Wish List

Pedal voyeurism is nothing new around here, and it continues; after much searching, I think my delay narrowed down to a top contender.

Originally, I had been looking for analog delay, and was looking at the DMB Lunar Echo.  (Coincidentally, also the name of my favorite, long-unavailable, standard Boulevard brew.)  After Drew’s experience with a Keeley-modded AD-9, though (awesome on guitar, no good for vocal production or other studio trickery due to limited high frequencies), I started over, open to digital delay.

My criteria: good for vocal production (to duplicate what we do with Drew’s Fulltone TTE), ability to do both dirtier and cleaner echos, and bonus points for an infinite feedback switch.  There’s a ton of great stuff out there, and if I was just getting a guitar delay, I’d probably go with the TC Electronic Flashback.

But for tape sound, short of the real thing (more than a grand just to play ball, and a bear to maintain), I’ve got my heart set on the Strymon El Capistan.

Beautiful sound, so many knobs, super-clean tape (still tape-y, though) to nearly wrecked, plus infinite feedback; it has to be.  As soon as I need it for a project, I’m ready.

Krueger on the Economics of Rock and Roll

Paul Krugman linked to a talk by Alan Krueger on the economics of rock and roll compared to those of our country the other day.

…Many of the forces that are buffeting the U.S. economy can be understood in the context of the music industry. I have also learned from 25 years of teaching that the best way to explain economics is through the example of the rock ‘n roll industry … We are increasingly becoming a “winner-take-all economy,” a phenomenon that the music industry has long experienced. Over recent decades, technological change, globalization and an erosion of the institutions and practices that support shared prosperity in the U.S. have put the middle class under increasing stress. The lucky and the talented – and it is often hard to tell the difference – have been doing better and better, while the vast majority has struggled to keep up. These same forces are affecting the music industry. Indeed, the music industry is an extreme example of a “super star economy,” in which a small number of artists take home the lion’s share of income.

– Alan B. Krueger, Chairman, Council of Economic Advisers, from Land of Hope and Dreams: Rock and Roll, Economics, and Rebuilding the Middle Class

If we buy Krueger’s arguments, what are the implications for the majority of artists?

First, psychologically accomodate the results of the Salganik and Watts experiment on song popularity; luck and social snowball effects have much more to do with the popularity of one song or another than we commonly acknowledge. Artists can put their music in places where it might be discovered, but we can’t control what happens after that.

Second, due to rising income inequality since the late 1970s, most people simply have less money to spend on shows, recordings, and merch than they used to, and it’s getting worse.  Plus, musicians face more competition than ever for entertainment dollars.  We have to think seriously about what we ask listeners to pay, and provide low-barrier entry points.  For example: play a free show, give older albums away (or charge #1 or pay-what-you-want), or put a merch coupon on your website that can be redeemed at shows.  Also, make sure listeners feel great about the money they spend by putting on a great show, being available to talk at shows and online, providing good customer service at merch tables and web stores, and bundling bonuses like download codes with CDs and tees.

Support music in schools with your vote, and with any other political activity you engage in!  The decline in music participation among students from lower-income families Krueger shows is terrible.  These kids are our future stars, collaborators, and listeners.

Along with music in schools, a progressive economic agenda – a strong minimum wage, universal health insurance, progressive taxation, and so on – both supports musicians directly, and creates more potential listeners with the leisure time and resources to enjoy music.  In a divided, unequal, “super star” economy, who are your listeners?  No one.  You’re scraping by, and the few with the means to support your music don’t give a damn about you.

Finally, be satiable.  We’re fortunate enough to have the instruments and free time to make music.  How many of our great-grandparents were so lucky?  If you want more – better gear, more sales, bigger shows, nicer studios – build it.  The world doesn’t owe us artistic success in those terms.  Let go of the illusion that this is a meritocracy; that might be nice, but it isn’t reality.  Learn the game and play it how you like – here comes the Buddhist in me – attachments to illusions will only cause you, and those around you, to suffer.

Performing a Body of Work

Steven Hyden wrote a piece at Grantland this week called “Is Phish A Great Band?”  Ultimately, though, it’s not about Phish.

Let’s say it’s 50 years in the future, and you’re trying to figure out how and why pop music has arrived at its present permutation. Let’s also say that recorded music still exists, but no longer as a product that artists attempt to sell. Like other forms of devalued currency, recordings have flooded the market to the point of virtual worthlessness. But music fans are still willing to pay to hear a version of a song that doesn’t exist yet, and will only ever exist once. Because of this economic development, bands spend a lot less time making albums and devote the majority of their energy to honing their live shows. Over time, people gradually stop talking about fixed versions of songs and begin evaluating bands on their ability to perform and refresh their body of work. This creates a new paradigm for how we talk about music — pop historians start rating the Dead over the Beatles as the best rock band ever. Music is perceived less like film and more like theater or sports — as a venue for live events that lose their essential appeal if they’re not viewed in the moment.

[Emphasis mine.]  This is the context in which Phish is already, and undoubtedly, a great band.

There are other bands currently operating at least halfway under this model, too.  The Stones have been doing it since the early ’80s, more or less successfully, until this latest tour.  Other jam bands, like Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic, have followed this path, too, but I think the “body of work” concept is applicable beyond the jam genre.  A band that can consistently create a fresh, present cathartic or insightful experience with an audience could consider this route, whether they play metal, soul, punk, country, or anything else.  Jazz and blues musicians have, for the most part, always worked this way; having the album version of a song be the definitive one is the exception.  Even with Miles Davis, with his classic LPs like Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, the groups he put together and the performances they gave rival the albums.

Pure pop musicians may have the toughest time transitioning to a “body of work” model.  Hits need to be performed faithfully, so keeping the hits fresh involves incorporating dance, stage shows, and other spectacles.  Remixing could work in small amounts, but I doubt it would work as a foundation for regularly reinvigorating performances; can you imagine Madonna going on a new remix tour every couple of years?

I’m not sure of the implications here for my own music.  I love making records, and the success of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories shows that there’s still some wider interest in albums.  Maybe Hyden’s story reminds us that the “body of work” path to success has never gone away; it may have receded a bit over the past 50 years, but is coming back as the web has devalued recordings.  Bands should consider it seriously.

A Lyric-Writing Technique I Discovered by Accident

Our lyrics for Mars Lights tend to be at least a bit abstract.  I still like to write the lyrics about something concrete, though, whether that’s a story, an image, or an extended metaphor.  With the latest batch of new songs, I’ve been using a little trick I first did by accident.  It may be obvious to you, or in retrospect, but it still might help.  I’ve been writing songs for years without  it, so maybe it’s not as conspicuous as it seems.

What I’ll do is write down the story, idea, or emotion I want the lyrics to be about in a plain phrase or two.  This focuses me on what I want the lyrics to achieve, whether that’s a bit of action in a story, or conveying a certain feeling.

For example, a couple of weeks ago I had a lyrical concept for a finished Mars Lights instrumental demo called “New Blooze.”  At the top of the page, I wrote:


solar flare apocalypse, like “99 Red Balloons”


That’s it!  Within an hour, the lyrics were pretty much written.  Here’s the first verse and chorus:

“Have A Corona”


I wouldn’t, I couldn’t modulate

I’d never, ever go all the way


Coming out of the sun, blue-shifted as I close in

Much fucking worse than bombs, back to annihilate

Your wave

I found a way in to the image that I liked, which was personifying the flare in the first-person.  So, rather than a lecture about existential risk, the song kind of opens up.  The story is there, but other interpretations are available, too; it could be a song about anger, using the flare as a metaphor instead of the main idea.  There are others, I’m sure.

I’m not sure why it works so well for me.  Maybe having the main idea down on paper frees my brain up to focus on the more poetic language needed for the final lyrics.  With the central point explicitly set out in front of me, it seems easier to dance around the edge of it, getting that somewhat abstract quality I like for Mars Lights without ending up with lyrics that are empty.

Will you try this technique?  How did it work for you?