When people talk about music piracy, it almost always carries a 21st century slant— Napster, Pirates Bay, iPods and so on. As it turns, battles over who has a right to make and sell music has a FAR longer history, one that stretches from the jazz loving Hot Record Society in the 1940s to acid-fried hippies trying to take Dylan to the people, and the battles around sampling that reshaped hip hop in the 90s. To learn more, we talked to Dr. Alex Sayf Cummings, whose book “Democracy of Sound” dives into the long and messy story of how folks on the outside of the industry (and often, the law) remade the systems of copyright and ownership that define our favorite sonic commodity. Come for the Basement Tapes and Biz Markie. Stay for the story of Modular Records, owned and operated by FBI undercover agents.
In the last month, the music world has gone positively gaga for NFT’s, the blockchain-based goods that (some say) promise to transform basic dynamics of the industry, bypassing major labels, reversing decades of artistic austerity, and basically doing everything short of reuniting the Beatles. We…aren’t so sure. Saxon and Sam dig into the phenomenon, trying to separate pump-and-dump tech-bro scams from the genuine potentials of technology. Are NFTs digital beanie babies? Almost certainly yes. Could the blockchain remake music forever? Also… yes. More importantly, some version of this future is coming. And if we don’t figure it out, Elon Musk wins.
On this **Bonus** episode, music journalist Stephen Thomas Erlewine talks with Saxon Baird about the death of the greatest hits album, the encyclopedic glory of Allmusic, The White Stripes and more.
Christian music and especially Christian rock is a world of its own, a self-contained universe that mirrors the trends and styles of the mainstream. But how does it work? And what can it tell us about the interactions between audiences and industries that structure popular music? We talk to Andrew Mall, the author of “God Rock Inc.: The Business of Niche Music” to explore everything from the Jesus People to Christian Metalcore, while discussing how the complex relationship between sacred and secular pop can help us understand the ethics, aesthetics, and boundaries that define musical genre.
When we first covered the vast amounts of cash that companies like Hipgnosis were throwing into the music publishing market, we thought things had hit some sort of insane peak. Well were we VERY wrong. In the months since, the press has been filled with one enormous deal after another, peaking (at least for now) in the reported sale of Dylan’s entire catalog for 300+ million dollars. But does…any of this make business sense? Or is it just rank speculation? And how will it shape the future of music? To sort things out, we got together a dream team—Cherie Hu of Water & Music and David Turner of Penny Fractions—to talk through what’s happening and what might come next.
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We talk to writer and critic Liz Pelly who has long been one of the most astute critics of the modern musical economy. But while we all know that streaming is broken—what comes next? Liz has recently been exploring a set of new platforms that are seeking to create alternatives to existing industry structures. We dig into everything from public library-based programs that support local music to swing-for-the-fences proposals for government intervention in the streaming markets. Tomorrow’s ethical consumption—today!
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What’s a consent decree and why did one over 80 years old recently make headlines? Sam and Saxon explore the Department of Justice's latest decision to NOT remake the music industry, before diving into the history of ASCAP, BMI, and Tin Pan Alley to figure out some of the shady battles at the heart of payouts and this whole performing rights thing. BUT FIRST—we talk King Gizzard commodities, re-contextualized profit-centers, and Tom Lehrer’s copyright end-run. Something for the whole family, as long as your family are exclusively music lawyers.
For decades, greatest hits albums were inescapable. They summed up artists’ careers, provided intros to unknown sounds, and served as a dependable cash-grab for labels that were able to resell music they had already paid for. But now? Seems like they’re more or less done for, killed by the infinite "playlistification" of all things (unless you're trying to make a retro statement...hello White Stripes!) We spend some thinking through what the greatest hits was, what it did, and what that might tell us about the art-form shaping format known as the album. ALSO—we talk through some of the most influential greatest hits albums of all time, from the Eagles to Bob Marley.
Further reading / listening:
A Major #Mood: Spotify, Labels, and our Dismal Streaming Future - Money 4 Nothing
Why the Death of the Greatest Hits Albums and reissues is Worth Mourning - Stephen Thomas Erlewine (Pitchfork)
The Great War Against Singles - Hit Parade (Slate)
Well, THAT was awful. As 2020 death crawls to a close, we sort through the rise of live music streaming and how it exploded in popularity as artists looked for ways to replace touring during the pandemic lockdown. Also, we talk live venues getting a last minute lifeline from the U.S. Gov thanks to the massive #SaveOurStages movement and how music and musicians responded to the Black Lives Matter protests. Saxon is out this week, but we have Official Streaming Correspondent Jessi Olsen to help Sam think through it all.
Repetition. Shouting. Culture Vulture Remixes. A 50 billion dollar company based on a vast strata of underplayed musicians. Viral dances. Tik Tok has it all! For this episode, Sam and Saxon asked Pitchfork’s Cat Zhang to bring us down the rabbit hole and into an app that is transforming how music functions, maybe forever. or…maybe it’s just another step towards the commodification of all social life? PLUS—the meme economy of bearded yellow dragons.
Read Cat Zhang's writing on TikTok and more via Pitchfork