We thought that the best way to start the new year would be by…clearing up the various misconceptions, random questions, playful hassles, and outright stumpers generated by the old. Our listeners have hit us with a series of questions in recent months, and we’re going to do our best to answer them. Radio stations and advertising? Got you. State-owned Russian streaming service rivaling Spotify? Got you. Curated histories via new tech platforms and how that impacts musical preservation? Got you. Is the Theremin real? No. ALSO: We pull out the ol’ crystal ball, consult the astrological charts, and talk through the stories we’re most excited to cover in the coming months -- web3, Doja Cat's social media excellence and whether Hipgnosis will ever make back their money on Neil Young's catalog.
Money 4 Nothing goes to the movies! With the holidays upon us, Sam and Saxon decided it would be a nice to time to kick back, pull out the popcorn, and watch one of the more intriguing music docs in a year full of them. That’s right folks—in a fit of accurate choices, we’ve decided to spend an episode talking Sparks, the legendary cult band whose lengthy, make-no-compromises career is the subject of the recent film “The Sparks Brothers.” Ostensibly the story of the best band that never made it…the movie offers a unique perspective on how the record industry changed over the last half century—from the “maybe it’ll hit in England” vibes of the early 70’s to the box-set gentrification of the teens to the Pitchfork-ization of music. But what if the band never made it [dramatic film music]…because “making it” was a changing target? Come for the sick Giorgio Moroder cameo. Stay for Saxon's true feelings about mid-career David Bowie.
In the last few years, "Spotify Wrapped" has ascended the seasonal pantheon for music lovers. Come December, our social media feeds are inundated with detailed numerical statistics from friends and relatives, breaking down their yearly listening habits. It’s inescapable. But why do we love it? And what does it tell us about where we are as listeners? Saxon and Sam dig into the jolliest form of surveillance capitalism since Santa Clause, unpacking the ideology–and the business—of this musical elf-on-a-shelf. Also—some heavy memorials, first to the brilliant music writer Greg Tate, and then the King of the Low-End, Robbie Shakespeare. May their memories be a blessing.
One of the the biggest music stories of this past year is Universal Music Group going public for...billions. If the question wasn't already answered over the past decade, the Majors are back baby. But what does Universal’s ever-inflating valuation tell us about the music business and it's future? What future does Lucian Grainge, CEO of UMG, envision and are all our listening habits and the culture of music guided by his hand? To understand how we got here, Sam and Saxon go back in time to when the label was just the glimmer in a glass of a CEO's Seagram’s whiskey (no, literally). We explore how Universal grew to industry dominance, from the frothy tech boom of the late 90s to the equally frothy tech boom of the late 2010’s, and puzzle through what its Roblox-chain-panopticon stranglehold on the industry holds in store for artists and fans and gamers and Tik-Tok and Peloton riders and...basically anywhere that anyone listens to music now.
It’s been 20 years since Apple launched the iPod and a lot has changed in the music industry…as in everything. The mp3, iTunes, Spotify, penny fractions for streams, UMG's recent IPO, music catalogs as attractive asset class, 360 deals and the list goes on. The launch of the iPod doesn’t explain everything in how we got here, but it's undeniably a major watershed moment for a deeper understanding of this history. Saxon interviews award-winning journalist Eamonn Forde about his recent piece in The Guardian on the iPod's 20th anniversary to grapple with all of this, leading to a sprawling and insightful interview examining the current state of the music business and technology. Also, Saxon and Sam discuss briefly the tragic events around Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert and challenge popular media narratives by asking about the responsibility of Live Nation in this horrifying incident.
Read Forde's piece in The Guardian
How is music made? Not how do record companies work, but how is music made? And where does it go after we're done with it? According to Kyle Devine, a professor of Musicology at the University of Oslo, we’ve all been paying far too little to this story, closing our eyes to the environmental implications of our favorite sounds. Kyle talks to Saxon and Sam about his book “Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music,” an eye-opening exploration of the material infrastructure that lies behind vinyl disks (and internet apps). The cloud, by the way? It’s a place. And it burns gas just like the rest of us. [Originally Aired 10.27.21]
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.