Monday, January 28, 2013

Get Off Their Cloud: Why I'm Canceling My Spotify Subscription

On an otherwise unremarkable May day—I remember that the weather was quite nice that afternoon, and that I decided against going home for lunch—someone broke into the home through the front door, and stole my computer. Gone also was my “passport” external hard drive, and the 60 GB music library it held. I had been accumulating the music in that library since I was fifteen.

Thankfully, I had about 80% of my music backed-up on another hard drive. And my turntable, speakers and records were untouched by the thief or thieves, who discarded a large kitchen knife a few feet from my bedroom.

That was a Monday. The next day, I bought vinyl copies of Beach House’s just-released Bloom and the Velvets’ VU. Those albums were a big part of my life in the next few weeks. But I was still left wondering: how do I get and listen to music without my computer?

I turned to my phone, buying a Spotify premium subscription for ten bucks a month. No ads, you can download stuff to your phone, stream nearly anything—it’s pretty cool. That’s how I’ve done 90% of my music listening for the past eight months. Most of my 2012 top ten list—and much besides it—passed through the “new music” playlist on my Spotify.

I think I first realized Spotify was a thing from Facebook, where I saw that Nathan was listening to Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With Youa lot. I guess I’d read about how popular Spotify is in Europe, and how it might be a “game changer” here. I was already using it at my job, where my “Box Sets To Barely Hear At Work” playlist got a lot of action.

And, yeah, the app and the whole service is pretty great. If you use it, you already know that. It’s getting pretty popular: at the school I go to, our IT guy sent out an irate message telling students to stop downloading Spotify on every computer.

But I’m quitting Spotify, paying for it at least. That’s my 2013 music-listening resolution, if you want to look at it like that. There’s a couple things about the service that aren’t worth $120 a year.

First, it’s a raw deal for musicians. Damon Krukowski, drummer for Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi (and legend in my musical universe), wrote about the kind of money he makes from the streaming services like Spotify and Pandora
My BMI royalty check arrived recently, reporting songwriting earnings from the first quarter of 2012, and I was glad to see that our music is being listened to via these services. Galaxie 500's "Tugboat", for example, was played 7,800 times on Pandora that quarter, for which its three songwriters were paid a collective total of 21 cents, or seven cents each. Spotify pays better: For the 5,960 times "Tugboat" was played there, Galaxie 500's songwriters went collectively into triple digits: $1.05 (35 cents each).
As someone who literally used Spotify to stream “Tugboat”, I was pretty taken aback. 35 cents per quarter is such a paltry sum. It’s barely enough for a cup of coffee, even if you save up a year's worth of payments and go to a cheap café.

We all know that the internet has made it really difficult for people to make a living playing music. When I spoke with the guy who runs 23 year-old indie Slumberland Records, he told me that only one of the 37 bands on his roster makes enough money to do music full time. And most of that income comes from touring.

What’s really obnoxious—beyond the people who insist everything should be free—is how Spotify pretends to be good for musicians. I haven’t heard their ads in a while—that a perk of paying $10 a month—but they frequently mention that Spotify supports musicians (I think the ad also mentions rights holders). That’s true, I guess, in a literal sense. But a hollow claim when you think about it in terms of Krukowski’s paycheck. I doubt that rappers are able to finance their Ciroc budgets with the level of royalties Spotify pays out.

The other reason I’m cancelling my subscription is that I don’t really trust Spotify. Nathan tweeted recently about how Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde suddenly disappeared from Spotify. Things like that are minor annoyances, but minor annoyances add up. It was not easy to listen to Led Zeppelin, who are not on Spotify, these last eight months. That was a major annoyance.

At a more macro level, I like actually having my music. Streaming is a bit like renting—you’re paying for something you get to use, but will never own. If Warner Music Group can’t agree with Spotify about royalty rates, then it can pull its catalog, whether you pay for the service or not. Anyone with a cable subscription knows that shit like that happens all the time. And then everyone who needs to listen to Neil Young is just shit out of luck until the lawyers can hammer it out.

There’s no reason to trust Spotify. It’s a well-designed service with a really impressive catalog, but if, down the line, they realize they can make more money by making the service worse on your end, they’ll do it. They’re a private company; they owe you nothing.

You cannot build a music library through Spotify because you do not own the music you stream through Spotify. If and when Spotify goes public, they will continue to owe you nothing, unless you are a shareholder.

So I’m discontinuing my Spotify subscription. I’m intrigued by the Amazon and Apple services that allow scan your music library and allow you to access it anywhere from your phone. It’s cheaper than Spotify (though costs are on top of actually buying music), but it seems a little invasive. We’ll see.

And I’m not going Cold Turkey on Spotify. Like Kurkowski, I’ll probably keep using it because “the access it gives me to music of all kinds is incredible.” He also points out that Spotify listeners would have to play “Tugboat” more than 680,000 times to give him the $9.99 needed to pay for a month of the premium service.

So, again, the service Spotify provides is good. But it’s not good enough, for musicians or listeners.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Aaron's Pazz & Jop Ballot

I'll stop doing end-of-year posts after this, promise, but I wanted to post a link to my ballot in the 2012 Pazz & Jop, which went live yesterday. My ballot is here.

I've been asking to participate in the Pazz & Jop, off and on, for several years now. It was a thrill to finally hear "yes," though my excitement was tempered a little by the bloodletting at the Village Voice's music department earlier this year. I decided to vote anyway, and I'm relieved to see the names of several critics I admire among the 500 voters.

What did I vote for? You already know what my favorite albums of 2012 were. Horrifyingly, I was the only person to vote for Café Tacuba's El Objeto Antes Llamdo Disco, which landed down at 710. Looks like I was the only voter who picked R. Kelly's Write Me Back as 2012's best. (Like I have in previous years, I'll probably post on my Tumblr about where my personal Top 10 landed in the Pazz & Jop.)

Anyway, I also put together a list of my 10 favorite singles of the year. I only got word from the Village Voice about 48 hours before voting closed, so I had to come up with that pretty quick. I spent an entire day of my vacation freaking out about what 2012's best singles were, avoiding all familial obligations so that I could figure out if Meek Mill's "Amen" is a better song than Beck's "I Only Have Eyes For You" cover. Here's what I came up with:

...with apologies to Beck, Julia Holter, Killer Mike, Tame Impala, Melody's Echo Chamber and a bunch of others, who were on the cusp. Glad I had "Power Circle" on there, since nobody else voted for it (?!?). Rob Harvilla's essay on Future even has me thinking I should have found space for "Turn On The Lights."

If you want to dig insanely deep into the statistics of the results, including individual ballots, then knock yourself out.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Rockaliser Radio III

After last year's legendary convergence, the third edition of Rockaliser Radio finds your hosts at odds over which albums, precisely, were the ten best in a music-rich 2012. Richness, in fact, was the only theme: Aaron and Nathan may differ over the relative merit of Odd Future's "Oldie," but they could agree that Rick Ross' Rich Forever is a punishingly great mixtape.

Were there any dark, sarcastic lyrics in 2012? Did any bands make songs that sounded like Beach House songs? Is R. Kelly just some washed-up New Jack Swing star?

Click the above widget to find out all that, and more!* The nearly three-hour podcast is also available to download here.

*How many great psychedelic records emerged from Australia and Northern Sweden, combined? Might one fairly call Odd Future notorious? Did Dr. Dre spend enough time guesting on his protoge's albums? How many dead presidents were excoriated in rap songs? Do any musicians hail from the city of New Orleans? Does Aaron still speak Spanish? What the fuck was that El-P album called, anyway? How many times will your hosts imitate the Rick Ross grunt? Which 2013 single has a chorus that sounds like you just inhaled a mountain of uncut cocaine?

Since you asked, here are our 2012 Top Ten lists, sans commentary, verbal stumbling and digressions:

Aaron M's 2012 Favorites:
1. R. Kelly, Write Me Back
2. Goat, World Music
3. Kendrick Lamar good kid, m.A.A.d city
4. Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream
5. Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light
6. Café Tacuba, El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco
7. Dinosaur Jr, I Bet On Sky
8. Tame Impala, Lonerism
9. Tennis, Young & Old
10. Rick Ross, Rich Forever

1. Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music
2. Large Professor, Professor @ Large
3. Big Boi, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors
4. Rick Ross, Rich Forever
5. Future of the Left, The Plot Against Common Sense
6. Curren$y, The Stoned Immaculate
7. Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos
8. Galactic, Carnivale Electricos
9. (Tie) Quakers, Quakers and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-City One
10. Odd Future, The OF Tape Vol. 2

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Lost in the Bossness: Nathan's Favorites, 2012

[With apologies to close contenders Rye Rye, Elle Varner, Dr. John, Rapsody, Screaming Females, Dinosaur Jr., Kendrick Lamar, Mark Lanegan, Miguel and Waka Flocka Flame]

1. Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music
"The closest I've come to seeing or feeling God is listening to rap music." In 2012, I knew how Killer Mike felt. The Dungeon Family stalwart and radical activist distinguished himself even in an extraordinary year for the genre, providing a compelling, ambiguous tribute to the shared cultural histories of Rebellious African Peoples that was equal parts moving, exciting, and righteously angry. El-P's crushing, mutating production complemented the record's sound and fury.

2. Large Professor, Professor @ Large
When not smithing the best beats for Nas' Life Is Good, Large Professor produced a remarkable "LP Surprise" of his own. From generation-spanning posse cuts to ultrasmooth, ultrasteady hip-hop instrumentals ("Barber Shop Chop" and "Back In Time," even without words, showcased Pro at his best), Professor @ Large was 2012's most unheralded later-career rap album by a Golden Age veteran.

3. Big Boi, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors
I've taken to calling this album "Viscous Lies," as the songs contained take more time and effort to navigate than Big's accessible debut. However, this may ultimately be the more rewarding, challenging album. It may zig where you expect a Big Boi album to zag, but the beats are just as fresh and surprising, and the autobiographical precision of Big Boi's subject matter marks newer, deeper lyrical territory for the historically quick-witted emcee.

4. Rick Ross, Rich Forever
Ross had an extremely busy 2012, but the mixtape Rich Forever--originally intended as a stopgap before the release of his fifth album God Forgives, I Don't--has a singular and exhausting life force that exceeded even his greatest efforts elsewhere. With the exception of the skits, RF is an unrelenting cavalcade of apocalyptic end credit beats and stereo-shattering sirens. At the center of it is Rozay's cartoonishly overconfident persona, which gains a certain amount of depth here.

5. Future of the Left, The Plot Against Common Sense
Andy Falkous is the rarest of songwriters, a lyricist who can make me laugh out loud (see also #7). On his post-Mclusky outfit's punishingly aggressive third album, Falkous gleefully trashes punk articles of faith, from Sheena the former punk rocker to sequels of classic Detroit science-fiction cinema ("Robocop 4 - Fuck Off Robocop"). Thank the dwindling gods of hard rock that Future of the Left seems to be in no danger of becoming complacent anytime soon.

6. Curren$y, The Stoned Immaculate
It was not an easy path to this point, but the New Orleans rapper's first Warner Bros. release does everything I hoped the famously weed-minded rapper could do with a major label upgrade. His rapping style--laconic, monotone, slurry yet intelligible--is augmented by some of the best productions of the year, from the marching beat stomp of "Armoire" to the understated bass tones of "Chandeliers." Curren$y's approach to hooks and drawled-out versescapes has always been distinctive, but with this Doors-quoting album, he crafted a sequence of songs worthy of his style.

7. Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos
For someone who releases about a solo album a decade, the 64-year old Steely Dan singer and songwriter has maintained the same remarkable control over groove that made his classic 70s work so attractive. As anachronistic as Sunken Condos' smooth, complex jazz arrangements may sound in 2012, the rhythms are anything but soft, as evidenced by Fagen's funky cover of Isaac Hayes' "Out of the Ghetto," which might be even better (and more subversive) than the original.

8. Galactic, Carnivale Electricos
The venerable New Orleans funk band--hot off their great 2010 album Ya Ka May--delivers an even more cohesive tribute to the diversity of NO funk with Carnivale Electricos, intended as both an aural accompaniment for the city's Mardi Gras festivities and as a tribute to city carnivals the world over. Carnivale Electricos is so animated with spirit and fresh, live instrumentation that by the time the festivities end and "Ash Wednesday Sunrise" begins, it's hard not to feel a bit sad that the good times can't go on forever.

9. (Tie) Quakers, Quakers and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-City One
Portishead was off the reservation again in 2012, but programmer/DJ Geoff Barrow was more busy than ever. Quakers was a hip-hop project spearheaded by Barrow, a mammoth, Double Nickels on the Dime-ish collection of 41 rap tracks, most under two minutes. Though the Stones Throw release boasted appearances by well-known rappers like Guilty Simpson and the Pharcyde's Booty Brown, the majority of artists on the record were unsigned upstarts culled from MySpace. Drokk, meanwhile, was Barrow and Ben Salisbury's tribute to the British comic book character Judge Dredd. Though an actual Dredd film was released this year, Drokk's fake film soundscapes more cannily recalled classic 80's film music from the likes of the Goblins or John Carpenter. In essence, Drokk was the perfect soundtrack to the 80s Carpenter Dredd film that never was.

10. Odd Future, The OF Tape Vol. 2
The worst thing that could happen to the OFWGKTA clan is if they became respectable. Fortunately, despite the mainstream accolades bestowed upon Frank Ocean and others this year, Odd Future's music remains as compelling, challenging, and occasionally disgusting as ever. From sloppy R&B to rolling weed anthems to goofs on ratchet music ("We Got Bitches"), this OF tape sounded more like a great rap compilation than a cohesive album experience, but Tyler, the Creator and co. manage to wrap their warped sensibilities together with "Oldie," a massive group cut that should be considered the "T.R.I.U.M.P.H." of modern times.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Freeze That Verse: Aaron's Favorites, 2012

1. R. Kelly, "Write Me Back"
Bravura soul form a bravura soulman. The singer's a student, rebuilding from lush, gently shifting blueprints drawn decades ago, alive to their possibilities today. Says it himself: love has the greatest vision of all time.

2. Goat, "World Music"
A furious, mindbending stew of nearly every sound blurted out to fuck with your head in the Twentieth Century--from psych and drone to metal, Afrobeat and pastoral folk. Recklessly borrowed, played with abandon.

3. Kendrick Lamar "good kid, m.A.A.d city"
A tour of King Kendrick's life, years before that title became appropriate. Woozy, jazzy and menacing, narrated by a shapeshiting MC, at turns thoughtful and impulsive, but always true to himself.

4. Miguel, "Kaleidoscope Dream"
His five 2012 EPs are also a must, collectively the flowering of an R&B auteur. Miguel's a suave oddball--his compositions run from grown and sexy to achingly needy--unafraid to throw out an idea, look the listener in the face, and dare you to join him.

5. Spiritualized, "Sweet Heart Sweet Light"
A sound born from Spaceman's latest, darkest chemical experiences. An album dreamed from a sick bed, shuffling towards a transcendence it realizes through celestial rock and roll.

6. Café Tacuba, "El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco"
An ebullient blur of fluttering, ringing, propulsive noises, artful in the most subtle and spectacular ways.

7. Dinosaur Jr, "I Bet On Sky"
Choppy waves of riffage clash up against the pointilistic clarity of J Mascis' solos. Alongside J's voice, as high and whiny as his Jazzmaster, the sound is as massive and breathtaking as ever, maybe a little warmer.

8. Tame Impala, Lonerism
Drenched in flange, swimming synth and clattering drums, Kevin Parker's dense, enormous visions radiate outwards--just beyond comprehension, easy to get lost in.

9. Tennis, "Young & Old"
Songs fashioned from Beach House guitar lines, untangled and exposed to the sun. Featuring not only 2012's acest deployment of organ, but the sweet churn of Patrick Riley's guitar and Alaina Moore's heavenly sighs.

10. Rick Ross, "Rich Forever"
The finest product the Bawse has distributed thus far, not simply consolidating his success, but justifying it. An appropriately monstrous and expansive set of beats forms the bed for Ross and his business partners' cartoon villain games.