Behind the Scenes: Back to the Future

Wednesday was “Back to the Future Day”, meaning it was the day Doc, Marty, Jennifer, and Einstein visited in 2015 in Back to the Future Part II. So, in other words, we’re further in the future now than they ever were in that movie. Let that sink in.

HitFix has a great piece with some behind-the-scenes info about the iconic use of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.

“We didn’t have an alternative,” Gale said.

The 1958 Chuck Berry song was in every version of the script from the earliest draft. (Though the first draft also had Marty transitioning from “Johnny B. Goode” to “Rock Around the Clock.”)

Gale recalls there being a period of two or three weeks when they worried they wouldn’t get the rights to the song. But Howe came through, and the production paid somewhere between $50,000 and $75,000 for the rights, as Gale recalls. “However much it was, it was very expensive in 1985 to pay that much for a song,” he said.

It ended up being worth it. The scene was a hit with test audiences in the months preceding the release and remains a fan favorite moment 30 years later.”

What Is Tidal’s Problem?

Since Jay-Z relaunched his music streaming company Tidal in March, I’ve watched their progress with interest.

The streaming music market is a crowded space. In order to succeed, a business can’t simply be a “Me Too” service. It has to be easier to use, have more and/or exclusive content, have better features, be cheaper, or – even better – have more than one of these qualities.

Tidal has HD audio and some exclusive content. According to some, their interface is better than other services. That should be enough for them to at least have a small but dedicated user base, but I think there are two reasons they’re struggling (so much so that Jay-Z has forgotten about it): a) Higher price, and b) Mismanaged PR.

Today’s NY Times piece by Jon Caramanica hits the nail on the head when it comes to Tidal’s mismanaged PR woes:

“It’s hard to see Tidal as something other than an oligarchic hustle when it primarily engages in oligarchic behavior. At this show, Damian Marley was introduced as “the newest artist-owner of Tidal” — the room shrugged. People generally don’t root for corporations.”

October Sixteenth

There’s nothing more surreal than waking up in a hospital bed in a morphine haze, turning on the national news, and seeing the charter bus – mangled by an impact and the jaws of life – that you’d boarded 10 hours previously.

Ten years ago today, I was in college and working several part-time jobs. One of my gigs was instructing front-line percussion for my old high school’s marching band – a decorated, tightly-knit, huge band of bright and motivated kids. The band had just performed at the state championship competition in Whitewater, WI the previous night. They’d performed well, received high marks, and enjoyed a brief, energetic celebration before climbing on the buses. We were scheduled to get home by 3 AM. I took my spot on “Bus 1” and hoped to get some sleep before my college wind ensemble concert scheduled for the next day.

Thirty miles from home, unbeknownst to our bus caravan, a young truck driver a few miles up the road from us over-corrected after his semi started to veer into a steep ditch. The truck ended up on its side, jackknifed in such a way that it blocked all the westbound lanes of I-94. The bottom of the truck, the side without reflectors, was facing oncoming traffic. Based on a later NTSB re-creation, it would have been nearly impossible for our bus driver to see the truck in time to apply the brakes.

My bus, the first in the caravan, slammed into the truck at about 70 mph. Nearly everyone other than the bus driver was asleep at the time. I was sitting in the fourth row of the bus. I suffered life-threatening, disabling injuries. My right ankle and all the bones in that leg were broken. My right foot was dislocated (which is a thing that can happen, believe it or not). I continue to suffer from soft tissue damage that was done to my knee and ankle.  I had a fractured finger, a fractured bone next to my eye, a bad concussion, bruises, contusions, upholstery burns, and – most serious of all – deep lacerations on my scalp which severed an artery.

I was tended to by some brave first-responders and EMTs. When I got to the hospital, I received a massive blood transfusion and careful surgical work which saved my life. In my first couple of hours there, while they were prepping me for x-rays and surgery, the nurses answered my questions. I found out there were many people injured, some hurt as badly as me. I knew everyone on that bus: they were close friends, fellow staffers, former teachers, and students of mine.

I learned what I already suspected: There were fatalities. Five, actually.

Doug Greenhalgh, known to his students as “G”, was my boss and former band director. More than that, though, he was a great mentor and friend to myself and many, many others. He was 48 years old. His beloved wife Therese, 51, and their granddaughter Morgan, just 11 years old, also lost their lives that day. The bus driver, 78-year-old Paul Rasmus, was a retired veteran who had continued to drive our band because he liked working with us so much. Branden Atherton, who turned 24 that day, was a skilled educator, a classmate at my university, and a new friend to me.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it definitely offers a salve. It has been ten years, and it sure has felt like ten years. Three thousand, six hundred and fifty-two days. Sixteen surgeries, performed by six different surgeons. Countless days on crutches and in physical therapy; quite a few mornings when I need to use my cane.

But I’ve been keeping track of other stuff, too. In that ten years, I’ve achieved a BA and an MA. I met and married a great guy. We bought a home and added another kitty to the household. We’ve traveled quite a bit. I landed a job I like in a city I love. I’ve made a lot of friends, tried new foods, and taken up new hobbies. Throughout it all, I’ve had unwavering support from the people who care about me.

To all my other Cardinals today; to all the UWEC people; to my friends, family, and everyone who was touched by this tragedy in some way: May the good of your next ten years outweigh the bad.

And because this is a music blog, here’s a mini-playlist of music that always makes me think of my time at Chi-Hi:

Forever Cardinal Bound.

Tracking Down Publishers

Wall Street Journal’s Ethan Smith has a good piece today, written with admirable clarity, about some of the difficulties in tracking down publisher royalties. A proposed solution:

“The NMPA is contemplating a proposal simply to apportion the unclaimed royalties based on its members’ market share.”

I think it would be more productive to ask or compel record labels to share publisher/songwriter information for their recordings.

“Songwriter and publisher information isn’t typically included in the “metadata” that record companies include with songs when they upload them to services making it difficult for the service to know whom to pay.”

Labels do have this information for some (if not all) of their catalogs, but since they don’t have to share it, other companies have to piece it together. It would be helpful for services to have this information. In the meantime, companies like mine are working hard to track down every rights holder.

Moored Music

When Amazon Dies“, a recent piece in The Atlantic, is an interesting look at one of the biggest hurdles for converting “a la carte” (or “cloud”) service users to subscription streaming services:  Users want to keep the content they’ve purchased. But when a service goes away or an account is deactivated, any content that was saved “in the cloud” disappears too.

Other than books (which I read on my Kindle), I generally prefer subscription services to a la carte and download models for two reasons:

1.) Unlike a download or a la carte streaming service, paying a subscription rate allows you unlimited access to the service’s catalog. I currently have a Beats subscription, which has just about every album/artist/track I can think of. When that service goes away, I’ll be sad, but then I’ll subscribe to another service where I’ll have access to a catalog that is – to me, anyway – functionally the same. I won’t feel like my subscription was a sunk cost, because I’m paying for continued access to a broad catalog, rather than buying access to specific albums which may or may not remain available to me later.

2.) If you’re using an a la carte streaming service, there’s no guarantee your music will always be available to you. In fact, it’s not really “yours”. Depending on the service, Digital Rights Management (DRM) may be in effect. DRM can limit the number of devices to which you copy your music, and any retroactive changes in territory restrictions can mean content gets pulled from your cloud streaming library after a “takedown” is issued. Personally, I’d rather pay for a subscription service. If an album I want to listen to gets taken down, at least I didn’t pay for just that album.

The downside to switching services, however, is the thought of losing playlists. This one isn’t a big deal to me either, actually. I tend to listen to music while I’m working, so I’m a big fan of playlists that are “curated” by someone else, rather than ones I create. It’s nice to hear a variety music I enjoy without having to invest time into setting up the playlist. I may be an outlier – I know a lot of people enjoy crafting the perfect playlists for partying, studying, cleaning, etc.

I think the connection to our playlists goes deeper, though, than the time and thought we’ve put into them. To a large extent, the music we choose is part of our identities, especially when we share our tastes with others. Most people remember the first physical album/tape/CD they purchased. Everyone loves to play DJ at parties. Vinyl collecting has been enjoying a resurgence for years, partly because records can be arrayed on shelves in the living room for everyone to admire. When we lose that ability to curate and show off music, we lose part of that connection. Music becomes fully intangible.

So how do we incorporate an interest in media ownership into an increasingly digital world? Possibly a playlist-porting service like Soundiiz has potential, but I’d like it better if it was fully independent from any existing service – i.e., if it wasn’t owned by a streaming service.

Perhaps sharing what we’re listening to on social networks is the way of the future, but that’s exactly what put me off Spotify in the past. From what I remember, in Spotify’s early days, an account had to be linked with a social media account, and by default it would update your Facebook page with the music you’d been listening to. Beyond the added clutter, I never liked that feature because there was a whiff of trying-too-hard. It’s “cool” for people to accidentally notice you’re listening to Morton Feldman at work, or to casually mention you’re listening to the perennially-hip Miles Davis while cooking, or to namedrop on a blog. But when you’re developing the “perfect” playlist to push to the news feeds of all your friends, it’s just not interesting anymore. Plus, there’s always the chance of accidentally admitting Mariah Carey is sometimes your jam.

What’s the answer, then, to our ownership dilemma? I think it’s some combination of playlist portability and social media sharing, or possibly just one or the other, but with better execution than previous attempts. I think time will tell.

Last Week’s News

Here are a few good articles from last week:

The Verge: How Spotify’s Discover Weekly Cracked Human Curation at Internet Scale

I’ve been following advances in music “curation” technology with interest. Ben Popper’s interview offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the industry’s current wunderkind, The Echo Nest.

The New Yorker: What Kind of Genius Is Max Martin?

I had a passing familiarity with Max Martin’s influence, but John Seabrook’s bio piece is well worth a read. Martin’s songwriting forTaylor Swift adds a layer of complexity to the discussion about Swift, Ryan Adams, and gender bias in music reviews.

Grantland: How Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ Kicked Off the Streaming Revolution

Steven Hyden’s piece on Radiohead’s Kid A as a milestone in album-length streaming is interesting, though it doesn’t match my own experience of streaming music’s history. Despite Hyden’s assertion that Kid A blazed a trail of leaked albums, it wasn’t hard in 2000 to find streaming music online. I don’t know if Hyden is being revisionist here, or if he simply means this was one of the first albums (if not the first) to be leaked by a record label itself, but leaks were common all through the ’90s (Stephen Witt’s book shares a fascinating history of music availability online – a history that meshes better with my own memory of the ’90s).

Radiohead did shift the paradigm with a later album, In Rainbows, which was released online as pay-what-you-want after their dispute with EMI.