The one word that comes to mind when looking back at the past year in music: Survival.
Or, more accurately, the question: How will musicians survive? It finally started to dawn on people about halfway through the year that Spotify is really f***ing things up.
I don't know how independent musicians are going to make money in the future. Income from album sales appears to be drying up, for everyone. It's even hurting the major labels. When platinum-selling mega-nerd Taylor Swift said she wasn't going to allow her music on Spotify, non-musicians started paying attention, and the issues surrounding music streaming services briefly became the fodder for network morning shows, painting a defiant Swift as a voice of reason in an era when artists have seemingly been forced to give away their wares.
A few fellow superstars followed Swift boycotting Spotify, but in the end, the streaming service kept bumbling along. Spotify truly is the poison apple in the Garden of Eden. We all know Spotify's instant access to millions of albums is nothing less than a salt-block of evil. We know using Spotify probably contributes to killing off indie labels naive enough to release their artists' music to the service. We've all heard stories about the bands that got a 27 cent Spotify royalty check in the mail.
And yet, we can't help ourselves. We keep reaching for our smart phones and taking a bite out of that shiny green apple. Who's killing the music industry? We are. You and I and anyone who uses Spotify, Pandora, Songza and other music streaming services, but god help us, we can't stop ourselves.
Spotify isn't going away, so young bands can wave goodbye to substantial income from record sales. Musicians will have to survive off performance income and T-shirt sales. Merch. I've been told that's the way it always was supposed to be, that the pre-internet years of records sales (where, in reality, only a handful of artists made big money and the labels took home the lion's share) were an aberration. That the new music model revolves around musicians giving away their music to grow an audience that will come to their shows when they hit the road.
So says Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, a guy who already made his millions during better days. Grohl, as quoted in online music site Stereogum:
"You want people to f***ing listen to your music? Give them your music. And then go play a show. They like hearing your music? They’ll go see a show. To me it’s that simple, and I think it used to work that way. When we were young and in really noisy, crappy punk rock bands there was no career opportunity and we loved doing it and people loved f***ing watching it and the delivery was completely face to face and personal. That’s what got people really excited about sh**. Nowadays there’s so much focus on technology that it doesn’t really matter."
I wonder what "noisy, crappy punk rock bands" Grohl is referring to. Have you heard the new Foo Fighters record?
Anyway, for those musicians who never tour, making music is turning into a hobby — something to do on weekends, a reason to hang with your bro's. If they're any good, these hobbyist bands might play local shows where they'll make enough money to pay off the evening's bar tab — if they get paid at all. There are those who will still reach for bigger things, who contemplate getting "signed" or even touring, but fewer and fewer will ever make that leap regardless of how talented they are.
Why? It just costs too much money. Sure, recording music and putting it online is now within everyone's reach, but touring, well, that's expensive and time consuming. There is a handful of Nebraska bands talented enough to attract a national audience, but they never will because they'll never tour. They'll put their music online and wait for the phone to ring. Call them lazy, but the fact is despite their dreams they still need to feed themselves and their families. They need to survive.
Holy shit, that sounds bleak. And every year that I write these "year in review" articles it just gets bleaker, yet we're all still here, listening to music.
Two good things to consider from 2014:
First, the number of music venues in Omaha continues to increase (supporting that idea that performance income is the only real musicians' income). Classy Benson bar/music venue Reverb Lounge opened this past fall and joined an already crowded Omaha music venue population that includes The Waiting Room, The Slowdown, O'Leaver's, Barley Street Tavern, The Sydney, 402 Collective, The Sweatshop, PS Collective, and good ol' Sokol. In all my years I can't remember there being more places for musicians to perform.
Secondly, while music sales continue ever downward, reaching out of the grave is old-fashioned vinyl records. It's strange when more people are excited about the format of their music than what the format contains. Vinyl is everything, at least to serious music fans, but it's still only a sliver of total music sales.
Last week the Wall Street Journal reported LP sales surged 49 percent last year and that factories are struggling to keep pace, but in the end, vinyl sales represent only 2 percent of U.S. music sales (*sad trombone*). To the great unwashed masses feverishly downloading the latest Taylor Swift teen-wank fodder, the trend toward vinyl has gone unnoticed. They don't even know what a record player looks like, let alone how to use one.
There is a third "good thing" to consider: The music itself. Here's the list of my favorite albums of 2014. Notice I didn't say "best albums"? These aren't "the best" (whatever that means), they're the ones I enjoyed the most, which means the new records by Beck, St. Vincent and U2 didn't make the cut because, well, I didn't like them.
Sun Kil Moon, Benji (Caldo Verde) —
The best My favorite Mark Kozelek record, a collection of haunting personal elegies about living and dying (but mostly dying).
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Wig Out at Jagbags (Matador) — Continuing the smooth melodicism that Malkmus escaped to after leaving Pavement. Sublime.
Spoon, They Want My Soul (Loma Vista) — Laid-back indie rock from a veteran.
Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar) — Alt-country meets indie rock, an exquisite combination.
The Faint, Doom Abuse (SQE Music) — Local boys return to form. Where have you been, lads?
Strand of Oaks, Heal (Dead Oceans) — Raw reflections of nostalgia in the rock age.
The Lupines, Over the Moon (Speed! Nebraska) — From a Nebraska garage comes the wolfen.
Alvvays, self-titled (Polyvinyl / Transgressive) — Chiming indie pop is a salvation.
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian) — There's nothing wrong with imitating Dylan and Dire Straits when it sounds like this.
Future Islands, Singles (4AD) — More than just fancy dance moves, fancy synth moves.
Protomartyr, Under Color of Official Right (Hardly Art) — Proto-punk with a bitter, bitter heart.
And then there were the rock shows. It was another great year for live music. Here are my favorite rock memories of 2014:
The Front Bottoms, The Waiting Room, Jan. 12 — Their sound was reminiscent of some of my favorite humor-inflected bands of the ‘90s and ’00s — Atom and his Package, Fountains of Wayne, Too Much Joy, Mountain Goats, Dismemberment Plan, The Hold Steady, The Decemberists — bands that write smart, funny, self-referential lyrics that anyone can relate to.
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, The Waiting Room, Feb. 16 — It was like a mini Pavement reunion for an over-the-top rendition of “Unfair” off Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain that featured special guest Bob Nastanovich contributing his classic yelling. The rest of the show was almost as special.
Neutral Milk Hotel, Sokol Auditorium, March 29 — Fans I spoke to never expected to see this band play again, let alone play in Omaha. And here they were, playing their best songs spot-on with every nuance from the original recording.
St. Vincent, Sokol Auditorium, April 1 — It looked and felt forced and uncomfortable, purposely rigid and thoroughly counter to the loose-and-rough spontaneity of rock. Instead, it was more of an attempt at art rock, but without the limitlessness of a Laurie Anderson.
Warpaint, The Waiting Room, April 2 — Their sound was equal parts ethereal mood music and beat-driven dance fodder, with sweet vocals by all four musicians — and when all four harmonized, well, bliss.
Deleted Scenes, Slowdown Jr. May 1 — The highlight was that closing number, “You Get to Say Whatever You Want,” when Dan Scheuerman walked into the crowd and touched foreheads with a couple innocent bystanders, performing a mortifying rock ‘n’ roll mind meld.
Morrissey, Rococo Theater, May 20 — Needless to say, there were a lot of pissed off people walking out of The Rococo after Morrissey refused an encore. While I would have liked to hear a couple more songs, the decision to play is squarely on his shoulders, and if he wasn’t feeling it, that’s the way it goes.
Conor Oberst, Sokol Auditorium, June 4 — Fueling the energy was Dawes, a masterful four-piece that gave every song heft and soul. The band sounded so much like early Jackson Browne you would have sworn that was David Lindley playing those guitar solos and Craig Doerge tapping out the glowing keyboard fills.
The Faint, Sokol Auditorium, June 12 — From the floor, it’s all about the dancing, or more accurately, hopping since no one’s really dancing. They’re bouncing or “humping” to the electro-throb. Those in the middle of the mob became part of the collective body grooving where the Sokol’s oak floor had (apparently) been replaced with a trampoline.
Matthew Sweet / Tommy Keene, O'Leaver's, July 30— It was nothing less than a dream come true for Matthew Sweet fans. There he was, literally steps in front of them, surrounded by a top-notch band playing all of his “greatest hits” one after the other in fine voice. As Sweet said, it was like playing a gig in someone’s living room.
Maha Music Festival, Stinson Park, Aug. 17 — It was a good, though rather exhausting, day thanks to humid weather and a loaded line-up that made it hard to sneak away to re-energize.
Future Islands, The Waiting Room, Aug. 28 — You did not hear Samuel T. at his best. His vocals were ragged from the very start, often breaking down to choked whispers.
Sebadoh, Reverb Lounge, Sept. 28 — Barlow’s getting shaggy in his old age, with a big head of hair and a massive beard. His voice was as good as ever (when I could hear it). Loewenstein also was in fine form (especial on his personal anthem, “My Drugs”), despite suffering from a tooth ache (They’ll be looking for an oral surgeon today). Ouch.
Iceage, Slowdown Jr., Oct. 27 — The performance seemed like a captured moment in time, and I felt lucky to be there. Iceage is a band burning brightly. But like all bright flames, how long will it last?
Twin Peaks, Midtown Art Supply, Nov. 25. — Twin Peaks’ music is rowdy up-beat rock that borders on garage surf, but there is a precision to it that puts it on another level.
Ritual Device / Cellophane Ceiling, The Waiting Room, Dec. 26 — Two of the most anticipated reunions ever straight out of Nebraska's first Golden Age of indie rock.