Monthly Archives: July 2009

Help me crowd-produce the "Scatterlings + Refugees" video!

There seem to be at least a few fans of Red State Soundsystem out there, right? So I’ve had an idea, and I’m hoping you’ll help me with it.

The song “Scatterlings + Refugees” is maybe my favorite song I’ve ever written, and it’s going to be on the debut RSS album, Ghosts In A Burning City, which is dropping very, very soon. I’d like to make a video for it. I have access to decent cameras and I can edit and post-produce it myself, thanks to my clever ability to run Final Cut and AfterEffects.

However, rather than just making some moody, forgettable video of me looking haunted in, I dunno, an old factory or some silly bullshit like that, I’d rather do something that speaks to what the song is actually about: namely, the way that people scattered across the world can form a tribe.

So here’s what I’d like you to do.

  1. Download the song, below. This is a rough mix but it’s the final version, if you see what I mean; I may do some EQing on it, but this is the album version of the song.
  2. Go somewhere in the city or town you live in that you think is pretty or strange or representative of your home. Someplace that doesn’t just look like another Western suburb, in other words.
  3. Film yourself singing/lip-syncing the song. Use your cellphone, your iPhone, your digital still camera with the 30 second video option, your Flip, your high-def television broadcast quality shoulder-mounted Panasonic, whatever. Use an old PixelMotion if you’ve got one. Resolution doesn’t matter (though I’d prefer stuff that’s not too heavily compressed and blocky). Ideally your video should be at least 640 x 480, but if it’s really cool and low-res, I’ll be down for that, too. Audio doesn’t matter, as I’ll be dubbing over it with the song, anyway, of course.
  4. If your resulting video is small enough to send as an email attachment, send it to me at jzellis (at) gmail (dot) com. Otherwise, contact me at that address and I’ll send you to my private Dropbox account to upload it. Deadline for this is 11:59 Pacific Standard Time, Friday, July 31st.

When I get enough awesome clips, I’ll edit them together into a full-fledged music video, which will be available on this site and Vimeo and YouTube and Facebook and MySpace and everywhere else I can put it.

Unfortunately, I can’t offer you a free trip to Vegas or a chance to be on Cribs or anything like that. (Are they even still showing Cribs?) What I can offer is a signed CD to every person whose clip gets used in the video, plus a credit and a link on the video’s page here on Zenarchery, and my profuse thanks and an IOU.

I think this is a chance to actually put into practice a lot of the rhetoric going around now about crowdsourcing and making cool things for free on the Web. I hope there are enough of you who dig this song that you’ll help me make something really wonderful to share with the world.

So here goes: here’s the rough mix (128kbps stereo MP3), and below are the lyrics. Let’s do this thing.

SCATTERLINGS + REFUGEES lyrics and music by Joshua Ellis

We are scatterlings and refugees, we have never known peace We have never known a home Home is wherever we are when we’re together Peace is the sound that we make when we’re alone

Well, I rang the New Year in In a field out in the suburbs somewhere outside east Berlin I watched the fireworks burn the night And I wondered where you were and if you were alright

We are scatterlings and refugees, we are bastards, we are orphans We don’t ever make a sound Traversing the oceans in perpetual motion Our feet don’t ever touch the ground

We went dancing Old soul records playing in an alleyway And we are old souls, you and me Disappearing at the dawning of the day

We are scatterlings and refugees, we have never known peace We have never known a home Home is wherever we are when we’re together Peace is the sound that we make when we’re alone

(Bridge)

And when my telephone rings in the dark You say “Hey, I’m at the White Cross On Las Vegas Boulevard” No matter where I am, I’ll get on a plane I’ll go anywhere to see you again

We are scatterlings and refugees We are angels, we are monsters We never mattered anyway We’re the patron saints of rented cars And last goodbyes in airport bars And in the morning, like ghosts We slip away

We slip away

Listen

So I was reading this interview with the lovely and talented Miss Amanda Palmer, and some of what she says made me think of the commentary on the music industry I wrote for Mperia, back in the day — specifically, my little manifesto, “Burning Down The House”. Since Mperia is long gone and the original text isn’t extant on the web, I thought I’d post it here.

I got some of this wrong, but I got most of it right, and it’s gratifying to see how much I got right so far ahead of everyone else’s curve. (Hey, I may sound like a self-congratulatory asshole, but you know what? We failed. My consolation is that I was right, even if I failed. So nyah-nyah-nyah.)


“Burning Down The House”

I. What The Deal Is

So here’s the deal, folks: it’s a new millenium. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, going into this shiny new epoch, it is this: the medium is not the message. “Music” does not equal “compact disc”. Music is data. It doesn’t matter whether you burn it to a CD or rip it to an iPod or a Memory Stick or store it on your hard drive. It’s still music.

Take a minute to internalize this concept.

Once you get past the notion that music has to come in the form of a shiny little Frisbee that retails for $16.99 at your local MegaSuperMusicPavilion, certain other truths that once seemed self-evident begin to unravel — such as the idea that the only way to become a successful musician is by signing a recording contract with a giant corporation.

We don’t think giant corporations are evil by default. But we do think that they’re not very good at feeling the groove. They’re not intuitive. They’re not funky or majestic or numinous. No corporation in the history of civilization has ever stumbled home from a club at the crack of dawn, put the first Velvet Underground album on and kicked back to watch the sun rise. They don’t — can’t — know that feeling.

So why are they the ones who get to make the decisions about who gets to rock and roll?

Which brings us to Mperia.

Mperia allows artists to sell their work directly to their audience — the audience they already have, and the global audience behind every Net-connected browser and PDA and keitai on the planet.

It allows that audience to find the music they already love, and the music they haven’t heard yet — the music that has yet to become part of the soundtrack of their lives.

And maybe most importantly, for the first time in history it allows artists to earn their fortunes based upon their own merits — not the decisions of a marketing department or an accounting department or the fickle whims of the marketplace.

Do we guarantee you instant riches and fame? No. But we can guarantee you the one thing that the record industry has denied you for almost fifty years: a level playing field.

II. The Myth Of The Rock Star

I’d like to tell you a short story. You’ve probably heard it (or a variation of it) a thousand times, but bear with me. See if I get any of the details wrong.

It’s the story of an idealistic kid (or kids) from out in the sticks (or the ghetto, or the trailer park, or the suburbs). The Kid’s got the magic: he sings like an angel. He plays guitar like the very devil. His lyrics are deep and meaningful and poetic.

So the Kid’s playing a gig one day, right? Maybe at some roadhouse, or some smoky nightclub. And Mr. Big, the head of a major record label, just happens to be hanging out in this roadhouse or this nightclub, maybe on his way to and from one of his posh mansions or something. He hears the Kid. And he recognizes true genius.

After the Kid’s done, Mr. Big comes up to him. “Kid, you got heart,” he says. “How about you come out to Los Angeles and make some records for me.”

So the Kid comes out, with nothing but his dreams and his guitar, and records a record. It sells a million copies. Everybody hears the Kid’s music and is touched by it. He starts dating a beautiful-but-sensitive supermodel. He wins a Grammy. He makes a few more albums, and finally retires out of the public eye with Mrs. Kid (neé Supermodel) and the little Kids — either to an old converted manorhouse in England or a ultramodern home in Laurel Canyon — to live in bliss happily ever after.

The end.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. The story of the rock star, the hometown kid done good, is one of the pervasive myths of our time — think of the Beatles in Hamburg, or Kurt Cobain in his trailer in Olympia, or Snoop Dogg on the streets of Long Beach.

Like many myths, it contains a grain of truth. But like all myths, it’s about 99% bullshit.

The myth of the rock star is perpetuated by the recording industry to draw in fresh artists. Without these artists, the recording industry — which, like the Minotaur in another myth, lives solely on the blood of the young and beautiful — would dry up and wither away.

But the reality is much less romantic. It’s difficult to get accurate figures, but one recent estimate I’ve heard suggests that 97% of all musicians with a recording contract make less than $600 a month. That’s musicians with a recording contract; we’re not even counting the hundreds of thousands of musicians slogging away in the bars and the clubs every night who haven’t even caught the eye of a record label — all those Kids with all those dreams.

You’re probably shaking your head right now. Uh uh, man, I watch Cribs. These people are making it big time — they’ve got the big houses, big cars, big clothes, big lifestyle.

Actually, that’s half true. Rock stars do get decked out in big cars and big houses. But they don’t actually own any of it.

Most artists, when they sign a record contract, get an advance — or rather, to call it by its’ full name, an “advance against royalties”. In other words, the record company gives them a fat check up front .But that’s not a payment. It’s a loan, to be paid off by the artist via their album royalties.

Figure that the average recording contract provides the artist with around 12% of the profit from album sales…minus the cost of promotional copies, and copies that arrive at the store broken, and occasionally percentage points awarded to the producer of the album…. When you start doing the math on a CD that sells for $15 retail, you start realizing that the artist has to sell a lot of copies to even begin paying back their advance, much less making any actual money themselves.

And if they don’t sell enough to pay back that advance? The big cars, the big houses, the bling-bling…all of it goes bye-bye. The label repossesses it. The artist is out on the street.

So why don’t you hear about this more often? The answer is quite simple. Most artists don’t figure this out until it’s too late — until their sales start going down. And by that time, you’re not the hot Kid anymore. Nobody’s booking you to go on late night talk shows. Your fifteen minutes are up, and you’re left without a media voice.

At least, that is, until VH-1 comes knocking at your door about ten years later to do your Behind The Music special…and by then, you’re just another rock casualty. And every single Kid who hears your tale of woe thinks “Yeah, but that would never happen to me.”

All of this, by the way, only happens if your record label decides that your music is worth investing the time and money into. I’ve personally known bands who’ve signed with major record labels, only to discover that by the time their first album is recorded and released, they’re not the flavor of the day anymore.

These artists don’t even get fifteen minutes. The label never even releases their album — and they can’t take the album to another label, or even release it themselves, because they’re still contractually obligated to the label that’s tossed them aside. I’ve even known some bands who couldn’t legally perform together as a group anymore because of contractual clauses.

But the business of music is changing. Trailblazing artists like Fugazi and Ani DiFranco have proven the point that you don’t need the vast machinery of a record label behind you to be successful. You can start your own record label. You can record your own albums, do your own promotions, make your own music videos.

Of course, all of these things require money. They used to require so much money that you needed a record label behind you to finance it all.

But time marches on. Affordable home technology improves. Over the upcoming weeks and months, we’ll be showing you how to produce your music at home, find good deals on promotion, even how to shoot your own music videos. We’ve found that what musicians may lack in funding they make up for with creativity and talent.

III. Rich And/Or Famous

Let’s take a look at some figures real quick, and maybe you’ll see why we think Mperia provides artists with a remarkable opportunity.

Let’s say that you’re signed to a label. You get the standard 12% royalty on album sales. We’re going to simplify this and not even deal with the weird little percentage markups and subtractions that the record industry usually throws into these contracts — we’ll just say that you get a straight 12%.

If your album retails for $15, that means you make $1.80 off each album sale. That means that if your album sells 100,000 copies, you stand to make $180,000. Sounds pretty good, right?

But the reality is that most albums sell less than 5,000 copies over a period of months and years. If you did even that well, you’d make $9000 in that time. Plus, if you got any sort of advance from your label, you’ve got to pay that off before you even see a dime in actual profit. So if your label gave you a $10,000 advance, you’d probably never see another penny — and you’d be liable to the label for any difference between the amount of advance you got and the actual amount sold. So you’d end up owing your label about $1000.

Now, let’s look at what you can do with Mperia.

At Mperia, you can sell your work on a song-by-song basis. Let’s say you’ve got 10 songs, priced at $1.00 each, hosted on Mperia.

We take a 30% cut of all of your sales. 15% of that goes to BitPass transaction fees, and the other 15% goes towards our costs of doing business. We think it’s pretty fair, and it’s a lot less than a record label would take.

Let’s say you sell 100 copies of your big hit song in a week. That’s $70. Not a whole lot of money.

But let’s say you sell 100 copies of each 10 song album in a week. Now you’re looking at $700. Much better. That’s enough to pay rent in most major American cities and have some beer money left over. And you’re already making more money than 97% of the signed artists out there.

If you’re entrepreneurially-minded, you might decide to put that $700 a week back into your career — buy or rent a van and go out on tour. After all, you’re making enough to subsidize the costs of touring already — and if you’re getting paid to play at venues, you’re making some decent cash. You print up flyers with your Mperia address on them and hand them out at shows. You might even bring a laptop and let fans buy your songs at the shows directly — after all, they can pay at the show and download at home whenever they want.

Boom! Suddenly you’re selling 500 copies of each song a week. That’s $3500 every week, plus your touring income. Even after touring costs, you’re making more money than 99.9% of musicians with a major record label contract, and it’s your money. You can use it to make videos to promote your music internationally, or to buy a big tour bus — or to buy some expensive recording gear and use your new-found knowledge to record other artists and make even more money. Hell, spend it on brown M&Ms and microbrew if you like.

Are you suddenly famous and hanging out with Ashton Kutcher at the Viper Room? Maybe not. But you’re on your way towards getting rich…and as the jazz singer Pearl Bailey once noted: “I been rich and I been poor, and honey, rich is better.”

Consider this: the Grateful Dead were one of the most successful musical acts in history. Their tours drew thousands of people who did nothing but follow the band around. Their album sales were incredibly respectable — especially considering that they only ever had one Top 40 single in the band’s entire 30-year history, with the song “Touch Of Gray”. And the bands that have followed their model — Phish, the String Cheese Incident, even groups like the Dave Matthews Band — regularly play to sold-out stadiums.

IV. What It All Means

The record companies have been making a lot of noise about file-sharing and peer-to-peer software. While we certainly have our own opinions about the whole p2p question, we think it’s a red herring.

The record labels are afraid of the Internet because they can’t control it. They can’t stop you from selling your work directly to your fans. You don’t need them anymore…and they know it. Peer-to-peer software isn’t a cause, it’s a symptom. The world is changing.

We’re here because we believe that success in music shouldn’t have to do with how well you’re marketed, or how pretty you are, or whether your single fits in with whatever’s trendy at the moment. We believe that the Internet is the most powerful system ever devised for bringing art directly to the people who love it — whether it be East Coast hip-hop or West Texas swing. Whatever you do, there’s going to be somebody out there who wants to add your music part to the soundtrack of their lives. And we’re here to make that happen.

In the end, I guess it all comes down to one question that you need to ask yourself: do you wanna be a pop star, or do you wanna be an artist? If all you want to do is be famous, then you’re in the wrong place.

But if you’re here to bring your music to the people and make some money doing what you love, then Mperia is the place for you. And I’d like to thank you, on behalf of the entire Mperia crew, for letting us help you to help yourself.

Now. Let’s kick some ass, shall we?

Listen

Remix — "Vision Vision" by The Loyal Divide

If you head over to the MySpace page of amazing Chicago group The Loyal Divide, you’ll discover a Red State Soundsystem remix of their track “Vision Vision” on the MySpace music player. I asked the band if I could do this quite a while ago, but life intruded; getting a copy of Ableton made it much easier.

I really like my remix; it’s almost a throwback to late-90s era Moby and UNKLE, though there’s a lot more going on in there than you might assume at first listen.

I don’t know if the band will make the remix available anywhere for download, but if they do, I’ll be sure to let you know here!

Listen

I thought of you as everything I had but couldn't keep.

Blast from the past: a version of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” I recorded a few years ago. I like this a lot, actually.

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Ableton Live + Algorithmic Composition (sort of)

So I finally acquired a legal, full copy of Ableton Live, as payment for designing a logo for a client. Yay!

As anybody who reads this blog knows, I’m a big fan of algorithmic/rule-based/non-interactive composition. As much as I love writing songs, I also love simply setting up the computer to generate music on its own, leaving me to tweak the timbre and tones of the piece rather than the notes.

This is astonishingly easy in Ableton Live. The basic rundown is like so:

  1. Create a MIDI track. Add an empty MIDI clip to it.
  2. Inside the MIDI clip, create a series of 16th notes. Doesn’t matter what they are — just add C3 notes.
  3. On the MIDI track, add the Random and Scale MIDI plugins.
  4. Set the Random plugin to Chance -> 100%, Choices -> 24. This will cause Ableton to randomize every note, within a 2 octave range.
  5. Set the Scale plugin to whatever scale you’d like — I’m using Em in this example. This forces the randomized notes into an Em scale.
  6. Route your MIDI track’s output to a synth or to an app like Reason using ReWire.
  7. Hit play.

What you’ll get is an endless bunch of notes in Em. How this actually turns out depends upon your ability to create interesting synth tones, your use of effects, etc. Obviously you’ll want to do this on multiple tracks with different instruments.

Cool Black Marble” (MP3, 192kbps, 3:19) is a track I did last night and this morning using this technique. It reminds me sonically of Avalon-era Roxy Music, or maybe just the background textures. While this piece isn’t ever going to win awards for variation or compositional complexity, it’s a perfectly lovely little bit of ambient music in the most literal sense — it’s an ambient soundtrack to a space. (When I hear it, I think of, well, a cool black marble room, hence the name.) Think of it as simple, pretty sonic wallpaper.

Of course, you can do much more complicated stuff than this using these basic tools — you can automate the Key value in the Scale plugin, for example, to create chordal changes and more complex melodies. You can also automate Live’s clip triggering function to randomly choose beats or melodic instruments or pads. I’m going to be experimenting with this kind of thing a lot, and I’ll post my results.

Let me know what you think of the track in the comments!

Listen