buy the piano player a drink

Have you heard the new Bill Charlap album, “Notes From New York”? You should. Charlap is my favorite jazz piano player working today – and the new album is very, very good.

My guess is a lot of people come to Charlap expecting this generation’s Oscar Peterson or Erroll Garner, someone whose music is easy going down, but is, well, a little trapped in amber.  He’s so much more than that. Just one example, the opener, “I’ll Remember April,” bolts from the theme into something that manages to be skittering, Monk-like  before finding its way home.  His is a fine and joyous musical intelligence.

All that for $10.76 from Amazon, shipped to my doorstep, with the mp3 version thrown in as part of the deal. Truth is, I would rather have skipped the CD entirely if I could have spent the same $10 or $11 and been able to download the album in FLAC or ALAC, the two lossless formats used by people like me, who care about such things. But I couldn’t, so buying the CD and ripping it will be the next best thing. Meantime, the mp3 will tide me over.

Of course, I could have simply streamed the album from Apple Music, of which I have a three month trial. My guess is Spotify and Google Play and whatever Microsoft calls their music service now have it as well. And I’d further guess that Bill Charlap, who is among the relatively few jazz artists you can call successful, probably can’t buy a new suit with what he makes off streaming. I could be wrong, but I doubt it, because I have a child in the music business, one whose band’s album was a modest success a year or so back. My child told me about what streaming paid, and the word “paid” is only used because no one has come up with a substitute that accurately describes the relationship between the streaming services and the artist.

Bandcamp, the online clearinghouse for musicians who want to sell their own music as downloads or CDs or vinyl, puts it this way in an excellent new blog post:

Subscription-based music streaming,* on the other hand, has yet to prove itself to be a viable model, even after hundreds of millions of investment dollars raised and spent.

I agree with that, excepting the possibility that it’s a “viable model” if you’re Apple and being big in streaming is vital to the larger business of the company, selling hardware. One thing’s for sure: it’s not viable for anyone trying to make a living playing music. The internet was supposed to be the great equalizer, in which the cocaine-fueled excesses of the 70s and 80s couldn’t happen again, but in which more people would be able to put their music out and get paid. There was talk of a new middle class of independent musicians.

Instead, a relative handful of people – and, emphatically, the corporations close to the servers, the Googles, The Amazons – do very well. Everyone else, not so much.

Which is why I take Bandcamp’s governing philosophy so seriously:

As long as there are fans who care about the welfare of their favorite artists and want to help them keep making music, we will continue to provide that direct connection. And as long as there are fans who want to own, not rent, their music, that is a service we will continue to provide, and that is a model whose benefits we will continue to champion.

(Read the whole thing here.)

So when my Apple Music tryout expires, I won’t be renewing. Have barely used it anyway. I will keep two streaming services that are fundamentally different from what the Amazons, the Apples, the Googles have to offer – Pandora and ClassicalRadio. Both services are more radio-like than they are “on demand,” meaning I can hear lots of music, but I can’t pick exactly what I want to hear. For that I need to invest in an artist, which is pretty much exactly the deal radio had with the music industry pre-internet. I’m ok with that, though I do think regular AM and FM stations should have to pay something, no matter how modest, for the performance of the songs they play, as opposed to just paying the songwriters.

Recordings are now generally regarded as a loss leader for touring, where an artist has more control over expenses and pay.  But for many artists all that does is put more weight on touring than it can support. The current model is broken, but good folks like Bandcamp aside, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in changing it. So look at it like this – buying the CD or the download isn’t making the artist rich, but it might put a buck or two in his or her pocket. Little enough, for what we get.




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