Wednesday, February 26, 2014

TMFW 25 - 2 true "one of a kind" albums

Last week's TMFW was about a prolific songwriter who floods digital markets in hopes that people will find and access his music.  This week brings the opposite: two examples of artists who made a musical album, then distributed exactly ONE copy.  
In 1983, the French electronic music artist Jean-Michel Jarre recorded Music For Supermarkets, an album of music that was created specifically for some friends' art exhibition that was supermarket themed.  The art in the exhibition was to be auctioned at the end of the show, and Jarre decided that he would make the album a piece of art itself.  So he pressed one physical copy of the music, and destroyed the master tapes.  The record was auctioned off for the benefit of charity, and was purchased for the equivalent of around 10,000 Euro.  It has since been sold twice and the current owner is unknown.  In the case of Music For Supermarkets, there is some availability to hear the music as the album was played in full on an AM radio station in Luxembourg (and thereafter pirated) shortly after its sale.  But given the quality of the broadcast and the taping, sound quality is apparently pretty bad.
In 2012, the British Band Field Music repeated Jarre's stunt and made a record called "One Copy."  After destroying the digital files that made up the master "tapes," they then pressed the record and placed it on display in an art gallery, where it played on a turntable.  Here's Field Music founding member Peter Brewis talking about the idea behind the record, where he notes that the idea was to "do something almost in opposition to the digital proliferation of music." 
BONUS FACT:  In 2009 the indie songwriter Sufjan Stevens held a contest where he "swapped" songs with a fan.  In conjunction with a holiday record that he was promoting, Stevens' label invited songwriters to record and submit their own holiday tune.  The legal rights to the winning song would then become Stevens' property, while the rights to Stevens' song would go to the contestant.  The contest winner, rather than selling the song (or even posting the song to YouTube or some other service where it would proliferate), decided to keep it for himself.  For a time after the song was given to him, he hosted "listening sessions" in his apartment where friends (and strangers who requested an invite) could hear the track on a pair of headphones. The contest winner saw the act as one of "romance," and as "an effort to rekindle the flames of rarity." Those who heard it praised the track.  Those who couldn't typically weren't pleased with the artificial scarcity.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

TMFW 24 - The 15,000 Song Genius

A few weeks ago, NPR's On the Media ran a story about Matt Farley, who is likely the most prolific songwriter of all time.  The story is very fun and is just under 12 and a half minutes long; you can listen to it here.
Farley is not a tortured genius who can do nothing but write songs, nor is he a sought-after balladeer-for-hire.  He is not under contract with any studio or label. Instead, he's the unique product of the shifting pay model for digital music; essentially, Farley writes and records (in his basement, naturally) "search engine optimized" songs that he thinks consumers will find in their music search box and listen to.  Basically, Farley is a music service spammer, but in the most charming way possible.
With the confluence of cheap digital music production and cheap digital music distribution, there has been an explosion of titles available to stream or download.  Virtually anyone who wants to can create and sell their own music. There are over 20 million titles in Spotify's streaming catalog, and every one of them is available to listen to, in full, for an all-you-can-eat price of $10 per month.  Similarly, the iTunes music store has over 26 million songs, most priced at 99 cents per track.  Last year, they passed 25 billion (with a B) downloads
There's money to be made, but not much if you don't have a mega hit. Spotify keeps 30% of its revenues for itself, then distributes the rest to rightsholders and artists.  Though the royalty scale slides, the average payment from Spotify to artists is somewhere between half- and three-quarters of a penny per stream.  For iTunes music downloads, Apple pays between 7 and 10 cents per track.  Streaming services like Rdio and Rhapsody, and download services like CDBaby and Amazon, pay similar royalties.
Matt Farley understood that he might not make money off of pennies per song.  But he figured that he could make money off of pennies per 14000 songs.  So he set out to create music that people might search for, listen to, and (just maybe) pay $1 to own.  Rather than call himself "Matt Farley," he uses his own label Motern Media and assigns specific names to each "band" that makes niche songs. Farley pays $50 to CDBaby for each album that he submits; they take care of distributing the music to the various sites and remit royalties collected. There are over 50 bands so far, and many have multiple "albums".  Production costs are low; he records everything at his house, by himself and with spartan instrumentation and vocals. And most album covers are just a picture of Farley with some text stuck on top.
A selection of his music quickly demonstrates Farley's strategy.  For example, available on offer from "The Best Birthday Song Band Ever" are over 1500 customized Happy Birthday songs.  Most are the same song, but with a specific name or age.  His Birthday Songs for Nearly Every Age record features 98 songs, starting with "Happy 1st Birthday (You Are One Year Old!)" and ending with "Happy 98th Birthday (You Are Ninety-Eight Years Old!)"  All of them are identical, but for the age noted in the lyrics. You can buy the whole record for $9.99 or single tracks for $.99. The album notes on CD Baby suggest that you "buy all of these songs now and use them for the rest of your life." Similarly, Happy Birthday Vol. 4 features 100 "Happy Birthday [NAME]" songs, including Kassidy, Zackery, Larissa, Carl, and Glen.  One can imagine someone searching for their kid's (or their dad's) name, and finding to their surprise a customized song.  At $1, it's a cheap gift (and even with dubious quality, it still says the name and that counts for something!)
A few of Farley's other bands, with a representative song and lyrics, are as follows:
1.  The Prom Song Singers - "Skylar, Will You Go To The Prom With Me?" (from Play This Song For Her, Vol. 5) - "pose for a picture, in my tux, next to you and your lovely dress, oh [NAME] will you go to the prom with me?"
2.  The Smokin' Hot Babe Lovers -  "Ashleigh Is A Smokin' Hot Babe" (from Songs About Smoking Hot Babes, Vol. 3) - "[NAME] is a smokin' hot babe [repeated in many variations]"
3.  The Cincinnati Sports Band - "Bronson Arroyo Has Found a Home in Cincinnati" (from Reds & Bengals) - "It's Bronson Arroyo, oh oh oh oh, boy-o [repeated several times]" 
4.  The Spoiled Chefs - "Frozen Pizza" (from Songs About Food) - "I put it in my refrigerator, and I let it freeze, when I'm hungry I put it in the oven, and let it melt the cheese."
5.  The Guy Who Sings Songs About Cities and Towns - "Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, World" (from These Songs are About Canada Places) - "Winnipeg, good city, uh huh, I like to go to Winnipeg.  I go to Winnipeg all the time.  Do a lot of fun stuff with my friends."
6.  Papa Razzi and the Photogs - "I Love Kurt Vonnegut Books!" (from Songs About Literary Giants) - "Sometimes I am opposed to, quote-unquote experimental novels that do not follow the traditional rules of the novel.  For example,  novels like the ones by Kurt Vonnegut."
7.  The Extreme Left-Wing Liberals - "Stop Cutting Down Trees to Build McMansions" (from Vote Democrat!) - "everyone living there, is just hanging on in quiet desperation, in these McMansions.  We need to stop cutting down trees, we need to stop building McMansions."
8.  The Ultra Right-Wing Conservatives - "Liberals Love Criminals" (from Vote Republican!) - "liberals think criminals are all good, and that they made mistakes because they had a bad childhood.  Liberals have no sympathy for the innocent victims of homicide, but when a criminal says he's sorry for killing, the liberal's heart just beams with pride."
A particularly popular "band" of Foley's is The Toilet Bowl Cleaners, who have 9 albums full of scatologically-focused songs.  On one end of the spectrum, "Poop Poop Poop Poop Song" (from The White Album (With Yellow and Brown Stains) is merely repetition of the word "poop" for 1:58.  On the other end, their song "Poop Into a Wormhole" (from You Thought We Ran Out of Poop Songs Ideas. You Were Wrong.) is a lyrical sci-fi adventure, including the introductory verse and refrain:

Can I please get everybody's attention
I've discovered a wormhole to another dimension
No man alive would dare go inside
So I'm gonna squat over it and send my poop for a ride
(Poop, poop) I'm gonna poop into a wormhole
Farley often slips his phone number into his songs, and claims that he receives a call a day on average (though likely much more since he became Internet Famous).  As for the big question of whether the strategy works?  It seems to: Farley made over $23K last year, and his newfound popularity likely means he'll double it (or more) this year.  It's just the sort of stupid creativity that I love.

BONUS FACT:  As noted in the story, an estimated 20% of the songs on Spotify - about 4 million of them! - have never been streamed even one time. In part due to that story, a website has sprouted up that allows people to listen specifically to songs that have zero plays on Spotify. The site is Forgotify, and given the rate of growth of Spotify's catalog it is in no danger of extinction.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

TMFW 23 - Toto "Bless[es] the Rains," Long Distance

By the time "Africa" was released, Toto had already enjoyed two top ten songs.  "Hold the Line," from their debut album, made it to number five and was certified gold.  "Rosanna" was the first single from Toto IV, the same record that contains "Africa."  It reached number 2 and was also certified gold.  (In fact, "Rosanna" won the Grammy Award in 1983 for Record of the Year, with Toto IV taking home Album of the Year.)
"Africa" contains a hypnotic, tribalesque drumbeat, and oddly specific lyrics like "the wild dogs cry out in the night, as they grow restless longing for some solitary company," and "I know that I must do what's right, sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti." The refrain repeatedly notes that the singer "bless[es] the rains down in Africa." 
So where did the song come from?  Was it a retelling of the songwriter's safari in Tanzania, at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro?  Did he have a mystic experience in "bless[ing] the rains" there? In short, no.  The song is in fact the opposite.  According to the "Toto Encyclopedia," the song is a collection of intentionally cliched and vague memories of the continent.  According to the co-songwriter (and Toto drummer) Jeff Porcaro, the song was conceived as "a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past."  That's why the song notes "the drums echoing," "the wild dogs," and Kilimanjaro; they are a far-away picture of Africa, invented in a studio four time zones away. 
Despite its dense (and, frankly, silly) lyrics, "Africa" became Toto's biggest hit.  It hit number 1 on the charts for one week in February, 1983 - it was bookended by previous TMFW subject "Down Under" - and became the third and last Toto record to be certified gold.  


BONUS FACT: Just as the lyrics of "Africa" were based on conjured memories from TV and childhood, so was the drumbeat.  According to Jeff Porcaro, he and his family visited the New York World's Fair in 1964 when he was 10 years old, and he watched the drummers at the African pavilion with amazement.  When creating the drumbeat on "Africa," he sought to replicate the rhythmic, repetitive beats he first encountered there.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

TMFW 22 - "Mustang Sally" Grew Up in 19th Century England

(Today's TMFW is grown from a request from a reader to learn more about "Long Tall Sally."  This isn't quite that, but I like where it went.)

As a fan of space, as a father to a daughter, and as a fan of people who do jobs that vaguely resemble their names - hello, firefighter Les McBurney and McDonald's PR person Zoe Hamburger - Sally Ride was awesome in every way.  (But I suppose her story is best left for a True Space Facts Wednesday.)  

When listening to oldies radio as a kid, I recall distinctly noticing that there are several songs that feature "ride, Sally, ride" in their lyrics.  The first and most famous is "Mustang Sally," but it's also heard in Sly & The Family Stone's "Dance to the Music," (in that case, Sly anthropomorphizing his organ), in Lou Reed's "Ride, Sally, Ride," and in Al Green's song of the same name.  

Growing up in NASA's space shuttle era, I guessed that the lyrics were a specific reference to Dr. Ride.  (And in fact, when Dr. Ride made her historic launch, many in the crowd were wearing shirts that celebrated her with that very phrase.)  

But of course, "ride, Sally, ride" came to prominence in popular music after Sally Ride was born and before she was famous.  So, where does it come from?  What does it mean?  The answer, it seems, is that the lyric was born from a mondegreen heard in a traditional African-American folk song.  

That folk song is "Little Sally Walker," a traditional "play song" that was popular in the African American community at least as early as the turn of the 20th century.  Kids would form a circle and choose someone to be "Sally Walker."  That person kneeled in the center of the circle as the rest sang the lyrics

Little Sally Walker, sitting in a saucer,
Rise, Sally, rise; wipe your weeping eyes,
Put your hands on your hips and let your backbone slip,
Now shake it to the East, shake it to the West, 
And shake it to the one that you love the best.

"Sally" would shake her (or his) hips and point them in the direction of someone in the circle, who would take the role of Sally and the next round would start.  Here's Lead Belly explaining the game, and then playing the song (with slightly different lyrics), and here's the gospel singer Bessie Jones with her view of "Little Sally Walker." 

As this folklore site explains, "Little Sally Walker" can be traced back to 19th century England, where it was played with remarkably similar rules but where Sally's choice of "the best" culminated in a marriage ceremony and a kiss.  "Sally Sally Water," as it was initially called, is illustrated with music and lyrics in the 1894 book Children's Singing Games, published in London and compiled by British folklorist Alice Gomme.

So how did Sally Water move from the Victorian English playground into pop culture?  The "Mustang Sally" songwriter Sir Mack Rice tells the story that he was talking to a friend of his about cars.  Rice was lusting after a big Lincoln or Cadillac, but the friend - a band leader for Della Reese - had his eye on the newly-released Ford Mustang.  Rice teased the friend about the little car - suggesting that he was less manly for wanting it - and took to calling him "Mustang Mama."  He turned the tease into a song, and included the (misheard) line "ride Sally ride" from "Little Sally Walker."  

Rice originally called the song "Mustang Mama," until (allegedly) Aretha Franklin suggested "Mustang Sally" instead.  Wilson Pickett covered the song in 1966, and the rest is history.  


BONUS FACT: "Little Sally Walker" was a staple of doo wop and early rock and R&B groups.    Here's a pop-songified version by Bobby Mandolph.  And here are others by Syl Johnson,  Pete Seeger,  The TornadoesThe Bandits, a terrific demo from The Crystals, and Rufus Thomas.  Here's a more modern cover by Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

BONUS FACT 2:   "Put your hands on your hips, and let your backbone slip" was a widely-sung lyric in "Little Sally Walker" as early as the 1940s.  Wilson Pickett borrowed from the song to famously include that instruction in "Land of 1000 Dances." (Here is a live version of Puckett just destroying the song in Africa in 1971.)