My band, Japan Soul, releases debut album Plastic Utopia 4/29, pre-order today

The creative project I’m most excited about at the moment is my band Japan Soul’s debut LP Plastic Utopia created with my bandmates David Rozner and DaVe Lipp. The cover features an amazing painting by my wife and design partner Eva Orzech. I would really love it, seriously, if you would take a listen to the music. We’re allowing 4 (of the 10) songs to be streamed in advance of the release. If you like what you hear, and I hope you do, then I would love it even more if you did something that it seems people don’t do any more. I would love it if you took the bold step of pre-ordering the album. You’ll get the full album delivered to you on April 29. These tracks were made to surprise, delight and enlighten. I hope people will give this album a chance. A chance these days just means a listen. That’s it.

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Did you listen? Did you like it? Did you think about buying it? Yeah, I know the feeling too. I mean, most of us don’t need to buy music anymore. Truth be told, I don’t make a living doing music. It’s hard to fathom how that would even be possible these days. I certainly spend enough on the production of it. As if it were actually a viable business.

Everyone loves music. I sense a malaise that fewer and fewer people actually buy music. This means the actual product of music will become less and less of a real product. That’s a sad thing. The truth is we can’t all decide to stream and actually think we’re supporting artists. Yes, it’s awesome. But new artists who have yet to be discovered don’t stand a chance of going the distance with music if all we do is stream music. When you love something you, the fan, have to double down and commit and buy that thing you love. That is, if you want to give up-and-coming artists any chance at all.

I’ve made my own commitment to buy music by newer artists. I’ll stream all the old stuff. I don’t think Led Zeppelin needs my money anymore. They’ve done ok. If music lovers bought just one album a month that wouldn’t break their bank. But it would inject life back into music as a product people actually buy. You don’t have to buy my album (but I hope you do). Buy someone’s album. Maybe buy an album of an up-and-comer. Kanye West will probably make money somehow. He doesn’t need your help. But so many other struggling artists do.

We’ll be launching a new campaign at Trasaterra soon to get people excited about buying music again. It’s simply called Buy Music Love Artists. We’re soft-launching BMLA with the Japan Soul Plastic Utopia record cover. Look to the bottom right of the cover. Soon we’ll fully reveal everything about BMLA. It actually is as self-explanatory as it sounds.



Let’s Save Music: Local

There is a familiar malaise amongst music makers. Most of us hold very little hope for a career in music. Maybe it was always too much to hope/dream for. Myself, I can’t help but write songs. It’s an artform I’m intrigued by and I keep working at it to get better and better. It seems a futile pursuit as even minor recognition would most likely not yield dividends. But I suppose my small goal is just a little a nugget of recognition. You work at a thing, you make it and you want to share it and then you want some acknowledgement from the community of its signficance. I watched an interesting NYPL talk with David Byrne and Chris Ruen. There seems to be agreement that something is wrong with the state of music today. Artists aren’t getting paid much despite massive music consumption.

I’ve only just had an idea. Perhaps to save music we must make it smaller. The ‘We’ collective is key. I’m in New York. There’s a lot of bands here. I’ve played/play in a few of them. I know a handful of people in numerous bands. No one is complaining about not being rich and famous. Everyone knows there’s too much music. We keep making it. We won’t stop. We now have at our disposal amazing streaming apps that put the entire history of recorded music at our finger tips. A new artist has all of that to contend with, never mind the crowded field of contemporaries.

The idea. Let’s we, the listeners, focus our listening attentions. I’m into discovery. I go through A LOT of music every month. (I tend to gravitate to music with interesting cover art). What if we were to think more about our smaller local community and focus our discovery listening solely on neighborhood music? What if the social norm was an expectation to be well informed of as much local music as possible? This could only be good for artists. I think the Boss sang something recently about ‘taking care of our own’. What if we did that. Instead of trying to keep up with the latest big label albums what if our local music conversations revolved around local bands. Our bands.

How do we do this? It’s not hard, but it does require only a slight bit of homework.

  1. Go to The Deli Magazine, find your region and start scrolling through and looking for artists you’ve never heard of. Of course you can listen to the snippets the Deli provides. But you should go one step further.

  2. Go into your Rdio or Spotify and add those bands latest releases to your listening queue. When you find artists you like make a note.

  3. Go to Oh My Rockness to see if they’re playing anytime soon.

  4. Also, follow those bands on Soundcloud, Twitter, Facebook and all that stuff. Make sure to go see them. Local shows are less expensive and probably more convenient than big shows anyway.

Do this often. Many already do. I suppose I don’t do this enough but I do end up going to friends shows. But this just isn’t enough. We need to do more. I’m advocating social norm. It’s too easy to only see the big shows as the special events we give our time to. My generation and younger is at a pretty big disadvantage in that department. There are too many mammouth acts to contend with and they don’t appear to be going anywhere. Fifty years of the Rolling Stones anyone? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

A lot of what I’ve just written seems obvious. But if it is so obvious then why aren’t you doing it? Do it. I think the more people who get down with their local music will be part of a change in listening culture. Why are we, the fans, always accused of stealing music? Because we don’t know the artists. They’re these mythical beings who must be doing fine. We’re also trusting the hype on faith that this is the best the world has to offer. Well I don’t know about that. I think we’re all going to be surprised if we go local with our listening. There’s the added benefit of having a strong connection to the music. When you’ve got a friend or acquaintance whose music you hear and you like it there’s definitely a more special connection to that music because you know them. I’m admittedly not versed in the torrenting world, but if you go local there’s a good chance you won’t be finding local music there anyway. You may even be moved to buy music from these local artists. I know I haven’t been one to champion music download purchases as a viable market. But there’s something different about it when you buy local. The feeling that maybe you’re not throwing your money into the pointless abyss.

Ever since the Napster days I’ve been thinking there must be a way to save music. A decade on there still seem to be no great answers. It all comes back to the fans. The fans are the problem or the solution. Us. As fans, do we care enough to be the solution? I’m going to keep writing about this. I don’t want to add to the malaise. I want to help point the way to a new and vibrant music economy.

Jason’s top ten songs of 2011

  1. “Church and Law” — Artist: When Saints Go Machine
    This band gets top billing for me. I was blown away when I first album. I didn’t really like it at first. But on repeat listens I was infected by it. They’re from Denmark. They’ve never toured the US as far as I can tell. The singer’s voice kind of resembles Antony’s. The music evokes the 80s but it is woven so intricately that they must be students of 70s Roxy Music. This track is probably their catchiest and grooviest while retaining the headiness that draws me to this. And the videos are extremely creepy and intense. Please make this band popular so I can go see them at some inconvenient venue like Terminal 5.
  2. “Glowing Mouth” — Artist: Milagres
    I don’t know much about this group. I don’t think they’re that famous. But I know whenever I hear this song I’m arrested by it. I’d heard it earlier in the year and honestly couldn’t remember who it was. But I knew I wanted to hear it again. Thanks to the social community on Rdio it resurfaced (and on my own playlist!). Looking forward to hearing more from Milagres.
  3. “Midnight City” — Artist: M83
    I don’t know how I wasn’t an M83 fan before this album. Hearing this when it dropped a few months ago was a bit jaw dropping. Like..what? This good? Really? Midnight City is the standout track although the (double) album holds some other great ones. For the record, M83’s performance on Carson Daily a few weeks ago is actually better than the album version. And the sax…If I were these guys I would re-record/re-release the song this way…
  4. “Eyes be Closed” — Artist: Washed Out
    Somehow I hadn’t heard of the term Chillwave before this Washed Out album came out. Guess I’m not that hip. But Washed Out recalls Moby at his peak. And that was some seriously good stuff. No reason not to keep that going. I love a lush and labored upon track with groovy percussion and a great hook.
  5. “Need You Now” — Artist: Cut Copy
    I wanted to get Cut Copy on this list. Zonoscope came out early in the year and it has probably been overshadowed by the likes of Washed Out and M83. But these guys have been nominated for a grammy which is kind of unbelievable if you consider what they’re up against. I don’t think Zonoscope is better than In Ghost Colors, but it’s still great. And Zonoscope is ambitious. Need You Now kind of encapsulates what this band is about and where they’ve gotten to. I don’t know where they go from here. I saw them perform earlier in the year and the show was incredible. They are pro now.
  6. “Baby Missiles” — Artist: The War on Drugs
    Truth be told I can’t really tell their songs apart but I love them all from Slave Ambient and I picked one. I don’t usually go for heartland sounding rock that resembles Tom Petty. But something about pairing that sound with the atmosphere of Joy Division really grabs me. I will always be a sucker for two chord minimal rock done in a certain serious and ambient way. They don’t really resemble Spacemen 3 but I’m going to put them in that category of music in my head.
  7. “Head for the Country” — Artist: John Maus
    I love it when artists don’t hold back. And in Head for the Country John Maus just goes for it with the sequencer synthesizers. He’s just too weird for this to be cheesy. It’s fantastic that there’s no hipster apology for this sound. It’s just THIS sound. Authentic, well arranged dance synths from the 80s. If this was released in the early 80s you probably wouldn’t think it sounds out of place.
  8. “Pumped up Kicks” — Artist: Foster the People
    I somehow didn’t see it coming that Foster the People was going to go mainstream this quickly. When I heard it I just couldn’t stop listening to it for the next week or so. I guess it makes sense though. It’s infectious pop. Never mind that  it doesn’t pander to what mainstream ears are supposed to like. Seeing them live, I was really surprised how well formed they were for a new band. They kind of do belong in the same genre as Cut Copy, M83 and Washed Out. Although Foster the People seem to be burrowing more into the early 90s and leaving the 80s behind unlike their ‘counterparts’. A little scary that this is their first album. Where on earth could they go from here?
  9. “Lover to Lover” — Artist: Florence and the Machine
    I wasn’t really a Florence fan. We saw her perform her new album under the Manhattan bridge for a festival that we snuck into a few months ago. I still wasn’t sure if I was a fan, but I knew she was good. (And yes, I’m well aware of Dog Days). Well, hearing this album was another one of those revelations. They don’t make ’em like they used to. But Florence does. This album is so good beginning to end. I don’t really know which song belongs on my top ten list because they’re all that great. The pipes, the arrangements, the hooks. It’s all fantastic. I can’t really tell if this album is being hailed as the masterpiece it is in the music press (probably cause I don’t read about music). It probably belongs at the top of this list but I’m a little reluctant to give something this mainstream top billing.
  10. “Rolling in the Deep” — Artist: Adele
    I’ve tried very hard to avoid Adele this year. But it’s undeniable that “Rolling in the Deep” is one of the best songs you will probably ever hear in your entire life. So here’s me giving a little nod to what appears to be an anomaly. Why? Because the rest of “21” is just not that compelling to me. But this song is so good that I’m going to root for Adele to make some more good songs. We’ve lost Amy Winehouse (and Adele is no Amy) but we’ve got Adele.

The Future of SoundCloud

(This is my response to the ReadWriteWeb Article Is SoundCloud The Next YouTube? [Interview] which I posted in the Disqus forum of the post and is duplicated here).

It’s curious that something like SoundCloud didn’t rise at the same time as YouTube. Sound could have even become a feature of Youtube but perhaps they already had their hands full with copyright lawsuits. IMHO the success of SoundCloud is tied to its portability and need to look closely at Youtube’s viral embed video strategy. In an increasingly mobile web the SoundCloud flash embed just isn’t going to cut it (remember that YouTube switched over to iFrame embeds so the media works seamlessly on iOS devices). A personal gripe is that there’s no official RSS feeding for SoundCloud (although there are makeshift solutions).

Perhaps the largest stumbling block is the money issue as Wells Baum aptly pointed out. I’m skeptical as well of paying yet another vendor for this kind of service. I could just as easily post my audio to YouTube for free. YouTube makes its money on ads and that would probably be very difficult for SoundCloud to implement over mostly amateur audio (but again…it appears to pay off for Youtube when those videos go viral). The Facebook partnership is probably a step in the right direction toward audio virality and I should point out that SoundCloud does appear in many more places than it used to.

Another critique of SoundCloud is the web UI. It’s a social network…but not a good one (but neither is Youtube). I won’t go into detail as to why it’s not successful but the service has proved not compelling enough for me to immerse myself in like other social based services. (A great example of an immersive social music service is Rdio’s desktop app/site).

I think it’s interesting that Ljung concedes that “sound is more than just music.” He’s acknowledging that people are not looking to SoundCloud to be their audio entertainment like they would iTunes/Spotify/Rdio etc. But to browse SoundCloud right now one gets a feeling that is precisely what it wanted to be (which is noble). For discovery, SoundCloud is the true successor to MySpace Music (maybe even more than Facebook) and bands and established artists have a more effective way of sharing tracks than before.

It’s not bands alone that will be the tipping point for SoundCloud. It requires a renaissance of the audio medium itself for all users (again, the Youtube short-form video parallel). Here’s what I think it’s up against. Our ears. We have been conditioned by decades of professional audio engineering to have a bias for professional sounding audio. I’m sure you’ve heard recordings by amateur musicians on low-fi equipment. Unless you have a connection to the musician in question your ears are likely to reject poor quality audio. Another interesting point made by Djiung is that mobile apps can somewhat mimic professional audio to undiscerning listeners. That’s where SoundCloud diverges from the YouTube model. YouTube didn’t need high quality video to be successful (although I’m sure it didn’t hurt when it appeared, not to mention all those music videos). As most people don’t want to hear crap recordings the validity of recorded sound is questioned solely on presentation. This is not really SoundCloud’s problem, this is just our own conditioning. It could probably change fairly quickly if some low-fi sound recordings became viral and inspired genre’s suitable for audio sharing.

I’m a fan of the idea of SoundCloud. I think it’s got to be as free as YouTube and focused on ease and reach of audio distribution. Once that’s in place just let the users do the rest.

Bad band marketing on Facebook

It is disingenuous to request people to Like or Tweet something before they’ve had a chance to actually experience it. This is a perversion of social media.

I recently clicked on a band ad that intrigued me on Facebook. I’ve given Facebook enough info about myself that the algorithm can somewhat determine I like music of a particular sort. Sure, I do miss the music of the 80s (who doesn’t?). 22k fans. Not bad.

So I get to their Facebook page eager to check out these sounds. They’ve got a big audio player on the page. Great. I click the play button. Instead of sweet synth pulses I get a little popout that requests I ‘Like’ the song (or band, I can barely tell) so I can listen to it.

‘Like’ the track before I listen to it? How could I know I like it? Continue reading “Bad band marketing on Facebook”

The state of digital music (as I see it)

Several months ago I wrote an essay about how I thought Netflix could save music. Since then I’ve become a big believer in subscription music services. I chose Rdio because I liked the design, the social aspect and lack of ads. I honestly don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t use a subscription music service (MOG, Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio) instead of paying more and listening to less with iTunes. I’ve come down pretty hard on iTunes in essays and on Twitter. I fail see why we need it and how it’s good. In this so called ‘cloud’ age owning an mp3 has become redundant. While I’m skeptical of the cloud for personal data I think distributed media (music, movies) has found a perfect and profitable future in the cloud. Continue reading “The state of digital music (as I see it)”

iPad 2 first impressions of a music maker/web developer designer

I managed to acquire the iPad 2 yesterday as Tekserve had the one I wanted in stock (32gig Wifi Only). I’ve had a few key objectives in mind for the device. I want to move the majority of my music making activities and process to the iPad. I also want to see if I can move my web development process (and eventually even my graphic design practice) over to the device.

The music making was an easy win. Thanks to the very affordable camera connection kit I can connect my USB MIDI keyboard devices without any setup making the iPad a very powerful synthesizer. I’d already stocked up on IK Multimedia iPhone apps for guitar amplifiers although with all that Garageband offers I wonder if that was even necessary. Those apps did carry over nicely to the iPad. I use an amazing synth/sequencer app called Nanosynth that also works amazingly on the iPad even if the resolution is fuzzy as it was intended for the phone. I haven’t been making too much music lately and I’m hoping that the casualness and comfort of the iPad encourages me to make more.

I did some searching for web development iPad apps this morning and actually only three quality ones turned up: Gusto, Textastic and Markup. Based on reviews I decided it was going to be between Gusto and Textastic to use for my HTML/CSS/PHP files (usually in a WordPress theme development workflow). I decided that Textastic was going to suit my needs. I had a moment of confusion early in my use of Textastic and I purchased Gusto as well. Unfortunately I found Gusto to be very difficult to get started with and also very crashy. So I dived back into Textastic and realized that my first instinct had probably been right. I’m currently in the middle of theming a personal project using just the iPad for code and I have to say it’s going quite well. In some respects it’s even faster than my desktop process. In others maybe not.

A few things on my web development wishlist for the iPad would be the equivalent of the Web Developer Toolbar Firefox Add-on for iOS Safari. There is no such thing as add-ons for Safari in the iPad as far as I can tell. Perhaps I just need to use a different iPad browser. I really dislike Opera but I’ll have to check if there’s any sort of Web Dev Toolbar in Opera Mobile. Also, I would love to be able to view page source in Safari. Kind of odd you can’t do that. Lack of these things actually does slow down the dev process on an iPad.

20110422-012134.jpgOther first impressions. I think the Twitter iPad app is pretty nice. Honestly, much better than the desktop version. I like that their’s enough screen real estate to have full pages from links show up within the Twitter app. The only catch, is that it was pretty crashy.

I downloaded Flipboard, which I didn’t realize was free. That was a nice surprise. That app seems quite good. Honestly, I haven’t read print magazines in so long I feel a little confused by the traditional orderliness of the layouts it presents. I like waking up and checking Twitter links first thing and I think Flipboard could enrich that experience. They’ve brought back the morning paper for the social age!

I have to say, I was disappointed that there is no iPad specific Facebook app. I suppose Facebook is just fine to use in the browser. I was hoping for some more immersive iPad experience. But that’s just as well. I’m down on Facebook lately and I have a suspicion that they’ve already peaked. Maybe 2010 was the year of Facebook and it’s already over.

What else to report? Its only been a day. The shape is kind of funny. Almost comfortable. Not totally. Or maybe just not yet. One other thing worth mentioning is that now that I’m so accustomed to the iPhone 4’s beautiful screen its somewhat disappointing that the iPad 2 still has the old resolution screen. I assume there’s no way the could have kept the price down if they’d included that high resolution screen.

Beyond Derivative Music

Pop music elitists and pessimists often bemoan that “everything has already been done” with a certain futile resignation. As a maker of music myself I’ve found through process that honest and deliberate imitation often yields new and fresh results.

I drafted this essay in pen about a month ago on a long bus ride in South America. In the wake of Lady Gaga’s blatant copycat song “Born This Way” and just after the Grammy Awards (which I barely watched) I think it’s more prescient than it was when I first wrote it.

Pop music elitists and pessimists often bemoan that “everything has already been done” with a certain futile resignation. The most astute of these often go on to make derivative music in the spirit of their well-cultivated tastes. MGMT, Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire come to mind but you could take nearly any popular music of the day as a case study and begin to isolate influences. In fact, you could say that about music from any time. I used to think in a narrow-minded way that imitation was indicative of a lack of imagination. As a maker of music myself I’ve found through process that honest and deliberate imitation often yields new and fresh results.

An example I can give is a song I wrote to the lyrics of DaVe Lipp called “Weird World” when I was fronting a band called Japan Seoul. In the course of my search for inspiration for DaVe’s lyrics I had been listening to Roxy Music’s “Mother of Pearl.”

I found the building nature of the melody moving and appealing. I began to half self-consciously graft DaVe’s lyrics over that melody. Very quickly the nature of the lyrics revealed new melodic directions and the finished song probably doesn’t resemble “Mother of Pearl” to most. I think “Weird World” is important to my work because it points the way to how I’ll make music in the future.

Is there something wrong with the device I used to write the song? The producer/engineer was just a little horrified when I revealed my method to him. You don’t hear much about the outright theft artists employ in the process to create consciously or not. Some artists do embrace this direct influence process such as Mark Ronson and Cut Copy (the name says it all). Other artists pay a high premium to sample works directly for commercial use (Diddy, Kanye West). Beyond DJ and hip hop groups many artists don’t discuss the imitative part of the song writing process. Perhaps it’s because of a fear of copyright infringement in our lawsuit infested system. Lawrence Lessig wrote a book about the paralysis current copyright law is having on art and business called “Remix.”

I would like to suggest to the “everything new is old” camp (a song lyric from “Rock And Roll“, my old band Music For Girls, written by Wendy Chin and myself) that the reason why music progress seems slow, stale, bland and unoriginal is because of the stigma an artist gets internal and externally for being derivative. No one would dispute that an artist needs to make music they are moved by. Music composed solely of ground breaking sounds and concepts just will not stick. It will be too oblique and will require special effort from the listener beyond what is reasonable. “Pushing the envelope” in music is a special dialectic which is a dance between coupling the familiar in a Trojan horse with the groundbreaking to subtly take the listener out of bounds.

If we look at the history of rock all the greatest started as unselfconscious imitators. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin etc. This uninhibited impulse to steal directly pointed the way for them to create the greatest works of the 20th century. The irony is that we, the artists of the present, are actually discouraged from borrowing directly from these greats in the way that they did to build their careers. Kirby Ferguson makes this point incredibly well in his documentary series “Remix“. Here’s Part 1 of the series (be sure to view Part 2 here).

In an interesting and ironic twist, the music technology of today beckons the artist to sample, remake remodel (note the homage to The Beatles in the middle of that Roxy Music song). The conclusion I’ve come to for my own creativity is to simply forget all about the dinosaur music industry and just MAKE. Don’t censor. Forget selling. We’re at the edge of an avalanche of fresh music that is liberated from the requirements of industry. Groups like Girl Talk are a primitive indication of what’s to be unleashed by uninhibited musicians. Artronica, a movement in which I’m a ‘founder’, represents this liberated music. Our intellectual device is to classify the music we make as fine art. It is not a necessary classification for all liberated music, just the niche we choose to occupy because of the purpose it lends to the music we create. I’m advocating a music process that freely borrows from the past without concern for the pretense of originality. This is the way out of the pop music doldrums taking us to a new era of fresh and original music.

What do I have to say about Lady Gaga’s latest hyper-derivative song? Well, plenty, but I’ll leave you with this great article which articulates it best by Tris McCall titled “Lazy Gaga.” Here’s a quote from Gianni, someone who commented on that article:

It would be more Gaga-honest if she simply sampled “express yourself ” to create something new altogether rather than present this single as if it was born this way -new and original, for apparently it wasn’t. Despite the artist’s best and let’s hope earnest intentions.

That about sums up my own position on the controversy. If you’re going to steal, STEAL. Go all the way with it, don’t tip toe around it. Dive in. Only with that clarity and boldness (and audacity) is when you may just make something new. Let us close now with The Staple Singers hit from 1972, Respect Yourself (brought to my attention by my friend Steven Roberts).