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

Going Through the Motions: Why Pete Townshend’s Windmill Works Even When He Doesn’t Mean It

pete wightI presented this one at the 2004 Pop Conference. It was later published in the academic journal Popular Music, with an introduction by Jason Toynbee, and followed by some back and forth between Jason and me, in which we argued good-naturedly about the different ways academic writing and popular writing tend to analyze the same phenomenon. In other words, the piece was a microcosm of everything great and infuriating about the Pop Conference itself.

We’re going to start with some film — the Who playing “Young Man Blues” at the Isle of Wight in 1970. I’ve always loved the Who, but I never really cared for their version of this song until I first saw this clip, which just nailed me to my seat. I actually got goose bumps – all the hairs on both my arms stood straight up. I watched it again the next morning when I wasn’t so stoned to make sure I’d seen what I thought I had, and it still blew me away.

The song lasts for about five and a half minutes, and during that time you witness a wild transformation: the band starts out playing the song, but by the end it’s the other way around — the music takes over, and it’s the song that’s playing the band. As a fan and a critic, of course, I live for moments like that. More importantly, though, as a guy who spent a good ten years on the road in a band that very much wanted to be the Who (actually, the Clash, but it’s really the same thing), I know just how easy those moments are to fake, and how that can make chasing after genuine onstage epiphanies not just a point of honor, but a physical craving that gets harder and harder to satisfy the more often you do it. Continue reading

Been Caught Stealing

My samplersecond Pop Conference presentation, from 2003. The audio from this one is still available at KEXP. I believe E. Michael Harrington was on the same panel, with a proposal for a much more sane sample clearance apparatus in which any sampled entities would automatically split a % of the song’s earnings, sampled works would have to have been in the market at least 5 years, and samples would have to be under 10 seconds. Seems like a reasonable set of conditions to me.

I Was Going To Title This Paper “Been Caught Stealing,” But Warner Wanted Five Grand And Perry Farrell’s Publisher Demanded 50% Of Any Money It Ever Made: Why All Artists Should Be Horrified By Sample Clearance Practices

I’m going to talk about sampling from the artist’s perspective. Actually, I guess, there are two artist perspectives: there’s the one of the artist doing the sampling, and there’s the one of the artist being sampled. Although almost everything I say is going to describe the view of a sampler rather than a samplee, I really don’t think there’s any serious difference between the two, and I hope by the time I’m done you’ll understand why that’s so. Although the sampling battles that make it as far as court are often reported and debated as though they pit the interests of two artists against one another, that’s a gross oversimplification. Sampling disputes always represent a conflict between the rights and needs of an artist and the rights and needs of a copyright owner, and that’s a very important distinction for two reasons. Reason number 1 is that the copyright owner usually isn’t an artist, but a corporation that has amassed its market power by convincing as many artists as possible to transfer their copyrights to the corporation. Reason number 2 is that even when the copyright owner actually is an artist, he almost never talks like one while he’s pursuing a copyright infringement case. Continue reading

Topless At The Arco Arena

My T-shirt_logo no namevery first Pop Conference presentation, given at the very first Pop Conference, and written at the suggestion of organizer Eric Weisbard, who sensed there might be something worth exploring in the whole dot-com-explosion-scoops-up-random-musicians-and-writers-of-previously-questionable-corporate-value dynamic. He was right enough that I kept going after the paper was finished — it became the title and the theme of Wonderlick’s second album, whose 16 songs attempted to analyze the same thing from a variety of different angles. The result was catchier than that might sound. What follows served as the liner notes to that album, and was also included in This Is Pop! (Oxford University Press), a compendium of papers from the conference, where it sits between contributions from Simon Reynolds and Carrie Brownstein. Good company, and a good example of the range of perspectives the conference has always attracted.

One night in April 2001 I jumped in a white stretch limousine with the CEO of, the Vice President of Business Development, one of our Strategic Account Managers, and several cases of beer. We drove from San Francisco to the Arco Arena in Sacramento to see AC/DC in concert. In the middle of the show, while the band played “The Jack,” cameras connected to the giant TV screens panned the crowd of 20,000 rock fans wearing blinking devil horns emblazoned with the AC/DC logo, looking for a female willing to strip. While several ladies appeared ready to undo a button or two on their blouses, the cameras seemed able to tell they were poseurs, and finally settled on a young, exuberant blonde. As the band vamped, she began to remove her shirt, timing her moves perfectly so she could flash her breasts in diamond vision as the music climaxed and the crowd went wild. Continue reading

The Boring, Beautiful Future

boring futureThis was written in 2000, as Napster and a variety of online music sites were shaking up the business. SF Bay Guardian Arts Editor Tommy Tompkins and I would get together for lunch pretty regularly after I went to work full-time for, and we’d talk about what was happening to the music business. So it made sense that eventually he asked me to write him a longish piece on it all. Nothing too embarrassing below, I don’t think, almost a decade and a half later, which isn’t too bad, when pontificating about what the future will or won’t bring. The week this ran I got an email from Hillary Rosen, the much-vilified head of the RIAA at the time, telling me she liked my article and liked Negativland. I think my only reply was, “Please don’t break the Internet.”

The music business has witnessed so many stunning developments in the past few weeks that this very sentence will probably go out of date before I finish typing it. One minute Metallica’s suing Napster, then before you can say, “What dickheads!” they’ve collected the names of over 300,000 Napster users they accuse of illegally trading Metallica tunes. A few days after a federal judge rules that’s Beam-It feature violates copyright laws, the company announces a new subscription service for classical music lovers, and five minutes after THAT Universal and Sony decide they, too, will develop a subscription-based service for people seeking downloadable music on the internet. Continue reading

Good Guys And Bad Guys

camper headline

Back in 2000, Camper Van Beethoven announced a string of gigs — their first after breaking up rather unceremoniously almost a decade earlier. This was a big enough deal in the Bay Area that the Chronicle, the SF Weekly and the Bay Guardian all devoted features to the band’s shows at Slims. I can be kind of competitive, so I was quite pleased that my wife overheard a guy at the show behind us telling his friends the Guardian’s was by far the best. I was at the bar when that happened, but when I returned the guy told me I didn’t have to buy drinks anymore that night, they were on him. Compliments and free beer — it’s all I really want in life.

Let’s make one thing very clear: Camper Van Beethoven, semi-legendary college radio darlings turned ambitious major label art rockers who abruptly called it quits in the middle of a European tour ten years ago, are not reuniting. Four of the five core members will be playing old Camper songs together at Slim’s on February 10th and 11th, but they’re not reuniting. Oh, and there’s another Camper album coming out soon, on the revived Pitch-A-Tent Records. But the band’s not reuniting. Okay?

Jackson Haring, who used to manage Camper Van Beethoven and now manages Cracker, the more commercially successful band CVB front man David Lowery formed in the early nineties, wants everyone to know that “Cracker isn’t breaking up.” The publicist at Virgin Records stresses that the Slim’s performances are Cracker shows, with, like, special guests. And Lowery himself says that while he’s looking forward to playing with his ex-band mates again, “I don’t want to get carried away with it.” Continue reading

The Unseen Influence Of Ween

I’m ween1_thumbnot entirely sure where this piece written in 2000 originally ran. It might have been on zdnet. It originally had links to all of the no-name bands it mentions on, none of which seem to have ANY internet presence at all thirteen years later, which is itself kind of odd. I did, however, find this blog post from 2010 in which someone talks about how the story of Heavy Vegetation’s “No Turkey for Night Ranger” had a longer life than the song itself. Anyway, this is what the online music world looked like when 99% of the music available online was free, and by nobody you’d ever heard of. 

The brave new world of downloadable music has been getting a lot of press. It’s also been getting a lot of complaints: most of the legal downloads out there tend to be by bands you’ve never heard of. and other sites offering free music downloads are turning into worldwide, never-ending open mike nights (and there’s just about as much chance of an A&R guy checking out the talent there as there is at your local coffee house). That’s supposed to be the point, of course: the internet offers young bands a new means of sharing their art with the world, unfettered by corporate notions of what’s commercial and yadda yadda yadda. But there’s no getting around a simple fact: a lot of the stuff simply sucks. Continue reading

Mirror in the Bedroom

For several years, at the end of any given artist interview, I’d ask if they ever had sex to their own records, assuming I’d eventually have enough good answers that I could compile them all for a Raygun piece. Alas, Raygun went under before I could realize that glorious vision. I’m pretty sure this eventually ran in the Bay Guardian, though I have no hard copy, so am only guessing at the date.

Continue reading

Universal Tour Diary

Itour diary headline can’t remember now what set me off, but I know this 1998 piece for the SF Bay Guardian was inspired by reading a particularly boring and pointless tour diary earlier that year. Steve Albini and Henry Rollins really wrote the only ones of any enduring interest to me, but both achieved it by seeming to be particularly horrible people.

Tour diaries are like Haiku: it’s a lot harder to write a good one than you think. Perhaps that’s because most rock tours are mind-numbingly routine: the food always sucks, the van keeps breaking down, promoters continually rip you off, you get laid occasionally and drunk all the time. Touring can be a lot of fun, but it’s not a particularly profound experience. Then again, maybe tour diaries are so feeble simply because most of the people writing them are rock musicians, and rock musicians are kind of stupid. Continue reading