spos.

My cousin is Tom Hespos, and I’ve been writing this blog for almost a year while barely acknowledging him.  Tom has done nothing his entire life but acknowledge me.  And encourage me.

Tom is a few years younger than I am.  His dad is my mother’s older brother; he was an outstanding athlete who had his choice of sports and chose the most difficult – quarterback in the Green Bay Packers organization during the Bart Starr/Vince Lombardi years.  It takes a special kind of person to sacrifice a potential career in pro sports in exchange for the learning experience of knowing Vince Lombardi for a training camp and that’s exactly what my uncle did.  As a child, every conversation with my Uncle Tom was a learning experience because he made it that way.  I’ll never forget being such a young kid and seeing him one Christmas; I walked up to him for a hug and he looked at me and said “No hugs, you’re a man.  Handshake.”

And then when I held out one limp hand for him to shake, he said “What kind of a man shakes hands like that?  Give me a firm handshake.  Look me in the eye.  When you meet someone for the first time, you don’t want them to think you’re a wimp – you want to be in control.  Shake their hand, and make them remember you.

So a guy like that, imagine growing up in his house, all the stuff you could learn.

Tom soaked up every bit of it, went off to college, then came home and realized that his town didn’t have a newspaper.  So he started one, a 22-year-old kid, just trying to educate the people in his town about local goings-on.

Tom has done a lot in his life, but the thing he did that makes me the most proud was starting that fucking newspaper.

After the newspaper thing he took an entry-level job with the biggest advertising agency in the universe and saw that they didn’t know much about this new phenomenon called the internet.  While I was ranting and raving about how the internet was for education and research, Tom was learning about how the internet could be for business, and when his agency got the opportunity to design a website for the US Army, Tom was one of the only guys at his monstrous company who knew anything about the internet – so he got to play a key role.

From there, his career just took off, and the further he progressed, the closer he and I became.

One holiday season, maybe 1996 or 97, he sent me an email just to tell me how much he loved me, and how he looked up to me.

I’m 40 years old now.  Nobody has ever said such nice things to me as Tom did in that email.  It was – and still is – the most flattering thing anyone has ever done for me.

Tom and I, when I first started Dromedary, had a discussion about the label.  He seemed really interested, and so I sent him a copy of Nothing Smells Quite Like Elizabeth for him to listen to.  He absolutely hated Godspeed, and at the time, Godspeed had just gotten signed to Atlantic.  That began a dialogue between us about music that has lasted more than fifteen years.

Like me, Tom is an amateur musician with a strong passion for music.  Our musical tastes are similar but not nearly identical, which gives us a unique ability to turn each other on to certain bands while simultaneously giving us lots of opportunities to rag on each other’s tastes.  We’ve got lots of common ground, but we also have lots of places where we differ; the result is a lot of fun.

In the mid 90s, Tom preached to me about the internet, and the opportunities that the internet provided business.  I disagreed with him, vehemently, until it became obvious that I was completely wrong and he was absolutely right.

In 1996, Tom emailed me and asked me my opinion of the MP3 format as a way to distribute music over the internet, and about my opinion of the MP3 player as a device that would revolutionize music.  At the time, I once again predicted incorrectly, telling him that the fidelity of the MP3 left too much to be desired, and that the memory restrictions of the tiny MP3 players were too limited – who would want to lug around a device that played 20 or 30 poor-sounding songs when they could play CDs in their car or their homes?

Shortly thereafter, Tom introduced me to Napster, which quickly became an obsession for me.  Within weeks I had emailed him back, admitting that I was wrong about the format and telling him I thought it was great.  Shortly after that I had gone through my entire vinyl record collection and made lists of songs I’d like to own digitally, and began searching Napster in hopes of finding digital copies.

In my mind at the time, I had already paid for those songs, when I bought them on vinyl (or cassette), and thus I was entitled to own digital copies of them as well.  That’s how I justified it then, and still do, to a degree.  It wasn’t my fault if the record industry decided to adopt a new technology, and it certainly shouldn’t be my responsibility to have to buy a new copy every time a new format was developed.

I used, as an example, Led Zeppelin IV. I had purchased that record on vinyl at least four times, between the point when I first acquired it at 11 or 12 years old and my late 20s.  As a teenager, I had also purchased it on cassette for my car, and again as soon as it was available on CD.

Why should I have to buy that record six times if it was available in a digital format?  Why should I have to pay Atlantic Records six times, simply because improvements in technology had made it possible for a better-sounding copy to be available?

Further, what if someone had bought that record when it came out? It was entirely possible for someone to buy five completely different copies of the same record – on 8-track, vinyl, cassette, CD, and then potentially on a remastered CD.  Why?  Is it fair to ask the consumer to buy the same piece of music five times?

That’s how I justified my obsession with Napster.  I already owned this stuff.  I already paid for it.  And I began slowly finding and downloading digital copies of music I already owned, telling myself there was no difference between my digitizing my own vinyl collection (something that was perfectly legal) for my own personal use, and finding digital copies of music I already owned online.

A lot of what I was downloading, at the time, were MP3 copies of records that were burned from vinyl records.  Hell, what was the difference between an MP3 copy of someone else’s vinyl record and an MP3 copy of my own?  All that downloading the Napster copy was doing, in many cases, was saving me the trouble of digitizing the music myself.

Of course I had no idea that I was on the fringe of what would become an intense debate between the RIAA and consumers, a debate that still rages today.

I would go to work each day, then come home and immediately log into Napster.  I had it set up so that I wasn’t sharing titles in my own library; I was simply finding copies of songs from my own record collection and downloading them.

Eventually I filled up my hard drive and bought a new, external drive and started filling that up.

At a download speed of 56KBS, it took about fifteen minutes to download a regular-length song.  It took a whole night to download “Echoes,” once I found it.  I still remember finding “Supper’s Ready” and “2112” in the same night, sitting there in front of the computer and hoping that the person from which I was downloading wouldn’t log off before my transfer was complete.

Eventually, Mindspring (the ISP I had switched to) began offering DSL service, and I became the first person in my town to subscribe.  The transfer speed was blinding, and my music library began to exponentially increase.  And eventually, I had digitized my entire vinyl record collection with Napster downloads.

At least the stuff that was important to me.  I downloaded the entire Back In Black album, but there was no reason for me to download the entire No Second Chance album by Charlie, or the entire Free Hand album by Gentle Giant; those were bands I didn’t listen to, but had purchased both albums because of two or three songs.  So I just downloaded the two or three songs.

And eventually I had a computer with a few thousand MP3s on it.

Eventually I began using Google to find the titles of songs I loved in high school, or songs that were etched in my memory whose titles I had forgotten.  Then I’d check to see if those titles were still in print.  If they weren’t, they became fair game for Napster downloads.  How could I be held accountable by the record industry because I downloaded a pirated copy of a title that was no longer available?

Tom used Napster differently.  He searched for bootlegs of his favorite bands.  I was never a big bootleg guy – remember, fidelity has always been important to me, so live albums, bootlegs, demos, and 4-track recordings have always been a pain in my ass.  But Tom prided himself on owning recordings of Van Halen concerts from 1979, or Saturday Night Live rehearsal outtakes, stuff like that.

What’s important about 1996 and 1997, though, was that it suddenly became possible for a band to distribute their music over the internet with blinding speed, and through the miracle of file sharing, to get their music out to a tremendous audience.

I decided to try it with a Footstone title – “Watermelon.”  I made an MP3 copy and stuck it in a folder that I allowed Napster to share.  After a week or so, I discovered someone downloading it.  Within a week or two, when I would search for Footstone I would consistently see five or six copies of “Watermelon” out there.  Suddenly, it seemed possible to distribute music over the internet, just by having it on your computer.

If there was only a way to charge for it.

It certainly got my wheels turning.  And I credit my cousin for it; as he’s always been on the forefront of everything, and has my undying respect.  I’ve never told him that.  So, here.

Don’t let your head swell, you’re still a scump.

~ by Al on November 29, 2009.

17 Responses to “spos.”

  1. Aw, Gosh. I get my own post? How nice. I’m flattered.

    You’re always going to be the cooler cousin, who I always look up to.

    Some interesting stuff about what you posted…

    That little newspaper was a fun idea. You’re giving me too much credit, though. We did already have a newspaper in the community, but it covered a bunch of other neighboring communities, too. I interned there. Let’s just say it was a lot like your experience with Fred. I worked my ass off to make that paper a better paper and got a “C” to show for it. When I graduated, a bunch of folks were fed up with that paper’s coverage of things like the school budget, so I saw an opportunity to come in, show a bunch of neighbors and friends how to put a newspaper together, and then jump into a much more limited role once I got a “real” job. Having seen what competition can do to a newspaper in a one-newspaper town when I was in college, I was glad to see that the competition made both papers better.

    As for Napster, you’re remembering only the parts I got right. I remember being on Napster and looking for specific users because I downloaded a really great AC/DC or Guns N’ Roses bootleg from them at one point, and I was likely to enjoy their other live music. When I saw this, I saw a mirror of the old tape-trading parties I used to have with my friends, where we’d sit around with a bunch of dual-deck boomboxes and tape one another’s stuff. There was always one kid who spent some time out of town and tended to have a lot of cool stuff that everyone else wanted. That’s how I had envisioned Napster evolving, but on a global scale – a bunch of superstars with really cool stuff (1%) and a bunch of other folks who wanted what the superstars had (99%). While you can still see this dynamic somewhat with how music spreads virally via the net, no one ever became a superstar for having lots of cool shit on Napster. Oh, well. Part of why that never happened is that we all got blindingly-fast connections and music spread so damned quickly. And then you had the more accurate prediction about how fast the music industry would be able to shut down Napster. I thought it would take much longer.

    For the record, I’m a fidelity hound, too. Back in 1996, though, I didn’t think fidelity mattered as much as free music did. (Well, at least to the mass market.) It’s really a shame how much our society values “free.” All other things being equal, most people would rather have a free piece of shit than a masterpiece they pay full price for.

    I justified Napster almost the same way you did. I figured I used it mostly for live/bootleg music and that no record company was going to release any of that stuff, so why not capitalize on it? For stuff I would normally have paid for, I generally stuck to things I had already paid for in other formats. At the time, it really pissed me off to have to have paid for Van Halen’s 1984 several times – Vinyl, several cassettes that wore out, a CD. Nothing was materially different about the music. It was just in a new format. This all worked out conveniently for the music industry – they got to have their cake and eat it, too. They were licensing the work, yet we had to pay for it all over again every time there was a major format change. License, my ass. I felt not guilty at all about downloading stuff I had already purchased in another format. At least the format madness would end, even if the fidelity wasn’t up to snuff.

    As for distribution, I think it’s easier to crack that nut today, but tougher to make money. If your goal, though, is to make money on tours and merch instead of on the record, the model makes sense. In this way, the record is more of a promotional vehicle than a revenue-driver.

  2. Your problem was that you paid for Van Halen’s 1984 several times.

    🙂

    I agree, though, that the distribution is MUCH easier today, obviously, but that makes the music a commodity. The lines between indie and major and unsigned are getting very fuzzy (which is awesome), but it’s also opening the doors for that much more shitty music (not so awesome). It puts music right in people’s heads immediately (which is awesome) but in the process has made music quickly forgotten, and driven people towards single track downloads instead of full albums (not so awesome).

    I think Mac McCaughan got it right in a recent interview, though, when he said (I’m paraphrasing) that business is booming for record labels that release good music, and is really soft if you release shit.

  3. BTW, remember this one from 2003?

    http://www.imediaconnection.com//content//2008.asp

  4. I do. My favorite quote: “As long as the consumer has the choice to download music for free or pay $20 per album, the Internet will never become a legitimate distribution channel,”

    Evidently that is not the case, as Apple has helped prove that wrong by selling umpteen million downloads, despite the existence of the P2P services and bands giving tracks away for free left and right.

    I think what HAS happened is that the single is being revived as a legitimate musical form. Rather than having to pony up ten bucks for an entire shitty album, consumers can now pay $0.99 and get the one song that they want, because they now have the ability to preview 30-second samples of an entire album. They know if an album sucks ahead of time, and respond accordingly. The internet has put a great deal of power back into the hands of the consumer, where it belongs.

    McCaughan’s quote hit the nail on the head, because a label releasing great albums can truly take advantage of the distribution capabilities afforded to them by the internet. But if you release a shitty album, your record doesn’t have as much potential to sell the way it did even five years ago. In a lot of cases, I don’t think the major labels know how to deal with this.

    I recently had the opportunity to view the Soundscan sales of a fairly well-known indie artist from the 90s that had released a title digitally and in physical format in 2008. Sales of that record, which mostly occurred in 2008, were about 70% digital download, 30% physical CDs. Now, those numbers don’t include CDs that were sold through channels that don’t report to Soundscan, and they don’t include CDs that were sold by the band off the stage at their shows, but the high percentage of downloads still, to me, shows a sea change in the way indies can distribute their music. Suddenly, where distribution was the single biggest hindrance to an indie or unsigned band, it’s now a huge ADVANTAGE, because the major label distribution scheme no longer has a stranglehold on what music is accessible by the public. The band I’m referring to above had trouble getting their music into the hands of consumers in the 90s, and ultimately signed with a major label to remedy that problem. Today they wouldn’t have to make that decision.

    The problem today is a different one – cutting through the clutter of the thousands and thousands of bands that can easily throw their music on MySpace and set up an online store to sell downloads for a small fee. But that’s a problem that lies on the shoulders of the artists and their labels, and NOT on the consumers. Today, the consumers have a real choice, and that’s always a good thing.

  5. […] Comments Al on spos.Tom Hespos on spos.Al on spos.Al on the futile search.rich masio on the futile search. […]

  6. I hear some Seth Godin in that last paragraph, Al.

    I have a friend that I met freshman year of college (1988), who had a firm rule back then: He wouldn’t buy an album unless it had at least three songs that were radio hits (he owned a lot of Tom Petty, Zeppelin and Beatles cassettes).

    If you follow that rule now, with current bands, you won’t be buying too many CDs (and the ones you do buy will probably suck). That whole idea that the cream will rise to the top – based on mainstream radio, no less – always bugged me. Some people still think that way, but I think that’s changing.

    But – on the other side, I think people have a weird and unreliable way of ranking things and making snap judgments (Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” now comes to mind) when pieces of entertainment are in multiple parts – like the songs on an album. A typical movie is either good or bad, but when you get a movie that has discrete parts like Grindhouse, Twilight Zone The Movie, or other anthologies, people naturally begin ranking those pieces from best to worst.

    I think albums especially suffer because of this thinking, because, at least for me personally, the first listen or two to a new song isn’t reliable. Another friend once told me if he loves a song the first time he hears it, he’s pretty sure it won’t have lasting power with him, and he’ll get bored of it soon – but if he only kind of likes it, or maybe doesn’t really like it, it’s got a good chance of growing on him. I agree with that way of thinking.

    My point here is that the old-school idea of being forced to buy the whole album can actually have its benefits. How good of a judgment can you make on a song after hearing it one or two times – or, only hearing a 30 second clip? How many albums do you own where you weren’t into some songs at first, but it eventually won you over? (I love when that happens, by the way)

    There are definitely albums with one “good” song, and the rest being less good or just plain bad – but once you give people the option to start splitting things up – especially things like albums that are theoretically conceived as whole works of art – I think the results are sub-par. I mean, if people were given the option to buy books the same way – $9.99 for the whole thing, or $.99 per chapter (maybe that’s even possible somewhere online) – there’d be lots of people thinking “Heh heh, suckers – I only paid for the one GOOD chapter in the book!” without ever reading the whole thing as it was intended.

    So yeah – if I had to vote, I’d actually vote for the old fashioned “whole album” concept. Sometimes you’ll feel like you wasted your money, but I think the surprise payoffs make it worthwhile. Let me know if we can force people to do that, Al.

  7. I think I’d agree with you, Steve, if more bands were concerned with making an entire album of great music. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case, particularly with a lot of the major label stuff out there. Of course there ARE great albums, and I do think that the cream often rises to the top. But there are SO MANY examples of albums that had just a good song or two. In the past, I could buy such a song as a 7″ single (or even a CD single). Why not now?

    But I also think that a record like “Exile in Guyville” or “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” still presents itself well as a body of work, and particularly in the case of Merge, the consumer has the ability to stream the entire release for free without having to commit to purchasing the entire thing. I didn’t buy “Aeroplane” until YEARS after it came out, but eventually I did buy the entire thing.

    As far as Godin is concerned, yeah, I do agree with a lot of what he has to say (Peppers & Rogers as well), and think that the record industry should be thinking about getting with the program and doing real marketing, rather than just throwing music up there and litigating against changes in the way consumers behave.

  8. Any free medium has a shitty signal/noise ratio. When there’s no profit motive, there’s little incentive to keep the useful signal level high. Simultaneously, there will be lots of shitheads who add a lot of noise, solely because it’s free. Spammers raided e-mail, message boards, blog comments – pretty much any free medium they could get into at no cost. The same thing happened to P2P networks.

    I started paying the 99 cents on iTunes when people started posting things on P2P networks like “RARE AC/DC Highway to Hell Bootleg!!!” You’d download it and find out it was somebody’s shitty band playing a cover of some other song. People started spamming the P2P networks left and right and I got tired of downloading things that were something other than what was advertised.

    On another note, I totally agree that few bands are capable of putting out albums anymore. Aside from a couple of releases that are in the vast minority, albums are vehicles for singles, only one or two of which are any good. Most commercial releases are not listenable all the way through. If bands concentrated on releasing a true body of work in an album, we wouldn’t have this problem with record labels scratching their heads as they release 8 shitty songs along with one good one and wonder why the album didn’t sell.

  9. I don’t know who Peppers & Rogers are, so I’ll have to look into them.
    I was going to add something in my first message that those thoughts apply more to all the bands and albums that were around pre-Internet. Maybe now it’s more viable for a band to record and release a single song, or a few, and not think in terms of the album in the first place.

    The pain of the traditional record/mix/master/press/print/ship (and the cost and time involved) had to make most older bands work a lot harder at keeping the quality of the final result higher. Nothing you haven’t already said, Al – yes, singles have always been around. So we’re headed back to a 1950’s/early 60’s mentality where the single hit was the goal, and not the full album.

    Tom, your comments made me think about the iPhone SDK – I paid $100 to download it, which I later learned that people call Apple’s “No Bozo Fee” – maybe there needs to be more of those fees spread about the Internet.

  10. I read somewhere recently that the single download is turning into a viable profit opportunity for some artists. Not just the “flavor of the month” types that are selling a million downloads, but for other artists. I read an interview with one classic rock artist that said they were considering going into the studio and then just releasing individual tracks one by one as they finish them.

    There’s really no reason not to do that anymore, nor is there any reason not to come up with creative new ways of packaging music. Mogwai released “Happy Songs For Happy People” with a copy of QBase and encouraged fans to remix the first track. Merge is giving away a free digital download with every vinyl purchase.

    From my standpoint I can tell you with great certainty that this new ability to drastically limit manufacturing costs – or eliminate them altogether – enables smaller labels to shift a greater percentage of the expense to marketing. I can also tell you with great certainty that more and more artists are considering the digital download to be a viable enough method of distribution that they’re not unwilling to move forward without the physical CD of 7″.

    When the big labels disappear – and I stress the “when” – we’ll all be in much better shape. I can’t wait.

  11. Agreed. Why go into the studio and record a new album when that’s generally not how kids buy music these days? The only reason I can see to do so is that you want something to put on the shelf at Wal-Mart, which still carries a good deal of retail weight to throw around. If Wal-Mart were to open up a singles shalf, though…

    BTW, a Dromedary band did something similar to Mogwai, and I don’t know if I ever told you about this, Al. The Mommyheads were working with two guys I worked with at Mezzina Brown & Partners. They had a little company called SS7X7 (no, I don’t know what the name means) that produced a little Shockwave mixer app and let artists release versions of their songs that people could remix and submit to an online community. The Mommyheads released at least one song that way. Can’t remember which one.

  12. shelf, dammit. shelf.

  13. We need to do something innovative like that – maybe create some kind of pseudo-mixer web app, record a song with way too many instrument tracks, and let users turn them on and off at will – they could create an acoustic version of a song, or mute the acoustic guitars and drums with brushes and create a harder, electrified version. And a contest for the best mixdown. Let’s break some ground here, and help the big labels disappear a little faster.

    Al, my brain does probably default (wrongly) to a “flavor of the month” kind of single mentality. If people are selling more substantial tracks and doing well with them, I’m happy.

  14. The guys who did SS7X7 are still friends and on Facebook. Say the word and I’ll contact them.

    Really, though, the company I think is in the best position to do this right now is Apple. They should work with artists on iTunes to provide GarageBand files derived from the master tapes. People could do their own mixes, mashups – whatever. And it’s incremental revenue to the artist.

  15. Tom, I just found it – wow, that’s really cool. That’s what I was thinking – not something with all the features of Garage Band but something just like SS7X7. I listened to a few songs – it would be cool to hear something a little more organic in that style – especially for people who don’t ever use a multitrack mixer. Whenever I open GarageBand or Logic and let a non-music person play with it, they love it.

    I’m going to buy Razortone.com and put something like this up there. Oh wait… it’s not available…

  16. Where did you find it? I tried looking a few months ago and couldn’t find it.

  17. It was a lot of digging – I believe this is it…
    http://www.blobprod.com/mixers/beatbox/beatbox.htm

    If not, that’s a lot like what you described.

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