Friday, July 29, 2005

And the Grammy for Best Metal Song goes to... Burger King


In another instance of music marketing genius for Burger King (think subservientchickent.com, the greasy-meat-slinging corporation has launched Coq Roq, a band-slash-marketing campaign that takes square aim at youth demographic, which is increasingly tuning out marketing and advertising as a whole.

You absolutely have to see the site for yourself. It's basically a straight rip-off of Slipknot in terms of imagery, and the sound is borrowed from pop punk and rock and roll to create accessible audio but edgy visuals. In the TV commercial, they make a derogatory reference to Insane Clown Posse, another band-via-marketing project. Not only is Coq Roq a fake band, but they fight with other fake bands!

The photo you see here had its risque caption changed shortly after launch, though BK denies it was due to any specific complaint. It's nothing that will offend your average American 12-year-old, but recent ridiculousness with Grand Theft Auto proves that our "family values" in regards to sex are still stuck somewhere in the Victorian period.

The real point is that BK has raised the bar for so-called 'subvertising' by a corporation. Normally, subvertising refers to a spoof of corporate marketing, but now corporate marketing is literally spoofing their audience. Just as culture jammers can alter "Enjoy Coca-Cola" to say "Enjoy Capitalism", so can Burger King alter "with the lights out / we're less dangerous / here we are now / entertain us" to say "one nation under chicken fries!"

I'm all torn up about this because while I have to admire the marketing genius, this kind of culture co-opting makes me sick to my stomach. Not just because Burger King chicken fries are disgusting and not really food so much as an excuse to separate you from your money, but also due to the relentlessness with which corporations feel the need to infiltrate the minds and bodies of the youth with worthless product.

Think about this: thanks to a massive TV and internet advertising campaign, more young people have heard Coq Roq than, say, Ornette Coleman, Iggy and the Stooges or Ani DiFranco, probably combined. Real music is getting marginalized by marketing. It's nothing short of tragic for creativity, but in the eyes of extreme capitalism, it's necessary.

Finally, read Mat Callahan's The Trouble With Music right now. Go get it this instant. If there was ever a book written with the best intentions of future musicians in mind, it is Callahan's illuminating, intelligent yet easily digested manifesto. In it, he clearly explains why so-called 'McMusic' is threatening to devalue the listening experience, which will in turn devalue music product, which isn't good for anyone, corporate and independent alike.

Here's how I would have marketed it: CoqSparrer.com, where a battle of the bands takes place in which 12 performances are videotaped at city venues across the US and streamed online. Users vote online for the best bands, and the winner gets to score the next BK commercial and get a serious licensing paycheck. That way you have regional buzz, you champion the artist, and you get to market to each musical demographic with a wider selection of artists. You break a band to the mainstream that would not normally have such exposure, and you know they're good because your audience says so. You don't risk alienating anyone with rock-and-roll groupie stereotypes, but it still has the edge of an illicit activity (cockfighting). In the music video, when a chicken is defeated, it magically turns into a pile of chicken fries that is bum rushed and eaten by a hungry audience.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Adaptive music: life is but a video game


Just finished reading 1UP.com's "Gaming Rhapsody", a great ode to video game music. As a huge video game music fan (I own the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack on 3-disc Japanese import and I've been listening non-stop to Stemage, the metal Metroid soundtrack cover band), it got me thinking about the blurred line between video game music and so-called 'real music'.

'Real music' has been featured in games for a few years now, most notably in the Grand Theft Auto and Tony Hawk series. This trend is not to be discounted, and licensing these tracks is big business, both in terms of fees and promotional opportunities. But these games are celebrations of pop culture and their score could be more accurately described as a 'jukebox' rather than a 'soundtrack'.

I'm talking about blips and bleeps and the composers who spearheaded the idea that a simple synthesizer unit could convey a world of emotion and a depth of feel that would compliment and even define the atmosphere of an interactive experience. Composers like Koji Kondo (Zelda, Mario Bros.), Yuzo Koshiro (Actraiser) and Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) proved that simple electronic tones could generate 'real music' capable of evoking emotion and creating a mood to compliment the game's visuals, just like a movie soundtrack.

Besides paying homage to the founding fathers of bleep, the 1UP.com article has some interesting sidebar profiles on current composers. In one of these profiles, sound developer Peter McConnell highlights some interesting contrasts between game music and 'real music':

"First, there are technical differences between games and other media. Music for games has to deal effectively with the fact that you never know what the player is going to do. This means taking into account that the player may be able to trigger different kinds of music depending on changes in the action or location in the game. But I think the biggest difference is creative freedom. In the games industry there seems to be, on the whole, more trust in the musician's vision for a score, than in other media industries."


Why the games industry offers more creative freedom than the music industry I can't say for sure. My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that music often is a tertiary focus for game developers next to visuals and playability. But the comment about how video game music is a dynamic soundtrack and must react to unpredictable decisions by the player is of utmost interest.

Many games still operate on the simple soundtrack idea of a repeating song looped in the background (Katamari Damacy is one such new game featuring one of the best, most diverse game soundtracks in a long time.) But many advanced games use what's sometimes referred to as 'adaptive audio', or software that changes the music based on the environmental context of the player's character. In other words, a player may hear a pastoral folk tune being played as she walks through a field, only to change to an ominous tremolo string quartet as enemies begin to approach.

So what do video game music and 'adaptive audio' have to do with the future of music? Everything. We live in a technological age where access to all music is feasible, that is, I could listen to any song I want at any time at any place provided I have the right access and equipment. As access becomes more universal and equipment becomes less expensive, one can reason that we will begin to see 'adaptive audio' for 'real music'.

Imagine strapping on your digital music device and going for a jog. A special software program on the device stores an array of songs and samples as well as a program that monitors your heart rate. As your heart beats faster, the software adapts the music to the situation, pumping out quicker tempos and more energetic tunes. As you slow to a walk, the music changes to cool you down with slower tempos and more relaxing tunes. This sort of context-based song shuffling represents the birth of a new way of listening to music, only enabled by advances in digital technology. The heart-rate responsive music technology is already being developed by companies such as VerveLife.

It is likely that as adaptive audio develops, its first applications will use a simple but specific user input (such as heart rate) to define the context in which the music adapts. Truly adaptive music, the type found in video games, is unlikely to be achieved in real life until everything has an RFID tag. At that point, your soundtrack is likely to be comprised of advertisements, though it's possible that certain environments could be set up for novelty listening purposes. A museum using adaptive audio could provide patrons with headphones that play appropriate music and commentary depending on which exhibit the listener was viewing.

Products such as MoodLogic are already hinting at adaptive music, putting songs in context by classifying them with metadata such as 'mood' and 'tempo'. Theoretically, one could come home from a bad day at work and click the 'Angry' button to start a playlist of music to match your mood. However, this still relies on the person telling the software what to do, as opposed to truly adaptive music in which the environment itself interacts with the software. We are a long way from having a computer know exactly what we want, and even further from the computer knowing what we want in the context of a particular environment.

Still, as the promise of a global jukebox grows ever closer, the focus of the music industry will be forced to shift from music ownership to listening experience. A large part of this shift will be adaptive audio, the roots of which are seen today in preference pattern browsing (Amazon) and mood-based browsing (MoodLogic, AllMusicGuide). Look for adaptive music to personalize the listening experience in much the same way that podcasting is personalizing music distribution.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Mastodon excavated from underground by Warner Brothers


I saw Mastodon on Monday night at The Chance in Poughkeepsie, NY, performing with Rob Zombie. Not being the biggest Zombie fan, I basically shelled out $38 bucks just to see Mastodon, who I believe lead the resurgence of commercially viable but utterly brutal niche metal with bands like Dillinger Escape Plan and Lamb of God.

I had the opportunity to speak briefly with [insanely talented] Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor about his band's recent signing to Warner Brothers. Dailor echoed the same reasonable sentiment I've heard from several bands after singing to majors: if the band has a strong fan base and has already done all they can on an independent label (Relapse) to market their music, why not take a shot at a larger audience and paycheck?

This clip from a Mastodon interview at SchwegWeb says it all:

SchwegWeb: When Mastodon recently signed to Warner Brothers [were] there any musical control issues...
Bill Kelliher (guitarist, Mastodon): "...stipulation-wise, we want to do our own thing. We pretty much said don’t fuck with our sound, our art and they were like no that’s great you guys already have a great fan base, you guys already have awesome art work, you guys do your own videos for under $20,000. They love it. It has to be that way. With Relapse it was kinda like we just recorded our record and they put it out, it was cool. We made it very clear to Warner Brothers that we are not a radio band, were not making hits were just writing the music we like for our selves. There’s a fan base and were cool with that. Were not trying to deal with the fuckin radio and all that shit. Were just making music for ourselves."


Fact is, Mastodon deserve to be rock stars because they already are. They create immaculate music with amazing packaging, production and presentation. They have rocked the right tours, made the right business decisions and connections. Later in the interview, Kelliher makes an analogy about the major label singing as an equivalent to "getting a raise" in one's music career. Mastodon have well earned their raise.

These days, major labels are concentrating more on established independent artists rather than trying to manufacture genre knock-offs. But for all the success stories, it's important to remember why major labels sign bands: to make lots of money. Not just a little money, like, say, fifty grand (which could provide one musician a great year's salary or a band a good supplemental income) but more like five hundred grand, in the first week of sale. The 95% of bands that they don't cash in on... well, you've seen the bargain bin.

The insane corporate business tactics of major labels have been well publicized in well-executed exposes by Steve Albini and Moses Avalon. It's true that the current collapse of the recording industry has humbled labels a bit. But they're still out to make millions on a relatively obsolete business model.

As bands move more towards new business strategies (interactive media, online communities, podcasting) and back to old standards (live performance, merchandising and "pass-the-hat" gratuity), the majors will be further forced into a more rigid position on the music industry food chain. Less bands will be discovered and more bands will be "promoted" from the independent music industry.

It's a complex situation that can't be done total justice in a blog entry; suffice to say Mastodon will be an interesting band to watch as they transition to the big time. Independent bands should follow Mastodon's example and pay their dues both creatively and in a business sense as well. We need to dispel of the 'rock star' myth wherein the only respectable music career in on a major label. For every band that makes the cut, there are twenty bands that have rolled in dough until the advance runs out and failed to recoup even a quarter of their expenses.

I guess what I'm getting at is that there will always be a place for major labels and rock stars. But we need to do everything we can to dismantle the old music industry so that the independent and unsigned artists can operate on an even playing field with the media conglomerates. This means supporting artists' rights organizations such as Downhill Battle to ensure that you don't have to sell 200,000 albums to have a legitimate music career.

200,000 albums sold on a major: $200,000 to the artist (actually $0 if the band fails to recoup the advance and recording/marketing budget). 20,000 albums sold by a band that recorded and promoted it themselves: $200,000 (the band needs only recoup their personal investment of time and resources.) Are you a rock star or a realist? You gotta dream big, but you also gotta sell the dream. Bands seem to turn out better when they introduce the major label to the market, not the other way around.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

MySpace is now Fox's space


How much is America's largest online convergence of youth culture worth? To Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp., (parent company of the Fox media empire) the figure is around $580 million. MySpace's parent company, Intermix, will acquire the remaining shares of MySpace that they didn't own. Then News Corp. makes its purchase, and now MySpace will be part of Fox Interactive Media.

All the press I've seen on the deal focuses on MySpace's #6 ranking in internet traffic polls, 200,000 registered bands and over 16 million registered users. And while the reports have mentioned that Murdoch's decision to purchase was to "appeal to young people who are watching less television and reading fewer newspapers," the mainstream media is missing the massive ramifications of this half-billion dollar deal.

This acquisition is about much more than money and site traffic. MySpace is the first widely successful online social network, rocketing past Friendster and Ryze with a four-digit growth percentage. All this in spite of the fact that MySpace does no marketing or advertising and creates none of its own content.

Many people are under the illusion that clicking on animated graphics and filling out online polls constitutes interactive media. But truly interactive media is not one-sided, it is based on the interaction between two entities, ultimately two people. And that's why MySpace is important as a forerunner of interactive online communities. The content consists of the interactions between the various registered users. The comments, pictures and lists of favorite movies are simply metadata for each individual person.

Marshal McLuhan's famous phrase, "the medium is the message" is modified by the emergence of social networking communities. Now, "the individual is the medium and the message".

It has been suggested that the deal will be a rip-off for Fox unless MySpace's CEO Chris DeWolfe and president Tom Anderson can use their social networking knowhow to recussitate the withered tentactles of Fox Interactive Media (specifically their News, Entertainment and Sports identities). Though I find this idea hard to fathom, it does gives way to the larger question of whether a dinosaur media company understands what they're doing with a two-year old internet phenomenon. Napster comes to mind.

Honestly, I could give a crap if Fox makes half a billion or loses it all. New methods of social networking will develop, possibly alongside MySpace and possibly independent of it. I'm more concerned about Fox having detailed personal profiles on millions of consumers. The main content of MySpace is essentially a database of detailed consumer autobiographies. Fox now knows about everything we watch, see, hear and create. In this way, MySpace is like a focus group in front of a two-way mirror. Users are bearing their souls to their peers, generally unaware that there are is a corporation monitoring their conversation.

Media conglomerates have historically made their money by manufacturing content and distributing it in a top-down model to consumers. In interactive media and social networking, however, the audience does its own content creation and marketing. All the media conglomerate has to do is sit back and collect the advertising revenue. The corporation need only to drop products into the network and watch as the youth market reacts with their MySpace accounts and their wallets.

This is not to say that MySpace will necessarily go to hell; the extra revenue will certainly help improve the system as long as corporate bureaucracy is kept at bay. It ain't broke and they'd be fools to try and fix it. We can look forward to new opportunities in expression and communication, but it is utlimately the audience that generates the content, and the audience will decide for itself where to do its social networking. Online, the audience is always one step ahead of the industry. Fox can change MySpace, but they can't change the audience. And the audience is MySpace.

Monday, July 18, 2005

All the world is a garage

Simple equation: GarageBand + GarageBand.com = new independent music industry.

Though in the end these two like-named brands may not dominate the independent music industry, they both represent the current cutting edge of a new era of artistic freedom. Those who are worried about how artists will receive income from these services are missing the point. These services are a means to an end; they seek to decrease the overhead costs and simplify the processes of record production (GarageBand) and radio broadcasting (GarageBand.com).

While these services do not directly generate revenue, they allow the artist to be their own engineer and radio publicist. If contracted under a traditional record label agreement, the band would have to recoup thousands of dollars in album sales to pay for the studio and publicity services.

The independent record labels don't loose out either, because easy-to-use multi-tracking software is spawning a new generation of recording artists. Sure, a lot of them will be singing off-key about an ex-girlfriend to a drum machine, but the talent pool will also grow larger. One can imagine artists being signed on the strength of their GarageBand demo. In terms of podcasting, indie labels have a new and powerful way to distribute music directly to the influential fans that spread their fanaticism to peers.

There are still huge kinks in the system. Any amateur-engineered recording on GarageBand would make a ProTools veteran tear his ears off. And the program isn't free; if you add the cost of a Mac computer, GarageBand is very far from free. Then again, a 21st century musician without a computer is like a 20th century musician without a hat to pass around.

Podcasting is still in its infancy and will spend the rest of the year trying to find itself. As with peer-to-peer networks and other new music mediums, there is a significant learning curve for the newbie. The vast libraries of podcasting directories are similar to the mountains of awful music once piled on MP3.com with no intuitive filter. Social networking portals such as MySpace Music currently offer the best solution for music promotion: let your fans do the work. This is the same thinking behind podcasting: let the fans be the DJs. The convergence of social networking and podcasting will catalyze and define the new independent music industry.

This is why GarageBand.com has the edge on podcasting. While Apple's million-plus podcasting subscription base and omnipresent product recognition are not to be discounted, their only true social network is a brand-worshipping sub-culture of consumers who do not represent the greater community of independent artists.

Garageband.com, however, has a community of millions of musicians that continued to grow over the last five years despite chaotic changes in digital music. The GarageBand.com model of participation -- where bands only get to upload music once they've provided in-depth reviews on several of their peers -- guarantees a rich, unique community experience that is unavailable at any other site. If GarageBand.com can establish itself as a podcasting leader, independent music fans will rush to join the artists they love to create an entirely new type of listening experience.

That is, until the MySpace podcast studio.