What If Apple REALLY Gave A Shit About Music....

The website for Apple's new streaming service, Apple Music says that the company is "Profoundly passionate about music."

I disagree. 

While the streaming service promises to be a great experience for music listeners, it is going to be a bust for the independent musicians who create the content of that service. 

I've written a bit about why here and here and have been trying to think of solutions.

One obvious one is for Apple to increase their streaming rates. Right now they're twice what Spotify pays, but that's not as generous as it may seem. While major artists like Taylor Swift will still make plenty of money with this model, smaller artists will have a tough time even breaking even. For example, if someone goes to buy my album for $9.99, in the past I would have been paid about $6. Now I'll get $.002 per stream - I'll need a LOT of streams to make the same amount of money. 

But in addition, one of the main qualms the general public seems to have with streaming rates is that all the money is going to go to labels anyway, not to the artists. 

So I had an idea. It's a crazy idea, but it's one that IS possible. 

It's an idea that's visionary and bold - two qualities of vision that Apple prides itself in having. Most readers will say that it will likely never happen, but if it did, the effect could be very positive. Revolutionary even. 

This past weekend there was a moveON petition asking Apple to include album credits in Apple music, so when you click on a Miles Davis album you can see that Gil Evans was the arranger and that Paul Chambers played bass. 

This would be a good thing for sure, but I couldn't help feeling a little sad when I saw so many of my musician friends passionately "sharing" it: wouldn't it be great if there was a similar petition asking Apple to make their streaming service sustainable?

So I thought of another petition. Why not petition Apple to take $500 Million a year and form an independently run board to provide grants to independent artists to cover part or all of their recording costs. Say between $1000 and $10,000. While this may seem like a lot of money, $500 million just a drop in the bucket for Apple - they're sitting on $178 BILLION dollars in a cash, a number which will likely grow in the coming years.

But for the music industry, especially independent and non mainstream musicians, this could be the shot in the arm that could revitalize their music economy. 

I know their are issues with grants and these types of organizations, but I'd say that the benefits would far outweigh the negatives. I've spent the past two years in Vancouver, and while the Canada Council for the Art's budget is small ($125 Million with only $25 million given to independent artists) I've seen a noticeable effect on how it plays into the music and arts economy here, versus in the US. To be blunt, I'm getting paid more for the the small day to day gigs I have here than I ever did in the US. Musicians can apply for funding for their album, and these monies go to support the entire music economy: recording studios, side musicians, rehearsals, mastering engineers.

A guitar player friend of mine even just got a grant so he could study with the saxophonist Tim Berne in NYC. While the system isn't perfect, I have to say, musicians here seem to be struggling less. 

If Apple were to give back directly to the musicians that are helping fill their coffers by providing the content that people fill their Ipods with, it wouldn't just be innovative: It would show that Apple really DOES care about music. 

The Apple Music site also says that "This is just the beginning."

Hopefully the next step is an innovative and sustainable way of compensating artists, so that the laggard music industry can thrive once again.

SUSTAINABILITY.....at $.002 Per Stream

I haven't spent a ton of time in California, but I've been there enough to know one thing: people in San Fran, Berkeley and Palo Alto love their farmers markets. They love sustainability. They understand that if the coffee farmer doesn't get paid a "fair trade" price for his or her beans, then the coffee doesn't taste as good, the farmer doesn't live as well, and in the long term the system can't sustain itself. 

The quality of a sustainably produced organic small farm batch of heirloom lettuce tastes better than the pesticide laden shredded iceburg that you get on your Subway sandwich. 

So I was really confused when I saw that Apple, one of the most innovative companies in the world, whose employees all live around San Francisco and Berkeley and Palo Alto, couldn't think of a more innovative and sustainable solution for musicians and artists when they unveiled their streaming service a few weeks back. Apple toutes their commitment to using renewable energy in the building of their products: http://www.apple.com/environment/

But they can't seem to apply the same logic to the artists and musicians that make up their Itunes roster. 

Musicians have seen their industry cut in half since 2000. In 2014, the ENTIRE music industry brought in revenue of $14 Billion dollars.

That may sound like a lot, but Apples reserve cash amount is $178 Billion.(http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/feb/02/apple-cash-mountain-grows)

Despite this enormous wealth, Apple initially wasn't going to pay musicians anything at all during the three month free trial period of their service. 

That's like Blue Bottle giving away free coffee, but not paying the farmers for the beans. Not very sustainable or Fair Trade. 

Now I realize that most people's images of a poor coffee farmer in Nicaragua versus a hipster indie band in Brooklyn are radically different. But despite this, why should the band in Brooklyn not be paid fairly for their work? Especially if it's helping make one of the richest companies in the world even more money. 

Thankfully Taylor Swift came to the rescue and called them out. In less than 24 hours, Apple realized their folly said, "Yes, we will pay....at .002 cents per stream."

That is double what Spotify pays for their free service, but I'm still disappointed.

Streaming is the future, all musicians have to acknowledge that. I've subscribed to Mog and Tidal in the past, and having so much music at my fingertips can be overwhelming, but is also awesome. I can go from listening to the Slits to Art Blakey in an instant. It's great. It's convenient. 

But .002 cents per stream isn't a sustainable amount for independent artists and small labels to be paid if they're going to continue to produce quality music. Music that people want to listen to.

So I ask Tim Cook, and Eddy Cue - can't you think of anything better?

How are you going to REALLY give back to the artists and musicians who have supported Apple products all these years?

How is Apple going to do what no other company has been able to do: make streaming sustainable.   

If you're interested in learning more about Creator's rights in the digital age, check out the Content Creators Organization: www.c3action.org. I write this blog independently of their views and policies, but am actively involved in the organization. 


Looking At Trees With Lou Reed: Reflections On Playing Guitar With a Master

I’ll never forget getting the call at 8 AM to come down to Lou’s to audition for the guitar slot in his band. They wanted me to come in an hour. I was dead tired, my first daughter having been born earlier that week, and I hadn’t expected the call. I also hadn’t worked on the tunes. Nonetheless, I jumped into a cab for his West Village studio, praying that we wouldn’t get stuck in traffic on the Queensborough Bridge. The first thing he said to me when I arrived was, “You’re not going to play any jazz are you? Because this is a rock band.” I found my way into that weird state that exists when you’re exhausted but also know you’ve got the opportunity of a lifetime. I killed the audition—I remember him smiling as we played.

A few weeks later we were listening to trumpeter Don Cherry with an intensity and appreciation that none of my college jazz professors could come close to. Lou picked up on every nuance of every note—and loved it.

When I tell people I played with Lou Reed, the first reaction is often, “I hear he’s difficult.” To which I reply, “Do you really want it to be easy? Do you think any great art comes out of having a nice relaxing time?”

Multi-instrumentalist Doug Weiselman once said to me that while Lou could rip someone to shreds he didn’t get enough credit for how passionate, enthusiastic and supportive he could be when he heard something that was ON. At a rehearsal once with the great saxophonist James Carter, James played these incredibly beautiful low notes—Lou and I just looked at each other. The gig was great too, but there was something about that rehearsal and how James played, the spirit that he invoked—it was so deep, Lou talked about it for weeks.

For Lou playing as if your life depended on it was all that mattered. He instantly knew if it was happening and he lived by that litmus test. When he ripped on people, it was only because he was trying to wake them up, to make their art alive and to make them play with this level of attention.

I once said to him, “Lou, it doesn’t bother me when you rip into me, because I know that you’re trying to teach me something, or that I’m being lazy.” And he said “You’re one of the few who gets it.”

Lou was always in the moment. He often said that if the iconic “Wild Side” solo had been recorded a few hours later it would have been different. On many occasions we would work on something for hours and play it that way the next day only to have Lou say, “No no no, that’s not it.” Inevitably someone would respond with, “Lou that’s what we came up with yesterday.”

“That was yesterday. Today is today.”

And it didn’t matter if he was at a rehearsal or at a festival in front of 40,000 people. Lou didn’t care. Or rather, he cared more than anyone I’ve ever met about making the music ALIVE and in the PRESENT. He didn’t stand on ceremony, regardless of the environment.

Our first festival show was in England. The other guitarist/violinist, Tony Diodore, and I had never played in front of 40,000 people. It’s an overwhelming amount of energy. And on top of that, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith were watching us from the side of the stage.

Tony was taking a violin solo on the song “Ecstasy.” We had rehearsed a certain length for the solo and when we came to the end he wound down as planned. Lou yelled, “keep going!” And again, “keep playing!” Lou wouldn’t let up. He shouted it over and over.

At first Tony noodled a bit, but then something flipped and he started wailing. And the crowd went nuts. Lou taught him how to really play that day.

I see so many bands today that seem dead, like they’re running through the motions, afraid to make mistakes. Everything is so perfect—even when they’re trying to be punk, it’s so calculated. And I see it because of Lou.

The other day I was talking to guitar tech Stewart Hurwood about the awesomeness of sound checks with Lou. Most of the time bands’ sound checks involve running through a song, making sure everything is working properly, maybe a little rehearsing on something. But with Lou they were marathons, going two or three hours. Usually right until the doors opened.

We’d get really into the songs, making them better and better. And then better.

I remember one time in Bordeaux when he decided the saxophone sounded too much like a saxophone. “Let’s make it sound like something we’ve never heard before,” he said. And out came the pedals. Fuzzes and harmonizers and such.

Lou was on the ground twiddling the knobs and he was like a teenager again, just loving exploring the sound until he found that perfect cacophony. It reminded me of that beautiful space you’re in when you get your first fuzz pedal. You just love the sound. Lou was in that space all the time.

And the beautiful thing is that he didn’t have to do it. He was already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was already famous and rich. And we only had a few shows left in the tour.

He could have just said, Ah it sounds fine. Or found one weird sound and have just gone with that. But he always kept pushing and pushing, constantly searching for the next level.

When Lou was 70 he did a record with Metallica. Think about how punk that is. Think about what you’ll be doing when you’re 70. It’s such a beautiful, moving record, but so few people took the time to dig into it. I’ve listened to it probably 100 times and played songs from it hundreds of times. I didn’t like it at first. It’s a very difficult record to listen to because it goes so deep into uncomfortable feelings we all spend so much time on the computer ignoring.

But if “Junior Dad” doesn’t move you to tears, well, you need to wake the fuck up. Check out the live version from Dresden and Lou improvising lyrics as fireworks go off. We were all surprised by the fireworks, and what he improvised spontaneously was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been a part of. It was like God was speaking through him to us.

Our show in Lyon at the famous amphitheater on top of the hill is still my favorite gig of all time. On “Sunday Morning,” I took a guitar solo, and you can hear Lou whisper to me at the end, “Keep going. Show off.”

And then there was the time we played Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” at the Highline Ballroom in NYC. After the show Michael Stipe came up to me and said “I don’t normally like guitar solos, but you moved me to tears tonight.” Lou was sitting on the steps and he looked up to me and said “You DO know who that is, don’t you? That’s a big deal.” When stuff like that happens, it’s such a strange thing, because it’s not really you that’s doing it. It’s some other thing. But it’s a thing Lou enabled night after night.

The second to last show we ever played at together was at Leamington Spa in England. It actually wasn’t a spa, that’s just the name of the town. It was a really cool old theatre that maybe held 1000 people. And it had a really small stage. Before Lou arrived at sound check, we were all worried—because of the small size of the stage, we were all on top of each other, and the bass amp was actually in front of the band. This makes it tough for the whole band to play, because you lose that punch and rumble you have when the bass amp is behind you. Lou really cared about the sound and the power of the sound, so we were worried this would bother him. But when he arrived and saw the setup, he said, “It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we have fun.”

I think this was a turning point. Of course he still cared, but on these last shows we played together we got back to something that’s even more important than making mind-blowing art: having fun playing rock n’ roll.

I’ll say one more thing.

We were in France on a rainy day in a hotel lobby, all dead tired from an early morning flight. In a few hours we had to play a festival in the rain.

Lou looked and me and said, “Aram, say something positive.” He’d say this to me now and then.

I said “Lou, look at how beautiful the trees are in the rain. They’re so green.”

And he smiled and said “Yeah, they’re beautiful.”

And we sat and looked at them for a bit.

I miss you, Lou.

Thank You Taylor, But Independent Musicians Are Still Fucked

I play guitar in avant-garde music circles, but I have a confession: I love Taylor Swift and other pop music. Some people might turn their nose up at her hooky melodies, but I dig them, and even use “Shake it off” to teach my students about syncopation.

 As a guitar player, I’ve spent my adult life cobbling together different income sources so that I could make my art. I taught music to kindergarteners. I was lucky enough to tour extensively with Lou Reed and jazz singer Diana Krall, and in between tours I would help people rent apartments as a real estate broker in NYC’s competitive real estate market. Now I teach at-risk youth part-time and do a few small tours a year. My wife and our two little girls manage to have a simple but happy lifestyle.

I also sell a small number of albums of my original music. I’ve released the albums independently, as even with my experience as an artist, I found that few labels were willing to make the investment to sign a non-established act, especially one that is playing non-mainstream music.  

Releasing my albums on my own has been a challenging but rewarding experience. Despite receiving great critical response, I’ve only sold a few hundred copies of each album, not thousands of copies. But I’ve still managed to sell enough to keep producing more music.

While most of my sales are directly though my website or Bandcamp, iTunes also provides a portion of my sales.

This is why I got freaked out when I read that Apple was launching their own streaming service. I’ve purposefully kept my albums off of Spotify and other streaming sites. I believe that there are enough ways for people to sample my music and if they want to listen to the whole album, they can pay $7 and purchase it.

Now with iTunes music streaming, when someone goes to purchase my record, they will be given a choice – they can either buy my album for $9.99, or stream my album and the ENTIRE ITUNES CATALOGUE for $9.99 a month.

What do you think most people are going to choose to do?

Apple is betting that the person who buys less than 12 albums a year will sign up for the streaming service and they’ll make more money. But it’s the independent artists and labels like me that are going to get fucked over by this.

I’m not selling 10s of thousands of records, and I understand the reality that music like mine most likely never will. But, I CAN sell a few hundred records, and each one of those sales makes a difference to me. It means the difference between whether or not I can afford to make a new album or not. It means the difference between whether or not I can continue to support the music economy by hiring sound engineers to mix my record, or mastering engineers to master it. It effects how much I can afford to pay my musician colleague when they play on my albums.

If artists like me are now facing an income stream of a few micro cents per play from iTunes Streaming vs. the $6 we’d receive from an iTunes album sale, we’re going to face a significant cut in our incomes.

For major acts, this will certainly have impact, but they’ll make up for it in touring. But with small acts that make non-conforming music, these few sales can make the difference between producing a new album or not. 

I’m very grateful that Taylor Swift spoke up against Apple and their decision to not pay artists during their 3 month sign up period, and I hope that more established  artists will start speaking out and following her lead. In one weekend she effectively won pay for 100s of thousands of artists when they wouldn't have gotten paid. That's wonderful. 

But also, let's keep going and fighting the fight!

If streaming is going to become a viable alternative to traditional sales and downloads, it needs to become sustainable for the creators of content. In the same way we sign up for Farm Shares so that we can support sustainable agriculture, we need to start thinking about the arts in terms of how the creators are being supported and compensated.

So again - Thank You Taylor! I sincerely give you a heartfelt thanks!

But let's keep up the fight!

If you're interested in learning more about Creator's rights in the digital age, check out the Content Creators Organization: www.c3action.org. I write this blog independently of their views and policies, but am actively involved in the organization.