RE: My Tweets and posts regarding the synth community

Clearly, I’m not good at PR. I just blurt out my thoughts and try to always cling on to rationality like it was the side rail of a helicopter escaping an exploding political-internet culture bomb.

After offering to pay for new domains and logos for Muff Wiggler and Gearslutz, two synth communities that grew into huge, vital resources for musicians and synth owners worldwide, I got a pretty rash backlash of both public and private messages. As always, the most extreme were private, and always from some brave anonymous handle with an edgy profile picture. And, I kind of get it. 140 characters is a pretty shitty stage for this argument. It makes me realize that 140 characters might be one of the reasons seemingly everything is so polarized in the last decade. So let me reiterate:

Muff Wiggler and Gearslutz were both started as small, niche communities that both grew and shifted into much larger resources than initially intended. I have nothing but respect for these communities, their founders, and their members. That being said, myself and some of my peers have always been nonplussed by the names. When placed in front of the large resource they represent, they sound juvenile, pseudo-edgy, and just plain tacky.

Now that’s me saying that. I’m a white dude who lives in Georgia, owns guns, drinks whey shakes, and practices MMA. On paper at least, I’m what a lot of people would consider a “bro”.  So naturally, being called a “triggered snowflake” by obnoxious individuals in the synth community gives me a good chuckle.

Let me be clear here. I’m not complaining about sexism in these communities. Plenty of posts and articles have already done that. To be honest, I don’t participate in these communities enough to make that call (mostly due to the tacky names and, let’s be honest, 1998-level web design), and I’m not about to go hunting for something to find offensive. As we all know, every community has some rotten apples and it would be unfair to use them as broad examples.

Mike, Muff Wiggler’s founder, picked out an old forum username on a whim from 2 guitar pedals, “Big Muff Pi”, and “The Wiggler”. The combo is a sexy pun with a flake of 12-year old humor. That username turned into a forum. That forum branched into the official support forums for over 40 synthesizer companies and the largest library of information in relation to modular synths. It’s absolutely vital to anyone who owns a modular synthesizer, which was easily noted by the panic caused when the site went down for a while last month due to a database crash. So, first of all, props to Mike for founding and maintaining such a great resource. Whenever I’m trying to find information on a module, modular technique, or DIY synth project, I inevitably end up at Muff Wiggler and have Mike to thank for providing a place where I can find answers to my questions.

But, the name. It doesn’t offend me. I’m not throwing anyone on coals or suggesting banning anything from our vocabulary. I just think that the community grew to be a far more inclusive resource than the name suggests. Muff Wiggler is not exactly an inviting name to a lot of people, especially females. “Gearslutz” is not something I want to recommend to a child or female friend who is looking for resources on their first synthesizer.

And while we’re talking about females, let’s just point out that they’ve played a major innovative role in synth history. These communities may not even exist without Wendy Carlos not only helping invent the Moog, but bringing synthesizers from labs to record players and major films. Laurie Spiegel was arguably the first “bedroom producer” and invented the tracker. You could upload Johanna Beyer’s 1938 “Music For Spheres” album to Soundcloud today and people would compliment your “dope ambient trax” and ask what VST plugin you used. My point being, this was never a “dudes only” club. It only seems that way to some people because of the unfortunate clash of edgy names and necessary communities.

Again, I have nothing but respect for these communities. I’m not attacking these communities, their members, or their founders. I’m not cramming a “leftist agenda” down anyone’s throat. I don’t even want to complain about the names beyond that one Tweet, hence why I immediately followed it up with an offer to pay for a domain and name change. If they don’t take me up on the offer…okay, that’s their choice and I respect their freedom to do what they want, and I’ll shut up about it. I’m not shaking a fist at anyone.

In the last week numerous electronic music producers have been exposed as rapists, and the owner of Synthrotek apparently lost his mind by posting a weird rape joke and doubled down with a subsequent Facebook meltdown. So maybe now is a good time to highlight our distance from that kind of shit and make these names fit the inclusive communities they’ve grown into. That’s all.

Is wealth inequality just…math?

Fortunately I’m not qualified to answer that question. I say “fortunately” because I’d spend the rest of my life defending myself.

I was thinking about income inequality on a long drive yesterday, and wondering if it’s a human trait or purely mathematical one. When I got home, I setup a simulation to try and mimic the Pareto distribution:

10 “individuals”, and 2000 spheres. The individuals start with an equal sphere attraction value of 10. Every time a sphere collides with an individual, it gains an attraction value of 0.1, but the sphere can never go beyond 0.1, and loses its attraction value if it travels more than 49% of the distance between individuals.

This quickly resulted in one individual having pretty much every sphere stacked on it. So, I added some variables (T, conveniently for turbulence and time effect). Every individual has a slowly changing T value, where their attraction ranges on a random seed from -1 to +1. Every time the individual has more than 90% of the spheres linked to it without a space, it REPELS by 0.1 (my dumb attempt to simulate something like antitrust laws, political revolution, or simply a new economic generation). I figured that the individuals on the end would have the clear advantage, due to only having 1 neighbor. But the Pareto effect on the economy was so powerful, it didn’t even seem to matter (or I’m pushing this software way too hard with this scripting).

An interesting takeaway. One would assume that an individual’s “neighbors” would prosper, since it has so many spheres building near it. But on the contrary, the individuals next to the wealthy 10% were consistently the biggest losers. Which loosely brings to mind correlated examples like the ultra-wealthy suburbs of low income cities like Detroit or St. Louis.

Anyway, to my delight. After letting this go overnight and seeing automatic screenshots: In my silly little simulation, income inequality is not a product of greed, but a product of mathematics. This will disappoint a lot of socialists, because when you cap the overall attraction power to 4x the equal distribution, over 1/3rd of the spheres just roll away. This will disappoint a lot of capitalists, because this shows that you have about an 80% chance of being poor. Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to make a communist model, where a gear spins around adding more individuals and a sucking from a finite pool of spheres or something.

Finally, take this with a grain of salt. I’m not an economist or statistician. I just wanted to see if I could simulate a repeating characteristic found in all of economic history.

I’m Sorry, But No More Vinyl.

This post is going to sting a lot of my readers, so let me introduce a previous version of myself. I used to frequent record shops in South Chicago and flip through old jazz, gospel, funk, and house records on a weekly basis. The most exciting part of that experience is that a lot of the stuff were white-labels, basically test pressings that labels discarded, or less commonly, an acid house track that was meant to be DJ’d once in the early era of raves. Then I transformed into the type of guy that would arrive to a new city on tour, and spend my little free time doing nothing but browsing record stores. They usually had the same crap, and I’d buy what I didn’t already have, only to have to babysit it for the next 3 weeks until it could be forever shelved into my collection. I contributed too! I lobbied hard for vinyl releases of much of my music in the 2000’s, and I felt like holding a 12″ sleeve with my record in it was some kind of trophy. I became obsessed with library music (and still am), and collected everything from Bruton to KPM to Coloursound score music.

Then, in 2008. I moved across town. My record collection weighed hundreds of pounds, and I quickly realized that if it wasn’t on display in my living room, it was borderline worthless as I had a habit of digitizing something after buying it so I could enjoy it literally anywhere that wasn’t in front of a turntable. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if 500 records took up this much space and resources, then every one of my releases took up a nearly identical amount of space and resources. That’s like, a small warehouse of vinyl, and the majority of it was recorded digitally!

Cutting vinyl became too expensive to make profit unless you were selling many thousands of copies, and I disregarded it as I no longer had a relationship with a record label anyway.

The comeback.

Vinyl sales are up. Way up. It’s like, this natural movement back to recorded music’s roots, man. Not a day goes by where someone doesn’t send me a message somewhere asking for me to re-release music on vinyl, or where someone doesn’t tell me that I absolutely should “cash in” on this vinyl craze.

I call bullshit. Yeah, vinyl sales are way up, and it’s because crude oil prices are way down. Record labels found reborn profit to be had in a format that, in most ways, bypasses piracy. More bands release vinyl, and more people buy vinyl. Dinosaur bones are on a closeout sale, and weirdly, the same people who will buy a Prius are replacing a hard drive full of music with shelves of vinyl.

I’m not what you would consider an environmentalist by any means. I eat meat, I drive a medium sized SUV, and I run the AC at a solid 74°F. But vinyl is made of really nasty shit.

The magic material, since the 70’s anyway, is polyvinyl chloride, or PVC as the kids call it. If you break down PVC, you get deadly chlorine gas and heavy metals. Its service life also comes into question. Without lead used as a stabilizer, you can expect your family to be absorbing toxic particles from your vinyl collection as it ages. It’s shown that when used as a plasticizer (phthalates, as the kids call it), it increases the prevalence of asthma and allergies in households¹.  All the way back in the 70’s, before we moved hazardous manufacturing processes overseas where nobody seems to sue their employers, factories creating PVC were directly linked to cancer in their floor employees². Most of the automobile industry has stopped using phthalates in cars, healthcare providers are beginning ban the use of PVC in their facilities, and the EU started regulating its use and environmental impact since 2000.

TL;DR – Vinyl is entirely made of toxic stuff that is nearly impossible to recycle on a consumer level, and very dangerous and inefficient to recycle on an industrial level.

 

And yes, lots of stuff uses PVC. It’s virtually unavoidable in the developed world at this time. What irks me is that vinyl isn’t necessary in 2017. It’s a decoration or homage to your love of music. Last year, fed up with being asked to reprint vinyl, I polled my fans and crowdfunded a 3xLP release of Soundtrack To A Vacant Life. I simply wanted to give my fans what they wanted, and I barely made a profit. I personally thought it sounded inferior, despite weeks remastering the digital recordings and poo-pooing the test pressings quite a few times and starting over. Oddly, I didn’t regret this decision until the fraction of copies I allocated for selling on tour and Alphabasic arrived. Box after box arrived at my doorstep, and the stacks got wider and higher. A box that could fit 75 recyclable CDs held 4 LP sets. Every single one of these was either going to be dragged with me on tour, or put into yet another box of its own and shipped to my customers. And for what, a decoration?

My music is responsible for thousands of large, virtually non-recyclable discs made from toxic materials that mostly sound inferior to the digital recordings that were meant for digital reproduction. I’ve been waiting for a time when I can move on from CDs while making my CDs carbon-neutral in the meantime, so what the hell was I doing making all this vinyl of an 8 year old album? Listening to music doesn’t have to pollute the environment. So why are we choosing to do so? Because marketing, that’s why. Me writing this is counter-productive, as I have the remaining vinyl for sale right now in my store. But there’s literally nothing else I can do with it. It’s here, on this planet, until it slowly breaks down into toxic garbage. If you want it, buy it. I’m the shortsighted asshole who made it exist.

I’m writing all of this for 2 reasons:

1. I want my fans to understand exactly why I will not be making anymore vinyl. The special edition of Piety For Ashes is actually carbon negative, and part of the reason I made it is, well, a sort of a compromise or peace offering to vinyl collectors.

2. I don’t want to make anyone feel bad, but in the future, I do want my fans to think about how much they really want to buy that LP rather than a lossless digital file. After all, I can relate to the love of vinyl as a former LP junkie.

But as the saying goes: Nothing delivers beautiful music like a giant wad of poly(1-chloroethene).

 



Edit: 
I’m getting a whole lot of messages from vinyl defenders (waxsplainers?), and I want to address the most common argument:

“My house uses PVC for the drinking water. It’s not deadly!”

Well.

1. Polyvinyl chloride is widely proven to be a carcinogen.

2. Most “PVC” pipes used today are PEX, not polyvinyl chloride. It hasn’t been legal to use actual PVC pipes in hot/cold water distribution for 40 years.

3. Many places (Chicago, NYC, Florida off the top of my head) do not approve PVC, CPVC, or PEX in any plumbing outside of wastewater and sewage. I don’t have the data for this, but I’d bet that places allowing plastic-grade pipes for potable water are in the vast minority.

4. Polyvinyl chloride pipes, since 1977, have different makeups that are heavily tested and regulated (look for the labels NSF-61, NSF-PW).

5. Heavy metals (even lead) are used as a stabilizer in PVC, which is limited and regulated in plumbing, but not at all in the production of LPs.

6. PVC is notoriously difficult and dangerous to break down and recycle. It can be done in highly sophisticated facilities, but incinerating it releases hydrochloric acid, among many other nasty things that most recycling plants aren’t equipped to deal with, so they toss PVC aside into the landfill.

If you can find a consumer recycling facility that dares touch the stuff, let me know. But in the meantime, we’re stuck with shitty suggestions.

The A.I. Arpeggio

2+ years ago, when toying with new and personally exciting ways of making music, I would have laughed if you told me that Google and Nvidia would provide such incredible studio assets. A lot of this is probably because the music production industry has been incredibly underwhelming from a technological point of view in the last decade, and I don’t blame them. Why spend money on R&D introducing a learning curve when you can serve up a stylish recreation that will sit next to 4 other recreations of the same classic synthesizer? After all, there is no real push to innovate anymore. In the early days of the DAW, there was a climb to support more tracks, sample more realistically, and match, in hopes to replace, the reverbs and tones of expensive rack gear. So companies once on the cutting edge have gone the path of least resistance, iPad apps and retro synthesizer clones. Take the Yamaha Montage for example. Anyone who understands the basics of FM synthesis can glance at the specs and note that this thing goes where no VST plugin or synthesizer has gone before. But despite its amazing power for the price, its rare to see in the wild. I don’t have Yamaha’s sales figures, but I fear this might be a lesson for them to dump their resources into making some apps or MIDI controllers in the future. I hope not.

This isn’t to say there isn’t interesting stuff coming out here and there. There certainly is. But it’s a far decline from the awe-inspiring 1990’s and 2000’s where the announcement of new gear would inspire a whirlwind of personal ideas. So I’m on my own, kind of.

My interest in software/hardware and development isn’t some kind of selfless journey to keep music production technology moving forward, but rather a natural (if not selfish) way to keep myself entertained and fulfilled as a producer. My last release was mostly made on buggy, 32-bit homemade software, and previous to that, I was so sick of looking at a DAW session that I just wrote piano songs day in and day out.

Last year I got obsessed with 3 things. Modular synthesizers, robotics, and neural networks. When Google dropped the source code for Deep Dream, I began to fantasize about not how this could make music production more efficient, but how it could be exploited and fucked with. Parang Mital made an excellent Kadenze course allowing my caveman brain comprehend cutting edge software development, and I fell deep into the endeavor of using artificial intelligence to make melodies and sounds that will be new to my ears.

As with anything, you have to do some boring stuff before you can go crazy. I had my computer “learn” from just about everything Bach ever wrote and compose an original (thanks to the “Classical Archives”).  Then, using Tensorflow, I went on a bender MIDIfileizing a large majority of my music, and attempting to recreate myself both melodically and rhythmically until I enjoyed listening to the results. While this locked in some distant-future plans of having an A.I. alias that automatically writes music, I’m more immediately fascinated with neural synthesis, which not surprisingly Google’s Deepmind team beat me to by about 4 weeks with nSynth, which is strikingly close in concept.

 

If you know what a vocoder is, then I can explain not so much how this works, but a metaphor for the result. Your average vocoder has a carrier (synthesizer oscillator) and a modulator (usually a human voice). In modern vocoders, when you carefully allow the modulator to alter the fast fourier transform spectrum of the carrier, it sounds like your synthesizer is speaking (Daft Punk is probably the most notable artist to use this in popular music, but far from the first). A limitation that most artists likely don’t even think about, is that you’re limited to one carrier and one modulator, otherwise you’ll just have nonsense. But there are certainly many casual uses of shooting non-vocal elements into the modulator input of a vocoder, my favorite and most obvious example is Datassette’s Flechte.

So firstly, let’s give the neural network some stuff to study (dare I say modulators). I’m including short clips of much, much larger data sets (the use of that word was not on purpose, how about that).

Here’s some mandolin and marimbas. It’s my melody, with a totally chaotic rhythm:

 

Now, we need some form of rhythm. Nothing too boring, and nothing too exciting (since the above data set is chaotic). So here’s an annoying sounding Goldilocks:

 

Next, I want this to sound unlike a bunch of stupid drum machine sounds merged with mandolins and marimbas, so I’m going to pump in a saw wave. A bonus to having a single monophonic tone is that I can run it through and modulate a low-pass filter, which allows me to control the intensity of the final output:

 

And finally, with a lot of fine tuning, we have the A.I. spectral firstborn of these data sets:

 

You were probably expecting something way cooler, weren’t you? That’s okay. I’m just happy that I’ve never heard a breathing, organic arpeggiator sound until I ran this one of many exploratory sessions into the wild world of sound synthesis now available to anyone who wants to get past a few learning curves.

In other words, I’m sorry that my next album won’t be dubstep wobbles with eastern/ethnic instrument loops plopped on top. Like the aforementioned music production industry, I’d probably make a hell of a lot more money on the path of least resistance.

By the way, I might be the only recording artist doing this (though maybe not!), but I’m far from the only person diving into neural synthesis. Here’s some links:

A great article: https://deepmind.com/blog/wavenet-generative-model-raw-audio/

A profound dissertation about a fellow who trained a data set by having it watch Blade Runner, then had it recreate Blade Runner from memory: http://research.gold.ac.uk/19559/1/Autoencoding_Video_Frames.pdf

Peace!

My puzzling placement on festival flyers.

Before I get into this, I want to make one thing clear. I personally don’t care about flyer placement. I get paid the same either way.

In fact, not being the bold, stylized, giant font on top of a flyer means that if I fall ill or have an emergency, I won’t feel as bad for missing a gig. So it’s less pressure, and I’m all about that. I also live in the woods for a reason, I’m comfy maintaining a low real-life profile.

But it’s puzzled me for years. Seemingly 4 out of 5 festivals I get booked for, I tend to be buried deep somewhere in the middle of the flyer. I’m not talking about Coachella here, but rather smaller, regional, genre-oriented festivals that don’t have household-name headliners. At least from what I gather on social media messages and comments, it outrages some of my fans who think I deserve the giant font. (BTW, thanks for caring, but I really don’t mind!) But still, it’s incredibly confusing how these flyer-rankings get designed. These flyers are getting promoted all across the internet and printed by the thousands, and a mistake in the visibility of certain names can actually offer diminished returns if severe enough. After all, let’s be honest, a festival is buying the right to use the artist’s names to sell tickets. That’s how the economy of festival booking works, and that’s how I know how much to ask for monetarily.

The reason I’m thinking about this today is because 3 people have already shared the Infrasound 2017 poster with me, and 2 of them had a follow-up message of “lol I didn’t even see you until the 2nd time I saw it”. In all transparency, I only know of 2 of the other artists playing (ediT and Tipper), and it’s only because I’ve met them personally when performing with them previously. Both are nice fellows and incredible artists in their own right, and I want to emphasize that this post is purely about odd festival marketing and not about criticizing artists or claiming some sort of pecking-order. I’m sure inspirational performances can be found from top to bottom of this poster.

I wanted to find out if my suspicions had any basis behind them, and was kind of shocked by the results. I feel like the best approachable way to gauge an artist’s “name value” is by how many active listeners they have on Spotify in the current month. Last.FM is also good, but I feel like it’s getting a bit outdated as I haven’t heard anyone talk about “scrobbling” in years.

So here’s the poster: LINK

Now, for the Spotify metrics.

Active Spotify Listeners for April (individual users):

Tipper: 72, 954
Edit: 40,026
Caspa: 72,536
Opiuo: 86,640
C?NJ?: No data (Triangles don’t work too well to figure out what letters those are supposed to be.)
White Night: 364
Moody Good: 25,636
Thriftworks: 34,591
Ivy Lab: 66,255
Bazoo Bajou: (personal playlist page, 87 subscribers)
Truth: 18,485
Loefah: 7,356
Etheogenic: 21,375
The Flashbulb: 89,996
N-Type: 577
Boogie T: 7,471
Shiverz: 172

Now, you can probably see why this is puzzling to me. I do know that Tipper is very popular in the festival scene, and is probably the right choice for the most visible listing. But the rest of it? A statistical mess. It has no effect on me or my ego personally, but it does inspire me to at least share this with festival promoters. After all, they’re a paying to have my name on the flyer, and the most effective way of utilizing that investment is maximizing how many tickets those 2 words can sell.

Then again, maybe my wannabe-economist brain may be deeply over-analyzing a scene I’m only familiar with from short visits behind the stage. Perhaps I should put on some LED jewelry and a dreadlock wig and enjoy myself instead of taking Khan Academy courses in my hotel.

Update: Shortly after publishing, a friend noted that promoters might be going for Facebook likes (something I never even paid attention to since I’d rather my social media audience be “quality over quantity”).
Facebook Likes tell a different story entirely from active listeners:
Tipper: 122k
EdiT: 72k
Caspa: 300k
Opiuo: 134k.
The Flashbulb: 24k (cue ‘The Price Is Right’ losing horn sound)

Obama.

This isn’t political at all. It’s my “the most famous person I ever met” story.

In 2003, I was on Friendster.
Friendster, for those who don’t remember, came before Myspace and looked strikingly similar to Facebook’s layout and color-scheme, despite being around before Mark Zuckerberg graduated high school.

At the time, there was a successful, state-funded non-profit organization that worked as an intermediary between gangs in Chicago. It had nothing to do with the police, and literally worked with ex-gang members to get current gang leaders in the same room to negotiate their differences with compromise rather than violence. It was controversial to spend tax dollars on “marriage counselling for drug pushers”, but it was also a brilliant way to spare over 200 lives annually from the homicide charts. Having grown up in West Englewood, this was about more than a statistic, obviously.

There were also plans to destroy housing projects and move the inhabitants into Section 8 apartments and homes. This was a disaster waiting to happen, since housing projects are functional gang boundaries. Spreading those boundaries over a 20 mile radius wasn’t going to stop crime, it was going to create conflict.

So back to Friendster. I noticed a new state senator whom I recognized from community activism on the southside, Barack Obama, had an account. I added him, and he added me back. How cute, I thought, that some intern at the state capital had made a Friendster account for a senator.
A few weeks later I read a blurb in the paper that this particular state senator was actually an active Friendster user because it allowed him to communicate with a demographic that typically doesn’t write letters to politicians. So I sent him a message about these programs, his involvement with them, and my concerns. He responded the same day, indicating that I was preaching to the choir, and he was doing everything in his power to save the intermediary programs and stall public housing change until more research is done.

Yay! I talked to a senator! I didn’t bug him after that, after all, he has more important things to do than to chat with some dork on Friendster.

Fast forward a few months. I was doing studio session work on the north side of the city, which meant waiting for and sitting on trains for 2+ hours a day. One day, while standing on a platform downtown waiting to switch train lines, I see none other than Barack Obama standing at the edge of the platform. He was wearing a stylish blue suit and had a lit cigarette in one hand, a briefcase in the other. I was starstruck. Not so much because I saw a recognizable state senator, but that I saw a state senator looking as bored as I was on a subway platform.

I heard a train coming, and, for some reason, being completely socially inept, barked “YO BARACK!”, and walked over to shake his hand and, well, I hadn’t figured out what I was going to say. Probably something equally as stupid. When I got to him, he put down his briefcase, put out his hand, looked at me with a pause, smiled, and said:

“Benn, right?”

Now it was my turn to pause while nodding, as I was incredibly confused. He quickly reminded me: “From Friendster!”. I commented that it was amazing that he remembered me after all those months, and he made a joke that he struggles to remember important names in the capital, yet somehow retains the ones he’ll likely never meet again. As that interaction happened, a train was coming to a stop. The doors opened, it was my train. His likability was strong enough to where I considered not getting on and chatting with him for a while, but that’s awkward. I told him it was a pleasure and away I went.

Of course, this wasn’t THAT big of a deal to me until his speech at the 2004 DNC. If there’s anything to take away from this, it’s that his warm likability certainly played a strong role in his rise from a state senator who rode the subway to POTUS in less than 4 years.

Thanks Obama.

Andy’s Candyland, Why I Waited 3 Years

For context, here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxY9HQOqQ8s

I woke up to a lot of hateful messages calling me everything from a “coward” to a “piece of shit” for not releasing it immediately. Let me attempt to explain why I made that choice.

Like I said in the video 3 years ago, this isn’t anything new. This certainly isn’t the first time someone has reported on it, whether coming from independent or major journalism. Saying there’s deep corruption in Chicago is like saying the sky is blue.

The situation on my block was a delicate ecosystem. Gang members patrolled the streets and families said “hi” to them while walking to church. I had a non-profit music school a block away that had plenty of local children as students, and I was involved with larger local non-profits.

50,000 Youtube views and, at most, a blurb in the newspaper wasn’t worth jeopardizing all of that.

Plain and simple. It wasn’t about my safety, it was about keeping other things that help the community outside of the scope of collateral to be used against me for filming and uploading the video.

Furthermore, all I had was what I experienced, what I recorded, and hear-say. I can tell you that Andy certainly wasn’t smart about the way he setup his rec center. He had no business license and didn’t even have a plan to follow things like fire code. (Andy got in touch with me, and he was legit with his paperwork. I apologize for letting hearsay somehow become fact in my memory.) That’s why I was initially there with the camera. I wanted to help him get on a legit path to keep the center open. I cannot attest to Andy’s side of the story, all I have is what I recorded.

For those of you not in south Chicago, you’re too optimistic about what this video could have accomplished. What do you think would have happened? Would cops get fired or suspended? No. Would the city help Andy move his things back in and repair the place? No.

All it would have accomplished at the time was making me look like a whistle blower for 15 minutes and lighting a fire that would burn down other services to help children. If you believe that’s cowardice, you’re allowed your opinion.

Finally, the message here isn’t “all cops are evil” as some people are taking it. This is a look into the climate of this area of Bridgeport, which has always been unique.

Apple’s Streaming Service Is Still Rotten

The word “rotten” is more than just a pun, it’s a perfect fit. In the physical sense it means something is old and decaying. In the descriptive sense, it means something is morally despicable or corrupt. That’s what this streaming service is.

A lot of people have been asking for my opinion on it, and if I’ll return my catalog to it now that Apple has decided to actually pay for content. Let me make some points.

Streaming is not bad.

Streaming services, well, in my case, Spotify, may actually be the hero of the music industry. There’s still a lot at odds, like the fact that mobile phone signals aren’t consistent, or that many mobile and broadband data providers are capping bandwidth and charging for “overuse”. In a weird way, companies like AT&T and Comcast are at war with major labels and movie studios, and they may not even realize it yet. But when I get my Comcast call telling me that I’ve used up my data for the month, I close Netflix and login to the Torrent seedbox/server that I lease so I can manage bandwidth more efficiently. I can’t be the only person doing this, and I doubt I’m the only person who doesn’t feel bad about it either. I’m going to watch Sons Of Anarchy tonight one way or another. If piracy is the most efficient method of doing so while my ISP is robbing me for using a service I already paid for, so be it. My point is, expect this to be a growing issue.

But when it works, and when I’m not “watching my bandwidth” and behaving like the equivalent of my grandfather handing out blankets to my family when the heating gas bill was too high, it’s really convenient. In fact, it’s far more convenient than piracy. No torrents, no files, no hard drive, no organizing. Just press play and you’re listening to what you want, when you want. I honestly don’t know if it pays well, but I do know that I’m making a living solely from releasing music and I do know that Spotify has yet to actually turn a profit. I have nothing to complain about. For the first time since Napster, I’m being, at least somewhat, fairly compensated in contrast to how many people are listening to my albums. That’s fucking huge.

I keep hearing about how Spotify is ripping off artists, but I just don’t see it. There’s always some botched variable missing from these instances. Usually it’s the simple fact that the artist didn’t have listeners to begin with and fail to grasp the concept of how royalties work with streaming services. Other times it’s a pop icon who has 10 profit-sucking degrees of separation between their income and their fan’s money. Which brings us to…

Taylor Swift is daft.

Okay, maybe that’s harsh. I have no idea how smart Taylor Swift is, my relationship with her music is pretending that my tiny female dog listens to it, although I can’t name a song myself. I have read her open letters to Spotify and more recently Apple, and they are daft. Anyone who gets handed 6 million dollars in a year in royalties that they would have otherwise not been privy to and is upset about it is not living in 2015. I’m not sure what her reasoning was. There is literally no data to actually compare it to. Yes, her CD sales are dropping. But that’s kind of like blaming Best Buy for the decline in firewire cables. I do know that people who buy my albums also listen to me on Spotify. I get to double dip because of the convenience factor. I’m sure Taylor Swift does too.

Of course, Taylor Swift argued back that she was paid less than 500k. So let’s put on a monocle and figure this puzzle out. Spotify hands a briefcase filled with 6 million dollars to “Big Machine Label Group” (I couldn’t make this stuff up), then Big Machine hands Taylor Swift 500k. What could have possibly happened in that simple hand off that would eat up 5.5 million dollars? Surely a gigantic record label didn’t gobble up all of that money, right? Since when is that a thing?

So last week, Taylor, the self-proclaimed superhero of independent musicians, pulls her catalog from Apple’s streaming service because Apple wasn’t paying royalties during the trial period. But wait, if Taylor was outraged with Spotify’s 70% royalty rate, why would she even be initially involved in another streaming service that only pays 1.5% higher? Isn’t that odd?

It’s not odd at all, considering that Apple is buying Taylor’s record label. So let’s all have a golf clap for the corporate circle jerk sold as a bogus controversy that supposedly ended in a win for independent musicians.

I Wish I Could Quit

So, to answer the question: Am I putting my catalog back up?
It’s kind of like asking a working class family if they’re going to take out a high interest loan so they can have a roof over their head. The answer is yes, but the road leading to that answer is a shitty one.

My relationship with Apple began in 2007, with me literally in debt from sending them cease and desist orders as they were selling my music without my permission, not paying me anything for it, and not even responding to my many attempts to resolve the issue. They didn’t even initially respond to attorneys. It took a viral news story about the incident that made the front page of Reddit and was covered around the world by media outlets to get them to even talk to me.

I wanted to tell them to fuck off forever. But iTunes was 2/3rds of my digital sales. I openly, and frequently tell people to use Bandcamp (it’s better for me and far better for the consumer), but Apple’s reach is too vast. If someone hears my song somewhere and decides they’re going to buy my album, iTunes is pre-installed on their iPhone and Macbook. Their payment information is already in there. They type “flahsblub” and hit a button. And that’s fineI’m not going to ask anyone to go out of their way to support me. I’m grateful that they’re supporting me in the first place.

But Apple built the framework for that marketplace, and it was a genius, long road of risk-taking to pull it off. I respect that, despite the DRM, bloated software and lack of compatibility.

Every week some moron from Comcast knocks on my door and tells me that cable and “Streampix” is better than Netflix. I tell him/her to get off my porch and go back to whatever I was doing. Last week I got a package and an envelope from Comcast. In the box was a tiny cable box, and in the envelope was a letter explaining to me how awesome Streampix is, and, this is the kicker, streaming movies from Streampix will not count against my bandwidth cap. See what they did there? They know they can’t compete with Netflix, but they do know that they’re incomparably bigger and more powerful, so their business strategy is to hold their customers hostage with bandwidth caps, unzip their pants, and ram Streampix down their throats.

But that’s Comcast. This is Apple.

Apple’s big announcement at the WWDC was Spotify, but with a 700 billion dollar company behind it forcefully pushing it on everyone’s devices in system updates. It’s not competition, it’s just power. And that’s why they didn’t think they’d need to pay for the content, because the independent musician’s relationship with Apple is held together by unfair market saturation, not a happy business relationship. I guess I’m glad they’ll be paying for their content now that they’ve changed that policy, but they didn’t change it because they give a shit, they changed it because throwing some pocket change at us will make a PR problem go away.

I don’t want anything to do with Apple, but I can’t currently afford to not have anything to do with Apple. Most of all, I just don’t trust the company at all. Maybe it’s my experiences, or maybe it’s just logic. I will be stunned if my relative income from Apple’s streaming service is even in the same ballpark as my income from Spotify.

Maybe It’s Nothin’ Anyway

Even if you have the power to break a bunch of antitrust laws and force feed people your own service, getting people to migrate away from something they’re happy with isn’t an easy feat. Spotify sits nicely on a social networking platform. My account has tons of playlists, saved radio stations, subscriptions, etc. If I had no stake in any of this other than wanting to listen to music, I personally wouldn’t be canceling my account to jump ship for a new service, especially one with fewer artists and lower bitrates. More importantly, Apple’s mobile phone market share is 14.2% and steadily dropping. From that perspective, it seems like they’re trying to get a bunch of people to crowd on to a gigantic sinking ship.

As someone who used Apple products for years and even uses an iPad as a control surface for gigs, I hope that ship capsizes and a company that once was the forefront of technology will find its way back to those roots.

More G̶a̶r̶b̶a̶g̶e̶, Chicago Style.

Early this morning I received an email telling me that my show next weekend at Cobra Lounge in Chicago has been axed to make way for Progressive Car Insurance’s MOTOBLOT. No amount of my persuasion has worked to recovering a gig I confirmed in fucking April.

I’ve already spent 4 figures on non-refundable travel and accommodations, even more in new live gear, many tickets have been sold, and I personally know a handful of people traveling to Chicago for the event. I’ve pulled an all-nighter reaching out to other venues and spaces, but the 1% who responded told me that they are booked.

I’ll update this post with news related to the event as well as my Twitter. If anyone knows of a space in Chicago that has a decent sound system and can legally accommodate 200 people on June 27th, please let us know. You can email mark@alphabasic.com.

Cobra made good and rescheduled the other event. The gig is on. I have PTSD.
For a bulk of reasons, this will be my last set of shows for a long time. So I hope everything goes smoothly!

Also a shout out to Grandbar. They were very open about accommodating a last minute booking and extremely nice folks. I know where I’ll be having a drink on my day off in Chicago.

The Perils Of Living Your Ultimate Fantasy

What I’m about to go into is the first truly personal post I’ve made in a long time, if ever. I normally keep stuff like this to myself, for good reason, but this has been building for some time. I feel like it has long ago changed the way I make decisions with my career, and because of that, I feel like I owe my fans and supporters some form of explanation. At best, perhaps this will give some insight to new artists of what they may encounter in the future.

I also want to state how immensely grateful I am for many aspects of my life. I truly came from the bottom and ended up on top. What was once a guitar and amplifier in one of the worst neighborhoods in America is now a 1,500 sq ft studio with 4 acres of forest out the window. I make most of my income from music sales, which had been a dream that I thought was unobtainable even in my most optimistic fantasies. I worked extremely hard for it, so while I don’t consider it “luck” by any stretch of the imagination, I do realize that a lot of people work hard for something and end up regretting it. So, for this upward transformation over the decades, I am forever grateful and blessed.

In the back of my head, I always have this thought: If I, for some reason, won a Grammy award for my most recent album, what would I say in my acceptance speech?
I’d probably be proper and thank whoever came into my head first. But really, I’d want to thank my fans, then say “fuck you” to a long list of people and companies. Fuck you to Beatport for selling people’s illegal remixes of my music after declining to carry my actual albums. Fuck you to Tunecore for making me explain how audio compression works to 12 different customer support people who insisted that iTunes is a better audio ripper than Exact Audio Copy and subsequently delaying a digital release for 3 weeks. Fuck you to the person who leaked the album and forced me to ship the CDs early. Fuck you to the warehouse that took 7 days to open the CD boxes and put them in your inventory, preventing me from opening pre-orders. Fuck you to the venues who can’t respond to my emails, and fuck you to the booking agents who can’t simply spent 30 seconds researching my demographic before disregarding me.

Okay, so you see where I’m going with this. At some point it became apparent that with very few exceptions, in the world of releasing “The Flashbulb”,  I have to fight tooth and nail with every single person and service that I do business with. I fight to give away money. With nearly every interaction, I’m imagining myself strangling someone so they’ll take a giant wad of cash to do the job that they’re supposed to do. The job that uses musicians to keep their family fed. It’s as if there’s this invisible line between successful artists and groveling, starving artists, and because of my choices to be smart with my income and release my music on my own terms (via Alphabasic), I’ve somehow ended up on the latter side of that line. This, over the years, has changed me.

I can’t really put into words how much frustration and negativity comes with that. The “business side” is nearly a full time job that is farther away from being an “artist” than it would be if I became a car salesman. It used to be exciting to release albums, now at best it’s exhausting, at worst it’s simply degrading. But it’s all worth it because all of this fighting is so I can keep creative control over “The Flashbulb”. A record label would have forced me to put vocals over all of my music and then licensed it to a Viagra ad. They would have cut songs and released something in 2015 that I wrote in 2011. They would have sued people for sharing my music. I don’t think I could ever deal with that. “The Flashbulb” is my soul. It is essentially the exclusive way I express myself. I could never just hand the keys to someone else and relax while they drove it wherever they wanted to.

So all this fighting has been worth it. It’s a trade-off for creative freedom, and just as importantly, the freedom to release music however and whenever I want.

…well, that part has been getting increasingly convoluted, unfortunately.

Something happened recently that’s been a huge blow to me. I know it shouldn’t be, and I should have a stronger spine and be able to laugh things off. Let’s go back 5 years.

In 2009, I had a particularly rough year. I was dealing with both the suicide of a close friend and the death of an immediate family member, and at some point the suppression of my feelings gave way to anxiety and depression. For about a year I couldn’t bring myself to get professional help, and subsequently bounced between self-medicating and expressing myself in music I never intended to release. Most of that music is still unreleased and unheard, but a few things crept out. “Louisiana Mourning” being the obvious short compilation of pieces relating to this period, with tracks “We Are Alone In A City” and “Skeletons” being the others. “We Are Alone In A City” was initially 10 minutes long and had vocals, and I probably cut the track up 10 times before including it on a release. I was constantly on the fence about sharing it with the world. To me, it symbolized this moment where, in my own mind, I had nothing in my life but ghosts to hang on to, and I knew to everyone else, it would merely be something to help pass the time while riding the bus or doing homework. Releasing music that comes from those places is an incredibly insecure, naked experience. If someone criticizes the song, to them, they’re just sharing their opinion about music. To you, they’re criticizing your soul. There’s no way you can naturally come to terms with that arrangement. But the job of a “successful” musician is to suck it up and be humble. You can’t expect everyone to understand the novel-sized, epic saga that is behind certain pieces of music, much less respect it.

So let’s fast-forward to 2015. I’m almost getting comfortable with the aforementioned “fight” that accompanies every music release, and once again, I’m getting naked in front of the world by releasing a solo piano album. I have no idea if I’m a good piano composer. If I was laughed at by even the most uneducated music listener, or if I was praised by people with doctorates in composition, neither would be a big surprise. I’m completely cut off in my own world when I’m writing, and while that has its caveats, it locks out influences that aren’t coming naturally. Once I start trying to appeal to someone else’s standards, the quality of my work starts plummeting. It’s always been that way, and I believe it always will be.

The piano album’s release was, frankly, a disaster. Since my music writing is a mix between music theory and some alien language I invented to help me remember specific ideas, I had hired a transcriber and pianist to transcribe the album into a music book that other pianists could use. It was meant to be included with a special edition of the pre-orders. Well, the transcriber took my down payment and stopped responding to emails, and the whole thing is still dwindling in a Paypal dispute that I honestly no longer even care about. The album’s announcement came premature from a 3rd party, the CDs arrived late, the manufacturer screwed up the bleeds on the artwork,  the warehouse didn’t properly handle inventory, the t-shirt order got screwed up, iTunes rejected the album because I marked it as classical, which then prompted Tunecore to throw it back into limbo, which was then accompanied by a bunch of site bugs preventing the album from being anywhere other than Alphabasic and Bandcamp for nearly a month. Oh, and it leaked, meaning I had to ship everything prematurely. It was by far the biggest shit show I’ve dealt with in terms of releasing an album. Every single thing that could go wrong did.

More and more, over the last few years, I feel like I’m losing control over my own music. Even though I’m doing it myself and constantly multitasking through various battles, it’s still all too often being swept into someone else’s terms of service. Someone else’s time frame. Someone else’s release schedule. I now find myself nearly dreading the actual task of releasing music as “The Flashbulb”.

Then, something that would normally be utterly hilarious happened to me. But it happened at the wrong time, with the wrong song, and the wrong idiot behind it all. Due to 2 days worth of DMCAing’, you can’t see exactly what I saw, but this is the relic of it: http://sfvibebeats.com/products/emotional-drake-style-instrumental

And if you want to hear one of the outcomes (most of the many Youtube links are DMCA’d): https://soundcloud.com/onceuponme/drink-like-its-your-birthday-emotional-drake-style-instrumental
(Please don’t leave this guy mean comments, he bought the instrumental from SF Vibe Beats under the misconception that it was an original creation)

So, to sum this up briefly, “SF Vibe Beats” was illegally licensing “We Are Alone In A City” with a drum loop over it in exchange for money via his Shopify store to everyone from rap artists to marketing campaigns. This guy sold it to over 30 people that used it and released the songs. One of the music videos using this “beat” had more views than my top video of all time (Undiscovered Colors). Try to imagine the weight of this. A stolen song of mine with a drum loop plastered on top earned more success on Youtube than a timelapse video I spent a week in a desert shooting to a song that I had written/recorded an entire orchestra for.

I know, I know. “Lawyer up!”  “Bury this douche!”
And I probably will. This is far from the first time something like this has happened, and that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make. 20 years ago, I sat in my bedroom programming music on a tiny 2-line LCD screen of a synth workstation for, literally, 3 days straight. It was so pure and beautiful. Every track I finished energized the next. I long for that feeling again.

Now? I wake up and alternate between emailing venues, lawyers, music distribution sites, and writing music. I have the knowledge that anything I release can, and probably will be exploited to its fullest potential without my permission. And frankly, while I’ll never imprison myself with a rash decision about the future, I have a huge library of music that I’ll never release because it’s the best, deepest, and most coveted thing I can produce. That’s not to say my recent releases are lacking effort, I don’t believe they are. I think they have their place. But I don’t have it in me to “fight” over my soul, if that analogy makes any sense in reference to what I’ve said here.

I don’t know what this means. But if I’m to continue with “The Flashbulb”, I definitely need to completely restructure not only the way I release things, but my mindset in regards to releasing music to the public. It should be healthy for everyone. The reception of my releases should inspire me to keep writing, and if it comes down to choosing between purely and naturally writing music or releasing music with a bunch of baggage attached, I think everyone can agree which one of those options would be the right choice.

Before I press “publish”, I want to again emphasize my gratefulness for being able to feed myself by writing music. More importantly, I want to thank my supporters. All of this “fighting” is so I can get my music to your ears in a fair, efficient, and affordable manner. I owe it to my fans to find a better way of doing that.