31 October 2008

Attack of the Crohn's

For about a week, I've felt incrementally more miserable to the point that Tuesday night (28 October), I realized that I felt comparable to how I felt back in April.  [For the unintiated, I was hospitalized for five days with a bowel obstruction in the middle of that month.]  My wife, upon hearing this, insisted that I be checked out; I eventually did.  I said I knew what the problem was, and that the solution was to get back on Prednisone.  I happen to have a supply of it remaining from this summer that is still good to take.

The next day, after she and her employers (she works at an urgent care center) insisted that I needed to be checked out, I relented and let her take me to be examined.  We paid out of pocket (with a check to be cashed later, 'cause, you know, we're broke) and had a series of X-rays taken of my abdomen.  The doctors for whom she works took a look and determined immediately that I had some bowel loops formed and the beginnings of another obstruction.  So far, so good--I had pretty well determined based on how I felt that that was the case.  Then I was admitted back to Norton Suburban, and stood little more than 15 feet from my wife's boss as he spoke with the physician through whom they admit patients.  He described exactly what was going on with me, and my need for steroids and antibiotics; we left and expected to arrive to a planned course of treatment consistent with what I just described.

We were in the room by 5:30 PM, and no physician saw me until 9:00 that night.  This was not the admitting physician, but rather a second shift lackey who took one look at the X-rays we brought with us (then less than six hours old) and said they looked "perfect" to him; that just because I have Crohn's did not mean my current woes were related to my condition and that it may be gastroenteritis since that had been going around.  Did he test me for this theory?  Well, he ordered some lab work done on my blood, but the only real way to know what's going on in the guts is with imaging.  He wrote orders for X-rays, and depending on the outcome of those, a CT scan.  My X-rays were still current and as an out-of-pocket patient, I had no desire to pad their radiologist's pockets, or to expose myself to unnecessary radiation.  A woman arrived to take me to radiology; I explained that it was superfluous and that I would not go for X-rays I didn't need.  At this point, the lackey doctor canceled the CT  (the only useful test I could have taken) and deferred my case to someone in the GI department the following morning.

7:00 AM brought me a visitor--not someone from GI, but a surgeon who--surprise!--thinks I need to let him cut on me.  Leave it to a surgeon to look at a traffic jam and decide to fix it by rebuilding the road.  He specifically said that the admitting physician called him in on my case.  That's funny, because her only information on me was either what my wife's boss told her on the phone--which everyone denied she ever relayed to anyone else--or what her lackey told her.  If she was acting on the former information, then I want to know why a lackey had the authority to dismiss everyone else's understanding of my situation and withhold any further testing--to say nothing of treatment.  If she was acting on the lackey's perspective, then I want to know why she would call in a surgeon if her man on the ground says I'm fine.  The truth is, she likely called in the surgeon when she was originally called and planned to get him in on the action regardless of whether I needed surgery.  In any event, when I explained that I know enough about my condition and surgery's role relating thereto that I know surgery begets more surgery and would only consent to it if absolutely mandatory, he left, disappointed.  I suppose his portfolio hasn't gone well lately and he was hoping to generate some income by cutting on the Crohnie.

By 9:30, a GI doc finally arrived.  She heard my story to that point, took one look at my X-rays (you know, the ones the lackey said looked "perfect") and her eyes bugged out.  I was drinking contrast for a CT scan within a half hour; by 1:00 she had ordered the steroids I said I needed all along.  I had two bowel movements before I even had the CT.  I had my first shot of steroids at 4:00 and a second at midnight, by which time I'd had a third bowel movement.  Sometime that night, the lackey returned and attempted to cover his tracks by explaining why he did not want to test me without knowing if I could handle being tested (referring to the effect of ingesting the contrast).  This is lame, because the bloodwork he ordered was to determine that I could handle it; certainly there were no red flags in those labs because that's all the GI doc had to go on the next morning when she ordered the CT.  He agreed this time with me, though, that everything appeared fine and that I should be able to graduate from a clear liquid diet to a low residue diet and plan on leaving the next day.  Great.

The nurse came in shortly thereafter to explain that the GI had overruled the lackey's ideas and I was restricted to a clear liquid diet until morning.  By now, I've had more than enough of doctors ignoring what I have to say about my own condition and deferring to one another.  It's like asking your mom about something and she says to ask your dad; you do, and he says to ask her.  At some point you get fed up and shout, "I can't give myself permission, so would one of you grow a spine and exercise your authority?"  Finally, this afternoon (Halloween), the GI returned.  She insists that no one contacted her about increasing my dietary intake, and that it would have been her on-call doctor who elected, as had others the previous night, to take no action and leave me in the hands of someone else to deal with later.  She gave in, though, and conceeded that I seemed to be fine, wrote me a prescription for Prednisone and discharged me--pending the approval of the medical doctor (chiefly represented by the lackey).

My wife pointed out that the lackey had said the night before that he was content to defer entirely to the GI; the GI insisted she was "just a specialist advisor" and that he--or at least someone in his group--had the final say.  Again, we're back to doctors yielding authority to other doctors.  Eventually, though, the whole thing was resolved and I was allowed to leave.  It's funny, because I started Tuesday saying I needed Prednisone and by Friday I had a prescription for...Prednisone.

The entire debacle was a microcosm of the American health system.  Doctors say they want patients to be involved in their health care, but the truth is that doctors like people who don't question them.  After all, they spent a lot of time and money to wear that white coat, and it means they're above reproach.  "Maybe you're the one living with this chronic disorder, but you don't get to tell us what's going on."  Doctors do, however, look out for one another.  That's why surgeons are called in by doctors who have no compelling medical reason to call them, and that's why on-call doctors are the equivalent of tech support.  You don't even have to know about computers to work tech support; you just have to know how to read the pre-written cue sheet, and I think it's even less demanding to be an on-call doctor because you never have to actually get involved at all.  Instead, you simply say that you're unwilling to alter the course of treatment or order tests, regardless of whether or not the course of treatment even exists or is effective, or whether tests are clearly necessary to treat the patient.

During my stay, I watched Barack Obama's half-hour long infomercial.  I had been working on finishing Plato's The Republic, which had cast some doubt on his candidacy for me.  Then I watched and listened as Senator Obama reminded me that he feels the American health system does not do enough to take care of patients, and I was vicariously reminded that John McCain--whom I, at one time, sincerely trusted would oppose a lot of the things I have described in my own recent experience--has taken the opposite tack on health care.

Will Obama improve our health care?  I don't know that he can or will, but I do know that he says he wants to try.  So, too, does Senator McCain, but his proposed way of improving the health care system is to emphasize the heartless, money-grubbing side of it.  Will a vote for Barack Obama mean not having to fend off a surgeon peddling a procedure that does not guarantee an improvement in one's health?  I can't say that it will, any more than I can say that having 10 cm of my intestines cut out will make me feel better.  What I can say, though, is that I do believe that we have to let Obama try to improve things.  We often content ourselves, saying that America is the greatest land on Earth.  While this may be true, I think we continue to sell ourselves short by not striving to always make it better.

28 October 2008

Everything You Need to Know About Socialism You Learned from Baseball

In an article for Forbes in 2006, Tom Van Riper noted that "Two-thirds of baseball's 30 clubs lose money....The solution is to centralize the operation, and share all sources of revenue equally among the clubs.  Socialist?  Sure."  Van Riper notes that Major League Baseball is really more "one business with 30 locations, not 30 different businesses."  He makes a good point, and economists are already wanting to stop me before I go any further and emphasize why this is a poor example to use for society at large.  Which, really, would only lend credence to my thesis which is that money people obsess too much over the fine letter of what the law says they can do to accumulate money, and far too little on the human aspect of what their actions do.  For the purpose of this blog, all analogies and examples will be drawn from Major League Baseball.

Let's suppose that MLB did not operate as a centralized organization, but rather a confederation of thirty ballclubs.  There would be absolutely nothing aside from an owner's own limitations to prevent an owner to take two courses of action, both of which have been taken.  The first is to maximize his own profits by pocketing as much cash as possible.  This means not signing players who command big salaries and the major consequence of this is that it is improbable, if not impossible, for the organization to stay healthy and competitive.  The second is to pour seemingly endless money into the organization which, if done intelligently, ought to net the organization as many talented players as there are roster spots.  The chief consequence of this is that this team will dominate to the point of discouraging other teams and their fans.

The first problem owner is exemplified by Carl Pohlad, owner of the Minnesota Twins.  Pohlad "got his start in the banking business by foreclosing farms during the Great Depression" according to his Wikipedia profile.  Whatever system Pohlad developed to put himself first during that time, and to block out the effect his job had on human beings has stayed with him because this is a guy who continues to own the Twins while simultaneously putting as little into them as he can get away with.  The Twins's 2008 payroll was ranked 25th of the 30 MLB teams, outspending the Washington Nationals by $2 million.  In 1997, Pohlad arranged the sale of the Twins but the deal fell apart when the residents in North Carolina voted not to help fund a facility to host the team.  When MLB toyed with the idea of contraction in 2000, Pohlad offered up the Twins despite the fact that somehow, some way, the team had become competitive within its division.

The second problem owner is exemplified by George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees.  Steinbrenner made his fortune in the shipping business, but always wanted to be involved with sports.  His obsession with winning, in tandem with what is likely an inferiority complex, has often made sports news.  Sometimes these stories concerned championship victories; often, they revolved around his explosions with his own managers and players when he felt their performance jeopardized the prospect of winning.  Either way, especially in the Joe Torre Era (1996-2007, when Torre managed the Yankees), the team's high payroll and postseason success (they reached the postseason every year, and won four World Series, three of them in succession) came to be characterized as baseball's "Evil Empire."

Winning has long been associated with making money, and most owners were caught between Pohlad and Steinbrenner; they needed to operate profitably, but they wanted to win.  MLB came to realize that the disparity amongst the teams was not good for the sport.  Even as Yankee Stadium reached its seating capacity with regularity, other teams failed to even reach half of theirs--and few ballparks could accomodate the size of a Yankee Stadium crowd in the first place.  In their final seasons, the Montreal Expos regularly drew 6,000 fans--less than a Triple-A Minor League Baseball game.  Their attendance was so bad that the Expos actually scheduled several games to be played in Puerto Rico during the regular season!  Clearly, something had to be done.  What did MLB do?  It bought the team.

For two seasons, until a new ownership could be found, the other 29 team owners collectively controlled the Montreal Expos.  Common economic theory would have demanded that the Expos simply collapse and the rest of the league continue, minus one competitor.  If your local Saturn dealership fails, the Ford and Dodge dealerships don't take over operating it until a new ownership can be found; why should baseball have done it?  There are two answers.  First, the Major League Baseball Player's Association would never have allowed that many players to lose their job opportunities.  The union would have resorted to any tactic at its disposal--including a dreaded strike--to ensure that ownership find a solution to keep the players employed.  The other reason that MLB owners kept the Expos going was that competition is good for the sport.

If competition were not good for the sport, the Yankees would not have been considered public enemy number one.  Fans regularly complained that they could write off their team's chances before the season even started in April.  Whether the 29 owners saw the sustaining of the Expos in their interest or not, give the Office of the Commissioner credit for seeing it.  The Expos have since moved to Washington, D.C., been renamed the Washington Nationals and just opened a beautiful, brand new ballpark.  They have not as yet had a winning season, but they have at times forced the rest of the National League East to earn its victories.

MLB's solution to the disparity was to adopt a policy that had bolstered the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL): revenue sharing.  Teams whose income reached an established level were taxed; this money went directly to the teams whose income failed to reach an established level.  Is it fair for an owner like Steinbrenner, who has dedicated his fortune and energy to fielding a competitive team, to line the pockets of an owner like Pohlad, who has starved his team?  Of course not, but not all owners operating low-revenue teams are as stingy as Pohlad.  Other factors beside greed prevent some owners from boasting Yankee payrolls, including the impact of their other business ventures, attendance levels and their ability to generate advertising sales (which is, in turn, related to market size, attendance levels and the team's national recognition, which is, in turn, related to its ability to compete).

When Ryan Howard appears in a Subway commercial, it not only means that Subway considers Philadelphia Phillies fans a large enough demographic to court, but that they expect the general public will recognize Howard.  This, in turn, means that the Phillies are in a position to say "Look at us!  We're one of the big guys--we've got a marquee player in a national ad."  Just as winning draws fans to the ballpark, so too does reaching that top tier of national exposure bring other businesses' attention.  If Subway will bank on Ryan Howard, might not another company like, say, Joker Brand come looking to put Chase Utley in a TV spot?  (Hopefully not for Utley, since Joker Brand is not only fictitious, but fatal.)

In his recent testimony to Congress, Alan Greenspan confessed that in hindsight, he discovered a "flaw" in his operational model of how the world works.  The flaw?  He presumed that businesses's self-interest would ensure that they would operate to make themselves healthy and competitive.  If Greenspan had been a Twins fan, he would have known that while there are some Steinbrenners out there, there are also a lot of Pohlads, too.  While everyone was villifying "The Boss," they overlooked the real danger: the men who made their living foreclosing farms.

Meanwhile, just as Greenspan thought all the business owners were Steinbrenners, voters have confused themselves.  They don't mind their team benefitting from revenue sharing, yet they quickly line up to prevent themselves from benefitting from it.  If you're a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies or the Tampa Bay Rays, ask yourself this: If there's nothing wrong about your team being in the World Series, which there's not, and there's nothing wrong with them having gotten there in part because of revenue sharing and being able to get early draft picks, which they did, then why would it be wrong for the George Steinbrenners of the world to give a little for the Phillies and Rays of the country?  Competition is healthy for baseball, it's healthy for business and it's healthy for our society.

27 October 2008

Closing of the Duerson Library

For 40 years, Oldham Countians have checked out books and other media from the Duerson Library in LaGrange, KY.  On November 29, 2008 at 12:00 PM, a brief ceremony will commence to recognize the history of the facility.  The community is invited to gather, and participate in a Passing of the Book ritual as we help the staff begin the process of transferring media to the new Oldham County Public Library building.  Unfortunately for those of us used to checking out materials from the LaGrange branch will have to wait until January 2009 for the grand opening of the new facility.

Looking back, I cannot recall all of the titles I checked out from the Duerson library.  I distinctly recall checking out an instructional video on VHS hosted by Pete Rose when I was a kid learning about baseball.  In 1991, when I became interested in Star Trek, I was able to check out Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home on VHS as I got up to speed in anticipation of that year's theatrical release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  Last year, I checked out Star Wars: Allegiance by Timothy Zahn for myself and Brother Odd by Dean Koontz for my wife, as we prepared to leave for a weekend trip to celebrate her grandmother's 80th birthday in Ohio.  That rekindled my relationship with the Duerson library, and 2008 was a banner year for us.

This year alone, I have checked out a host of graphic novels, works of fiction and non-fiction, CD's and DVD's.  These have included:
  • Jeff Smith's Bone series of graphic novel collections (all nine volumes, plus the prequel Stupid, Stupid Rat Tails: The Adventures of Big Johnson Bone, Frontier Hero)
  • Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's The Essential Fantastic Four, Vol. 1
  • John le Carre's Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality
  • Burt Ward's autobiography Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights
  • Kanye West's Graduation [CD]
  • Mrs. Henderson Presents [DVD]
The new facility will not only continue to offer a deep catalogue and current releases, but will also offer a state-of-the-art design that will itself attract attention.  Features include:
  • Drive-through dropoff and pickup window
  • Walking trail through property (which sprawls across 8.49 acres)
  • Reading terrace
  • Bridge over on-site existing stream
  • Floor-to-ceiling windows to take maximum advantage of sunlight
  • Rainwater collected for use in toilet flushing and landscape watering
  • A central, double-sided fireplace surrounded by small groupings of chairs and tables
Click on the title of this blog to link to the full press release .pdf file.  I can't wait until January to sit near the fireplace with another John le Carre novel!

25 October 2008

The Survival of the Music Industry: Part II - The Relationship Between Music and Radio

Introduction


By the end of World War I, commercial radio waves carried news and entertainment across the country.  Records seemed destined to become obsolete.  Why would anyone continue to build his own library, piece by piece at a high cost to himself, when all he had to do was tune in to hear music far more expansive than he could ever likely own?  Record labels feared the worst, and many forbade their acts from appearing on radio.  From the Wikipedia page on the History of Radio:
"Radio ownership grew from 2 out of 5 homes in 1931 to 4 out of 5 homes in 1938. Meanwhile record sales fell from $75 million in 1929 to $26 million in 1938 (with a low point of $5 million in 1933). Although it should be noted that the economics of the situation were also affected by the fact this took place during the Great Depression."
A 1923 copyright lawsuit determined that radio stations had to pay royalties, and thus record labels got over their anti-radio anxieties.  Funny how money is the answer to so many problems.

In the 1950s, many of the longrunning radio shows either transitioned to television or lost a large part of their audience--and hence, their sponsorship.  Contemporaneously, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Road System infused Americans' love affair with driving with a whole new energy.  Cars had radios, and drivers did not want to hear The Shadow.  Driving 55 miles per hour on Route 66 called for tunes, daddy-o.  And so music helped radio survive its struggle with television.  The system was simple: Record labels produced singles, disc jockeys played singles over the air and drivers made sure to let them know what they did--and did not--want to hear.  A horrible part of our country's history, the Jim Crow laws segregated the races as thoroughly as they could, and this meant that music by African-American artists was limited to broadcast on stations designated for African-American listeners (in urban areas, of course; there weren't many "Negro" stations in rural America).  Of course, once the white youth were on their own, many tuned into these stations to hear the raw energy of such artists as Little Richard.  They might not get away with buying his singles and bringing them home to play, but his music blared in their Fords on the outskirts of town.

The most power in this situation was actually held by the local disc jockey.  He decided what he would play, what he would talk up for local listeners.  And he knew that his popularity--and his paycheck--depended on whether his bosses had evidence that people listened to his show.  Today, that evidence might be found in online message boards, but in the 1950s that evidence came from phone calls to the radio station, either excited about something he just played or begging him to play something else.  The DJ's job was to create a sense of community among listeners, with himself as its heart and soul; making stars out of artists was incidental for him and his community.  Many artists were big fish in their little ponds, playing concerts in regional circuits and stopping along the way to get local DJ's to spin their singles.  Rarer still were those artists whose popularity sprawled from circuit to circuit, until all of a sudden he was a bona fide national star.

Uniting this cross-racial musical diversity, popularity with young listeners and the label/station/sales triangle was a daring young artist out of  Memphis, Tennessee named Elvis Presley.  Elvis's first few singles were fairly conservative, country and gospel tinged numbers, but he quickly outgrew Sam Philips's Sun Records and RCA bought out his contract.  Elvis brought black energy to white music; he personified the generation gap.  DJ's, like everyone else, were divided.  Old guard DJ's often refused to play his music, insisting that it crossed too many lines.  Younger DJ's insisted on playing his music, for precisely the same reason.

Two anecdotes really capture the anxieties over Elvis and his musical style.  Shortly after he covered Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which was much faster than the original version, Elvis met Monroe backstage at an entertainment function.  Elvis was certain, when Monroe approached him, that it was to lash out at the upstart.  Instead, Monroe insisted that he loved the new arrangement and had, himself, begun to perform it that way.  On the other hand, Irving Berlin personally called on every disc jockey he knew to get them to ban Elvis's recording of "White Christmas" when it came out in 1957.

Singles, by Elvis or otherwise, generally clocked in between two and three minutes, a standard that held for decades.  By keeping singles short (partly dictated by the spacial limitations of 45s), disc jockeys could play several songs per hour.  The DJ himself was part of the fun, often introducing songs with an anecdote about the artist and updating teens on the goings-on of the night.  In some ways, he was the vocal equivalent of the classified ads, pointing listeners to Saturday night dance halls.  The songs and artists changed regularly, but a solid DJ was the constant for listeners.  No other DJ best exemplified this position than Wolfman Jack, and all you ever need to know about him you can glean from American Graffiti.

Music, though, is an art and not just a commercial product.  As the 1960s wore on, many artists in many fields reacted to the calls for social equality among the races and sexes, and the condemnation of war.  The counter-culture arose concurrent with FM radio.  FM radio boasts a much stronger signal than AM radio, meaning radio stations's listenership areas increased dramatically.  Instead of switching AM frequencies on a cross-county drive, you could stay tuned to one FM station.  One consequence was that one DJ now covered the area previously covered by two or three AM DJs.  Another consequence was that FM DJ's were expected to compete with their talkative AM competitors and one way of doing this was by playing more music.

Dave Thompson, in his liner notes to Hip-O Records's 2005 compilation Classic Rock Gold, explains.  "FM Radio was dedicated to album rock--that is, bands whose statements were entirely bound up within the breadth of an entire LP, and who barely gave a hoot for 45s."  These were musical statements, not jingos.  Just as earlier DJ's had to decide whether or not to play Elvis for the fans who "got" his music, these DJ's had to decide where they stood on this new, revolutionary music.  For those who did "get" it, it wasn't about the quick turnover from one sing-along song to the next on a Saturday night drive.  This was about tapping into the social message and musical artistry of serious artists.  How could anything meaningful be contained in three minutes?

Again, Thompson describes the situation.  "Once, it was considered revolutionary to play two singles back-to-backm without a break for chatter or commercials.  Now, entire sides of albums were being aired without interruption, or songs that were the length of an album side...Dylan's "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," Iron Butterfly's "In A Gadda Da Vida," Cream's live "Spoonful."  This meant "less talk, more music."  The local DJ still mattered, because he had to know what his audience wanted to hear, and what it would go along with and what it wouldn't, but now the audience knew him a little less.  Thus began the decline in the relevance of the on-air DJ.

These new, album-centric artists revolutionized the music industry for their generation.  Not only were the songs not designed to be commercial friendly (in length and, often, content), but album art took on a whole new meaning.  Before, singles often simply depicted the title of the song and name of the artist, along with the logo of the publishing record label.  Albums, when issued, were generally given stock publicity head shot photographs of the performing artist.  In the 1960s and 1970s, though, album art often included bare breasted, or even entirely nude people (often in nature settings).  Many times, album art was just that--actual art, many times completely abstract, yet compelling.  Album sleeves took on a role they had previously lacked for fans and consumers.  Your mom might have hidden her Elvis 45s in with the rest of her singles because her parents had to read them to know what was on them; there was no way she would mistake what an album whose sleeve depicted five long-haired young adults standing stark naked in the woods contained.  Out with subtlety, in with in-your-face artistry, both lyrically and visually.

When the fervor of the civil rights movement and Viet Nam subsided with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the music scene again shifted.  There were still rebels, but now they lacked a cause.  Gone were the days of civil disobedience; now, popular acts were just plain disobedient.  Instead of fighting for equality or peace, the rockers of the 1980s fought for their right...to party.  Corporate greed also took on a new persona, and thus began the work of consolidating radio stations.  FCC regulations restricted how many broadcast stations each ownership could have, and many began the act of reaching that limit--and finding ways to get around it, such as forming different "investment groups."  Just as FM radio had overshadowed AM radio, now national programming directors began to usurp the power to decide what to play from local DJ's.  Gone were the days of organic, grass-roots movements to introduce artists.  Now, the only chance a newcomer had for getting on the air was to be signed to a big label, and have its promotions department "persuade" radio programmers to play their music.

The Reagan 80s were marked by several social themes: greed, fear of Russia instigating a nuclear holocaust and figuring out how to address the rifts of the 1970s.  Where their predecessors confronted these issues head-on, 1980s rockers just wanted to party to get away from it all.  In many respects, this mirrored society's emerging axiom: "let someone else deal with it."  Cocaine was the way to get away from it all, and cokeheads don't want to hear Dylan.  They needed something energetic and loud, and that's what they got.  The rock and pop music of the 1980s reverted back to being commercial-friendly jingos.  The birth of Music Television (MTV) and music videos made fans even more superficial about music than they had ever been before.  Now all an artist had to do to be popular was to be loud, energetic and associated with sexual imagery.

The 1990s saw the pendulum swinging less wildly.  Pop music became nearly entirely about thoughtless energy, and rock music (such as it was) tried to re-connect with its 1970s counter-cultural sensibilities.  These were the Clinton years, when things were good for most of us, and some artists demanded that we not lose sight of the fact that things were not so good for others.  This, of course, gave rise to what has since become the "Indie" movement; artists whose music and messages are not commercial-ready, but resonate with fans.

With the advent of digital music, these artists have circumvented the commercial model of yesterday to find an audience.  Today's youth still respond to energy, just as their grandparents responded to Elvis, and they still respond to thoughtful songs, just as their parents responded to Dylan.  They just don't need radio to bring them these artists and their songs.  Commercial radio has existed, for twenty years, on the premise that labeling artists "this" or "that" and then playing them on the stations designated for "this" or "that" will lure in listeners, who prefer "this" or "that."  They have removed the local DJ from the equation as much as they have been able, and it is no accident that today's youth find today's radio soulless and impersonal.

Radio can still introduce listeners to artists and their songs, but it must look beyond the neatly constructed box it has put itself into to do it.  Radio can re-connect with its audience best, though, by de-centralizing its playlists and putting local DJ's back to work, feeling out what local fans are into and (gasp) what they want to hear.  Clear Channel stations post their playlists online, but no longer have call-in request hours.  DJ's will air a taped request for a song, but it is always a song already in their rotation.  Polling listeners for which of the current 40 songs their corporate programmers have added to their playlist they want to hear next is hardly audience involvement.

Radio listenership's current decline can be partially attributed to the ever-growing list of entertainment alternatives, yes.  Drivers now plug in their iPods instead of tuning in while driving; teens hear more Classic Rock on Guitar Hero than they do the radio.  If radio reconnects with its organic, grass-roots past, it has a fighting chance of re-connecting with an audience.  That means less Los Angeles and New York, and more Mayberry.  Your local listeners don't need you to play current singles to hear them, so why restrict your playlists to them?

Another long gone staple of radio's golden days is the live appearance.  If Best Buy and Walmart are turning significant profits off retailer exclusive music releases, then it stands to reason a radio station could do the same.  Radio only remixes, acoustic and live versions of songs would help make radio broadcasts stand out more to listeners.  In studio appearances would also be good.  When an act is in town, why not get them to drop by and play a few songs on the radio before the concert?  Stations would catch drivers in afternoon rush traffic (a golden hour for radio anyway), as well as stoke interest in that night's show.  Without these, or similar efforts, radio will have only itself--and its unimaginitive corporate offices--to thank for its decline and eventual demise.

2008 Store Exclusive Music Releases

To counter the past several years's trend of declining album sales, the big retailers have often arranged exclusive releases.  These used to be an extra song or two on a mainstream release; today, they are often entire albums.  Next month, we'll all get underway with our holiday shopping in earnest.  To get some of these titles, you'll have to hit the standard brick & mortar big boxes (Best Buy, Target and Walmart).  Others you can snag when you duck in for overpriced coffee or chicken and dumplin's.  Here is a list to get you prepared for the music lovers on your shopping list.  Just click on the artist & title to link to the online webpage.  [Note: Target's website does not list their exclusives, so I can't help you with those.]

Aaron Tippin - He Believed (Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, May 6)
A collection of mostly previously issued songs, He Believed is Tippin's tribute to his father.

Bryan Adams - 11 (Walmart, May 13)
Canada's formal apology notwithstanding, Bryan Adams cranked out his eleventh studio album.  He dug deep to find an appropriate title, and thus 11 was born.

Frank Sinatra - Nothing but the Best (United States Post Service, May 13)
Not only did the Chairman of the Board get a stamp, the USPS gave him the kind of treatment only an artist of his caliber should receive.  For $16.99, you can get the compilation Nothing but the Best with an exclusive song ("I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter"), and a First Day of Issue Collector Cachet.  For $3.48, you can even buy a Sinatra CD mailer and send one for Christmas.  (Note: $3.48 just gets you the mailer; shipping is extra.)

Journey - Revelation (Walmart, June 3)
The last song ever played on The Sopranos was Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," and all of a sudden Journey became hotter than they had been since...maybe ever.  Walmart got in on the action and brought forth the band's first album with new lead singer Arnel Pineda.

Ricky Skaggs - The High Notes (Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, July 1)
Bluegrass versions of Skaggs's country hits, including "Highway 40 Blues" and "Honey (Open That Door)."  Because they weren't bluegrass enough.

Taylor Swift - Beautiful Eyes (Walmart, July 15)
Swift's eponymous debut was released at the end of 2006.  Since then, she has conquered MySpace and last year she released not a new album, but a deluxe edition of her first one.  She finally has a second album due this year, and to stoke the fires, she released this EP and DVD package.

Hannah Montana - The Hits Remixed (Walmart, August 19)
Was the title confusing?

Kenny Rogers - 50 Years (Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, August 26)
Nine big hits ("The Gambler" and "Coward of the County" among them) supplemented with three new recordings offer a survey of Rogers's 50 year music career.

In anticipation of the band's Black Ice release the following month, Walmart released this 1996 Spain concert film.  For those who have "gone Blu," there is a Blu Ray version available.

Sheryl Crow - Home for Christmas (Hallmark Gold Crown Stores, September 30)
Hallmark's annual Christmas album.  Crow's first.  Buy 3 cards, get $3 off.  You'll spend more on 3 cards than you'll save, but it works out if you're buying the cards and the CD anyway.

Amy Grant - Songs for Christmas (Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, September 30)
Grant has a wide release compilation, Christmas Collection, but has also put together this set for Cracker Barrel.

Nat "King" Cole - The Nat "King" Cole Holiday Collection
Julianne Hough - The Julianne Hough Holiday Collection (Target, October 12)
Target's annual Christmas EPs; one mainstream popular music, the other country.  The Nat Cole EP has reworked current vocalists into his recordings to create duets, whereas the Hough EP is all new material.

Sony Legacy released a box set with a 2-CD set containing both of Cash's Folsom sets in their entirety (including opening acts), as well as a documentary DVD and book for $40.  Fans who just want the music can save some coin and by the two CD's at Walmart.

Aretha Franklin - This Christmas (Borders, October 14)
According to the press release, this is Franklin's first ever Christmas album, which is hard to believe.  If you want to pay Santa some R-E-S-P-E-C-T, you first need to pay Borders.

AC/DC - Black Ice (Walmart, October 21)
For those who are about to rock, we...welcome you to Wal-Mart.  Give Walmart credit, though; they rolled out AC/DC in true Walmart style, complete with an accompanying exclusive Rock Band AC/DC Pack, DVD's, T-shirts, ballcaps and even doggie clothes.  CD is available in three different packages.

The Beatles - All Together Now DVD (Best Buy, October 21)
Go behind the scenes of Cirque de Soleil's Beatles show in this documentary DVD.

Carrie Underwood - Carnival Ride (Walmart, October 21)
Last year, Walmart re-issued Sugarland's Enjoy the Ride with a 5-track Christmas disc.  This year, they do the same with Underwood's multiplatinum Carnival Ride to ensure that it goes multiplatinumer.

Elton John - The Red Piano (Best Buy, October 28)
Sir Elton's live Red Piano show from Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.  Best Buy gives you the choice of three different versions: 2 CD/2 DVD, 1 Blu Ray/2 CD or 3 LPs.  If you go vinyl, you get a one-time digital download of the entire album.

Like the Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison package, a more comprehensive set has been given a mass release.  This is a single disc distillation for fans who are curious to hear Hank sing "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" but don't want to go all-in for the bigger box.

Organized to benefit the PEACE Initiative, this 16 track Christmas compilation brings together artists such as Steven Curtis Chapman, Sarah McLauchlan, Third Day and Vince Gill.  

The Police - Certifiable (Best Buy, November 11)
Like the Elton John Red Piano release, this is a live concert recording from The Police's final concert from their recent reunion tour.  Again, choose from 2 DVD/2 CD, 1 Blu Ray/2 CD or 3 LPs with digital download.

According to the description at walmart.com, this DVD clocks in at 156 minutes, but is not a straight concert DVD.  Rather, it is more of a tour scrapbook, following the tour behind the scenes and on stage.

Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy (Best Buy, November 23)
After nearly an entire decade, GNR are finally releasing the much touted Chinese Democracy album.  The lead single has stalled on radio, but that may not mean much to prospective album buyers.

22 October 2008

Memo to the American Voter

Less than a year ago, several candidates vied for your support on the premise that he or she could best handle our foreign affairs; the Democrats vowed to get us out of Iraq soon and the Republicans promised victory.  Now, the final two Big Party candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, are trying to convince you that his economic policy will turn around our trainwreck of an economy.  Each has tried to explain his message (and characterize his opponent's), though to my way of thinking each has failed to properly boil it down for the average person.  That's you, in case you were curious.

Every election year, the Republican candidates insist that they want to cut taxes and that their Democrat opponents are "tax and spend liberals."  They convince you, time and again, that this means the Democrats are going to raise taxes on everything they can, and then give that money to ever-fertile crackwhores.

Let's take my home state of Kentucky.  The Executive Operating Budget for 2001 and 2002 was $32.38 billion.  Where did the Commonwealth of Kentucky get $32.38 billion to spend for those two years?

Commonwealth of Kentucky
Executive Operating Budget, by Fund Source
Fiscal Years 2001 and 2002 Combined ($32.38 billion)

42% General Fund ($13.62 billion)
29% Federal Funds ($9.42 billion)
21% Restricted Funds ($6.75 billion)
7% Road Fund ($2.31 billion)
1% General Fund (Tobacco) ($0.29 billion)

Note: Postsecondary institution Federal Funds are classified as Restricted Funds in these figures.

Looking at this, then, we see that an entire third of Kentucky's Executive budget was federal money.  Know what that means?  That means that, of every three dollars Kentucky had to spend in those two years, it only came up with two of them itself.  Which brings us to the question of what Kentucky spent $32 billion on, anyway.

Commonwealth of Kentucky
Executive Operating Budget, All Funds, by Function
Fiscal Years 2001 and 2002 Combined ($32.38 billion)

21% Elementary Education ($6.93 billion)
21% Medicaid ($6.65 billion)
18% Colleges ($5.94 billion)
11% Transportation ($3.46 billion)
10% Other Public Health Services ($3.23 billion)
6% Government Operations and Finance ($2.05 billion)
5% Commerce, Economic Development, and Other Education ($1.52 billion)
4% Justice and Public Safety ($1.31 billion)
4% Environmental and Public Protection ($1.29 billion)

Note: Elementary Education includes School Facilities Construction Commission, Teachers' Retirement System, and Education Professional Standards Board which are outside of the Department of Education.

Elementary Education and Colleges combined for 39% of Kentucky's budget, on the premise that "education pays" (I'm not belittling the concept; it was our state slogan for a while).  Let's take away the federal funds and see the impact it has on the budget.  We could, theoretically, just wipe out the entire operating budget for Commerce, Economic Development, and Other Education; Government Operations and Finance; Justice and Public Safety; Environmental and Public Protection; Other Health Services.  Those sound important, though, so we should instead re-divvy the money.   Assuming that the percentages of money allocated to each function represent their place in the pecking order and that those percentages would have stayed constant, the revised budget is now valued at $22.96 billion, and it breaks down as follows:

Commonwealth of Kentucky
Executive Operating Budget, All Funds, by Function
Fiscal Years 2001 and 2002 Combined ($22.96 billion)
(Revised to Reflect the Absence of Federal Funds) 

21% Elementary Education ($4.91 billion)
21% Medicaid ($4.72 billion)
18% Colleges ($4.21 billion)
11% Transportation ($2.45 billion)
10% Other Public Health Services ($2.29 billion)
6% Government Operations and Finance ($1.45 billion)
5% Commerce, Economic Development, and Other Education ($1.08 billion)
4% Justice and Public Safety ($0.93 billion)
4% Environmental and Public Protection ($0.91 billion)

The lesson to learn?  Taxes pay for things.  Federal funds greatly assist poor states, so if you live in a poor state you stand to benefit from the federal government "taxing and spending."  Unless, of course, you want your state to choose between maintaining roads or teaching children.  See, rich kids don't go to public schools, so their parents resent paying for your kids to go to one.  Rich neighborhoods always seem to have smooth roads and working street lights, so they don't mind the road budget being small--they're taken care of first.  Rich people don't care about your kids getting grant money to help go to the state college you couldn't afford to send them to; their kids are going Ivy League on a legacy scholarship.  So, for them, all this budget means is taking their money and throwing it away on poor people.  That's me, and chances are, that's you, too.

See, the conservative side of our society likes an "every man for himself" situation, because they've already got it good.  It's easy to favor cutthroat policies when you've already cut enough throats to make things comfortable for yourself.  And time and again, they make you think that when they say things like "they're going to tax us to death" that when they use "us," that it includes you.  It doesn't.

Go back to the 2001 George W. Bush tax cuts.  Remember getting your $300 tax rebate?  How important was it to you to have $300?  If you're poor, it probably meant paying a few bills, getting ahead on your credit debt or, more likely, a new consumer electronics purchase.  And, really, what's wrong with getting back your own money to help you buy a new HDTV?  Well, what happened was that you got $300, and so did every household in your neighborhood.  In a neighborhood of 100 houses, that's $3000.  How many 100 house neighborhoods are there in Kentucky?  The most recent U.S. census report estimates 300 million Americans.  If a tenth of them (31, 400, 000, to be exact) were given $300 that they used to pay in taxes, then there is no $9.42 billion to give Kentucky.  Of course, instead of omitting an entire state, the federal government simply reduced its allocations proportionately, but you get the idea.

And, of course, this is assuming that $300 is all anyone received in those tax cuts.  No, you and I got $300.  (Actually, you got $300; I got a letter from the IRS informing me I didn't make enough that year to qualify, thanks to being a full time student.)  People making the big money got a much bigger check in the mail.  Consequently, the Bush tax cuts have starved the federal government of nearly a third of its operating funds.  That's right, adding up all those $300 checks has done as much to cripple the economy as the entire costs of responding to the September 11, 2001 attacks.  When Bush said he was going to give "you" back "your" money, what he didn't tell you--and what you were too busy to think about--was the impact that would have on your life.  Don't fall for it again.  And if you do fall for it again, be sure not to tell me you read this blog first.  I'll have to redistribute my foot to your ass.

20 October 2008

Currently...

...Reading: The Republic by Plato (A New Translation by Richard W. Sterling and William C. Scott)

...Playing: LEGO Batman: The Video Game (Wii Version)

...Following (Television): Major League Baseball

...Watching (DVD): James Bond Ultimate Edition with commentary tracks; After Dark HorrorFest series

...Listening to: Little Honey by Lucinda Williams

17 October 2008

Barack Obama: The Logical Candidate

Two out of Two Spocks Approve!
"When this movie comes out, and Obama is President, hopefully there will be some parallels" declared Zachary Quinto, referring to the forthcoming Star Trek in which he inherits the role of Mr. Spock.  Leonard Nimoy, who originated the role of the logical one, endorsed Senator Obama's candidacy earlier this year.  Cementing the relationship, Obama is reported to have seen Nimoy at a recent event and, from across the way, flashed him the Vulcan salute.

On AOL News (where I first read the Quinto quote), readers have lashed out at politicizing Trek.  Um, excuse me.  Do you have any idea what Star Trek is even about?  One post insisted that technology, not politics, was responsible for the peaceful times depicted in Trek's version of our future, crediting food replicators with ending hunger.  Apparently, not everyone understands how things work.  Those of us in the post-industrialized world take for granted things like microwavable meals, but even though freezing and microwaving technology exists, politics prevent them from being in the hands of our starving African and Asian brethren.  Without politics that seek to end hunger, no technological advancement will ever be sufficient to feed the people of the world.

I realize there are some fans who responded to the special effects part of Star Trek, and the story was secondary.  Others identified with the miltaristic organization of Starfleet and the warrior culture of the Klingon Empire.  Any real Trekker, though, knows that what has driven Star Trek all these years has been its ideology, its social messages and political stances.  Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk once characterized the Viet Nam conflict as senseless brush fighting, and this was at the height of the war!  Not only did Gene Roddenberry place an African-American on the bridge of the Enterprise, he placed an African-American woman on the bridge, and this was at a time when the civil rights movement was in full swing, as was the women's liberation movement.  Star Trek has always pressed for a society in which equality, tolerance and peace are what we take for granted.

If Senator Obama has identified with the message of Star Trek, and if he sincerely wishes to lead a presidency that works to realize Gene Roddenberry's vision of how humanity can be, then he is undoubtedly my candidate.  It is only logical, after all.

16 October 2008

Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher

Already, every plumber with a tangential connection to the name "Joe" is vying for online URLs and begging for a directory listing.  This, barely 12 hours since the final Presidential Debate began last night.  For those wondering who this Joe the Plumber is, the extent of what we know about him is that he is a plumber in Toledo, Ohio.  He approached Senator Obama at a recent rally and complained that, after a decade on the job he had plans to purchase his place of employment and questioned whether Obama's proposed tax plan would prevent him from doing that.  Senator McCain addressed not the American public throughout the debate, but Joe; the idea being that Joe is indicative of the average, unconvinced voter.

Leave it to an out of touch candidate to consider a dude wanting to buy his place of employment as indicative of the average American.  Joe wants to move up the ladder, and he wants to buy his way up; fine.  Joe wants to have control over his place of employment but Joe does not want the risk of true entrepreneuralship; no, he wants something tidy, something that has already been established for a decade.  Granted, I know nothing about Joe's place of employment.  Maybe his employer was a real entrepreneur, and because of eight years of Republican economic policy, he's been forced to explore selling off his business and Joe has squirreled away the money to buy.  This is a point someone really ought to explore.

My family and my in-laws are littered with self-employed business owners, so I know firsthand what it takes to go out on your own, get into business and put in the exorbitant hours no one but your family ever even knows about in the hopes that enough people will walk through the door prepared to spend enough money to cover that month's bills.  Trust me when I say that first of all, plumbers make damn good money and second, that the average American is just lucky to even have a job right now; buying his place of employment is not an option for the overwhelming majority of us.  I don't need to tell you that.  You know you're not going to buy where you work, and you don't likely know anyone who could.

Is there a risk that Obama's tax plan would make things a little rougher on Joe, in his quest to buy wherever it is that he works?  Yes, but consider that while Joe has undoubtedly worked hard for his money all these years, and while he has clearly managed his money well to even be discussing buying a pre-existing business, Joe has been aided and abetted in his prosperity.  Again, I don't know Joe's story, so maybe he was born with a silver spoon, invested his college fund and went to work as a plumber.  Maybe he's never hurt financially, and his idea of being pinched is not being able to afford a business.  Maybe.  Chances are, though, that Joe is from a middle-class family that has had its ups and downs, and Joe has done the same.  Maybe Joe's family's downs have never been down enough to need government assistance, or maybe they were but his family was too proud to accept it.  Again, I don't know Joe's story beyond what the senators discussed.  What I do know are a whole lot of folks who have been that down, and I know there are a lot of them out there right now.

These are not the baby-makin' crackwhores that conservative media loves to depict as welfare recipients.  These are hard-working, middle-class people who have really struggled in large part to economic activities over which they have had little or no control.  They're probably Joe's neighbors and coworkers.  Joe, I'm glad you're doing well; it gives the rest of us hope that there are still opportunities to be had, that hard work pays off and all that bit.  Where I come from, we believe you should never "get above your raising."  That means that when things go right for you, you keep in mind what things used to be like for you.  Not only is humility good for character, it helps remind us to be compassionate and charitable, which are also good traits.

Incidentally, before composing this blog, I checked Opensecrets.org to see if there was a record of any campaign donation under the last name Wurzelbacher.  There were eight listings, all from a Mr. Richard T. Wurzelbacher, retired, of Key Largo, FL.  Six donations were to the Republican National Committee; the balance were to the campaign of Senator John McCain.

14 October 2008

The Survival of the Music Industry: Introduction and Part I

The music industry has yet to right itself, and the Democrat candidates are threatening to alter the conservative landscape of talk radio.  The commercial-free satellite company Sirius XM (merged this year) is struggling to lure in paying listeners, just as HD radio rises to compete.  The under 30 crowd are increasingly hearing music--and more--on their iPods and phones.  iTunes Store dethroned Wal-Mart (sorry, "Walmart") as the number one music retailer in the country this year, but that was right before Amazon launched its digital store.  Blu-ray has despached of HD-DVD, yes, but digital HD has grown parallel to even that technology--movies and TV shows are already available in HD from iTunes.  What, then, will happen to the entertainment industry?  Here's a look.

PART I: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ALBUM AS A COMMERCIAL PRODUCT
Albums
There is a notion that there have always been albums.  Yes, the first record album ever was a 1909 pressing of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, but it wasn't until 1948, when Columbia introduced the 12" vinyl (holding a lot more music than the earlier 78 RPM Phonographs), that the album as an art form really took hold.  Even then, look at the discography of Elvis Presley--the best-selling American artist of the time--and it is filled with singles, not albums.  (Fun fact: The RIAA has Elvis Presley's best-selling album of all time, Elvis' Christmas Album, certified at 9x Platinum, or nine million units shipped.)  Casual listeners--generally the bulk of music buyers, in any era--regularly purchased 45 singles rather than 33 LP's.  Often, LP releases were little more than compilations of singles (such as the line of Elvis' Golden Hits), rather than the comprehensive, artistic statement that we now recognize as an album.

Albums emerged in the 1950s, though many would argue that they did not realize their creative potential until the British Invasion of the 1960s.  The Rolling Stones and some act called The Beatles were among the first to craft an album, where each song lead to the next, bringing the listener through a musical journey.  An offshot of the album is the "concept album," where the songs are united around a specific theme.  Popular themes have been the work of a specific songwriter, duets, cover songs and patriotic songs.  The album, then, became the work of art and the single became strictly a commercial product, often as an album sampler.  The idea is simple: release a single to radio and stores, hoping that airplay entices purchase of the single; once the listener has played the A-side, they will then play the otherwise unheard B-side and become curious enough to buy the album.

Contemporary listeners might be forgiven for wondering what a "B-side" is.  On a commercial single, there are two songs, one on each side (known as the Side A and Side B).  A-sides have almost always been the "primary" song, whereas B-sides have traditionally been supplementary songs.  Sometimes they have been the A-side of the artist's preceeding single; sometimes the B-side elicited enough interest that it became the next single's A-side.  Once the album emerged as an art form, the B-side was often a place for a song that was recorded for, but not contained in, an album.  The single, then, became not only an appetizer for the album, but supplementary to it.

When the cassette came along in 1964 (a year later than its European debut), music fans were given a dilemma: jump on board the new technology, or hold on to what they already had.  Not surprisingly, the new technology took a while to take hold.  What put cassettes over the top was the introduction of Walkmans (portable cassette players, allowing listeners to carry their music for the first time) in the 1980s.  The ability to walk around, listening to music was too enticing and so the record format died off for mainstream music buyers.  Also, the cassette enabled the owner to record sound for himself.  Only professional recording artists heard themselves on vinyl; anyone could hear himself on cassette.  Furthermore, many cassette players enabled listeners to duplicate other recordings.  You could transfer your LP to cassette, duplicate other cassettes and even, for the first time, make your very own mix tape.  Especially popular was to buy singles of favorite songs, and dub them all onto a full-length cassette.  Portability and the power to duplicate and mix--sounds enticing, does it not?

The Compact Disc (introduced in 1982, but not common until the 1990s) again revolutionized the music industry.  CD's could be copied to cassette, but not the reverse.  Unlike vinyl, there was a way to make CD's portable (the Discman), and unlike cassettes, CD's offered the listener the ability to play any track in any order he or she desired.  You could even play the album on a random mode and be surprised by what the next song might be.  When CD changers came along, allowing listeners to stock several discs at a time, the cassette was challenged.  Still, the average listener could not make mix discs, only mix tapes; and every form of music could be copied onto cassette, whereas nothing could be copied to vinyl or CD.  Having already acquired a taste for arranging songs of their choice their way, many fans became even less interested in how artists or producers sequenced an album.  The ability to play a CD on random took away from the significance that many artists had attached to the ordering of the songs.  Maybe Guns N' Roses intended in 1987 for "Welcome to the Jungle" to open their Appetite for Destruction, but on October 25, 1990 when the CD was issued, fans could have any of the other eleven songs lead off their listening experience.  It was the music equivalent of LEGO, taking apart what had been put together one way and rebuilding it another.

There was, however, one major decision the record labels made that has been detrimental to their own business.  Vinyl and cassette singles were cost sensible because they required less money to produce than whole albums (though in the case of cassettes the cost differential was much closer, since the only real difference was the amount of tape used, and often the cost was offset by using a cardboard sleeve instead of a plastic case to house the single).  CD's, however, cost just the same to produce and to ship whether there is one song or the entire disc is full of music.  Record labels realized that they were out just as much money in manufacturing for singles as they were for albums, and so they phased out the single.  Occasionally, they still issued them for new artists, but listeners were compelled to purchase an entire album for the songs they wanted.

Albums have traditionally been viewed by casual fans in terms of "recognized songs" and "everything else."  A recognized song is one that was released as a single, whether for purchase, for airplay on radio or even to be played via jukebox.  In the 1970s, especially in country music, the norm was for an album to spawn one single; artists released a few albums a year, so by the time a single had run its course on radio, the artist had an entirely new album ready to drop (that's industry speak for "come out").  By the 1990s, artists rarely released more than one album per year; many rock stars issued one every other year, or even less frequently.  Because of this, later albums might spawn an average of three or four singles.  Now, each time a single hit radio, record labels--and artists--hoped that each song might catch a different type of listener's attention and draw him or her to purchase the CD from which it came.

Ultimately, this move through technological eras created a perfect storm for anti-album sentiment among the common fan.  Cassettes had taught him to take his music whereever he went; CD's had taught him not to care how songs were sequenced on an album.  He had been so used to buying singles of songs he heard on radio, that having to buy an entire CD just to get the song he wanted made him resent the album on which he recognized just a fraction of songs.  He came to view everything else as "filler," saying an album "only has a few good songs on it."  What he means, in most cases, is not that an album only has a few "good songs," because he has not listened to the album prior to buying it.  Rather, he means he only recognizes a few songs.

When the PC introduced CD-burning capability in the 1990s, though, CDs again had all the capability of cassettes--listeners could now mix their own discs and walk around listening to them.  Prior to the ability to burn a disc, listeners who wanted to trade in their purchased CD but wanted to keep the music on it had to content themselves with a cassette copy, inferior in its quality and devoid of the ability to control its playback sequence.  Now, though, listeners could replicate the entire CD onto another CD.  This, of course, was when the record labels began to cry foul at the slash and burn tactics of casual listeners.  And then, when online file-sharing technology asserted itself, not only were listeners able to replicate CDs for themselves (or their friends and family), but they did not even need to make a tangible disc to distribute the music to others.  Enter: The Music Industry v. The World lawsuits.

Unforunately for the music industry, they cannot unring the bell.  We have become accustomed to portability for our music, as well as customizability.  Non-duplicable, non-portable methods of distribution simply will not take.  One wonders whether audiophiles are really responsible for the recent resurgence of vinyl, or if the record labels are simply hoping that nostalgia (or novelty, for those too young to have come of age with vinyl) will lure buyers away from this level of control over their libraries.

Simply put, the album as an art form is endangered.  There is, however, a bright spot.  Many fans complain that artists and bands cobble together albums around a few singles-worthy songs and stick them with filler.  We may see the EP return, released with more regularity than full albums and containing more popular songs.  After all, finding a few songs likely to be popular is certainly easier than finding 10-14 of them.

For artists who craft an album as an artistic statement, though, rather than a commercial product, the album will continue to be their canvas.  When Bruce Springsteen gets it into his head to write and record, he will continue to produce an entire album.  The same is true for Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Buffett and every other singer/songwriter out there who works his craft.  Really, the final result of the decline in album production will only benefit commercial acts and their fickle fans.  Actual artistry is not threatened, and those who appreciate the work of those artists will not be punished.  Will those albums be issued on CD, vinyl or only digitally?  It's hard to say for sure, but the album has already survived three technological eras.  Just as stage acting has survived despite the rise of film and television, and now the ability to post videos of your work online, the album will continue to exist--for those artists who wish to craft them--in one form or another.

13 October 2008

This Blogger Spon--Owned by Gillette

If The Joker ever gets hold of the Gillette manufacturing facility, I'm screwed.  I count no fewer than seven of their products in my bathroom: Gillette Fusion razor (Power), Gillette Fusion HydraGel (Ultra-Sensitive), Gillette Oil-Control Face Wash + Body Wash, Gillette Gentle Clean Shampoo + Body Wash, Gillette Dry Skin Hydrator + Body Wash, Gillette Hydrating Conditioner and Gillette Clear Gel (Wild Rain).  I should point out that I bought the Dry Skin Hydrator + Body Wash because I have almost finished off using the Oil-Control Face Wash + Body Wash and wanted to try each of these new body washes.  I have an oily face, but the rest of my skin tends to dry out; I have since begun using the oil control stuff on my face and the hydrating one for the rest of me.  Once I kill off the Shampoo + Body Wash, I will likely move on to one of their shampoos proper; there are several, including one to make your hair still look thick and full at the end of a long day and one to combat dandruff.  I'm thinning out on top, but I often have flakes; which to choose?

For me, I don't find being Gillette's brandwhore that bad.  They consistently bring new products to the market that work well for me.  Their track record is one of consistent quality, and while I hear good things about other men's hygiene products, I just can't find it in me to stray.  Sorry, Dial for Men--your stuff is good, but now that Gillette is producing hair care and body wash, I don't really need you anymore.  Now, according to their website they've got a soothing after-shave balm and gel I need to try....