This is Aaron Rester's blog:

Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Concert Review: Frightened Rabbit

For Christmas this year, I was given a copy of the video game "Rock Band." I guess the thrill is a little less vicarious for those of us who are actually in rock bands, but there is still something about strapping on that plastic guitar and pounding out the power chords to classic rock songs while the (virtual) crowd sings along. And aside from not having to carry your own gear, the best part of the game is the fans -- they consistently go crazy, pumping their fists in the air and engaging in call-and-response choruses without a hint of self-consciousness. "Wow," I thought the first time I noticed this, "when was the last time I went to a show where people had that much fun?"

At the Empty Bottle on Saturday, I got a pleasant reminder of what it's like to be a fan at a show like that. Frightened Rabbit are four guys from Scotland who I first heard about last year on Sound Opinions; their album The Midnight Organ Fight was one of my favorite albums of 2008. In concert, they manage to be both achingly sincere and exceedingly funny, and give the impression that there is nowhere else they'd rather be, and nothing else they'd rather be doing -- an attitude that is truly infectious to a crowd. Take a listen to this encore, for which lead singer Scott Hutchison came out with an acoustic guitar and perched atop a speaker, singing with no amplification. The crowd may not have been pumping their fists during this number, but they were certainly hanging on every word.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Is Having Music Stolen Good for Bands?

As we near completion of our first album, my band has been discussing the best ways to a) get our album heard and b) get our album bought, in order to recoup the rather substantial investment we've made in it. There are some in the band who feel that we put a lot of hard work and cash into making this record, and that we should be adequately compensated by those who will enjoy the music.

I certainly understand that feeling, but my contention is that the more people who hear our music -- whether they've paid for it or not -- the more people will come to our shows and the more cds we'll actually sell. So I've advocated things like streaming the whole thing online, licensing songs for free to other aspiring artists for use in their art, etc. My reasoning for this is that the value of recorded music as a product is -- in economic terms -- quickly approaching zero. It's simple economics: supply and demand. The ease of digital recording and distribution have greatly increased the supply, while demand has generally stayed the same. And, in our case, demand is -- at the moment -- pretty much zero. The only way we make our musical valuable is by creating demand; the only we we create demand is by getting people to hear our music. And they won't hear it if they have to pay for it -- there's just too much other music out there that they don't have to pay for.

While I get most of my music via the subscription download service Emusic, I've definitely "stolen" music -- burned friends' cds, etc. -- that I wasn't sure I wanted to spend money on. Sometimes I listen to the album, am unimpressed, and forget about it; but if I like it I'm far more likely to buy the band's next album or spend money on tickets to go see the band when they come through town. Sometimes I'll even buy a copy of the album that I already got through illicit means so that I can have the physical artifact itself and provide additional support to the band. For example, I wasn't sure that I would like Art Brut's first album, but having burned a copy from a friend, I discovered I loved their sound. I wound up buying both their second album as soon as it came out AND a copy of the "stolen" album, and have gone to see them live three times. That never would have happened unless I had been able to spend some quality time listening to the album, and I would never have gotten that quality time without "stealing" the album.

So I'm curious: am I an anomaly, or part of a larger trend? Do you steal music? If so, does it make you more or less likely to pay for future albums, and more or less likely to to go see a band in concert?

Friday, January 2, 2009

My Top 5 Albums of 2008

While I downloaded or purchased physical copies of over 50 albums in 2008, only about 20% of them were actually released in 2008. So I really ought to be doing a list of the albums I listened to most during the year, but who am I to buck the conventions of rock criticism? (Except, you know, by being lazier and only choosing 5 albums.)
5. The Whigs, "Mission Control" - Drum-pounding, melodic, no-frills rock and roll, with just enough indie swagger to keep it interesting. I like the Hold Steady, but in a battle of the bar bands I think the Whigs would eat Neil Finn and company's lunch.

4. Okkervil River, "The Stand Ins" - On paper, Okkervil River sounds like a cynical combination of some of the darlings of college radio's last few years: the desperation-filled but enthusiastic crooning of Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, the relatively complex orch-pop arrangements of the Decemberists and Beirut, the dark humor and Americana-roots of Wilco. But somehow, this Austin band manages to make it all sound fresh and new.

3. Frightened Rabbit, "The Midnight Organ Fight" - With their frantic sound and plaintive vocals about heartbreak, these Glaswegians would probably be considered emo if they took themselves seriously -- which, thankfully, they do not. Plus, they put on an amazing live show.

2. Murry Hammond, "I Don't Know Where I'm Going But I'm on My Way" - As the bass player in the Old 97s, the laid-back Hammond contributes a few (usually excellent) songs to each of that band's albums, but has often been outshined by charismatic lead singer Rhett Miller. On this solo disc, however, Murry really shines as an interpreter of gospel and old train songs. Many of these songs, especially the ones featuring just his lonesome voice and the drone of a harmonium, are just breath-takingly beautiful.

1. The Old 97's, "Blame It On Gravity" - Hammond, Miller, lead guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peebles make a return to form after 2004's muddily produced "Drag It Up." In the accompanying DVD (which also features a driving tour with Miller of the band's early days) producer Salim Nourallah says that his goal was to be able to capture the energy of the band's live shows. He succeeded admirably, producing the band's best album since 1997's "Too Far to Care."