The Loudness Wars -or- Death Magnet: How I Learned to Stop Hearing Anything

©2010, Cinemalogue

1982 original and 2010 remaster of Steve Winwood's VALERIE

The following are Parts I & II of a video editorial on the so-called Loudness Wars—an escalating practice of pumping amplitude levels in sound recordings to the limits of digital media in such a way that induces distortion. Wikipedia’s entry on the subject may give you some useful background on the subject prior to viewing this material.

Part I:

Part II:

Technology and the Music Industry: Part Two – Media Going Social

©2010, Cinemalogue

Photo: Rubin Safaya. Copyright ©2010, Cinemalogue. All Rights reserved.

In 1996, I wrote a paper on internet-based music distribution, which I saw as the inevitable evolution of the recording industry. Unfortunately, not many record labels saw it that way at the time, but Apple was already making plans. The roadmap toward a digital appliance-based approach to computing began here. Upon Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in the summer of 2007, a central strategy emerged redefining the computer’s role as only the digital hub of a lifestyle of mobile devices. Thirteen years and many iPods, iPhones and iPads later (we are informed as of today this market consists of an estimated 120 million devices), Apple announces its foray into social media with Ping and Game Center.

Game Center capitalizes on the user interface of the iPhone and iPad, and like the App Store brings a centralized distributor to social gaming—what the console market had sadly never understood because they don’t generally develop top-to-bottom product ecosystems the way Apple does. On the other end of Apple’s core competencies, multimedia delivery (of which gaming really is a part, if you think about it) is going to be transformed by Ping, Apple’s entry into music-based social media.

Ping essentially provides social interconnectivity between users of Apple’s iTunes and iTunes Store. Users can create and share lists, post comments, and, as with Game Center, be connected to people of similar tastes. With the installed base of 160 million iTunes Store subscribers, it’s easy to see how Ping could once again transform the music distribution business that Apple now dominates, but also how they will find themselves directly competing with behemoths like Twitter and Facebook.

For the recording artist, a number of possibilities are opening up. While social media networks allow them to keep in touch with fans and gain insight into what trends are emerging the instant they bubble forth, Ping has the potential, combined with other media such as HTML5-based interactive videos (see, to create a two-way channel of development. That is, the narrow-minded will only see the potential for viral marketing with their audience. But the truly adventurous artist will see it as an opportunity to test demo material, authorized “bootlegs”, impromptu recording sessions, videos, etc. and get the fan involved in shaping the creative process before the final product is done. The entire fascination with social media is that it elevates the average person to celebrity in their own right, so why not capitalize on this? Yes, yes, design by committee is the antithesis of good product but if you’re in the business of selling records to lots of people, then you’re already there. Accept it and reach out to your fans, and pull them into the control room with you.

In this regard, I still think the album is going away… but so what? If it costs $75,000 to make an album, and 76,000 to 142,000 copies sold to recoup the costs, then isn’t it more sensible to spend a fraction of that on just the good singles that are guaranteed to sell and forget the whole album business? True, mediocre artists still have to throw more darts to hit a bullseye… but at some point A&R people have to stop being lazy and find real talent that’s less expensive to promote, and can record a session in one take as opposed to four months. I understand that the impetus traditionally was that more esoteric material isn’t fit for radio. But for a retailer that this year is projected to surpass CD sales, one has to think differently. iTunes and Apple are the distribution AND promotion engine in one. The system of previewing and searching is totally dynamic, at the user’s command, uses information about the user to dynamically present titles relevant to their tastes, and exposes them to material they may not have thought to explore. This makes it a much more useful tool than radio for exploring music. The presence of the social network on iTunes will shift the balance of power away from radio, just as Twitter has shifted trend analysis away from comScore. I can count in one minute at least fifty talented artists whose material I found through iTunes that would never go into rotation on any commercial radio station even in a market as large as Dallas-Ft. Worth.

There are several other possibilities worth noting here, but the two that strike me as most relevant are: Apple’s test case for entering social media as a whole, and the potential for Apple to control the user experience to the extent that the convenience of file sharing can now take place within the legitimate domain of licensed, legal distribution. Let’s take a step back for a moment: In 1992, the Audio Home Recording Act made it perfectly legal for individuals to copy music for their own private use, and to some extent, for private, direct sharing with personal acquaintances. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, one of the most poorly written pieces of legislation to pass Congress, altered the governance of the AHRA. Piracy, however, has never really been a threat to the industry so much as the potential for internet distribution to level the playing field with independents and essentially remove the barriers to entry that made major labels a necessity. The music industry didn’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars on attorneys to retrieve pennies on the dollar in actual collected damages. They did it to slow down the inevitable creep of a distribution paradigm they could neither control nor dominate.

But in attempting to dominate this distribution system, the product/program people at Apple understood that you have to treat piracy (read: “free”), however illegal it may be, as a real alternative to any pay based model if you are designing a system that has to compete with it. File sharing’s principal disadvantage, however, was the inconvenience of required technical savvy and/or a clunky user interface that offered no distinct advantage to file sharing other than cost. So, Apple set up a Trojan horse, first acclimating people to the iTunes interface in 1999, then deploying iPod in 2001, and then creating an end-to-end product ecosystem with iTunes Music Store in 2003. The interdependency is clear… It’s far more convenient now to surf iTunes, let it find and recommend based on your library and purchasing history, and click “buy” than it is to navigate the clunky interfaces of P2P file sharing systems with libraries of varying and unpredictable quality.

With Apple’s push toward cloud-based services, including the industry’s penchant for rental-based models, lower pricing for temporary access can be positioned as an advantage, in exchange for more freedom for the user to access a centralized library of content from multiple mobile devices tied to one account. Apple’s now using the Trojan horse in reverse, having already convinced the music industry to abandon DRM, they’re providing users an incentive to pay for the convenience of access anywhere, and making a compelling case by providing the data centers, the user interface, the products and the libraries to support it.

This is where Apple’s ecosystem comes full circle, and poses an interesting threat to Facebook, Twitter and Google, only one of which has tried, and failed, to achieve Apple’s hardware-software integration with a physical product of their own. Google will continue to be successful licensing Android to other manufacturers, but there will always be the inconvenience of two vendors pointing fingers at each other when a customer service issue arises. Twitter and Facebook have substantial social networks, but they generate their revenue almost entirely from selling access to user demographic and trending data… completely intangible products that, as any website analytics will show you, are dubious products at best. But Apple’s strength is that they don’t see social media and intangible revenue generating systems such as advertising as the means unto itself. They see these services as merely the ecosystem which necessitates the hardware they design. It is precisely because of this that Apple has the potential to integrate Game Center, Ping and whatever else they come up with, into a social media network necessitated to far greater degree than Facebook and Twitter combined, because of the convenience and interconnectivity of all forms of media they will enable on hundreds of millions of mobile devices that they already design, manufacture and distribute.

When You’re Strange

Copyright ©,  Elektra Records

L-R: Jim Morrison, John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Elektra Records

Unquestionably, The Doors have influenced countless rock bands. As much as the director, Tom DiCillo, attempts to convince us of Jim Morrison’s calculated genius in a film comprised entirely of archival footage, it becomes evident that the iconic lead vocalist is anything but Machiavellian—let alone organized in his thoughts. Instead, whether intended or not, this documentary makes a better argument for drummer John Densmore, guitarist Robby Krieger and keyboardist Ray Manzarek—all talented, schooled musicians who knew precisely where to let the notes fall, cushioning the often delirious Morrison. Producer Paul Rothchild and sound engineer Bruce Botnick also played key roles in the band’s success. Morrison’s experimental rants, not unlike those of Godard and other innovators of the period, are accidental genius.

Our narrator, Johnny Depp, takes us through the history of The Doors and their brief, six-year burn—from their formation in 1965 to Jim Morrison’s death in 1971. Manzarek and Densmore met Morrison at Venice Beach while he was writing lyrics, and pulled the band’s name from the Aldous Huxley novel, The Doors of Perception (Huxley’s title itself taken from a William Blake poem). By 1966, the band was playing The London Fog (note: Mr. Depp’s bar, The Viper Room, once doubled for the Fog in Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic, The Doors) and the famous Whisky A Go-Go. The first half of the film is spent rehashing mostly common knowledge of the band. The timeline voice-overs drag on for an hour before the film wades into deeper, muddier waters.

When You’re Strange wobbles in the transition from straightforward biography to op-ed with teeth. At times, the editor doesn’t seem to know what to do with the uncovered footage, or there isn’t enough to string it into a visual narrative. However, the director takes us into Morrison’s escalating dependency, beginning around 1968 when The Who was the band’s opening act. While Manzarek and Krieger have acknowledged LSD use, it was Morrison’s alcohol addiction that sent the band reeling. Somehow, they managed to squeeze out The Soft Parade, in 1969, just before their lives began to spin apart. The album achieved their greatest critical acclaim, and was the last to employ Rothchild’s ear. Not long thereafter, Morrison saw The Living Theater, and this altered his outlook significantly. Some argue that he became an anarchist. Others claim he was echoing the surrealist poets.

Fans maintain that his esoteric stage antics and flouting of authority which followed was, in fact, enlightenment. But critics generally agree that they passed their creative peak. The director attempts to link it all together through pristine sequences of Morrison cruising the desert in his black Shelby Mustang (from Doors’ photographer Paul Ferrara’s 1969 film, HWY: An American Pastoral). However, we only digest bits and pieces of this Jim Morrison—miles away from the media and fan attention that fed into his ego. As a recurring motif, it never connects with his public persona, but it shows us at least that the man wasn’t the boisterous fool Oliver Stone made him out to be. He can make a kind, gentle gesture to a coyote dying on the highway, or to a fan who’s been bludgeoned with a chair. When he isn’t on stage, he treats others as equals.

It’s here where the film succeeds in completing its primary argument: Jim Morrison, as repetitive and monosyllabic his banal lyrics may have been, had the capacity for treating people with respect, but failed to respect himself by spiraling into alcohol and eventually cocaine abuse.

When You’re Strange • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 90 minutes • MPAA Rating: R for some sexual content including references, nudity, drug material and language. • Distributed by Rhino Entertainment

Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.

A Decade in Music (1969-1979) – Part I: Get Back

From 1977, several memories converge into one of the greatest decades of the five I have lived through. While George Lucas put me to sleep with his laboriously-written, but visually groundbreaking, Star Wars, my babysitting cousin could only rock me to sleep with music. I had Steve Miller Band, Kiss, Cheap Trick, Nazareth and Heart among many others keeping me company. It was my cousin Pam’s copy of Kiss’ double-album, Alive II—the first truly successful live concert recording—which revealed to me the raw energy that rock music was capable of producing.

Nearly talentless musically, KISS elevated arena shows to a standard of stage performance that held in place through the next decade, until at least 1992 with the birth of the grunge movement—often falsely credited to Nirvana. Also in ’77, The Runaways, virtually unknown outside of Los Angeles, were rocking the Tokyo Music Festival with their own brand of irreverent stage antics—Cherie Currie’s scanadalous outfits providing tabloid fodder and recycling an ancient argument about artistry breeding delinquency. I’m not sure it could be called artistry, what they did, but again the absence of technical skill was overshadowed by showmanship. The studio cut of “Queens of Noise” plays blandly, as if Kim Fowley’s manufactured assemblage of five teenagers having little else in common would, just one year after landing a contract with Polygram/Mercury, rather be anywhere else. However, the same song on Live in Japan bristles with electricity—even if Sandy West kept shifting tempo.

By the end of the decade, arena rock gave way to the emergence of punk and new wave, and would only see a mediocre resurgence in the form of kitschy hair metal, at its height from 1987 to 1989. Here I’ve only explained how the decade in which I was born, too late I would argue, had ended. Where did it begin?

On April 11, 1969, The Beatles released “Get Back” as a farewell to their fans. Paul McCartney attempting a more middle-American tenor, backed by country-blues guitar and triplets on the backbeat, briefly tells the story of Jo-Jo and Loretta Martin. It’s unusually visceral for a song that lyrically pales in comparison to the spellbinding Eleanor Rigby. Yet it’s important to me, because there in my parents’ metallic-blue Oldsmobile Cutlass it was the first time I had heard the group that came to define twentieth-century music—Lennon and McCartney the Godard and Truffaut of pop.

Sgt. Peppers spawned all the prog-rock bands chiefly out of Britain, including King Crimson, Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Electric Light Orchestra. By the early-1970’s the movement spanned from Greece’s Aphrodite’s Child to Canada’s Rush. More rock artists of the period would cite the diverse catalog of the Beatles as their primary influence than any other group or solo artist. Why? Their adaptation of classical musical phrasings and literary-grade, visually-evocative lyrics in a dynamic repertoire that spanned just over half a decade is unmatched in popular music history to this day.

The Runaways

©2010, Apparition

Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart star as Cherie Currie and Joan Jett in THE RUNAWAYS

Blood on the pavement—the opening shot—sets the tone for Floria Sigismondi’s biopic of the brief spark in the latter-70’s rock scene that was The Runaways. The boilerplate plot applies: humble origins, creepy producer giving them their first break, drugs, the big tour, the fall and the split. However, for her first feature, the Italian-born Ms. Sigismondi, whose previous credits include music videos for Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Bjørk, The White Stripes and Muse, among others, has crafted a well-paced film with a woman’s perspective—a rarity in this subgenre.

The initiatory spatter signals entrance into womanhood for Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), a devotee of David Bowie’s androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona. Booed off a talent contest at school for emulating her hero, she defiantly gives the crowd the finger before she exits. Spending her nights at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco on the Sunset Strip, Currie meets wanna-be guitarist Joan Larkin (Kristen Stewart)—a.k.a. Jett, the leather-clad axe grinder inspired by Suzi Quatro—and the comically-sleazy Svengali, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, looking like a deranged cross between Michael C. Hall and Eddie Izzard). Says Fowley to the naif Currie, “If you want to be an artist, saw off your fucking ear and mail it to your boyfriend.” He puts them together with other musicians, including drummer Sandy West (Stella Maive) and lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton). Absent from the story is founding bassist Micki (Michael) Steele, who later joined the Bangles, and Jackie Fox who was omitted for legal reasons—”Robin Robins” (Alia Shawkat) standing in.

The film—based on Ms. Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel—chronicles the band’s rapid ascent in 1976 from their initial formation to their signing with Mercury Records, by which time legends-to-be Van Halen and The Ramones were their opening acts. Writer/director Sigismondi focuses heavily on the two principals, band founder Jett and lead singer Currie, their friendship and emergent sexual exploration. We follow them from dive bar to hole-in-the-wall as they build their fan base, but the focus stays inward on the band.

While Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical love song to the period, Almost Famous, waxes poetic on the music and the muse from a journalist/fan’s perspective, The Runaways plays as fast and loose with the band’s biography as it does the camera. It lacks the richness of narrative possessed by Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, chiefly because the director intends here a crash course in Runaways history, rather than a narrower focus on a specific incident. Conversely, where Mr. Cox’s film employed mostly conventional scene compositions and static camera setups, cinematographer Benoît Debie (Irreversible, Enter the Void) foregoes staid arrangements for rock video superimpositions and cross-dissolves, as well as documentary-style hand-held work, all in a medium grain with a dingy palette that provokes my pathological aversion to the color brown—a consequence of 1970’s fashion. The sensibility toward teenage interests and idiosyncrasies matches Richard Linklater’s ode, Dazed and Confused, but as the band careens toward fame, Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (vaguely biographing David Bowie) becomes the inspiration—an enraged Jett smashing a bottle and pounding the window of the studio control room. All of these films share a love for a period in which rock music made audacious statements for greater ends than feckless infatuations.

Ms. Sigismondi’s attention to small details adds to a well-textured look and feel. Running out of a rusty sardine can of a trailer after their first practice, Ms. Fanning trips over the curb as the camera opens out to a medium-wide shot. Other directors might have scrapped that take, but the scene evokes fond memories of childhood innocence. The shot is followed immediately by reckless abandon, drinking it up by the derelict, disintegrating “HOLLYWOOD” sign—restored two years later as the result of a public campaign led, incidentally, by shock rocker Alice Cooper. Near the film’s end, Joan is seen wearing a Cheap Trick t-shirt (one of many faithful replications of her wardrobe); that band was propelled to superstardom at Budokan Stadium the year following The Runaways’ performance at Tokyo Music Festival.

The director also treats two story elements differently than a man in her position might have. The film’s depiction of drug abuse avoids glamorizing the experience. It’s dizzy, unfocused, queasy, pale, bleak, depressing, pathetic and sad. When the camera shows off Currie in a racy outfit, it starkly opposes the vacant haze with which she answers her sister’s phonecall—ironically, concerning her father. Currie’s mixed relationship with her twin sister, Marie (Riley Keough), and her mother (Tatum O’Neal), becomes a recurring theme. Returning home to a medicated and recovering alcoholic, we’re not quite sure if, as she rifles through his pills, she’s trembling from withdrawal or the reality of a pathetic father. Like Claireece Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) in last year’s Precious, she must have to imagine a different life in order to barely function in this one.

While Ms. Fanning overacts at times, throwing her enunciation and body language too heavily into the character, her lack of finesse as an actress almost serves the awkward teen better, as in an early scene where she can’t seem to master the middle ground between placidly reading lyrics and belting them out. Ms. Stewart and Ms. Fanning actually sang the songs performed in the film. This, as in the case of the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line, doesn’t necessarily benefit the story as much as it makes for a good publicity line in the same way big stars always love to talk about all the stunts they do themselves—rarely wise since it’s less important to see their faces than to see a stunt done correctly. But I’m not sure this was a stunt. The director may have wanted to maintain the energy and amateurish nature of the characters throughout. At that stage in their careers, neither Jett nor Currie could have been praised for technical prowess.

Ms. Stewart’s speed-shutter blinking and destitute moping, as in the Twilight series, is held completely in check here. Contrarily, she’s always moving—restless, fidgety—almost hyperactive, fiddling with her guitar or rocking back and forth in between sets. Leaning in to almost kiss her in a roller rink bathed in crimson light, aptly set to Iggy & The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, Joan seductively blows smoke into Cherie’s mouth. A kicky scene, it’s contrast against the latter’s descent into drug addiction, paralleled with her father’s alcoholism and amplified by her mother’s constant absence. The relationship depicted between Jett and Currie consists chiefly of stares and glances, seldom traversing more meaningful ground. Then again, I’m not sure it gets much farther than lust for two teenagers still discovering their sexual identities.

Critic Nick Schager argues that Ms. Stewart and Ms. Fanning don’t have the chops to come off as anything but affectations of tough. Reviewing early interview footage of the real Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, I’ve concluded that’s precisely what they were—kids, emulating an edge. Thousands of cigarettes before Ms. Jett destroyed her voice, she came off every bit as green in a Tom Snyder interview (The Tomorrow Show, 1977) as Ms. Stewart in the film. That same year, a shy, inarticulate Ms. Currie interviewed with a pair of hosts during their Japan tour. They weren’t hardened criminals. These were children who became internationally famous before they could mentally process the enormity of it.

The Runaways is a competent, entertaining film that sticks mostly to the chronology with some character flourishes—Kim Fowley’s irreverent rants above all. Hampered by disputes over details, background characterizations suffer—most notably that of Lita Ford whose lead guitar-work embellished the band’s raw sound. Some scenes run a beat or two longer than necessary, the trimming of which would have tightened up the pace in the third act. Despite its flaws, it’s eminently watchable particularly for those, like myself, nostalgic for an era of brazen rock, uncluttered by today’s whiny, ineffectual Corgan and Yorke clones. If I haven’t commented here on the fact that Jett and Currie paved the road for many female rockers who followed, it’s because I fail to see the distinction. Actors are actors. Musicians are musicians. Road-tested, the Runaways have earned their place in rock history as equals among their male contemporaries.

Bonus: In the early stages of their touring, The Runaways opens for a band that mocks them during sound check. In response, Jett breaks into their dressing room and urinates on a guitar. Unmentioned in the film, the real Ms. Jett has unabashedly confirmed that the guitar, in fact, belonged to Alex Lifeson of Canadian progressive-rock band Rush.

The Runaways • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 109 minutes • MPAA Rating: R for language, drug use and sexual content – all involving teens. • Distributed by Apparition