Friday, February 07, 2014

Caren Explains 50 Years of Beatles in America [reblog]

ICYMI, some thoughts on why The Beatles' moment on Ed Sullivan can't be replicated again, due to the ways we consume media, develop artists and write songs....

I didn’t see The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan ShowBy the time I was born, John was dead and Ringo was on a children’s show. In fact, my introduction to The Beatles music came from watching a rerun of The Muppet Show, when Kermit performed a cover of “Octopus’ Garden.”
Yet as a certified Beatlemaniac (albeit a few decades delayed), I’ve regarded the question “Where were you when The Beatles played Ed Sullivan?” to be in the same category of curiosities as “Where were you when JKF was shot?” or “… when we landed on the moon?”
The Beatles arrival in America may not have had the same moral implications as those other historical events, but it certainly had cultural ones. 73 million people tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show on that February night in 1964. It was the first big moment for television, with an estimated 34% of America watching the performance. While young music fans (and their unimpressed parents) had previously met acts like Elvis Presley through the medium, never before had so many people tuned in to share one moment.
Following the Fab Four’s performance, critics denounced the band as “catastrophic” and just a “fad” (“guitars are on the way out!” proclaimed one reviewer) but sales were off the charts. Even if buyers were initially interested in the band’s haircuts, they ultimately bought records.
From where I sit today, on the business side of the music industry, I recognize that what happened that night on Ed Sullivan can’t happen again, but not just because record sales are down…. READ MORE
PS - I've started moving most of my writing over to Medium (which, interestingly enough, was founded by the guy who built Blogger... imagine if he'd stayed at Blogger / Google... maybe this would be Medium instead... alas, I digress...).

Friday, October 04, 2013

Recap: Exploring songwriting with The National and The Recording Academy

Last night the Bay Area chapter of The Recording Academy hosted a special evening with Matt and Aaron from The National, as part of an ongoing 'exploring songwriting' series. 

At the onset, Matt mentioned that The National has been a band for 14 years, but that it took eight before the band garnered any real attention. Overnight success is rare in this industry, even when you're a master of your craft. (Shout out to my former colleagues at Paste for what I think was The National's first major cover story and 'Album of the Year' nod?). 

The duo played four songs, including "Pink Rabbits" and "I Need My Girl" from the new album Trouble Will Find Me, and sat down for a Q&A about what it's like to be songwriting in a band with five "smart and stubborn" people.

Here are some of the quotes I caught through the evening. 

"It took a few years before we knew what we were doing -- the alchemy of the band.... We never wrote big hooks... we weren't influenced by that desire.... But eventually we did write infectious songs."

Aaron: "You realize you have to have a sense of conviction because if you release a record and you tour, you're going to live with those song for two years, so you better have conviction, and you better love it.... The first two records [The National and Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers] were really about figuring it out."

Matt: "I will pop [an instrumental] track on Garage Band and mumble along.... It's hard to tell which pieces of music will create the chemistry I can connect to.... For each record, we have 50-60 pieces of music, and only 20 I connect with."

Matt: "You get five people who are smart and stubborn... pulling it in different directions.... We were afraid the band would break up. We were desperate to make it good...Boxer, we got thru it... though Aaron's lung collapsed..."

Aaron: "We call our songs ugly ducklings... It takes a lot of hard work, and faith that you will get [to a final product]."

Matt: "I'm never worried I'm going to write a sad song. I always do... But it is never depressing; it is cathartic... Once lyrics start to get fleshed out we think, 'Maybe the strings are too much now'.... We have to be careful of the melodrama."

Thanks to The Recording Academy and the band for the insight.

If you're a musician or otherwise involved in music creation, definitely consider membership in The Recording Academy. I've been to a number of events like this and they just keep getting better. Great people in attendance, too.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A letter to Matt Nathanson, regarding the money I surely owe him

Dear Matt Nathanson,

A friend RT'd about your upcoming show at Amoeba, and I thought, "Sweet! A free Matt Nathanson gig?! In my neighborhood?! Heck yeah!"

Then it occurred to me that every interaction I've had with your music so far has been "free"... and that made me pretty sad and also a bit embarrassed. 

You see, back in 2004 I went to see The Darkness perform in Atlanta. On the way out of the venue, a slightly aggressive college kid (presumably on a street team) gave me a swag-bag from Tower Records (RIP), which contained your single, "Suspended." Though I'd seen your name on some adverts for The Cotton Club (RIP) I had never heard your music until I got home and put that CD in my computer.

Holycow! I wore that single OUT! I listened to it so many times that I could name-that-tune as soon as I heard that first snare note.

A year later, I went work at a music magazine and discovered even more of your music, like At the Point, in the CD library and, well, borrowed it for long periods of time. When this thing called Pandora happened shortly thereafter, your music was all over my stations. I wasn't surprised when a Pandora exec told me that "Curve of the Earth" was surfaced more than any other song at the time. I probably contributed to a lot of those Thumbs-Up votes myself.

So back to the Amoeba thing, because this isn't meant to be a gushing fan letter...

I realized when I read your tweet that I've never paid you a single cent for all the music I've consumed. Not a penny.

You know how much money I've given The Darkness? $60.00, give-or-take... and I'm not even a fan!

I still work in the industry and know that there's a prevailing argument that, by listening to your music and recommending it to my friends, fans like me have had some kind of pass-along economic impact. Yet in my case, I don't think that's anecdotally true. In fact, I asked my four closest friends, "How did you find out about Matt Nathanson?" hoping they would say, "Because of you! Because you teach me everything I need to know about music!" Instead, two cited Pandora, one thought it was because of the radio, and the fourth said she covered one of your early concerts for a college paper and was probably the one who introduced ME to your music...

Maybe the radio royalties have added up, and maybe every fan who feels like she discovered your music has made an impact, but the fact remains that I've never consciously paid you for your work and I know I've consumed my fair share of it. So, I'd like to remedy that -- not by buying merch or sending money through a long chain of middlemen who will take a cut... no, I'd like to write you a personal check. 

Even for that original copy of "Suspended" I'd owe you, like, $3.40 if we considered interest and inflation. That's almost enough to get a good cup of pour over coffee in the Mission. But, heck, I've listened to a lot more than that single: let's one-up The Darkness with $61.00.

Should we arrange a hand-off at Amoeba? Do you prefer PayPal? Square? Venmo? I'm serious about this. It'll be like supporting a retroactive Kickstarter campaign. And maybe that's where this industry is heading.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Independent musicians and Google Play Music All Access

If you ask me, I have one of the coolest jobs at Google: to create success stories for independent musicians on Google Play.

From my time as a music critic and band manager, I can tell you that no two musicians are the same, whether it's in the art they create or the ways they want to share that art with the world. Some artists will put their music anywhere to gain exposure with new audiences, while others are more particular about how their music is sold.

There's no right or wrong answer in this brave new digital world, which is why I'm proud of what we've built within the Google Play artist hub

Through the artist hub, independent musicians make the decisions about how their music is distributed on Google Play. Since there are no limits to how many albums you can distribute, and no per-album or annual fees, we've seen artists doing all kinds of interesting things with their music, like posting recordings from live shows. Still others, like The Civil Wars, Lindsey Stirling and Kopecky Family Band, have climbed our charts with studio recordings, after distributing through the artist hub.

Many musicians don't realize that iTunes isn't available on Android devices, but Google Play is. With over 900 million activated Android devices out in the world, that's a lot of potential fans for any musician to reach.

With the roll out of the All Access service on Google Play Music, we're giving musicians another option for distributing their music via the artist hub. Just as you can choose how and where your music is sold on Google Play, you choose whether to make your music available on All Access.

When you do, any All Access subscriber can easily add your music to their collection. Imagine your tracks popping up in a personalized radio station, or in a playlist handcrafted by the Google Play editorial team. I've been blown away by how spot on the recommendations are. Opening a Third Eye Blind radio station delivered songs more fitting than what I put on my own mix tape in 1998.

Independent artists can opt-in entire albums or just specific tracks for All Access.

1. Log-in to the artist hub at
2. Click on an album you want to add to All Access
3. Select "Edit Album Details"
4. Review the "All Access Setting"
5. Click "Publish changes"

The best part is that music fans in the US, Europe and Australia will still be able to buy your tracks, too (if you've opted-in to international distribution). Now you have two ways to earn money and find more fans.  

We know the money stuff can get confusing when it comes to streaming, so we've provided transparency and clarity in our Support Center.

At the end of the day, musicians want to create music, and not TPS reports, for a reason. It's our goal to help artists spend less time on the business of their music so they can get back to making it.

Cheers to the next chapter of Google Play.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Find your Simon Cowell

Everyone likes to paint Simon Cowell as the mean guy. After all, the thing he says most often is, "I don't mean to be rude, but...."

Even if he's a little mean, Simon knows what he's talking about and he tells it like it is. That honesty can break fragile hearts, but you know what? It's better to hear that kind of feedback and learn from it than it is to keep unrealistic expectations and wonder why your dream hasn't come true.

When I see a musician (or any artist, really) who is blindsided by criticism or else very defensive, I guess that he or she hasn't had a Simon in their life. It's a rare but valuable person who will tell you what you need to hear.

It can be hard to find someone who will be honest with you about your talents. People who are inclined to love you and celebrate you, like your family and friends, are bias. These people make a great support system, but probably not the best critics.

I love what Alex Day wrote about this a few months ago, too.
"... my audience like me so I don’t trust them to be objective about my music. 'This is great! It’s new music from you!'.... If the people that listen to my music have good ideas about writing music, then they should be writing music. But if they don’t, they shouldn’t. It’s like any job – if there is someone who doesn’t have experience of working in that industry, you don’t ask them for advice. I like cars, but I don’t know how to build a good car. It’s the same thing. Just pick out two or three people you really trust and listen to them. If a band plays a new song at a gig and asks if the crowd like it, of course they are going to cheer. It’s not as if they are going to say it’s shit!"
If you believe in your dream, be confident enough to solicit and accept feedback. Too often people turn to "vanity stats" (such as the number of Facebook 'Likes' or Twitter followers they have) for positive reinforcement. But those things don't really tell you why people do or don't like your music.

Find someone who's opinion you trust and ask them to maintain honesty with you, especially before you find your success. As one musician reminded me, "The more popular you get, the more people will tell you what you want to hear so that they can get close to you."