Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

What Mark Twain can teach us about Bob Dylan

The wildly varying reactions to Bob Dylan among people of different cities, different temperaments and different age groups reminded me of a passage from my favorite book, Mark Twain’s “A Tramp Abroad.”

The English-speaking German gentleman who went with me to the opera there was brimming with enthusiasm over that tenor.

He said: “ACH GOTT! a great man! You shall see him. He is so celebrate in all Germany–and he has a pension, yes, from the government. He not obliged to sing now, only twice every year; but if he not sing twice each year they take him his pension away.”

Very well, we went. When the renowned old tenor appeared, I got a nudge and an excited whisper:

“Now you see him!”

But the “celebrate” was an astonishing disappointment to me. If he had been behind a screen I should have supposed they were performing a surgical operation on him. I looked at my friend–to my great surprise he seemed intoxicated with pleasure, his eyes were dancing with eager delight. When the curtain at last fell, he burst into the stormiest applause, and kept it up–as did the whole house–until the afflictive tenor had come three times before the curtain to make his bow. While the glowing enthusiast was swabbing the perspiration from his face, I said:

“I don’t mean the least harm, but really, now, do you think he can sing?”

“Him? NO! GOTT IM HIMMEL, ABER, how he has been able to sing twenty-five years ago?” [Then pensively.] “ACH, no, NOW he not sing any more, he only cry. When he think he sing, now, he not sing at all, no, he only make like a cat which is unwell.”

Where and how did we get the idea that the Germans are a stolid, phlegmatic race?

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 11, 2009 at 20:45

Posted in Music

Metacritic, Pandora and the Internet guide to becoming a music snob

2008 was the year I decided to become a music snob.

Specifically, I decided to tap into the variety of music provided by online music services and see if the critics of the world had anything to teach me.

A lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction against critics. It’s become fashionable to automatically reject anything a critic says, simply because he’s a critic, as if it was some kind of declaration of independence.

But blindly reacting against critics is just as silly as blindly following them. In the old days, we had to take our critics one at a time. But now the Internet has simplified the process.

I started my journey into snobbery at Metacritic.com, a site that aggregates critical reviews of movies, music, television and video games. Metacritic uses a complex formula to assign a numerical score to each review, then it averages the scores and comes up with a percentile figure that represents the critical zeitgeist.

Right now the “Watchmen” movie has a Metascore of 56 out of 100, with the reaction evenly split between critics who loved it and critics who hated it.

You can browse the left rail of a section and find out just how bad your taste is. My taste in movies would be described as “hopelessly mainstream.” I don’t waste time on B-movie dogs, but I’m not seeing a lot of Oscar winners either.

I wasn’t ready to surrender my movie watching to the equivalent of a computer dating service, but I was so desperate to find good music I decided to take a leap of faith.

I called up the Metacritic Top 30 albums of 2008 and started making Last.fm and Pandora playlists based on artists I’d never heard of.

The Metacritic list didn’t just change my musical taste; it changed the way I approach music. All my life I’d employed a ruthless 30-second cutoff rule. If a song didn’t grab me in 30 seconds, I figured it probably wasn’t worth my time.

When it comes to music I’m a horrible channel flipper – never staying with one track, one album or one radio station for any appreciable length of time.

With the Metacritic tracks, I decided to wait it out. These tracks don’t reach out and grab you the way mainstream pop does. I didn’t take to them immediately the way I did with Kelly Clarkson, P!nk or the All-American Rejects.

This was a different kind of music and it deserved a different kind of attention. I set my Metacritic stations on random and let the music play, forcing myself to sit still and keep my hand off the skip button.

Nothing really grabbed me on the first pass. But as time went on, I found myself returning to certain tracks. I could not have predicted the results.

Styles that I dismissed as “not my thing” grew on me until I was wildly outside my comfort zone.

A few big surprises

Critics are crazy for a band called Fleet Foxes. Their music has a kind of dreamy, dramatic quality that makes the album sound like a fantasy soundtrack from another world. I was entranced by “White Winter Hymnal” and eventually grew to like the whole album.

The biggest surprise was a Swedish pop star named Robyn. Her self-titled release is a peculiar mashup of electronica and white girl hip-hop. In my old life, I wouldn’t be caught dead listening to stuff like this, but Robyn’s lyrics have an absurd ironic quality to them – American street slang wielded by a voice that sounds wrong for it. The result is oddly beautiful and irresistibly cute. Robyn lays down classic hip-hop attitude with a playful European style. The album took a bit to win me over, but now I can’t get enough.

The other surprise was my introduction to alt country. Don’t ask me about the difference between country and alt country, please. I don’t know, and no one can tell me. Even the experts can’t decide on the difference.

Whatever you call them, I’m blown away by the Drive-By Truckers. Critics call it alt country but I’d call it dark country. There is a depth and poignancy here that propels them beyond your usual pull the heart strings, point-and-shoot country fare, a darkness that puts these tracks beyond the reach of mainstream twang.

I enjoyed Bon Iver and TV On the Radio in a pleasant, general way. Good music, but nothing that really grabbed me.

I fell in love with Sam Phillips but I’m not smart enough to describe her. I’ll just put her down as the musical equivalent of a good cigar – slow and smoky with a nice aftertaste.

Neil Young and Randy Newman were both terrible disappointments. Their reputations led me to expect great things, but I’m too Southern to forgive Neil, and I gave up on Randy Newman’s shtick about 10 minutes into “Toy Story.”

Metacritic also introduced me to some world music. “London Zoo” by The Bug is full of something called “underground dubstep,” a genre of music inspired by Jamaican beats and South London grime. I won’t claim to understand what’s happening on this album, but it’s genuinely compelling. This is the kind of album that made my journey worthwhile. Play it for a while and you can actually feel doors opening in your brain.

Experiments like this are not for everyone. I don’t want to claim any kind of superiority here, and I don’t want to confer any special anointment on critics, but I think this adventure is a testament to the power of the Internet – the power of information – filtered, aggregated and turned into music.

It taught me a lesson about the banality of prejudice and the good things that can happen when we let it go.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 27, 2009 at 18:28

Posted in Columns, Music

Why does the Internet hate Billy Joel?

Why would anyone need to defend Billy Joel?

Billy Joel is like a rainbow or a sunset or a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.

Billy Joel doesn’t need your pity. Billy Joel just is.

Until I got an Internet connection, I didn’t think it was possible to hate Billy Joel. It’s like hating puppies or french fries or Christmas trees. But if you put the right words in Google, you can find people who hate those things, too.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time defending Billy Joel this week, arguing on various message boards, trying to explain the difference between the way normal people consume music versus the way critics consume music.
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 28, 2009 at 09:46

Posted in Music

Confessions of an Incompetent DJ

My “KTXT memories” column is live on GO!

Print version comes out Friday.

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 17, 2008 at 17:02

Posted in Best Of, Music

A 5-point Plan to Resurrect KTXT

An open letter to the gang at KTXT:

Step One: Don’t ask for money

I know you guys are angry right now, and I know what kind of people were drawn to KTXT. You guys are advocates and organizers and champions of noble causes. Your first impulse will be to protest, to throw your energy into petitions and signs and marches aimed at reversing this decision.

The movement has already started.

I respect your efforts and I know you have to try. Think of this plan as a fallback position — something to keep the torch burning if the protest doesn’t work.

Step Two: Don’t sell out

If you can’t save the station with pledge drives or public money, your minds will naturally turn to sponsorship. This sounds smart, but it’s actually the worst thing that could happen to you.

Do you really think some nightclub owner with hair plugs and cowboy boots knows how to do Indie radio?

In this arena, you guys are the experts and a sponsor is baggage you don’t need.

Step Three: Embrace freedom

Remember all those rules you hated? The time constraints and content restrictions? The FCC rules and the university rules and the student media rules? The gentle lectures and the angry phone calls and the lame debates that came up, every time you wanted to do something cool?

All those rules just vanished. Poof. Gone.

You guys are free now.

There’s a whole new world waiting for you, and the FCC can’t touch it yet.

Step Four: Build a new wheel

Alternate title for this was “Duff’s Dirty Dozen plan for saving KTXT”.

First, get 12 people. Find 12 of the coolest, smartest, most passionate people you know — people with drive, people with connections — people who love music more than anything else in the world.

Go to WordPress or Typepad or Blogger and grab a free blog. Make 12 user accounts and turn them loose. No categories, no editors, no rules. Let these people post about anything they want — movies, comics, politics, music, books — whatever.

Here’s video from a show I saw last night. Here’s 30 shots from a party I went to. Here’s a Rolling Stone interview with some guy from The Flaming Lips. Here’s five questions with the guys who were at Bright House last night. Here’s an hour-long podcast we made at somebody’s house after the show.

Don’t plan too much, don’t overthink it, and any time somebody talks about money, kick them out.

And if any part of this is not fun, stop doing it and do something else.

This isn’t about money. This is about love.

You can’t make money yet because you have nothing to sell. All money can do at this point is start fights. At this stage of the project, money really is the root of all evil. Don’t just ignore advertising — actively refuse advertising, for at least three months.

You’re building a brand here; it’ll take six months just to see what you have.

Some people will post like mental patients and burn out in a week. Some people will set schedules and post every day. Some people will go strong for months and fade when they get married.

Don’t worry about it. Just wish them well and replace them. And remember, there are no rules anymore. You’re not restricted to Lubbock people and you’re not restricted to current Tech students. You’ve got 20 years of KTXT alums on speed dial, and Skype calls are free.

You can assemble a podcast with Skype, Audacity and a free RSS feed — pulling talent from anywhere in the world.

Step Five: Don’t stop the music

Here’s the part I don’t know. You guys are the music experts. Put your heads together and call in some favors. I know Indie artists are eager to establish themselves on MySpace and most of them distribute free MP3s.

Contact the agents directly and assemble all the music you can. Launch a free station on Shoutcast — mix in humor bits, stings for your podcasts and a catchy plug for your URL.

Do your homework and keep it legal. It’ll be tempting to cheat on this, but an RIAA notice could kill the whole thing. Do a tour of big music blogs and see how they do it.

Then, in six months or so, when you’re at your bandwidth limit and posts are coming in faster than you can count, that’s when you talk about money.

Twelve hosts, three podcasts, one blog, six months.

You guys took a hard shot this week. I know you’re angry and I know you’re hurt. But I also know what kind of people you are. The KTXT people I knew were brave, passionate, and smart as hell.

They were “mavericks” and iconoclasts and masters of guerrilla marketing.

You have a choice now. You can turn out the lights and feel sorry for yourselves. You can sell your souls to a guy who thinks music stopped with Def Leppard. Or you can invent the future, and make the suits come to you.

UPDATE: Former Station Manager Rocky Ramirez makes some good points about Internet streaming and the unique value of terrestrial radio.

UPDATE: Dawn Zuerker brings up an excellent point in Josh Hull’s story this morning:

Because KTXT-FM is licensed through the FCC as an educational station, regulations strictly limited the type of advertisements that could be broadcast, making revenue generation difficult, said Dawn Zuerker, associate director of the department.

“It can’t be a commercial at all,” Zuerker said, adding the only information that could be mentioned on air was the name of a business, a slogan, the address and a phone number. “It’s harder to sell because you can’t give any specials.”

UPDATE: Here’s a copy of my reply to Rocky:

I can’t dispute the value of terrestrial radio, but please keep in mind, students don’t walk around listening to the radio on Walkmans anymore. They’re listening to podcasts and mp3s on their iPods.

A KTXT podcast, mixing music samples and commentary like the one from KEXP could recapture some of what you’re losing, and a lot of blogs offer free mp3 downloads.

Become a source for smart commentary, in blog and podcast form, distribute promotional mp3s song by song, and students all over campus will access you on laptops and listen to you on iPods.

Streaming audio is a limited application, but iPods can make the whole thing portable.

Podcasts are also timeless. Listeners can grab them and listen to them at their convenience, without worrying about broadcast schedules. Podcasts are also durable.

If listeners want to relive a Christmas concert in February, they can go to the archive and download your coverage of the show.

Of course you’ll still want to focus on Lubbock, but an Internet music hub could reach far beyond Lubbock and get you on the radar of people who will hire you for jobs in the music industry.

A podcast archive becomes an audio resume, available on demand for anyone who notices your work.

UPDATE: And here’s one that just occurred to me. A college radio station is transitory, with a naturally high turnover rate. Students work there for a year or two and move to other cities. An Internet show can let good people stay on after they graduate, contributing to the project even after they move out and get jobs in the “real world.”

These people can add perspective and give career advice. They can even bring trends to Lubbock, as they share music and concert stories from other cities.

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 10, 2008 at 20:16

Posted in Best Of, Music

Indie Rock Salvation

As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown increasingly neurotic about my taste in music. I have this desperate desire to stay “current” with my musical taste. It’s common for people in their late 30’s to fixate on the music they loved in school and then just kind of freeze, locking themselves into a box made of 80’s hits.

I didn’t want to be like that but I couldn’t seem to break out. My musical taste froze in 1996. In desperation, I started flailing around for Top Hits and Best Of collections, trying to find something that would speak to me.

Last month I gave up and went full 80’s retro for a while. It’s fun to revisit childhood for a while, but I didn’t actually like my childhood, so Prince, ZZ Top and Dire Straights were conjuring up memories that I would rather leave behind.

I dug a little deeper and realized I was trying to recreate a college radio alternative playlist from 1989. This was my first year in college, the year I worked the morning shift at KTXT.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

November 7, 2008 at 17:08

Posted in Music

Four minutes that will make you love Billy Joel

“The Springsteen model, only tweaked, turned up, and transformed into a fairy tale of post-apocalyptic New York.”

From this awesome article by Maura Johnston

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 18, 2008 at 20:29

Posted in Music, Video

Julia Nunes does God Only Knows on ukulele

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 26, 2008 at 23:39

Posted in Music, Video

Poll: Are you a music snob?

[poll id=”2″]

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 23, 2008 at 19:59

Posted in Music, Polls