Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gradual Relief

I haven't written much about what has been going on in my personal life, since quite frankly things haven't been a party lately with work, my family, a brief return visit from Chuck last Friday, and the never-ending pressure to keep some money set aside for what I hope to be a new used car sometime in the first half of next year. However, one of the bright spots to the last few weeks has been the continuing easing of the prices at the gas pump to a point I actually thought we might not see again. While doing some finances and updating of the bank account tonight, I created a list of my last few visits to the gas pump and the totals accrued each time (and keep in mind that I only get gas when I'm nearing empty and I always get a full tank):

September 17: $58.01 (my highest gas reciept of the year, after 4 months in 54-57 range)
October 1: $51.51
October 14: $44.00
October 28: $36.00
November 14: $28.25
November 24
: $26.50

Monday, November 24, 2008

Universal To Charge For Viewing Online Music Video?

While perusing headlines on Billboard.com earlier this morning after a cleaning appointment with my dentist, I came across an interview with Interscope Records chairman Jimmy Iovine earlier, mostly concerning the decisions made to delay some of the label's biggest expected fourth quarter hit albums into 2009 (as if the music industry needed any more woes).

Other topics were briefly touched on as well, including the increasing trend of major labels/acts offering their new releases exclusively to such big boxes as Wal-Mart and Best Buy, and this interesting little nugget:

I've always felt, and this is just in general, that there's an oil well for the record industry in their music videos, and so does Doug Morris. Universal Music Group had 3 billion views on YouTube and we are so underpaid for those videos. Now, we'll set up an infrastructure, and Doug's in charge of this. We'll make a deal where we really see the value. We have the most perfect content for the Internet. People love to watch them and they watch them over and over again. If Saturday Night Live gets 100,000 views on the Internet, they throw a party. Soulja Boy, on his site alone, got 500 million! It's nuts. The Lady GaGa video has 25 million views.

This is all going to be turned back toward the labels. That value has to be achieved.

Sooo help me out, here: does Iovine honestly think Soulja Boy would have had 500 million views if he charged, say, a buck a view for his video clip? How about Lady GaGa? Or how about those 3 billion views for Universal artists on Youtube? Am I over-reacting or is this the absolute nuttiest thing I have heard from the music industry this year?

Jesus, you guys can't even do catalog reissues right anymore without somebody fucking something up and now you want to start charging people to watch promotional videos that were made exclusively to sell your records and mp3s?

Sorry, MTV, looks like your cool new venture might crash before it ever achieves full flight.

Catching Up With Rex

Last night, 60 Minutes did a follow-up report on a blind, disabled kid named Rex Lewis-Clack, who has an absolutely incredible gift for music. I watched this report with the sound off while we were at Outback Steakhouse with my brother and my niece and, my curiosity piqued, decided to hunt it down online this afternoon.

If you haven't seen this segment (and have fifteen minutes to kill), you might it very worth your while. On one level, it's a fascinating (and moving) human story, while on another it raises all kinds of interesting questions regarding the apparent connection between blindness, mental disability, and prodigious musical talent.

I think what I find most fascinating about cases like Rex and Rachel Flowers is that we all have the same minds, more or less, and yet it seems that when "higher" functions are lost (or never gained) in a small group of people, an amazing, brilliant part of the brain that the rest of us never access is magically unlocked. Watching Rex and Rachel play, it's impossible not to feel the awesome, still untapped potential of the human mind.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Comedy Of Errors Continues

It's bad enough for the music industry's long-term health (assuming such a concept still exists) that an ever-decreasing number of people are buying CDs in ever-decreasing amounts, but when record companies seemingly go out of their way to piss off the remaining people who are still actually paying for physical product, you have to wonder sometimes at the point of it all.

The breaking New Order reissue debacle is only the latest in a series of self-inflicted PR black-eyes suffered by what's left of the Big Four distributors over the last few years. What is particularly disturbing in this instance is that the company at fault here is the once-mighty Rhino Records, who were at one time considered the best reissue label on the planet, with a reputation for sonic and packaging excellence recognized by consumers and retailers alike. Granted, the brain trust that made the label great has long since bolted the coop, but for this same label to not only release such a shoddily-created product with no input whatsoever from the band itself is one thing, but to then go ahead and release it in the United States (despite numerous complaints had already surfaced overseas) and then not even acknowledge that there is any problem until most die-hard fans have already impatiently snapped up their copies is simply inexcusable. In effect, what we have here is yet another example of labels seeking to squeeze maximum profits wherever possible while whittling down manpower and tossing previously trumpeted standards of quality and worksmanship right out the window.

It's bad enough that we're being conditioned as a society to accept slapdash plastic doo-dads rushed to market to meet quarterly expectations for their parent multinationals (how often do we pick up buggy cell phones and video game systems that don't always work correctly and accept this crap in order to be among the first to own them), but now this cynical attitude is spreading to "deluxe" reissues of 25 year old records, as well. With catalog departments being systematically pared down to skeleton crews, the job of researching and remastering old recordings has become far more of a major undertaking than it was in headier times, and time-saving shortcuts such as using sub-par quality LP-pressing masters or even vinyl records themselves as source material have become a more common practice as of late, particularly in Europe.

Another victim of this new corporate reality is the hatchet job done by EMI on the Pink Floyd box set Oh, By The Way last Christmas. What was already shaky idea to begin with ("Hey, let's put every Pink Floyd CD ever made -- not including any live albums, bonus tracks, singles or non-album cuts -- into a super-expensive, but cheaply made cardboard box and then market it to people who already own all the albums!"), was made far worse when thousands of irritated customers began reporting mis-printed CDs ("Hey! Why does Wish You Were Here suddenly sound exactly like Obscured By Clouds?"), doubled-up CDs ("Hey! I have two copies of Ummagumma, Disc 1!") , or even completely-wrong pressings ("Hey! This isn't Pink Floyd at all!"). For a list price of $299.99, you might think that some level of quality control was observed somewhere along the production line, but apparently even that is too much to expect these days. Silly us.

Perhaps the worst industry practice that is making even hardened music dorks such as I think twice about plunking down money for new CDs is the ongoing race to create the loudest, most unlistenable CDs possible. There was an infamous quote in Rolling Stone magazine a couple of years ago from no less than Bob Dylan that summed up the state of the art in music in no uncertain terms: "(modern albums) have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static."

While it's certainly debatable at what point the loudness wars started in the 1990s, it was The Beatles who initially set the bar for increased volume in 1986 when their early catalog appeared on CD for the first time, with all of their discs mastered nearly twice as loud as any other rock titles on the market.

It took a few years for modern rock to catch on, but it started to happen around 1992-1994, when albums by Metallica, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, and Alice In Chains seemed to leap forth from speakers with real, tangible ferocity, especially when compared to the rest of the market at the time. Of course, many of their competitors (or the heads of their labels) heard these records and then asked their producers and engineers why they couldn't make records that sounded just as loud (if not more so) as Metallica, In Utero, The Downward Spiral, Core, or Dirt did, and the race was on.

It was also right around this time that the first "remastered" CDs started to appear in record stores. The argument for the existence of these refurbished albums was that either a.) many CDs of older albums were initially rushed to market in the mid 1980s with little regard to making sure that the original master tapes had been sourced for optimum sound quality (hmm, sound familiar?) or b.) advances in sound reproduction technology since 1983 had made it possible for CDs to sound even "better" than before as a "warmer," more analog-feeling ambience of sound was now becoming possible.

I would be remiss not to mention that the real point to this wave of upgraded classics was, of course, to force die-hard fans to buy their favorite CDs all over again (which some maintain was the true reason for all of this in the first place). Now, it would have been fine and dandy to remaster these older albums once and then let the upgraded, "corrected" copies stand at that, but some records have been now been reissued and remastered multiple times, with differences in sonic quality and mastering on each different iteration. This practice certainly gives credence to those who feel that all of this is just a way to part fools from their money one more time, especially as these same records get progressively shittier sounding with every new appearance on the market.

I had been aware of this loudness war for years, especially since I used to make mix tapes for myself and my friends constantly, and learned early on what recording levels certain CDs from which time periods or musical genres needed to be set at for the best sound quality (and smoothest listening experience) on a finished TDK SA-90 cassette. My frustration with wildly varying levels of output (try making a full-career hits mix tape sourced from old and new Bruce Springsteen CDs to get an idea of where I'm coming from) had me solidly in the "remaster everything!" corner for years, and the first instance where I can recall a new record being "brick-walled" to the point of distraction was Oasis' 1997 release Be Here Now: though I wrote off a lot of my displeasure with that record at the time as being subpar writing and mixing more than anything else. After all, this was the same summer that Radiohead's similarly-mastered classic O.K. Computer had taken over the world, and that record was just great, thank you very much.

My first real animosity against this practice of level compression and peak-limiting came along five years later, when Rush released their absolutely unlistenable reunion album Vapor Trails. After years of earth-shaking build up from sundry rock and pop acts across the spectrum, here at last was a record that was so invasively and unbelievably shrill that it wasn't so much a "listening experience" as a buzz saw to the forehead.

These days, CDs with no dynamic range whatsoever are commonplace, especially at the major label level (indies either can't afford the software, or somehow just know better). Some of the blame is certainly attainable to the race to be as loud as the competition, yet other factors like a sea change in listening habits amongst music buyers away from expensive rack stereo systems and towards iPods, cell phones, and tiny PC speakers also have done their part to alter the way music is presented. While many consumers don't really seem to care that they no longer need volume knobs on their car stereos, enough have banded together in online communities that a whole secondary market of people actively searching out, say, older editions of Led Zeppelin and Genesis CDs has emerged in the underground, claiming that these CDs were actually done right the first time around and have only been marred by any remastering done since the mid-late 1980s. Even younger music fans have noticed recently how much better the video game version of Metallica's Death Magnetic sounds than the actual CD (a graphical comparison can be seen here).

Perhaps the most darkly amusing (nevermind ironic) side effect of these shenanigans is that a new generation of music buyers have embraced the once-comatose format of vinyl LP records as a superior alternative to compact discs. Once they realized what was happening, labels cynically began cashing in: even going so far as to issue record bags emblazoned with their laughable new catch phrase "because sound matters."

The best part? Out of this vinyl resurgence comes a new ridiculous extreme embodied by the bonus CD packaged with vinyl copies of Lindsey Buckingham's new album Gift Of Screws. Now, the idea of throwing in a "bonus" CD copy of a release with the vinyl LP is a nice idea, sure, but the sticker on this album proudly proclaims:



What the hell? I've heard many times before the old argument that vinyl sounds better than CD, but this is something new. If I am reading this correctly, Warner Bros, Records is now implictly admitting that modern mass-marketed CDs sound like dog shit. Even if you think this reaction is over the line, doesn't the very existence of a specialized "audiophile" pressing (available only when you buy the vinyl copy, no less! ha ha!) make you wonder what the hell the regular version is supposed to be?

One funny thing about modern "brick-walled" CDs: they make average bit rate-quality mp3s sound even worse than they already do (as if that were possible). We used to joke at work that the sudden leap in CD volume across the board in the last decade was actually a deliberate and subtle sabotaging of the mp3 format by the major labels, but in light of recent events, it appears that is giving the suits far too much credit.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

(Youtube): Ah L'amour

Submitted for your approval: a vicious, dispirited, disturbed, and absolutely hilarious piece of stick figure animation for the perpetually lovelorn (or cynical):

Thanks for the heads up, Keith. :-)

All Palin'd Out

You know, it has been (and continues to be) my belief that we have not seen the last of this woman, but is there really going to be a Sarah Palin story in the news every day for the next four freaking years?

Is it just me or have we not missed a day since November 5 without some kind of article about the ex-VP candidate appearing in the news?


November 6:

November 7:

November 8:

November 9:

November 10:

November 11:

November 12:





Not to be silly, but I almost feel like I need to double check with everyone: Barack Obama did win this election, right? Sometimes it sure doesn't feel like it.

The way things are going, we'll soon be seeing headlines like these in our near future:


November 28:

December 25:


January 1:

Come on, "mainstream liberal" media! Enough, already!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Chill Of An Early Winter

Willowick, Ohio. Today. 3:00 PM.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Mission Accomplished

I started this blog almost exactly four years ago in a fit of righteous anger over the results of the last presidential election, but I couldn't feel more differently now as I sit here tonight banging out a few semi-drunk thoughts into the ether at half past three in the morning, buzzing with excitement and satisfaction in the afterglow of the biggest presidential election in 48 years.

This is truly a moment for the history books: for the first time in its 240 year history, The United States Of America has elected a black president. This is an event I never thought I would never see in my lifetime, and I admit wondering to myself over the last few weeks if this country really had the stomach to go out and vote for the change it so clearly wanted, especially in the aftermath of some of the slimiest shadowy campaign stunts in the modern political era. Make no mistake: racism is still a blight on America that may be generations (if ever) away from disappearing for good, yet in the end, Barack Obama prevailed.

The issues facing our President-Elect over the next four years are some of the most formidable this country has faced in nearly a century. That Obama will take on these problems while contending with a jittery, sharply divided electorate and an economy teetering on the brink of collapse certainly isn't going to make his job any easier, yet I sense he is truly up for the challenge. The lack of experience cited by Obama's opponent John McCain during the campaign is a true concern, and I hope that with some careful administrative selection and a true willingness to reach across the ideological divide and create some kind of lasting, centrist unity, that some kind of headway can be forged.

As for the Republican Party (particularly "the base"): welcome to what the Left felt like in 2004. In this case, however, the race wasn't stolen from you, though I'm sure some of you will convince yourselves otherwise. Go ahead and blame Obama, ACORN, and MSNBC (not to mention the rest of the so-called "mainstream media"), but eventually you'll have to look in the mirror and realize that this time the fault rests squarely with you and your candidate.

As much as I admired McCain's concession speech last night, he was fully right to shoulder the blame for his failure to win the White House. Where was this guy over the last 10 months? I believe McCain might have made a good president, but in his desire to win the prize, he let his campaign be hijacked by the same mindset that brought the incumbent President to power. Thus, McCain found it near-impossible to dodge accusations of being a clone of George W. Bush, especially when he found himself bending over backwards to rally his skeptical base instead of trying to win over anyone to the left of, say, Jean Schmidt.

Here's the funny thing: as much as they openly revile the evil "mainstream media," the Republican Party used them relentlessly throughout the campaign, cumulatively branding Obama as an inexperienced, unpatriotic, racist Socialist Muslim of indeterminate origin. All of the networks, even the hated MSNBC (the anti-Fox News, if you will) gave plenty to airtime to discussing every insult, attack, accusation and insinuation the Right could manufacture. Only this time, instead of ignoring the attacks as they had in 2004, the Democrats actually fought back, which seemed to catch the Right off guard. While Obama relentlessly stuck to his message, McCain seemed to switch tactics on a weekly basis.

The man who conceded the race last night was a man I liked: he came off as humble, decent, intelligent, contrite ... a leader. Pity he let himself be managed by a bunch of second generation Lee Atwaters. Rather than seriously reaching out to the Left, McCain's campaign pandered to the worst elements of human nature (primarily Hate and Fear of The Other), which alone made any speech given by Obama feel like a warm ray of sunshine in comparison. If McCain had made his run as the person he was in 2000, he might very well have been the guy doing the victory speeches last night instead of Barack Obama. Instead, Rick Davis and Team McCain opted to run this campaign focusing on personalities (and the differences in such between the candidates) rather than issues, and in the end they got steamrolled. Lesson learned? I guess we'll see in a few years ...

Further Proof That Your Vote Always Counts

Wow. According to CNN, the margin for Obama's victory in Lake County, Ohio last night was 125 votes. One hundred and twenty five.

Obama: 52,556
McCain: 52,431

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Brokers With Hands On Their Faces Blog

Have you ever noticed while reading news that after any day that is even moderately shitty on Wall Street, you will always see a photo of some poor trader looking like he needs a couple Excedrins? Well, this guy has, and with events in the world's financial markets being as dire as they've been recently, a great idea for a new photoblog was born.

Saturday, November 01, 2008