Music Media Matters

Last week, I dropped $30 on a vinyl record, which was probably the most I have ever paid for an album, without adjusting for inflation. Usually, my vinyl records come from garage sales or thrift stores, and much of my collection came from my Dad and friends. I’m not an avid record store guy like John Cusack’s customers in High Fidelity. In fact, I can probably count all the records I got “new” on one hand. So why did I buy this particular album for $30?

I was attending a concert in Sonoma county, and the $30 record was for sale in a merchandise booth. When I first heard the price, I hesitated. But then I thought about it: this was a compilation album, featuring songs from twelve reggae bands that had recently performed at the 2017 California Roots Music and Arts Festival at the Monterrey County Fairgrounds, the same location as the famous Monterrey International Pop Music Festival in 1967.

According to the back cover, all profits from the album sales will be donated to the Guitars Not Guns Music Program. Using music as a catalyst GNG encourages children and teens to use their creativity to foster personal development and to help divert them from the destructive influences of drugs, alcohol, and gang-related violence”. When I read that, the $30 price tag didn’t seem too steep; I considered it a donation to a good cause.

CA Roots Volume 1 inside cover

I also consider the album a souvenir, that will forever hold memories of that concert. The bands I saw at the concert were not on the album, but there is still a connection, between the live music I heard, the people I hung out with, and this vinyl record. If I didn’t buy it that night, would I get another chance? Would I have purchased the album if it were on CD or Spotify? Probably not. Why not? Of course, I could argue that the sound quality of a CD or digital track is not the same as the warmth of an analog record, which is true; but I will leave that blog post for the audiophiles.

I listen to records when I am relaxing at home, which is also the only place I can listen to them. When I have friends over (which is basically never, but let’s pretend I have friends for the sake of this blog post), I encourage them to pick out some albums to listen to while we catch up on life (and talk about other imaginary friends.) I sometimes hunt for a particular record in my collection, but more often, I randomly grab a few and put them on. And I usually listen to the entire album, or at least one side, all the way through. I respect the time the artist put into recording the album, and the order of the songs.

Most Millennials don’t get the concept of an album. They like their music to be on-demand, as they grew up with the ability to listen to any song with a click or two. They never had to rewind or fast forward a cassette tape, or heaven forbid, wait for an 8-track to repeat. To give them some credit, they certainly understand the value of a good playlist, but they don’t understand how Generation Xers spent hours making the perfect mix tape; how some DJ’s would sort their records by BPM (beats per minute) in preparation for a club set; or how alternative rock Compact Discs would often have a “hidden track” that would start 20 or 30 seconds after the last official track. I remember Ministry’s “Psalm 69” CD had a song hidden on track 69; I remember watching the track number go up each second, in silence, until the final track finally played! You think Spotify would allow a band to have 50 or 60 blank tracks, each one second long, before the final hidden track? Imagine what that playlist would look like on a phone!

My point here is that when you listen to music, the media matters. When I say media, I don’t mean the news or social media networks, I mean the plural of medium, whether it be a vinyl record, cassette tape, compact disc, MP3, satellite, or regular radio. How you listen to your music will affect what music you listen to. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean, using my own music collection, and how I listen to it:

When I listen to my LP’s, I typically listen classic rock, jazz, big band, show tunes, and classical music. I have a few exceptions like EDM records I landed at the Winter Music Conferences in Miami, and a handful of new albums I have been given as gifts from friends. But most of the time, the records I put on are from the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s.

When I listen to my cassettes, and I have a lot of them, it tends to be mostly 80’s music. Many of these I purchased at full price when I was younger. Some were from BMG memberships, some were hand-me-downs from older siblings, and some are live “bootlegs” of jam bands. I also have a lot of greatest hits compilations, and a lot of those Time Life compilations on cassette. Contemporary Country, anyone? I got the Time Life tapes free from a neighbor who put them on the curb when I lived in Fairfax, CA. Many of the tape series are “brand new”, and still in the original packaging. Score!

Timelife contemporary country cassettes

If I am driving around the Bay, I tend to listen to local radio stations. I especially like Oakland’s old-school rap, hip-hop and hyphy.  When I am in wine country, I hear a lot of Joni Mitchel and the Grateful Dead. If I am back in Connecticut visiting family and friends, I listen to the local radio stations there, where I can count on hearing some Rush, AC/DC, Staind, Metallica, and Ska music. The commercials on the radio are annoying, but they give me a reason to change the channel, and find another station, often with a different kind of music. I love the Sunday radio shows, not the Top 40, but the special jazz, gospel, bluegrass, and live music programs on independent radio stations.

If I am listening to my CD’s, it tends to be 90’s music, but there are plenty of other decades represented. I have done a lot of road trips, and my CD collection is a good way to pass the time while I am driving cross-country. Other times, I will hear an old song on the radio while I am driving, and when I get home, I will dig out the CD to hear the rest of the album. I also listen to my CD’s when I am cleaning.

I have a lot of MP3 files, but I only listen to them when I am working on my computer, and more often, I use Spotify to lookup newer bands. Social media gives me the ability to listen to what my online friends are listening to. I can also find new music on apps like Pandora, after I have searched for a particular band, the algorithm figures out the characteristics of music I enjoy, and gives me similar songs from artists I might like.

spotify home pageThe downside to this feature is I don’t usually hear the entire albums; instead I hear the big radio hits, or songs that are the most popular downloads. This is very different from listening to a record, CD, or cassette tape all the way through. If you listen to satellite radio like Sirius/XM, you almost never hear the deeper cuts from the albums, new or old.

Nowadays, people can purchase one song at a time, which is kind of like buying a 45 rpm record, or a “cassingle”, which was a cassette in a cardboard sleeve, featuring one song that was on the radio; but those still had B-sides: deeper album cuts, live, or alternative versions of the songs. This was a way for the artist and/or record label to get you to listen to a song you might not hear on the radio. Sometimes, the B-side turned out to be better than the A-side. I remember buying Gun’s and Roses’ “Patience” on cassette single and first listening to the B-side “Rocket Queen”, which was never a radio hit, but it is a sick song. I’m going to put it on right now! Yes, I still have all of my Cassingles; unfortunately, most of them are pretty beat.

Guns N Roses Patience Rocket Queen

Which brings us back to digital music. Today’s younger generation does not have to worry about tapes breaking, or record needles wearing out. They don’t need to worry about scratching a CD, or their hard drive crashing. Their music is usually stored in the cloud, with some songs stored locally on their phone or tablet. Live concerts can be streamed on-demand on your TV using set-top boxes. Just about any song can be found with a quick search on YouTube, just watch this short video advertisement first.

Instead of buying albums, Millennials pay for monthly subscriptions that give them unlimited access to literally thousands of albums.  People are happy paying money fees to listen to what they want, when they want, while avoiding the repeating commercials common on traditional terrestrial radio. Others choose to listen to streaming “stations” that are based on their favorite bands, or music genres. This gives them some access to new music, but the bands are still limited, and often chosen by big record labels.

Music is now a service, and people are lazy, so the convenience factor of streaming music is actually affecting what we listen to. If you flip through your old CDs, you will likely choose a different album than you would on Spotify or iTunes. If you listen to a record or cassette, you will likely listen to an entire side, and if you are not too busy, or lazy, you might actually flip it over and hear the B-side.

I encourage my readers to be more mindful of the media that stores their favorite music, and the devices that deliver the music to their ears. Break out your old CD collection, or flip through your parents records, and let the album covers bring back memories, and guide your choices. Listen to the entire albums, top to bottom. Buy a random CD at a truck stop, or from a local band, even if it is a risky because you don’t know most of the songs. Don’t be lame when it comes to music media. Take some risks!

In closing, I would like to get back to that California Roots, Volume 1 record that I purchased last week. When I took it out of the sleeve for the first time, I realized another reason they were charging 30 dollars for it: the vinyl is thick, and decorated with a psychedelic pattern that makes it unique, and memorable, just like the concert I attended. A digital download or YouTube video would never hold those memories like this physical record does. The tracks are great, and the bass from the analog media sounds awesome in my living room. $30 well spent.

California Roots Volume 1

Girl Inside California Roots Volume 1

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Streaming Live Music Concerts

From Campfire S’mores, To The Vegas Strip

Article by Paul Konikowski, CTS-D

The idea of holding a concert for a small local audience and broadcasting it to a larger audience is not new.  The Grand Ole Opry and Austin City Limits have been broadcasting live to radio for years.  Shows like American Bandstand, MTV Unplugged, and VH1 Storytellers would often record the shows and broadcast them later on TV. Movies like The Last Dance, Rattle and Hum, Pulse, or The Woodstock Movie have given us a front row seat to some amazing concert footage, and a candid view backstage, albeit in 24 frames per second.  Nowadays, teen stars like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry are releasing movies in 3D, including concert footage.  You can also watch live opera performances in movie theaters, or simulcast to large baseball parks.

The internet has created a new kind of live concert, where “concert go-ers” can stream the shows live to their laptops, smart phones or tablets.  But who wants to watch a rock concert sitting in front of a tiny computer screen, listening to tiny computer speakers?  Well, with a HDMI cable (and maybe an adapter), anyone can easily hook up their laptop to their big-screen HDTV, and crank up their living room speakers as loud as their neighbors will allow.

Webcams have been around a while, but live online concert streaming in full HD is still relatively new, and many bands are reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, because they are also trying to preserve what’s left of the dying live concert industry.  If a band plays a live concert on iTunes, Facebook, or Google+, are they sellouts, or simply adapting to a changing market ?

Here are four very different examples of online concerts I have seen recently:

Livephish.com –  “Live Phish Downloads offers high quality, unedited soundboard recordings of select shows in standard MP3 and CD-quality FLAC files and select video tracks via a state-of-the-art delivery system. All downloads are compatible with Windows, Mac and Unix, allowing for maximum flexibility and ease of use. Once downloaded, audio and video can be burned to disc, transferred to portable players, or played through your computer.”

Notice the website says “select video tracks”.  The band realizes that an internet broadcast will not (and should not) take the place of seeing an entire Phish tour, but if the shows are sold out, why not let a few more people enjoy them online?  Using a mix of experienced cameramen and video-conference style PTZ cameras, the  720p video stream and audio mix are as good as live, with only one or two digital glitches throughout the entire 3 hour+ concert.  Each concert cost between $14.99 and $19.99, with 3-day packages available for $24.99-$39.99.  Not exactly free, but much cheaper than a $60 ticket, a tank of gas, a cramped hotel room, and an out-of-state DUI.  I encourage you to go to livephish.com, watch some sample videos in full screen, and judge the quality for yourself.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real
Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real performing a live at TRI Studios in San Rafael, CA

TRI Studios –  TRI (Tamalpais Research Institute) was recently opened by Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead as a purpose-built audio/video studio designed specifically for an online concert.  There is a live studio audience of a hundred or so people at each TRI performance, which helps the bands feel like they are still performing at a concert, rather than for a broadcast.  I was fortunate enough to attend a concert at TRI by Lukas Nelson’s band Promise Of The Real, where I was one of the studio audience members.  First off, the local room mix sounded ‘Stella’, thanks to the Meyer Sound Constellation system installed in the ceiling, which allows variable reverberation times.  The online mix is handled by a different engineering group in another room altogether. Since the studio is made for these online concerts, the video and audio quality is scary good, but the HD stream tends to lock up more than the other online concerts I have “attended”. Here is are some highlights from a recent Jerry Garcia memorial show at TRI Studios.  The TRI concerts are free to watch on Yahoo Music, the cost is paid for through 30 second advertising slots before each show.  Just like TV.

I Heart Radio – Like Pandora, or Spotify, but with “real” radio stations, and ads.  Some of my readers may have heard Billie Joe of Green Day recently smashed his guitar (NSFW) in disgust when they told him he had one minute left in his I Heart Radio set.  I don’t blame him, really; the “festival” I watched the following night was just plain weird.  The lineup included Linkin Park, Deadmau5 (pronounced ‘dead mouse’), Aerosmith, and Pitbull.   The crowd was just not into it, and their lack of enthusiasm translated to the cameras.  No one was dancing when Deadmau5 was spinning except a few random females that the camera guys could not get enough of.  The best part of the Deadmau5 set was the new Professional Griefers track, with special guest Girard Way from My Chemical Romance singing his own live vocals (read: no lip sync, thank you very much Girard for keeping it real!)

The Yahoo Music video stream and audio quality were both good when I could actually get it working, but the stream kept dropping out, despite my business class internet connection.  After Aerosmith, I could not get it to work at all.  The concerts are free, but only if you sign up for a login to iheart.com; the costs are covered by annoying advertisements.

Daria Musk  – About a year ago, this Connecticut teenage singer/songwriter started using Google’s free multi-point video conferencing service (called Hangouts) as a way to play live concerts online.  Her dedicated fan base (which she calls G+niuses) has now exceed 2 million people worldwide, and she has been featured everywhere from TED Talks to Rolling Stone Magazine.  Google Hangouts allows nine lucky fans to have a virtual front-row seat to Daria’s concerts, talking to her between songs, talking to each other, and basically hanging out.  Google recently added a Studio Mode  button, which dedicates more bandwidth and different AEC algorithm better suited for live musical performances.  Hangouts can now be simultaneously streamed to YouTube (note: Google owns YouTube).  These Hangouts On Air allow an unlimited online audience to enjoy the concert.

For her latest online music event, Daria Musk and her bassist RAM decided to do a “campfire concert”, streaming live from Daria’s backyard in CT while rain clouds loomed overhead.  Her younger brother stoked the fire and monitored online comments, while Daria entertained the rotating crowd with her songs, stories, and S’mores lessons.  (Since her audience is global, many of them had no idea what a S’more was, and/or had no access to the three simple ingredients.)

Daria invited certain friends to play their own songs (using their own studio mode button), and other audience members followed suit by teaching folk songs from their local heritage.  Each time she would start a new song, Daria would ask the online audience to mute their microphones, a trick she learned early on in Google Hangouts to avoid echo and background noise.

What is most amazing to me about the Daria Musk campfire concert is her ability to really connect with the online audience using minimal technology.  Daria gets personal with each fan in the Hangout, welcoming them when they arrive, and saying a heartfelt goodbye when they “rotate” out of their “seats” to let other people join.   There is no cost,  no advertisements, no cameramen, no studio, no engineering, no broadcast truck; just Daria, RAM the bassist, and her brother, and millions of online fans.  If you don’t have time to watch the entire concert, you should at least watch the first five minutes, and the last-minute when it starts raining, it’s really cute.

What is your experience with streaming or watching live music events online?  Please comment below, or email pkav.info@gmail.com.