Books in General

P.D. James Has Died

28 November 2014

From The New York Times:

Phyllis Dorothy James White, who became Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991 but who was better known as “the Queen of Crime” for the multilayered mystery novels she wrote as P. D. James, died on Thursday at her home in Oxford, England. She was 94.

. . . .

Ms. James was one of those rare authors whose work stood up to the inevitable and usually invidious comparisons with classic authors of the detective genre, like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. A consummate stylist, she accumulated numerous awards for the 18 crime novels produced during a writing career spanning a half-century. Seven of her mysteries were adapted for the public-television series “Mystery!” and were broadcast in Britain and the United States.

Ms. James bristled at the frequent comparisons to genre authors who wrote in the golden age of the English mystery novel, in the 1930s. “That kind of crime writing was dull,” she once said in an interview, “in the sense that it was unrealistic, prettifying and romanticizing murder, but having little to do with real blood-and-guts tragedy. One simply cannot take these as realistic books about murder, about the horror of murder, the tragedy of murder, the harm that murder does.”

. . . .

Her intention with Dalgliesh, she told the British critic and writer Julian Symons in 1986, was to create a detective “quite unlike the Lord Peter Wimsey kind of gentlemanly amateur” popularized by Dorothy L. Sayers. Ms. James envisioned a realistic cop as her protagonist, a dedicated and skilled professional, and yet “something more than just a policeman, you see, a complex and sensitive human being,” she said.

Her readers found this character profoundly romantic. Even Ms. James thought he was sexy. “I could never fall in love with a man who was handsome but stupid,” she said. Still, Commander Dalgliesh (pronounced DAWL-gleesh) remained a self-contained, even aloof figure. “There’s a splinter of ice in his character,” she said.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

The Desolate Wilderness

27 November 2014

For visitors from outside the United States, today is Thanksgiving, a national holiday.

Days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services arose as part of the English Reformation during the reign of King Henry VIII. In the United States, the tradition began in 1621 following a good harvest in the Plymouth Colony located in modern-day Massachusetts. The only other English colony in North America was Jamestown, located in present-day Virginia, over 600 miles to the South.

The Colony was founded by a group of English religious separatists that had suffered religious persecution in England. After first moving to Holland, the separatists eventually decided to settle in that part of North America that was nominally controlled by England.

Of the original 102 passengers that embarked for the New World from Plymouth, England, on the Mayflower, only two died during the voyage, but, after landing in December, 1620, approximately half of the company died during the first winter. The climate and topography were much different than those found in England and Holland and, as the following passage indicates, their new home was an intimidating place.

Here beginneth the chronicle of those memorable circumstances of the year 1620, as recorded by Nathaniel Morton, keeper of the records of Plymouth Colony, based on the account of William Bradford , sometime governor thereof:

So they left that goodly and pleasant city of Leyden, which had been their resting-place for above eleven years, but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. XI, 16), and therein quieted their spirits.

When they came to Delfs-Haven they found the ship and all things ready, and such of their friends as could not come with them followed after them, and sundry came from Amsterdam to see them shipt, and to take their leaves of them. One night was spent with little sleep with the most, but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love.

The next day they went on board, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to hear what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each other’s heart, that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the Key as spectators could not refrain from tears. But the tide (which stays for no man) calling them away, that were thus loath to depart, their Reverend Pastor, falling down on his knees, and they all with him, with watery cheeks commended them with the most fervent prayers unto the Lord and His blessing; and then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them.

Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.

Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.

If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.

Jack Webb

26 November 2014

From Word Around the New:

Before Dragnet, before everyone knew him, Jack Webb did several other radio shows.  The best of them was called Pat Novak for Hire, about a boat owner and general odd jobs guy who kept getting involved in various pulpy adventures.

What set this show apart was the writing, which was noire hard boiled writing at its absolute best.  The primary writer Richard L. Breen who went on to write such films as State Fair, Niagra, and PT 109.  And his work was poetry.  The interaction between Novak and his nemesis on the police force Lieutanant Hellman is classic and usually hilarious, and the philosophical monologues and musings of drunken ex-doctor Jocko Madigan is unique to the show.

. . . .

“Around here a set of morals won’t cause any more stir than Mother’s Day in an orphanage. Maybe that’s not good, but that’s the way it is. And it wouldn’t do any good to build a church down here, because some guy would muscle in and start cutting the wine with wood alcohol. All you can do is try to make the books balance, and the easiest way to do that is to keep one hand on your billfold and the other hand on somebody else’s.”

“Down in the waterfront, in San Francisco, you always bite off more than you can chew. It’s tough on your windpipe, but you don’t go hungry.”

“Pat Novak, for hire. It’s about the only way you can say it. Oh, you can dress it up and tell how many shopping days there are ’til Christmas, but if you got yourself on the market, you can’t waste time talking. You got to be as brief as a pauper’s will, because down in the waterfront, in San Francisco, everybody wants a piece of the cake, and the only easy buck is the one you just spent. Oh, it’s a good life. If you work real hard and study a little on the side, you got a trade by the time you get to prison.”

. . . .

“I watched her as she turned and walked out the door. She was wearing a flowered print dress, and as she walked, the roses kept getting mixed up with the daisies. She walked with a nice friendly movement, like the trap door on a gallows.”

. . . .

“I crossed over and knocked at the door. The guy that opened it had a face like three pounds of warm putty. It was moist and pink, and you got the idea they put the color in with a spray gun. And if his heart was made of the same stuff, they drained the oil out first.”

Link to the rest at Word Around the Net and thanks to Karen for the tip.

How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?

23 November 2014

From a 1950 story in The New Yorker:

Ernest Hemingway, who may well be the greatest living American novelist and short-story writer, rarely comes to New York. He spends most of his time on a farm, the Finca Vigia, nine miles outside Havana, with his wife, a domestic staff of nine, fifty-two cats, sixteen dogs, a couple of hundred pigeons, and three cows. When he does come to New York, it is only because he has to pass through it on his way somewhere else. Not long ago, on his way to Europe, he stopped in New York for a few days. I had written to him asking if I might see him when he came to town, and he had sent me a typewritten letter saying that would be fine and suggesting that I meet his plane at the airport. “I don’t want to see anybody I don’t like, nor have publicity, nor be tied up all the time,” he went on. “Want to go to the Bronx Zoo, Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art, ditto of Natural History, and see a fight. Want to see the good Breughel at the Met, the one, no two, fine Goyas and Mr. El Greco’s Toledo. Don’t want to go to Toots Shor’s. Am going to try to get into town and out without having to shoot my mouth off. I want to give the joints a miss. Not seeing news people is not a pose. It is only to have time to see your friends.” In pencil, he added, “Time is the least thing we have of.”

. . . .

“After you finish a book, you know, you’re dead,” he said moodily. “But no one knows you’re dead. All they see is the irresponsibility that comes in after the terrible responsibility of writing.” He said he felt tired but was in good shape physically; he had brought his weight down to two hundred and eight, and his blood pressure was down too. He had considerable rewriting to do on his book, and he was determined to keep at it until he was absolutely satisfied. “They can’t yank novelist like they can pitcher,” he said. “Novelist has to go the full nine, even if it kills him.”

. . . .

After dallying at the bar a while longer, the Hemingways asked me to go along with them to their hotel. Hemingway ordered the luggage loaded into one taxi, and the three of us got into another. It was dark now. As we drove along the boulevard, Hemingway watched the road carefully. Mrs. Hemingway told me that he always watches the road, usually from the front seat. It is a habit he got into during the First World War. I asked them what they planned to do in Europe. They said they were going to stay a week or so in Paris, and then drive to Venice.

“I love to go back to Paris,” Hemingway said, his eyes still fixed on the road. “Am going in the back door and have no interviews and no publicity and never get a haircut, like in the old days. Want to go to cafés where I know no one but one waiter and his replacement, see all the new pictures and the old ones, go to the bike races and the fights, and see the new riders and fighters. Find good, cheap restaurants where you can keep your own napkin. Walk over all the town and see where we made our mistakes and where we had our few bright ideas. And learn the form and try and pick winners in the blue, smoky afternoons, and then go out the next day to play them at Auteuil and Enghien.”

. . . .

[Hemingway] was looking forward to seeing the gondoliers on a windy day, the Gritti Palace hotel, where they stayed during their last visit, and the Locanda Cipriani, an old inn on Torcello, an island in the lagoon northeast of Venice on which some of the original Venetians lived before they built Venice. About seventy people live on Torcello, and the men are professional duck hunters. While there, Hemingway went duck-hunting a lot with the gardener of the old inn. “We’d go around through the canals and jump-shoot, and I’d walk the prairies at low tide for snipe,” he said. “It was a big fly route for ducks that came all the way down from the Pripet Marshes. I shot good and thus became a respected local character. They have some sort of little bird that comes through, after eating grapes in the north, on his way to eat grapes in the south. The local characters sometimes shot them sitting, and I occasionally shot them flying. Once, I shot two high doubles, rights and lefts, in a row, and the gardener cried with emotion. Coming home, I shot a high duck against the rising moon and dropped him in the canal. That precipitated an emotional crisis I thought I would never get him out of but did, with about a pint of Chianti. We each took a pint out with us. I drank mine to keep warm coming home. He drank his when overcome by emotion.” We were silent for a while, and then Hemingway said, “Venice was lovely.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

We will need writers who can remember freedom

23 November 2014

From parker higgins dot net:

Ursula K. Le Guin was honored at the National Book Awards tonight and gave a fantastic speech about the dangers to literature and how they can be stopped.

Thank you Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine.

. . . .

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.

Link to the rest at parker higgins dot net and thanks to Felix and several others for the tip.

The Storyteller

22 November 2014

From an old issue of The New Yorker:

My copy was blue. The book was a small Scholastic paperback, and on the cover was a trio of pale-green concentric circles. They looked like radio waves, or the kind of design you could get by fiddling around with a Spirograph set. In one of the circles was the silhouette of a girl, and, in another, a matching image of a little boy.

The book was “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle. Published in 1962, it is—depending on how you look at it—science fiction, a warm tale of family life, a response to the Cold War, a book about a search for a father, a feminist tract, a religious fable, a coming-of-age novel, a work of Satanism, or a prescient meditation on the future of the United States after the Kennedy assassination. When I first read it, in 1967, at the age of eight, I was innocent of any of this, and I had no idea that the story was also about the author. The girl in the circle was her childhood self, lostand lonely in space. But for L’Engle, even more than for Meg Murry, who with her brother Charles Wallace is travelling, according to my edition’s back-flap copy, “through a wrinkle in time, to the deadly unknown terrors beyond the tesseract!,” it had been even more perilous, because she had no grave, precocious little boy to accompany her. I knew even less that those closest to Madeleine L’Engle considered her science fiction to be the least fantastical of her more than fifty books, which, in addition to her novels, include poetry, meditations, and memoirs.

I once asked L’Engle to define “science fiction.” She replied, “Isn’t everything?” On another occasion, in the vast, sunny apartment in a building on West End Avenue where she has lived since 1960, and where she and her late husband, the actor Hugh Franklin, brought up their three children, she offered an example. “I was standing right there, carrying a plate of cold cuts,” she said, pointing at a swinging door between the dining room and the pantry. “And I swooped into the pantry, bang, and got a black eye. It was exactly as if someone pushed me.” At eighty-five, L’Engle is a formidable figure. She is five feet nine in her stocking feet, and uses a wheelchair owing to a broken hip. She has a birdlike head, a sharp nose, and an air of helpless innocence that is almost entirely put on. She wore a loose-fitting dress in one of her favorite colors, peacock blue. “Most likely,” she continued firmly, “it was a poltergeist. There must have been a teen-age girl in the house. All that energy! They create the best atmosphere for them, you know. We don’t know how to catch and harness it.” She nodded. “Too true of most things.”

. . . .

Catherine Hand, who is an executive producer of a made-for-television version of “A Wrinkle in Time,” which is scheduled to air next month on ABC, fell in love with the book when she was ten. She says, “The engine that drives it is Meg’s inner life, and it’s astonishing, because here is a girl who at that moment is stronger than her father. For some of us, it planted the seeds of the women’s movement. I have had wonderful conversations with Madeleine, as a friend, who is, of course, Meg.”

Robert Giroux, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which first published “A Wrinkle in Time,” says, “Madeleine L’Engle? She’s an unusual woman, brilliant intellectually. A really superior person. She’s what you used to call a bluestocking. I’ve worked with T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden, and so on, but my young relatives all say, ‘Oh, Madeleine L’Engle!’ ”

The hardcover edition of “A Wrinkle in Time” is now in its sixty-seventh printing, and continues to sell about fifteen thousand copies annually. (L’Engle says that she had a clause in her contract that Farrar, Straus had the rights to “A Wrinkle in Time” in perpetuity in the universe, but not on Andromeda.) More than six million copies of the paperback are currently in circulation.

. . . .

More than most writers, L’Engle has engaged with her readers. Until about five years ago, she was a tireless lecturer and teacher, annually accepting dozens of invitations to speak, on writing, family life, and faith—L’Engle has been a devout Anglican for most of her adult life—and she has often received more than a hundred letters from readers in a week. (Her grandchildren, Léna Roy and Charlotte and Edward Jones, now handle most of her correspondence.) One evening at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where L’Engle has been the librarian for forty years, an Evensong service was held to celebrate her contribution to literature for children. Scores of strangers waited to greet her—mainly middle-aged women, some with children in tow, but men, too. What they said was “Thank you. You changed my life.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Amazon could actually dedicate itself to saving books and literature in this country

20 November 2014

From James Patterson via Salon:

Last week, Amazon and Hachette Book Group announced they had reached an agreement on a multi-year contract, ending a lengthy stand-off that prompted hundreds of authors to speak out against Amazon’s negotiation tactics. One of the highest-profile voices was bestselling novelist James Patterson.

. . . .

Next week, Patterson will launch a new public awareness campaign to encourage reading. The campaign includes a television ad featuring a public book burning, and a request to President Obama that he pledge to make reading a national priority. And in an interview earlier this week, Patterson says Amazon could be doing more to encourage reading.

. . . .

Tell me about the new campaign to encourage reading and book-buying.

We really try and discourage apathy and neglect as much as anything. You know I mean, look, we’re in this transitional period with e-books. And what’s happened in the last ten years or so is we’ve gone from 10,000 or so bookstores to less than 3,000. I don’t think that’s great. We have teenagers now reading books less than eight minutes a week. I don’t think that’s great. And I don’t think people are paying much attention to it. So not to go crazy with puns, but I really want to try to light a fire under the issue and get people to pay more attention.

When the Amazon thing came up, I can’t say that I did it by myself, but a few writers got up and we did light a fire under a lot of writers. And I think the same thing can happen here in terms of getting people upset about, hey, what is going to happen to our books? What is going to happen if we don’t have any publishers around?

. . . .

But what would be the sign that it was? What’s the goal here? More independent bookstores, more book sales?

I think the goal is just more people reading. And to do that, a lot of things have to happen. Actually, to me, the group that can do the most good here is Amazon. Amazon could actually dedicate itself to saving books and literature in this country. It really could. And that would be the easiest fix, directionally.

I think they probably think they’re doing that, but they’re not, at least not yet. Yes, they want to lower prices, and you know, theoretically that’s fine, but I don’t know how we’d do that on a practical level and keep stores… You know, in terms of evolving the system as opposed to fracturing the system, [Amazon is] in a position to do something. The government is in a position to do something. Ironically, you know, we have a very liberal president, and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in the subject, unfortunately. I know he’s got a lot on his plate already, but you know. I mean, look, all over Europe you have governments who protect the publishers and protect books.

Yeah, there was that New York Times Bookends piece recently about how France treats books as an “essential good,” like food and utilities. They’re taxed at lower rates, price discounts are pretty severely controlled. Is that a model that you think would be useful?

No, I don’t think it’s a model, but I think it’s something to pay attention to. I think the government could be more involved. I mean, obviously the government has stepped in when banks were in trouble and the automobile business was in trouble. I think it’s something that local, state and federal government could be doing more.

This is once again symbolic, the kind of leadership pledge, you know. We’re gonna ask people to write to the President, write to their Congress and their representatives. And have the President take a pledge that once a month, he’ll appear in public carrying a book, he’ll visit a library store, or you know, the local representative.

. . . .

Yeah, that’s pretty accessible stuff. Well you mentioned earlier that Amazon could be doing more. What do you think Amazon could be doing more of? 

They can save reading. They can get in there, they can just encourage people to read. One of the things, and I actually talked to Jeff Bezos about this, was when it was in their business interest to really get people knowing about the Kindle, I mean, you could not go on that site without getting tempted and blasted about, Try this Kindle, try this Kindle, you gotta try this, it’s free, we’ll give you a million dollars if you try this.

Right now what’s happened is you’ve got about 30% less people going into bookstores, and that includes a lot of parents and grandparents or whatever. Kids have not switched to tablets for reading. That has not happened. They’re not reading e-books. So what you have in a third of households now, is the kids aren’t reading any more. The parents aren’t going into the bookstores and they’ve switched to e-books, but they haven’t switched their families. And what I said to Jeff was that you really need to educate all these people that are using the Kindle that a) It’s okay to have more than one in the house, just like you have five phones in the house, it’s okay, and secondly, don’t be afraid that your kids are gonna wind up buying a dozen books in a year. That’s okay too. That’s excellent, actually.

Link to the rest at Salon and thanks to Barry for the tip.

As PG read this, he realized what a terrible fix the world would be in if James Patterson ever stopped telling everyone what to do.

Steve Albini on the surprisingly sturdy state of the music industry

18 November 2014

PG received a tip from Evan for an article about the evolution of the music industry. Evan suggests there are a lot of similarities between the development of the market for indie musicians and indie authors.

From The Guardian:

I’m going to first explain a few things about myself. I’m 52 years old, I have been in bands continuously, and active in the music scene in one way or another since about 1978. At the moment I’m in a band, I also work as a recording engineer and I own a recording studio in Chicago. In the past I have also been a fanzine writer, radio club DJ, concert promoter and I ran a small record label. I was not terribly successful at any of those things, but I have done them, so they qualify as part of my CV.

I work every day with music and with bands and I have for more than 30 years. I’ve made a couple thousand records for independent bands and rock stars, for big labels and small ones. I made a record two days ago and I’ll be making one on Monday when I get off the plane. So I believe this puts me in a pretty good position to evaluate the state of the music scene today, as it relates to how it used to be and how it has been.

. . . .

I hear from some of my colleagues that these are rough times: that the internet has cut the legs off the music scene and that pretty soon nobody will be making music anymore because there’s no money in it. Virtually every place where music is written about, there is some version of this troubling perspective. People who used to make a nice income from royalties, they’ve seen the royalties dry up. And people who used to make a living selling records are having trouble selling downloads as substitute for records, and they no longer make records.

So there is a tacit assumption that this money, lost money, needs to be replaced and a lot of energy has been spent arguing from where that money will come. Bitchiness about this abounds, with everybody insisting that somebody else should be paying him, but that he shouldn’t have to pay for anybody else. I would like to see an end to this dissatisfaction.

It’s worthwhile to remember from where we’ve come. From where this bitchiness originates. In the 1970s through the 1990s, the period in which I was most active in bands in the music scene – let’s call this the pre-internet era. The music industry was essentially the record industry, in that records and radio were the venues through which people learned of music and principally experienced it. They were joined by MTV and videos in the 80s and 90s, but the principle relationship people had with music was as sound recordings. There was a booming band scene and all bands aspired to getting recorded, as a mark of legitimacy.

But recording was a rare and expensive enterprise, so it wasn’t common. Even your demo tape required considerable investment. So when I started playing in bands in the 70s and 80s most bands went through their entire lifecycle without so much as a note of their music ever being recorded.

. . . .

As a yardstick for the economics of the day or for the era, in 1979 you could buy a 45rpm single for a buck, a new album for $5, go see a club gig for $1 or a stadium gig for $7. I know these things because I still have some old ticket stubs and price stickers on my records. Note the relative parity between the live show costs and the recorded music costs. A gradual inflation of prices remained under way through the 90s, making recorded music more expensive, though it remained the principal means of experience.

The whole industry depended on these sales, and sales depended on exposure. Bands on big labels toured, essentially to promote their recordings. And the labels provided promotional and logistical support to keep the bands on the road. This supported a network of agents and managers and roadies and promotional staff, so the expense was considerable.

Retail outlets also offered special placements and promotion: displays, posters, mentions in print ads, giveaways, trinkets and what were called end cap displays. Record labels paid handsomely for these promotions and the stores used the sale of these promotions as additional income. Chain stores especially relied on corporate chain-wide promotions, regardless what the stores might think their local clientele might like. It wasn’t uncommon to see big displays of hair metal bands in urban outlets where they couldn’t sell a single stick but the labels had paid for their utility, so up they went.

. . . .

So it was a leaky system, riddled with inefficiencies, but a lot of people made a living through it. Record store owners, buyers, employees, ad agencies, designers, club owners, label reps, A&R, producers, recording studios, publicists, lawyers, journalists, program directors, distributors, tour managers, booking agents, band managers, and all the ancillary services they required: banking, shipping, printing, photography, travel agencies, limos, spandex wardrobe, cocaine dealers, prostitutes. Because of this great bulk of the industry needed to sustain itself. Every facet of the industry was tailored to this need.

The most significant bit of tailoring was an accounting trick called recouping costs. The costs of making a record wasn’t borne by the record label, except initially. Those costs were recouped or taken out of the income the band might otherwise run as royalties. The same was true of all those promo copies, posters, radio pluggers and payola men, producers, publicists, tour support, 8×10 glossies, shipping, freight – basically anything that could be associated with a specific band or record was ultimately paid for by the band, not by the record label.

. . . .

In the end the bands operating under this system earned very little from their record sales, unless they were monumental stars. Often enough bands would conduct their entire careers with a label and never reach the point where they had sufficiently recouped to get paid anything at all. Now the label made its per-piece profit on every record sold. And could recoup the cost of any records unsold. And all those other people got paid using the money that would have otherwise gone to the bands as royalties. Unsurprisingly, those other people also got paid pretty well. It stands to reason that if the label is paying you with someone else’s money, the label doesn’t need to care how much you charge.

. . . .

Now bands existed outside that label spectrum. The working bands of the type I’ve always been in, and for those bands everything was always smaller and simpler. Promotion was usually down to flyers posted on poles, occasional mentions on college radio and fanzines. If you had booked a gig at a venue that didn’t advertise, then you faced a very real prospect of playing to an empty room. Local media didn’t take bands seriously until there was a national headline about them so you could basically forget about press coverage. And commercial radio was absolutely locked up by the payola-driven system of the pluggers and program directors.

. . . .

So these independent bands had to be resourceful. They’d built their own infrastructure of independent clubs, promoters, fanzines and DJs. They had their own channels of promotion, including the beginnings of the internet culture that is so prevalent today – that being bulletin boards, and newsgroups. These independent bands even made their own record label. Some were collectives and those that weren’t were likely to operate on a profit-sharing basis that encouraged efficiency, rather than a recoupable patronage system that encouraged indulgence.

That’s where I cut my teeth, in that independent scene full of punks and noise freaks and drag queens and experimental composers and jabbering street poets. You can thank punk rock for all of that. That’s where most of us learned that it was possible to make your own records, to conduct your own business and keep control of your own career. If a bunch of pimply glue sniffers could do it, we reasoned, then anybody could.

The number of records released this way was incredible. Thousands of small releases made their way into the “mom and pop” independent speciality stores, which then provided a market for independent distribution. It was the beginnings of an alternative to the label paradigm. It was cumbersome and slow but it was more efficient than a shotgun approach with the big labels, whose answer to every problem was to spend more of the band’s money on it.

. . . .

It was the beginning of what we would call the peer network. By mid-90s there were independent labels and distributors moving millions of dollars of records and CDs. And there was a healthy underground economy of bands making a reasonable income owing to the superior efficiencies of the independent methods. My band, as an example, was returned 50% of the net profit on every title that we released through our record label. I worked it out and that earned us a better per-piece royalty than Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna or any other superstar operating concurrently. And we were only one of thousands of such bands.

. . . .

You may have noticed that in my description of the mass market music scene and the industry as it was pre-internet I made little mention of the audience or the bands. Those two ends of the spectrum were hardly considered by the rest of the business. Fans were expected to listen to the radio and buy records and bands were expected to make records and tour to promote them. And that was about all the thought either were given. But the audience was where all the money came from and the bands were where all the music came from.

. . . .

This audience-driven music distribution has other benefits. Long-forgotten music has been given a second life. And bands whose music that was ahead of its time has been allowed to reach a niche audience that the old mass distribution failed to find for them, as one enthusiast turns on the next and this forgotten music finally gets it due. There’s a terrific documentary about one such case, the Detroit band Death whose sole album was released in a perfunctory edition in, I believe, 1975 and disappeared until a copy of it was digitised and made public on the internet. Gradually the band found an audience, their music got lovingly reissued, and the band has resurrected, complete with tours playing to packed houses. And the band are now being allowed the career that the old star system had denied them. There are hundreds of such stories and there are speciality labels that do nothing but reissue lost classics like that once they surface.

Now look at the conditions from a band’s perspective, the conditions faced by a band. In contrast to back in the day, recording equipment and technology has simplified and become readily available. Computers now come pre-loaded with enough software to make a decent demo recording and guitar stores sell microphones and other equipment inexpensively that previously was only available at a premium from arcane speciality sources. Essentially every band now has the opportunity to make recordings.

And they can do things with those recordings. They can post them online in any number of places: Bandcamp, YouTube, SoundCloud, their own websites. They can link to them on message boards, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter and even in the comment streams of other music. “LOL,” “this sucks,” “much better,” “death to false metal,” “LOL”. Instead of spending a fortune on international phone calls trying to find someone in each territory to listen to your music, every band on the planet now has free, instant access to the world at its fingertips.

I cannot overstate how important a development that is. Previously, in the top-down paradigm allowed local industry to dictate what music was available in isolated or remote markets, markets isolated by location or language. It was inconceivable that a smaller or independent band could have market penetration into, say, Greece or Turkey, Japan or China, South America, Africa or the Balkans.

. . . .

In short, the internet has made it much easier to conduct the day-to-day business of being in a band and has increased the efficiency. Everything from scheduling rehearsals using online calendars, to booking tours by email, to selling merchandise and records from online stores, down to raising the funds to make a record is a new simplicity that bands of the pre-internet era would salivate over. The old system was built by the industry to serve the players inside the industry. The new system where music is shared informally and the bands have a direct relationship to the fans was built by the bands and the fans in the manner of the old underground. It skips all the intermediary steps.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Evan for the tip.

My Favorite Literary Physics Myth

17 November 2014

From i09:

One of the crucial scenes in the novel A Passage to India takes place in the Caves of Malabar, in which every whisper comes back as thunder. Imagine my disappointment when I found out the caves were fictional… and my interest when it turns out they’re based on a real phenomenon.

If you don’t know it, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India is a novel that examines the social and political relationship between England and India in the 1920s. It’s ightly acknowledged as one of the great English-language novels, and frequently appears on reading lists in high school and college literature courses. In the novel, the Malabar Caves are deep and complicated, and any noise made inside them, from the scrape of a match to the squeak of a boot heel, comes back as thunderous noise. The sound of the caves drives two British women temporarily mad. The caves are meant as a metaphor for both the coming revolution in India and the (at the time) unbreachable gap between the understanding of the Indians and the understanding of the British. While the Indians don’t think much of the echoes, being used to even more impressive acoustics, the British can’t handle them.

. . . .

One rock art expert believes that cave art is placed where it is as the result of specialized acoustics in caves. Clapping your hands in front of caves from Lascaux, France, to Chavín de Huántar, Peru, can create echoes that resemble all kinds of things. Researcher Steven Waller believes that the acoustic properties of the area around the paintings were meant to be as much a part of the art as the paintings themselves. Sometimes he and his colleagues can find art by clapping or shouting, and walking to the spot that has the most impressive echoes.

He believes art, sounds, and spirituality are bound up together. In the southwestern United States, paintings of thunderbirds tend to be in the areas where clapping or shouting returns the sound of thunder; meanwhile in France, horses and deer decorate spots on the wall where clapping will make it sound like a herd of hoofed animals running behind the cave walls.

Link to the rest at i09

The Art of Leo Tolstoy

16 November 2014

From Open Culture:


Like all great writers, Leo Tolstoy has inspired a great many visual adaptations of his work, of varying degrees of quality. Just this past month, the Volgograd Fine Arts Museum in Russia held an exhibition of “92 graphic works from the collection of the Yasnaya Polyana Estate-Museum,” the author’s country estate and birthplace. Each work of art “recreates immortal images of the characters, reconstructs the historic epoch, and reflects the dynamics” of his masterpieces Anna Karenina and War and Peace, as well as his short stories for children.


Travel to Moscow, however, to the Leo Tolstoy State Museum, and you’ll find Tolstoy’s own visual art, which he sketched both on the very manuscript pages of those novels and stories and in the notebooks that inspired them. At the top of the post, see a manuscript page of War and Peace with the figures of a boy and a well-dressed woman drawn very faintly into the text. Directly above, see a sketch for his ABC book, a primer he created for his peasant schools at Yasnaya Polyana.

Link to the rest at Open Culture

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