Radio Goo Goo

How does one analyze a business model that is sprawled upon shifting sand?   Media pundits and industry insiders are treading with care; there is no longer a magic formula on which to pattern an artist’s career, no roll-out progression guaranteed to rake in enough profit to repay hefty recording advances.     Careful observation and analysis of light-speed trend changes rule in an era of a la carte purchasing.

The internet generation set this shift in motion more than a decade ago with the emergence of MP3 audio encoding.   File sharing services like Napster and Limewire became the distribution vehicle of choice, complete with a storm-cloud threat of a piracy law that seemed to garner little credence.   The record labels threw tantrums in their ivory towers; lawsuits were lobbed at a few unsuspecting Joe Publics, high-profile recording artists tested fan loyalty and the future seemed uncertain.  Then Apple swooped in with an entirely new business model; a virtual store peddling $0.99 cent songs.  It was radical in its simplicity and the dust began to settle as a brave new world was formed.

We live in an age of playlists, lovingly assembled on portable MP3 players and mobile phones.   Space is finite; we choose our songs carefully, based on mood or the call of childhood nostalgia.   We shuffle our songs to break up the monotony of genre or keep us on our toes.   The internet is like a smorgasbord of musical tastes, and we are free to pluck whatever we want from the table.

The conventional industry model, most thoroughly examined in M. William Krasilovksy and Sidney Shemel’s This Business of Music, dictates that an album of 12-13 tracks would retail between $12.98 and $15.98.   The public is titillated by a single – something indicative of the artists brand of “sound”, and catchy enough to earn radio spins.   The bulk of the label’s financial clout is placed behind this single, complete with music video and late-night television performance tour.    However, when expectations have been set to under a dollar per track, few artists can demand an all-or-nothing album purchase from a fickle and ravenous public.    Singles prevail and profits are barely enough to cover the album’s hefty advance.

Gimmick releases (think holiday albums, movie soundtrack compilations, Best-Of collections and cover recordings) are low-risk ventures with relatively high returns.   It is a cut-throat arena for an emerging artist, who must carefully balance between the lure of something new, and the safety of predictable pap.    In the rare instance of an album boasting multiple potential hits, the record label will carefully stagger the release of each new single with the standard publicity blitz each time.   It is expensive and risky; they are largely dependent upon radio (primarily Clear Channel) for embracing each song so that it may slowly accumulate station adds and audience exposure.   It may take months for a song to seep into the public consciousness, at which time album sales may be temporarily buoyed until the next single can be debuted.   It is a delicate and nerve-wracking process that can be only be undertaken by the industry cream like Beyoncé and Lady GaGa.

As a medium, radio allegedly died with the advent of MTV in the 1980’s, so how does it still wield such power in the music industry?   Essentially, people remember music that is experienced with other people; whether in a car, restaurant, nightclub, park, sports stadium, or family room.   Radio is everywhere.  Teenagers used to come home from school with their friends and visually connect with their favorite songs by way of the music video.   When Viacom-owned MTV became a reality television network its mantle was never picked up.  YouTube, now owned by Google, is the modern world’s music video headquarters, but the sensory experience is lonely and cold in front of a computer monitor.   Where is the sense of community that is so intrinsic to music?

It seems we are still trying to figure that out.   According to Wired Magazine, Univeral Music Group, Sony Music and Google are teaming up for the launch of VEVO, a video streaming site that will boast only professional content—think Hulu, but for music videos.  Will it be successful?  Some big name recording artists (Lady GaGa, Adam Lambert) have already signed up for ad campaigns to market the site.   The appeal lies in the exclusivity of its branding.   Again, warmth and approachability seems lacking in this business model.

The next chapter in the transformation of the music industry will, I think, be written in mobile cyberspace. Technological convergence devices such as iPhone bring about the potential for purchasing access to live, streaming concerts in high quality picture and sound from anywhere. Record companies have before them an opportunity to resurrect tour support, a form of promotional subsidy that hasn’t really existed since the 1970’s.

Recorded in high definition, distributed across mobile broadband networks to mobile convergence devices, the marginal income from pay-per-view live streaming of concerts could replace conventional channels of record promotion—e.g. radio—while simultaneously recovering costs of advances paid to the artist on singles released side-by-side on the same internet retail outlets. There is still hope for the album in the form of the iTunes LP, but the success or failure of that product—liner notes, extras and videos packaged with the album tracks—depends in part on whether or not the pricing relative to the value added is attractive enough to sway younger consumers who grew up with the digital single.

For Your Entertainment – Adam Lambert

Title: For Your Entertainment. Release Date: November 2009. ©2009, RCA Music Group

Title: For Your Entertainment. Release Date: November 2009. ©2009, RCA Music Group

Adam Lambert can’t be accused of timidity.   His debut album, For Your Entertainment, hasn’t re-invented the acoustic wheel, but his bucking of any one genre is a risk most non-established artists would shrink from.     In an industry where pop icons themselves are branded as a commodity, music often takes a backseat to pomp and circumstance.   However, Mr. Lambert is a rare creature; his show-stopping style is backed by a preternatural vocal ability.   As Madonna (more a businesswoman performer than a vocalist) sagely stated, “An image and a good hook can get you in the door, but something has to keep you in the room”.    Mr. Lambert has made a bold and sweeping entrance.

The hook comes in the form of MUSIC AGAIN, the album’s opening track, and an irreverent, joyful hymn brimming over with 80’s enthusiasm.   The cheeky “Queen” sound makes this patchwork throw-back an homage of the highest order.    Why aren’t we treated to music like this anymore?   FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT, the debut single, really brings sexy back to commercial pop music, proudly displaying an element of sexual titillation usually exclusive to female pop stars.  Mr. Lambert gives men permission to be objects of desire; if Hellenistic Greece had possessed a techno-anthem, this would’ve been it.

P!nk’s WHATAYA WANT FROM ME is a bittersweet and simple song with an annoyingly catchy chorus designed for radio domination.   Its generic nature isn’t helped by Mr. Lambert’s careful reverence of P!nk’s signature style; his oft-admitted admiration of her may have prevented him from making the track his own.

Who knew that a man of such ear-piercing octave punches also possessed a lower-register growl with a tremolo capable of curling toes?  STRUT combines a kick-ass guitar riff with a gripping hook, but its verses seem plucked from Doctor Seuss.  Is the near-ridiculous rhyming scheme deliberately tongue-in-cheek, or a foray into junior-high-calibre Lyrics 101?   Mr. Lambert’s taste for kitsch suggests the former.

Those familiar with the rock-opera/futuristic-fusion sound of Muse will delight in Mr. Lambert’s treatment of Matthew Bellamy’s SOAKED.   The astonishing vocals are both immaculate and dreamlike, providing a stark contrast to the bombastic orchestra lending accompaniment.  Take a moment to fully absorb the lyrics and emotion evident in Mr. Lambert’s delivery.   Who knew that the self-flagellation of a person inured to one-night-stands could be so beautiful?

SURE FIRE WINNERS is tailor-made to be a romping, stomping stadium staple.  More observant listeners will recognize the song for what it is; a championing of male virility at the most primal level.

Close your eyes while listening to A LOADED SMILE.  Mr. Lambert’s flawless falsetto merges with the buoying synthesizers to create an almost aquatic ambiance that is both etherial and transporting.  The lyrics (brilliantly penned by Linda Perry) reflect the conflict of a person hopelessly in love, and the disenchanted object of their desire.

IF I HAD YOU is credible Euro-pop with guts.  Its rolling, cyclical refrain and staccato chorus perfectly compliment each other.  This is light fare and Mr. Lambert knows it, delivering the beguiling lyrics with a delirious abandon.  It is a song made for dance clubs and thunderous remixes, but is unlikely to have mainstream appeal.  Its mid-way placement on the album is somehow apropos; the song is forgettable until you hear it.

Rivers Cuomo of Weezer and Mr. Lambert collaborated to create PICK U UP, the album’s bravest and most subjective song.  Bold in its musical theatre roots, the track blends a fluid guitar with happy-go-lucky lyrics designed to elicit smiles.   It progresses predictably until the “money-shot” arrives; an insane vocal run that ascends toward a breathless key-change so unbelievable that you’ll have to stop and rewind just to make sure your ears aren’t deceiving you.

Don’t let the heavy disco-era references of Lady GaGa’s FEVER  deceive you;  its maturity and sophistication is belied by an appropriately sparse, yet raucus, musical arrangement which Mr. Lambert perfectly executes with a petulant and sinewy wail.  The opening line, “There he goes, my baby walks so slow,” will raise eyebrows, but years from now may be regarded as an important step in blurring the line between gay and straight cultural segregation.  Mr. Lambert doesn’t need to do the cover of Out magazine to be a human rights trailblazer.  FEVER is hands-down the best up-tempo track on For Your Entertainment.

SLEEPWALKER is an inevitable single; Mr. Lambert’s voice is earnest, pleading, yet unbearably sexy, making it a pop-ballad with an edge.   A killer guitar solo by This is It‘s Orianthi Panagaris gives this romantic lament some teeth.  AFTERMATH could be easily written-off as the accessible and bombastic rock anthem, but it serves as an empowering chant for all the faceless LGBT youths struggling to be themselves within a society that still largely rejects them.  With the simple urging “tell a stranger that they’re beautiful”, Mr. Lambert reveals not only his desire to spread love unprovoked, but gives us a glimpse at his own adolescent insecurities.  Every awkward teen hungers to hear such a simple affirmation of self-worth.   Perhaps next time we will be treated to musical composition worthy of such moving lyrics.

Closing out the album, BROKEN OPEN is easily For Your Entertainment‘s best slow-tempo song, and perhaps the best track overall.  Mr. Lambert’s sophisticated (and under-appreciated) abilities as a lyricist are showcased here; he gently urges a friend or lover to feel vulnerable enough to weep.  It is a song so other-worldly in its beauty that it evokes more traditionally “new age” electronic artists like Vangelis (Voices) and Enya (Shepherd Moon), but with a hitched, industrial influence.

There is brilliance peeking beneath the edges of this eclectic and brave album.  The fact that Mr. Lambert recorded it in a few short months boggles the mind; I am compelled to wonder what his limit would be if given sufficient time and resources.  His talents are immense and varied, and the untapped potential here is astonishing.  American Idol had to wait eight seasons for a discovery of this calibre.


A scene from Columbia Pictures' 2012.  © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

A scene from Columbia Pictures' 2012. © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In the department of the laughably absurd, Roland Emmerich rarely fails to disappoint. His latest, bloated end-times epic, 2012 begins in space with a shot of the planets aligning with what seems to be horrendous speed, given the distance at which we must be viewing them. Ignoring that complication, however, we cut to Earth—India. Dr. Satnam Tsurutani (UK-born Jimi Mistry failing miserably at faking an Indian accent) has discovered that the temperature of Earth’s core is rising concordantly with increased solar activity affected by planetary alignment that occurs every 650,000 years, or so the film says. Technically it never happens, because the planets’ orbits themselves are not perfectly aligned in three-dimensional space… but nevermind. Also ignore for the moment that Tsurutani isn’t an Indian name by any stretch of the imagination. Safaya, on the other hand…

As we move on in this ludicrous movie, cars don’t start when they need to (but can still outrun earthquakes), parents are separated only to be reunited by worldwide tragedy, and, “Log and cross-reference the data,” is used for the umpteenth time in a film invoking so much science while failing to consult science experts. Instead, wouldn’t you know it, a writer serves as the hero—a typical screenwriter’s fantasy (see Professor Langdon in the equally-preposterous film, The Da Vinci Code). Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), the author of Farewell Atlantis, discovers the imminent destruction while journeying to a campsite where he stumbles upon a government research project at Yellowstone National Park. Jackson is separated from wife Kate (Amanda Peet)—now dating a plastic surgeon. Note that his book is about saying goodbye to the world, and it’s dedicated to his estranged wife. ZING!

There isn’t much to pick apart in terms of plot or narrative. It’s a planet. It’s going to get destroyed. Governments will illogically conceal it—and their Plan B—as long as possible, complicating evacuations further than their already taxed resources can withstand. Scientist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Dr. Tsurutani’s friend, attempts to persuade Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), obviously an analogue of former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, for an audience with President Wilson (Danny Glover). It’s the sort of film where the authority figure, Anheuser, barks, “Who do you report to,” and after getting his answer replies, “Not any more.” Also, I think it was comedian Chris Rock who observed the disproportionate number of black U.S Presidents in films where they preside over a global catastrophe. Were the filmmakers backed by The Heritage Foundation?

Writer/director Emmerich amusingly recycles his trademark plot set-up by carting out characters, one after another, from around the world whose paths will inexorably collide in the climax. But instead of replaying the exhausted jingoisms of Independence Day, in today’s post-9/11 climate Mr. Emmerich puts religion in the crosshairs, only to beat emotional appeals into the ground and finally trumpet aphorisms from faith. It’s a setup to make the audience gasp when the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro collapses. Actually, it almost looks like he’s stage-diving. Oh, there are plenty of other historical landmarks exploded for titillation. When the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel fractures, can we count on the fissure to pass right between God and Adam’s touching fingers? As surely as we can count on the visual pun of a Kennedy—the naval carrier—literally destroying the White House a few scenes later.

Natural disasters in Hollywood flicks seem to have a particular fondness for Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles—note the obligatory cameo of the crumbling U.S. Bank building in L.A.’s otherwise unextraordinary downtown. The idle rich are also a casualty. The Buddhists, for whom Mr. Emmerich has enough admiration to represent prominently in the one-sheet poster, manage to survive his wrath- err, the collapsing Earth’s crust. Oddly, no backstory is ever given to the Mayans who supposedly prophesied the world’s end on December 20, 2012. Perhaps it’s because there’s no record of them having proffered such an idea. Like the Hindus, their calendar occurs in cycles.

I’m curious, just a bit, about what goes on in the mind of Roland Emmerich. Does he know that he makes some of the best comedies ever written? Question: How does one escape planetary destruction? Answer: At the last possible second. The pitch for the film might have been, “See, the land moves and crashes into the boat.

2012 • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 • Running Time: 158 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language. • Distributed by Columbia Pictures

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