Saturday, June 30, 2012

Free Ziggy Stardust!

**UPDATE** Deal has ended. Price is now $5. It's possible this was another of Amazon's pricing glitches, and not a promotion.

Amazon is giving away a free MP3 download of the entire 40th Anniversary remastered version of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars today.

This 40th Anniversary edition was digitally remastered by Ray Staff, the original mastering engineer for Ziggy at Trident Studios and Ken Scott, the album's original co-producer. In my opinion, even as an MP3 this new remaster sounds better than the most commonly available CD versions (1990 Rykodisc and 1999 Virgin remaster).

Just remember to play at maximum volume.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Essential Reading: Steal this album: What happens if no one pays for music?

My friend Scott Timberg has a very thoughtful piece up on Salon today that cuts to the heart of what is at stake in the kerfuffle between Emily White, the NPR intern who admits to never having "owned" any music and Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker frontman David Lowery, who says artists should be fairly compensated for their work: "How should we pay for culture in the Internet era, and if we don’t pay, what happens to the producers of culture?"

Read it, and if you haven't already, I also recommend reading White's original post and Lowrey's response

As Scott notes, many on the internet have taken Lowrey to task for fuddy-duddyism, accusing him of not being able understand that music consumption models have changed, and we can't go back to his "good old days." But I do not think Lowrey's arguments are so easily dismissed, especially in light of some of the cold, hard statistics he cites. I've never been able to buy into the "culture wants to be free" arguments of many technological utopians. Scott does a better job than I could of pulling these problems into focus, so I highly recommend his Salon piece.

But, while I am generally on Lowrey's side in this argument, I would be not be commenting in good faith if I did not also mention that I once made one of David's songs available for download through this blog without permission. I posted a Camper Van Beethoven track back in 2006, a cover of The Buzzcocks' "Harmony In My Head" that was only released as a b-side on a promotional single. I long ago deleted the file, but at the time I did not see any harm in making it available for free. My thinking was that it was okay (ethically, if not legally) to post songs that either were highly unlikely to ever be commercially re-released, or that had been out-of-print for a very long time.

So, am I a big, fat, old hypocrite to side with Lowrey over the young-whippersnapper White now? Maybe. But as with President Obama on same sex marriage, I prefer to think that my position has "evolved" over time (and in fairness to White, her thinking seems to be evolving as well). I no longer post music without the express consent of the rights-holder or their representitive. My evolution on this issue was slow, and I suspect my original thinking on the issue was not as clear-headed as it should have been. For what it is worth, I know I never meant any harm, and that my goal was to raise the profile of any artist I featured.

Of all the music I posted here, I never once had an artist complain, or ask me to take a track down. I did have many artists write to me to thank me for featuring their music, and they uniformly seemed grateful for the attention I was bringing to their work. Many of these artists, in my view, never received the critical acclaim or financial rewards their music deserved, and I viewed my posts as a way to honor them, and perhaps even spark a new demand for their music. I got personal thank yous from criminally overlooked artists like Barbara Manning and Don Fleming, others like The Popes and David Duet of Cat Butt linked to my posts via Facebook or other social media. I'm proud of the fact that I never received a complaint from an artist, and I'd like to think that's because I chose my subjects wisely and with honorable intentions.

But I no longer think offering unauthorized music for free was the right thing to do, regardless of my intentions, and regardless of whether the musicians in question appreciated it or not. Over time I noticed more and more music blogs popping up, many of them offering free downloads of entire albums, some out-of-print, some easily available through normal commercial channels. These made me less comfortable with the idea of posting music for free. I also saw an spike over time of belligerent posters who were outraged that I had let a track expire: Didn't I know that culture wants to be free, and who was I to hoard it for my own selfish purposes?

It was reading these posts (some extremely hostile) that made me realize I was doing more harm than good. I was contributing to a culture of consumption that said "Everything I want should be available to me right now, and for free. Anything else is unacceptable." At a certain point I decided I could no longer participate in that process in good faith because I don't want to live in a world where artists are not fairly compensated for the their work. Or as David Lowrey might have put it, "What the world needs now is another illegal download, like I need a hole in the head." I went so far at one point as to briefly delete this entire blog and all its contents. But I wanted to keep writing about music, and I felt that the content of some of my earlier posts was still worthwhile without the accompanying music, so I restored it (without the music) and continued blogging. I also found ways to feature interesting music by working directly with artists or their representatives, so if you find any music downloads on this site now, they have been approved by those who hold the legal rights to the work.

I'll have more to say on this subject later, but this is something I've wanted to get off my chest for a while.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The dB's - Before We Were Born/That Time Is Gone

Two new songs from the dB's courtesy of Bar/None Records.

The new album, Falling Off The Sky, is available from Bar/None on CD and LP today.

Friday, June 08, 2012

The dBs Are Back

On June 26 legendary indie rock quartet the dBs will release their first new album in 25 years, and first album with the original lineup (including both songwriters Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple) in 30 years. I've heard it, and far from a pointless exercise in 80s nostalgia, Falling Off The Sky sounds just as fresh and relevant in 2012 as Repercussion did in 1982. And that's saying something.

I'll have more to say about the dBs and their new album in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out this interview with the band on WUNC, North Carolina Public Radio.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Happy 40th Birthday Ziggy Stardust

David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released exactly 40 years ago today (June 6, 1972). Happy birthday Mr. Stardust.

I was only two when the album was released, so you'll have to forgive me if I didn't notice it at the time. I was not rocking the unisex sequined diapers and platform Stride-Rites back in 1972.

It was probably about 10 years after the album's initial release when I first discovered Ziggy. I think I snuck a cassette in with the groceries as my Mom was shopping at the local GIANT supermarket. Twelve is probably the age of maximum receptivity to Ziggy's message, and what followed was a several year period of obsession with the album and David Bowie's music in general. I think the appeal was partly similar to the fantasy fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien that I was also fascinated with at the time. Ziggy Stardust, the album, the myth, the persona, created this whole alternate universe for me to negotiate mentally, and doing so was intensely pleasurable. The notion that Ziggy was an alien--someone who could be in the world, but never of the world--sunk deep into my alienated pubescent consciousness and engendered a strong sense of identification.

A few years later I was a sophomore at Annapolis High School taking a Humanities class with a fantastic Social Sciences teacher named Phil Greenfield. Mr. Greenfield asked us to bring an example of music that we considered "great." I brought in my much loved Ziggy Stardust cassette and played "Suffragette City." When Greenfield asked me to explain why I thought it was great I completely failed to offer anything like a coherent explanation. Perhaps I thought the song's greatness was simply self-evident and needed no verbal justification.

Phil very politely and thoughtfully disagreed with my contention that the song was great. If I remember correctly, he gave something along the lines of the traditional critical knock on Bowie: he and his music were too "inauthentic" and lacking in genuine emotion to qualify for greatness. I don't know if that was his actual position, or if he was just challenging me to articulate a better case for Ziggy (probably both). Unfortunately, I was uncharacteristically at a loss for words and was able to do little more than stammer out a few meaningless sentences in Ziggy's defense.

It broke my heart a little bit that Phil Greenfield, a man I had such deep respect for, didn't think too highly of my choice of "great" music. I felt a little stupid. Worse, I felt like I had let Ziggy down. It helped a little bit when after class a kid named Danny Littleton (who later became a fairly well known musician called Daniel Littleton) came up to me and said, "Thank you SO MUCH for bringing that in!"

It didn't happen immediately after that incident, but over the coming years I became less enchanted with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and David Bowie in general. My own opinion of Bowie and his music probably began to take on the contours of the critical consensus that his art was insufficiently "authentic" and "genuine" (never mind that I could celebrate the work of a visual artist like Andy Warhol for lack of those same qualities). I don't think it had much to do with my very smart high school teacher's gentle rebuke so much as my own sense of embarrassment with my previously intense adolescent identification with the Ziggy persona. As my body and mind stopped undergoing intense and violent changes every year, I became less fascinated with Bowie's ability to shed various personas on a near yearly basis. It probably didn't help that Bowie was releasing uninspiring albums like Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine at that point in his career. I moved on to other things.

I didn't revisit Bowie's music very often until around 2005 when I first heard The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions Featuring Seu Jorge, an album that features covers of Bowie's music played by Jorge on only acoustic guitar and sung in Portuguese. Portuguese is a fascinating sounding language to me, but I can barely understand a word of it. With the music stripped to its essence and the lyrics indecipherable to me, I recognized something that had been lost on me for too many years: this David Bowie guy knew what he was doing! His songs are beautifully melodic and masterfully constructed.

And now that I'm a little (okay, a lot) older, and no longer experience any sense of embarrassment reflecting on my pubescent self, the whole Ziggy concept doesn't seem quite so precious and contrived to me either. Was it a phenomenon of it's place and time that is especially likely to appeal to people of a certain age? Yes, but I also think it stands up to the test of time a lot better than I would have given it credit for twenty years ago. Ziggy is clearly the product of a very thoughtful artist who was interested in performance traditions (kabuki, mime, etc.) in which concepts like "authenticity" and "genuine" expressions of emotion are essentially meaningless.

The Ziggy persona was also a rebuke of the kind of facile, self-satisfied, hippie mindset that says, "Just be yourself, man." As if it could ever be that simple. It's the product of a way of thinking that recognizes that every aspect of our lives is informed by some level of performativity. Whether we are being students, teachers, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, or certainly rock and roll stars, just being yourself is never a simple act. It's one that is constantly mediated and informed by the expectations of others. It was the guys who got up on stage with their guitars and tried to make me believe they were just being themselves, pouring out the contents of their eternal soul in song that were jiving me, not Ziggy. Ziggy never lied to me like that. But what was then, and still is, liberating about this realization is that even if "being yourself" is never uncomplicated, at least you can have some say in the self you want to be.

So happy birthday Ziggy Stardust. To celebrate, I plan to play The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars "AT MAXIMUM VOLUME," just as the back cover demands.