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The Economics of Stardom

(Pictured: this early Led Zeppelin shot gives you an idea of how small were the venues they played between 1969 and 1971.)

I have been reading David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971, The Year That Rock Exploded, and I could blog about it until approximately Christmas. Better you read it yourself—even if you are as passionate about the history of popular music as I am, you will find yourself surprised by some of the stories of 1971, and interested in Hepworth’s insights.

One of his early chapters discusses the unique nature of British rock touring at the time. Only the Beatles had been able to fill stadiums, and they hadn’t toured since 1966. Typical concert venues at the turn of the 70s were clubs or concert halls that seated only a few hundred people; the biggest and most prestigious, the Royal Albert Hall in London, seated only 4,000. Bands made most of their money from touring and not record sales, so it wasn’t unusual for a band to work all week, recording or at day jobs, and then play several shows on the weekend. Led Zeppelin was the first act to break out of the small halls and into larger arenas, where the financial take would be bigger.

Here in the 21st century, the circle has come back around: record sales are sufficiently low and streaming revenue such a relative pittance that stars make most of their money on the road once again. But the economics of touring are different now; Madison, Wisconsin, where I live, hosted a remarkable variety of stars from the 60s to the 80s, acts that would often play here and then play the next night in Milwaukee, 90 miles away. Now, however, major Madison shows are extremely rare; the arena that hosted them back in the day, the Dane County Coliseum, seats maybe 11,000 for concerts, which is not big enough anymore. Big stars are more likely to skip Madison and play in Milwaukee, where the Bradley Center can seat around 19,000. And Milwaukee doesn’t get acts like it used to, either.

The new economics of stardom are particularly visible in country music. Every major star hits the road in the summer as part of a package. Sometimes two A-listers go out together, as Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert are doing on a few dates this year, and as Chesney and Jason Aldean did last year. More often it’s one big star packaged with acts of lesser stature. This summer, for example, Luke Bryan is headlining a tour with Little Big Town and Dustin Lynch. “Lesser stature” is relative, however: both LBT and Lynch have scored #1 hits within the last year.

Lynch is indicative of a relatively new phenomenon in country, one that hasn’t really translated to pop music yet as far as I can tell: country artists are releasing singles that are intended to get a reaction from the concert audience. Lynch’s recent single “Hell of a Night” is built on a riff that owes more to Lynryd Skynyrd or Def Leppard than to anything from Nashville. The record itself is forgettable, but that big riff is going to sound awesome on the stage, which is the point. Aldean’s current single, “Lights Come On,” is even more unsubtle—powered by a giant riff but otherwise generic, “Lights Come On” is a country checklist song (blue collar/Budweiser/Friday night) that’s mostly about attending a Jason Aldean concert, and the song is absolutely intended to be a show opener. Even in mainstream country marketing and promotion, this level of calculation is remarkable.

There is a defense, for this kind of thing, though. The Nashville suits behind Dustin Lynch and Jason Aldean, and the artists themselves, are no more interested in making bank than Led Zeppelin and their legendary manager Peter Grant were 45 years ago. (Hepworth makes this very point when discussing Zeppelin’s work ethic.) The main difference is the amount of bank there is to make. And if some fans today believe that the hype surrounding an act, and the falling for said hype, is just as important a part of the experience as listening to the music, that’s not new, either. Hepworth notes that bands as big as Roxy Music were interested in redefining art as a plastic commodity as early as 1971.

But all of this just my opinion. I could be completely wrong.

What to Do Right and How to Do It Wrong

I read not long ago that the average blog lasts only four months. Somehow this one has lasted 12 years as of today, which is both remarkable longevity and a phenomenal waste of time. Here’s a rundown of my favorite posts since last July 11th. (You can see other such lists from previous years here.)

I reprinted the first piece of music writing I ever got paid for, about a trip to Graceland in 1997. It required three installments to get it all in—first one here, second one here, third one here. I got paid for a story about a young boy’s life-altering visit to a juke joint in 1938 Mississippi. (Part one here, part two here.) It’s one of the few pieces of fiction I’ve written that wasn’t terrible. A nonfiction piece, Playing Games With Names, seemed worthy of purchase by somebody, although no one would, so I gave it to you for free.

A post called Adventures on the B-Side, whose topic is easy enough to discern from the title alone, ended up one of the most-commented-upon in the history of this blog. Another well-commented post was Key Changes, topic also easy to discern. Oddly, practically nobody chose to comment on a post about which songs and stars of the last 50 years are still going to be popular 50 years from now. One of the best comments that any post ever got came in response to The Board Operator, a radio story about being at the bottom of the broadcasting food chain. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

I had to create a new post category for tributes, with the deaths of David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Keith Emerson, and Merle Haggard. (And Bob Elliott, and Muhammad Ali, and Prince, and Billy Paul and . . . .) On the subject of categories, visit One Week in the 40 for a now-concluded series of posts that ran from December through June about songs that spent a single week in Billboard‘s Top 40. And of course, there’s The 1976 Project, revisiting old posts and occasionally putting up new ones about this blog’s favorite year. A lot of them are worthy of inclusion on this list, but there’s not room, so here’s one I’m particularly proud of.

I had a brief enthusiasm this past spring for ranking songs on albums, including Rumours and Some Girls, along with a collection of pop covers Elton John made as an anonymous session singer. I also ranked tracks on the Eagles’ two greatest hits albums from bottom to top. (First album here, second album here.) Also concerning the Eagles: while many artists have successfully opened the vaults to expand and improve upon classic releases, their only foray into releasing the previously unreleased was largely a farce.

This blog contains thousands of words (maybe millions by now) about listening to music, but far fewer about my attempts at being a musician. That’s because I wasn’t very good at it, and my career ended up a disappointment. A radio story about modest moments of fame achieved by more successful high-school musicians is here.

Ultimately, this whole blog is an ongoing road trip through the times of our lives, although I got briefly tired of traveling in a post called The Old Country. Last fall, in New Jersey, I looked for some places Bruce Springsteen made famous. In Minnesota, I went searching for something to eat but found something else entirely.

Quick hits:

—You can learn a lot just by listening to the radio—about what to do right and how to do it wrong—as shown in a post about two different American Top 40 shows recorded 11 years apart.

—A lot of what I do on the air I learned from the best newsman I ever knew.

—Another radio tale was written for the 30th anniversary of the day I started doing the morning show on a Top-40 station.

—History is written by the victors, but songs are written about the losers, which is why there have been so many songs involving the Chicago Cubs.

—Cheap Trick got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I was forced to surrender.

—One day when it popped up on shuffle, I live-blogged “We Are the World.”

—We noted the 50th anniversary of one of the most broad-based hit records of all time, a multi-format smash that came at a pivotal moment in history.

I am grateful to the ever-dwindling number of you who read this blog regularly. Thanks for your continued patronage.

The End of the Opus

I have written here previously that I no longer have a turntable hooked up at my house. Even before I unhooked it, I hadn’t used it for several years. I still have all my vinyl, however, taking up space here in the office. It’s still here mostly because I can’t think of a good way to get rid of it—and I would get rid of it. I am no longer interested in owning the physical objects—MP3s are fine with me.

We also have a substantial collection of cassettes. The Mrs. was a cassette buyer during her high-school days, and virtually all of the pre-recorded cassettes that are boxed up somewhere in the basement are hers. Over many years, I recorded a lot of albums (and later CDs) onto cassettes, and although I occasionally played them in the house, they got most of their play in the car.

Sometime in high school, I started making compilation tapes—8-tracks at first, then reel-to-reel tapes in college, and finally on cassette. In the early 90s, when I had a lengthy commute to and from work each day, I hit upon the idea of putting songs in chronological order. I started with 1976 because of course I did, but over the next few years, I assembled what I called the Magnum Opus. It eventually covered January 1969 through December 1979 and included every radio hit I could lay my hands on, from CD, vinyl, or cassette. I don’t recall how many tapes there were, mostly C-90s with a few C-60s mixed in (never C-120s—too fragile), but I am guessing I could have driven to Hawaii and back without repeating one. As I added missing songs to my vinyl and CD collections, I re-recorded sections of the Magnum Opus to fit them in.

During the 90s and 00s, I killed countless evenings and weekend afternoons working on it. Making a tape had to be done in real time, so it took a couple of hours to do a C-90.  It required physical manipulation of the source media, removing albums or singles from sleeves, putting them on the turntable and lowering the tonearm in the proper spot; unboxing and cueing up a source cassette to the right spot; that kind of thing. If several songs in a row came from CDs, I could program the CD changer to do the heavy lifting for me. My first cassette deck did not have a digital readout like my later ones, so as I got toward the end of each side of the tape, it was guesswork to see if a particular song was going to fit.

After I got a CD burner, I did not try to recreate all of the Magnum Opus on CD (although I did one year’s worth—guess which one). I do not have digital files for all of the vinyl and/or cassettes, and every time I think about going out to YouTube and trying to fill in the gaps, it scares me off. And compared to the analog/real-time tape-making experience, burning a CD feels like cheating.

My current car, which I bought in 2013, has no cassette deck. I own two different home-stereo decks, but neither one of them works anymore, and I haven’t seen the need to get them fixed. So there’s really no point in hanging on to the cassettes. They’re merely taking up space, and as I said at the top of this post, I am no longer interested in owning the physical objects that contain the music. So the other day, the Magnum Opus—however many cassettes it was, however many songs, from “Cloud Nine” by the Temptations through “Message in a Bottle” by the Police, which kept me company over tens of thousands of miles and something like 20 years—went out to the curb.

It was painful to do, and after I dumped them into the bin, I thought a couple of times about digging them back out. But our firetrap of a condo has too many physical objects in it to begin with, and while getting rid of the Magnum Opus won’t solve the problem, at least it doesn’t make it any worse. Everything dies, and for the Magnum Opus, it was time.

A Cure for Loneliness

(Pictured: Peter Wolf, on stage in 2015.)

(Disclaimer: I am not entirely sure this post isn’t utter nonsense. Caveat emptor.)

During a recent week, only one of the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 was written by a single person. Some Katy Perry hits credit six writers, some Pitbull songs have eight. Country singer Thomas Rhett’s new “Vacation” credits 14 writers for one song; Beyonce’s “Hold Up” credited 15. In the old days, these credits were called cut-ins, in which a DJ or manager got a credit as a means of sharing in the royalties and not for thinking up any part of the song. Today they often go to the programmer who designs a beat, the engineer who mixes the track, or a random dude in the studio who offers a phrase that ends up in the song. In Rhett’s case, “Vacation” samples two other songs (including War’s “Low Rider”), and everybody involved in the writing of both gets a credit.

Part of this has to do with the staggering amounts of money on the line with top stars, and our litigious society. Give Random Dude a credit so he gets paid now and doesn’t sue later. That’s not to say Random Dude didn’t contribute to songs of the past, however. And not just random dudes: Ringo Starr famously came up with the phrase “a hard day’s night,” but he didn’t get credit for it on the song of the same name.

Part of this also has to do with the idea that you can make worthwhile art by committee. But can you? If you’ve heard anything from 1989, you understand that Taylor Swift, young woman of flesh and blood from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, a songwriter with life experience to draw upon, has been lost amidst a gaggle of songwriting collaborators and producers. Thomas Rhett, despite being the son of an accomplished Nashville songwriter, is merely the vessel by which market research data is passed on to consumers in song form.

Art isn’t the point of this stuff, really. Selling the product is, and these methods of creating product are proven to do it.

However: today’s all-consuming need to move product is a difference only in degree, not in kind. Popular music has always been shaped—and distorted—by the desire to sell it. The record men who prowled the rural South in the 30s looking for “authentic” blues were hoping to profit. Blues god Robert Johnson’s repertoire included hymns and pop songs he’d heard on the radio, but record companies weren’t interested in that stuff.  Sometimes their influence is positive—think of Jerry Wexler’s impact on the career of Aretha Franklin. But think also of Colonel Tom Parker’s insistence that Elvis keep stamping out movie soundtracks instead of recording more challenging music.

Even in the age of moguls, the personalities of individual artists still shone. But today, when there’s so much money to be made (Taylor Swift grossed $73 million last year, lots of which trickled down to labels, producers, songwriters, and Random Dudes), trusting to personality and/or the quirks of individual genius is risky. And it’s not just in music: our whole society leaves little to the whims of a single individual, preferring instead to run everything through “channels,” where many people get to weigh in on the nature of the finished product. That the bureaucracy of 21st century pop music occasionally produces great art is a wonder; that it more often produces calculated, soulless product is exactly what it’s designed to do.

Which brings me to A Cure for Loneliness, the new album by Peter Wolf, formerly of the J. Geils Band. A Cure for Loneliness is pretty much the opposite of soulless 21st century bureaucratic product, drawing instead on one man’s half-century in music, and the music of the quarter-century before that. Like Wolf’s 2002 album Sleepless (one of my favorite albums of all time), A Cure for Loneliness rambles through a half-dozen different genres, from blues to bluegrass, always with respect and good humor. Life can be hard and weird, Wolf says, but real talk and good music always make you feel less alone, so come hang out with me.

Peter Wolf and his label, Concord, have a commercial interest: they would like you to buy his record (and so would I, because to spend your money on lesser things is a shame). But even if nobody did, the making of it would still be worthwhile. An artist with something to say has to say it. If you and I don’t hear what they have to say because we’re too busy listening to mass-produced nonsense, it’s our loss.

Across My Universe

(Pictured: the Beatles on TV, 1968.)

In April 2006, I began using LastFM to keep track of the music that plays on my laptop every day. In 10 years, it’s recorded over 153,000 plays. In a recent post, I wrote about the top jazz artists on the list. This post is about the non-jazz stars I listen to most. I’m not going to count these down because there’s not much suspense, really.

1. Van Morrison. Because my library plays on shuffle most of the time, it privileges artists with more tracks. And I have a ton of Van Morrison, so a day without Van is most likely a day when I’m not on the laptop. Most-played track: “Caravan.”

2. Elton John. It figures that a child of the 70s such as I would still be listening to Elton John. Most-played track: “Your Song,” primarily because every single live album and bootleg contains a version of it, so it’s inescapable.

3. Fleetwood Mac. I liked Fleetwood Mac’s radio hits well enough, but I didn’t start exploring their back catalog until the last decade. The pre-Buckingham/Nicks years were spectacular, even if the records didn’t sell much. Most-played track: “Monday Morning.”

4. Rolling Stones. Like Fleetwood Mac, the Stones were a band I liked on the radio, but I didn’t listen beyond the hits until relatively recent times. At their peak, they really were the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Most-played track: “Brown Sugar,” which is news on par with the sunrise.

5. Steely Dan. Officially my favorite band. I have many, many bootlegs in addition to all of their officially released material, and I’m not quite sure how they’re not #1 on this list. Most-played track: “Josie,” which is because they play it at every show and it’s on every bootleg, and not because it’s a favorite. I can name quite literally 50 Steely Dan songs I like better.

6. Beatles. New data indicates indicates that two-thirds of the people listening to the Beatles on Spotify are under the age of 35. This is happening while oldies radio has largely dropped them (and other artists from the 60s) in the belief that they’re relevant only to those of us approaching retirement age. Radio remaining slavishly loyal to ancient dogma and refusing to keep up with the times? Color me shocked. Most-played track: “Across the Universe.”

7.  Boz Scaggs. I suspect I get more enjoyment from any random Boz cut than from any other artist who pops up on shuffle. Most-played track: “Lowdown,” and how. Various live versions rank #1 on my Boz list, and the studio version from Silk Degrees is #2.

8.  Rod Stewart. Rod has been in my music library even longer than Elton, ever since I bought “Maggie May” in the fall of 1971. Most-played track: “Mandolin Wind,” from Every Picture Tells a Story. 

9.  Bruce Springsteen. My most-played Springsteen album is The Seeger Sessions, and six of my most-played tracks are from that album, with “Erie Canal” and “Pay Me My Money Down” tied for first. That strikes me weird, but it’s OK: “Pay Me My Money Down” would be among my favorite Springsteen songs of any era, if I made a list.

10. Rosanne Cash. There’s no artist currently working for whom I have greater respect than Rosanne Cash. Although “daughter of Johnny Cash” will be in the first line of her obituary, she’s not overshadowed by him. She’s created her own great art and her own indelible image. And if you dip into her four-decade catalog at any point, you’ll find something highly worthwhile. Most-played track: “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” which is one of her father’s songs.

Add these 10 to the top five jazz artists in my earlier post (Jimmy Smith, Grant Green, Jimmy McGriff, Kenny Burrell, and Willis Jackson) and you have my 15 most-played artists. The next five are Lucinda Williams, the Eagles, Richard Groove Holmes, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the Electric Light Orchestra.

My single most-played track is one I haven’t mentioned to this point: “Ruby My Dear” by Thelonious Monk. LastFM doesn’t differentiate very well between versions of the same song on different albums. I have four different versions of “Ruby My Dear,” so its prominence is mainly a shuffle anomaly. But I don’t mind. Here’s a good version.

My Romance

(Pictured: pianist Bill Evans at work, shortly before his death in 1980.)

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. This April also marks 10 years since I started using LastFM to keep track of what plays on my laptop. So this is a post about the most-played jazz artists in my library these last 10 years.

10. Houston Person. I first saw Person’s name in the first chart book I ever owned, Star File, detailed data on the American and British charts of 1976, which my girlfriend brought home to me from a trip to England in 1977. As many jazz players had done by the middle of the 70s, Person had moved away from straight jazz toward a pop style, and he was rewarded with a minor two-sided hit on the Hot 100, “Disco Sax” and “For the Love of You.”

9. Bill Evans. Evans’ early 60s recordings at New York’s Village Vanguard with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian are magnificent, including my most-played Evans track, “My Romance.” Evans’ life and career were dogged by tragedy. LaFaro died in a car wreck just days after the Village Vanguard sessions, and in 1980, Evans completed what a friend called “the longest suicide in history,” dying from various maladies complicated by drug use in the wake of his brother’s suicide the year before.

8. Miles Davis. I cannot always follow where Davis went: we start parting company at In a Silent Way, and I am not sure I have ever made it all the way through Bitches Brew. I am much more interested in Miles as he sounded with his small combos in the 1950s. My most-played track, “Dear Old Stockholm,” recorded in 1957, features a Murderer’s Row of players: John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. All but Jones played on the legendary Kind of Blue in 1959—and so did Bill Evans.

7. Jack McDuff. Soul jazz is my favorite thing, R&B-influenced, often found on urban jukeboxes in the 60s, and occasionally on the singles chart. McDuff is one of the great soul-jazz organ players. His lone Hot 100 hit, “Theme From Electric Surfboard,” charted as 1969 turned to 1970.

6. Richard “Groove” Holmes. Another master organist, another soul-jazz star. Holmes’ biggest hit charted 50 years ago this summer: “Misty,” which was released on 45 in a sub-two-minute edit.

5. Willis Jackson. Sax man, often accompanied by Jack McDuff. Can honk like he’s dancing on the bar, but can also whisper in your ear like he wants to take you home from the bar. His best-known song is probably “Bar Wars” from 1977, on which Jackson is accompanied by organist Charles Earland, who had the best nickname in jazz: “The Mighty Burner.”

4. Kenny Burrell. Guitarist, Director of Jazz Studies at UCLA, and a giant with a highly recognizable style. Most-played track: “If You Could See Me Now,” which proves that smoky, late-night Burrell is the best make-out music in the world.

3. Jimmy McGriff. Philadelphia was quite the hotbed for soul-jazz organists: Holmes, McGriff, and Jimmy Smith (see below) were all natives of the area. McGriff scored a huge R&B and pop hit with the Ray Charles song “I Got a Woman” in 1962, and he hit the Hot 100 four other times in the 60s.

2. Grant Green. Guitarist often found in the company of organ players including Big John Patton and Charles Kynard, and a sideman on recordings by other bandleaders, including Houston Person. Most-played track: “Sweet Slumber.”

1. Jimmy Smith. The master of the Hammond B3 organ, who ranged across more styles than any player this side of Miles Davis. He recorded with a full orchestra and in small combos and even took a vocal now and then. Most-played track: “Back at the Chicken Shack,” which features Burrell on guitar.

Honorable mention, or bubbling under the top 10: the aforementioned Charles Earland, John Patton, and Red Garland, plus Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphonist and sometime collaborator with Green and Patton.

Each of the artists mentioned here, including the honorable mentions, are among my 50 most-played artists according to LastFM. Smith, Green, McGriff, and Burrell are in the Top 10. Before this week is out, I’ll write about some of the top pop and rock artists on the list.

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