the Music Business
In 2000 I said to a friend, “the music industry is dead. It’s just a carcass that hasn’t been drug away yet. Little things feeding off the remains but soon it’ll just be dust.” Not a pretty image, but not inaccurate either.
When I expressed this sentiment to longtime fellow-music business colleagues, about ½ of them scoffed, ¼ nodded in agreement, and another ¼ had the saddest response of all: belief in the system. Belief that some fresh form of music would act as a rising tide that lifts all boats and “save the business,” just as disco, hip-hop, and punk did in the 70s/80s, and as the introduction of the compact disc did in the late 80s/early 90s. Then we grownups would shake our heads and go well we sure didn’t see that coming but let’s make hay with the recordings and the radio promotions and a zillion endcap displays in Musicland and Walmart.
Whenever someone said something like this—that a new kind of music would rise up to save us—I’d ask, do you see any signs of this right now? Any underground club scenes? Regional sound that’s got good buzz? Crazy stuff coming out of the radio at 2 AM? Kids speaking some incomprehensible music scenester-inspired lingo? No, they’d say. But we’re too old to know. Anyway there’s techno and electronica and we hate it so maybe it’s the next thing… It’s got to be happening somewhere. Well, it isn’t, I’d say, I don’t care how old I am. There is no next thing.
A “next thing” isn’t a derivative mix of existing sounds, no matter how mind-blowingly creative, beautiful, or shocking. A next thing is like Rock and Roll. R&B. Reggae. Soul. Disco. Funk. Metal. Hip Hop. Punk. We got all these forms from the 50s through the early 80s. And since then?
No new forms have evolved since the early 80s. Go ahead. Argue with me. Tell me that Alternative or Grunge or Techno or Emo or House are new forms and we can be certain that even now the young people of America are experimenting with music that is going to blow us all away. Go ahead. (They’re experimenting all right, but with how to share music, not how to play it…) And I’ll tell you what I would have said to a classical music aficionado in the late1800s: no new shoots are going to grow on this plant. You had your Medieval, your Renaissance, your Baroque and what have you, but after the Romantic period, what new forms evolved? I’m not talking about the occasional astonishing instrumentalist or crazy avant garde soundtrack that catches mainstream attention. You classical people, you had your—what?—500, 600 years of evolution and we popular music people had our 30 years. For both of us, it’s over. All there is to do is mix existing forms together to create hybrids or play the old stuff in new ways.
I’m not saying there aren’t amazing musicians making extraordinary music. There are.
I’m not saying people don’t care about music anymore. They do.
I’m not saying extraordinarily interesting and creative new amalgamations of sounds aren’t being produced. They are.
But it’s still not a sign of evolution.
For the music business, new forms of sound are not the future. Delivery systems are.
How did it get this way?
It’s very popular—and understandable—to blame the stunning rise and fall of the music business on digital downloads and the hubris of record labels execs. But this is not sophisticated enough. The decline didn’t happen because kids started downloading music and old guys didn’t get it; the seeds had already been planted. Downloads are the symptom, not the disease.
Downloads didn’t kill the music business. It killed itself long before downloading became widespread.
Here’s how it happened.
Shift in purchasing patterns from regional to national. In the 90s, there were things called record stores. They sold recordings. There were things called appliance stores. They sold appliances. There were things called grocery stores. They sold food. Somewhere in the early 90s these things started to get all mixed together. When it became apparent that the CD was for real and not only were people going to buy new releases in this format but also replace every single thing they already owned, the industry kaboomed. In a good way. Suddenly every retailer wanted to stock CDs. (I’ll never forget the time Rounder Records got a 3000-piece bluegrass catalog order from Blockbuster video stores.)
Around the same time, we saw the rise of big box stores selling music. The famous phrase “loss leader” came into our lexicon. CDs became those inglorious leaders. They were imagined to be just the thing to lure unsuspecting customers into the big box with the hope, I suppose, that they’d realize they needed a new washing machine while shopping for Nirvana’s Nevermind, or perhaps the other way around. To capture market share, Best Buy, Circuit City, and others priced music below even wholesale costs in some cases. What knucklehead thought of this, I have no idea, but this was the beginning of the end. Suddenly regular record stores had to compete on price in order to survive. But they couldn’t achieve the economies of scale, so instead they ate each other. 20-store chains became 100 store chains. 100-store chains became 800-store chains. Independent stores began to die. First individual stores and then small chains.
So what, you might think, it’s the American way to compete on price and anyway bands were still making music, so what’s the big deal. The big deal is that purchasing became centralized. This had two important consequences:
One, Regional bands or labels couldn’t sell records to a buyer in their own hometown, thereby building a local base, and, drum roll please,
Two, Central buying can only succeed with hit-driven product. When one guy in an office in Albany is deciding what’s going to go in 1200 stores throughout the country, he can’t buy this for Miami and that for Ann Arbor. He doesn’t have time to buy 500 copies of a new release this week and then monitor sales patterns and buy another 500 (or 10 or 1000) the next week and then keep 2 copies in the bin just in case someone wants to buy it in a year. Too labor intensive. Plus he has no idea what people care about in Miami or Ann Arbor. He needs quick turns on music that’s going to blow up out of the box and then be gone. For good.
Buh-bye regional music.
Nationalization of music distribution. Central purchasing systems do not thrive on having a multitude of vendors, each with different terms, sales cycles, pricing structures, and styles of customer service. They want to buy a bunch of stuff from as few people as possible. Distributors had to figure out a way to do business with retail behemoths. They had to become behemoths themselves. Major labels actually began scouting indie labels and offering distribution deals to the bigger ones. Smaller indie distributors and one stops began gluing themselves together to form national distribution companies. Though they were once the bastion of new music, indie labels and distributors had less and less time for developing artists themselves.
Buh-bye developing artists.
Nationalization of radio. The final nail in the coffin came in 1996 when President Clinton passed the Telecommunications Act removing ownership restrictions for radio stations. Instead of being limited to how many stations one company could own in one market, they could own a whole bunch. Programming decisions would no longer being made city-by-city, but format by format. You could turn on the radio in Sacramento or Scranton and hear the same exact thing. Local radio lost its local-ness and all the pride, quirkiness, and opportunity for new artists and creative programming that went with it. Again, a few people making decisions for a huge number of outlets. And, again, only hits serve an infrastructure like this.
Buh-bye new music.
Shift in creative locus. Hits, hits, hits. Have I made my point? Instead of a record label being able to survive by selling a few copies of a zillion different recordings, they had to sell a zillion copies of a few recordings. Product lines became less and less diverse, less and less risk-taking. What can sell a zillion copies without artist development? Only already-established artists or those lucky few who a label would choose to get behind and push, push, push until they made it to the top (as long as it happened within the first month after the record came out). To do this would literally require millions of dollars. To spend millions of dollars, you have to have a sure thing. To have a sure thing, you look at what has already succeeded and try to copy it by going out and finding an act that fits the bill. When you copy others, you end up with bullshit.
So at this point, instead of music coming off the streets and up to the marketing office, it was imagined in the marketing office and then shoved out onto the street. Of course with this kind of creative process, someone new is going to win the popularity contest today and by tomorrow, Mr. Today will be Mr. Yesterday. It’s just what happens when instead of starting with the musician and working forward to find the audience, music starts with the audience and works back to what kind of artists it will sign.
This is the only model the industry can support now.
And the saddest thing of all? We didn’t even notice that music itself was dying. We can no longer tell what is music and what is posturing. If we could, when it came to A&R decisions, we kept it to ourselves.
The introduction of digital downloads could almost be seen as a desperate measure on the part of consumers to listen to music in an unrestricted, un-mandated, un-stuffed-down-their-throats, tits-and-ass-flying-every-which-way-to-get-their-attention way. When you add to this the rise of social networking as the distribution means of the present/future, and word of mouth as the primary marketing took, I think we have an incredibly hopeful and optimistic situation. For music. Not for music executives.
Dancing in the Dark
I was sitting outside the Tam O’Shanter Lounge in my cab, waiting for last call to see who might stumble out too drunk to drive. Cabbie was one of my first post-high school jobs and the best career alternative I could think of at the time. It was late August, about a zillion degrees inside and outside the cab, even at 1:30 in the morning. (lady cab drivers do not get dibs on the air conditioned vehicles.) I was smoking cigarettes, slouched down, soles of my feet on the dashboard, one foot on either side of the steering wheel, radio on. Blah, blah, this party, that good time, we’re really whooping it up over here at KISS 108 and we know you out there in radio land are too, went the DJ. What the hell was I doing there? I mean middle class Jewish girls don’t sit in cabs waiting for barroom fares when they should be choosing a major or throwing up their dinner in the bathroom. But maybe sticky summer night cabbie was where I fit best. I had no idea how to make my life work. I had no idea what I was doing. “Dancing in the Dark” came on the radio but I didn’t really listen cause I’d heard it about a thousand times already.
Message keeps getting clearer, radio’s on and I’m moving round the place
I check myself out in the mirror I wanna change my clothes my hair my face
Man I ain’t getting nowhere just sitting in a dump like this
There’s something happening somewhere baby I just know that there is
Kyosaku is what Zen guys call it when your teacher hits you with a stick to wake you up in the meditation hall and the downbeat of the last syllable of the last line struck me right between the shoulder blades. I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face. There’s something happening somewhere. I just know that there is. I burst into tears. I had to find the something cause it wasn’t going to walk out of the Tam O’Shanter Lounge and rap on my window. It wasn’t waiting for me in a college class, a fancy restaurant, or the front seat of a cab. I didn’t know where it was, I just knew that that someplace was not here and come morning I was going to quit my job, sublet my room, put all my stuff in the back of the car and drive until I found it. So I did.
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The Allman Brothers
My boyfriend and I were lying on the floor listening to music, smoking pot, waiting for the pizza delivery guy. I think I was about 18 years old. He wanted me to listen to “Blue Skies” by the Allman Brothers. Sure, I thought. Whatever. I like music. He cued it up and when it was over I said, “yeah, that’s pretty good.” I mean it was fine, good sounds, nothing wrong. Plus I was stoned and had a cute boyfriend, so what’s not to like. “No,” he said. “Listen again. Amazing guitar solo.” I didn’t really know what a guitar solo was, but assumed it meant some guitars would start to play louder than the other instruments at some point. So I listened. When it came to the part he wanted me to hear, he poked my shoulder and pointed to the stereo.
I can’t really describe what happened next. Suddenly it was like I had never hard music before. I heard that the song was made up of dancing, spinning parts. I listened for the drums to see if my ears could track their line and then I picked the bass out of the mix. There were two guitars playing and soon I could tell the difference between them—this one was a little sweet, that one a bit fuzzy. I found that I could zoom back and forth between listening to each instrument or the whole song, but I couldn’t do both at once. They call this dependent arising in Buddhism, meaning everything exists only in relation to something else—there is nothing on this earth with a separate identity.
The guitar solo came to the foreground and it was so unforced, it was like dangling your hand in the water while someone else rows, soft, smooth, effortless. Then the second guitar soloed, ending with a cascade of perfectly picked single notes in a repeating pattern and then—at 3:57 exactly—the first guitar came out of nowhere and mimicked the line exactly. With no effort whatsoever they found each other and played in tandem, one sweet and the other fuzzy, totally separate and completely joined. This is what had always been happening, I just never heard it before. I burst into tears.
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Yesterday, Duncan and I were talking about what qualified a song as melancholy. Melancholy is not quite sadness. It seems to also include an element of longing, even of sweetness. As an enneagram 4, I feel eminently qualified to compose a melancholy playlist. (For more about the enneagram–and my obsessive interest in it, click here.) And so I did, and here it is:
I Can’t Stand The Rain Ann Peebles
Kothbiro Ayub Ogada
He’s Funny That Way Billie Holiday
Too Long at the Fair Bonnie Raitt
One For My Baby Charles Brown
Blue Gardenia Dinah Washington
Sentimental Walk Diva (ST)
I Will Not Be Sad In This World Djivan Gasparyan
I Cant Tell You Why Eagles
Layla Eric Clapton
Someone to Watch Over Me Etta James
When I Get Like This The Five Royales
When Your Lover Has Gone Frank Sinatra
Unnatural Habitat The Greenhornes
There is an End The Greenhornes & Holly Golightly
For A Dancer G regson & Collister
Dark End Of The Street James Carr
Carolina James Taylor
My One and Only Love John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman
When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder Kelly Joe Phelps
Unsuffer Me Lucinda Wiliams
Round Midnight Mel Torme
You Look Like Rain Morphine
Feel Like Going Home Muddy Waters
Withered on the Vine Nick Lowe
I’ve Been Loving You Too Long Otis Redding
On the Other Hand Randy Travis
Landslide Stevie Nicks
Whole Wide World Wreckless Eric
memphis slim at antone’s in austin, tx, 1986-ish
(mel brown under the hat behind him, sitting at the b-3)
Buddhists say that in every moment there are 108 opportunities to wake up fully and completely, to transcend the sorrows of this world and attain bliss without end. You might find your moment in the sunset or the blossoming of a flower, from making love, hearing your teacher’s voice, taking a sip of water, falling ill, or stubbing your toe. For me, one such moment came while listening to the blues in a bar in Austin, Texas where I worked as a bartender. For a few hours, I transcended the sorrows of this world and felt around in the space of bliss without end like a blind man in a hotel room. I never actually saw it, but I know I was there.
On this particular night, Memphis Slim was playing at this club, Antone’s: Austin’s Home of the Blues. He was an influential piano player and blues shouter who had expatriated himself to Paris in the 60s. Tonight, my night off, he was going to play his first stateside gig in more than twenty years. Joining him was the guitar player with whom he had recorded in the 50s, Matt “Guitar” Murphy.
I came in through the screen door in the alley out back, waved to whoever was tending bar that night, kissed my friends hello, and made my way to my favorite seat-directly stage right, a few feet from the steps leading up to it. From here, I could just about read the set list on the floor by the mic stand. I looked around and realized that 250 of the 300 or so people in the room were my friends and acquaintances and that I was seated amidst these lovely people in the best seat in the best house, getting ready to hear the best music. So I sat back and swallowed a tab of Ecstasy.
The house band played a few numbers before bringing Memphis Slim up to a standing ovation. And you almost had to stand to see all of him anyway-he was so tall, so elegant and slender, black-haired still except for one beautiful gray diamond at the center of his forehead. He sat down and began with “Mother Earth,” one of his best-known songs.
I don’t care how great you are,
Don’t give a damn what you’re worth.
When it all comes down,
You’ve got to come back to Mother Earth.
His playing was completely relaxed and his voice boomed out, commanding and round. Everyone was already in love with him, with where he came from, who he was, what this night represented, the songs he played-but he didn’t care. He just played. It was very simple and totally perfect. I listened on. My new boyfriend, the guitar player, was on stage backing Memphis Slim, and he sounded like a genius to me-knew exactly where to fill, where to lay back, where to mimic the old records, where to throw in something completely new, all in service to the song. Between numbers, he would look to make sure I was still there and wink when he saw me. This was already ecstasy, no?
I began to feel happier and happier, maybe even beyond the beyond of happiness. Was it the drug? Or was it the music, present and real, emanating from a generation that was just about to pass on? Maybe it was the warmth I felt toward my friends or that I was in love with my new boyfriend, on stage, playing like a dream, so subtle, so exact. Soon these thoughts and feelings passed out of ordinary existence and became like songs themselves-songs of home, of rest, and of contentment. I listened to how they were contained in the music I was hearing, and how they weren’t. With each note, each perfect fill, each full stop, my sense of happiness escalated. I began to ride great waves of wellbeing. At a certain point, I wasn’t sure if I could handle much more.
What comes after happiness? Have you ever asked yourself that? Well I took a little peak over the edge and saw the incinerating quality of bliss. It could singe you and scorch you and there wouldn’t be anything left. I drew back and breathed, long and deep. Then something ceased to be and its cessation is what caused me to notice it, like when you turn off a television you hadn’t realized was on. I stopped being afraid. I stopped being anywhere but right there, on the spot, and simply being there fully was delight itself. I realized that until this point, my entire life-every decision, every relationship, every job, every haircut, every word-had been driven by fear. I saw that this was completely, utterly unnecessary and I started to laugh. How silly I’d been to spend my whole life thinking anything could harm me! Everything was perfectly fine exactly as it was, always had been and always would be. The times I had been happy and the times I had been sad were just moments stacked in perfect sequence to create the perfect composition that was the perfect now. I drew in the antenna that checks the environment for malicious content because there was nothing to guard against, nothing at all. There was a sudden feeling of great space and in that space I saw that what had appeared as fear was actually just another form of ecstasy. This is what I saw, what I knew. Then, like every moment, it passed into non-being-along with the song I was hearing, the song I wasn’t hearing, along with Memphis Slim, the Blues itself, and all those friendly waves and kisses. I was alone again with my conventional mind. So I exhaled and came back to Mother Earth.
One year ago, a dear friend died suddenly. He was the founder of a blues club I worked in. But that doesn’t really describe him. This man, Clifford Antone, devoted everything he owned and everything he was to blues music and musicians. It’s not like he was a saint (see below), but in a sense, he was (see below).
He had been to prison twice, convicted of selling marijuana. Not a few joints on the street corner either, more like several tons on a plane from Mexico. Whatever he earned, he spent it all, every penny, on this music. He opened a nightclub in Austin, Texas in 1975 and brought blues icon Muddy Waters in for several weeks. Blues was not exactly popular in Texas at that time. When Muddy arrived in what was then a podunk Texas town and met this white, hippie college-kid club owner, he was not quite sure where he had landed. But, like everyone who passed through the doors of Antone’s, he had entered the world of Clifford. The stage was stocked with the best equipment—vintage amps and collectable guitars in perfect condition. Wanting to accompany Muddy was a group of local musicians that eventually included Stevie and Jimmie Vaughan and at least a dozen other exceptionally soulful musicians. Muddy was their idol. In the window was a framed photo of him, garlanded with flowers. Sitting in the audience waiting for the show to begin was just about nobody except for Clifford. And so it began. After Muddy came Howlin‘ Wolf, Clifton Chenier, Albert King, B.B. King, Sunnyland Slim, and everybody else. Eventually, he launched a blues record store and a blues record label. When I arrived in 1985, the legend was in full bloom and, although Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf had passed, every other living icon was taking the stage at Antone’s like it was the coolest oasis in the desert. Which it was. Some came for a night, some came for a few months, and some, like blues harpist James Cotton and Muddy Waters’ piano player Pinetop Perkins, came to live. Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy Rogers—the list goes on and on—played night after night, backed by the stellar, mind-blowing, forget-ever-trying-to-explain-it Antone’s House Band. It was the most soulful place in the world. I am totally not exaggerating.
I worked with Clifford for almost 10 years, first as a cocktail waitress at his club, then a bartender, then the manager of his record label. We spent some crazy times together and had lots of agreements and disagreements. It was deep. In the mid-90s, I moved away and our contact dwindled in the intervening decade. Just a few weeks before he died, I was in Austin visiting. Cliff and I had dinner together and there was nothing but love. We spent several hours in sweet reminiscence. Remember the time Doug Sahm almost pushed me (Susan) into a swimming pool because I wouldn’t give the band a draw on the next night’s pay? (I didn’t have any money…) Remember when Albert King fired his band in the middle of a gig? Remember the Japanese record label that wanted to license one of our records because they “had listened to it and were terrified?” (I think they meant something like “we were filled with terrific-ness.”)
Almost all the people we idolized were dead. His club still booked blues, but rock acts and comedians brought in the profits. He was teaching a class at the University of Texas called “The Blues According to Clifford Antone” and this was his new stage. He loved turning kids on to his musical heroes. But his heart was left in the past. The world he loved, gave everything to, where he had staked his soul, was gone. “When Albert (Collins) died, that was it for me,” he said. I think he already felt a bit like a ghost.
Last year, he died at the age of 56 of a heart attack. Out of nowhere. When I went online to read about Cliff’s passing in the Austin paper, the caption simply read, “Clifford Antone, 1949–2006.” Above the headline was a black and white photograph of him from the late 80s, in his record store. I was standing on one side of him and on the other was the other employee of Antone’s Record label, Connie. We were holding the company’s latest albums in our arms, pretending to show the covers to Clifford, who was smiling. I looked at my own face and stopped. Who was that young woman? Who was now looking back at her? Where was all the music? I remembered the exuberance and inspiration and wildness of that time, and I felt so happy and so sad. But all of it is gone, everything in that photograph is gone, somehow. Record albums are as good as gone. Connie lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their little baby girl. Clifford is in the ground. I’m sitting here typing this in Boston, looking at the picture of the three of us tacked to my bulletin board, surrounded by notes for a new book I’m writing, a picture of my husband and I at our wedding, and numerous Tibetan Buddhist symbols and deities. Outside the window, spring leaves dim the sunshine that splashes across my desk in winter.
Sun and shade, past and present, happy and sad, here and gone. This is our life.