Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Rise of BitTorrent and Decline of Trading

I am a junkie. Like any junkie with a conscience and an awareness of his declining sense of self-respect, my addiction at various times causes personal shame and guilt, usually followed by the resolution that I will end the addiction. Beat this thing for good. Cut it off at the toke point. Or at least reduce it to a controllable level.

My addiction is live music. And is my drug. Like any narcotic, it has its benefits and horrible, horrible drawbacks. And despite what medical experts will tell you, it is every bit as addictive as any chemical drug.

In recent years, sites like dimeadozen and the standard protocol to support it, called “BitTorrent,” have grown in popularity among sick musos like myself. If it has not yet officially replaced trading as the primary means of live music dissemination, it very soon will. There are far too many advantages to this mode for it not to continue to increase in popularity. It will inevitably make trading a footnote in music collecting history (speaking of which, isn’t about time for an update to Clinton Heylin’s excellent Bootleg?) CD trading will eventually become a piece of nostalgia, much like vinyl records and mix tapes.

At its best, BitTorrent offers several advantages that classic trading cannot challenge. BitTorrent is far faster than trading; instead of having to find someone willing to trade, retrieving the necessary CDs from whatever maximum-security vault the collector has designed, burning the CDs, packaging the CDs, and mailing the CDs, all BitTorrent takes is some free software and a PC with burning capabilities, and a user is free to download shows until he falls asleep or his spouse leaves him.

BitTorrent has also substantially increased the amount of live music in circulation. The effort of having to search individual trade lists to find a specific show is now practically non-existent. A simple post to a torrent message board will usually yield a generous collector willing to seed the show, regardless of how rare or hard to find a specific show might be. In this way, BitTorrent has made it remarkably easy to efficiently acquire new live music.

Deadbeat traders are also a non-factor with BitTorrent, and though they have been replaced by their evil twins in the form of deadbeat downloaders, dimeadozen enforces a minimum share ratio to combat this problem. Bad traders are the scourge of the trading community, and my guess is that their food supply is quickly drying up as BitTorrent’s popularity increases. And to the trader from the Bonin Islands who burned me for six CDs, I’m still waiting.

Perhaps best of all, BitTorrent has eliminated the need to travel to the post office to feed the addiction. No longer do sick music junkies need to stand in line with dozens of bubble-padded envelopes, slither up to the clerk’s window, and feel the disapproving glances from other customers as the clerk processes dozens of mysterious packages destined for places like Burma, Papua New Guinea, and Bhutan.

But I’m still not convinced the rise of BitTorrent is an entirely good thing. Despite the advantages described above, some of the “charm” of old-fashioned trading through the mail is being lost as BitTorrent becomes the standard method of sharing live recordings. There was also something exciting about getting a package with new music via the mail. And besides, since 90% of the mail is usually either bills, junk, or offers to subscribe to a men’s magazine, a delivery of new music was always a welcome fix.

The biggest drawback to BitTorrent, however, is that it has unintentionally contributed to a serious decline in interaction and discussion among live music fans, via the usual fan sites and message boards. Granted, many of the postings at such places could range anywhere from the brilliant and lucid to the obsessive, deranged, and psychotic; the point was that the music was being discussed by people who appreciated and enjoyed the music (perhaps too much). And I also suspect that such forms of communication were the extent of social interaction that some of the more “dedicated” traders experienced on a daily basis.

Even the most enthusiastic traders I have traded with for years have moved on to dimeadozen or other live music sites. And I can’t blame them. Like most other honest traders, their intentions are good and their only aim is to find music to enjoy, in the most convenient way possible. Perhaps the sense of community and generosity and lively musical discussion and appreciation will become part of these sites; perhaps they already have and I’m not noticing. But for those traders who enjoyed the online friendship and camaraderie with like-minded musos that traditional trading created, the rising popularity of BitTorrent has depersonalized the trading community.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to check the mail. I’m sure there are bills to pay and subscription offers to men’s magazines to ignore.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Remembering the Madcap: Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett, the troubled and reclusive co-founder of Pink Floyd and cautionary tale of the psychedelic 1960s, has died at the age of 60. According to a Pink Floyd spokeswoman, Barrett died several days ago. The exact cause of death is unknown.
Barrett leaves a musical legacy of a couple Pink Floyd albums and a couple solo albums. The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, depending on a listener’s musical preference, is widely considered either one of the greatest albums of the psychedelic era or one of the most childish, illogical albums ever recorded. “I know a mouse, and he hasn't got a house / I don't know why, I call him Gerald / He's getting rather old, but he's a good mouse.”
Take your pick.
Barrett’s time as the lead singer and chief lyricist of Pink Floyd was short-lived, however. Barrett’s heavy drug regimen and increasingly erratic behavior, including catatonia during some of Pink Floyd’s concerts, took its toll. By 1968, Barrett had left the band after a drug-induced mental breakdown.
From that point, Barrett lived a reclusive life, spending his remaining years at his mother’s house in Cambridge, releasing just two more albums in his recording career, both in 1970. An unexpected and disturbing visit by Barrett in 1975 only confirmed his mental instability to his former band mates. His eyebrows were shaved and he had gained a lot of weight; and if the legend is true, he arrived unannounced during the recording of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a song written about him.
And Pink Floyd went on to become one of rock’s most influential bands. Many of their songs and albums dealing with the disintegration of the mind were either directly written about Barrett or influenced by his decline. Pink Floyd would then spend their musical careers answering criticisms that they were cashing in on their founder’s collapse.
With his death, it is likely that Barrett will be remembered more as a musical stereotype than as an actual person: the image of a troubled boy-genius, the poster-child for both the joys and dangers of LSD. And perhaps in the end this is the biggest tragedy of Barrett’s life: in trying to reclaim his sanity by retreating into seclusion and cutting off contact with the world at large, his legacy will be shaped by outsiders. The inevitable result will be that of a shadowy figure, another drug casualty of the psychedelic, na├»ve 1960s.
Much like the music of Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and Kurt Cobain, Barrett’s music will always be viewed against the backdrop of his eventual mental collapse. Which is probably unavoidable. Piper, released in 1967, will likely remain the most studied and listened to of Barrett’s recordings. Barrett’s lyrics on the album, a blend of drug-addled nursery rhymes, medieval images, and occult philosophy, sound completely haunting and prophetic in light of Barrett’s mental decline. But listen to the lyrics without considering the source, and they sound, at best, playful and humorous, and, at worse, ridiculous and empty.
But put all those notions and ideas aside, and what emerges is a legitimate musical talent whose songs range from whimsical and playful to philosophical and poetic. Barrett’s fragile voice can stand on its own; forget the myth created both by his retreat and Pink Floyd’s later success. In the end, Barrett’s voice is one of beauty, sadness, and regret: “Won’t you miss me / wouldn’t you miss me at all?”

Don't Come On Up To The House: Tom Waits and St. Louis

Tom Waits has emerged from his Northern California pod to announce a brief tour of the South and Midwest, in true I'm-cooler-than-you fashion. "We need to go to Tennessee to pick up some fireworks, and someone owes me money in Kentucky," Waits said in a press release. The brief tour will stop in Atlanta, Asheville, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, Chicago, Detroit, and Akron (Akron?). So for those of you keeping score at home, that's eight cities, three of which end in "ville." Somehow I doubt that's a complete coincidence.

Too bad someone doesn't owe him a Buick carburetor in St. Louis. A Waits tour is a rare thing indeed, and it looks like Chicago or one of the Tennessee shows will be the closest Waits comes to St. Louis. Which in itself is not a surprise. St. Louis is not exactly a hot stop destination for artists with a, um, scattered, devoted following. St. Louis is primarily a radio airplay tour stop, with the occassional non-radio-friendly musician making an appearance at either the Pageant, Duck Room, Mississippi Nights, or one of the other smaller venues (Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, and Vic Chesnutt have all made stops in St. Louis in the recent past).

But St. Louis is first and foremost a Top 40 And Aging Rock Dinosaurs city, especially in the summer. It's a city where current hot ticket acts go to get a bump in sales and where aging musical icons brush off their dusty corpses and give it one last fling. This summer's concert list reads like a musical sh-tstorm nightmare, with Kelly Clarkson, Def Leppard, Journey, Sammy Hagar, and Earth, Wind, and Fire all bringing their particular brand of torture to the city this summer. There is some relief though, with yet another Built To Spill show at Mississippi Nights and a truly rare Silver Jews show at the Duck Room at the end of July.

But Tom Waits in St. Louis would have been the true keeper. Granted, the show would have probably attracted the usual crowd who talks during the entire concert, drinks Vodka laced with Red Bull, and leaves during the encore. But for the concert-starved fans in St. Louis who aren't thrilled with the mainstream music scene (and there are many), a Waits show would have been quite a memory.

My brother and I once vowed that if and when Waits toured, we'd take vacation time from work and hit the road, one last wild musical ride before we grew old and possibly grew up. Waits was one of the few artists we swore we would see in concert at some point, at any cost. But we knew it would most likely not happen. We both now have too many commitments, bills, and, gasp, steady employment, with responsibilities.

Today at the gym my iPod seemed to be mocking me. Every fifth song on Shuffle mode was a Tom Waits song. "Come On Up To the House," "Gun Street Girl," "Tom Traubert's Blues," and "Black Market Baby." On and on and on.

And then it hit me. "In Moberly, Missouri/at the Iroquois hotel/She checked in with the President/and ran up quite a Bill." If a city like Akron can score a Waits tour, certainly a city that was mentioned in a Tom Waits song could. Get me the Moberly City Government on line 1 and Tom Waits' publicist on line 2. Forget Tennessee. I hear the Iroquois is great this time of year.

I'll bring the fireworks. And the carburetor. and the Re-Disappearance of Jeff Mangum

On June 28, posted a news story about a mysterious posting on the Elephant 6 message board, attributed to Jeff Mangum. Under the overly-sensational headline "Jeff Mangum Returns!" (large font), Pitchfork printed the entire posting, which certainly did seem to match what little is known of Mangum's current activities and interests. The post described, among other things, the writer's recent recording activities, desire to tour again ("getting to gigs late with cars coughing and trombones smacking on can never be the same but i need to get as close as i can to that again"), and upcoming return to the world of musi ("everthing is happening soon, this is the year").

And everywhere in indiedom, there was much rejoicing and celebration. Jeff Mangum, pigeon-holed as either a mad genius or ultimate recluse, driving force behind one the 1990s' most revered albums, had been bit by the bug and was ready to start scratching.

Except that it wasn't true. Within hours, Pitchfork had explained that the post was in fact a very clever hoax, with Robert Schneider confirming that he had spoken to Mangum, who denied being the author: "i am sorry to inform you that this is not my post." And very quietly, Pitchfork's headline was suddenly changed from "Jeff Mangum Returns!" to "Jeff Mangum Returns?"

Which takes some balls from Pitchfork to even leave it as a question. A more suitable headline would have been "Jeff Mangum Still Wants to be Left Alone: We F'd Up." Now I realize Pitchfork's primary objective is to get people to its site (Pitchfork's days as a small, niche indie-based website are long gone), and I have no problem with that. For all its faults, including sometimes-incomprehensible music reviews, Pitchfork is still the best indie music-related site on the Web. Its upcoming Intonation festival boasts, by far, the coolest variety of indie acts this side of the ocean. And, perhaps most important of all, Pitchfork exposes both musical junkies like myself and casual observers (read: suburban kids with parents' money) to music that otherwise would receive very little notice.

I just wish Pitchfork could have avoided the sensationalism that occurs on a daily basis on CNN or the other mainstream news networks. Like many others who have experienced all the emotions that "Aeroplane" can draw out, I'm sure Pitchfork's intentions were good. "Aeroplane" is an undefinable album, at once one of the most tragic and beautiful musical documents ever recorded. It's understandable that the folks at Pitchfork, acting as fans first and journalists second, wanted the news story to be true. But Pitchfork should have still made sure everything was legit before posting "Jeff Mangum Returns!"

Jeff Mangum may never record another musical note or stretch his voice to that point where you expect it to break. Which is fine with me. We all have "Aeroplane," "Avery Island," and, thanks to the generosity of collectors, a handful of truly amazing live Neutral Milk Hotel gigs. Then again, he may one day record something that rivals the most beautiful and heartbreaking moments of "Aeroplane." Which is also fine with me.

Until that time comes, he deserves the privacy and freedom he probably desired when he left the musical life in the first place. And his fans, for whom the music of Neutral Milk Hotel means so much, should now apparently approach news stories of Mangum's possible return with a healthy degree of skepticism.