Calculate your chances...negative...negative...negative!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Assaulted by Sound: My Bloody Valentine at the Aragon, Chicago 9/27/08

For years I wondered how the layers of My Bloody Valentine's classic albums Loveless and Isn't Anything would be reproduced live. Well, from what I saw last night, they weren't or at least they didn't appear to be. Yeah, I think I heard them, but just watching what was going on there's no way the simple barre cords Shields was playing and Belinda's almost nonexistent strumming was producing all the melody lines. Being a drummer, I also felt there was a large portion where the drum loops were pulling a little more than their fair share. I have a hunch the glowing Apple logo atop the soundboard stage right was the likely source of a fair amount of the extra sonic chaos.

And speaking of sonic chaos, we were treated to a rather lengthy "holocaust" in You Make Me Realize (21 minutes, according to a friend.) After hearing so much about this infamous climax of the My Bloody Valentine live expirence, I was expecting more. I feel confident in saying I understand what they were trying to accomplish, but the end result was more like having your head inside a jet engine than anything remotely artful.

Which leads me to the volume. Complaining about the volume at a My Bloody Valentine show is missing the point. However, I've been to some loud shows in my time and I've been to several loud shows with fantastically clear sound. I was hoping this would be another, but it wasn't so. About halfway in, it became nearly impossible to determine what they were playing as one sonic glob sounded much like the next. I'm not sure if the sound equipment or the room was to blame, but considering I've heard nearly audiophile sound in Ball State's basketball arena, I know it can be done in most any room, though I do see a history of people complaining abut the sound at the Aragon.

(A quick word about earplugs: without the earplugs, this show was just a rush of white noise and made absolutely no sense. The earplugs were like looking at a Magic Eye poster at that point where you finally get it in focus. It doesn't look exactly right, but you can at least see the shapes in the random patterns. It was one of the more interesting sonic phenomena I've experienced at a concert.)

Unfortunately, this volume, coupled with the sludgy sound, steamrolled over all the things that make My Bloody Valentine such a brilliant band. All the sub-melodies, all those harmonics created from the points where all these layers intersect, all the beauty of the songs underneath it all were swept away in a tidal wave of pure sound. All that remained was a horrifying crush of noise, with drums that crashed down on your throat and an occasional recognizable guitar part rising from the peaks. I can't imagine what someone who hadn't already memorized every nuance of this music would have gotten from this show aside from the blunt physical impact of the sound.

Because of the extreme volume and the amount of stuff obviously happening behind the curtain, it's really difficult to gauge the performance in any meaningful fashion. They showed up, exhibited the exact amount of stage presence they are known for, played a full set and left. Belinda delivered a heartfelt appreciation to the audience and Kevin mumbled a "yeah, thanks." So it went.

The short version would be this: it was exactly the disappointment I expected. And, in some weird way, there is satisfaction in that. I am glad I finally saw them but, even as much as I love this band, I have little desire to see them again.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dear Amazon and the Record Labels.

Hiya. I have a confession to make, I've become completely addicted to the Amazon mp3 Store's mp3 Special Deals. Specifically, I check daily to see what the deal of the day is. These deals of the day are albums on sale from .99 cents to $2.99, compared to the usual $5 and up.

Here's the thing about it, these bargain prices, combined with the quality of Amazon's downloads and the ease of using the service have gotten me to buy more music via download than I normally would. For instance, today I bought Jay-Z's Vol. 3. I think I have most of this album floating around on my PC somewhere, but it was .99 cents. At that price, it was a total no brain decision. I've also bought several other albums that I wouldn't have touched at full price or even some that I might have already acquired through less honest means. And I've even bought one or two on the Friday 5 special for the slightly higher price of $5.

My point is, the combination of lower prices and the quality of product and ease of use has made this guy buy more than he normally would, even when he knows where he could get the stuff for free. Perhaps it might be worth trying this with more than just an album of the day (and five on Friday) and seeing what happens?

Yours,

Rob Guernsey

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

8 Simple Rules for Selling Music in Today's Market

The music blogsphere is all a twitter having a good laugh at slotMusic, this month's savior of the recording industry. Once again, this is an idea so silly, so outdated (not to mention they've already tried, and failed, at selling music on a memory card once before,) and so clueless that any half interested school kid could tell you why this isn't going to work.

Since I've already missed the first wave of specific slotMusic bashing, and since I'm getting tired of making a post every couple of months outlining all the same reasons whatever new thing big content is trying to roll out is going to fail, I'm going for a more general approach to this post. I feel pretty confident these rules apply to slotMusic or the next download store or whatever else they want to cook up.

So here they are, in a rough order of importance:

1. Your music must be iPod compatible. While other mp3 players are making inroads, the iPod is still the market leader and probably will be for a long time. Tying files with non-Apple compatible DRM or making the files much more difficult to transfer to an iPod than pushing one button is an almost certain trip to the dustbin of history.

2. You are competing with free.The big companies see Apple's .99 cents per track/$9.99 an album as a good starting point, but the truth is, it's pretty much the end of the line. When it's as easy (if not easier) to find an unauthorized free download for a vast majority of the music out there as it is to actually buy it, the closer you are getting to free, the more likely you are to have people turn to legit music services rather than blogs or torrents.

3. Convenience is key. Music blogs don't require the use of a convoluted download manager. Most torrents have files properly tagged and organized. Both bring the music straight to your desktop, ready to load on the mp3 player of your choosing, without having to leave the house. A surprising number of the legal download services I've used miss one or more of these things. When you make people work for something they've already paid for, it tends to push them back to the people offering it as they want it, for free.

4. If you don't have it, they can't buy it. As much as I love eMusic, I don't see anyway a new music service could survive without the full support of the four major labels and a healthy selection of the biggest indies. The iTunes and Amazons of the world have conditioned customers to expect pretty much anything they want, when they want it. If you don't have it, they will find it elsewhere.

5. Physical media is dying. The problem isn't that customers want a shiny new format. They aren't asking for a successor to the CD. They don't want gimmicky memory cards and, once the trend/nostalgia dies down, they won't be buying vinyl. People don't want anything they have to go to the store for. They don't want anything taking up more space. Aside from a dwindling number of holdouts, people just don't want stuff. All they want is the music and it is entirely possible to have one without the other.

6. Less DRM, not more. Ahh, digital rights management. How those on the Internet do love to hate you. Well, that hatred (or at least awareness of what you ever are) is starting to spill over from a small, but vocal, group of people to a more mainstream consumer. (See the Spore backlash on Amazon for instance.) With Yahoo and Microsoft announcing shutdowns of their authentication servers, more people are experiencing the worst case scenario with DRM encoded files and vowing to have nothing to do with them in the future.

7. It's time for bitrates to go up. When the iTunes Music Store launched, the 128kbp was justified by the fact that it created smaller files and boadband was just starting to cut into dial-up's domination. Now that really isn't as much of an issue as the number of users still on dial-up is small. Consumers are also starting to expect higher quality, as the novelity factor of the format has worn off. Devices can store more in smaller packages. There's no reason not to take advantage of this.

8. If you are keeping up, you're falling behind. What I mean is this; look at the market leaders Apple and Amazon. They have a huge market share and I think people are mostly satisfied with the service those two provide. If you are doing less than what they are, you're already dead, but even if you are providing something similar, people are going to need a little more to convince them to check you out. Improving on any of the previous seven rules I've mentioned is a good start, but I'm talking about going above and beyond even that.

For a start, how about bringing album art back? Yes, I know some albums on the iTunes Music Store come with a digital booklet but I think there's plenty of potential to improve on what they've done and make it more common.

Then there's all the extra stuff they've been throwing in with CDs to try to make them more appealing. I'm talking about videos, ringtones, etc. Instead of seeing these things as additional profit centers, how about bundling them with albums, like they do with the physical CD? Give the consumer a little extra reason to buy the album from you (and DON'T raise the price.)

I could go on, but I think I've done enough of the music industry's work for them already today. So, these are my 8 Simple Rules for Selling Music in Today's Market. What do you think? Did I miss something? Am I crazy? Or is it already too late? (I'm still considering that last one as a very real possibility.) Drop a comment and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Our Summer Rides Part 2: The Beetle

Warning: this post contains hot topless Beetle action.

Last post I covered what has been essentially my wife's summer ride. Now I'm going to show you mine. I was lucky enough to be driving a 1974 Convertible Volkswagen Beetle that looks about like it rolled off the showroom floor.

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The story on this car is that it had a pretty charmed life. I guess it sat in an Al Capone's restaurant for a long time, though we've yet to figure out the connection there. My father-in-law collects cars and found it at auction. So, technically it's not ours, but it pretty much is for as long as we want to drive it.

Aside from a few things, this car looks to be all original with a little over 17k miles on the clock when we got it. I had to have the carburetor rebuilt (don't store old cars with gas in the line, it gums things up) and the mechanics discovered the front end had been rebuilt as a maintenance thing with all new bushings that wouldn't break down like the originals. In fact, the mechanic, a 20 year VW vet, told me this was the nicest driving '74 bug he'd ever been in.

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And this car is a joy to drive (or it has been since the carb rebuild. No more random stalling!) Granted, this is a little tougher for me to drive than the Smart as my knees are into the steering wheel. So, I have to sit a little funny, but I've gotten used to it.

The old VW engine is a reliable beast. Not really that exciting, but I have confidence that with proper care, this thing will outlive us all. And aside from a few touch up spots and peeling chrome on one hubcap, this car is in beautiful shape. Ok, so the radio is dead. That's about the only negative.

Unfortunately, we live in the Midwest which means snow and road salt. So, the Beetle is about to get mothballed for the season. It also means I'll probably go back to driving an much less exciting modern Passat. But here's a couple more pictures in the meantime. Enjoy the car pr0n.

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Now playing: Earl Bostic - A Taste Of Fresh Air
via FoxyTunes

Monday, September 15, 2008

Nico's Blue Butt


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Originally uploaded by CaptainWrong

The other day a mysterious blue spot showed up on Nico. I don't know if she sat on a marker or a pen exploded in Kristen's office and she found it. This picture was after I tried to clean her up and mostly I just smudged it and turned the spot into a stripe.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Beans in the Bag

Sorry for the quality on this. It was a "strike now while the cat is doing something cute" thing.

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He's still hanging out in the shoulder strap of the bag.

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Our Summer Rides Part 1: The Smart

A few years ago Kristen and I went to Europe. One of the random sites we both enjoyed was the tiny Smart car which was everywhere. There were two models, a more basic people mover which could be parked perpendicular to the curb, and the mini-roadster. We meant to rent one for an afternoon as we figured they'd never bring them out here.

About a year ago a slightly modified version of the fortwo arrived in the US and now we have one. The US version is slightly longer (no crazy parking with this one) so you might have a fighting chance in a collision with an SUV and has a Mitsubishi engine instead of one made by Smart's parent company Mercedes.



We've had the Smart for a few months now and I think it's safe to say we're both kind of unimpressed. OK, if you want a car to turn heads (for the time being anyway,) you're looking at one. Everywhere we go, we get stopped with dozens of questions about the car. It's kind of annoying, truthfully.

The finish and features on it are very well done. (I think our car has nearly all the options.) The inside is comfortable, even for someone 6'3", though if the seat leaned back my visibility would be greatly improved. You can tell thought went into this vehicle. (Road noise is a bit more than I'd like though.)



And it does get good gas millage, but not as good as you might think. The Honda Fit gets almost the same MPG and has four seats and something closer to a real trunk. I think the MPG was another thing that was compromised in the trip across the ocean, but I might be mistaken in thinking the foreign ones do better with gas.

While it's fun to drive, it's also a bit quirky. The three cylinder engine isn't going to break any land speed records but it gets the job done. However, I just can't get used to the "auto-manual" transmission. I guess this is supposed to give the benefits of a manual with the convenience of a automatic, but it feels to me like it's shifting and someone in the passenger seat is working the clutch.

Then there's the cost. The Passion Cabriolet (kind of a convertible, but more like a glorified sun roof) we're driving starts at almost $17K. Fully outfitted like ours is, it's closer to $19K. Granted, you can go base model at $11.5K but, as difficult as these are to come by now (22 month waiting list, we were told,) I'm sure any dealer is going to up sell as many extras as they can.

So, the Smart is an interesting little car. Until these are easier to come by, I think anyone interested would be better off checking out the Fit or a Scion. The gas mileage isn't that much worse and you get more car for the money.

The questions we always get asked about the Smart:

Q: What kind of millage does that get?
A: We average in the mid-30s with mostly in town driving.

Q: How much did it cost?
A: Ours was in the $18k range, but it's about as top of the line as you can get.

Q: Is it electric/hybrid?
A: No, standard gas engine.

Q: Can you take that thing on the interstate?
A: Yes, though the acceleration makes merging a bit of a nail biter sometimes.

Q: How much does it weight?
A: No clue.

Q: Can you fit in that?
A: Yes, but I have to watch my head putting the top back.

Q: Where' the engine?
A: In the back.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Disneyland vs. Magic Kingdom

Two theme parks enter...only one will leave...

I have a love/hate relationship with the Disney corporation. I have a deep love and respect for the company's history, but I absolutely hate the way the modern company pisses all over that legacy. I love the fact that Disney extended health benefits to same-sex partners in a time when it was rather risky to do so, but I am completely repulsed by the way Disney's lawyers keep getting copyright laws rewritten to favor Disney.

I could go on like this all day, but one thing is certain: they still know how to run a theme park. (Of course, that whole love/hate thing pops up again, but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

We got back from California a few days ago and before leaving we spent a couple of days at Disneyland. It was my first trip there. About this time last year, we spent a week at Disney World in Florida, which was a return trip for me.

It was pretty cool to me to check the differences between the two. One might assume that they were simply East and West versions of the same thing. Well, yes and no. For a number of reasons, the parks are similar, but not identical.

Two of my favorite retro signs together, Disneyland and Denny's.

Walt Disney World was an attempt to correct a major flaw of Disneyland: limited space. As Disneyland grew in popularity, other businesses moved in around it. The Magic Kingdom is much more spread out than Disneyland and several of the signature landmarks (the princess castles, Space Mountain) are noticeably larger in Florida.

On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that Disneyland was still thought of as the definitive Disney park and the rides in California reflected this fact. Even if this isn't true, that's how it seemed to me for the most part.

Unfortunately, we only got to ride two of my top four favorite rides. Pirates of the Caribbean is definitely better in California (even if all the skeleton stuff happens at the beginning of the ride, which doesn't make much sense to me) with a second drop and a whole scene missing in Florida (plus they still have "We wants the redhead!"). And, after about 27 times through, I had to admit, the completely different Disneyland Space Mountain trumps the one on the other coast.

Best I could do for WDW. Sorry.

As for the rest, well, it seems like Disneyland is a bit more in touch with its history than the Magic Kingdom. Like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride? Go to Cali. Want to see the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room closer to what it was (the show is shorter than originally)? Again, California is the place you gotta be. Sure, there's some things axed in Disneyland as well (Peoplemover, Carousel of Progress) but, for the most part Disneyland is a lot more like the Magic Kingdom I remember.

While I appreciate times change and some of the rides are woefully outdated (Mission to Mars, anyone?) it's really not necessary to get rid of things that still work. And while the changes made to Pirates probably make it a better ride, the injecting of new characters and licenses into things "just because" drives me nuts. I noticed a lot less of that at Disneyland and found myself spending a lot less time sulking over changes than I did in the Magic Kingdom. (I'm still kind of nervous about what they're doing to It's a Small World though. Yes, I really like that ride in all it's Mary Blair/'64 World's Fair glory.)

While Disneyland itself might not be as impressive in scope, I found the rides to be better and less tampered with than those at the Magic Kingdom. On the other hand, Disneyland only boasts the California Adventure as a second gate while Walt Disney World adds Epcot (which was more impressive in the 80s,) Disney/MGM Studios*, the water park, Animal Kingdom and the resorts.

If I had to chose one over the other, it would easily be Disneyland. I have to admit, by day three I was starting to feel like we'd done it all (going at off peak time rocks.) Disneyland is somewhere to go on vacation while Disney World is a vacation in itself. However, we ended up with annual passes so we'll be back.


*sidenote: the Florida Tower of Terror blows the Cali one away. Both are fun, but you can tell the Disney/MGM Studios version was put up before they came to their senses and realized it was maybe too complicated of an attraction to run stably. Still, the differences are huge and I'd risk having the ride not running to get the superior expirence.