Tuesday, May 31. 2005
The Village Voice's Jazz Supplement is out now. The theme is how various institutions affect the practice of jazz these days. There are essays by Francis Davis, Nate Chinen, Larry Blumenfeld, D.D. Jackson, and yours truly. Mine is on labels, the companies that produce and sell recorded jazz.
The main part of the jazz labels piece is a list of very short notes on jazz labels -- 47 in the web version, fewer in the print version. Only finite space and time kept me from including many more. I have a notes file that lists more than 800 jazz labels, still missing most of the single-artist labels for self-released records, and I have more notes squirrelled away elsewhere. It's possible that I can add more to the web version on the Voice site. It's also likely that this will get twisted around and reused on my own websites. (The long-awaited redesign of the Terminal Zone website will have a slot for notes on labels.)
Jazz labels have a rather arbitrary effect on what gets recorded and why. It's not unusual to find musicians with chopped-up recording careers, where they hook up with favorable labels for a spell, then drop out, then sometimes hook up again. It's not unusual to find major artists who shift direction as they change labels. I started thinking about how Norman Granz used his labels to create extended bodies of work where none might have existed otherwise: Art Tatum's group masterpieces, Ella Fitzgerald's songbooks, Count Basie's Pablo period. Also how some labels -- Palmetto, Sharp Nine, Fresh Sound were ones I had in mind -- maintain a consistent sound even with artists who vary much more elsewhere. But I also found many other business models. The article surveys these, but doesn't draw much in the way of conclusions. Maybe once it sinks in further I'll do more about that.
I asked various people about sales levels, but didn't write much about this. Small labels, especially single-artist and/or avant-garde (where they're all small), typically run 1000 copies and count themselves lucky if they sell out. Small label bestsellers may creep up toward the 5000 mark -- especially European labels, where the market seems to be larger. In the U.S., labels sort out pretty clearly by distributors. Several labels that employ professional publicists and distributors like Rykodisc can approach the 30,000 level, which seems to be some sort of ceiling. (I can usually find these records in Borders, but not in Best Buy -- which are basically the options in Wichita these days.) Majors (which for the most part includes ECM) can go beyond that, but I don't have a good feel for how much, at least for straight jazz releases -- the four million figure for Keith Jarrett is way off the scale, and I'm real doubtful that anything comes close. Smooth jazz is a tighter market, with 30k as a bare minimum, 80k as a big hit, and higher numbers as flukes. Smooth jazz gets better radio support -- not more radio stations, but much tighter playlists than straight jazz -- and broader distribution. Vocal records tend to do better than straight instrumentals, and have more crossover potential. The Ray Charles duets album was never even marketed as jazz, although it's nothing if not a big band production album. Madeleine Peyroux, who is marketed as jazz although on a non-jazz label (Rounder), has hit 500k.
My first draft for the introduction sketched out an unconventional economic theory. I discarded it (the draft, not the theory) after my editor didn't understand it, but I hope to go back to it someday. I regard businesses as important and vital, but I'm not an ideological capitalist. I'm struck by the arbitrariness and inefficiency of most businesses, and those same traits are in play here. But a couple of things make jazz labels different from most widgetmakers: one is that there's not a lot of money in the market, so there's not a lot to be gained by being greedy; another is that success is mostly a matter of survival -- it's more important not to lose a lot than to make a lot when you can; a third is that most of the capitalists are in awe of their labor; finally, in many cases the music is its own reward. By and large, this sort of capitalism has served recorded jazz well. Other businesses might learn something from their example.
Friday, May 27. 2005
After writing entries five straight days in the first week of May, I haven't written a word in this blog for nearly three weeks. Been busy working on music writing, which will produce results in the next few weeks. By not writing, I've probably blown my future as a blogger, while not advancing much as a music writer. It's been a rough stretch of time personally, and the uncertainty doesn't help. It's also not quite over: I still have to finish June's Recycled Goods today, so this entry must be short.
I haven't followed news closely during this stretch, but here are the main things I remember:
Don't have time to go into anything else right now. More next week.
Friday, May 6. 2005
David Remnick has a long New Yorker piece on Tony Blair's reŽlection ordeal -- what he calls the masochism campaign. One thing you get out of the piece is a sense of how different the U.K. and the U.S. are in terms of everyday politics at the top of the pecking order. The relative modesty of 10 Downing St. vs. the White House is one indication, but both buildings can still be measured in the same units. The bit where Blair catches a train on the way back from a campaign stop and ordinary Brits indifferently wander in and out of the car has no analog in the life of any recent U.S. President. Let alone Bush, whose paranoia and isolation are off the scale. Blair, by comparison, is an ordinary guy -- although by any other measure Remnick's portrait paints Blair as well out of the ordinary. He is, if anything, very similar to Bush, the differences having more to do with the two countries than with the men.
Blair, like Bush, is a well-heeled professional politician. He may be more of his own man: he did, after all, choose the party of the left even though he has little feel for or commitment to it. Like Bush, he seems to be preoccupied with religion -- like most religious people he has learned that faith reinforces conviction, which foolish people take as credibility -- even to the point of developing a fervid sense of morality that doesn't shy away from spilling blood. It seems likely that the two of them found common ground in their self-righteousness, although it also helped that Blair was the one willing to beg, roll over, and play dead. In doing so, Blair has gotten nothing meaningful for his obeisance. Britain's second invasion of Iraq recapitulates the first, except this time he's a mere backseat driver and the ejection timetable is much shorter.
On the other hand, Blair's reŽlection campaign, masochistic as it may be, is much more straightforward. By joining the party of the left, he surrounded himself with relatively competent people with far fewer criminal tendencies, so he's managed to run a much more competent government. Consequently, his campaign can face up to reality instead of having to convince the voters to embrace his fantasies. (Of course, it helps that Britain's experience of the Iraq war is far more benign than Bush's, mostly because the U.S. has managed to draw almost all of the fire.) From where I stand it would have served him right to lose, but in this world where democracy is defined by lesser-evilism he seems to have had little trouble in convincing the voters that whatever the right answer was it certainly wasn't the Tories. So he's come through the deal more or less intact, but a bit worse for wear.
Sometime back Michael Ignatief tried to argue that Blair wasn't just following Bush into Iraq; it was actually the other way around. Ignatief's argument then was that Iraq was a liberal war for liberal principles, not a neoconservative one. The big problem with that was that even if Bush personally signed up for Blair's liberal cause, the Americans that Bush employed to do the dirty work had other goals and interests, and those have prevailed to such an extent that liberal hawks have nothing left but their guilty commitments. The election gives Blair another chance to carry on, but it hardly rewards him for remaining steadfast. If anything, it is as a note of caution: the Labor party risked everything by following Blair to the extreme right of the American political spectrum -- a political universe far removed from British reality. Rational people won't want to take that risk again. While Blair's right-centrism may have helped to move Labor back into power, the election proves that he is less essential than ever, so presumably will be weaker.
Thursday, May 5. 2005
Here's a quote from Tom Engelhardt: "We all know that the United States has staggering amounts of staggeringly advanced military power, enough theoretically to crush any of its enemies many times over. But as it happened, that was a formula which only remained self-evident as long as it remained a threat. Since 2001, use has destroyed that illusion. As we now know, two wars -- one against a near-medieval force of warriors in Afghanistan and the other against a desperately weakened, third-rate regional power in Iraq, followed by a fierce insurgency by a rag-tag set of Iraqi rebels and an exceedingly low-level guerrilla war in Afghanistan, have tied down the U.S. military in unexpected ways."
I think this was completely predictable back in 2001, but our neocon warriors were so convinced that America's vulnerability to terrorism had been caused by a failure to aggressively use all that awesome military power in the past. And nobody legitimate had the guts to argue that the U.S. military, as configured then and now, would turn out to be useless and/or counterproductive against terrorism. The easy rhetoric said that we were attacked so if we didn't strike back they'd never respect us. But the easy rhetoric also said what's the use of having this monster military if we weren't going to use it. The result is that we've used it, and mostly made matters worse. So do they respect (or fear) us now? Well, the dead are dead and don't matter, and those enemies who survived survived and mostly figure they can keep doing what they've been doing. Deterrence was never meant to be used; its very use is proof positive of failure. Every now and then you hear the clichť that war is diplomacy by other means. It's much more accurate to say that war is failure, not just of diplomacy but of moral sense as well. In practice, war is much more likely to happen to nations who falsely believe themselves strong than to those who merely appear weak.
Ever since Bush blundered into war in 2001 politicans have argued that "because failure is not an option." Their argument is based on the idea that failure will show the world that we are weak and that weakness will invite further attacks. But do they really think that Al Qaeda attacked us because we were weak? But the pundits are right that failure is not an option: options are things we can choose or not, but failure is something that happens regardless -- especially when the resources are inadequate for the task, which is always the case when the task is unattainable.
Elizabeth Kolbert's series of New Yorker provides a lot of useful information about anthropogenic climate change (more popularly known as global warming). The first piece focused on warming in the polar regions, reporting on research from Alaska to Greenland. The second one focuses on paleoclimatology to try to use the long-term record of climate variability to provide some framework as to what climate models might mean when they predict increases of 4-8 degrees over coming decades. Here's a key quote: "Different climate models offer very different predictions about future water availability; in the paper, Rind applied the criteria used in the Palmer index to GISS's model and also to a model operated by NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. He found that as carbon-dioxide levels rose the world began to experience more and more serious water shortages, starting near the equator and then spreading toward the poles. When he applied the index to the GISS model for doubled CO2, it showed most of the continental United States to be suffering under severe drought conditions. When he applied the index to the G.F.D.I. model, the results were even more dire. Rind created two maps to illustrate these findings. Yellow represented a forty-to-sixty-per-cent chance of summertime drought, ochre a sixty-to-eighty-per-cent chance, and brown an eighty-to-a-hundred-per-cent chance. In the first map, showing the GISS results, the Northeast was yellow, the Midwest was ochre, and the Rocky Mountain states and California were brown. In the second, showing the G.F.D.L. results, brown covered practically the entire country."
I live in a state (Kansas) which is currently very susceptible to drought. Average rainfall declines by about 50% from the east border to the west border, and farmers plant accordingly. The rainfall bands are tight enough that farmers pay dearly when they guess wrong. Even now, except where irrigated western Kansas isn't used for much more than grazing land. The central part of the state is the wheat belt, and corn can be grown in the east. A drought any one year hurts, but thus far we rarely see multiyear droughts. If, say, western Kansas climate migrates to Indiana or Ohio we will have lost a huge amount of agricultural productivity, and it will take more than ingenuity to compensate for that -- if indeed compensate is a viable word.
These articles provoke many thoughts. One is that the "forcings" that have already been fed into the climate have yet to attain their full effect (i.e., to settle into a new equilibrium), so it may be too late to avoid the impacts of climate change by changing policy now, even radically (even if we could). Consequently, it may be more important to work on improving our responsiveness to future climate changes than to work on undoing our contribution to those changes. Much can be said about this, but the most important point is that stress and crisis amplifies iniquity and injustice; the less people feel victimized by injustice, the easier it will be to ride out this storm.
Wednesday, May 4. 2005
I took a look at a book Peter Huber and Mark Mills tonight, called The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy. It seems to be one of those books that presents as mythical one set of stereotypical arguments, then counters them with another set of counterarguments that smell even fishier. But it doesn't make the argument the cover implies: that the supply of oil is infinite. It says that it won't matter if we run out of oil (not that they expect that to happen anytime soon) because what matters is energy, and there's energy everywhere -- we just have to keep figuring out better ways to harness it. The parts that strike me as most likely are that there are going to be more viable fuel reserves than we're aware of now, that conservation in itself won't reduce demand, that renewable energy sources aren't likely to be significant for quite a while, and that an artificial energy diet would slow down the economy. Of course, their statement of these points is far more sweeping, but I'm interested less in them than in what parts of their arguments might be right. I didn't dig into the parts on new technology, and didn't follow whatever they were trying to say about entropy and waste, but I noticed one argument that is intriguing: that despite its extravagant use of fossil fuels, the U.S. is actually a net carbon sink. If this is correct (or even close) it is an argument for revamping the Kyoto formulas, but to do so someone needs to validate the assertion and build a better model of how nations or regions actually impact the carbon cycle. Among other things, this needs to explain where the measured carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere worldwide comes from, and how policies beyond fuel limits actually affect the carbon cycle. (The authors argue that a net increase in forest cover in the U.S. acts as a sink. The implication is that deforestation in the third world may be a larger contributor to carbon concentration than increased fossil fuel use.) I'm skeptical on these points, but doubt that we really understand how the carbon cycle works any way near adequately.
Back in the '60s Paul Ehrlich wrote a book called The Population Bomb which made many alarmist assertions about how global increase in human population will soon lead to various disasters, including a collapse of the food supply. John Simon wrote a rejoinder, attacking all of Ehrlich's claims with well-founded skepticism and an even more astonishing blind faith in the ability of growing populations to find whatever technological solutions they would need to sustain population growth indefinitely. Ehrlich's book was a bit like Marx's prognostics for the end of capitalism: rigorous given limited assumptions that history did not adhere to. The effect was to give Ehrlich a bad name, even though there can be no doubt that there are limits such as he described out there somewhere in the future. In view of this I think we have to be cautious about our doomsaying, and search out options within the system that allow us to mitigate and possibly avoid likely disasters. In particular, we need to be wary of proposing political programs that we don't adequately understand as solutions to problems we don't adequately understand. (And this includes much of what Democratic politicians like John Kerry and Al Gore Jr. have proposed, especially in terms of alternative energy sources and self-sufficiency.)
On the other hand, Huber and Mills veer toward Simonesque rhapsody, and in doing so they miss things. The most obvious one is economics. As they point out, one way to reduce fuel consumption is to arbitrarily make it more expensive, such as by levying taxes on it. They don't like this option -- in their argument it leads not to conservation but to lethargy. This ignores the fact that most of the efficiencies that the authors tout were motivated or accelerated by rising fuel prices. But increased lethargy is an interesting economic concept -- one that I suspect has a future. In part that's because I think that limits on exploitable resources will force us to adapt to more moderate ways of living; in part because slowing down a bit seems like a pretty good idea. The big problem with slowing the economy down is that at present so many people fare so poorly in it that it promises to lock them into a permanent dungeon of poverty. But why isn't that another problem for human ingenuity? We think we can engineer everything in the world except human relationships.
Another book I've noticed but haven't read is Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Economists often say weird things about ordinary behaviors -- often the fault there is that the simplifying assumptions that economists inevitably make (e.g., the pursuit of self-interest) are often not made by ordinary people. But this book has gotten a reputation for Levitt's argument that the main cause of the drop in crime rates during the '90s was the advent of legal access to abortion in the '70s. One thing the abortion option means is that women can keep from bearing children that they're unprepared or unwilling to raise; as such there are fewer unwanted children, who are in turn more likely to resort to crime. Makes sense to me, although I wouldn't throw out the other factors.
Speaking of books I haven't read, have you looked at the cover of Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat? It depicts an old joke, where the ocean at the edge of a flat world cascades into the void, taking floundering ships with it. This seems to be at cross purposes with the book itself, which as I understand it is another paean to the glories of globalization. But didn't the cover artist understand that flat is just a metaphor? And why suggest disaster? But more importantly, why did Friedman let this cover happen? Doesn't he understand what the cover implies? Or is there a darker message in the book? I'm not about to read it to find out.
Tuesday, May 3. 2005
I finally got around to reading Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Liberals" in The New York Review of Books after Molly Ivins gave it a plug in her column. The article points out numerous ways that John Kerry was vulnerable to what Frank like to call the Backlash: rich, Ivy League, coiffed hair, speaks French, blah blah blah. Like much of what Frank writes, it's more right than wrong, but not right enough to satisfy me. For one thing, Frank's formulation of the Backlash implies that it was provoked by deep troubles that its protagonists feel but can't articulate properly -- mostly economics, a subject liberal politicians don't deal with well. But really, most of the Backlashers I run into out here in Kansas don't act like they're hurting much. I mean, these are people who drive SUVs and monster pickups, who gamble in casinos and/or bankroll suburban megachurches -- sure signs of disposable income. Frank's Backlash isn't something they could invent by analyzing their lives. It's something that is packaged and sold to them by political hucksters, and they most likely buy it because it gives them a sense of identity that justifies their lifestyle and reinforces their sense of right and wrong, including their own entitlements, without demanding that they do much or understand the worlds they don't live in.
The really horrible thing about this Backlash is how all-consuming and inexhaustible it seems to be. Frank's main insight into this is in detailing how the Republicans' Backlash-based victories never quite deliver their promises: no matter how much they win they never manage to stamp out abortion or homosexuality or pornography or godlessness or dope fiends or do-gooders or, well, the list of evils is pretty long. These are what the Republicans call matters of "moral clarity," and they present the Democrats with a conundrum: either defend evil, or doubt virtue. Most Democrat pols instinctively pile on, which leaves them with nothing: no glory of the attack, nor guts for defense -- and note that these issues are meant to attack individual freedoms, specifically things individuals do in private. Frank draws plenty of examples of this from the Kerry campaign. I don't quite consider that fair -- not because I don't think Kerry made mistakes, but because we never got a chance to see the anti-Dean, anti-Edwards, anti-Clark, etc., Republican smears in full operation. But the real question is how can the Republicans get away with this, while the Democrats can't even get into the same game?
I could throw a few partial answers out, but the bottom line is that a lot of people have been conditioned to believe the Republicans and to disbelieve the Democrats, no matter what either says -- even when they say the same thing, that just confirms that the Republicans were right and the Democrats are opportunistic. The Democrats need to reverse that credibility: they need to convince people that the Republicans are just scheming, lying, crooked sacks of shit. But in order to do that they need to find their own integrity, which has often been sorely lacking, and a few viable working principles. If they draw any lesson from 2004, it should be that merely promising to implement the other guys' agenda more efficiently isn't a credible promise.
A good example of the Democrats' credibility problem is the New York Times, which seems to be changing from its tired image as the conceited, elitist pillar of the "liberal media" to a scurrilous spout of new right propaganda. I rarely read it, and find it increasingly scary when I do, as when I thumbed through last Sunday's edition. The worst was Stephen J. Morris' op-ed piece, "The War We Could Have Won," with its highlighted quote, "Even Russia was surprised when we lost in Vietnam." Morris evidently has access to previously secret Russian documents, which basically show what we should have known all along: that Russia didn't have a clue what was going on in Vietnam, any more than we did when we figured they were behind it all. The piece is stupid and vile, but what makes it dangerous is the word that shows up nowhere: "Iraq." In claiming that Vietnamization (with heavy U.S. air support) was working, Morris implies that Iraqization (with heavy U.S. air support) will do the same, and that it is only a failure of political will that leads to defeat.
While his evidence may convince you that defeat might have been avoided had we the will to keep fighting, that hardly adds up to victory, and what victory it might represent doesn't necessarily add up to a better world. Had Vietnam not fallen in 1975, the only thing that is certain is that the war would have ground on -- perhaps to this day, certainly a long time with immense destruction. But it would also have meant that the U.S. would have been continuously at war, for decades, compounding all the damage to our society and our economy as well as America's standing in the world. For anyone who grew up during the war years, the period of relative calm and peace from 1975 to 1990 or 2001 was a blessing. Had we "won" in Vietnam, we wouldn't have had that respite. The shame is not that we "lost"; it's that we didn't lose sooner -- especially before we wrecked Cambodia and brought Pol Pot to power. The same lessons bear in Iraq: the sooner we "lose" the better, because the longer we hold out the longer we prolong the war, which damages Iraq more than we can possibly heal, and reflects horribly on us. And to what end do we do this -- to "win"?
In case Morris' article wasn't explicit enough, the Times Magazine had a cover article called "The Salvadorization of Iraq?" profiling a U.S.-sponsored Iraqi death squad and how they're making progress against those terrorist evil-doers. What makes us think this approach will work? Well, it's led by a Baathist hench man, one of the guys who made it work for Saddam Hussein. Talk about "meet the new boss, same as the old boss." The Backlash should be delighted: you can't win unless you have the guts to do what it takes, harsh as it may be, and even the New York Times agrees.
My wife talked me into watching the TV show 24 this year. She's into shows like that, while I almost never watch TV. I figured a fantasy show about terrorism might be worth a comment or two, but I've been holding out to see how the plot twisted. However, after last night's show, with its climactic and rather disastrous kidnap at a Chinese consulate, I had two quick thoughts:
At the end of the episode, superman Jack Bauer shows us he can do math, letting one die to possibly save many, but the stress is finally getting to him. Or perhaps the doubt, as this seems to be his first big mistake? Or maybe he's just so clever, setting the foundation for reconciling with his girlfriend after he's killed her husband right in front of her?
Monday, May 2. 2005
Recycled Goods #19 was posted by Static Multimedia today. We've settled some periodic confusion about scheduling, agreeing that I'll get my copy in before the end of each month, and that Static will post it at the beginning of each month. Therefore, the "monthly" schedule that has slipped occasionally in the past should be back in force. I have a bad tendency to hold back until I get some particular mix of records in the column -- a problem which also holds the Jazz Consumer Guide back. Working within a strict schedule means that the columns may come out short but shouldn't come out late.
My original idea for Recycled Goods was to cover four broad musical spectra roughly equally: jazz, rock/pop, country/blues/folk, and world. As it turns out, I tend to have a surplus of jazz and deficits everywhere else, but for once world is slightly above its quota (14 of 51). I've been working on rounding up more world titles, and looking at the backlog this level seems likely to continue. But I'm still missing a lot of potentially interesting titles there. On the other hand, I doubt that the country/blues/folk (aka "roots") quadrant will ever again fill up. Blues reissues have tailed off considerably since the official "year of the blues" expired, classic country only goes so far, and more recent country/folk is pretty hit-and-miss. But in the pipeline is a marvelous Charlie Poole box. Plus look for a whole lot of obscure avant-jazz over the next few months.