A Brief History of Music For Dozens, Part 1

21 July, 2005


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I often find it hard to overcome lapses in blogging activity. The pattern goes like this: I realize it's been a couple of days since I blogged, I start thinking I should really write something, I've got all these ideas, but I feel guilty for having not written, then the guilt adds to the pressure to write something new, and the pressure makes it harder to actually sit down and do it, and so on. It's the terrible negative feedback loop of gloom and inaction that is so hard to overcome once it's in place.

This time around, with the lapse having happened so soon after the start of the switch over to Urban Honking, albeit for very good reasons (I was travelling and working on setting up the blog's new home), the guilt was especially vicious.

Yesterday I came up with a good way of busting out, of breaking the cycle: I'll write about what I've been doing instead of blogging. I know it sounds obvious since most people mostly blog about what they do and what happens to them, but it took a while to occur to me. I don't usually write about my life and my projects (there are enough great personal blogs out there already), but instead try to keep the focus on ideas and things that might be interesting or useful, but I thought I'd make an exception here since what I've been working on is one of the most fruitful things ever to come from one of my ideas: Music For Dozens.

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Last week, I set out to write a history of one of the major projects on which I've spent my time in the last couple of years: Music for Dozens. I'd never really written about it here, I thought it would be kind of a good way of introducinng myself to all you knew Urban Honkers, and we were about to undergo an exciting flurry of activity (which is currently underway and which is part of why this post has taken me so friggin long).

Anyway, this introductory story grew to a larger scale and greater level of detail than I'd expected (I mean, geez, its got its own introduction at this point) and so I decided to break it up into a couple of serial chunks.

So, without further ado, here's Part 1 of A Brief History of Music For Dozens. . .

Sometimes, the beginning of something big happens quietly. You can be working on something for years, preparing for it to take off, struggling to get it to, and then, when it does, you barely notice.

My senior year of college, I was asked by an art history professor to shuttle around a visiting speaker for a conference they were holding on censorship. I think he even promised to pay me out of conference funds. All I knew when I got to the airport was the guy's flight number and his name: Jim Griffin.

When I arrived at the gate fifteen minutes before scheduled landing, I found Griffin waiting at the gate, tall, solid, constantly in motion. He was early. The flight was early, he'd gotten his bag, he was ready to go. He barely waited for me to reach him before he started walking full tilt through the terminal towards the exit, talking the whole way, telling me about himself, starting in asking me questions. I hurried to keep up with him. By the time we were wondering around the parking lot looking for my car (the conversation was going at such a quick clip that I was struggling to find a spare mental cycle to remember where I'd parked it; he didn't seem to notice that we were wandering aimlessly) he'd found out that I was in a band.

For the next forty minutes of the drive to campus and the walk to the conference room, he talked in an uninterrupted stream about the music industry and the things facing a band starting out. He told horror stories about major labels wooing bands on expense accounts that are then charged against the band's earnings and how almost all bands that sign a contract end up with their records held or released into obscurity and then find themselves left in crushing debt from all the costs the label seemed to be covering but was in fact, contractually just floating the band as a loan. He talked about successful bands that refused to sell their CDs at their concerts because it took away from the t-shirt and concession sales from which, unlike the CDs, they'd actually see some profit. He talked about bands that weren't allowed to play their own songs live because the labels held the publishing rights to their songs and would actively litigate and defend them even years after they'd dropped the artist without releasing their record. He said that live shows and digital distribution were a band's only hope.

It turns out he knew a thing or two about the topic. In the early nineties, Griffin worked at Geffen Records. He created and ran their technology department during their golden years, when they signed Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Nirvana, almost single handedly ushering in the era of alternative rock. Griffin pioneered the commerical distribution of music online, leading the team within Geffen that offered the first mp3 for sale (it was an Aerosmith song). Since leaving Geffen, he's become a kind of roving expert on the digital distribution of art and music, testifying in front of Congress, running a discussion group, and working as consultant and at a number of startups. In 1994, he was about 9 years ahead of the curve (the iTunes Music Store opened in May 2003). When I met him, it was only about two.

We arrived at the conference and I walked him to the room where his panel was taking place. The panel turned out to be about technology and censorship in the arts. Most of the panelists were talking about how powerful interests were going to be able to use the techno-panopticon to keep track of our cultural activity and regulate it. Really paranoid-conservative stuff. Griffin's argument was simple and kind of stunning: right now (that is pre-internet distribution of culutre), big media has a complete stranglehold on how we get our culture. Not just in terms of outlets where we buy it, but, most importlantly, in how it is given away for free: that's where the power of the major lables really comes from, there sole control over the media for giving music away: radio, promo copies to reviewers, etc. What's really scary to them about digital distribution is not theft of their music via file sharing, but the way it democratizes the ability to give your music away. If you can get your music to fans on a channel they pay attention to (free downlaod, for example), then you don't need the big expensive record label promotion machine, which is their whole reason for existing as the lumbering monsters that they are: giant expensive national and international promotion campaigns. So, to him the danger of technological sensorship really came from DRM (avant la lettre) and the ways in which big media would try to crackdown on the free distribution of all music, using a perceived threat of theft of intellectual property to hinder the growth of a new chanel which would democratize their core competency as businesses: promotion via giving music away.

After the panel, he headed off to lunch with the other speakers and I wandered around campus a little. Maybe did some school. Let it all sink in.

. . .Stay tuned for Part 2. . .

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