If you haven't heard, Merge is 20 years old, and the label is still kicking major ass. Last year, the label announced a special subscription-only box set titled SCORE!, which you'd be a fool not to subscribe to (TMT News). In fact, the deadline for subscribing has been extended to January 11, so get on that shit NOW. (Reminder: all proceeds will be donated to various charitable causes.)
Continuing the celebration, Merge has announced a five-day festival, appropriately titled XX MERGE. Taking place July 22-26 in North Carolina, the fest will boast "Merge artists past and present," the ultimate real-time celebration of the Merge spirit (of which most of has been privy to at some point). Unfortunately, Merge has yet to release the lineup and ticketing information -- perhaps Spoon, Portastatic, The Music Tapes, Dinosaur Jr., Neutral Milk Hotel?? -- but at least we know which days of work we need to take off.
Take a good long listen to modern-day troubadour M. Ward, and one of the first thing’s you’ll realize is that this guy doesn’t much care what year it is. Any of the hits from his recent releases could just as easily have been jammed from the stage of the Hill Valley 1885 Clock Tower Dedication Festival alongside various hoary members of ZZ Top as tracked with care in a 21st-century recording studio.
Luckily, the quantum-leaping Ward sometimes slows time enough for us mortals to catch a synchronic glimpse of what this man looks and sounds like. And 2009’s glimpse just so happens to be that of a winter tour, spanning both sides of the Atlantic, hot on the heels of his highly-anticipated release, Hold Time (due February 17, via Merge), like a trail of fire to a tricked-out, rubber-burning time machine. Amidst producing and arranging Zooey Deschanel’s indie pop gems and being the “Him” of She & Him’s critically-acclaimed Volume One (TMT Review) this past year, M. apparently rearranged space-time enough to also write and record Hold Time, which features guest performances by Lucinda Williams, Jason Lytle (ex Grandaddy), and Deschanel herself, all of whom must have been given special “temporal-displacement watches” in order to work on the project outside the normal flow of space-time.
Tickets for all shows in the U.S., UK, and Europe are on sale as of last Friday. It is not yet clear, however, whether Ward will get around the Atlantic via wormhole technology or simply by means of some sort of flying, fusion-powered, stainless-steal tour bus. Either way, I hope he’s planning some ZZ Top and Huey Lewis jams for this one.
Tourdates (arranged linearly for your limited space-time comprehension):
The MacWorld keynote by Apple this year, on Tuesday, lacked a lot of the flair and zingers that usually comes with these keynotes. A sickened Steve Jobs meant that a dude named Phil would attempt to market new Apple products without a Reality Distortion Field to make them, well, viable. As a result, the only thing that piqued my interest the first hour of that keynote was Sting's sexy grizzly beard. Which was immediately lost when the screen switched to Patrick Stump.
Actually, the only thing that really piqued my interest at all was Phil's "One Last Thing." It was about iTunes... and it was QUITE interesting.
First, prices. Starting April 1 (bad day to do it), the fixed-pricing model of 99Â¢-a-song, a long-time pillar of the iTunes foundation, will fall. In a move clearly intended to please labels, a three-tier system of pricing will take its place. While the option of 99Â¢ will remain, labels will have the option of selling songs for 69Â¢ and $1.29 each. Album costs remain fixed at $9.99 at this point in time. How will the labels handle this? It's not hard to guess.
The other announcement? Quite a bit nicer: ~80% of the iTunes Music Store is without DRM restrictions, and at double the bitrate (i.e. HIGHER quality), bringing in the major labels as well. Perhaps, the labels did this in exchange, but we'll never know. The process is continuing as we speak, and by April 1, the entire store shall be in DRM-free "iTunes Plus" format.
But wait! You say you have a bunch of old, standard-fare iTunes songs and you want to make them all iTunes Plus? Well, you can do that, but that'll cost you 30Â¢ each to upgrade. Not bad for a few songs, but when you got a few hundred, it could be pretty costly. Not to mention you still have nasty "watermarks" in your music that hold your private data.
The way I see it, even when you win, you lose.
Swan Lake, the group filled with overachieving indie musicians with roughly 685,321,431 albums between them, are reuniting to bring us Enemy Mine (name based on the ridiculously so-bad-its-great ’80s sci-fi flick) on March 24 (or March 23 in the UK) from Jagjaguwar. For those of you who have been living on Fyrine IV, the planet the protagonists of Enemy Mine were deserted on, Swan Lake consists of Dan Bejar (Destroyer, New Pornographers) Spencer Krug (Sunset Rubdown, Wolf Parade), and Carey Mercer (Blackout Beach, Frog Eyes). These three fellows, with their indistinguishable gnarly voices, last brought us Beast Moans (TMT Review) in 2006. Think that album was a little overwhelming, too stylistically chaotic? Don't fret: this sophomore effort is being described as a more stripped-down, deliberate approach to collaboration. As Spencer Krug put it, “There's architecture here." Count this TMT writer in as excited!
Figures on 2008's music sales show both predictable trends and some surprises, according to the stats posted on music industry blog Coolfer. While album sales declined overall, dropping 15% to 430 million units, certain formats saw spikes both expected — digital album sales up 32%, with track sales up 27% — and surprising — vinyl LP sales nearly doubling, with a 92% jump. Vinyl's resurgance in popularity was forecast by statistics released earlier this year (TMT News), but this increase in sales is even more substantial than would be expected from the spring and summer figures. Coupled with a 20% decline in CD sales and the aforementioned spike in digital album sales, it seems vinyl may be acting as a minuscule buffer in the decline of physical album sales.
Meanwhile, the increase in digital sales — with 1.07 billion tracks and 62.8 million albums shifted digitally in the last 12 months — may not be quite as impressive a statement about the shifting dynamics of the music industry as it initially seems to be. A study from the tail end of ’08 shows that, of the 13 million tracks available for sale online, 10 million went completely unsold in 2008. Even more shockingly, the study found that 80% of digital sales revenue came from repeated purchases of the same approximately 52,000 tracks. Presumably, this leaves many independent artists, or even major-label artists without hit singles, gasping for air in the digital music market.
How this bodes for 2009 is anyone's guess, but my advice would be to keep your eye on two trends: the surge in vinyl sales and the concentration of digital sales increases around a comparatively small cloud of artists and songs.
Recap (via Coolfer):
- Album sales: down 15% to 430 million units
- CD sales: down 20% to 362 units
- Digital album sales: up 32% to 62.8 units
- Track sales: up 27% to 1.07 billion units
- LP sales: up 92% to 1.9 million units
Rock guitarist Delaney Bramlett, who collaborated with such artists as George Harrison and Eric Clapton, died in a Los Angeles hospital following gallbladder surgery. He was 69.
His wife, Susan Lanier-Bramlett, said he died on Saturday after "seven hard months" of ill health.
"I held him and he held on up until the last breath with which he went in peace to the light and on into eternity," she said in a statement.
Remember BMG Music Service's "12 CDs for the price of 1" deal (with "nothing more to buy ever!")? Sure you do. It was everywhere in the ’90s. I myself, Mango Starr, took advantage of this mail-order club at least a few times, even using my brother and sister's names to amass a decent collection of classic rock, jazz, and more classic rock. I think I got my first Nas CD there.
Well, late last year, it was announced that BMG Music Service has decided to stop taking new members. A spokesperson declined to comment on whether or not the service will be shut down entirely and said that BMG is "still very actively engaged with our existing member base and will be making more changes to serve them...more effectively later in 2009." Though, the company has already announced that its Music Points Program will cease to exist by February and there has been word that all BMG music clubs will be discontinued in 2010, according to Billboard. Not good signs.
Meanwhile, the official BMG Music Service website invites music lovers to join Yourmusic.com instead. Guess it's hard to beat "Unlimited for the price of nothing," you fucking pirates. When are you going to participate in capitalism??
Finally, a good reason for Björk to make the headlines! No airport brutality or fits of rage here; instead, reports of Björk being a damn fine businesswoman AND model citizen of her home country, Iceland. The songstress has teamed up Audur Capital in Reykjavik to begin the BJORK venture capital firm, an outfit keen on throwing its dough at certain companies in order to kickstart Iceland's bummed-out economy. Here comes the awesome (from Audur Capital's website): "The fund will invest in sustainable businesses that create value through the country's unique resources, spectacular nature, vibrant culture and green energy."
It is the hope that BJORK's standards and aid will encourage diversity and sustainability in Iceland's national economy. Audur Capital has already dropped 100 million Iceland kronur (about $826,000) and is looking for other investors to fill the pool by March 2009. And of course, Björk is the official cover girl for her firm, which is sure to set those rich dudes' hearts a-flutter. Wish them luck! Team BJORK!
Mirah has never been a lover of the limelight. She doesn't do a ton of interviews. She takes her time. And, in this instance, she's taken over four years to get us her fourth full-length solo album, a (spera). The long-awaited follow up to 2004's C'mon Miracle (TMT Review) comes after a lot of time spent touring small clubs and participating in quirky collaboration efforts. Joyride: Remixes, for example, found her first three albums remixed by friends like Bryce Panic and YACHT, while 2007 brought Share This Place: Stories and Observations, a collaboration with Spectratone International (read: Lori Goldston and Kyle Hanson writing songs about insects).
Lori Goldston is just one of many friends appearing on a (spera). Mirah also brings along Chris Funk, Tara Jane O'Neilm and Phil Elverum -- all of whom she's worked or toured with in the past.
(a)spera still won't be here until March 10, but what's a few months in the scope of four years?
In these tough economic times, you’ve got to look for those ever-elusive alternate streams of income. Especially when you’ve got a family to support. Just ask the coolest Dads on the planet: Jeff Tweedy and co. Do you think that they’re just sitting around and resigning themselves to the fact that, you know, Spencer Tweedy isn’t going to be able to go to a good University?
Hell no. Instead they’re just cranking out some more merchandise.
First on the docket is a lovely and long-due Wilco concert DVD, titled Ashes of American Flags, which chronicles a couple of February 2008 visits to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Cain Ballroom. (Auditorium?? Ballroom?!? Classy!) The footage was assembled by longtime collaborators Brendan Canty (of Fugazi fame) and Christoph Green of Trixie Films, who previously worked on Tweedy’s solo DVD Sunken Treasure and the behind-the-scenes film that accompanied certain editions of Wilco's 2007 dad-rock opus Sky Blue Sky (TMT Review).
The whole shebang is due in February or March from Nonesuch, cleverly in advance of another fine consumer product: namely, the next Wilco studio album, which currently boasts little more detail than the band’s assurance that they are hitting it hard in the studio at the moment. Still, it never hurts to start the hype early. Will the synths and laptops return? Will Glenn Kotche do that thing where he blows into his drums? Stay tuned!
According to a recent fan newsletter, Wilco will play "a handful of gigs" in the southern U.S. in April, to be followed by an extensive tour of Spain in May and then "the usual summer hijinks with a new record and gigs everywhere imaginable." Meanwhile, Tweedy also has three solo shows on tap in Michigan and Illinois later this month. And while he’s there, you can be sure that he’ll be checking out those Colleges.
01.29.09 - Kalamazoo, MI - State Theatre
01.30.09 - Ann Arbor, MI - Hill Auditorium
01.31.09 - Champaign, IL - Foellinger Auditorium
04.25.09 – New Orleans, LA – New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival