How to Sell Out

It seems that in the current music business and the arts in general it is very hard to make any kind or real money unless one dances with corporate America.  With the record business and radio in decline, even though pubic radio is becoming more and more viable for getting artists heard, one of the best ways for young artists to get their music heard is through commercials.  Many film directors also get their start in commercials. 

In the past, because record companies actually had money to promote artists that were not top tier moneymakers, and because the power of radio, it was seen as selling out if one sold their song to a commercial.  Artists like Bruce Springsteen still do not allow their music to appear in commercials.  I highly respect him for this, but let’s be honest, he has enough money that he doesn’t need to do that.  I also read that Kanye West does not allow his work to be used in commercials.  Whatever one things of him that is to be commended at least.  But again he is someone that doesn’t need the exposure or the money. 

I grew up highly influenced by punk rock.  There still seems to me, even though I realize the rules of the game have changed, something disheartening about putting songs in commercials.  It seems to have a corrupting influence on art, as once you hear a song in a Cheetos commercial or whatever, it can be hard to disassociate that song with that product.  Art should also speak truth to power, not walk hand in hand with it.  However, I do know that Hank Williams did commercials, and no one doubts that he was one of the greats.  There are also more ethical ways to sell out.  Moby allows his songs to be played in commercials, but then he uses a fraction of the money towards causes that he believes in.  For instance he will allow his music to be in a car commercial, but then use some of that money for environmental groups.  He is using the money of the company in direct opposition to what that company does. 

After watching a few really awful commercials at the AMC theater last night, I thought of an even better way to sell out.  The one commercial was a bunch of musicians making really bad music with coke bottles or some such nonsense.  Part of my brain slowly died during that shit.  So I think that artists should only allow their art to be used in commercials if they are given enough money to purchase a high end military vehicle like a tank.  Then they should personally drive that tank to the corporation headquarters that gave them the money and blow it up.  The artist would get paid and get exposure.  Meanwhile the general public would not have to watch any more stupid fucking commercials by that company.  What do you think of that? 

P.S.  The last paragraph is a joke if the NSA happens to be reading along.  I swear! 

Media Diet and Rambling Thoughts

Huffington Post is still promoting the missing plane mystery as their headline.  How many days will this go on?!!!  I bet the cable news is having a field day with that too, though I don’t know for certain, as I don’t watch that shit!

I’ve been going on a media diet in recent years.  I cut out cable TV and I cut out radio.  These are two outdated forms that offer little if any value to one’s life.  When I listen or watch one of these formats I almost start believing my conspiracy theory friends that the media is manipulating us to make us dumber.  Songs riddled with clichés and Ken and Barbie dolls reading Teleprompters are running ramped over a demoralized public.

Did you see the singer form Hootie and the Blowfish has a country career now?  Who buys that stuff?  Who bought his Blowfish albums?  Kevin Russell calls this stuff golf rock.  Did anyone notice how metrosexual a lot of the male country stars are now?  I find that funny as their base is partially composed of redneck males who think they are tougher than the rest and are often homophobic.

I wish Hunter Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin were still alive.  They were of the rarified few that knew how to expose the great contradictions in our society.  This is an absurd country in many ways.  Our comedians have become our truth tellers and our newscasters have become our mindless entertainers.  Remember in a capitalist democracy we vote with our dollar a good deal of the time.  Support those things that bring value to your life and cut out on the fat!

Middle Management Radio Programmers

Yes I am still on my Neil Young kick.  I am reading his book Waging Heavy Peace with my morning coffee.  Anyway, Neil talks about writing the song Ohio the day the picture came out of the Kent State shooting.  I found these comments about the aftermath of the song, and about radio stations of that time in particular, illuminating:

I picked up my guitar and started to play some chords and immediately wrote “Ohio”; four dead in Ohio. The next day, we went into the studio in LA and cut the song.  Before a week had passed it was all over the radio.  It was really fast for those times; really fast.  All the stations played “Ohio.”  There was no censoring by programmers.  Programming services were not even around; DJs played whatever they wanted on the FM stations.  We were underground on FM.  There was no push-back for criticizing the government.  This was America.  Freedom of speech was taken very seriously in our era.  We were speaking for our generation.  We were speaking for ourselves.  It rang true.  

Knowing how Buffy Sainte-Marie was blacklisted I know that it is not exactly true that performers faced zero push-back.  However, This is precisely why I don’t listen to the radio anymore, ever.  Programmers have ruined it.  Programmers are middle management types who for the most part stand in the way of you hearing anything outside the box on any radio station.  Radio should be a DJ medium.  I also wonder if it is songs like Ohio that killed off DJ freedom.  Programmers may have been put hired to keep this kind of rouge behavior from dominating.  I don’t know the answer to that, but it would make for a very interesting article.  I remember after 911 when Clear Channel banned a lot of songs they claimed would offend people, including John Lennon’s Imagine.  “Imagine all the people / living for today.”  If people did that they sure wouldn’t be working a shitty soul sucking office job for a company treated them like a serf.  Never forget that music, and art, is powerful stuff.  There are those that want to limit your access to it.    

White Slavery, Flag Waving, and Money

http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html

The above link is to the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930.  This was also known as the Hays Code and I mentioned it in the previous blog.  The first two things it says are: “If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind

A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures. Formulated and formally adopted by The Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc. and The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. in March 1930.”

I think it is funny that the code talks about how, “White slavery should not be treated,” and that, “The use of the flag shall be continuously respectful.”  So I’m guessing that you could show black slavery, but you dare not show any disrespect towards the nation’s flag while that slavery is underway.

There are all kinds of absurdities in this document.  Again, this was 1930 so the times have of course changed.  Most of the things that were discouraged in motion pictures back then are now pumped into peoples’ homes on a daily basis.

David Milch, which I alluded to in the last blog, talked once about how the idea of the western hero, the man of few words, was created because of this code.  I’m going to paraphrase a good bit here.  Basically what he talks about is how the heroes in westerns were prevented from talking like they often would in lawless towns of the 1800’s.  In the movies they couldn’t swear or say many other things that are and were part of regular everyday dialogue.  So in order to have them not speaking in clean and unmanly terms, the filmmakers of that era just decided to not have them speak much at all.  That is how a sort of mythic American hero came to be.  He didn’t come out of history, but out of a set of rules governing pictures during a time when a lot of the templates for films were being created.  Again, this is largely me paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

I’m against censorship of any kind.  Just like with this code, often you will get absurdities in what gets censored and what does not.  We often see this now on TV where swearing is censored on mainstream television (less and less all the time of course), but someone can kill a hundred people in an action film and no one will bat an eye.   Often what is censored depends on who is in power.

That being said it is perfectly legitimate to have a conversation about what is worthwhile viewing and what damages the culture at large.  I see a great deal of reality TV as promoting casual cruelty and meaningless consumerism.  Basically things that make the world go round.  I would never want to see any of this stuff censored, but I feel that it is ok to talk about how this kind of programming debases the humanity of the people participating in a lot of these shows and also desensitizes the viewer to absurd behavior.

It’s easy to get angry at the participants of these shows.  But most of the people in these shows are just trying to survive by making a quick buck and aren’t very smart to begin with.  It’s really the TV executives and people that prosper far greater than the participants that make sure that even when one of these shows fail that there is another one to replace it.  They are cheaper to produce than a lot of other programming and make too much money when they are successful.  They also function much like the modern day versions of the Roman Coliseum.  Give the people bread and circuses and they will be entertained enough so that they can escape the drudgery of their daily lives.  There is less likely to be rioting in the streets this way.

I’d be lying if I said that some of these shows aren’t entertaining on a base level and that I never watch them.  It’s all too easy to occasionally get pulled downstream by a fast current.  However, I do try to keep that thing to a minimum.  I don’t do this because I have any kind of intellectual or moral superiority over anyone, it’s just that I know that I’m as susceptible to giving thumbs up or down in the entertainment coliseum as anyone, so I try to keep my distance.  I’d probably get addicted to cocaine if I ever tried it, so I just don’t.

Meanwhile a show like Deadwood, which features a great amount of swearing,nudity, and violence, can only be shown on pay cable.  However, I would argue a show like this could teach someone more about American history than many of the shows on the History Channel.  It deals with how a society structures itself.  It also deals with the powerful forces that shaped American culture.  This show was cancled after three seasons, but American Idol goes on.

Although many people on the right and left disagree about what is causing it, most agree that there is some kind of decline in our culture that is going on.  Although there are some things that can’t be shown in mainstream TV, or said on the radio because of decency standards, there isn’t much anymore.  This is because the only thing that seems to really matter anymore is what makes money and what doesn’t.  The right wing religious people and the PC left can rage all they want, but if something makes a buck it will eventually make its way onto the airwaves in one way or another.  Until we decide as a country that money isn’t the thing that matters most, the floodgates will remain open.  The only vote that counts anymore is one that is made with the almighty dollar.

I’m Not Listening to the Radio Tonight

http://noshowponies.bandcamp.com/track/im-not-listening-to-the-radio-tonight

You talk just like we do
But only part of the time
You’re only this famous
For towing that company line

And now my love is over
My love is over

I’m not listening tonight

I used to hang onto
Your every word
But now you change so slowly
I’ve outgrown you for sure

It’s overrated
What you over play

And now my love is over
My love is over

I’m not listening tonight

I can’t blame you
You just want to be liked
Grew up idealistic
Cashed in to survive
But you used to be mine
You used to be mine

My love is over
My love is over

I’m not listening tonight

I remember huddling in bed as a kid listening to the radio, waiting for my newest hero to appear.  I also remember moving to Austin and hearing a station not worth mentioning, that used to play excellent and surprising music, turning to the now dreaded corporate driven format.  As Morrissey once sang, “Has the world changed, or have I changed?”  Both I assume.  However, there is no doubt that radio as a whole has been defiled by the money men.

This is actually the oldest song on our new album, No Show Ponies A Manual for Defeat.   Things have only gotten worse since it was written.  The song started out as a sort of a Replacements rocker.  Without the dual guitars of our now current three-piece lineup, it simply didn’t work in that fashion.  The new incarnation is somewhere between the African pop of Thomas Mapfumo and the British jangle of early Smiths.  Again I am honored to play with my brother Ben and our drummer Alex.  Al again understands intuitively what we are going for.  My brother’s guitar brings the magic and the color in ways I had not dreamed possible.  Listen to his prechorus guitar hook.  It’s brilliant.  Recording this song was one of the highlights of the A Manual for Defeat sessions.  I remember dancing like mad children with my brother in the vocal booth as we both sang into the same microphone.  This is also one of the songs that the always great Keith Langford came by for.  He is playing percussion and a barely audible whistle.  It’s there is you search.  His whistle playing had us in stitches during the session.

Public Radio is the only hope for free radio.  It seems to be the only format that is taking risks and trying new things.  That’s not to say that there aren’t other privately owned radio stations that are still fighting the good fight out there.  But on a whole, it is the Public Stations that are keeping intelligence on the airwaves alive.

However, much like religion, at one point or another I just decided to not participate.  Part of this is my disgust in what radio at large has become, and part of that is just my introvert tendencies.  I’ve read that introverts like to bring some order to their surroundings, and I suppose that I do this most often through what is being played.  I am a huge music fan though.  I have been collecting records since I was a kid and there just is no room in my life for the radio most days.  I have too much good music now and the chance of getting burned is just too high.

I feel bad for anyone coming of age now.  To use a term from Keith Richards, most radio is just, “dogshit in the doorway.”  It seems that most artists only rise to the top anymore if their music is lacking any kind of intelligence, wit, or social critique.  The company men have finally figured out how to make money off of music without splitting the pie with people who would sooner see them discarded.   That’s not to say good music isn’t out there, just that it rarely becomes part of the mainstream dialogue.

So anyway, the targets of this song are too numerous to mention.  This song is saying goodbye to radio in the form of a spurned lover.  A love affair, long since dead.  We may have lost the war.  I might be a lone soldier at a remote outpost, not realizing the war ended years ago.  But in my own way, I still fight the good fight…

Quote

Hang the DJ

Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself could life ever be sane again?
The Leeds side-streets that you slip down
I wonder to myself

Hopes may rise on the Grasmere
But Honey Pie, you’re not safe here
So you run down to the safety of the town
But there’s Panic on the streets of Carlisle
Dublin, Dundee, Humberside, I wonder to myself

Burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ
Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life
Hang the blessed DJ
Because the music they constantly play

On the Leeds side-streets that you slip down
Provincial towns you jog ’round

Hang the DJ
Hang the DJ
Hang the DJ

Panic by the Smiths.  “And the music that they constantly play / It says nothing to me about my life”.  I stood out in the front yard last night talking to a neighbor of mine that works in radio.  Half of our discussion was about how awful most radio has become.  He was telling me that most of the people in radio these days are not music lovers.  He said most of the people in radio that he knows are either business people or those that are there just for a paycheck.  I have no way to confirm or deny those views.  I only have the outcome to judge, which is dreadful.  Plastic people, saying disposable things.  Plastic people, saying disposable things.

Pop Songs and Propaganda

Sometimes a good friend can make you aware of something that is clear as day, but you somehow miss.  On the same day that I posted the lyrics to a song called I’m Not Listening to the Radio Tonight, I played on a radio show.  My fellow band mate in Shinyribs, Mr. Winfield Cheek, pointed out the irony of this to me.  We played on KUTX which is the music part of the public radio station here in Austin.  I love public radio, and I can’t stand just about any other kind.  My posting of the song was not in any way associated with this radio performance.

The song itself is about a radio listener as spurned lover.  It was written when I lived back in Pennsylvania.  I remember as a kid staying up late at night to hear my favorite bands.  Now other than public radio, I can’t think of a station that I could listen to without being tempted to put an ice pick in my ear.  Public radio seems to be the last bastion of free thinking on the radio dial.  I’m sure as with most things there are exceptions to the rule, but one must drive far and wide.  I’m not counting satellite radio either.  That to me is like comparing Netflix and ABC.

Anyway, I digress.  In a pop song you can’t get all the small details of an argument.  You have a couple minutes and very few words to get a point across.  Even if you are writing lyrics that are Dylanesque in length, you still don’t have the same room to work with that you do in an article, let alone a book.  I view pop songs as propaganda.  If you are trying to use a song to make a point you need to get in, stir up a bunch of trouble, and get out.  Let things fall where they may.  If someone is intelligent enough they can go deeper.  You are trying in a song to get to a poetic truth and not the truth of a journalist.  It’s okay to stretch the truth, fantasize, and sometimes just flat out make stuff up.  Your duty is again a poetic and emotional truth.

We have another song on the new NSP album that is coming out called Make Businessmen Cry.  The song comes from the perspective of someone that is frustrated by what is going on in this country right now.  The gap between the rich and poor is growing.  It also was written by me after working a series of meaningless soul crushing jobs.  I mean every word of it and apologize for none of it.  That being said I realize it’s propaganda.  The truth is always more complex.

I realize that being in a band I am in a business whether I like it or not.  I hope to someday make enough money that I can survive comfortably doing it.  If I could make enough money to someday employ people to do some of the things that I don’t like in the music business that would be great.  If I said anything else I’d be lying.

I also realize that people that are in business are just like everyone else.  There are good and bad people.  I’m not a communist.  I think that capitalism is the best system that we have to generate wealth and prosperity.  I just think that we need a safety net for those that are less fortunate.  I also think that the pie needs to be shared more fairly than it is right now.  You need a balance of systems and ideas to bring about maximum innovation and happiness.

However, none of that would make a very good pop song.  Music is an emotional venture, no matter how intellectual it gets.  When you get dicked down by your boss, boom, that is a feeling you can capture.  That’s not to say that you can’t have songs that are emotionally and thematically complex.  Read the lyrics to The Smith’s The Queen is Dead.  Morrissey jumps between self deprecating humor and vehement social commentary with ease.  But again he is getting to the core of emotional truths.  It’s poetry and not prose.

I love political songs, but I like ones that make me feel.  It doesn’t interest me to read lyrics that read like a newspaper column.  They are going to lack the word space to get into the nitty gritty of the details concerning whatever issue it is anyway.  And what they will also be lacking is that emotional heft that calls you to action.

My favorite overtly political album is Neil Young’s Living With War.  Neil does use things ripped from the headlines.  He even goes as far as playing recordings of George Bush contradicting himself.  However, Neil is smart enough over the course of the record to take some left turns that add emotion and depth to his work.  He sings a song about drifting down the hippy highway in the 60’s and by doing so paints a picture of lost dreams.  He also has a song named After the Garden.  Here is the first verse:

Won’t need no shadow man
Running the government
won’t need no stinkin’ WAR
Won’t need no haircut
Won’t need no shoe shine

After the garden is gone

The lines about the haircut and shoe shine may appear kind of forced and nonsensical at first.  However, I deem those lines to be just as important as the lines that come before them.  He is shifting from the political to the personal in those lines.  It’s not just the big things that will go away, but the everyday things we take for granted as well.  He is also expanding the imagery of the song.  By throwing in that left turn in the verse he is expanding the canvas.  I mean how many people get shoe shines these days anyway?  However, it makes the song slightly stranger and more interesting.  It becomes playful.  Art should dance with you a little bit.  It should shift and move.  It’s interpretive.

Music can go anywhere.  It can touch upon anything the human imagination can dream up.  But it is an emotional form.  Emotion should be its guiding compass.  Sometimes that emotion can just be: “Dear Lord in heaven, the shitty meaningless corporate auto tuned music they are playing on this radio station is destroying my soul.”

Quote

I Love You

A man carried metal, carried gold
More than he could handle, more than he could hold
It weighed him down to a sand shallow grave
Where his bones were eaten by a heat wave
While here it rains all night and it blows a sweet breeze
I think I’ll call you up
And say please, baby, please

I love you, I love you, yeah, I love you, yeah, I love you

Lyrics to I Love You by Daniel Lanois.  I’ve always found this song and these lyrics to be powerful.  I just heard it for the first time in awhile on a mix that my girlfriend made for me.  I think it’s the juxtaposition of the imagery.  It’s life vs. death and materialism vs. love.  The simple chorus of “I love you” seems earned in the face of some of the horrowing imagery before it.  It’s more complicated and interesting than the cheap high school poetry that is found in most love songs on the radio.

Fake Rebellion

I have a very unscientific theory that I would like to throw at you.  Why in the last few decades has there been such a rise in the popularity of rap and Nashville country?  I say that these are two forms of music that are unafraid of the product placement.  Rock N Roll should be in some part about rebellion against the status quo.  In the 60’s it was part of the counter culture.  I would bet as companies learned more and more how to market music and how to control it they didn’t want too many people queering their hustle. 

     Now I am being lazy and lumping in all rap and modern country together.  There are always exceptions to the rules.  I am talking about the kind that gets played on the radio all of the time.  Nor is this to say that if this music helps you get through a day of daily drudgery there is anything wrong with it.  If it floats your boat have at it.  Just realize what you are being sold. 

     These two forms sell what I call fake rebellion.  There may be songs that involve shooting guns, objectifying women, being outlaws, etc.  However, neither of these forms challenges the dominant power structures in our society.  Those would be consumerism and religion.  You can take your drugs, drink your beer, and get laid, but just keep shopping and don’t think too hard about what’s keeping you at your current class status. 

     In rap it’s pretty obvious.  No other form of music has so glorified getting rich and owning things.  There are obvious examples of this not being the case.  From back in my day you had Public Enemy, whose records still ring with righteous anger.  But a lot of this music is egocentric music that while on the surface appears to be dangerous, really just reinforces the current economic model. 

     Nashville country, on the other hand is not far behind in songs featuring product placement.  I bet I could flip on a mainstream country station right now and within the hour hear a song that not only mentions a truck, but what brand.  Country music also often plays upon tribal affiliations.  It might make you feel like a rebel and an outlaw, but you are a certain kind of rebel and outlaw that is exactly like millions of other rebels and outlaws.  So in reality, you are not that much of a rebel or an outlaw.  You are just wearing a costume that helps you belong to a group that you feel comfortable in. 

     I also like to say that Karl Marx, not to be confused with Richard Marx, got it wrong.  Nashville country music is the opiate of the masses.  It let’s people feel a sense of identity and belonging even if they don’t’ have a pot to piss in.  It never questions who is fucking them in the ass. 

     Music doesn’t have to make you think.  But it should at least make you feel something strongly.  Emotions are raw and abstract and powerful things.  But I question the value of anything that makes you feel like a rebel for a night, and a fool for a lifetime.  

The Gibberish Machine

The Machine is pumping even though I try not to notice.  I don’t listen to the radio and I don’t have cable. , For films and TV I go use Netflix, itunes, Redbox, and go to Vulcan Video in Austin.  For music I go to Waterloo Records in Austin, itunes, and Amazon.  For news I get a newspaper or read any number of online news sites.  I do this purposely, because I spend less money, have more time to read, and don’t get bombarded with commercials.  If I need to see a sporting event I go to a friend’s house or a bar.  I never feel like I’m missing out on anything.  I see what I want and I stay away from those things that degrade my soul.  But Jesus, they’re out there.

Every once in a while I will watch one of my friend’s houses and have full fledged cable for a few days.  While I’m on tour I will often find myself channel surfing as my brain is too tired to read.  When there is TV I find myself getting pulled into the bullshit like anyone else.  I remember particularly one time wondering where an hour went while a show called Celebrity Ghost Stories was on.  Holy Fuck!  Another night on tour I put the TV, too tired to even reach for the remote, as a half hour of America’s Got Talent went by before I could crawl across the bed to rescue myself.  The only way I can describe a show such as this is by saying it’s like watching a monkey jack off at the zoo.  At least then I guess you are seeing something natural.

I don’t hate these shows because they are so bad, sometimes certain bad things can actually be entertaining in some sick way, but I hate them because they are so meaningless.  These shows are so meaningless that they not only lack meaning in and of themselves, but they actually seem to suck the meaning out of your life while you watch them.  If I can even find the strength to think while watching such programs I find myself asking questions like why are we here, what is the point to life, and what kind of a society hammers this shit out?  The next thing that happens is I find myself saying out loud to no one, “Ah fuck it, I need a beer.”

Maybe that’s exactly what these programs are supposed to do.  Maybe they are supposed to keep people in a permanent state of catatonic stupor.  Karl Marx might have been wrong about the whole religion thing.  Could it be that primetime TV is the opiate of the masses?  I’m not saying that there aren’t things on the television worth watching.  It’s just that it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

If people didn’t have this gibberish pumped into their homes might they read more, pay more attention to what was going on in this country, talk to their families more, start a new hobby, learn to paint, pick up a musical instrument, or spend their time in any number of more worthwhile ways?  I totally get how easy it is to let a whole day slide into oblivion in front of the boob tube.  That’s part of the reason I have no interest in getting cable again.

Well, I am at a place with a TV right now,  I can think about how bad it is tomorrow.  Time to tune in and black out.