photo credit: Verve Forecast
Elizabeth & The Catapult - "You And Me"
Basically, The Other Side Of Zero--the new album by Elizabeth & The Catapult--is a commentary on the parallels of Elizabeth Ziman's New York City life and Leonard Cohen's inability to achieve Buddhist ideals. She describes the album's rawness in the following way:
"The record is more blatantly honest, even rude at times." Elizabeth continues, "Even the happiest sounding pop songs on this record have a tinge of regret and darkness to them...and thank goodness for that. Ultimately, that's the only way I'd feel comfortable singing them. I'm drawn to the ambiguity like a menacing smile."
The following is The Huffington Post's exclusive premiere of the album's track "You And Me."
A Conversation with T-Bone Burnett
Mike Ragogna: T-Bone, you and an entourage of pals are on tour in The Speaking Clock Revue in Boston and New York to benefit music and art education in public schools.
T-Bone Burnett: We are. We've partnered up with Participant Media which is a great film company started by this guy Jeff Skoll who drew up the first plan for eBay. He's a lovely guy, and he's started an entertainment company--or I guess you'd call it a production company--in Los Angeles. They have The Participant Foundation that champions various causes. It's a very big foundation, and it's a great outfit. They've put out a lot of big films like Charlie Wilson's War, The Informant, An Inconvenient Truth, and The Cove. I don't know if you saw The Cove, but that was an incredible movie.
MR: Also, there's one coming up called, Waiting For Superman, right?
TBB: Yeah, they've got this new picture coming out called Waiting For Superman. So, we've teamed up with them to do a couple of shows, see how it goes, and see if we can do one of these kind of shows because, if so, we would like to do it on an ongoing basis. We'd like to have a platform for new people, a great vibe running throughout the country, and to help champion the arts in public schools.
MR: Right, because the arts are the first things hit when there's a budget crunch.
TBB: Well, it is. You know, Plato said that education stands on three legs--athletics, academics, and the arts. He said without any one of those, education would fall. The arts are incredibly important, and a lot of attention goes to athletics. You're in Iowa, right?
MR: Right, of course, athletics.
TBB: There's some athletics stuff going on around there, I know.
MR: Yup, football, football, and football.
TBB: The arts, and music in particular, was used throughout history to teach. We just rhyme things because it's easier to remember. Music was used to teach history, mathematics, language, and rhythm. So, it's an important part of our education, and it's easy to cut it because it seems like it doesn't pertain to going out and making a living. But never the less, it's important to have well rounded people.
MR: Who are the folks that will be on the tour with you?
TBB: Elton John and Leon Russell are headlining, Elvis Costello is the master of ceremonies, and we also have John Mellencamp, Gregg Allman, Ralph Stanley, Jim James, Jeff Bridges, and The Punch Brothers. Do you know The Punch Brothers?
MR: The Punch Brothers are terrific, yes.
TBB: Yeah, they're insanely great. We've also got a new group called The Secret Sisters who are fantastic from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I love these kinds of shows where each person sings three or four songs, and people collaborate with different people. I think it's a good vibe.
MR: It seems like the singer-songwriter type of acts gravitate a little more to that kind of show than the more "produced" acts.
TBB: Well, all of this stuff is primarily done with people who do it. A lot of it is going to use the same band for all the different acts, you know? A lot of these guys have made albums with the band and with me. It's the cats we work with all the time.
MR: Who's in the house band?
TBB: Well, Jay Bellerose and Jim Keltner are playing drums, Dennis Crouch is playing bass, Marc Ribot is playing guitar, Russ Paul is playing steel, Mike Compton is coming to play mandolin, and Gerald Leonard is bring a horn section. Did I say Ralph Stanley? Isn't that wild, Ralph is going to come to do this.
MR: Nice. You've been working with Ralph since O' Brother..., right?
TBB: Yeah. I just love Ralph. I just think he's a great cat. He's the most amazing storyteller, really. So, I'm happy he's coming along for this.
MR: You know, your stable of artists, other than worship you, regularly acknowledge how much you've added to their music, and how much you allow their music to breathe with your productions.
TBB: I have to say, I'm doing the same thing I've always done. I'm just trying to make honest recordings of people.
MR: Honest recordings, that's really well put. Recently, you produced an Elvis Costello album?
TBB: I did, yeah.
MR: And you have a new one coming out soon?
TBB: Yeah, we just finished a new one that's getting ready to come out. I think it's one of the best records either one of us has ever done. I think you'll love Elvis' new record. It's called, National Ransom, and it's great. It goes from being very stripped down with just a guy on guitar, all the way to loud, punk rock music. And many other things--a lot of '20s and '30s kinds of music. It's something else.
MR: You stated before that you just try to make honest records. Well, O' Brother Where Art Thou is about the most honest record one could think of, isn't it?
TBB: Yeah, the great thing about O' Brother Where Art Thou? was when I discovered having a screen between you and the record companies gives you a great deal of freedom to create a different kind of sound or a different kind of record.
MR: And they benefited from it--that was one of the biggest records of that year.
TBB: Yeah, it was a crazy, insanely great time. I love that movie, and I love The Big Lebowski too which I also got to work on.
MR: You also got to work on Crazy Heart, didn't you?
TBB: Yeah, I did. That was another magical experience. It's a wild thing that happens. This kid Scott Cooper came over and had a script, and he just believed it into existence. It was just an amazing thing to watch. Then, Jeff Bridges breathed it into existence.
MR: Yeah, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, oh my God.
TBB: It's beautiful, she's so beautiful.
MR: There's something about her presence when she's on screen, even when sharing the screen with a superstar like Jeff Bridges. Now, the two of them did kind of fight for focus, in a good way, to where you didn't know where your attention should be going. I'm always amazed by how much she can command a screen.
TBB: That's interesting. That's a good observation, she's fantastic.
MR: Thank you. Also, you produced an album by John Mellencamp recently that was recorded in mono. Can you go into the reasoning behind that?
TBB: Do you know the photographer (Mike) Disfarmer? I think he was in Arkansas, and he just took these photographs of people for like a dollar a photograph. People would come in from all over the place to this little town in Arkansas, and he would take their picture. I think John wanted to make a record like that. Look up Disfarmer and you'll see what I mean--I'm sure there are websites for him. It's just beautiful, regular, plain art. It's sort of amateurish, in another way, although incredibly artful. This guy did that, that's all he did. He just sat in his little store in Arkansas, and took pictures for thirty or forty years. So, John wanted to make a plain, honest, ethical, but very simple record. Of course, it complicated things enormously, but we bought an old reel-to-reel tape recorder from eBay, went out with a good mic and pre-amp, and recorded it. We listened to it back on the speaker that came with the tape machine. I think he would have rather done it straight to a lathe, really.
MR: (laughs) That's great. It sounds like you guys were recording to one track, not multi-tracking with the intention of mixing the album down to one track.
TBB: We recorded to one track. When we went to Sun Records, their control room was filled with equipment, so we had to put a trailer out back to put our stuff in. John rented one of those little moving boxes, and we set up in there on about a one hundred and five degree evening in Memphis. We recorded it with one mic, and the band positioned themselves--Sam Phillips, when he recorded Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf, and all those cats, put "X"s where each person should stand. I'm sure he spent hours and hours and nights and nights figuring out the best place for each person to stand. Then, we just put a mic in the middle, and that was it.
MR: That's so cool.
TBB: I thought we could do it, and, of course, you can. If they could do it then, we can do it now.
MR: It's really pretty funny. I was talking to Heart, and Ann and Nancy mentioned that they wanted to record as a band as opposed to layering their last album. I said, "Well, that's certainly an unusual way to record." Ann basically said, "Yeah, I never thought we would ever think of recording with the band in the same room as a bizarre or unique situation."
TBB: The kids are doing that. There's a whole new generation of musicians coming up that that's all they want to do, you know? We try to get away from machines as much as we can.
MR: Do you stay analog to the last moment?
TBB: Yeah, we do. We use Pro Tools to edit, but we keep things incredibly analog. Certainly, every bit of equipment we use is class A, big time electronics. We try to make it sound as big and tough as we can.
MR: Where are you finding analog tape these days?
TBB: I don't know, they're getting it over here though. I think there are a couple of companies or maybe there's just one company that makes it. Somebody's got the formula.
MR: I forgot to ask when we were talking about John Mellencamp if there were any anomalies that had to be resolved like phasing which wouldn't make sense, right?
TBB: No. With one mic, there's no phasing. The phasing comes about because of one mic's proximity to another mic. So, with one mic in mono, it's absolutely in phase, and that's part of what's so attractive about it. There are always anomalies in stereo mixes, but we try to eliminate them, and I'd like to think we do. Just to hear pure signal is exciting.
MR: When you're working with someone for the first time, do you size them up right off the bat to figure out what kind of mic to put on them or do you have to play around with that for a while.
TBB: You know, I've got guys who do that, but I think I've got a good intuition for that sort of thing too. You can hear whether someone sings in chest voice or head tones, and what parts of their voice need the most thorough examination, so to speak. Everybody has two or three octaves they're singing in too. We hear one note primarily, but there are lower parts to it and higher parts to it.
MR: You mean notes that are resonating?
TBB: Yeah, notes that are there. If you look at it on a scope, you see there are notes in certain octaves that you didn't even know were there. It's just an overtone of the main tone or, sometimes, it's the main tone. So, you can record that--you can record the lower octave, and then you can lay things back by doing that. Now we're deep into it. (laughs)
MR: Hey, when you have T-Bone Burnett on the phone, you've got to talk about these topics, absolutely. So, since you stay analog as long as you possibly can, when you lay back your mixes, are they normally on two-track, stereo, analog tapes?
TBB: Yeah, usually fifteen IPS, which is kind of a slower speed. I like the slower speed as a rule. I also like tape hiss, and we add in all sorts of sounds--different layers, dimension, resonances, and different sounds. It's just part of the world that the thing is in. When we were in Sun Studios, one of the great parts of that sound there was an air conditioner up on that wall that just ran all the time. It was just one of those old wall units, and all those Elvis Presley records were recorded with that going. So, that's part of the world of sound.
MR: You're actually recording "life" in addition to just recording some clean signal.
TBB: Yeah, that's right, part of the time. It's all part of having a sense of place.
MR: Are you working on anything else? I know we just mentioned a couple of projects, but isn't there also a Gregg Allman project coming,?
TBB: We made a really beautiful record with Gregg that's going to come out next year. It's, once again, completely live. He's so tough, man. Gregg is absolutely one of the best blues singers of all times. He really is a mind-blowing singer. He calls it low country blues and it is, man, it is tough. I love that record. I love that record, the Elvis Costello record is beautiful, and the Elton and Leon record is beautiful. I've been getting to work with some incredibly great people lately, and this band is so great too. I've been working my whole life to put this band together. (laughs)
MR: You're one of those people whose name everybody wants to have on their album. Also, you are so associated with the term "Americana," but as you said before, you're really just trying to make honest records. Do you feel an affinity towards what one would identify as Americana?
TBB: Well, in one sense, Americana was Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Skip James, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Ralph Stanley, and Jimmy Reed. If that's what Americana is, guys with guitars, playing and singing...the stuff I work on has a lot more of an American influence of rhythm, vibe, and the way to go about it. I'd say Miles Davis was Americana. Certainly John Lee Hooker is. So, that way of going about making music is certainly very American, but I don't feel that split exactly.
MR: Well, you know, the magazine No Depression's depiction of Americana...
TBB: I'm just saying I don't feel that exactly. I don't feel it that way, but I know there's something there because they've done such a tremendous amount of work on so many people, don't you think? They've put together an incredible archive.
MR: Oh, yeah. Also, the field isn't as narrow when you add artists that associate themselves with that genre, including The Jayhawks, Son Volt, and a lot of singer-songwriters.
MR: It seems like it became a melting pot when there wasn't a home. I mean, one of my favorite artists, John Hiatt, easily falls into that category too.
TBB: Even Springsteen. Everybody does when you look at it. There's something else that happened across the Atlantic and across the Pacific, but there's a specific thing that just happened here, and it obviously happened in this incredible hybrid we live in. So, yeah, I love that stuff. I love where the fresh water meets the salt water and it gets all mixed-up.
MR: That's so wonderfully put.
TBB: You don't get a lot of that in Iowa, though, do you?
MR: (laughs) Not so much salt water, no. But we do have Americana out here. Actually, in Fairfield, the place you're talking to now, we have a lot of musicians and a lot of artists. You can't throw a stone without it hitting an artist or musician. It's that kind of town.
TBB: Yeah, that's right, it's a great music town.
MR: So, let me ask you about your music. There have been T-Bone Burnett records in the past. Don't you ever want to do another one? Aren't you ever going to record that guy T-Bone again?
TBB: You know, I still write all the time. I might do that at some point...I don't know. I have some good titles, you know? So, it makes me want to make a record. They're so good that I don't want to give them away.
MR: I get it. Getting back to The Speaking Clock Revue, do you know the dates and where you'll be performing?
TBB: Yeah, October 16th we'll be at the Wang Center in Boston, and October 20th we'll be at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. And we're going to do an abridged version at Neil Young's Bridge School show in San Francisco.
MR: Nice. Do you have any advice for new artists coming into the field right now?
TBB: You know what I would say? This might sound counter-intuitive, but I would say--if I were a new artist, coming in right now--I wouldn't do anything on the Internet at all. I would stay completely off the Internet and go total privateer. Just make your own records, or if you need money to make records, get a partner. Don't worry about CDs and all that stuff. Just make whatever you want, put it on whatever form you want to, and sell it for anything you want to. That would be my advice.
MR: I love how you said "counter-intuitive" because everybody has been gravitating towards finding the latest online tool or social site in an almost frantic, panicked way.
TBB: Yeah, you can do that, but how many Facebook bands are there? How many MySpace bands are there? And where's the story in that? There is a story if you go out and blow people's minds. There are so many great, different mediums available to store analog data. Vinyl still sounds killer, and there's no reason not to make vinyl records. There's no reason to make anything but vinyl records for that matter.
TBB: (laughs) You can give things away. MP3s are about valuable enough to give away. That's about how good they sound, you should give them away. Compressed audio is just bad for us in every way. It's physically bad for us, it's emotionally bad for us, and it just sounds terrible. You'll forgive me for saying so.
MR: A lot of people are in your camp. To be perfectly honest, there has always been the digital versus analog argument, and analog has to win in every case because how long can the mind listen to zeroes and ones without getting fatigued?
TBB: Right, and there will be new analog storage mediums coming that will be better than what we have now. Digital is great for passing information, but for music, it doesn't work as well. Music doesn't break down the same way words do, you know?
MR: Interesting. As you know, this interview is being recorded for both The Huffington Post and for KRUU-FM, the Midwest's only solar-powered radio station. Do you have any thoughts about solar power?
TBB: I think about it. That's fantastic that it's a solar-powered station, that's beautiful. As we go forward, we want to find the greenest way forward, that's for certain.
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with Next BIG Nashville's Jason Wilkins
Mike Ragogna: This is a very interesting period for Nashville because it's trying to be in on the cutting edge of technology. Can you go into that a little bit?
Jason Wilkins: Sure. That's funny because one of the other things that I do is I'm the co-chair of the branding committee for the Nashville Mayor's Music Council, and we were just having a discussion today about perceptions of Nashville and what are the things that we have to deal with as the brand. One of them is exactly what you're saying--people don't automatically think progressive, diverse, and they certainly don't automatically think of technology when they think Nashville, but sure enough, all that stuff does go on. From a technological standpoint, while country music is actually not what they consider an "early adopter"--meaning they're not the first people to buy the iPod--they're all finally getting into online music as well. Regardless of that, outside of country music, we have all kinds of other business that goes on here, from Very Vinyl--one of the last record pressing plants in the United States--to the very digital company Echomusic, which was bought by Ticketmaster and folded into their company.
What the Leadership Music Digital Summit--which Next BIG Nashville merged with this year--tries to do is bring in a lot of leaders from all sides. There is a big discussion that will take place during our event between the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and other stakeholders in copyright and the people who are really pushing for net neutrality and what people are referring to as "copyleft." You have people like Tim Westergren from Pandora coming down, folks from Google, Bebo, and all these different major stakeholders in the digital world, and then you also have major labels, independent labels, managers, agents, and everybody. We're hoping to get as many of the leaders and the big voices in the conversation about the music business, where it's at, and where it's going into one place at one time. That's kind of the whole idea.
MR: Where is it being held?
JW: It's being held at Belmont University, which is a small university here known for two things--almost beating Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament a couple of years ago, and for having a music business degree. You can actually go and study audio engineering, copyright, and things like that. It has produced people like Trisha Yearwood and Brad Paisley, who were both students there.
MR: Who are some of the speakers representing the industry? Will there be any artists or producers?
JW: On the artist side, as expected, they are some of the toughest to wrangle. We've been talking to everyone from Hayley Williams from Paramore, to Kings Of Leon, to The Black Keys, and all different kinds of folks. It's just very difficult, with touring schedules and stuff, to find the people that we want to have speak. Part of it is if we can put someone onstage who can sort of mentally connect the dots for the world outside of Nashville, then people look at these artists that have actually been successful in the most difficult time in music history who are all either based out of here or do a lot of their business out of here. Those are some of the folks that, even though we don't necessarily have them represented up there, we have the people that represent them up there like John Peets who not only manages The Black Keys out of Nashville, but also does country acts, and has worked in the past with folks like Gillian Welch. You've got Scott Borchetta, who runs Big Machine Records with artists like Taylor Swift, talking about how he developed her, and what his plans are for the future. Livia Tortella, who was just recently named the COO of Atlantic Records, will be coming in and talking about 360 deals. We've been hearing about 360 deals for a while. Well, some of them have been in place now for five or six years. Let's look at how they've worked, and who benefited the most. That will be an interesting and hopefully compelling, discussion. Because what you want to come out of this is not just people getting up on stage to say, "This is my company, and here's what I do." You're putting leaders together, you really want to engage with people, you really want them to talk about what's really happening. Sometimes, that can be difficult--music people can be like politicians who want to give you pat answers. But the digital summit and our event, Next BIG Nashville, both have had those types of discussions happen before. Those things where it gets a little heated, and it gets interesting, and honestly, that's what we hope for. It's a difficult time, so you have to talk about some difficult things.
MR: What do you think is the most pressing problem that the industry and artists need to get together and fix immediately?
JW: Well, you know, what it still boils down to--and this is not me stepping on one side or the other because we kind of have to be referees here, and let everybody just debate it out. But I think there is one undeniable fact that has come out of the last ten years. It's arguable whether the kind of money and the kind of income streams that were being made in the '90s will ever be attainable again, or even if they should be. There are people who philosophically disagree with a lot of what was set up before, but the thing that is undeniable is that nothing has replaced record sales, and by record sales, I mean physical purchases. Digital downloads, even with major adoption throughout the U.S., have not equaled that out, so you have a situation where you have to say, "Where's the money going to come from?" Some people have talked about streaming, but the income you make from streaming is really, really low, and so far, the adoption of it is incredibly low. You've got new players coming into the game, folks like Spotify, who are going to be at the summit, and Rdio; and folks like Rhapsody are still pushing their products, but people were slow to start buying downloads, and they're really slow to get on the streaming thing.
So, what's going to replace it when it goes away? The erosion continues without anything to take its place, and I think the multi-million dollar question right now is, what, if anything, is going to take its place? You hear in the U.S. about a double-dip recession. Well, we haven't hit the bottom yet, as far as the record business goes. Some people think that we have, but we haven't. Maybe that's just my opinion, but I feel like you're going to get to the point where one generation replaces the next, as far as their habits and what they do. When you look at trends and talk to folks whose job that is...which we've got a couple of those people at the summit too--the CEO of BigChampagne, Eric Garland, and Russ Crupnick of the NPD Group. These people who are super data crunchers and really get into the numbers that show you what teenagers are doing now and what people in their twenties are doing. But now we have ten years of that kind of information of what these trends are. People aren't growing up and starting to buy stuff, you know? They're just like, "Well, it's always been free. It's always going to be free." So, it's going to hit that point where we need to ask, "Is it? Is it always going to be free? Will something be done about that or will people just stop making money off of music entirely?" That's the doomsday scenario, and I don't think it will ever come to that because if you ever do any historical research into music in general--going back to before people ever bought and sold it--it's so integral to the human experience that music's not going to go away. It's just a question of how is it going to sustain itself as a business, you know?
MR: Right. Now, you have a history of being musician, right?
JW: Yeah, absolutely, I still do. I mean, I don't make any money at it, but I still make it.
MR: So, this all is relative to personal experience as well.
JW: Absolutely. I've had the opportunity to be on all sides of the ups and downs of the music business. I got my first job when I was eighteen, and I'm thirty-six or seven now. I forget, but after thirty-five who cares, really.
JW: I was on an independent label, played with major label artists, I've been able to tour with different folks, write for people, record with a ton of folks, and see all those different parts to it. I guess the sad part to me about what's going on from a business standpoint is the biodiversity of the music business. There used to be middle class--the Grant Lee Buffalos and Sonic Youths of the world. I worry about those kinds of bands a little bit because they had to help major labels to get them through certain periods, even though we view them as independent. It's hard to sustain yourself completely as an independent, especially with how fickle blogs are, you know? The one good thing the labels did was create a system where you could have all different levels of success. Obviously, they created a lot of bad things too, and I was definitely a part of some of those things, but that's just a personal feeling. Maybe nobody cares that much about that anymore, we'll see. We'll see what consumers demand over the next five to ten years.
MR: Well, nobody can predict the future, but on the other hand, that's the purpose of this conference. What's its origin?
JW: Well, I started the Next BIG Nashville Music Festival about five years ago. I also do some journalism, and I was writing a story about Nashville at that time. I moved to Nashville in '93, and I was aware of a couple of different cycles when non-country music had started to bubble up and make national waves. That was the most significant point in the city's history from non-country. You had the Kings Of Leon, Paramore, Be Your Own Pet, and probably about fifty or sixty either major label or major independent signed artists that kind of ballooned up at that point. So, I wrote an article about it, we decided to throw a party, and then the next thing you know, that party has turned into a festival, and that festival now is five years in the running and has added a music conference element to it. In the last year, we've gotten together with the Leadership Music Digital Summit, which has also been going on for five years now, and decided it would probably be a lot better if the two events happened at the same time. So, that's what we did.
JW: It's technically still under two separate names, and it's kind of a, for lack of a better term, South By Southeast approach.
MR: Now, you have one hundred and fifty signed, unsigned, indie, and nationally recognized artists who will be performing over the four nights. I like to champion newbies, so who are some of the lesser known names?
JW: Yeah, some of the lesser knowns. There's a national band that I'm particularly fond of right now. They've got kind of an Arcade Fire meets boys raised on gospel and Bruce Springsteen approach to what they do, and they're called The Apache Relay. They're a fantastic live band, and probably a complete unknown from a national standpoint right now. There's a band called Uncle Skeleton who is very interesting. It's actually a son of a famous Nashville songwriter and artist, and he gets in there and makes kind of electro, glitchy, strange pop music. But then, live, he delivers it almost like E.L.O. with full strings and everything too.
MR: Who's the father?
JW: The father is Steve Wariner.
MR: Oh, of course, Steve Wariner, yeah.
JW: Yeah, he and his son, Ross used to have a band called Kindercastle, and his new one is Uncle Skeleton. He really puts a lot into the presentation of it. He's very much got the Jeff Lynne, Brian Wilson, mad genius approach to it. Then, there's an artist named Madi Diaz, who is a wonderful singer-songwriter who, as my friend Mark puts it, "She's a unicorn." She's that person that just stands out in the crowd from just standing there. In a town full of singer-songwriters, to stand out as a singer-songwriter is a pretty huge accomplishment.
MR: It is.
JW: She really does, she's incredible.
MR: Since you've segued into this question so nicely, what advice do you have for up-and-coming artists that are starting right now?
JW: Take advantage of investor capital money right now. Meaning, there are a lot of digital music start ups that are vying for similar spaces or they're vying for attention, and they've got decent amounts of money behind them right now, so a lot of times, their services are cheap or completely free, a la Band Camp. There are all different kinds of things. There are ways to get your videos up there, there are ways to deliver your music and also bundle it with a t-shirt that people can custom design online. There are so many ways to do customization experiences for people, and that seems to be one of the few things that you can actually get folks to spend money for. The bad thing about it, to me, is that I remember wanting to be in band and not wanting to do the business side. I wanted to play music, and go out there and tour, but now it really does demand of you to do that stuff. If not you, then find a friend who really likes doing that stuff because it's almost impossible to get attention without engaging people in that way--engaging people through Facebook, and Twitter, and those kinds of channels. I think taking full advantage of all that stuff is paramount to actually getting some attention.
MR: Nice. When are the dates for your event?
JW: September 29th through October 2nd.
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with Author Jay Frank
Mike Ragogna: Jay, you have this new book, FutureHit.DNA. Could you just give a brief synopsis about its mission?
Jay Frank: What I found when I went looking at popular music was that technology has a huge influence on music consumption. While a lot of people have been creating songs especially made for radio in the last few years, as the music discovery has largely moved to an online mechanism, the methodology by which they discover has also changed. Through that, the type of music that would react, and how it would react to people, has changed drastically. So, I set about to write a book so that artists, songwriters, and producers could be better armed with the way new technology has adapted what songs become hits.
MR: That's very smart. There's a Bible out there for the music business in general...
JF: All You Need To Know About The Music Business.
MR: There you go. Can you take us from the decline of CDs through when did digital downloading take over as the main way to purchase music?
JF: Well, I think the seeds got sewn way back in '97 and '98, before Napster. They really started with a ruling called the MAP ruling, which stands for minimum advertised price. The courts ruled that the labels colluded with each other to set minimum pricing guidelines which is, of course, illegal. That led to price wars within Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy stores that allowed them to grow into huge market shares by underpricing records, and then, subsequently, the independent and chain stores couldn't survive as much because the pricing for records went down. Simultaneous to that, of course, was the huge rise in real estate, which neatly coincided with that. So, all of a sudden, chain, and independent record stores had to charge less for their product in order to be competitive, while their price per square foot was jumping in double digit percentages every single year.
So, the perfect storm for failure was created in those kind of climates, and the fact that digital downloading and file trading was basically just the icing on the cake at that particular point. Throughout the '00s, you created a natural synergy where record stores were becoming less and less common, and that forced more people to buy music digitally. More importantly, during that entire time, the discovery of music was going digital. Kids were growing up finding radio playlists boring when in an on demand world, you could go to a multitude of sites and actually discover music, at your leisure, in the time frame that you wanted to. So, the biggest paradigm shift, in my opinion, has not necessarily been the sales shift, although that has been significant. It's really been the music discovery shift changing so dramatically.
MR: Right. And price wars devalued the perception of music.
JF: Well, I think it was the combination of the price wars plus the easy access to music, and the ability to get singles had a slight influence on that as well. The biggest difficulty, in terms of sales going down, was that you used to be able to buy a single for one dollar and ninety-nine cents and an album was eight dollars and ninety-nine cents, and this was twenty years ago. So, an album cost five times the price of the single. Well, you get to iTunes, and the album was ten times the price of the single, nine dollars and ninety-nine cents. So, who wants to buy an album when there's no real bargain in buying an album. Now, I see us getting it back with a lot of different promotions and pricing schemes where purchasing an album is much more of an affordable buy than just a single, and that's what is going to have to happen for people to not just buy singles only.
MR: Has the graph leveled-off on digital music purchases?
JF: It depends on who you are, and what graph you're making. The interesting thing is that, literally, this quarter, we should be transferring over to where more than fifty percent of music purchases will be happening online. That should be happening right now, but we'll see when the final numbers come out. That's a pretty significant shift, and that's based on dollars, not based off of unit sales. If you go by unit sales, it's a lot easier to count the individual single downloads and conclude that online has been dominating the conversation pretty dramatically. But then, you actually go in terms of dollars and cents on the graph, and a lot of people try to point to the album chart which is still considered the bellwether, and the reality is that the album chart no longer is an accurate bellwether for the industry. So, while everybody goes and says, "Album sales are currently down thirteen percent year over year, isn't the business bad," I actually look at the combined revenues coming in, and we're pretty much leveling off at the bottom and should start seeing a rise in overall revenues in the next couple of years.
MR: Interesting. What is the biggest demo of music downloads right now?
JF: It's pretty much across the board. One of the things that I've actually been finding in my studies that has been a significant shift, is that females are now accounting for more purchases of music than they ever have. Traditionally, it's been about fifty-fifty, and maybe a little bit skewed male. If you think to ten or fifteen years ago and the people that haunted the record stores, most people think of them as mostly being guys. But I've doing a lot of studies in the past year and seeing the music that's selling most, and it's females. I think the reason for that has more to do with the fact that the female audience tends to congregate around what's socially acceptable. So, the top of the charts are really gravitating to artists that skew toward the female demographic, and because of that, it just feeds upon itself and those artists get bigger and bigger. Meanwhile, the males are really, really fragmented. They're all over the place, they can't reach any consensus or very little consensus, and subsequently, they're not buying as much. That makes it very difficult for the music business because I think for the next couple of years, they are going to be directing more music at the female population than the male population.
MR: That's interesting because my theory used to be that more of those fragmented dollars are being spent on things like video games, right? And there are DVDs, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, movie blockbusters, Imax...
JF: Yes. Well, the problem is that there is a big paradox of choice. There is so much out there, and again, for the guys, when they have so many things that they could be interested in musically, why purchase things? They can't figure out exactly what it is to purchase. Females, on the other hand, have the same access to the same artists, but they tend to gravitate around the same fifty or so artists, and therefore, it's a lot easier for them to pinpoint what it is they would like to buy. Overall, you're right that there are more dollars going in more places. The mobile app market is one that just quickly siphons off things, dollar for dollar. As you said, gaming is a huge component, and people still like to go out to the movies. When movies cost us an extra four bucks to see in 3-D, that four bucks comes away from somewhere else.
MR: That's true. But I feel that the female market always has gravitated towards teen idols or major pop fads.
JF: Well, I think actually, the teen idol stuff tends to be, somehow, fairly cyclical. So, you've got 2010, and you've got the rise of a bunch of disposable, good looking pop acts. 1990 was New Kids On The Block, 2000 was Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and Britney Spears. So, to some degree, the pop stuff does end up coming in through cycles, and we are in the peak of a time that a pop cycle like this is due. At the same time, it's drastically different in the sense that the artists are showing a little bit more depth and musicality, and I think that the marketplace itself is showing that it's not just the teenagers that are wanting it. You're finding that the moms are wanting it, and I think that's a little bit different than what we've had before.
MR: Interesting, that's true. And from another perspective, for a while, CDs took sales from vinyl, VHS took sales from CDs, then came DVDs, and now Blu-ray. Then again, those sales also have declined. And you've got a bad economy.
JF: DVD sales have definitely leveled off, and are starting to decline for sure. A lot of things right now, to me, really come down to that pricing element. It comes down to how does one actually look at a value? For a few years, I was in a store, and there was the Steven Spielberg movie, Munich, which had just come out on DVD maybe three months earlier. It was already being marked down for sale, so I could buy the DVD for seven dollars and ninety-nine cents, but I could walk two steps over to the soundtrack section, and the soundtrack to the same movie was thirteen dollars and ninety-nine cents. So, you kind of say, "Well, wait a minute. I can get the whole movie in 5.1 surround or I can pay double to get just the score isolated." People are actually weighing one against the other, which is why when things get down to ninety-nine cents, it becomes an impulse purchase, and if you look at the music industry as a whole, the area we've lost is that impulse purchase. There are much less stores, so you can't just wander into a store and say, "Yeah, I'll just throw in a ten dollar CD, why not?"
The music industry is having so much trouble because they need somebody to say, "I'm going to go spend eight dollars and not think about it," versus somebody who's trying to sell a CD for twelve dollars, and the person has to think about it. You need those absent-minded, no brainer, "I purchased it before I really realized where my budget was," purchases that have driven the music business in the best of times. Because of the lack of stores right now and because of the lack of true pricing initiative, for the most part, by the record labels, it's getting very difficult for us to be at that part anymore.
MR: Jay, you have a history of being one of the music industry's gate keepers. You were the head of music programming at Yahoo Music, right?
JF: I was the head of music programming at Yahoo for seven years, and I currently am the Senior Vice President of Music Strategy for CMT.
MR: Okay, so at CMT, what are you looking for? What are some of the strategies that are involved in your daily work?
JF: Well, my daily work is trying to make music that is going to succeed cross-platform--television, internet, mobile, and radio. What we're looking for are songs that really can actually cut through, that speak to people, and that are active. This is not a time for passive songs. There used to be a time where songs just sort of sifted into the background, embedded themselves into your skull, and then somebody might want to go buy them because they're familiar. This is a time, now, when it's a very active culture, and therefore, active songs are what people respond to. We tend to look for those much more than others, and it has to make a dent. This is certainly a time when anybody who is just going to make an average song or do something that just sort of says something but doesn't really make a statement will seldom sell anymore.
MR: Interesting. So, that brings us into another territory here--when artists are looking at this environment, how should they be approaching it?
JF: Well, the first thing that I say to everybody is that you have to impress the listener in seven seconds. When you look at the way that people are discovering music online, whether it's through mostly internet radio, streaming on a website, downloading it legally, or downloading it illegally, the reality is that nearly every music experience starts at the same point, and that's at the beginning of the song. And it seems obvious, but the reality is that this is a new thing. Most people were discovering music through radio and television, and in radio and television, you might switch the station and stumble along a song in the middle. Now, though, when you hear about a song, you're discovering it at the same exact point of the song, and that's the beginning. One of the things that I've seen time and time again through data is that as many as half of the people who go to discover a song leave the song within the first seven seconds. People are really giving songs that little of a time to impress them. If you're not actually wowing them, you're doing your song a disservice. So, I really advocate very strongly to artists, no matter which way you do it, at some point, you've got to engage the listener very, very quickly.
MR: What other kinds of advice do you have?
JF: I've got a lot of different advice. One of the other things I like to talk about is, much like other songwriting ideas, you have to think about the beginning, middle, and end of the song. The difference now, in the digital age, is that you have to think about it differently. Time and time again, we've seen through data that at about the two-minute mark in the song or the middle of the song, the audience grows a little bit bored of it, and I think for the younger audience in particular I call it the mix-tape mentality. They're so used to hearing DJ mixes, where the song shifts every minute and a half to two minutes, that at that point, if the song just continues to do the same old thing, in their brain, they go, "Well, I've heard all this already. I don't need to hear anymore," and they leave the song. If they leave the song, they are creating a negative impression in their mind about that song, even if they may have liked it. So, I encourage artists to do something in that two-minute area to make sure that somebody is going to stay engaged. Then, at the end of a song, you want to do something that will leave people remembering it. I talk a lot about putting in false or incomplete endings, failing to do chord resolutions, and things like that because what ends up happening is you want somebody to stop listening to a song, and then as they go on to whatever the next song is, find that that the song they just finished is still stuck in their head. A lot of that is because if you leave the song incomplete, then the brain is going to try to fill in the gaps and make that song complete in their head. It's just a very, very sneaky way for the artist to make sure that their song is going to be memorable compared to others. The competition out there is way too dramatic. If you actually tried to listen to every single song that comes out in a given week, it's physically possible for you to hear only five percent of the recorded music that is released in a given week, which is astounding. So, you have to do whatever you can to make sure that your song has that edge and is remembered because otherwise, you're going to be listened to once, and then get lost in the clutter.
MR: Jay, you're also speaking about this from an angle that's more broad. You've dabbled in many areas of music, right?
JF: Sure. Ultimately, throughout my life, I've spent a large portion of my time in programming music for television, radio, and the internet, but I've also run an independent record label, I've managed and booked bands at a night club, I've DJ'd, I ran a record store, I've managed bands, and I've done just about everything that one can do within the music business. So, I kind of have that broad overview perspective to know how these things tend to work, in that kind of honeycomb way, with each other. What I tried to do in the book is to recognize that it's all an intricate system, and if you don't have that music discovery, then you're not going to be able to succeed through the other elements. The other part is too many people in the music business are ready to give up on recorded music as a loss leader to other things like live shows and t-shirts, but I'm not ready to do that. I think there is plenty of money to be made--you look at someone like Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift, who in a three-year period are doing hundreds of millions of dollars in worldwide business on recorded music alone. That tells me that the business is still there if you can make the right music for it. That's why I came up with the book, for understanding all those different aspects of the business, and saying, "Alright, how can I apply that to help an artist take a song and subtly craft it just a little bit differently to make sure that it's more sellable?" I think the ultimate validation, to me, was I actually met an avant-garde, classical artist from Iceland who told me that the theories in the book were helpful to him, which was probably the last person I actually wrote the book for--it's certainly aimed more towards an artist making popular music, but it works in those fringe genres as well, which is pretty amazing.
MR: One of the bullet points on the back of the book says it gives a history of technology's involvement in past hits. Are there a couple of stories you can tell about how technology has placed something in the Top Ten?
JF: Well, it has more to do with a lot of technical limitations of whatever a technology is at the time. It really started significantly back in the 1800s when piano rolls were a major distribution of songs. But a piano roll could only be so thick, and that thickness dictated how long that song was going to be. Then, that length of a song, three minutes, ended up becoming a standard bearer when you finally move to vinyl records. It's interesting that the technology was dictating that. You could have written a seven-minute song, but it wasn't going to go anywhere because you couldn't physically distribute it.
Then, I found other things. For example, Mariah Carey had the longest length of an intro of any artist in the pop era. That happened to coincide with a time where scheduling software was used in many radio stations. Radio consolidation was occurring, and through that consolidation, they were trying to make more money, and that included selling the time that the DJ talked. So, if you follow this, the scheduling software would schedule songs with longer intro's a little bit more than songs with shorter intro's, so the DJs could send those advertising messages, Mariah made those songs with the longer intros, the one radio company who needed to do this owned multiple stations, and all of the sudden this is affecting chart positions because it's happening over and over again. It's not seen, it's not something that's done on purpose, it's not something that radio programmers were thinking about. But the computers were subtly making it happen and that had a subtle effect to make Mariah Carey as big as she was.
MR: There is going to be a conference coming up soon that I'll bet you can tell us about.
JF: Sure. In Nashville, we've got the Leadership Music Digital Conference now in partnership with Next BIG Nashville, which is sort of like Nashville's South By Southwest--a ton of great bands playing over several nights. The Leadership Music Digital Conference part of it is pretty much the only digital conference in middle America for music to really go after and discuss what is happening in digital music, what are the trends, where are things going, how we all can get there, and how we can all continue to have successful businesses from it. It's been running for five years, I've been involved with it from the start, and it's absolutely a great conference that just grows year after year.
MR: I imagine you're going to be doing a couple of presentations too, right?
JF: I'm going to be around there, for sure, doing a lot of things. One of the great things about my book, FutureHit.DNA, is that it's been well received. Since its publication, I've already spoken about it in six countries, and at various conferences around the world. It seems like every time I speak at a conference, I get asked to do three other conferences on top of it just because it's been so impactful. For me, that's been the greatest thing about writing this book, and the main reason why I wrote it is because I can visibly see artists, record labels, and producers benefiting from reading this book. Even if they're skeptical, they go and try a couple of things, and then are surprised that what they try grows that song's popularity at any level. They're amazed by it, and the more that we can do that, the more I know that we can tap into a growing music business again.
MR: Like any book, especially a popular non-fiction book, you have to keep doing revisions in order to keep up with changes. Have you already seen some interesting innovations or technology come out that you wish you could have put in the book?
JF: Well, I knew going into it that the book was going to be outdated literally the moment I put it to press, and sure enough, that happened. The week that the book was released last year was the week when Google included their one box music search, which significantly changed some of the music discovery methods. Thankfully, most of the tips that I would recommend for Google's music searches were in the book already, albeit in different forms, but it is rapidly changing. I pretty much started rewriting the book the minute that the book hit the shelves, and the next version of the book is going to have two chapters that I already have begun working on that are new ideas for people to be able to more likely succeed in the music business.
MR: Nice. Now, let's look at the artist's creative process regarding all this information. Are we looking at something that's more about the editing and production once you're done or are you suggesting that, right from the start, as an artist is developing a piece, he or she needs to be looking at all this and getting into new habits?
JF: It varies song to song. I definitely think that, in terms of the book's influence, it's certainly much more likely to be felt during the arrangement or production process. I tell artists that I offer fifteen different tips in the book, and if you try to include all fifteen tips in one song, you're probably going to have a song that will fail as well. Some tips work better for some songs, and others work better for others. I think, for the most part, I personally am with you. I think that artists should just go with the creative process, however that works for them. With most artists, they say, "Look, write the song the way you would have written the song. Then, when you've gotten it to a place that you're feeling pretty good about, take the book and start overlaying some of those ideas to see if the songs improve." In most cases, when I talk to artists about that, they've really found that that works well.
MR: Yeah, I come from the school of thought where you can't put anything in the way of the flow of creativity.
JF: I have a friend of mine that wrote a song that hasn't come out yet. But there are a lot of high expectations for this song, and as he was writing the song, he went ahead and said, "You know what? I think that the end of this song, because I need a twist at the two minute mark, I want to put in a gospel choir there." So, he wrote the song knowing in his head that, production-wise, a gospel choir was going to come in at that point, and certainly, when you listen to that song, the song sells itself because of that gospel choir, for sure.
MR: What's interesting is the seven second, two minute, unique ending theory. Once someone hears that enough in their own music and has the end result of a hit, my feeling is that these are things that will become part of the creative process, more naturally included.
JF: I think so, and I think that part of it is when you listen to the biggest charting, most successful songs right now, and you start hearing more and more how people are doing something to engage the listener very quickly at the beginning of the song, the more that it becomes very standard. Again, it's not something that necessarily works for every single song, and it's different for other artists. Somebody asked me earlier this week, "Does that seven second impact have to happen for every artist?" No, if you're U2, you've built up a lot of loyalty and trust with your fan base and audience, and they're willing to sit through more of the song. When U2 has a new song come out, they're not going to make a judgment quite as quickly. But if you're a brand new artist that somebody may have only read about in a paragraph or a tweet, for that matter, you really do only have that seven seconds, and if it doesn't work right way, it's not going to work. It doesn't matter that the hook of the song or the meat of the song is something that that person would like. If they're bailing out after seven seconds, it's the tree falling in the forest.
MR: Well put. I always ask my interviewees if they have any advice for new artists, but this whole segment has been advice for new artists.
JF: (laughs) Pretty much. I think FutureHit.DNA has been a book that, for some artists, has helped find a hit that has very quickly gotten them a record label deal. And for some of them, it's just been a natural growth where they've gone from one hundred downloads to two hundred to four hundred, and they're just growing fan bases. But it's been great to see that the book itself has been invaluable to artists all over the world.
MR: Nice. Well, Jay Frank, your book certainly takes us into practical ways of dealing with recorded music.
JF: I should also mention that if you still remain skeptical, you can go to futurehitdna.com, my website, where not only do I have a blog to update on some current trends, but you can download a chapter of the book for free. So, if you're still a little skeptical, go ahead and give me your email address and we'll send you over the chapter so you can see if you like it before you buy it.
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)