It’s not important to be important. It’s important to be.
—King of the Hobos
Also on the topic of soundtracks, another one of my favorites is Philip Glass’ score for Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 classic Koyaanisqatsi.
The film is perhaps one of the most powerful pieces of visual art I’ve ever seen. It’s a 90-minute collage of moving images that offers a compelling critique of how a civilization created from something so pure and beautiful— the earth, basically— winds up ultimately destroying itself. That all of this is set to Glass’ music makes it that much better.
One of the more famous pieces from the score is “Prophecies,” which has been used countless times in many other films and advertisements. The most obvious example was in “Watchmen” (a really great usage of it, IMO). It’s just so hypnotic and beautiful.
I first saw the movie at a very young age. I was maybe 3 years old, perhaps even younger. My dad had it on a VHS tape that he dubbed off of PBS and I watched it with him. Then, I’d occasionally watch it myself as I got older. I really didn’t know anything about music (or anything, really) at such a young age, and little did I know that Glass dabbled in a genre of composing that he called ‘minimalism,’ which was heavy on repetition of simple arpeggiated melodies. The repetition was probably why I liked it so much. It kind of just keeps looping, like a hip-hop beat.
The soundtrack was a rare thing for some time— even now, it’s not on Spotify (so far as I can tell)— and I bought a used copy of the CD off eBay in 2000. Then I promptly sampled it. Luckily, someone liked what I did with it and I was able to sell the beat for like 250 bucks or something like that, back in 2003 (I even still have the song + beat somewhere). I remember thinking it was pretty cool that I’d sold a beat made with a sample from something I remembered from such a young age.
In any event, check out the movie if you get a chance. The whole thing was streaming on Youtube a while back, but it appears they’ve ceased offering it. Check out some scenes though, or the trailer, and you’ll see what I mean about it. Way ahead of its time.
I remember seeing Edward Scissorhands with my father way back when it first came out, in 1990. Aside from the fact that the movie was incredible, the soundtrack was equally as good. I didn’t know anything about soundtracks back then— I was only 8— but later I learned it was Danny Elfman who had composed the music. The whole entire soundtrack is worth listening to, but “Ice Dance” is definitely one of the many highlights. It’s a short piece, but following an opening arrangement built around a bell arpeggio, a sweeping choral line comes in, then the horns and strings. It starts rising around the 1 minute mark into such a beautiful crescendo. Chilling.
I wrote this in May of 2010 for a site that had given me my choice of things to opine on, then didn’t feel like the topic I chose fit their editorial scope and thus opted not to publish it. Has much changed in two years? Debatable.
The internet is a lot of things to a lot of people. But when it comes to content consumers and content creators, the web exists on two diametrically opposed platforms. On the one hand, consumer’s have a veritable free lunch of content. On the other, a virtual sweatshop that finds creators slaving away to produce said content, with very little to gain. In the middle stands aggregators. Sites like Google News, for example, use complex web crawling algorithms to sift through the sea of content, then give the casual web surfer the most relevant results for what they’re searching for. The surfer then has a smorgasbord of search results to pick from, and can pick and choose where he/she wants to go. Big Media companies have been up in arms about this for some time, claiming that aggregators basically circumvent the need for users to have to troll big media websites for stories, thus keeping them away from precious page views which lead to ad dollars. Ad dollars lead to healthy big media business, which lead to media people having jobs and so on down the line.
The bigger issue at hand, however, is not with Google News, but smaller aggregators, who repurpose content on their blogs, sometimes republishing entire excerpts without linking back to the original story. In some cases the story might have cost thousands of dollars to produce, but the smaller blogs are able to republish it at their own will, draw eyeballs and valuable traffic, then sell ad space against it. In a sense, it’s like the bootlegging of news. Even in the case where a site does link to the original story, there’s no guarantee a reader will click on the link anyway. Is the sharing of the link drawing in enough traffic to offset the costs of producing the content? That seems to be the debate.
Some Big Media companies have drawn a line in the sand. The New York Times, for example, is erecting a paywall that will go in effect January 2011. This paywall will effectively block heavy traffickers of NYTimes.com unless they pay a fee to view the content. The paywall will not stop readers from accessing an article through an aggregator like Google News, but will go into effect after the user tries clicking on another link once they’re already on the page. In that sense, the paywall makes up for the lost page views that would have been accrued had the reader accessed the article through the site’s homepage (valuable advertising real estate) instead of an aggregator.
In the midst of aggregating content is search engine optimization, a sort of catch all idea whereby web posts are created with the search engine in mind for how they might be discovered. Google itself can’t differentiate between the Wall Street Journal and some random blog. All it knows, by way of its algorithms, is relevance. And the most relevant result may come on some site that grabbed the content from the Wall Street Journal and then repurposed it. The Wall Street Journal sees no return here on their hard work and their dollars spent to produce the news. Rather, another site does.
But search engine optimization also creates a culture of news that thrives off of the optimized and aggregated post, which does not always fall in line, ethically at least, with what news is supposed to be. Not since the era of New York World-style yellow journalism have we seen such sensationalism run rampant. In a sense, there can be a completely factual piece written on NYTimes.com, but just a small excerpt of it can become blog fodder and inspire a sensationalized headline with draws in millions of hits for the blog site it’s aggregated on. So in that sense, you have the news room acting in the most ethical manner the newsroom knows to operate, and again, a bootlegger of sorts, coming along and turning the news into something else entirely, drawing traffic, and selling ads against it. It cannibalizes the content.
Unfortunately for the news, it’s the mercy of the public, which doesn’t seem to care much about the publishing business’s woes. The public wants aggregated content, because in this sense, they get a filtered version of the web, one more in line with their sensibilities. It’s akin to playlist culture in music. Over the past ten years, due to the surging popularity of iTunes and the ability to just purchase one digital track off an LP in the iTunes music store, playlists have put the idea of the LP, or long player album, to rest. People pick the song they like and mix it in with a bunch of other songs that fancy their eardrums. The news is no different, except that it’s a playlist of written content as opposed to audio, but cherry picked just the same. Perhaps it’s not read over and over like a song would be, but the idea surrounding it, that there’s a choice, and the consumer needn’t subject themselves to things alternative to their specific interests, is the same.
Another problem is that the surfer who lands on an aggregator site is often on the hunt for new news and new content. They’re an active searcher. They’re not lazily sitting around waiting for the news to get to them on their door step. To stay relevant, to stay in the feed of all the different sources streaming to this aggregator site, the big media company must continuously churn out new material. So it becomes a veritable sweatshop, where content needs to be published endlessly, 24 hours a day. The web is always on. And there are always eyeballs checking for new material. So in the event said news outlet doesn’t have something new to be aggregated, among the countless sites that are continuously publishing new content, they risk falling dangerously behind and losing page views.
So in effect what we have is a feedback loop that never fully feeds back to where things originate. The aggregator creates little. It’s purpose however, certainly important. If I’m interested in news on the NBA, why shouldn’t I be able to go to a site that just collects the news from all around the country on every basketball team in existence? It offers convenience, because I’m not checking out newspapers in every city to read about each city’s team. No, I want my news in one place, and with an aggregator, I can get it. But for the publisher of the original content, the audience remains the same as it always was. The same people that checked the site before, will check it now. Because what would really drive them to the page? A referrer, like Google News? Perhaps. But if I’m looking for basketball news and I land on Portland’s local newspaper page to read about the Trailblazers, what reason would I have to read anything else in the Portland paper? None. So it doesn’t really make much sense in that respect. The paywall, in fact, is the only way to keep the consumer locked in to having to pay. And while that might work for the New York Times, which already has a built in audience of millions of people, it’s debatable that it will work elsewhere.
In an environment with zero publishing constraints, where it doesn’t cost anything to publish and there is infinite editorial space, most modern media outlets have adopted the simple but self-defeating strategy of publishing everything they possibly can. Translation: throwing a bunch of shit at the wall and hoping something sticks. Well, most doesn’t.
I had fun producing this.
At the time I wasn’t really that familiar with Coldplay’s catalog, but I did like “The Scientist” a lot. When Mick Boogie told me about his idea for Viva La Hova, that was literally the only song I could imagine reworking.
I originally made the beat around the vocals to “Allure.”
I’d also always wanted to do something creative with the “Top Billin” break for a while. I’d tried using it on a few beats over the years, but idea-wise it just never felt like the right fit. Using it in this instance really made it feel like a mashup to me. Which was the whole point.
The beat was never mixed or anything. I sampled and chopped everything up on an original MPC 2000— every single pad over the 4 banks was used— then replayed them all out in a sequence. I added a hi-hat and some extra drum sounds from one of the drum kits on the MOTIF E6. I recorded both pieces of gear into Pro Tools as 2-track mixes and with the vocal on another track, laid it down like that. And that’s the story.
I was driving home last night at around 2 AM, and I had the radio on as I often do when I’m taking the ride from Manhattan back to Staten Island. Usually I just sort of flip up and down the dial until I find something I like, but as has been the case the past few months, there was nothing on that I really wanted to hear. Even on Q104.3, which is good for great classic rock songs you want to turn up loud at that time of night, there was just nothing worth listening to.
So I flipped to the CD player— I’ve an old car (cause I’m kinda poor… or something)— and turned on Darkness on the Edge of Town. By the time I crossed the Verrazano Bridge I thought to myself, “Gee, I’ve listened to this album in its entirety every single day since May.” That’s a lot of times to listen to the same record. Then I thought, how is it that I keep replaying this album— one from 1978, no less— and yet there are so many albums that drop these days that I can’t stand to listen to even once?
When I think about listening to albums now, it literally feels like a chore. Like holy shit, I need to really sit here and listen to this thing and invest an hour or more of my life. What a massive undertaking. Way to monopolize my time and attention. I just can’t do it, man. Like, I literally cannot listen to full albums these days. It’s fucking painful. Brutal.
It didn’t used to be that way. And that’s what I was thinking while I was listening to Darkness… The album is only 10 songs and clocks in a little over 40 minutes long. I can listen to it without giving up too much of my time. And it makes me feel better for 40 minutes or whatever. I thought about Nas’ Illmatic and how it follows a similar format. 10 songs, about 40 minutes long. Illmatic, in my mind, is probably the best hip-hop album ever. It’s very succinct and tightly wound. The artistic vision on it is very refined, reigned in. It’s not messy and all over the place.
When I think about so many great albums— they don’t even have to be classics or anything— they all follow a script of sorts. They really lend themselves to the album-listening experience, someone dialing in for a little while, trying to listen to an artist’s musical vision. Most of the songs have a similar vibe. They’re cohesive. That’s not to say there aren’t great albums that stray from the formula, but it’s kind of rare.
The thing is, over the past 15 years or so, the album format as a way of presenting music has really lost its way. Without really getting into technology and how that has completely altered listening to music, a lot of why albums are crap these days has to do with a fractured idea of what an album as a collection of songs is supposed to be.
When I think of songs, I think of paintings. And then I think of albums almost like art exhibits, with the format you choose to listen to the album— record, tape, CD, mp3, streaming, whatever— as the gallery its housed in. I’m not an expert in any respect on visual art, but I get the sense that when an artist is preparing for a show, they’re often making the work in their studio and they have some sort of central idea in mind for what they want the exhibit to be. Or, they make the art and then find a way to make sense of the different pieces, bringing it together in some way. The idea being, these are these pieces of art that represent what I was doing here, how I was thinking then, where my head was at blah blah blah.
Music used to be like this. The album wasn’t some bloated affair, loaded with 20 songs that have nothing to do with each other. Remember, at one time the album format was not even popular. Albums really didn’t get popular until the late 60s and 70s. Until then, music was a singles-driven business. When you think of Motown, for example, a lot of times you’re going to zone in on specific songs and artists, but not whole albums. Can you tell me off the top of your head what album “My Girl” is on? Probably not. There are so many great songs from that era, but not so many great albums. At least not with the super popular artists. The album experience was a bonus. It was saying to fans, hey, if you like this song, perhaps you’ll like a few more. And oh yeah, you have to pay a bit more for it.
But then albums kind of took over. The singer/songwriter type of artist became the prototype and tin pan alley methods of making records fell out of favor. If you couldn’t write and play your own songs, you were kind of a dinosaur. That’s not to say those artists weren’t still around, but the ones who lasted were real acts who had a vision and put forth something a little more serious than a 3-minute single. And things stayed that way for a while.
By the late 90s and early 2000s, though, everything had changed. The whole strategy was all fucked up, it seems. Because the music industry was getting fat on album sales— remember, a CD used to cost around $17 in a chain store— all artists wanted to do was sell albums. They needed singles and music videos and radio play to help them reach the inflated expectations that were set forth. And so the album became much less about a creative vision and more so about a specific goal in mind for each song.
“This song is for the clubs.”
“This is my song for the ladies.”
“This is street record.”
“This is my collab with so and so.”
Albums started to suck when artists started trying to please everyone. You could listen to albums and hear the songs being plugged into the format. It was boring. It still is. What kind of artist are you, really, when your music is trying to do… everything? What do you stand for if you stand for… everything? And I’m not saying that ultimately this is a bad way to live or anything. I don’t think people should stick themselves in a box. You should want to do everything, reach as many people as possible with your music. But there has to be a way to do it where it makes sense within the grand scheme of your artistic vision. There’s a way to do it where it becomes uniquely “you.” Whatever a “club” song is nowadays (seriously, what the fuck is that?), your club song should sound like what it’s meant to be. But sonically, that club song shouldn’t deviate that much from the next song. Because you’re taking your listener in too many different directions. A person can’t listen to an album like that. It may make for a good song, but if it pops too much it will just sound weird. It fucks up the flow, makes it difficult to listen to. To use the art exhibition analogy again, it’s like having one painting in the gallery that has nothing to do with the others. Why is it even in the gallery? And that’s why people just cherry-pick the songs they want from a project and leave the rest alone. Which is cool, too. It’s nice that you’re at least grabbing people for 4 minutes. But it would be better if you could bring them into your world for 45 minutes, no? Wouldn’t they understand you that much better if they were engaged with you for a longer period of time?
Only very recently, within the past five years, have artists gotten back to just delivering solid LPs. It’s like someone finally shook these guys up and said hey, there is no more TRL, you’re never going to get played on the radio and nobody gives a fuck about a collaboration if the song isn’t good. Further, mixtapes and EPs and street albums and whatnot, they’ve sort of displaced the traditional album. People aren’t really waiting around for a label to help them drop anything. And the idea that there will be this massive campaign around a single or whatever, that shit is over. It’s just become about delivering a solid body of work and hoping people will listen to it.
But even in that space, things are cluttered. Whether it’s a mixtape or album or random project or whatever, there’s just so much music on these projects now. It’s really a mess. What artists need are great executive producers. Someone to just come in and boil down whatever they’re doing to a solid 10 songs. Then adding what they need to do, sonically, to make those 10 songs sound like they belong together. Like there’s some symbiotic relationship between everything that is being presented. That’s one of the great things about a guy like Kanye. You never listen to anything he’s involved with and feel like his sonic blueprint isn’t all over the album. The beats vary, but they very much sound like a Kanye West production. Even if it isn’t your particular flavor, you know it’s uniquely his.
Albums used to be shorter, obviously, because they needed to go on vinyl and records could only hold X amount of minutes per side. If you wanted a longer album, the grooves in the record had to be cut tighter together and the sound quality was sacrificed. Tapes and CDs, too, had time limits for how long they could be. Time constraints, I feel, really help reel in the music. But space is infinite now with digital technology. And so we have albums and mixtapes with 20 songs on them, only 5 worth really listening to. And because music is largely free and in abundance, there is much less emphasis on making sure that everything counts. It’s just like, hey, let us throw a bunch of shit out there and see what sticks. It makes for a pretty terrible listening experience.