September 29, 2008

Marketing Metallica

Posted in Music tagged , , , , , at 10:30 pm by Andrew McMillen

I stated that I’d write more about Metallica’s new release – so, let’s go.

I like Death Magnetic. It’s very listenable. There’s some kind of guilty, schoolboy pleasure attached to getting to know these songs. Hetfield’s jagged riffs and stupid lyrics. Hammett’s busted fax machine wah-pedal solos. Ulrich’s ever-interesting drum fills. Trujillo’s.. well, who?

Just kidding. Hey, he actually gets a few moments to himself on this record! There’s now a lawsuit going on between some bass guitar manufacturers over Trujillo’s image, but unfortunately not over his hilarious onstage stance.

And then there’s the whole scandal about the album’s compression. I read that and downloaded the Guitar Hero III version, which sounds better, I guess. I didn’t pay for it – what do I care?

I’ll pay to see the band when they next tour Australia, and I’ll enjoy the experience.

That’s what the entire Death Magnetic release was – an experience. Holy shit, people still get excited en masse about album launches! This probably happened earlier in the year when Coldplay’s album dropped, but I don’t listen to them.

Its release was to music what The Dark Knight was to film – an event. It got people talking. It piqued interest on a large scale. And that’s a pretty fucking cool achievement for a bunch of mid-40 year old men.

The Metallica marketing angle that I find endlessly amusing, though, is how they continue to portray themselves in promotional photo shoots. So fucking brutal! Smile? Impossible! We’re in the biggest god damned metal band the world has ever seen, we can’t compromise our hard-motherfucker image!

Witness the hilarity of their facial expressions and hand gestures in the selected promo photos below. I realise that some of these are five years old, but they’re too good to resist.

Metallica Death Magnetic Promo Photo

Hetfield’s being dragged in by a big-game fisherman. Trujillo, what the fuck are you doing with your arms? Seriously, dude. 

Lars points. Hetfield raises eyebrow. Trujillo scratches chin. Hammett itches elbow. So fucking metal!

Lars points. At me. For downloading his music without paying. I kick the ground bashfully and avert eye contact.

Hetfield throws his hands in the air like he just don’t care. Hetfield looks like a douchebag.

This is the quintessential promo shot that’s been attached to every Death Magnetic story I’ve read in the past three months – both online and in print – and yet it took me fifteen minutes to find. I think I’m overqualified to make fun of Metallica since I just spent fifteen minutes finding a photo to make fun of Metallica.

Perception

Posted in Life tagged , , , at 9:25 pm by Andrew McMillen

I’ve mentioned reframing before. It’s powerful, but difficult to keep in mind. Seth’s post is a timely reminder, though – bolding is mine:

How much of your day is spent doing things you have to do (as opposed to the things you get to do.)? In my experience, as people become successful and happier (the subset that are both) I find that the percentage shifts. 

You’d think that this happens because their success permits them to skip or delegate the have to tasks. And to some extent, this is true. But far more than that, these people redefine what they do all day. They view the tasks as opportunities instead of drudge work.

I don’t buy into the notion that we can’t enjoy what we do all day. That any personal satisfaction achieved in the workplace should be met with self-depricating humour and subsequently buried. That each working week should be considered a battle toward Friday and a weekend of excess, at the cost of health. 

When did this pervasive ideology take root?

Rarely do I witness people – in any field of experience, professional or otherwise – take pride in what they do for a living. 

I see it as a choice – mediocrity, or excellence. Doing enough to get by – the bare minimum – or excelling, extending, exceeding.

I’m starting to remind myself of a character from Office Space, so I’ll give it a rest.

It’s just one of those little rules you create for yourself, though. If only a few people notice the positive choices you make, there’s a good chance that those few are the ones who hold the keys to further opportunities.

Perception is the key concept here. Have to do versus get to do.

September 15, 2008

EMI Records’ Threatening Legal Disclaimer

Posted in Music tagged , , , , at 6:50 pm by Andrew McMillen

A friend handed me a few CDs this afternoon. One of them was Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain by Sparklehorse. After I placed the disc into my computer tray and ripped the tracks to MP3 – which is a habit that I undertake immediately after acquiring any new music – I had a quick glance at the liner notes to try to ascertain something about the artist, as I was as yet unfamiliar.

I came across this paragraph:

Thank you for buying this music. This recording and artwork are protected by copyright law. Using Internet services to distribute copyrighted music, giving away illegal copies of discs or lending discs to others for them to copy is illegal and does not support those in making this piece of music – especially the artist. By carrying out any of these actions it has the same effect as stealing music. Applicable laws provide severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized reproduction, distribution and digital transmission of copyrighted sound recordings. Many examples of where to buyal legal downloads can be found at http://www.musicfromemi.com

How quaint. This disc was released in 2006. Sparklehorse are signed to Capital Records and distributed by EMI.

Clumsy wording aside, the message is plenty amusing. I smiled at the MP3 encoding program running in the background, quietly transferring the contents of the plastic disc into audio data.

A friend handed me the album with his recommendation. I have every intention of listening and giving him my feedback. I might like it, I might not. But it’s highly unlikely that I’d have given the artist my time without this personal recommendation. I surely wouldn’t have dropped $20 without being remotely familiar with their music.

Naturally, after transcribing the above paragraph, I googled the phrase to see what came back. Unsuprisingly, someone had already dissected EMI’s bullshit legal posturing in February 2006.

Jon Dyer found the message in his store-bought Morningwood CD and discussed its ridiculousness at length in this post. A few choice quotes are included below – I suggest you read the full article.

The day I want a band to give me legal advice is the same day that I ask my lawyer to jump up on the desk, strap on an axe, and rock like Great White at a fireman’s ball.

…one of the last things that I want to read in some liner notes is a big, pseudo legal warning about what I can and can’t do with my purchase. If you’re determined to go this route, have the courtesy to be brief, accurate, and honest with what you write. And have the cojones to put your extensive warnings on the outside of the CD, so I can see what you’re all about before I lay down the $10.

Lending CDs to people is how some people communicate. And what they are doing with that communication is free, evangelical advertising for the bands that they lend. To lie and say that this is illegal is beyond stupid: It alienates the fans, stops free advertising without loss of sale, and actually insults the people who actually took the time to read your liner notes. Like me.

On the other hand – at least I’m talking about Sparklehorse. They’ll stick in my mind a little longer than the average band, whether I like the music or not, purely due to EMI’s hilariously threatening legal disclaimer. 

I wish I could confirm or deny whether they’re still including a similar message in their 2008 releases, but I don’t think I’ve bought a recording by an EMI artist in years. I’ll have to look when picking up You Am I‘s new album.

Mediocrity versus excellence

Posted in Life tagged , , at 1:24 pm by Andrew McMillen

An excellent post on Schaefer’s Blog linked from The Art Of Manliness discusses a general lack of personal responsibility and accountability:

This is why something needs to change – and instead of demanding it from everyone else it has to start with us. As Herbert Spencer aptly spoke, “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.”

After all, at the end of the day it’s about taking a coat when it looks like it’s chilly outside. You can choose not to, it’s true, but don’t whine when you get cold.  Life’s about choices.

Mediocrity is easy. Excellence is hard. 

I find inspiration everywhere. In the actions – the poor choices – of my fellows. 

They constantly eat crap and wonder why they’re unhealthy? Inspiration to exercise more often and constantly evaluate what I eat.

Their entire day ruined due to a crippling hangover from the night before? Inspiration to exercise self control and restrict what I drink.

They spend considerable amounts of time enveloped within a virtual world while barely functioning in the real world? Inspiration to read, think, discuss, write, create.

This thought process has become easier over time. “What could I be achieving right now?” is the question at the back of my mind. 

The way I see it – we’re here for 80 years. Maybe less, maybe more. Best to make the most of it, right?

Funny how the first connotation we tend to have with that phrase is partying, socialising, hedonism, affluence

Life’s about choices. Since most people are happy with mediocrity, I choose excellence.

September 14, 2008

Presentation: A Recent History of Music

Posted in University tagged , , , at 2:24 pm by Andrew McMillen

This is a transcript of a presentation I gave as part of my introduction to marketing course on Monday. There were three others in my group; our topic was digital music marketing, focussed specifically on the success of the iPod.

It’s compiled from several sources, including Wikipedia, and it’s over-simplified and facetious.. but it’s okay.
 

So, the music industry today. 2008.

I downloaded Metallica’s new album on Saturday afternoon. Its official release isn’t until Friday. What happened was, someone close to the band or their record label or one of the many pre-release reviewers obtained the completed album, copied it to their computer using an MP3 encoding application, then uploaded it to a file-sharing site on the internet.

I downloaded the album. Tens of thousands of others had done so before. Many more will do so before Friday, which is when the album will be available legally, in both physical record stores and digital music stores.

(*group member interjects*) Hold on a second. Music, on a computer? Download? MP3? I thought that music was only available from my local record store, in CD form. (*holds up CDs*)

Ah, so you’re a bit behind the times. How’s 1998 treating you? Just kidding. Allow me to indulge in a cursory overview of the last ten years in music.

The long-play vinyl record was introduced to the commercial market in 1948. The compact disc was released in 1982. Music was released by artists in one of three forms – single, album, or EP, which was a little longer than a single but a little shorter than an album.

The content of these recordings were created by musicians – songwriters, singers, guitarists, drummers, keyboardists, violinists – and recorded and released by record companies.

A recording contract – commonly called a record deal – is a legal agreement between a record label and a recording artist or group, where the artist makes a record – or a series of records – for the label to sell and promote. 

In the age of vinyl and CDs, labels typically owned the copyright of the records their artists make, and also the master copies of those records. Promotion was a key factor in the success of a record, and was largely the label’s responsibility, as was the proper distribution of records.

This was how the music industry operated, for almost two decades. In 1999, a computer filetype known as MP3 and a handful of enterprising music fans changed everything.

MP3, short for Moving Picture Experts Group, Audio Layer III is an audio format that compresses files with only a small sacrifice in sound quality. MP3 files can be compressed at different rates, but the higher the compression, the lower the sound quality. A typical MP3 compression ratio of 10:1 is equal to about 1 MB for each minute of an MP3 song.

To put this into perspective – (*holds up iPod*) this 20 gigabyte iPod has the theoretical ability to store roughly 5,000 four-minute, four megabyte files. All contained within this portable device, which allows me to play music anywhere. 5,000 songs is 500 ten-track albums.  I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to carry 500 albums in my pocket.

From the first half of 1995 through to the late 1990s, MP3 files began to spread on the Internet. The filetype’s popularity began to rise rapidly when the software company Nullsoft released their free audio player, Winamp. The small size of MP3 files enabled widespread peer-to-peer file sharing of music ripped from compact discs, which would previously have been nearly impossible due to hard drive capacity restrictions. The first large peer-to-peer filesharing network, Napster, was launched in 1999.

Napster, the name engraved in internet history, was developed by nineteen year old university student, Shawn Fanning. His idea was to allow anyone with an internet connection to search and download their favourite songs. By connecting people, Napster created an online community of music fans practically overnight.

As you can imagine, this free, unchecked distribution method didn’t sit too well with record companies. Music fans ripping, sharing and downloading the creative output of artists meant that nobody got paid. Instead, a lot of people got angry. Most notably, the Recording Industry Association of America, and Metallica.

I’ll cut this history lesson short with a few choice quotes from Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, in 2000. This was around the time that the band were embroiled in legal proceedings against Napster.

“Napster hijacked our music without asking. They never sought out permission. Our catalog of music simply became available as free downloads on the Napster system.”

“Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all members of the creative community.”

Now, Metallica have changed their tune, eight years on. Many artists across the world have. CD sales are still in decline, and will probably stop being a viable music distribution mechanism within five years. Imagine CDs relegated to the same rare, limited edition status that vinyl copies of new albums currently inhabit.

So Metallica probably aren’t all that happy that I downloaded their album for free, especially before its official launch. They’re probably not happy that I have no intention of ever buying the album. But I would pay to see them perform live. And this is the direction that I think the music industry is heading in – an artist’s recorded work, regardless of its method of distribution, will function solely as an advertisement to sell tickets to an artist’s live performances. But that’s an entirely different discussion.

In the place of the physical album sits this (*holds up iPod*). The encoded data contained within 5,000 computer files is processed by this device to produce audio. Music. Songs. Albums. It doesn’t matter. Digital music sales have eclipsed CD sales. iTunes has sold 5 billion songs in 5 years. Five billion songs. And this is within Apple’s closed sales environment, where they receive a significant revenue percentage of each 99 cent song.

Naturally, someone had the common sense to incorporate MP3 playing functionality into the mobile phone. The Apple iPod is the world’s most popular MP3 player. You’ve probably heard of the Apple iPhone, which functions as both a phone and MP3 playing device, among other features. Apple weren’t the first to make this connection. But the immense purchasing power behind the Apple brand has placed them in a pretty solid position to dominate the music phone market. They’re already so far ahead in the MP3 player market that new entrants are at a significant disadvantage. 

170 million iPods have been sold as of March this year. And Apple are continually producing new hardware and functionality upgrades, further segmenting their existing market, and attempting to attract those who are still undecided.

(group member) is going to tell you more about Apple’s history and marketing strategy. Personally, I recommend that you download Metallica’s new album as soon as you get home.

I’ll write more about Metallica in the future.

September 6, 2008

Music Excites Me

Posted in Music tagged , , , at 3:27 pm by Andrew McMillen

The quantity and variety of music available in the current market is staggering. I listen to a lot of artists, but these represent a thin slice of the pie graph. On a local level, a national level, an international level – there’s a lot of music I’m not aware of.

This isn’t a bad thing. I’m not worried. I’m recommended new artists all the time, thanks to the rich network of friends I’ve developed as a result of my position as an extroverted music fan. I’m happy to slowly cultivate my tastes and preferences at my own pace, but these recommendations are much appreciated. 

My network of fellow music fans and my position as a live music writer present ample opportunities to witness and consume the output of musicians. I watch and hear local Brisbane bands while they’re still finding their collective voice and tone. I’m employed to critically assess their performances, and – while consciously attempting to not appear too delusional or hubristic – it’s nice to imagine that my words and thoughts have a perceptible effect on the music scene, both local for Rave and national for FasterLouder.

Of course, the web-based nature of these publications transcends geographic boundaries. Which is also pretty cool.

I rarely consider the act of being published when I’m writing and editing my articles. I’m far more concerned with achieving a clear and consistent tone. 

I don’t consider what I do to be all that skilled, or talented. I may spend a couple of hours crafting a piece, but once it’s submitted, it’s released from my mind. I acknowledge that there is some degree of skill attached to writing coherently and at-length about an event which may be attended by hundreds or thousands. But I don’t sit around self-congratulating.

I suppose that critical thinking is the single most important element of what I do. Not just when analysing a band’s sound and style. But when taking a step back from the noise and observing my fellow attendees.

My frequent concert attendance allows great opportunities to people-watch in a relatively closed environment. Here’s people who have, in the majority of cases, parted with a market-nominated fee so that they can inhabit this environment for a couple of hours. They have forgone the opportunity cost of every other potential activity. Which is why I’m always intrigued when watching paying concertgoers talk to their friends throughout performances.

One of the most affecting performances I’ve witnessed this year occurred late last month. Local band Skinny Jean supported fellow Brisbanites The Boat People. This was singer and keyboardist Heidi Minchin’s last show with the band. I hadn’t heard Skinny Jean before the night, but had read some encouraging words written by fellow Brisbane street press contributors.

For a few songs, I stood entranced. Minchin delivered a vocal solo that raised my neckhairs and brought tears to my eyes. Holy shit. These are the moments that I love. Needless to say, I bought the band’s EP immediately afterwards, and wrote positively about their set. This is a video comprising the twin highlights of that night’s performance – first the excellent Anhedonia, then Anti0kie, the song which features Minchin’s vocal solo. 

I didn’t intend to cite specific examples when I began writing this entry. It developed organically. It felt right to reference a band whose performance moved me.

Music as a social object. It’s a concept that I think about often, and one that I will return to in future entries.

September 1, 2008

How I Think About Music

Posted in Music tagged , , , at 11:43 pm by Andrew McMillen

I heard a song on the radio this morning. By the radio I mean Triple J, as despite its shortcomings, it’s still my first choice.

The artist was Mercy Arms, whose debut is currently feature album of the week.

I liked the song. I made a mental note to check if it was available for download yet. By download I mean torrent, or Soulseek if I was really desperate.

I can’t remember the last time I bought an album without downloading at least some of the artist’s music. Try before I buy. I bought Violent Soho‘s debut from a record store without listening first, but I was already reasonably familiar with their work.

The exceptions to this rule occur when I see bands live. Most of the albums I’ve bought this year have been directly from the artist, after they’ve finished playing.

Example: Pivot.

I was first made aware of the band around May 2008, though they’d existed since 2005. They were featured on MySpace Australia; the accompanying text raised my ire. “Australia’s answer to Battles!” or something similar. Two thoughts crossed my mind: “what a shallow comparison” and “surely, they can’t be right?

I probably made a negative comment about the band to a fellow Battles-fan friend, without having heard a note of Pivot’s music. Props to the MySpace marketer who was able to create an impression on me, brief and negative though it may have been.

The band disappeared from my radar until they were announced as the headliner of the penultimate monthly Wolfgang event, at Alhambra Lounge in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. Huh. Looks like I’d have to give them a listen.

Their gory stop-motion In The Blood video was pretty cool, but I wasn’t convinced. Crappy YouTube-quality audio didn’t sway me. I needed the album. So I asked a friend who had access to a secretive, exclusive torrent tracker. Album acquired.

I listened to the album – O Soundtrack My Heart, their second – over and over, in the weeks preceding the July 31 Wolfgang show.

I brought a bunch of friends to the event. We drank. I bought the album after the show. Without bothering with specifics, that’s a couple of hundred dollars to the venue, and, one would imagine, a percentage of that revenue directly into the band’s pocket.

I reviewed the show, which may have influenced a few readers to follow the same ‘discover, download, listen, enjoy’ cycle. Or I can stop imagining that my words provoke others into action. Although

I downloaded the band’s fucking album. So what? I liked it, I brought my friends to see them perform live, and I bought the album at the first opportunity. I supported the artist directly.

Sidestepping the initial musician funding discussion – which is another conversation entirely – is there a problem with the series of events I just discussed?

To me, it’s a fine example of the current state of the music market. I won’t pretend to be familiar with the correct terms and concepts, but this is how I think about my choice to listen to Pivot:

  1. Initial investment – listening time and bandwidth usage
  2. Satisfaction with product – ongoing listening time investment*
  3. Opportunity to witness product in live environment accepted
  4. Friends referred – further interest in product created, perhaps maintained
  5. Initial investment paid to producers – $25 for the album and x percentage of door/bar takings on the night
  6. Potential ongoing referrals and value creation as a result of my positive product review
  7. * Opportunity cost of listening to any other artist during this time is foregone

Cool, right? I found and enjoyed a band based on the initial time investment. The band didn’t see a cent until we arrived to see them in person. Again, discounting the discussion of how an artist affords equipment, travel and promotion in the first place – if there’s a problem with this model, I can’t see it.

O Soundtrack My Heart is one of the better albums I’ve heard this year. Listen on MySpace or watch on YouTube and let me know what you think.