Category Archives: Oh Noes! An Uninvited Opinion

The Ghost Lawsuit: Lessons Learned

I didn’t expect to write this blog post, but after the announcement of the lawsuit dismissal against Tobias Forge it provoked some thoughts. Maintaining any musical group isn’t an easy task, and as time wears on members grow and even evolve beyond the confines of any group. How that growth and evolution is handled depends on the situation. If it happens in a small music community handling such issues becomes a minefield that can explode, leaving pain and resentment. Regardless there are important, though apparent, lessons when forming a music group gleaned from this lawsuit.

The utmost lesson is the importance of getting everything in writing. One of the biggest points in the dismissal was because, while there is no legal definition of a “band”, the role and duties of members weren’t defined where any argument could be made about specific contributions or earnings. The only thing the court could go by were the contracts offered. If anyone outside of Tobias Forge created characters or songs the evidence is scant, if at all existent. When everything is specified about who gets what and for how much there are fewer chances of issues. And, no, that isn’t from a legal aspect and nothing in this should be construed as legal advice, just my observations (it should go without saying, but that’s part of the joy of living in a highly litigious nation). Even with expectations given in writing sometimes contribution levels are hard to discern.

Contribution is always an issue with groups be it for bands, projects, or anything else. Sometimes the contribution is specific to only one or two people. This is often seen in projects or the result of organic evolution of a group. The last one is where most groups get into trouble. The earlier the role of each member is established the better. I think, though, based on what has been made public that was part of the issue. I get the impression that it was clear in Tobias Forge’s head, but maybe not apparent for the others. That would explain why they left and the resentments surrounding the updated contract. This was probably exacerbated by how at least one former member was friends with Tobias Forge.

Emotional bonds within any professional environment is inevitable. Performance art requires a level of trust and bond. It’s why some recruit their romantic partner, family, or friends as there’s already a bond and familiarity. This has also proven to have many pitfalls. Personal tensions between people have a way of spilling over in their shared endeavors with disastrous results. Moreover it tends to end up messy and public. In the case of the lawsuit it ended up unmasking the frontman. To say that part wasn’t calculated nor based on emotion would be naïve. Though I covered many of the risks involved I don’t discourage people from forming anything musical with friends or loved ones, let alone breaking up anything when it gets to that point. It is something that must be considered when entering a partnership with close personal ties. I’m fully aware there are groups where personal ties work out. However for every success story there are ten failures. The lawsuit with Ghost proves how this one ended.

If one thing can be taken away from all of this, besides getting everything in writing, is the importance of consideration, be it for the long term or for the dynamics incurred. I think most saddening about this lawsuit is not how public it was but the cautionary tale it serves and who really wins in the end. As far as the courts are concerned it’s obvious. But there are clearly underlying feelings that will remain unresolved for some time, if they’re ever resolved.

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What the Music Modernization Act Means to Everyone

I’ll admit I’m beating a dead horse by talking about the Music Modernization Act, but honestly I’m amazed there isn’t more buzz. It’s a big deal, and one where people who should benefit will (or at least put the gears in motion). It is not perfect, but it’s a start in acknowledging changes in the industry that have been going and will continue.

The Music Modernization Act streamlines a few different acts, including the CLASSICS Act, the AMP Act, and parts of the Fair Play Fair Pay Act. It basically mitigates liability for companies and makes licensing for playing songs a bit easier and efficienct via electronically. It will accomplish some of this by consolidating all of the current music databases into one database run independently of the labels. Moreover it establishes rates based on the market value of music as well as who gets what.

What does all of this mean? For artists it means a lot. It means musicians and companies can negotiate a better rate for airplay, get paid faster, as well as giving them the option to distribute royalties to producers and other contributors. It also extends who can get royalties for what songs and extends royalties to songs before February 15, 1972 (lots of artists before or around the 50’s have been royally screwed over in their dues). Admittedly it seems much of this tends to favor signed artists, but it is a start.

Despite the strides forward this act certainly isn’t without problems. The first issue is compiling several different music databases into one. This has to be done within 90 days of its signing on October 11th. There are also issues of how to handle unclaimed songs, which seems to be solved with setting up a claim before a deadline, where if unclaimed will then go into a publishing house of sorts. There are also issues of how to handle indie artists (which honestly seems to be addressed in the law with unclaimed songs) and indie songwriters to ensure their fair due (which doesn’t seem to be addressed apart from the deadline for current songs). I think this is the only real unaddressed issue of the act.

Now that it’s established what it means for the music industry what does it mean for music listeners? It actually means more music will potentially be available for streaming. Quite often I hear how musicians don’t make their music available for streaming –or, in some cases, pull it –due to licensing or royalties. Having a modernized and comprehensive system provides a better incentive for artists to use platforms like streaming. If the act provides enough incentive for indie artists they too can take advantage of it and expose more listeners to their music. This last part, however, is dependent on some aforementioned factors for indie artists and creators. If the act properly addresses those issues indie artists could take advantage of that, and it creates a platform for indie creators to further their independence from mainstream labels. Again this is a boon for listeners as this means more music is out there.

While it does have problems the Music Modernization Act creates a foundation for the industry to shed an antiquated model and allow for more freedom for artists to function independently, possibly even as a more lucrative model. The implementation of the act will prove to an absolute benefit to those in the mainstream industry, but time will tell how it works out for indie artists.

An Evening with The Company: Final Thoughts

After looking over all my reviews of the night there are some overarching things I noticed. Since this was an event hosted by a record label I called it a showcase, and that may be a misnomer on my part. I’m not sure this was an actual showcase. If it was a showcase it wasn’t featured as such and was definitely meant to be more of a concert. Here are some further thoughts on the night.

Introductions

Most of the bands this night didn’t introduce themselves. There wasn’t even so much of a hello or any acknowledgement of others unless it was for other bands or some merch plug for many performing. I understand most of the audience is probably familiar with the bands playing, but it never hurts to provide an introduction within the first song or so. It could even be as simple as, “Hiya, we’re Anal Sex Horror Stories, and boy are we gonna rock that anus tonight!” The fact it was a common occurrence leads me to believe either bands didn’t want to play or there was supposed to be a host introducing them. If it was the latter it certainly fell through and could have been easily resolved. If it was the former that can be solved with a reality check.

Lots of Afterthoughts and Haphazard Planning

It seemed to be while everything started on schedule (an unexpected but welcome phenomenon) there was not too much effort into other set ups. The merch tables were on one side of the house, and inexplicably on the other side of the house a table for local organizations sparsely set up. These could have been combined with the merch table or perhaps set up in the unused bar outside the house doors. Honestly I’m not sure I would have included them at all. It wasn’t a charity concert, it wasn’t something completely sold as a general local event, and while featured mostly local bands from a local label not cohesive to the theme of the night…whatever that may be.

The reason I thought it was a showcase is because it was billed as a concert hosted by the label. It seems like most, if not all, of the bands playing were signed to said label. However when I looked at the event on facebook it was not billed as a showcase, but “An Evening with The Company.” If this was a showcase more planning should have been put in to it. Consider the purpose and the audience. If it was intended to be a concert more consideration should have been invokved anyway, especially because…

Long, Long Soundchecks

I get soundchecks and set up can take time. I get that soundchecks are also done when the house is full. What I don’t get is why this ran for so long. Soundchecks with a full house are usually brief to make adjustments for the amount of people. I suspect there wasn’t an initial soundcheck and that’s why it took so long.

A Positive Note

I personally appreciated the warning about strobe and flashing lights outside the venue. I know folks love them, but I personally dislike them. I find them disorienting and headache inducing. That warning allowed me to better prepare myself and minimize the headache.

I have no idea what went on during the show to end up with these issues. I can only imagine what happened behind the scenes. If my theatre experience taught me anything it’s how if the audience can tell something’s up it must be chaotic behind the scenes.

When Nothing Is Original, Only Innovative

Recently Machine Head released a single from their upcoming album. You can check it out below. Almost the moment it came out people, myself included, noticed the striking similarities between the main riff and Strapping Young Lad’s main riff from “Love?”. Devin Townsend dismissed it and even wished the band the best. He made a few other comments about influences and whatnot, and I agree with him on some of those points.

Overall it seemed like it wasn’t an issue to those who should have cared. The news outlets, however, are having a heyday (I’m only timely with this post because I saw this coming). After the semi-controversy over Machine Head’s release the very tired debate resurfaced: how original are we as people and when is it blatantly ripping off someone? Honestly I see part of it is as an issue of originality and then there’s issue of how much influence is too much.

Western culture, especially in America, love to demand innovation and originality from everyone and everything. Some people rise to the occasion. At least, with the innovative part. In truth people aren’t that original. The human experience bears its own limitations to some things. I remember in college learning there are something like 17-34 individual story lines because of universal experiences. Even if we ignore how having contact with anything will influence artistic output influences will creep in other ways. Have a really cool bass line? Does it sound familiar? Turns out you heard something similar a few years back and it stuck with you. Or maybe something an artist played really resonated with you and you wanted to expand on that aspect. If it was ever a factor at all, and Robb Flynn has remarked it wasn’t anything but coincidence, it was probably more of the latter.

There are other issues to consider with similar sounding music. There are legal elements that I won’t fully delve into (not sure I’m qualified for that anyway) but one must acknowledge there’s a line between plagiarism, homage, influence, and outright coincidence. Where many people heard the riff from Strapping Young Lad other bands were cited like A Perfect Circle. Sometimes some elements are so overused or generic we hear it in many songs possibly without realizing it. Confirmation bias plays a huge factor in those instances. Assuming someone did lift something how can we look at it? If something is lifted what was done with it? Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was lifted almost verbatim from another popular work of the time. Devin Townsend admits he lifted lyrics from a Yes song…in the very Strapping Young Lad song at the heart of the issue.

 

Even if content was lifted directly from somewhere else when is it called plagiarism and when is it called creative license?

While there are legal and ethical standings to determine if a work steals from another a solely artistic standpoint isn’t well defined. One could argue that even following music theory is lacking in originality the same way pulling implements from other sources displays a lack of originality. I personally am not of that philosophy, but I can understand it. Much of Western music theory has rules for aesthetics and practicality. Moreover In reality various art forms didn’t really deviate from a certain forms and rules. One was considered an accomplished artist if they followed those form to the letter. In poetry free verse was called “doggerel” (and with some groups still is) until Romantic poets found merit in deviating from any verse form.

Western culture no longer believes in close imitation as a form of creativity. Artistry is tied to innovation, or at least the appearance of such. Like I’ve mentioned several times originality isn’t a strong point in humans. Innovation, however, is a strong human trait. We have a knack for taking what’s already there and make something seem new or adding a new paradigm to the existing work. It’s why I keep stressing the issue of when is something blatantly lifting another’s work and when is it taking something already done and going in a different direction. It’s why I strive in my reviews to focus on the artistic intention. Otherwise I’d constantly bemoan how nothing is good because it’s unoriginal, when the focus should be on what the artist is presenting.

The Future of Pop Stars Probably Aren’t AI

I read an article on Pitchfork the other day where it was another puff piece about whether or not future pop stars will actually be human or not. One thing I definitely appreciated about the piece was how it went into the history of AI pop stars leading all the way up to well-known programs like Vocaloids. Otherwise I felt it was another “future of” puff piece, but I want in on the puff piece pretension. It lets me pretend my opinion matters to the occasional person who actually reads my blog. Moreover I feel the topic presented was rather short sighted.

Does the future of pop music lie in something like Vocaloids? The short of my long-winded opinion is not yet and not necessarily with an AI image as the pop star. There. You now have debate fodder.

Now for the long answer…

Even though technology is moving at incredible rates not much is geared towards creating vocal synthesizers musically. I’ll use Vocaloids as my example since they are currently the most well known for singing synthesizers. Vocaloids were developed by Yamaha, which also isn’t the best when it comes to any sound synthesized. There’s a reason it’s one of the “go-to” brands for beginners of something like piano. They’re relatively inexpensive, and it’s reflected in the quality. The timbre is tinny, the clarity is lacking, the synthesizer sounds nothing like the instrument in question, and the sound variety tends to be – in my opinion – poor. This is especially reflected in the older generations of their Vocaloid line. In addition to the typical Yamaha sound quality older generation Vocaloids also lacked enunciation necessary for singing. Based on other opinions of Vocaloids in the West I’m not alone in this sentiment. There were some modulations, updates, and newer versions where these issues were somewhat addressed.

One of the ways the synthesizer shortcomings are addressed is the newer Vocaloid editions use actual samples of singing and speech instead of analytics. Combined with the updates the quality results in less tinny, less muffled, and more importantly more organic sounds. The technology still has a ways to go, but Yamaha made some strides. The only issue I see is whether or not Yamaha will continue to keep improving the technology and updating the language library to improve the overall quality.

Vocaloids, however, aren’t known just for being software. Many know them for their mascots like Miku Hatsune. While I surmise this is the direction Pitchfork was heading with the “future of pop stars” remark I still disagree. One part of the reason is despite internet popularity it hasn’t translated to widespread popularity outside of Japan. Another part of the reason is with software like Vocaloids the mascots are copyrighted to where if one uses the image for fan-made work it’s fine, but for commercial use it needs clearance with the copyright owner—which if I recall is Crypton Future Media with Vocaloids. Conversely the software is free to use without the same restraints. People are free to use it in conjunction with other instruments while recording their own music. It’s no different than using other similar licensed software for creating music. This disconnect of the image of the pop star from the “voice” creates not a future icon in the way the Pitchfork article insinuates. Rather than creating a platform for holographic stars to appear on a world tour it creates an opportunity for the future of pop stars to be the music creators themselves. There exists a few examples with Livetune being one of the more prominent ones. While it’s fair to assume we wouldn’t necessarily see the artist featured in any music video, people familiar with a particular artist’s work still would clamor to attend a concert of said artist. Various artists in electronic music come to mind as established examples. If anything I see a trend of focusing more on the music thanks to increasingly available technology to artists not otherwise accessible in earlier periods.

More easily accessible technology has and will contribute to changing how we consume music. Music synthesizers, while full of potential, are not up to snuff just yet for serious consideration when associated with a particular image for replacing human pop stars. This opinion may change if said technology improves, but even then I think the future pop stars will not morph into some image of a particular character, but the image of the artist behind the song. The voice synthesizer will become another instrument with its own malleable characteristics suitable for the artist’s desired outcome. Rather than what will the future pop star be artificial we should as will future pop stars be the ones behind the mixer.

In Music, Only Credentials Matter

I wasn’t sure I wanted to blog about this topic as it was sparked by Gene Simmons’ latest stunt to trademark the devil horn gesture, as I feel my response somehow dignifies his actions.  At the same time I feel his actions, intentional or not, are something of a reflection of the current state of music.  We saw this with the burning of millions of dollars worth of punk memorabilia with much of the same response from me.  The publicity stunts provoke some thoughts as whether we’re placing our value in the right aspects of music.

While the case of the punk memorabilia was mostly about the commercialization of a counter culture that ironically stands against such ideas metal has veered more towards one of the other issues, namely with social stratification.  Where in punk there’s need to be more punk than everyone else in metal there’s a need to be more metal than others.  The ordinary metalhead manifests this with various elitism, but it ultimately boils down to being the first one to do it.  Whether it’s the first to become a Children of Bodom fan or the first to hate Dragonforce being a “true” metalhead is about setting the trend or being part of the right trend.  These comments aren’t new and can be found in any culture.

So what does this have to do with trademarking the devil horn gesture?  One of the toughest things about art is making it relevant.  When the art can’t be relevant I’ve noticed an artist will try to be relevant in other ways.  The best ways to do this are through shock value or appealing to nostalgia.  Gene Simmons is notorious for trying to be “the first” of things, and in this aspect tries to appeal to nostalgia.  I suspect in this way he wants to ensure his music was / is relevant.  Trying to trademark something closely tied to a community not only appeals to the shock value aspect but also to the sense of nostalgia by trying to cement his place in metal history.

While Gene Simmons did withdraw his trademark application (like we knew he would) the implications will live on.  I’d say it has damaged his career, but this stunt will be forgotten until the next one occurs.  The stunts will keep happening as long as the focus will be more on the image of music and less about creating music that meaningfully contributes.  How to determine what is meaningful to a community, however, is another matter.

Cassettes and Vinyl: Who Benefits?

It’s Record Store Day, and like others I feel a need to share my thoughts on one particular matter. I will probably repeat what others have said on the topic, but I don’t really express my opinion on these issues. I think we’re all aware of the intention of the day: to support local record stores and the last bastions of purchasing physical copies of music. I don’t think anyone will deny the good intentions behind this. For some indie and local musicians this one of few ways to get their music out there. In an effort to continue to support music stores it feels noble, but I also feel it’s somewhat misguided, namely in supporting local artists by purchasing outmoded forms of music.

One of the arguments I hear is how something like vinyl has overall a better sound quality when compared to something like an mp4 format. I don’t understand the demonizing of newer formats when the evidence is not strong for the comparison. What’s more is these same people will buy an album that was recorded digitally for people to buy as mp4’s. I feel like the chances of the album being of the sound quality those blessed with golden ears ramble about is compromised by the recording process. I also love to point out that when they purchase a re-release of an older album it was most likely digitally restored to bring back that crisp sound they love to describe. Moreover record formats, even for retro formats, isn’t the best way to listen to music. It only beat out hard plastic cylinders –a format which is equal and possible superior to record sound quality –due to better marketing and storage capabilities. I don’t think I’ll see a revival in hard plastic cylinders anytime soon, though, even if it would benefit possibly digitally archiving music from the earlier part of the 20th century.

Then again, the revival of older formats has surprised me and demonstrated how it’s not about the actual sound quality, but the perceived quality. I’m talking about the revival of cassette tapes. When I was younger I did prefer them over CD’s. Now that I’m older and had the pleasure of experiencing different formats I understand why its obsolescence was imminent since its inception. Like wax cylinders it was difficult to store without compromising the quality of the sound, it was easily destroyed, you could record over it without too much difficulty, the listening experience was limited to the quality of the player and quality of the musical product itself. Anyone who dealt with trying to listen to a cassette with a damaged tape knows what I mean. Nonetheless indie artists are selling cassettes of their music. Even some of my former bandmates sell their music on cassette. The fact it’s seeing a revival indicates it’s met with some welcome reception.

In some ways having a hard copy of an independent artist’s work is still helping. For some it’s still a viable way of getting their music out to world and fund their tour or future work. I often see out of town musicians selling CD’s and the occasional cassette. People do buy them at the shows. They’re selling, even if I don’t know to what extent. It’s supporting indie artists in some way.

I believe this is the pivotal issue of stuff like Record Store Day. When I started off in the mid 00’s reviewing music there was a revival in vinyl records. At the time it was hard to find a record player, especially one that worked and was affordable. Folks still purchased the albums with the same dubious arguments of sound quality were made. Those who purchased were supporting indie artists. As the revival continued mainstream labels re-released albums previously on vinyl or they converted previously CD-only formats to vinyl. There was a resurgence is producing record players, but I saw where folks were purchasing more vinyl by mainstream artists than indie ones. Now I’m more likely to see vinyl albums by mainstream artists than indie ones. I’m sure there are other reasons, especially with the cost of producing a hard copy of an album involved. I think, though, if we are buying records to support local record stores we need to also consider buying vinyl of local and indie music. If we’re so willing to support a physical format to create a day for it, we need to also remember the artists who support them.

A bit of an epilogue: in case anyone was wondering I now own a record player. It also has a cassette deck and an 8-track player. You know, just in case.