A&E

3nd Annual Ubiquitous End of Year Best Of List (2014 Edition)

Can it already be 2015?

I’ve been spotty about posting here for the last year (especially as I got to the graduation finish line with my degree) but here goes. I’m not really as “listy” as I’ve been in the past, though I do call out a number one.

SOUNDS THAT INTERESTED ME:

D’Angelo, Black Messiah

Wow, this came out of nowhere to earn a mention on a lot of year-end lists. It’s great to hear D’Angelo again, and the album sounds fresh and right on time; it’s impossible to miss some of the connections this music has to what’s been happening across the country this summer and fall.

Mary J. Blige, The London Sessions

I’ve always liked Mary, but her last few releases were mostly generic duds cranked out by the small handful of R&B producers who land on the radio these days.

Whoever had the idea to pair her with London musicians is a genius. Even with layers of electronic noise, there’s still a stripped down, chill feel to many of the tunes, and while songs like Whole Damn Year still work the Mary-is-overcoming-her-challenges tip, they sound much fresher and more real doing it.

Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Tastes 

It’s been three years since the inventive, crazy 212 tore up the dance floors and music blogs (if not the charts). Since then, Banks has become better known for talking a lot of shit to anyone who will listen, and picking epic fights on social media. (The latest is with Iggy Azelea, or as Banks calls her, “Igloo Australia,” I’m on Team Banks for that one.)

This one had a bumpy road to release, and it sounds like you might expect it to sound: a jerky splash of textures and colors, zigging and zagging through themes and genres. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s never boring. Miss Amor sounds like a big hunk of 90s house melted into an electronica template — with a little Tubular Bells, and Banks’ otherworldly rap, mixed in for flavor.

AT THE TOP: 

As mentioned, I have a number one. Two of them, actually. It was impossible to pick between Neneh Cherry’s Blank Project and Me’shell Ndegeocello’s Comet, Come To Me.

I made these comments about Alison Moyet’s The Minutes last year, and they seem perfectly applicable here for both Cherry and Ndegeocello.

This is no rehash or victory lap for a veteran act. [The music is] in this moment and sounds magnificent in contemporary arrangements…[The artist is] comfortable in her musical skin here, and it comes through in every song. This work doesn’t read like the preconceived narrative of some record label, or the faux creation of a mask of celebrity. This is the authentic voice and the story of a confident, talented, mature woman, and it is glorious to hear.

Cherry’s return is especially welcome, and was teased in her excellent 2012 collaboration with jazz group The Thing. Blank Project is amazing partly because of the magnificent songs, and partly because this is so Neneh Cherry. This is the SAME voice we heard years ago, the same voice from the profoundly under-appreciated album Homebrew. 

My favorite song (of many gems) is Dossier — telling the story of a mature couple in a way that makes it feel like words dancing in a tangle of phone wires living in Neneh’s head.

As for Ndegeocello, I was blown away by the continued evolution of her work, a conviction made even stronger when I saw her live in September, where she played an absolutely flawless concert from beginning to end. There is nothing Ndegeocello can’t do: a virtuoso guitarist, a sharp delivery of spoken word/rap, and — perhaps her ultimate secret — she’s got an amazing and versatile voice.

This song, Shopping for Jazz, is a bit different than most of the album, which you just need to hear for yourself.

A LITTLE BIT MORE:

  • I hadn’t really realized it until I put this list together, but I was definitely drawn to more soul/R&B music this year. Almost all radio-friendly pop music leaves me wanting these days, and a lot of the bands that have emerged with echoes of 80s New Wave just sound watered down to my ears. R&B — at least some corners of it — is still delivering the textures and complexity I crave.
  • Music moment of 2014 and most anticipated moment of 2015: Kate Bush’s concerts. I didn’t go (not even a possibility of it happening) and I wish I had. It is only the smallest of exaggerations to say that The Ninth Wave, part of Hounds Of Love, saved my life, and Kate and her musicians played it in its entirety. It appears as though 2015 may bring a DVD of the performance, and I can’t wait to see it.
  • HONORABLE MENTION: Chrissie Hynde, Stockholm; Prince, Art Official Age; St. Vincent, St. Vincent; Röyksopp, The Inevitable End; The 2 Bears, The Night Is Young; Ben Watt, Hendra; Caribou, Our Love; Cibo Matto, Hotel Valentine; Future Islands, Singles; Röisin Murphy, Mi Senti (EP); and Lamb, Backspace Unwind.
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MUSIC MONDAY: Jonatha Brooke

I’ve been trying (without success) to see Jonatha Brooke perform live for almost twenty years.

Seriously. Twenty years, folks.

I first discovered her when her band The Story released “The Angel In The House.” It was great guitar pop, with songs like “When Two and Two are Five.”

The Story. 

 

Brooke went on her own soon after and released a long string of great albums, but my favorite for a long time was “Ten Cent Wings.” It’s one of those perfect albums from beginning to end.

Like so many of my favorites – Aimee Mann, Alison Moyet, Kirsty MacColl (to name just three) – Brooke wrote great material and had a beautiful voice, but was woefully mishandled by record companies. In Brooke’s case, she was on tour for “Ten Cent Wings” when MCA dropped her from the label.

(Of course, these fantastic artists are all intelligent, fascinating women, and not pop tartlets who can be mass packaged and merchandized…but that’s another post for another day.)

Missing Jonatha Brooke’s concerts has become sort of a comical thing for me now.

I missed her several times around the Ten Cent Wings era. She played at a Borders near me and I had to work at the competition (B&N) across the street the night she played. I missed other shows because of work. Or they were sold out. There must have been at least a half dozen show in the early 2000’s I missed.

“Crumbs” from “Ten Cent Wings.” 

 

I started to look for her shows not just where I lived, but wherever she played. She played in my hometown of Pittsburgh, but I missed that show, too (working again, couldn’t travel).

It was always the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Brooke has had quite the journey the last few years. She cared for her mother, who passed away in 2012, through the final stages of dementia. And she wrote an amazing album and play, “My Mother Has 4 Noses,” about the experience.

The play had a reading in Pittsburgh last summer. (Need I tell you that I missed it?)

It’s in New York now, in an acclaimed run that’s getting people talking about Brooke’s great music and fresh narrative voice – not to mention the emotional, heart-rending story at its core.

The song “Time” from “4 Noses.” 

 

Rumor has it “4 Noses” will appear in other theaters across the country.

If it comes to Chicago, I’m going to be as optimistic as a Cubs fan in April that I can break the curse and finally see Jonatha Brooke on stage!

2nd Annual Ubiquitous End of Year Best Of List (2013 Edition)

Yes, despite the fact that everyone else in the ENTIRE FREE WORLD is compiling their best of list, I have to add my random-almost-invisible-blogger list to the pile, too.

I’m still light years behind in film and television (academic demands have pulled my attentions elsewhere) so this is all about the music.

Here are the albums that are, in my opinion, the five finest works of 2013.

5. Boards of Canada, “Tomorrow’s Harvest”

BoC has been around for almost 20 years – I’ve just discovered them in the last few years, as I’ve sought out new soundscapes and started to explore ambient, electronic music. I loved their earlier work, often compared to the soundtracks of 1970s filmstrips.

While much of that earlier music had a sense of warm nostalgia, “Tomorrow’s Harvest” had a darker sound to it. It was well worth the long wait since their last album, and pieces like “Reach for the Dead” were great works.

4. Bibio, “Silver Wilkinson” 

Bibio’s been working in a vein that really speaks to me: combining electronic sounds with more traditional, guitar-based structures. Like Boards of Canada, he’s also really great at creating a whole soundscape that sets a mood.

Bibio’s music also has a wonderful thread of joy and wonder running through it. After a funk detour with “Mind Bokeh,” this was a return to the hybrid that Bibio’s been creating, and it was a mainstay on my playlist this year.

3. Prefab Sprout, “Crimson/Red”

I’ve loved the masterful songwriting of Paddy McAloon for many years, and the earlier catalog of Prefab Sprout remains a constant on my spin list. But the hopes of a new Prefab album had been all but forsaken. The last truly new work (Gunman and Other Stories) just didn’t speak to me, and while I enjoyed the release of Let’s Change The World With Music a few years back, it was a “lost” album from the mid-90s.

I also didn’t expect any new releases because of McAloon’s double-whammy health conditions – a visual impairment and a case of tinnitus that’s affected him for years.

So to hear Crimson/Red at all is a joy. For it to be so damn good is a gift. There are many songs that stand with the best of McAloon’s underappreciated songwriting, but for me, “List of Impossible Things” is achingly, hauntingly beautiful, and at 56, McAloon’s voice still sounds as swoonworthy as it did years ago.

2. Janelle Monae, “Electric Lady” 

I loved Monae’s new album. Monae, to me, is one of the most exciting new artists to come along in years. I remain mystified that Monae isn’t a megastar, though I wonder if the mythology of her albums – the android symbolism, the emotional remove of singing in character – is keeping some listeners from tuning in.

Electric Lady was another ambitious work and it (almost completely) worked. Few songs this year were as fun and funky as the title track. Heads exploded when Monae and the iconic Erykah Badu  joined forces for “Q.U.E.E.N.” (That track had an amazing video – Monae and Badu onscreen together is, in a word, electric.)

While the album is a shade long – and its spoken interludes have been criticized in the press  – it’s an achievement for Monae, who is making the most intelligent – and most fun – hybrid of pop and R&B out there.

Electric Lady reaches high heights in its final third, with the emotional “Ghetto Woman” and “Victory,” repeating, almost mantralike, “To be victorious/You must find glory in the little things.”

And my number one album of 2013:

1. Alison Moyet, “The Minutes”

I’ve been a fan of Moyet for 30 years, since she hit the scene with Yazoo. And I’ve loved Moyet in all her faces and voices.

But like several of my favorite artists – including Aimee Mann, Jonatha Brooke and Kirsty MacColl – Moyet has had repeated run-ins with several record labels. Despite her magnificent voice (one that can sing any style) and great batches of songs, it seemed like the only thing several of Moyet’s labels were any good at was getting in her way.

Her 2002 album Hometime was a high-water mark, but while I also loved Moyet’s subsequent albums, it seemed like she was increasingly pigeonholed by the industry, only “allowed” to make a certain kind of record, perpetual sequels of sorts to her 80s jazz cover of the standard “That Ole Devil Called Love.”

Moyet had embraced a wide range of genres – including a stint in a West End production of “Chicago” – but the more diverse her explorations, the more she seemed to be pigeonholed. In 2012 came news that Moyet and her label were parting ways, and it seemed unlikely that any new Moyet music was soon to be forthcoming.

Just over a year later, The Minutes was released. And it is a triumph in every possible way.

This is no rehash or victory lap for a veteran act. At 52, Moyet is in this moment and sounds magnificent in contemporary arrangements that range from electronic to more mainstream rock (“When I Was Your Girl”) and even hinting at dubstep (“Changeling”). There’s so much great songwriting here, especially with tracks like “Remind Yourself,” “Horizon Flame,” and the exquisite “Filigree.”

Moyet seems to be more comfortable in her musical skin here, and it comes through in every song. This work doesn’t read like the preconceived narrative of some record label, or the faux creation of a mask of celebrity. This is the authentic voice and the story of a confident, talented, mature woman, and it is glorious to hear.

Changeling:

When I Was Your Girl:

Other notable stuff:

A few other notable music notes for the year:

Getting lucky: I know that Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” was a divisive song, with a hipster backlash against it almost from the start.

Whatever. I loved it – it’s got a fun vibe and it did remind me of those 70s and 80s disco songs, songs that seemed to have warmth and love instead of a sterile coldness and an ugly violence in them, as I hear in so much contemporary dubstep and dance. (It also didn’t have the ugly subtext of its fellow radio earworm “Blurred Lines.”)

Welcome back: Another welcome return this year was Boy George, who released a new album. He’s also appeared on a few tracks as a guest vocalist.

Best new artist: 

There were few new artists I really liked this year – most of them sound like really tinny versions of 80s synthpop bands – but I really liked Junip, especially their song “Your Life Your Call.”  (Though the video IS odd….)

So what did you love? Hate? What are you hoping for musically in 2014?

Ubiquitous End of Year Best Of List, 2012 Edition

Yes, it’s that time of year again. And since I’ve had a very leisurely holiday, which included a trip back to my home state of Pennsylvania, I’m late posting this list. I’m sure most lists have favorite films, books and TV shows, but I’ve been so busy as a student that I haven’t absorbed much in the way of culture and content outside of music. And so, the 2012 list is music, music, music.

TOP ALBUMS

RUNNER UP: I’ve been a fan of Bettye LaVette for a few years now. I learned about her from a few music blogs, then saw clips of her majestic Kennedy Center Honors performance and an appearance on Austin City Limits.

Her albums have had great tunes on them, mostly remakes – a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” stands out – but in some cases on the previous albums, the song choices kind of blurred into each other. This was especially true of her British songbook CD.

Her new album, “Thoughtful and Thankful,” is perfect from beginning to end.

LaVette also reworks an old song, “Dirty Old Town,” written by Ewen MacColl (who, in addition to being the famed songwriter of songs like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,”, is also the father of the late Kirsty MacColl).

In any other year, “Thankful and Thoughtful” would have been my number one, for its amazing songs and the way LaVette lays bare her emotions on every track. But one album featured an even more transcendent performance.

NUMBER ONE: My number one choice has been a constant on my playlists since I first fell in love with her music in 1989 and 1990. Songs like “Troy” were the soundtrack of my college days. And in 1990, she took a Prince-penned song – “Nothing Compares 2 U” – and made it her own.

I’ve followed Sinead O’Connor’s music since, and though she’s had several great albums since – “Faith and Courage,” “Theology,” – but her 2012 album, “How About I Be Me (And You Be You)” is every bit as amazing as her initial music. The themes of her music – faith, love and the loss of love, and her own struggles with mental illness – make this my favorite album of the year. In a year of pop tarts and Autotune, O’Connor’s authenticity is like a cool drink of water in the desert for me.

TOP SONGS: 

A number of other songs caught my ears:

Aimee Mann: I love Mann’s music, and on several new songs from “Charmer,” she injected some different sounds and a lot of levity.

I also liked “Labrador”, “Crazytown,” and “Living A Lie.” Check them out.

Miguel Migs: I’ve gone down the electronica/chill tracks road, and one of the new songs released this year that I loved came from an album produced and compiled by notable DJ Miguel Migs. This Me’shell Ndegeocello collaboration is among my favorites.

Frank Ocean: He’s on every Top 2012 list invented, and for good reason. Though I didn’t love every song on his debut album, there are several amazing tracks. And for his first public performance to be as arresting and amazing as this one? We’ll be seeing much, much more of him. Again, a true treat of unique talent and authenticity in a cesspool of corporate copycats.

Gossip: Every time The Gossip puts out music, they land on my list – and my playlist!

The Cherry Thing: I can’t wait for a new Neneh Cherry solo CD – rumored to be coming out in 2013 – but her vocals floating over the moody jazz/electronica of The Thing made for some fun beats.

Music Monday: Faith, God and rock and roll

Music speaks to a wide range of human passions and human experiences – whether it’s rock and roll, country twang, rap music or a symphony. And people who are passionate about faith and about God have used music to express that passion.

Let’s be honest, though: the genre known as “Christian rock” has produced some profoundly awful music – particularly back in the 80s and 90s, when the attempt to merge those two ideas was executed quite poorly by some major record labels.

But there’s been some really great, thoughtful music in the last five to ten years from artists that we’d consider ‘mainstream rock artists, and that music has come forth in a very organic way. They explore their faith and their God in their songs. I think by avoiding that “Christian Music” label  (which is, as all sales of music are, 98% about PR and where the music fits in a sales environment), it allows people to just hear the songs and experience them.

A few of the mainstream artists that have mentioned faith in their music:

Sufjan Stevens is one of my favorite artists. He’s got some inventive takes on rock and folk and I love his arrangements. His faith was a subject in a lot of the initial interviews he gave, and he was reluctant to speak about it. His attitude was that his music said it all. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is one of the more heartfelt songs where Stevens tackles a religious theme.

The Innocence Mission has been around for over twenty years, and their music has always referred to their faith, in ways both subtle and obvious. Without directly mentioning God, lead singer Keren Paris draws from religious imagery in the song “Now In This Hush.”

Prefab Sprout has been around for even longer – about 30 years – and band leader and lead singer Paddy McAloon is critically acclaimed for being the Irving Berlin/Cole Porter of contemporary pop music. But McAloon has always worn his faith on his sleeve. The band’s most famous album, Jordan: The Comeback is about God. Or Jesus. Or Elvis. Possibly all three. McAloon’s output has been diminished significantly in recent years as he’s lost a significant amount of vision and hearing from health ailments (including severe tinnitus), but a few years ago the band released Let’s Change The World With Music, which has several songs with vivid religious imagery.

I can think of no pop song as deeply vested with Biblical imagery than Prefab Sprout’s song “One Of The Broken,” one of my favorite songs of all time.

And perhaps the most controversial person I’ll mention here: Sinead O’Connor.

I know people remember her ripping the photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live – a topic I addressed in an earlier post – but this is a person who is still actively exploring and  questioning her faith and the meaning of it in her life. Which I think makes for some very compelling music. And no one in contemporary pop music is exploring faith in their music as often and as thoroughly as O’Connor.

“I Don’t Know How to Love Him” may be a number from a Broadway song, but it takes on many more layers when O’Connor, who’s herself been a clergywoman, sings it.

Her latest album ends with the stunning “VIP,” which questions crass commercialism and celebrity culture and designates God as her VIP.

Sinead’s songs always make me really think about matters of faith and about how she examines those ideas. She’s a controversial figure and has a very messy public narrative, with her comments on religion and sexuality and her open struggles with mental health issues. It’s interesting that she’s often judged so harshly for her imperfections. What, I wonder, would Jesus say?

Harpo, Oprah and the West Loop

It’s been a year and a half since Oprah Winfrey’s daily talk show ended.

I’m sure many viewers miss the show, but for viewers, the main impact is that the show no longer beams into their living rooms. Fans of Winfrey’s work still have her brand new network (OWN) where they can get their Oprah fix.

From this back in the day…..

I’m seeing a few more tangible repercussions of the end of Winfrey’s show up close. Why? Well, I live a stone’s throw from Harpo Studios here in Chicago.

And those studios? They’re virtually empty, and that worries me.

There’s been almost no activity there, save for the period when Rosie O’Donnell’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it talk show was in production there for five months. Hundreds of former Harpo staffers have been laid off.

Listen, businesses change and grow and relocate and are born and die all the time. I get it. And to be very clear: I do not have a chip on my shoulder about Oprah. I like her. I have some mixed feelings about how her show evolved over the years, but it had some great moments and affected a lot of people in very positive ways. I watched many episodes of Oprah and have no shame in my game about doing so.

This isn’t about her. It’s all about my ‘hood, you see.

When my partner and I first moved to the West Loop (a few blocks away) we were renters. Now we are homeowners. We’re invested in our home, our street and our neighborhood.

This sign was up for about a minute last year.

The fact that one of our neighbors’ homes, so to speak, is primarily a big empty shell is cause for concern, if not alarm.

It’s not just the actual Harpo Studios building, which used to be an armory and takes up a whole city block with Washington on its south, Aberdeen to its west, Randolph to its north and Carpenter at its east. There are also other buildings adjacent to the studio that are used by Harpo – I can count at least three other buildings in the same vicinity where Harpo staffers are located.

I hope Harpo has a long, sustainable life, but if it folds – or moves completely to California, where Winfrey herself is headquartered – that’s a huge chunk of our neighborhood to lose what was a solid economic engine.

Oprah’s arrival is often heralded as the beginning of the renaissance for the West Loop, but the neighborhood would probably survive a drastic change if Harpo leaves. Restaurant Row is a bustling thoroughfare, with restaurants by Stephanie Izard and Graham Elliot Bowles dotting the Randolph Street landscape. And in just the last few years, the Fulton Market neighborhood has exploded.

Farewell, Le Peep – directly affected by the loss of Harpo employees

But it’s foolish to think there will be no impact. Already Washington Avenue east of the studio has seen several businesses (including Le Peep) close due to the loss of Harpo-related business. I’ve seen a small spike in vandalism in those blocks, and it’s hard to tell at this point whether that’s just a summer-related spike or a more long term effect, but it’s troubling.

More puzzling is why Harpo hasn’t actively marketed the space as a usable, turnkey-ready studio space. I posted about the possibilities of this space for a film or TV show recently.

Steve Harvey’s new talk show was announced, but instead of using the Harpo space, a huge new studio has been built for him. I can understand a talk show host not wanting to follow in Winfrey’s shadow, but there’s been radio silence as to whether any other productions might use the space.

Winfrey is known for holding her cards close to her vest and limiting information about her plans (three words: employee non-disclosure agreement), but I wish that she or her team would take a moment to sit down with residents and tell us what their plans are. Or if they have any long term plans at ALL for the space.

I’m a good neighbor – I’ll come by and pay a courtesy call. (A tour of the studio would be nice, but I won’t be greedy.)

Lights, camera, action: where we make media

A few weeks ago, the Urbanophile – one of my favorite blogs and one that covers urban studies, cities and economics – featured a guest post that discussed Manchester, England and some of the changes to the city’s economy after the steel industry and other manufacturing collapsed.

It’s worth a complete read (linked above) but let me give you the Cliff Notes version: Manchester developed some sustainable alternate industries in the arts and entertainment sector, including music, film and television production.

Manchester, in many ways, is very similar to Pittsburgh, my hometown.

Pittsburgh has been active to a certain degree in film. The Pittsburgh Film Office has been working with Hollywood productions for over twenty years, and they’ve managed to attract really amazing films to be partly or completely shot in the ‘Burgh.

The latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, may be the largest in scope, but it’s not the only one: films as varied as Silence Of The Lambs, Wonder Boys, and Abduction have been filmed in Pittsburgh. (The movie I Am Number Four was filmed at my old high school.)

Pittsburgh has a lot of amazing vistas and a diversity of scenery in its neighborhoods that makes it an ideal place to film.

But hosting a film for a few weeks is different than having a dedicated film or television studio where ongoing work can be done.

For a few years, I wrote a blog about daytime soap operas. Initially, it was an analysis of the content of those shows. But I found myself also writing a great deal about the economics of making those shows. They’d become expensive to produce. Set storage alone in an intensely dense space like Manhattan was a massive strain on production budgets.

One show in particular, the now-cancelled Guiding Light, had a very public battle with economics that showed on air. In order to reduce production costs, the show’s executive producer and production company tried some inventive ideas, including filming on permanent sets, renting a large house in rural New Jersey for filming, and switching to digital cameras.

One thought struck me then, and it’s just as true of any TV show (or film) as it is for a soap opera. If New York City and Los Angeles are the two more expensive places in the country – for real estate, for cost of living, for everything – then why are we almost exclusively producing entertainment there? 

I can understand the pluses of Southern California weather, and the cluster of Broadway talent in New York City. But it seems like a no-brainer to me to diversify – significantly – where we produce entertainment so it can be done in a more cost-effective way.

We aren’t using coaxial cable to relay TV programs any more, folks. Digital cameras can go anywhere, be anywhere and film anything at any time.

Where else should shows be made? Well, there’s probably a lot of places that a sustainable industry could take root.

Take Chicago, my current city. There’s a host of talented actors here, enough to fill several shows. (Heck, the members of Steppenwolf alone are hardly strangers – John Malkovich, Terry Kinney, and Laurie Metcalf – also known as Jackie from Roseanne – just to name a few.)

There’s a studio sitting empty here – perhaps you’ve heard of Oprah Winfrey and Harpo Studios? – with lots of ready-to-roll space for a film or TV production.

And a production that isn’t made in NYC or LA might have the unintended side effect of – gasp – not having the everyone-lives-in-NYC-or-LA tunnel vision that so many shows seem to have.

Pittsburgh doesn’t have the ready-to-go space yet, and I wish that infrastructure would happen.  I’ve had an idea where it could happen for years.

There’s a small city adjacent to Pittsburgh called Braddock, an area that was hit hardest when the steel industry collapsed. The mayor of Braddock, John Fetterman, has been on TV and in the New York Times trying to find a new lease on life for Braddock. It’s already gained a reputation as an artists’ community.

Braddock has – and I intend no offense by saying this – a substantial level of decay, and has wide swaths of land where existing buildings could be razed or renovated into a large studio production space.

And then, if I wanted to be really super-crazy, I’d suggest that a program could be set up to help unemployed or challenged young men and women learn trades (like sound, lighting, or production) that could be parlayed into steady work.

Music, television, newspapers, books, and films – all of these media platforms have changed drastically in the last few decades. I think in order for these platforms to survive, the people who create and the people who deliver them will have to explore new methods of making them, and new methods of getting them in front of an audience.

EDITED AUGUST 7, 2012 TO ADD: I was incorrect in saying Pittsburgh does NOT have substantial studio space. According to a CNNMoney article, there’s a studio with 300,000 square foot of space. My apologies.

Creative common sense: the value of creative work

There have been some really vivid debates happening recently centering around artists and how they are compensated for their work.

Much of the focus was a blog post by David Lowery, the leader of bands Cracker and Camper van Beethoven and an advocate for musicians. His blog The Tricordist published an excellent post yesterday as a response to an NPR intern admitting on air that of the 11,000 songs she’d downloaded, she paid for almost none of them.

I talked about this here back in January and it’s a debate that’s been raging for a decade or so now since the advent of Napster. It also seems to be primarily generational, as younger music fans simply don’t see paying for music as a necessity.

What musicians have to rely on when people don’t honor their work.

I see obvious parallels between musicians and journalists. Ironically, the NPR intern – ostensibly a journalism or broadcasting major – will soon be in a job market where paying jobs have shrunk and the few opportunities open are often internships.

The TV stations and newspapers in Chicago don’t think it’s economically wise to hire a newbie out of college, and much of their remaining budgets go to on-air talent or production needs. So those fact checkers, graphics editors and admins? All interns, all free.

In other words, Emily the NPR intern will soon be experiencing the same thing the musicians she’s downloaded have: working without compensation.

I have 13,000 tracks in my iTunes and have paid for 99% of them. Some may have been “ripped” from physical CDs but at some juncture, I paid for them. I have a small, tiny sliver of unpaid tracks that in most cases, were unavailable in any format or out of print.

Maybe this is the hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn old man coming out in me, but it IS increasingly a moral issue to me. If people don’t understand that they are stealing, then we have a serious issue.

How would most hourly employees feel if, at the end of two weeks of work, your company simply didn’t pay you for your work? We’d have riots in the street.

Why is that unacceptable for “most of us” but OK for artists, musicians and writers?

Another recent content related controversy surrounds the cartoonist Matthew Inman, better known as The Oatmeal, and a conflict he’s had with the team that runs the Web site FunnyJunk.

FunnyJunk appears to be a site where users upload content – any humor-based content they want. Inman found several hundred of his works uploaded to FJ without any attribution as to who created them.

I won’t fully recount the blow by blow here – it’s just too odd and bizarre to believe – but instead of honoring Inman’s intellectual property claims, FunnyJunk’s lawyers sued him for compensation, claiming they had been slandered.

Or in simpler terms: An artist was expected to comply with the free, uncompensated use of his work.

Sound familiar?

To me, these issues underscore how we see work in this country, what we see as valid work (often only white collar work is valued), and how we compensate people for their time and efforts.

 

In defense of Fred Rogers

Honestly, I can’t believe I have to write a post defending someone as genuinely influential and amazing as Fred Rogers.

Our neighbor – then, now and forever.

But his legacy came under attack again last week during a now-widely discussed high school commencement speech.

David McCullough, an English teacher and son of historian David McCullough, gave a pointed and blunt speech to stunned students telling them they aren’t special.

It was meant as a wake-up call to the “everyone gets a trophy” and “helicopter parent” kids. And I agree with many of the points McCullough made.

But his quote early on made me very angry: “Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers, and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”

Mr. Rogers is being blamed for “coddling” kids and making them into belly button gazing narcissists. And McCullough isn’t the first one to do so. The late Jeffrey Zaslow, a former Wall Street Journal, wrote an entire article blaming Fred Rogers for the “me me me” epidemic.

I always try to see multiple viewpoints and multiple “sides” of an issue. I get that education is a complex topic in this country and an increasingly political one.

But come for Fred Rogers, and I will bear down the force of a thousand suns to protect his legacy.

I can’t even put into words how much I disagree with the “blame Mr. Rogers” movement. Yes, he does say to children, “You’re special.” But there are a ton of apples-to-oranges comparisons being made – lots of claims without looking deeper at his work.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood emphasized the unique qualities of each child and each individual. And at the developmental stage that the show was aimed at, that was – and still is – a valuable and necessary message.

There was nothing – absolutely nothing – in his messages that suggested that children didn’t need to strive for goals, or work hard, or any of the disconnections from reality he’s been blamed for. All he recognized is that children may take different pathways to success, and that different people had strengths in different areas.

Fred Rogers was an educator for longer than many of us have even been alive. He was involved in the medium of television as early as 1954 and his shows always had the same goals – to encourage education, inspire learning and cultivate curiosity in children.

This wasn’t a ego trip for him or a chance for him to be a ‘star,’ and as this astonishing video clip shows, he was willing to fight very hard for what he believed in. What you saw on air of Fred Rogers was – surprise – exactly who he was off camera.

His background as a Presbyterian minister was a foundation for what he felt was a mission to guide and inspire children to learn, to grow and to feel safe – a crucial focus at a time where the nightly news showed the horrors of Vietnam night after night (and quite frankly, a need that is timeless).

Conservative news sites have taken McCullough’s speech and made it a call to arms. The narrative being put forth in conservative media is that the “everyone is special” message must clearly equal coddling from liberal leaders and educators.

A few observations on this phenomenon, if I may.

Firstly, we need to step away from politicizing education and work together to improve learning and improve outcomes. Some no-nonsense common sense goals and boundaries would be welcome, but making education one of the us vs. them, liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican battles will favor no one.

Secondly, the conservative and evangelical view is that every life has value and every life is special. And that can’t apply just in utero, can it? I see such a direct and clear connection between Fred Rogers’ faith, and his contention that every child is special. I would think many Christians would see the same connection.

And one final irony: being told that you’re not special, that you’re just one of a group and that you get what the guy next to you gets…..that sounds a bit to me like….oh, what’s the word that’s been tossed around frequently in politics in the last few years? Oh wait, that’s right: COMMUNISM.

Every person adhering to a sameness – that’s pretty much the definition of that word. (It’s been misused and misapplied so often in recent times; I had to look in the dictionary just to be sure!)

Celebrating the uniqueness of the individual, the independent spirit – that, to me, is America and the most patriotic thing we can do. And to me, that’s what the legacy of Fred Rogers represents.

I don’t disagree with McCullough’s basic premise. There is vast room for improvement in our education system. Children (and the adults in their lives) definitely need to understand that achievement is earned, not a given, and that hard work and intense studying is crucial.

I’ve seen what happens when a child is overly protected from criticism and failure. I’ve worked with many people like that in my career, and few things are as aggravating as trying to give feedback to someone who never learned to take constructive criticism. We urge children to succeed, but we don’t always teach them how to fail, and how to recover from that.

Self-reliance is an obvious goal. Living a life where you can care for you and your family takes away a lot of fear and uncertainty and it empowers people. I completely co-sign that idea, too. I have no arguments with those points.

But instead of dismissing Fred Rogers and his magnificent legacy of work, perhaps it’s time to reexamine that legacy and see what else he can teach us about reaching the hearts and minds of children.

His work and his ideas are timeless. In the same week that McCullough dismissed Rogers in his speech, a YouTube video featuring debuted on the PBS YouTube channel. It has garnered over three million page views.

As a kid who grew up in Pittsburgh, Fred Rogers was always there and always “ours.” I didn’t fully appreciate his work until his death in 2003. He has been gone for almost ten years now. He’s very much missed, and the world could certainly use more leaders and teachers like Fred Rogers.

EDITED TO ADD: A former colleague who read my post on Twitter sent me a link to another great post about Fred Rogers; the post, in turn, reminded me of the acceptance speech that Rogers made at the 1997 Daytime Emmy Awards.

The Emmys, of course, are an awards show. For once, Rogers had an opportunity to make the moment about him, or his team, or deliver some variation on the usual thank you’s that winners make. What he does here (starting around 1:45) is beyond astonishing in its grace and its simplicity. Please watch.

Music Monday: The value of music

Instead of blogging about a musician or band this morning for Music Monday, I wanted to ponder the value of music in today’s mostly digital marketplace.

More to the point, I want to ask: Do you believe it’s OK to download music for free, without giving anything to the artist?

This is not a new discussion or a new issue – it’s one that’s been happening for more than a decade.

As music sales have moved from brick-and-mortar stores and physical music platforms like CDs to digital files, so has the ability to access MP3s and music files online. Napster was the first platform to encourage music trading, but even without it around, a thousand others have popped up in its wake.

And the concept of “owning” a piece of music vs. having access to it on a smartphone or computer is an increasingly gray area, thanks to new platforms like Spotify, which uses a mixture of music files and its own radio station.

I guess my debate is more of a moral one: why do so many people think it’s perfectly OK to take something without paying for it?

One argument that’s always put forth is that all record companies are evil behemoths and won’t miss the money. Yes, many record companies past and present have only a tenuous connection to the artistic side of the process, if they have one at all. Many labels have mishandled artists or mismanaged their money or made decisions that were good for business but bad for art. No doubt about that.

But if a record company is not paid for the product that it distributed, I can guarantee it won’t be their general ledger that takes a hit. The artist will. And that’s likely why artists are now consistently saying they make no money whatsoever on an album. Touring is their sole way to make money from the music they create and play.

The second argument is more troublesome to me, and the argument is essentially this: I’m [fill in the blank: unemployed, underemployed, poor] and can’t afford to buy this music, so I’ll just download it.

But that’s never made sense to me. The inability to pay for an item does not entitle you to have it for free. The fact that people think that it does just reeks of entitlement. (To be blunt, for many of the people I’ve heard this argument from, it’s also a serious case of white privilege and veiled racism.)

When people loot during a crisis, there’s almost universal condemnation of that action. And it is morally wrong. It’s often an act perpetrated by people who are poor and who may be looting for the basics of life to survive.

Downloading music and not paying for it? Is digital looting.

Is my own conscience clear? I feel that it is. I pay for files on iTunes. I think there’s been maybe two or three times that I’ve downloaded a file; in all those cases, it was a “leaked track” by one of my favorite artists. I knew the moment it became available I was buying the entire album.

For a few older albums, I “ripped” the album from a physical CD into my iTunes library. I bought those albums several times over (on vinyl and cassette) so I know that I’ve paid for the music.

And I still make mixtapes, so to speak (on CD now). So I do share songs with friends. But (a) I’ve paid for the song/album and (b) if I share it, it’s not going to be shared into infinity with thousands of users. And (c) I’ve introduced people to music which in many cases spurred them to buy the entire album and/or other music by the same artist.

Maybe it’s just me entering the hey-you-kids-get-off-of-my-lawn phase, but it really troubles me that so many people see no issue with stealing music.

Because no matter how many ways we slice it, my final thought always comes back to this: How would you feel if you worked for a week, or two weeks, or whatever your pay cycle is….

….and on payday, the end users of your company’s product came to your office/store/widget factory and said, “Hey, we’re taking your paycheck. We appreciate your work, but don’t think you should be paid for it. Thanks!”

I’m guessing mass rioting would occur. So if it’s not ethical if someone does it to you, why would it be ethical to take the value (perceived or monetary) of someone else’s work and assume it as your property?