What I Learned in Jail


2 Live CrewHere’s a longer version of the presentation I gave at this year’s Pop Conference, about Too Much Joy’s brief moment of playing protest music, and what that taught me about the skepticism that so often greets artists who take political stands. The first draft, and associated video clips, lasted 30 minutes, so I had to shave off a third of it at PopCon. This post restores the bits it killed me to lop off, although, really, I could keep talking about this for hours. Continue reading

Where Have All The Bob Seger Albums Gone?

Where Have All The Bob Seger Albums Gone?I’ve got a long read over at NPR about the strange case of Bob Seger, who has let over half of his catalog fall out of print physically, while simultaneously releasing just a couple compilations for sale online, and almost nothing at all for on demand streaming. A few folks pointed out that my editor and I missed an obvious headline: “Why Has Bob Serger Taken His Old Records Off The Shelf?”

5 Star Songs

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My iPod has 31,302 songs. 1,173 of them are rated 5 stars. On a recent cross-country drive, listening to a playlist consisting solely of those 5-star songs, I found myself whiling away the miles trying to decipher what set each one apart from the other 30,129.

So I’ve started a Tumblr to record the results of that ongoing effort. I’m going to try to update it daily, but life being what it is that’s more of a wish than a promise.

Budweiser Bought My Baby

This bud life2one was presented at the 2011 Pop Conference. David Lowery, who also presented that year, suggested that reluctance to license music to commercials was mostly about class, as you have to be pretty privileged in the first place to turn down money. That didn’t make me feel much better, but another thing he told me sure did: he’d spent time as a quant for some investment firm, and he said the traders there had a very unique take on being an unrecouped band. “That means you won!” they told him, when he explained how major label contracts tended to work. The way they looked at it, being unrecouped was less a mark of failure than of getting the better end of a transaction.

The closest my band, Too Much Joy, ever came to breaking up was in 1991, as we argued about whether we should accept a lucrative offer to record a radio jingle for Budweiser, which I personally considered the second worst beer in America.

The argument began in our manager’s office. My position was not nuanced: commercials were antithetical to every reason we’d formed our rock band in the first place. This was debased, and rock bands – especially indie rock bands — needed to be pure. Continue reading

Best. Band Camp. Ever.

The piece below was originally published in 2010 on the Rhapsody blog, but I guess some time after I left they changed blogging platforms and didn’t think keeping several years’ worth of entries worth the hassle of shifting them over. As you’ll see if you keep reading, my trip to NOLA as a guest of Air Traffic Control felt pretty profound at the time, and that feeling has only grown since then — to the point where I wound up on ATC’s board, and am now its Treasurer (ATC has since re-branded itself Revolutions Per Minute). I attended another retreat in 2012, and brought along a film crew from Google to document the shenanigans. All pics were taken by retreat attendees, but I’ve lost the original photo credits, so if one is yours, just let me know.

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I just spent three of the best days of my life. At a band camp.

Well, technically it was an Artist Activism Retreat, which sounds a lot more lofty, but still doesn’t hint at the transcendent joy of the experience. And it took place in New Orleans, which explains some but not all of that joy.

Explaining the rest of the joy might not be possible. But I am going to try. Continue reading

The Quiet Revolution

While walkman20the amazing storage capacity mp3 players made possible at the turn of this century felt pretty profound, the Walkman was a more revolutionary consumer electronic device, as this presentation from the 2010 Pop Conference attempts to explain. I searched in vain when writing this for a Malcolm McLaren quote I remembered from the late-’70s/early-’80s, in which he damningly contrasted white people hiding behind Walkman headphones with black youth who more proudly imposed their soundtracks on the world around them. Like a lot of things McLaren said, it was savvy, provocative, and wrong. Turns out those headphones had more power to shape the environment.

The world changed, quietly, on June 22nd 1979, the day Sony unveiled the first “personal stereo” to skeptical journalists in Tokyo .

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Continue reading

Endlessly Horny For Wonder And Magic

Presented bat_lp_coverat the 2009 Pop Conference, and later published as a chapbook which you can purchase for 99 cents from Feedback Press, or from Amazon if you prefer an electronic edition. I have no humorous anecdotes about this one, as they are all contained within the paper itself. But I should probably explain that it’s broken up into pretentiously-titled sections, including an overture and a coda, because that seemed like the best way of honoring an album that is so lovably, ridiculously overwrought. If it’s not clear from everything that follows, I still adore this record. There’s a lot to admire in being ridiculous and overwrought.

Overture: The Cover

It’s 1977, bleeding into 1978. I am 12 years old. This is on my wall,

ffposter Continue reading

Good News For Yo La Tengo

Thisjuke presentation from the 2007 Pop Conference was oddly controversial, in that during the Q&A I was taken to task for supposedly lauding a future full of white guitar players. If you think the paper’s title is one more example of cloistered music critics privileging indie rock, well, then my saying “Good News For Yo La Tengo just sounds funnier than Good News For Luther Vandross” probably isn’t going to change your mind. But the point remains that the examples that follow have analogs in every genre. I do think Indie Rock is more prone than most genres to view a gap between critical and commercial success as something desirable, though, so I’m particularly interested to see what happens if/when there are more than just psychological rewards for being a critic’s darling.

I am here to make some proclamations about the future of the music business. I should provide a couple caveats at the outset, however. First, I will confess I’m not 100% sure whether what follows is a prediction or a just a wish. I’m pretty confident (so, like, 99%) it’s the former, but I offer that 1% of doubt as a little place of refuge anyone who disagrees with me can go try to build a city where all the citizens do their best to keep the existing, depressingly diseased music business functioning as-is indefinitely. Good luck with that. Continue reading

How To Write About Music You Hate

ears-dissonanceI read this at the 2006 Pop Conference in Seattle. When I was finished, Robert Christgau ran up to me and said, “Who is Mike McGuirk and why haven’t I heard of him?” The answer to the first half of that question is, “The best natural music blurb-er I’ve ever seen.” The answer to the second half is a mystery even to Mike, I think. 

Like, I assume, most of the people at this conference, I have what average citizens, upon entering my home or office, almost always declare to be a frighteningly large music collection: LPs, CDs, cassettes, hundreds of gigabytes of mp3s scattered across an array of hard drives and portable devices — it all gathers in piles both physical and virtual wherever I spend serious time. When these average citizens are new or casual acquaintances, they often move from commenting on the vast and tottering nature of the stacks of discs to making deductions along the lines of, “You must really like music, huh?”

I almost always reply with a semi-embarrassed, “Kind of,” which is the most honest answer I can give. Though my collection is indeed larger than the average citizen’s, it’s far smaller than that of most of my music geek friends, and the reality is I hate far more music than I like. Continue reading