What happens if you or your band is good, like—really good? You get SIGNED. A record contract! You've made it!....or did you? The fact that major label contracts aren’t particularly fair is well known, but what if they’re doing more than just ripping off artists and an empty promise? In his recent book, “Getting Signed: Record Contracts, Musicians, and Power in Society,” Scholar David Arditi argues that label contracts are actually a key element in an ideological system that structures popular music, one that stretches from the Grammys or The Voice to your local Battle of the Bands and the basic assumptions of friends and family. Taking a long hard look at one of the central building blocks of the modern music industry, Arditi helps Sam and Saxon think through why labels retain their power despite changing technology—and how that landscape could shift in the future.
The streaming economy—and much of the discourse around it—is based on a simple promise: all of the music. Not some of the music, not most of the music, but ALL of the music being available to stream on-demand. But as we all know, the cloud is far from complete. Artists from De La Soul to Aaliyah have long been absent, while entire eras of music blogs, mid-aughts mixtape culture and MySpace emo bands are simply unavailable, perhaps forever (RIP to the glory days of G-Unit, Dipset and your high school's best Dashboard Confessional impersonator). And while there are a few outlets still holding it down (insert prayer emoji for DatPiff), there is a sense that they are consistently under threat of soon disappearing as well. So on this episode, Sam and Saxon decide to take a look at music streaming from its margins, trying to think through what musical erasure can tell us about the future of listening, fandom, history and more.
When Lee "Scratch" Perry left this world on August 29th, we lost a towering figure of 20th century culture as a producer, singer, and trailblazer who spent decades at the forefront of Jamaican music. And while there has been a wave of articles celebrating the legacy of "The Upsetter," Saxon and Sam thought there had been far too little examination of the economic, political, social, religious and cultural background that structured his career, shaped his genius and cultivated his eccentric persona. Just how did Perry go from being born in a poverty-stricken rural part of Jamaica and raised on lasting Yoruba traditions in a post-slavery, heavily-colonized island to becoming a major player in the rise of reggae, Bob Marley, dub and the Jamaican music industry? Along the way they also discuss Jamaican political violence caught in a cold-war struggle, the neocolonial character of a predatory western music industry, Rastafarian politics, the cottage music scene of Kingston, the anti-colonial resonances of Perry’s lyrical style and how the man was to eventually capitalized on the heavily-commodified global reggae market we know today. Come for the legend of Black Ark--stay for Mr. Brown and his coffin.
"People Funny Boy" by David Katz
MTV had a remarkably unheralded 40th anniversary this month. While Music Television (still the channel’s official name) has been out of music videos for decades, it was a truly transformative force for a long struggling record industry back in the early 80s. Diving into those early years, Sam and Saxon go long on this episode and try to figure out how a scrappy little corporation (fully backed by America Express and Warner Media, natch) managed to get a nation of teenagers watching everything from Duran Duran and Michael Jackson to U2—and then pick through what happened next, as a flurry of backroom deals and monopolistic plans quickly strangled the channel’s brief moment of (alleged?) cultural invention. Along the way, we’ll talk about the pleasures of yelling at cable companies, the difficulties of media history, and try to figure out just what it means—both then and now—to mix images and sound.
What would happen if a government took a serious look at the music industry and decided everything wasn’t alright? To our surprise, the UK Parliament has done just that, issuing a blistering report on label consolidation, monopolistic abuses, and streaming payouts—and issuing some interesting suggestions about how things could change. To help us dig in, we're lucky to have David Turner of the must-read of the Penny Fractions newsletter back on the show. We talk about the potential benefits of payola, the systemic oppression of advances, the awe-inspiring power of government-backed research, and why it’s so important to start music biz histories before the year 2000. As imperfect as they are, reports like this suggest a change might be coming. Figuring out what parts make sense—and what parts simply don’t—is vital prep work for the future.
The Grateful Dead are one of America’s weirdest musical stories, an avalanche of tie-dyed hippies, 30-minute drum solos, acid, and endless, endless touring. But over their 30+ year career, the band also proved themselves to be incredibly prescient, helping to create everything from noise cancelling headphones and concert live-streaming to the “experience economy.” In fact, the idea of distributing free music to enable live shows that they invented has become the basic model of the industry overall. To learn more about how the Dead’s unique approach helped lay the groundwork for the 21st century, we talked to Jesse Jarnow, Author of Heads: A Biography of Psychadelic America, and the co-host of the Dead-Cast. He filled us in on the philosophy of “FREE,” dead-head-tech, and...how much Jerry just didn’t want to be a cop.
It can feel hard to believe, but it seems like live music in the US might be coming back (finally). Which also means that bands and fans are getting ready to line up and spend a LOT of time and money with the concert behemoth that is Live Nation / Ticketmaster, a massive public corporation with a lock on the American concert industry. But how did these companies achieve their position? What exactly does a promoter do anyway? And what was the deal with that whole Pearl Jam vs. Ticketmaster thing? Sam and Saxon celebrate the return of the road with a deep dive into the touring industry—from the secondary-market-formerly-known-as-scalping to the unexpected heroism of Garth Brooks. Turn the page, baby. Turn the page.
0:20 - Live music is back and the economy of music gets rolling.
2:10 - Sill work to be done: Small indie venues haven’t re-opened, Save Our Stages still hasn’t paid their government bail out money and the behind the scenes jobs are yet to be filled.
4:30 - Rewriting the Pearl Jam vs. Ticketmaster narrative.
8:30 - The most popular rock band in America tries to go on tour without Ticketmaster.
11:00 - How event ticketing originally work and why it was a mess.
12:30 - Ticketmaster changes the game on the back of new technologies and becomes central to the music industry.
14:30 - The rise of the “service fee.”
15:15 - Breakdown of where the money goes in the price of ticket.
19:40 - How Pearl Jam wanted to lower ticket prices without putting a dent in their cut.
21:00 - Was Pearl Jam full of sh*t??
24:00 - The tension of what live music is worth, who should get paid and the difficulty in assessing what is appropriate price of a ticket.
28:30 - Are Pearl Jam and Ticketmaster on the same side of the coin?
30:50 -There are endless shades of grey in the big complicated machine that is the music industry.
32:00 - Beavis and Butthead interlude.
33:25 - How today’s ticketing industry became the monster it is.
37:30 - How Live Nation changed the game and started throwing its weight around.
43:00 - An elite class of venues and bands develops.
44:30 - As the biggest artists begin to squeeze Live Nation, the company looks elsewhere for profit in ticketing.
46:30 - How the industry that Live Nation built out is deleterious to music and monopolistic.
49:00 - Is the current state of the music industry unsustainable, even for Live Nation?
50:30 - The rise of festivals.
52:00 - How the price of the ticket can reflect on an artist’s brand and its relationship with fans.
55:10 - The development of the secondary ticket market and Live Nation’s move into this market to supplement a lack of profit.
59:30 - The inefficiencies of an industry focused on extracting profit in new ways might be its dead end.
01:01:00- How big artists have reacted to keeping tickets at a fair price.
01:04:00 - The stakes at play and is there a more fair and livable alternative?
01:05:15 - Understanding the complexities of this live music industry and its inequalities.
Award-winning poet Morgan Parker talks with Saxon Baird about Fugazi, having a DIY ethos and how to navigate being an artist in the tangled web of an exploitative, capitalist system.
Further Listening: Can Fugazi help us imagine a better future for music?
Follow Morgan Parker @morganapple
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When talking about West Coast gangster rap, the focus is usually on the era-defining stars who reigned during 1990s—Dr. Dre, Tupac, and Snoop Dog foremost among them. In her new book, “To Live and Defy in LA: How Gangster Rap Changed America,” Professor Felicia Angeja Viator argues that starting with the success of Dr. Dre's The Chronic or even N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton leaves out half the story. The aesthetic and cultural innovations of gangster rap were deeply rooted in the political economy of Black L.A., a space defined by entrepreneurial DJs, omnipresent police brutality, deindustrialization, a thriving gang culture, and the tantalizing access to the power and prestige of Hollywood. This history is essential for understanding how West Coast rappers were able to snatch New York’s spotlight, transforming Hip Hop into a national musical form, and laying the groundwork for...pretty much all of the pop culture produced since. Come for a revaluation of Eazy-E. Stay to find out which Parliament track is best suited for stopping a teenage brawl.
02:40 - How Los Angeles plays a special roll in hip-hop and is instrumental in the genre crossing over
06:00 - LA Mobile DJ crews from the early '80s lay the groundwork through massive parties and DIY networking with local radio stations and gangs
11:20 - Egyptian Lover and what early LA “hip-hop ”sounded like
15:20 - What early '80s LA mobile dance parties played and how a Parliament song was used to keep the peace
19:35 - The relationship of early LA hip-hop to gang culture and the underground economies of South Central
21:00 - How cash from the drug trade can support underground music and that gets racialized
25:20 - Eazy-E saw music as a way out of the drug trade and a more sustainable income
26:30 - While punk wanted to stay on the margins, hip-hop was on margins and wanted to be part of the mainstream for inclusion and monetary reward
29:00 - The malevolent presence of the militarized LAPD in black communities, and its negative impact historically on black arts in LA
32:00 - The use of “the batteram,” a military vehicle bought by the LAPD to bulldoze crack houses in an effort to catch drug dealers in the act
34:30 - Toddy Tee’s song “Batteram” and the fear of the vehicle in south central LA
38:00 - The use of popular hip-hop beats and parody by Toddy Tee and Ice Cube to localize hip-hop in LA
40:40 - The use of explicit blue material and its legacy in music and hip-hop
41:30 - How Run-DMC’s sound influences up and coming Los Angeles hip-hop artists to create something uniquely local
43:20 - The beginnings of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright and how he carves out a space in the local LA hip-hop scene
47:45 - Ruthless Records and NWA attempt to walk the line between embracing the fears of growing gang culture in LA while expressing their grievances in an effort to gain notoriety and publicity
48:46 - The complicated politics of the “Straight Outta Compton” music video
51:00 - Ice Cube goes on a press tour that is both political and publicity — calling out MTV for banning their video while criticizing the LAPD
54:00 - Was the PR savviness of NWA related to being in a major American media center ?
56:40 - The success of Dennis Hopper’s LA-based cop film “Colors” and its effect on America’s perception of the gang culture in South Central Los Angeles
1:00:00 - The Rodney King uprising, Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” wrestles the spotlight on rap, and hip-hop crosses over
1:02:00 - LA opens the door and offers a model for regional rap in places like LA and elsewhere.
1:06:00 - Gangsta rap goes commercial without losing its commitment to being deliberately rooted in local black experiences, and how that opens the door for other hip-hop artists to go in other directions
1:08:00 - Hip-hop can uniquely stay committed to a local scene while still having an eye on the national mainstream
Ever since they appeared in the late 80’s, the legendary D.C. rock band Fugazi has stood as the absolute pinnacle of stick-to-your-guns DIY success. Holding prices to $5 shows and $10 albums, refusing to make merch or sign to a major label, the group still managed to sell hundreds of thousands of records and created diehard fans across the world. Since they went on “indefinite hiatus” in the early 2000’s, the group’s reputation has only grown. But what—if anything—can their way of running a band teach us in the utterly transformed and technologically-driven musical landscape of the 2020’s? More than you might think. Saxon and Sam dig into what Fugazi did and how it worked, in an effort to try to tease out some lessons and possibilities for the present-day underground.
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