I don't always write here, but when I do, [[[insert something witty]]].

Mommy and Daddy are Fighting (Again)

October 4, 2013 6:23 pm : Uncategorized

the continuing battle for our hearts and minds–but mostly our money

Recently, several variations on an email from ASCAP popped up in my email box. They all say something along the lines of “ZOMG! How awful is Pandora Radio? I know you love them, but we’re not making any money off of them. It’s totes not fair.” That may be a slight oversimplification, but you can read the hysterics for yourself here. It’s tough to read things like this, because as people who love music, we love Pandora; as people who love (and are) musicians, we love ASCAP, too.

In their letter, ASCAP states that 1,000 plays on Pandora earns the songwriter an average of eight cents. That doesn’t sound like very much, does it? And you know, you’re right. 1,000 plays isn’t very much. You thought I was going to say 8 dents isn’t very much. Gotcha! Actually, both are true. ASCAP is giving a figure that sounds terrible, but is actually very misleading without a bit more context. It’s the same out-of-context junk-reasoning that leads to headlines like the infamous and equally misleading “My Song Got Played On Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make From a Single T-Shirt Sale!” (Michael DeGusta has the full debunking.)

Let’s get some context.

First, there was terrestrial radio. Some believe that God created it on the fourth day, right after the lights and stuff. Others believe that Prometheus stole it from Mt. Olympus and brought it to Alexander Graham Bell or something. Many people are surprised to learn that in the United States, when a song is played on the radio, the artist (performer) doesn’t get paid a dime for it. In fact, the artist is often the one paying to be on the radio, but that’s a topic for another rant. Only the composers and songwriters get paid. (This is different in other parts of the world.) Even though this is a recording that is being played in a small room in a shack somewhere, it is counted legally as a “public performance.” To play it, radio stations have to pay for a public performance license from a performance rights organization (PRO). Nightclubs, restaurants, bars, and other music venues have to get these licenses these as well. We have two (okay, two-and-a-half) PROs that deal with this stuff in the US: ASCAP and BMI (and SESAC).

Radio stations and venues get a “blanket” performance license from each PRO. It gives them permission to perform any song that the PRO represents. The cost of that blanket license is determined by the size of the venue. Small clubs pay less than big clubs. Radio stations in small markets (say, South Dakota) pay less than radio stations in big markets (say, Atlanta). The idea is that the radio station in Atlanta is getting more value than the radio station in South Dakota. They have more listeners, and therefore can charge advertisers higher rates. Radio stations report their playlists to the PROs on a regular basis, and the PROs then divide the license rates among their member writers and publishers.

Nielsen – of the television rating Nielsens – measures the reach of a radio station and the songs it plays in “gross impressions.” This is basically multiplying the number of times a song is played by the number of people listening. It gives an idea of the number of times a person, anywhere in the country, heard a particular song. That is a really important distinction between terrestrial radio and Pandora Radio. When a song is played on traditional radio (a “spin” in “the biz”), that’s tens of thousands of impressions at minimum, and potentially reaching a million or more. When a song is played on Pandora, that one spin is worth exactly one impression. Comparing terrestrial radio performance royalties to those of Pandora is a load of crap. Anybody who tries it is either misinformed or lying. Did anybody think that maybe 1,000 Pandora spins might not be worth much more than eight cents? I’m guessing that thought would be considered blasphemy in ASCAP’s swanky Manhattan offices.

My point is this: let’s all settle down. Pandora is providing a great service that people love. They’re paying the people they’re legally obligated to pay. Licensing is their biggest cost by far, and that’s probably as it should be. Furthermore, they’re also paying recording artists, not just songwriters. Last, and most overlooked in these angry arguments, Pandora is following the law and their contractual commitments. None of these artists, labels, songwriters, or publishers signed a deal with a gun to their heads. Maybe songwriters and artists should be paid more for streamed performances, but it’s not Pandora’s fault that they aren’t. If anything terrestrial radio should be paying more. So ASCAP, don’t try to make me feel guilty, and please don’t try to co-opt me and my peers into your greedy, juvenile shouting match.


Photo by Nils Rinaldi on Flickr

Disclosures: I am a composer, but I’m affiliated with the other big American PRO, BMI. Don’t tell either of them, but they’re basically the same.

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Happy Birthday, John Cage

September 5, 2012 10:08 pm : Uncategorized

Today is John Cage’s birthday, and it’s a big one. There are lots of composers, musicians, and writers who are honoring him today, this month, and this year. My little tribute to Cage is this set of three mesostics 1 on his name. Cage constructed his mesostics using a lot of different methods during his lifetime, often using literary works for inspiration. I’ll not delve much deeper into my methodology here as not to bore you any further, other than to say that the sources for these words are taken from Wikipedia articles, chosen with the help of the “Random Article” feature (details below).

Three Mesostics for John Cage
by David MacDonald
5 September 2012

                 althOugh unclear,

                  in Addition to
              buildinG local

                    tO a
              imprisoNment when a 

                 in mArrakech
   have been observinG
                   thE embassy

            to the laNd

    transmitting the Codewords.
                     Advance very quickly
                   thE division

If you’re really curious, here are my source articles, in order:

  1. São Jorge Island
  2. Who is Jake Ellis?
  3. 6th Airborne Division (United Kingdom)

Enough about me. Go write your own!

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Can we ease up on Emily White a little bit?

June 24, 2012 12:51 am : thoughts

This past week, my Google Reader exploded.

Last Saturday, an unsuspecting Emily White posted a piece called “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With” on NPR’s All Songs Considered Blog. In it, she describes herself as a music lover with a substantial library of digital music. However, Ms. White also claims to have only purchased a handful of recordings in her life.

I am an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric. I’ve only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs.

She makes it clear that only a small handful of this collection was downloaded illegally with Kazaa when she was in the fifth grade. (That makes me feel old.) Most of this was acquired by swapping with friends and family as well as ripped from the CD collection at her college radio station.

Ease up, bro.As you might imagine, legions of music bloggers were shocked and appalled by this statement—or at the very least did an excellent job of feigning their righteous indignation. Perhaps the most viral of these responses was written by David Lowery of The Trichordist. Mr. Lowery’s 4,000-word response was condescending 2 and involved a fair number of straw men. He frequently references the “Free Culture” movement, which he clearly does not understand. He also displays a startling lack of understanding of the way the web works by bringing Google, Verizon, and AT&T into the same category of piracy-mongers as Megaupload and The Pirate Bay. The more of Mr. Lowery’s article I read, the less impressed I was by his reasoning, but his heart is in the right place. We absolutely have an obligation to support the artists making the music we love and the ecosystem that allows them to make it. Buying CDs are only one of the many ways that we can support creativity.

In fact, Emily White wrote as much in her own post:

I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.

People pay for things if they are convenient and reasonably priced. Piracy isn’t stealing music from anybody, and there’s no study that can prove that the industry is harmed by piracy because there’s no evidence that an illegally downloaded recording represents a lost sale. In fact, in Switzerland where “piracy” is legal, a study from this past December shows that piracy may actually be good for the entertainment industry.

Swiss citizens over 15 years old download pirated music, movies and games from the Internet. However, these people don’t spend less money as a result because the budgets they reserve for entertainment are fairly constant. This means that downloading is mostly complementary.

The other side of piracy, based on the Dutch study, is that downloaders are reported to be more frequent visitors to concerts, and game downloaders actually bought more games than those who didn’t. And in the music industry, lesser-know bands profit most from the sampling effect of file-sharing.

With every new disruptive technology there are winners and losers. And every time, the disruptees who are the slowest to change are the ones that lose, and the ones that fight hardest against the technology. Music streaming services represent the latest disruptive technology. Emily White and her generation love them. They will continue to “own” less and less music while consuming (and paying for) more and more of it. David Lowery vilifies these services in his article, and he certainly has a good reason. Spotify does not pay up-and-coming artists fairly compared to superstars. Despite these streaming services, however, people will continue to purchase recordings (though probably more and more digital copies) and concert tickets. And in fact, these lesser-known bands that get the lowest direct revenue from Spotify are the ones getting the biggest indirect benefits. The future of music involves many fewer superstars and many more journeymen and part-timers. That’s ok. Buggy-whip makers 3 and blacksmiths aren’t doing so hot anymore either.

I think of piracy as the growing pains of digital distribution. Today, I consume music from the iTunes, Amazon, and Google digital music stores; I stream music on Spotify; I watch movies and TV on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu; and on the rare occasion that I play a video game, I buy it as a digital download from Steam. None of these would exist if piracy hadn’t come first. Emily White is 20. She’s an intern at NPR. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that she isn’t getting paid for that. In a few years, she’ll be able to spend money to support the artists she cares about, and it has taken a little bit of piracy to figure out who those people are. When she says that she doesn’t think her peers will ever pay for albums, I don’t think she means that they will never support artists.

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My Baby’s All Growed Up

March 16, 2012 9:06 pm : thoughts

I call him "alone together."

Some composers get really nervous leading up to a premiere. I’ve never been that kind of composer. One of the great benefits of being a composer is that I don’t have to stress over performances. At the point that I’m sitting in the hall to hear the piece, there is literally nothing I can do that will affect the outcome of the performance. This realization is, I suppose, the cause of stress in other composers. I find this unproductive at best.

Having said all that, I’m a little nervous about a premiere of mine that’s happening tomorrow. “Why?” you might ask. This is one of the first times I’ve ever had a work premiered that I wasn’t attending and that I’ve never actually heard played in person. I have great faith in my friend Tim Rosenberg who is giving the premiere tomorrow in Tempe, Arizona. But Tim has been living in New York and Florida since we started this project. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even seen Tim in person for over a year. I’ve heard him play over Skype, and we’ve talked about the piece a lot, but it’s not the same.

Writing a piece and handing it off to a performer has often been compared to raising a child and sending it out into the world. I feel like I’ve driven my toddler to the airport, dropped him off at baggage check-in, handed him a $50 bill, and wished him the best of luck. I’m just hoping he makes it to wherever it is he’s going.

SIDE NOTE: Tim just redesigned his website. It’s both beautifully designed and humorously written. This is the kind of site all professional musicians should have. The virtuoso you can have a beer (or a bourbon) with. Click this link to go there. It will make his analytics go up, and that makes everybody feel good, right?

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Alone Together With Kickstarter

March 5, 2012 10:39 am : news

Remember last year when I was all hot and bothered about the arts patronage opportunities afforded by the Kickstarter platform? Well, it happened. With help from my friend Tim Rosenberg, I put together a consortium to commission a work for solo alto saxophone. It’s totally done now, YAY!!!!!1!!!!1!!!! The piece is called alone together and will be premiered by Tim at the NASA biennial in a couple weeks.

alone together

first system of alone together

I just sent an email to my Kickstarter backers with a PDF of the score, and hard copies are going in the mail today. Right after I finished sending the PDF out, I checked my usual web comics and found this gem on Married to the Sea:

Married to the Sea

Married to the Sea, 5 March 2012

This was today’s comic! I swear I didn’t plan that.

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The Golijov Problem

February 24, 2012 7:19 pm : links, news, Recommended Listening, thoughts

About a week ago, I first read a story about a new Golijov piece that a couple of audience members believed had been plagiarized. My first thought was “No way. Golijov is a serious composer. He works with other people’s material in a kind of collage, but he wouldn’t be so silly as to blatantly rip off another composer.”

I’m beginning to sing a different tune. Especially now that I’ve heard the two pieces (which incidentally, do not sing different tunes). To demonstrate the similarities between these two compositions, I made a video with recordings I could find on the web. 4

Can this be a “-gate” now? Lots of smart people have weighed in on this already, notably Alex Ross, Anne Midgette, and Rob Deemer.

My thoughts:

The piece is most definitely a rip-off. Golijov claims he cleared it with the original composer, but the original composer didn’t get any credit in the program, and he ain’t gettin’ paid by ASCAP/BMI when the work gets performed. Also, this was a large commission. According to one report, 35 orchestras each paid between $1,500 and $4,500 to join the consortium. Even if they all paid the lower amount, Golijov would have received more to write that piece than I made teaching college courses last year. They paid for something original, not an arrangement. They got an arrangement.

I would be remiss if I did not add this one last thing: Sidereus is a piece of junk! My first reaction when I listened to the piece (before hearing the Ward-Bergeman) was to wonder if the music I was hearing was really distinctive enough to be considered a copy. It’s boring. It goes nowhere in the sub-4-minute original work, and it doesn’t go any further when Golijov spins it out (mostly through repetition) to 9 minutes.


Beethoven Remix

February 19, 2012 2:22 pm : links

Beethoven certainly had a way with openings. Of course, the “fate” motive that opens the fifth is the most known and arguably, the most dramatic. However, not far behind that are the towering octaves that open the second movment of the ninth, and the two gargantuan tonic triads 5 that announce the opening of the third, “Eroica.” These are such iconic moments, that conductors can’t help but stress of their interpretations. One YouTube user, Erik Carlson, is here to help. He’s has cut together the opening chords of several dozen recordings and put them in chronological order in two minutes and forty-five seconds worth of earbending curiosity. You get to hear the progression of recording technology, different decisions in orchestra size, articulation, dynamic, space, and tempo. My favorite part, though, is listening to the different tunings back-to-back-to-back. Who doesn’t love a good earbender in Beethoven?

See what I mean?

[source: YouTube via The Rest is Noise]

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Search ALL the Music!

February 17, 2012 8:25 pm : links

I love streaming music services. Mog, Rdio, Spotify. They’re all great. They help solve one of the most vexing problems of being a musician, discovering new music (without going broke buying stuff). One issue that always comes up, though, is finding an exact recording. Each service has a pretty large catalog, and while there is some overlap, each service has many recordings that the others don’t. Enter: Music Smasher by Matt Montag. It searches Rdio, Spotify, Grooveshark, Soundcloud, Mog, and Bandcamp (whew!). What is really cool about the service is that it includes services like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, where files are uploaded directly by artists and catalogs often include independent artists and “unreleased” content. Go there now.


Music Smasher

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The Future of Course Materials, part 1

January 20, 2012 11:14 pm : thoughts

I know, I haven’t blogged since November. Bad, bad blogger. I also apologize for blogging mostly about teaching and less about music recently. That trend will continue below, but I promise to write about some music in the coming weeks.


photo by brewbooks

A recent discussion with some colleagues at Grand Valley State has recently prompted me to wonder whether textbooks are still necessary for certain subjects (if not all of them). Each semester on the first day of classes, I go over a syllabus with my students. In that syllabus, there is usually at least one textbook and a CD that my students are required to purchase. I have actually had a student come up to me after the first class and say “I’m getting paid on Friday and then two Fridays after that. I can only afford to buy one of the course materials with each paycheck. Which one should I get first?” The web can and should solve this problem. Could a carefully cultivated website with a curated list of links and thoughtful commentary replace a textbook? Could a YouTube playlist and embedded videos in that site replace academic recording anthologies?

I’m going to take a few blog posts and discuss my thoughts on these questions. In this first post, I’d like to examine the virtues of the current system of textbook publishers. These are some of the things that I think a new, technology-based solution should maintain. Please share your thoughts below.

1) Books and CDs can be accessed anywhere at any time.

This is so obvious that it may be easy to overlook when examining eBooks and the web. Books do not require any other thing to use. They don’t require any particular computer software, an internet connection, or even power. CDs require a CD player and power, but a portable CD player and batteries can be had for less than $30 at the local WalMart (or Amazon). While this standard accessibility and compatibility isn’t completely achievable with digital alternatives, we need to get as close to it as we can..

2) Books and CDs are persistent.

If a student likes a course or finds it particularly useful (Hey, it could happen!), she has the option of keeping the course materials as a reference. She did not purchase a temporary license to content, but physical goods. If she doesn’t like the book, she can recover some of its purchase price by reselling it. The CD may be replaced by another audio format, but the student can always keep a local digital copy on her computer that is hers forever. Since she has a local copy of both the CD and the book, they can’t be changed or taken away by anyone else. Any digital alternative should be as portable as possible.

3) Books have a single scholarly viewpoint.

This is perhaps the single greatest advantage to the current system of textbooks. There is such an overwhelming quantity of knowledge in the world, and a good textbook author filters and organizes it with skill and care. Explaining complex subjects often requires initial simplification, long-running analogies, selective sequential presentation, and an internal consistency that may not reflect the use of this knowledge “in the wild.” Digital course materials must be more than the results of a Google search on the topic. Importantly, they still require the insightful input of scholars.

4) Books are written by other people.

Admittedly, this is not always a benefit. I have blogged previously about my disagreements with various textbook authors. Having said that, the major benefit of using somebody else’s textbook is that I don’t have to spend the time curating my own. Digital materials could be infinitely customizable, but they should not require infinite customization.

5) Books compensate authors.

Publishers pay authors to write textbooks. They edit, typeset, produce, market, and distribute them. It is prohibitively difficult to “pirate” a physical book. I do not think we should make it prohibitively difficult to copy and share digital course materials. The music industry has already proven to us that this is technologically impossible. In future postings, I will examine how we might generate enough revenue to compensate scholars for their contributions to digital course materials.

6) Books have cultural authority.

This is perhaps the steepest hurdle that digital materials have to climb. In the half-millennium since Gutenberg, books have become thought of as authoritative. Information “printed in black and white” is, for better or worse, thought of more highly than information gleaned on the web. Anyone can publish on the web, and readers are right to be skeptical of a medium with no barrier for entry. Academia is notoriously slow to change, and as new and innovative course materials take forms that gradually deviate more and more from Gutenberg’s bible, these new materials will have to work harder and harder to prove their reliability and trustworthiness.

I will continue posting about the future of course materials, discussing the ways new media might co-opt some of these benefits of books, how it might improve upon books, and how we might begin to create this new generation of educational content.

In the meanwhile, please share your thoughts in the comments. This is a work in progress. I am examining this concept because I am interested in trying to build these new materials. If this is a project you would be interested in (either contributing to or using), please email me or find me on Twitter.

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Reliable Sources

November 7, 2011 1:54 pm : thoughts

So, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m a geek. I probably spend more time thinking about the web than most people. I probably spend a lot more time thinking about the web than most of my students. This can lead to problems when I say things like, “Sure, use as many web sources in your research project as you’d like. Just use your best judgement in evaluating what would make a credible source.”

In my MUS 218 World Music classes today, we talked about how to determine whether a web page might be reliable enough to be cited in a research paper. Here’s my presentation (Google Docs presentations). I’m publishing it here in part because someone might find it useful. However, I’m mostly sharing this with the world because I know there are lots of people who have spent more time thinking about this stuff than I have, and I’m hoping they might be willing to help me refine it. Please let me know what you think in the comments!


(PS – I know the GDocs embedded version chops off a little bit of the right side of each slide. Go fullscreen to fix it if you like.)

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  1. If you’re not sure what mesostics are, fear not. They’re just poems. Cage was particularly fond of them, and wrote hundreds of them during his lifetime for lots of purposes, including just to playfully communicate with friends. You can read about them here, here, or here.
  2. “Now, having said all that, I also deeply empathize with your generation. You have grown up in a time when technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality.”
  3. That may not be a real thing.
  4. Osvaldo Golijov: Sidereus, performed by the New England Conservatory Philharmonia, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen.

    Michael Ward-Bergeman: Berbeich, performed by the composer. (Yeah, that’s right. MySpace.) 

  5. Those are all Rdio links. You can listen for free with an account, which is also free. If you don’t have one yet, you’re missing out on free things!