Van Morrison: Treasure … No Longer Buried.

 

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I am, or at least try to be, a Van Morrison fan. Van is a notoriously “difficult” character — known for an ornery persona with labels, promoters, the press and fans alike. I have no problem with any of that. In fact, truth be told, I sort of like his wariness and mistrust of celebrity and of the music industry. And I’m certainly more than OK with the idea of loving the art, not the artist.

So, it wasn’t Van’s personality that made it tough to be a fan. Instead, it was simply the fact that his catalogue was a mess. The back-catalogue had fallen into incredible disrepair. For the last 15 years or so, a good portion of Van’s music was out of print on CD, and absent from streaming services like Spotify and Slacker. You literally could not listen to pristine versions of life-changing albums like St. Dominics Preview or Into The Music without breaking the law or breaking your bank account.

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So, I approached the news that Sony was cleaning up and readying the Van Morrison catalogue with realistic expectations. Van Morrison was a self-professed music industry hater, grappling with a digital era that he certainly couldn’t feel much natural affinity with.

Listen to how many times Van reminds the Time Magazine interviewer here that he is “not a download artist”.

Yet, here we are. Sony has done a nice job, under no doubt difficult circumstances. The new Essentials CD is well curated, combining tracks from Them, the Warner titles, and Sony’s newly licensed stockpile into a worthwhile overview.

van essentials

More importantly, they have at least plugged the gaping digital hole that was Van Morrison’s streaming catalogue. 3 of the 4 Warner albums and these 33 Sony titles are now available for streaming. For depth of emotion, commitment to chasing the muse, and pure musical delight these albums represent a catalogue of music that rivals any solo artist in the history of rock.

Van creates a unique musical mix of R&B, Rock and Roll, Celtic folk, Soul, New Orleans blues and jazz, all while he searches for transcendence. It is art of the highest order.  It is the only music I know that sounds simultaneously completely spontaneous, and yet inevitable. And its all so intimate, so personal, as to make almost every other artist sound artificial.

Griel Marcus breaks this down:

People take Van Morrison personally. Incidents from his music enter the events of their lives – events in their love lives, their family lives, births and especially deaths – and people feel as if he put those incidents in their lives. As if, in some way, he’s there. Not in any magical sense – just in the manner in which art is supposed to work: it touches you. And won’t let go. People have always talked about the certainty they had that when Elvis Presley sang – on record, especially in person, but even on television – he was singing directly to them. This is different. It’s a feeling people get that Morrison has already lived the events that they’re living out or have lived out – or haven’t yet lived out, but may – that he’s been there first, and put those events into songs, into music, into an emotional form that can be transferred into a thing, a record, an LP or a CD or a download on a computer or an iPod, something you can physically refer to, that produces an apprehension of the real, the tangible. In other words, not he’s singing to you; in a certain sense, he has lived your life for you.

Listen to Van Morrison on Slacker here.

“Without People; You’re Nothing” – Joe Strummer, Slacker & Reinventing Radio.

 

JSP0197-07-FPAs some of you know, I work at Slacker Radio as their head of Content & Programming. That means I’m lucky enough to have a seat at the table about what we offer our audience, and why.

About a year ago, we asked ourselves “What would radio sound and look like if it was invented AFTER the internet?”

Look, I used to love terrestrial radio. But consolidation and corporatization sucked almost all the personality out of it. And musical conservatism killed any chance of real discovery. And while I loved Napster’s original promise, and enjoyed the first few years of On-Demand services like Rhapsody, I found the endless search bar into playlist experience tired quickly. I missed the human element. The whole thing just felt cold.

So, “What would radio sound and look like if it was invented AFTER the internet?”
Today, with the unveiling of Slacker Radio’s new design and a slew of new programming and features, you can hear our answer to that question.

Slacker’s answer is to empower talented people. We have created a brand new technologically advanced platform, to serve people who have a passionate point of view, Our hosts
don’t sound like radio DJs. They come from press, clubs, YouTube, podcasting, and are huge fans and experts about their passions. They don’t check time, temperature and the weird news of the day. Instead, they are given the freedom to celebrate the music and culture that they love, and to pull no punches about what they hate.

Our listeners are given even more power than our hosts. Listeners can skip, heart, ban, time-shift, share and instantaneously talk back to us. They can even completely turn our hosts off!

We think this is a better way. A people first approach. Today, we attempt to reinvent radio.

We will get a bunch of stuff wrong. Our hosts will say occasional stupid things, and make mistakes. That’s what freedom brings. That’s being human.

But with personality-driven countdowns like 66 Songs That Changed Everything, Classic HipHop A-Z, The Worst Ideas In Music History, and The Greatest Gen X Songs, Slacker is committed to context, curation and storytelling. We believe what Joe Strummer said — “Without people, You’re nothing” We love music, we love artists and creativity, we love technology, and we believe with people, Radio can be great again.

Please give us a look and a listen. Today is day one.

Try 66 SONGS THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING for starters…

http://slacker.com/r/Jrgjc

Happy Holidays & hope you dig.

Frank's Living Room and The Birth Of Hipster Divebar Jukebox

I thought I knew drinking, and I thought I knew about music, but truth be told — I knew next to nothing. My idea of drinking was a 17 year olds technique of dumping out a third of a quart of Tropicana orange juice and replacing it with cheap vodka. Musically, I was up on the latest New Wave and Punk, but I wouldn’t know a George Jones tearjerker or a vintage STAX side if it sat down next to me on a rickety Frank’s Living Room stool, and bought me a snakebite.

After my first couple of visits, I was pretty sure his name was Leo, not Frank. Leo poured with a heavy hand. I remembered that he sighed and smiled when we called him Frank, serving us another round of Vodkas and Grapefruits, while flipping over a mixed tape. The tapes were Leo’s. He played them loud. Ear-shatteringly loud:

Nervous Breakdown

Get Off My Cloud

The Grand Tour

Holiday in Cambodia

September Gurls

After The Fire Is Gone

Lust For Life

Johnny Hit and Run Pauline (Leo had a thing for X)

Gardening At Night

American Music

Cry Like A Baby

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry

Mamma Tried

I’ll Take You There

Rise Above

Color Me Impressed

Time of The Season

Pale Blue Eyes

Sex Bomb

One For My Baby

Like I mentioned, at first we thought he was “Frank”. After all, he lorded over the place — Frank’s Living Room — a majestically squalid, 500 square foot, literally underground bar in the greyest city on earth — Albany NY.

Leo was my personal John Peel. Although he was probably barely 30, Leo was my elder statesman. He taught me about life, love and loss all through the power of a perfectly sequenced mixed tape. Leo trafficked in classic Country, Rockabilly, Soul, Garage Rock, and the most cutting edge, and hardest new Punk and New Wave.

Without knowing it, Leo changed our take on music.
All genres mixed together.
All eras counted.
As long as it was pure, it was on the Frank’s Living Room list.

Leo created the model for Hipster Dive Bar Jukebox.
This station is for the Leo in us all.

 

Classic Country. Vintage Soul. Select Punk, New Wave & Indie:

Hipster Divebar Jukebox: http://bit.ly/qalK1m

 

Humans Vs. Algorithms: The LA Times Weighs In

Hello blog.
I’m emerging after a summer respite.

The L.A. Times weighs in on Slacker Radio today:

Slacker’s handcrafted approach sets it apart not just from broadcast radio, but also from some of its online rivals, including Pandora, which relies on an algorithm to determine what song to play next.

Read the full piece here: LA Times

The Final Take: Imagine a radio station that played George Jones, The Clash, Smokey Robinson, Radio Dept. and  Sigur Ros. Sounds kinda like a Hipster Divebar Jukebox, no? Check out what the humans are up to right here.


Not Blogging Lately — Blame The Fonz, Timmy von Trimble, Thelonious & The NY Times.

 

I have been slacking off from blogging. Time flies by. Here are 11 things I have been doing instead:

11- Understanding & Pricing Out The Cloud: If you are like me, and flit around from site to site streaming and buying — I’ll easily hit iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, RDIO & Rhapsody in a week — then the various cloud-music propositions presented lately will make your head spin. Keeping track of which one is $20 a year for 15GB’s, which one is $25 for a year for 20GB’s, which one rewards you for shopping at their store, which one matches and duplicates your existing content, etc. — is a crazy jumble. Heck, the Amazon, Google, iTunes options alone make the NY Times pay-wall rules seem positively simple. Jon Pareles from the NY Times on The Cloud That Ate Your Music here.

10- Testing Cloud Music Offerings: Wow. Has setting up something geared for convenience , ever been so inconvenient?! I tried Amazon (glacially slow), Google (makes Amazon look nimble) and what iTunes has to offer so far (you try finding the correct preference prompts to set up an iPad, iPod, iTouch & MacBookAir) — it takes the patience of Job to even experiment with the existing library options.

9- Obsessively Listening To A Reclusive Artistic Genius Who Locks Himself Away At Home: If I told you that I was listening non-stop to a morose, funny, poignant, cutting singer-songwriter who refuses to record with a band, make videos or tour — I’m sure you would say “Really, Paul Westerberg again Jack”. Well not this time, mister. FM Coronog is an incredible singer-songwriter, who in between his 9-5 slog at Home Depot, somehow manages to home-record a brilliant album every few years under the moniker of East River Pipe. Check out his page on Merge Records here, and an unofficial, naturally, YouTube clip below.

8- Thelonious Monk: Universal just put out the complete Riverside collection. 16 CD’s for $80 at Amazon. Redundancies and all, it’s just too much to resist. Details here.

7- Fighting with Anthem Blue Cross: Just how incompetent, obstructive and systematically infruriating is our health care system? Ladies and gentleman I submit to you, from the California Watch website – Anthem Blue Cross:

In its own way, Anthem Blue Cross became the Toyota of the news cycle yesterday. The company was credited with reinvigorating the health reform drive, stood accused of violating California law hundreds of times and was found to exhibit a prolific pattern of profit taking.
It was also linked to a denied liver transplant and a plan motivated by its famous 39 percent rate hike that, well, might not work….The Los Angeles Times reported that state insurance commissioner and former gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner accused the company of violating state law 700 times between 2006 and 2009.

I have spent countless hours on hold with Anthem, back-tracking through paperwork, and generally fighting for my families money. Yet I understand, interrupting my blogging is the least of Anthem’s moral offenses.

6- Driving: I live in (East) Los Angeles, work in San Diego, and have friends and business contacts clustered all across the west side of L.A. Have you ever tried to get to Venice Beach from Pasadena after 2pm on a weekday?

5- Turntable FM: If you are over 30, you no doubt remember gathering at a friends house and playing each other music. Chances are the M.O. was a variation on “OK, suckers…can you top THIS?” Turntable FM recreates this by layering a Social Media blanket over a full song streaming interface. God, that sounds like tech-speak gobbley gook. How about – Turntable FM allows you to go online, play songs for your friends, and is crazily addictive fun. They may or may not have a prayer of a business model, but you should check the site out now here.

4- Thinking about the New York Times: Last weekend I thought I could get some blogging in, but on Friday night I went to see Page One, the new movie about the NY Times. The movie covers a lot of territory – Wikileaks, the run up to the Iraq war, the recession, etc. — all unified by the Times’ struggle for economic stability in the age of the internet. It’s a great movie. My excitement about the film, lead to buying the book Hard News, which covers the history of the times through the prisim of the Jason Blair scandal, and reading the book took up much of Saturday. Next thing I knew it was Sunday, which, naturally, means it was time for the Sunday Times…

 

3- The NY Times iPad App: Back in March, I wrote about the NY Times pay-wall strategy, and theorized that the approach was just too convoluted and expensive to be successful. Now, after experiencing the total brilliance of reading the NY Times daily on my iPad, I am happy to have my Fonzie moment…

I WAS WRONG.

The digital version of the NY Times, with it’s elegant interface, and superb use of interactive elements like photo galleries, is spectacularly good. I find myself gladly paying for the full subscription, and consuming more content in both print and digital form during the course of a normal week. You can read more about how wrong I was here.

2- WFMU’s The Best Show hosted by Tom Scharpling : I came to this show late. It is tough to explain how a program this meandering, could also be this good. The best I can tell you is that if you could imagine a parallel universe where Howard Stern was 15 years younger, magnitudes hipper, and deeply immersed in indie-rock you would start to paint a picture. Add in recurring guests like John Hodgman, Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins, and a host of faux callers such as “Philly Boy Roy” (an unflinching supporter of all things Philadelphia), “Timmy von Trimble” (a genetically modified, two-inch-tall racist), and “The Gorch” (a senior citizen from York, Pennsylvania, who claims that the character of The Fonz on the TV show Happy Days was based on him) and you start to get the picture. The fact that all these callers are voiced by Superchunk drummer Jon Wuster just adds to the appeal.

Try the Music Scholar call,  here.

1- Working at Slacker Radio: Between the natural arc of learning the intricacies of a new business, and diving into the complexities of music label licensing from the other side, working at Slacker is a time-consuming affair. I consider myself shockingly lucky to be enjoying it as much as I am so far, and can’t wait for everyone to see the things we are working on for the rest of this year. Today’s AOL/Slacker announcement is just the tip of the iceberg, read about that here.

So there you have it. My Spring of non-blogging, cataloged and perhaps a bit rationalized.

Blame the Fonz, Timmy von Trimble, Thelonious Monk, the Times, and gainful employment.

If I can tear myself away from these obsessions, then I’ll talk to you soon.

The Neon Billboard Says 'Brain Drain" — Evan Harrison Departs Music

Evan Harrison, who lead Clear Channel’s digital effort for the last 5 years, was my boss at AOL Music for a good part of my run there. Evan’s good people, and an excellent executive. He taught me many things, and was especially good at working through complex issues and organisations to get things done. Evan was a terrific boss…whip smart, judicious, disciplined and fiercly loyal.

Admist all the Apple noise today, word spread that Evan had landed a new gig at  Billboard/Outdoor Advertising company Van Wagner Communications.

While I’m happy for Evan, and pleased that he landed a senior position so quickly, it is more than a little troubling to see another really solid music advocate exit our industry. This is a guy who loves music, who made me stay through to the final encore of a magical Paul Westerberg show, the night before we had a 8am breakfast scheduled with a crucial brand client.

I hope Evan has a great run in his new job, learns a lot, gets to be creative, makes good money, and comes back to music and media in a few years.

We can’t afford the brain drain to wish for anything else.

Welcome To The Machine: Robot That Plays Angry Birds, Perfected.

DMI Tip: OptoFidelity is a Finnish company that specializes in machine vision and optical measurement technology. Now, they have designed a robot to play Angry Birds. Note cheezy Rockford Files meets NIN instrumental track on the “behind-the-scenes” video below:

Yup, I'm A Slacker — Part 2: Bill Cunningham Shows Me How To Work

On Sunday, my last weekend day of unofficial “underemployment”, I went to see the documentary Bill Cunningham New York.

This is a wonderful movie about an incredible, joyful and singular man. Bill Cunningham is a New York Times photographer, and a New York institution. He seems to be in his mid-80’s, but moves around like a 40 year old. Bill shoots and curates the paper’s ‘On The Street” and “Evening Hours” fashion and style columns – weekly roundups of street fashion and nightlife scenes. He reveals more about clothing trends through 10-20 pictures a week and a paragraph of copy, than you could ever imagine.

Cunningham takes hundreds of pictures every day; bicycling between his New York Times office, and Soho, Greenwich Village, Midtown, and Lincoln Center. If you don’t know your Manhattan neighborhoods –that is a phenomenal amount of ground to cover, at any age.

But it’s not just his eye, age or wry sense of humor that makes Cunningham so appealing. It is also his take on work — he is a joyfully obsessive. Cunningham spends countless hours out on the streets, at events, and in his office until he gets the perfect combination of shots, copy and layout for his columns. He has an almost constant smile on his face, all while never missing a shot. You can tell he believes in what he is doing, and you can tell he loves the process.

Watching Cunningham work – you forget he is working. He makes work seem like play.

I really loved watching Cunningham at work. And the timing of seeing this movie was especially meaningful for me.

I spent the last four months looking for the right job. And for me, the “right” job was to engage in something I believed in to such a significant degree, that it would make work seem like play.

When I was first laid off from Warner Bros. Records, I was a bit lost. I had no real idea of what I wanted to do next. I knew I still loved music, but wasn’t so sure about the music business. One of the first things I did was start this blog – a place where I could collect my thoughts on Digital Music & Digital Content and, hopefully, figure some stuff out.

While blogging, I networked and thought things through. I got taken down a few rungs on numerous occasions. It came as a shock, for example, when a music-related company didn’t rush to return my phone call or email. After all, I thought, I practically green-lit their deal at Warner! I was naïve. I was ignorant.

On the other hand, I was also amazed that certain people; mostly outside of the traditional music business, were interested in what I had to offer.

I found myself consulting a Public Radio company, and also deeply engaged for a couple of weeks in a“Digital Czar” search for a well-known PR company. The cliché was true –it was a big world out there; the challenge was figuring out my place in it.

Depending on the day, it was humbling or inspiring. It was a roller-coaster ride. Yet, I always had my friends and family, and also the blog, to help sort me out.

I considered starting my own company, came very close to taking that job running the west coast digital arm for the PR agency, interviewed at a legendary music magazine, turned down a funded start-up CEO gig, and eventually, realized that I wasn’t finished with music or the music business.

Then Jim Cady, CEO of Slacker called.

He was straight ahead. Precise. Realistic. Compelling.

Jim’s understanding of the digital music landscape was superb.  His articulation of Slacker’s market differentiation was matter of fact.  He didn’t use a lot of buzzwords or adjectives. His whole presentation was so refreshing.

I listened to Jim.

Jim told me that Slacker Radio had made significant content gains in the last couple of years, with partnerships secured with ABC News, ESPN, the carriers, and a host of user targeted improvements. Facts, analysis, and contextualization.  I really liked his style.

Then I listened to Slacker…

This was it. It was a great radio experience…clearly the people programming the stations were really knowledgeable. These stations were highly curated by real music experts. They were not just based on sound, but instead were programmed like a fan would program a station.

Familiar enough to live up to their naming conventions, but exploratory enough to keep you discovering new music. The experience itself was nicely interactive — you could “heart” songs you loved, “ban” songs you hated, and adjust familiarity and repetition. It worked.

I loved the experience. I met Jonathan Sasse and he was cut from similar cloth to Jim. Super smart, realistic, direct, cool. I liked him too. I was offered a job, SVP Strategic Development. This time, I said yes.

So, now I have a new work home. My mission is to spread the gospel about Slacker through deals, content development, and general music industry relations.

I’m optimistic that, at least on our good days, working at Slacker will feel like play. And I’m enough of a realist to know that there will be tough days too.

And as far as the blog goes, it lives. I promise you there will be a minimum of Slacker shilling (except I suppose for today’s posts) and a maximum of, well, the kind of stuff that has always been here. And if there is not, I’m sure you will let me hear about it, won’t you, dear Digital Music Insider.