Posts Tagged ‘book’

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Read: Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records

September 23, 2009

ournoise

[Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small, by John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance]

Author John Cook has assembled a history of Merge Records‘ two decades, from the early days of hand-screening record sleeves in bedrooms to its current status as home to mega-indie bands like Spoon and Arcade Fire. The book is definitely all about the primary sources and the historical record—while Cook’s writing provides excellent context, much of the text is in the form of direct quotes with artists, colleagues, and friends of the label. The book also highlights the unusually close links between the label and its artists by interleaving chapters on the bands, particularly Superchunk, of course (it’s the band of Merge founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance).

The picture that emerges from the text and interviews is that Merge did everything right (which is why they’re around get books written about them, admittedly). To begin with, it’s a label that was started by musicians, for musicians. But even artist-run labels die off like fruit flies, except that fruit flies are unlikely to disappear with any of your money. Merge’s  no-contract, we’re-all-friends philosophy was coupled with an unstinting focus on the bottom line (the individuals quoted in Our Noise almost unanimously attribute this to Ballance’s influence). Despite that, Merge took a certain number of risks—most notably, the release of Magnetic Fields’ magnum opus, 69 Love Songs, a three-CD box set with an expensive insert booklet. That a massive collection of love songs, in a comprehensive range of musical styles, could sell more than 150,000 copies is wildly improbable—except for one minor detail, which is that the music is brilliant. Finally, Merge benefited (and is continuing to benefit) enormously from the way the world changed around them. The mainstreaming of indie music has helped the label, of course. But more significantly, the rise of digital distribution has flattened the landscape, allowing Merge to compete effectively with the majors, not least because the big players can no longer offer anything useful that Merge can’t, since the value of promotional tools like payola-greased radio play and premium placement in record stores has plummeted.

Appropriately enough, given Merge’s philosophy, the book is inexpensive (the first edition is a sub-$20 paperback) but beautifully designed and crafted, from the matte-finish cover to flyleaves  illustrated with a grid of Merge album covers. It’s also lavishly illustrated with ephemera—photographs, notes, postcards and more—culled from the closets of the interviewees.

Read an excerpt here. Check out the Our Noise website. And then buy it.

Want to win a free copy? E-mail us or DM debcha before 5 pm Eastern on Monday, September 28th. We’ll pick a respondent at random to receive a free copy from Algonquin Books (and extra-special thanks to them for being willing to mail it anywhere).

MP3: Magnetic Fields – Grand Canyon [buy]

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Read: Goodbye 20th Century, David Browne

July 27, 2009

I learned two important things from David Browne‘s excellent biography of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century.

The first  is exactly how much ass Kim Gordon kicks. Seriously. What an incredible trailblazer, and by all accounts, she still radiates cool. Not bad for someone who has five years on Madonna.

The second thing I learned is a little less obvious. The first half of the book is a detailed exploration of the early years of Sonic Youth, and by extension the whole 1980s New York art/music scene. It’s clear that Browne put an enormous amount of research into creating this portrait. But I thought that one of  the most striking aspects of the Sonic Youth story was the unremarked-upon juxtaposition of two threads. One is that Sonic Youth collaborated with everyone. They reached out to all the artists they knew (of whatever medium) for artwork, videos, and more, and the book is liberally salted with now-familiar names. For example, for their 1990 album Goo, has a Raymond Pettibon illustration for the cover, and official and unofficial videos were made by or with photographer Richard Kern, artist Tony Oursler, actor Sofia Coppola and director Todd Haynes. The second thread is  how, in several places, Browne comments on ‘unlikely coincidences,’ usually in the context of the band having a useful personal connection through friends or collaborators. It seems highly likely that these two threads are related. An enormous amount has changed in the music world in the three decades since Sonic Youth got their start. But in a world where all music and art is only a click away, I suspect that the importance of developing relationships by contributing to your community has, if anything, only increased.

You can read some reviews of the book here and here. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in music or other creative endeavours, even if you don’t consider yourself a committed Sonic Youth fan (I’m not, and I really enjoyed the book). Goodbye 20th Century is at Amazon, and I also have one free copy of the trade paperback to give away. Just e-mail or message me before 12 noon Eastern on Wednesday, July 29th if you’re interested, and I’ll pick someone at random from the responses and put the book in the post for you.

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Read: Fans, Friends and Followers

July 2, 2009

FFF cover

Fans, Friends and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age is a new e-book by Cambridge-based Scott Kirsner. He’s been writing, speaking, and connecting people involved in the uptake and spread of innovations for many years, including a column in the Boston Globe (together with its  companion blog), and he also writes regularly on music and technology for Variety.

Fans, Friends and Followers focuses on creators and artists that are thriving in the age of digital distribution, and what can be learned from them. While there are framing chapters which pull out some of the important themes, the heart of the book is a series of creator interviews, which are fascinating reads, showcasing as they do the wide variety of stories, approaches and goals of the artists. These case studies span a wide range of fields, including documentary filmmaker Curt Ellis, comedian and writer Eugene Mirman, and zed equals zee fave Jonathan Coulton.

Scott Kirsner was kind enough to answer some questions about the book for zed equals zee:

So, one of the themes that I took from the book is the ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach – that there is a diversity of ways to use the Internet to share your creative efforts. Anything that you think is an absolute necessity? Anything that you would recommend against?

One thing that’s a necessity: carving out the time and the energy to spend cultivating your fan base, and communicating with fans. There should definitely be a dedicated person in any band who’s responsible for audience-building (that’s a term I like better than “marketing”), or maybe someone you know who isn’t in the band but really understands the Web and social media well. I think in the 20th century, your label took care of all that stuff. In the 21st century, it’s your responsibility. One thing I recommend against is building a super-fancy, expensive, Flash-heavy Web site that no one can update except for the original designer. I can’t tell you how many bands do that — and the result is that fans visit your Web site once or twice, but never come back because it never changes. (And people assume that because your last gig listed is in 2007 that you must have broken up!) Even if you have a bare-bones MySpace page or blog, it’s better to have something you can continually add content to than something better-looking that stays static.

Another of the themes is what I call ‘hookers and taxicabs, not limos and supermodels,‘ after the scene in the movie Hard Core Logo – that the age of the gigantic arena-filling star may be over. What do you think the biggest a native-to-the-Internet artist can get? Do you think that the definition of success has changed, and if so, how?

I do think we’ll eventually see Internet-driven artists playing arenas and stadiums. Today, there are lots who are playing pretty big clubs or opening in bigger venues. To me, the definition of success is making a living without having to work a day job, and more importantly, making the kind of music you want to make — contributing something unique to the world — rather than compromising your vision. All of the artists I interview in Fans, Friends & Followers are doing that. Few are jillionaires (yet), but most have more creative freedom than artists who are signed to labels, which is really important.

On a related note…while I’m happy about seeing entertainment dollars go to more artists, do you think that the pie can be sliced too thin? Do you think it’s harder or easier for an individual artist to make a living?

I think it’s getting easier for individual artists to make a living, and perhaps harder for artists to wind up on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people. But to me, there’s a cultural and societal benefit to having more people (rather than fewer) earning a living making music or movies, writing books, or engaging in any kind of artistic endeavor.  [debcha’s note: Sing it, brother!]

What was the most unlikely or counterintuitive story in your book or from your research?

One of the bands I use as a case study is OK Go. I love the fact that their homemade videos for “Here It Goes Again” (featuring them dancing on treadmills) and “A Million Ways” (featuring them dancing in someone’s backyard) have probably been seen by more people on YouTube than any videos their label made for them. And those videos basically had no budget at all — just the cost of a videotape. Damian Kulash, OK Go’s lead singer, told me that their online success really has built their reputation globally much more than anything their label has done. When they went to Taiwan, a country where their record hadn’t been released, they were headliners. In Korea, where they opened for the Chemical Brothers, thousands of people knew the words to all of their songs. What made the videos successful, Kulash says in the book, were that “they didn’t bear the stamps of this kind of top-down marketing push. They were very clearly homemade.” (Though eventually they were shown on MTV.)

There are a number of visual artists interviewed in Fans, Friends and Followers. Unlike music and video, which are considered to be low culture, success in art has been more about critical approbation (inclusion in curated shows or collections) rather than about popular appeal. Do you think that the art world is changing in response to the rise of the Internet? If so, how?

I think there are two groups of artists today (and maybe there have always been.) Those who want acceptance by the art establishment probably are finding that the Internet doesn’t really help them much. But those who want to make a living — whether you are a fine artist, graphic designer, cartoonist, or illustrator — can be hugely helped by understanding digital tools and strategies. I do believe the Web will help launch the next Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat, and I think the art establishment is going to have to pay attention to that.

Any final thoughts?

I think there’s a pendulum shift happening that everyone has to acknowledge, whether you’re a writer or indie filmmaker or musician. In the old world, you could spend 90 percent of your time on your creative work, and just 10 percent promoting it. In the new world, I think the split is going to be more like 70/30, or even 60/40. Rather than gritting your teeth or complaining about the time it takes to cultivate a fan base, I think the best approach is to figure out how to make the marketing and promotion part of your art — don’t feel like you’re selling out somehow — and enjoy it. Artists like Andy Warhol and Frank Zappa and David Bowie and Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway were (and are) all great self-promoters, too.

Check out a 35-page preview of Fans, Friends and Followers here, or buy the full book here. Also, check out (or contribute to) this wiki, which collects all the online tools listed in the book and more.

MP3: OK Go – Letterbox (They Might Be Giants cover) [buy]

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Read: The Pitchfork 500

January 22, 2009

pitchfork-500

The Pitchfork 500, subtitled “Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present,” is an excellent example of the upstart music criticism website using its powers for good, not for evil. Covering the period from 1977 to 2006 (with a few late-breaking tracks from 2007 snuck in, including z=z faveAll My Friends“), the book presents capsule reviews of each of the chosen songs. As lists go, five hundred is quite large enough to include many songs that you’d agree with, and as well as bunch that you wouldn’t, and some of the choices were surprising but inspired – for instance, Duran Duran get Rio‘s tense and disturbing closer “The Chauffeur” and not either of the megahits, “Hungry Like the Wolf” or the title track.) Unsurprisingly, the list is a bit American-centric (the omission that jumped out at me was the band Squeeze, who were much bigger in the UK and Canada than in the US). But the beauty of the format is that the writers get to enthuse about the songs they love – even a casual perusal of the book rewards with a new appreciation of songs that you’re familiar with, and an urge to go and search out the unfamiliar ones. Being Pitchfork, they couldn’t quite leave out the snark entirely, and the book is peppered with sidebars focusing on specific genres, ranging from grime to ‘post-Fugazi emo,’ to ‘yacht rock’ (yes, songs about sailing).

The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present: website amazon

MP3: Buzzcocks – Ever Fallen in Love? (1977)

MP3: Animal Collective – Grass (2006)

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Upcoming: Anarchy Evolution

December 29, 2008


[embedded YouTube video; if you can’t watch it, click here]

Bad Religion frontman and UCLA biology professor Greg Graffin is working on a book, Anarchy Evolution, that’s scheduled for release on Harper Books in 2010. It’s supposed to be about naturalism and atheism as well as (one presumes) anarchy and evolution. Graffin (looking extremely professorial in the video) describes it as a personal narrative about ‘how to be a more interesting atheist than has been [cough] advertised by popular books of the last three years, by calling yourself a naturalist instead.’ [my links, of course]

No Amazon pre-order link yet – stay tuned.

MP3: Bad Religion – Sorrow [amazon]

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Want to write a book about an album?

November 16, 2008

master-of-reality-cover

The 33 1/3 book series is pretty awesome, and they are currently soliciting proposals for new books. If you’re not familiar with them, the conceit is that each book is about a single album, but the exact format is somewhat variable. For example, John Darnielle‘s tribute to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality is a short novel, written from the point of view of an adolescent boy being held in a psychiatric facility. Colin Meloy‘s book about Let It Be by The Replacements is a coming-of-age memoir. And now it could be your turn. Have a beloved album that you can tell an interesting story around? Go here for full details of how to write and submit your proposal. But get going – the deadline is the end of the year. Here’s a list of the books to date.

MP3: The Decemberists – Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect (buy)

[via Three Imaginary Girls]

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Read: Dan Kennedy, Rock On

March 26, 2008

An Office Power Ballad</i>

Dan Kennedy is clearly a man who knows how to make the best of a bad situation. He realizes a lifelong dream of working in the music business, only to discover that he’s just gotten himself a deckchair on the Titanic. The year is 2002, the company is Warner, and the record industry is imploding. Warner itself is about to be bought by ‘the billionaire grandson of a man who made the family a fortune in booze and chemical dealings,’ resulting in hundreds of layoffs, including Kennedy’s. Fortunately for us, he turned his experiences into a acidly funny memoir, Rock On: An Office Power Ballad. This book certainly made me laugh, and it also made want to loudly cheer the ongoing demise of the traditional record industry. However, my favourite part of the book was a lengthy, loving account of an Iggy Pop concert, possibly because Kennedy was writing about something he loved, not about something he had to be self-protectively cynical about:

…Iggy is everywhere at once. He flies like a computer-animated god-beast deity in an unhinged and hijacked Lucas film. You suddenly realize every punk band you thought was blowing your mind back when you were sixteen was simply a cute little messenger delivering a wadded note to you from this man, wherever he might have been that night.

You can see a promo video for the book here, and Michael Azerrad wrote a review for the New York Times, here. You can also download audio of Kennedy telling a story from the book at a Moth gig in Seattle.

website amazon