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The Stranglers Storm North America:
An Interview With J.J. Burnel

By Greg Bartalos

The Stranglers, established in 1974, came of age in the epochal English punk scene that soon followed. Fellow musicians often viewed the band with mistrust. For one, the Stranglers were vastly superior musically to most of their peers. Moreover, their music didn’t neatly fit with what people thought punk should be (though strictly from a musical perspective that point has merit). What chafes, however, is the derision the band received for being different. At a time when open-mindedness and individualism were widely celebrated, the Stranglers, though always very popular with the record-buying public (24 UK top 40 singles), were marginalized in part for straying from a certain punk orthodoxy.

Drummer Jet Black was then near 40 (the horror!). Secondly, the Stranglers had a keyboardist. Adding insult, Dave Greenfield sported a prog-friendly moustache, smoked a long pipe and loved to play arpeggios. Lead singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell had a degree in biochemistry. And bassist extraordinaire Jean-Jacques (J.J.) Burnel, a French black belt in karate and classically trained guitarist who studied economics, often attacked critics — physically. The French journalist Philippe Manoeuvre was widely reported to have been tied, sans trousers, to girders 300 feet up on the Eiffel Tower due to a negative review. So one can see how the music itself sometimes got lost in the shuffle, when peers and the press had little love for this group, known widely as The Meninblack.

Fast forward to 2013 and the Stranglers are nearing their 40th anniversary and remarkably firing on all cylinders with three of four original members still in the band. Though the group lost its way for a decade after Cornwell left to pursue a solo career in 1990, the arrival of guitarist/singer Baz Warne in 2000 and the 2006 departure of then singer Paul Roberts gave the band a new-found power and confidence that continues to this day.

Today marks the North American release for “Giants,” the band’s 17th studio album and one that has garnered generally strong reviews since its 2012 UK release. I recently spoke by phone with Burnel, one of my all-time favorite musicians, after Big Takeover publisher Jack Rabid was kind enough to put me in touch with him. Below is an edited version of our discussion.

BT: This is your first time in North America in 16 years. Why now? (The nine-date tour kicks off on Thursday the 30th in Detroit.)

JJ: Why now? We’re psychologically ready for it. It has taken us a long time to prepare ourselves for this. I also think we’ve got a body of work that’s worthy of North America’s attention. In the life of everyone and organizations and bands there are dynamics. There are ups and downs. At the moment, we are in a very big up.

BT: “Giants,” which is being released in North America by Fontana North, has been getting extremely good reviews. Are you surprised by the praise?

JJ: I think it’s the best-reviewed Stranglers album since the beginning so it obviously fills us with confidence.

BT: What strikes me too is how eclectic the record is. (My review of “Giants.”)

JJ: I think one of the reasons why we’ve managed to be eclectic is possibly the fact we haven’t had huge success in North America. We’ve been allowed to develop as a band and explore all different avenues. Whereas I think when you have such success in North America there is the commercial imperative. And I think a lot of bands, once they have success in North America there is the pressure on them to repeat that and I think it’s creatively dangerous. We’ve had sufficient success to carry on but not the kind that actually suffocates any creativity. We have had the luxury to explore different avenues and to effectively bathe in different styles and to absorb stuff, which is really essentially the spirit of rock and roll isn’t it? It’s just not one thing. You absorb so many influences and then make them your own.

BT: Not only have you had that luxury but you still have an identifiable sound whereby people hear five seconds of a Stranglers song and immediate recognize you.

JJ: I read Miles Davis’ autobiography a few years ago and he put his finger on it. All musicians worth their salt really want to have their own identity. And he called it their voice. And it took him quite a while before he found his own.

BT: Baz, who is doing a bang-up job on guitar, hinted in an interview that a west coast tour might happen in the fall. Any word on that?

JJ: We’ve been offered about five American tours over the last six or seven years but hadn’t felt ready for them. When we accepted these dates we suddenly got offered other dates on the west coast and in other places. There is a chance that we might return to North America in September.

BT: Let’s talk about Giants. A couple of my favorite songs are the title track and Freedom Is Insane. Giants is one of the strongest ones lyrically. Tell me about it.

JJ: It’s about how petty our politicians have become. How small-minded the world has become. How venal people have become. How people’s worldview, weltanschauung as the Germans would say, has narrowed so much and yet the irony is we have so much greater potential for knowledge now and for accessing information. But everyone is so self interested and I’m talking about the politicians specifically, pursuing their self-interest above the greater good. And of course this discredits democracy. And then it begs the question. When our previous generations made the ultimate sacrifices, what were they fighting for? They were fighting for democracy and freedom and yet the growing apathy of our electorates is really an insult to the previous generations. It begs the question; would our generation be prepared to make the sacrifices that previous generations made?

BT: I’m not sure the answer is yes. If you look back in the direct aftermath of 9/11, President Bush implored Americans to just keep shopping. There was no overt request for any kind of sacrifice when in fact that was precisely when so many people were more than willing to help. Instead they were told to just keep shopping.

JJ: That’s a great line for an album I have to say!

BT: Just keep shopping?

JJ: Yeah! What a great title and concept.

BT: I’m paraphrasing but that was the gist of what Bush said. (In late September 2001, he said “fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” In 2006, at the peak of the housing bubble and not long before the credit crisis struck, Bush said “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”)

JJ: That’s perfect! Just keep shopping.

BT: Ok, so back to “Giants.” Freedom Is Insane, with its driving and propulsive nature, is musically one of the best on the album. You really stretch out a bit on it. What’s it about?

JJ: Years ago, the Stranglers were managed by a guy who had been an American G.I. in Vietnam. He volunteered and had been a ranger. He came back to San Francisco and found himself spat at. He thought he was doing what was best for America and the American way. He didn’t realize the split between what he had been led to believe and what was actually happening back at home. I think it was a revelation for him. The song is basically from the perspective of a guy who has been to Iraq. He thinks he goes there to free the people and he comes in in his hoopla car, which is my take on a Humvee. He thought he’d be welcomed with open arms as a liberator. And he is actually treated as a conqueror or invader. So he is basically on this desert island and doesn’t want to be freed. So every time he sees a ship in the distance or a footprint in the sand, he tries it to erase it from the person he is sharing that island with. It boils down to this. We in the west impose our vision and ideas on the rest of the world but it has taken us about 2,000 years to reach some level of what we might call democracy. And then we impose this on societies and civilizations that have no concept of this whatsoever. So the mantra becomes, we have to impose democracy on these countries. My question is why?

BT: And why are we surprised when it is wholesale rejected?

JJ: Absolutely. And does it make our western world a safer place? I don’t think it does. I think it stirs up a hornet’s nest. We did it with Africa as well. Not the Americans but the Western European powers did. Then they scratch their head and are surprised that countries will revert to tribalism and genocide. I am amazed that they have such short vision and we still impose our will on countries that don’t want it. What’s that about? That’s the crux of that song.

BT: I suppose naivete, some over-optimism and perhaps ulterior interests play a role.

JJ: I think there are ulterior interests first of all but second I think it’s a form of naivety and shortsightedness.

BT: Let’s talk about you playing live. You’re in your 39th year and selling out shows regularly. What’s remarkable is that you’re doing this at a pretty advanced stage of your career. Why are you hitting on all cylinders now?

JJ: We haven’t lost track of what we’re about. We started off just wanting to enjoy playing music with no great ambitions. We got gigs at pubs, then some money for a demo and not thinking much beyond that. One thing led to another. Then suddenly Hugh (Cornwell) left about 20 years ago. That put us in the doldrums for a while but it also re-energized me after a certain amount of time because I lost a lot of confidence and I lost a good friend. Suddenly in the late nineties I decided to take the bull by the horns and wrote a whole lot of stuff. It was almost like a young band starting out again. Baz came in the band and we reverted to a four-piece and everything clicked.

BT: Baz’s arrival really coincided with a full-on revival. He was pivotal.

JJ: Absolutely. Then there are Jet’s health problems. He still contributes to the band, certainly on the records. In a live context he can’t. He has kind of prepared a few guys who have taken on his role. The band is really energized and I think we have a sense of mission if anything. And we haven’t lost track of the fact that there is so much to write about in this world and to question and to have fun with. Why become jaded and world weary when there is so much to excite and arouse and to build on? Yeah sure we want some money but that is not the main purpose behind the band. We want to prove ourselves all the time, on every album and not sitting on our laurels. That’s how we are and that has given us this very latent impetus.

BT: You’re also getting increasing respect from many corners of the music world. In the late seventies and early eighties you had some real issues with the music press. What do you attribute this increasing respect to, aside from making great music?

JJ: The people that are giving us respect now don’t have the prejudices that a lot of our peers had at the time because there was a big polarization, certainly in the UK and I think it followed from that. In our peer group, The Clash and The Sex Pistols grabbed all the headlines and we didn’t but we outsold them, certainly back home. And we didn’t start wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats unlike they did and U2. Our detractors have for the most part died or given up the game. As Shakespeare said, he who laughs last laughs longest. I suppose there’s an element of prostitution in anything but I suspect we’ve prostituted ourselves less than any band I can think of, in our generation anyway.

BT: The Stranglers’ gift for melody is often overlooked. It seems the band’s image and reputation often precede the music. But if you open your ears, the melody is right there.

JJ: When we started out in 1974 a name like the Stranglers was really unusual but we felt it appropriate for whatever reason to adopt quite an aggressive name. A lot of our songs even then were quite melodic. I never saw why we should succumb to any cliché that we have an aggressive name and have to be 100% aggressive all the time, pretending to be what we’re not. Sure, we were very aggressive at times and it was necessary for us to fight our corner. But to pretend to be what you are not, people will eventually see through it. I love melody. Every generation produces its own rhythms but melody goes on forever.

BT: Just listen to classical music.

JJ: Well exactly. And look at someone like Cole Porter. His melodies you can put modern takes on but the melody remains the same and that is timeless. A melody is something that’s insidious. It stays in the mind and plays tricks with people and that’s one of the beauties of music and one of the things I personally get from it.

BT: Going back briefly to the band’s name, has it net-net helped you, hurt you or been a non-issue?

JJ: I think it’s probably been a bit of a handicap. Once you overcome the not very attractive name and give the music a fair listen I think it attracts a certain kind of person, a broader minded person. Someone who is more willing to give it a listen. But that wasn’t really the reason we picked the name but I think that’s what happened.

BT: On “Giants” are there any B-sides or unreleased tracks that might see the light of day?

JJ: There are a few outtakes in the studio but I’ve completely forgotten about them. I know there are about two or three.

BT: You said the instrumental Another Camden Afternoon originally had vocals. Any chance that will be released with vocals?

JJ: I don’t think so. That did have a vocal part but I just love what Dave and Baz did over that really simple bass line. The lyrics also detracted from that kind of groove but it has given me the opportunity to explain the story behind it.

BT: Please do.

JJ: A lady was having her coffee on the concourse in Euston station in London. And a couple of junkies target her. The one who took her handbag rushed into a waiting car. This lady chased after the bag thief and jumped onto the bonnet of the car. The car reversed and drove over her and killed her. And for them it was just another day at the office. Fortunately they were caught and put away. But the callousness of it just got to me. Lyrically, it originally said “Just Another Camden Afternoon.”

BT: Wow. Just another day in the office for these guys. Switching gears, Relentless from “Suite XVI” is really terrific to hear in your set.

JJ: We actually love playing that live.

BT: The new “Feel it Live” CD has an amazing version so it’s great to have a live version. (The North American release of “Giants” includes the songs from “Feel it Live” as a bonus disc. The U.K. version includes an acoustic set as the second disc.)

JJ: Thanks. I’m blushing now. I think Relentless we will bring over to North America because it is great fun playing it.

BT: Well it slots in very nicely with the rest of the songs. I have a couple questions more intended for Stranglers geeks. There was an alternate version of 10 produced by Owen Morris. Might that see the light of day?

JJ: I have no idea what happened to all those outtakes. Owen was a great engineer. He worked for me for a year exclusively. I was doing a few projects at my home studio and then he went on to work with Johnny Marr and he produced the first couple of Oasis albums.

BT: What about the Vlad songs? The Stranglers have done five or six. You could put these out as an extended EP. It’s half an album.

JJ: Interestingly enough, there’s another one being worked on.

BT: Really?!

JJ: It’s a rich source of material. The breakup of the Soviet Union, the oligarchs, the corruption, the multi-millionaires, the intrigue and assassinations. I’m way behind on his story but Vlad obviously has to get back to Russia and clean up with one of the utility companies and buy a football team and have prostitutes and yachts. The story is already being told in the papers.

BT: The last one you did, Vlad and the Pearl, was released online only I think.

JJ: That’s right. The next one could appear anywhere. Maybe just on our web site. But they eventually will be compiled together I think and be made into a proper life story.

BT: Excellent. Congratulations on being selected to play the BBC Proms, a series of classical music concerts, at the Royal Albert Hall on August 12. This is a big deal. Could you tell our American readers about this as many may be unfamiliar with it?

JJ: I think the BBC Proms are the biggest music festival in the world. They go on for six to eight weeks every year. Usually it’s classical composers and occasionally the BBC goes a bit left field and has slightly different composers who are really obscure highlighted. Some people said they were dumbing it down because we’re going to do it with an orchestra, the London Sinfonietta. But others say it’s part of the BBC’s agreement to make people understand that all music is connected. It might seem strange but people always put these demarcation lines between music and I always find that disingenuous. Because really if you like music you won’t necessarily restrict yourself to one genre.

BT: Sure. And the Stranglers have symphonic elements. You have the keyboards and strings in various songs and played with an orchestra in 1997 at Royal Albert Hall. So there is precedent for you doing this and it working. And it’s true that these demarcations seem somewhat arbitrary and hard-edged.

JJ: I never really liked that aspect to music and all the different tribes. So it has put quite a few people’s noses out of joint. But on the other hand it’s a great opportunity. And I think the BBC is trying to connect its classical stations with its modern stations so more power to them.

BT: You’re very accomplished outside of music too. You are a fifth or sixth dan black belt in Shidokan Karate.

JJ: Sixth.

BT: And you teach it. How does the mental discipline required in music carry over to karate and vice versa?

JJ: Well you mentioned it – discipline. You need some sort of discipline because it’s really easy in rock and roll to get totally dissipated and self-congratulatory and disappear up your own ass and it keeps me humble and relatively fit. It’s a real counter-balance.

(BigTakeover.com, May 28, 2013)

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Radiohead and the Rule of Reciprocity

By Greg Bartalos

Radiohead understands the zeitgeist as well as any contemporary group. Its master work, OK Computer, lyrically and musically tapped into what so many were thinking and feeling a decade ago as the excitement and promise of emerging technologies collided with growing alienation and uncertainty.

Today, Radiohead, while not so much addressing technology lyrically, is dealing with it through action, digitally distributing its newest record and allowing listeners to name their price.

With people increasingly downloading music – be it for free or paying for it – and buying fewer CDs, Radiohead acted boldly but logically by employing a savvy, bifurcated—low/high-end—approach that appealed to a broad audience on the cheap while offering an $80 deluxe physical version targeted to its more rabid fans.

The time leading up to last month’s release of Radiohead’s seventh studio album was filled with news reports describing the group as revolutionary. The buzz was fairly deafening. Case in point: The Wall Street Journal, of all papers, wrote four articles about or largely about Radiohead in October alone! Ya’ think the business world’s paper of record would’ve written that many pieces if not for the digital name-your-price approach? Hail no!

So even before the album’s release, Radiohead had gained a healthy return on its investment in the form of free publicity by tossing a fresh rose to its fans while ramming a thorn into the industry’s bloodshot eyes. (Is that Marshall McLuhan I hear snickering from the great beyond about the medium being the message?)

Some correctly pointed out that Radiohead enjoyed the luxury of conducting this digital (de)tour de force due to its wealth and giant fan base, adding that this name-your-price strategy could set a precedent of sorts and in the process hurt musicians with less money.

But a largely sympathetic media played down those points. Why? People were thrilled to see such a generous gesture, especially the kind that’s talked about often but rarely done in a turgid industry beset by semi-paralysis, denial, and bravado. The fact that it was Radiohead – a group with talent, critical approval, and commercial success—made the reception all the warmer. Thom Yorke & Co. also handle stardom humbly.

Moreover, the Internet, journalistically speaking, is still quite sexy and this is a fascinating tale. Though not of David versus Goliath proportions (Radiohead is a Goliath of sorts), the ripple effect is potentially huge and will likely produce a parting of the waters within the muddied musical ecosystem.

Likely winners: Musicians who use the Internet to offer music with differentiated price points instead of a uniform “take it or leave it” approach and those who can use it to forge deeper relationships with their fans (see Musicians Should Tap the ‘Net to Make More Money (2/21/06). Likely losers: the major labels, which will see more key acts test this approach, and possibly less financially secure acts.

Now that In Rainbows is out, Radiohead is still rocking. It’s the second-highest-ranked album on Metacritic.com, a site that aggregates record reviews from news sources and offers a composite rating based on those reviews.

While the word “masterpiece” has been used to describe this record, I wouldn’t go that far. A more apt description: damn good and damn frustrating. (Knives out? Put ‘em away you wascally wabbits!)

But before I discuss the record, I want to point out that some of the praise heaped upon Radiohead may be due to an oft overlooked but not insignificant aspect of human behavior – the rule of reciprocity.

From “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., page 27 (Quill, 1993)

“As a marketing technique, the free sample has a long and effective history…. The beauty of the free sample, however, is that it is also a gift and, as such, can engage the reciprocity rule. In true jujitsu fashion, the promoter who gives free samples can release the natural indebting force inherent in a gift while innocently appearing to have only the intention to inform…. A highly effective variation on this marketing procedure is illustrated in the case, cited by Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders, of the Indiana supermarket operator who sold an astounding one thousand pounds of cheese in a few hours one day by putting out the cheese and inviting customers to cut off slivers for themselves as free samples.”

So although we may not realize it, before even listening to In Rainbows, we were psychologically primed to like it more than we would have had we paid full price or even downloaded it for free because in both instances the group offered no formal “gift.”

With its name your price approach, Radiohead made people feel that they owed the group something and that indebtedness, however manifested, only led to better buzz and more goodwill.

From “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” Cialdini, page 18.

“The impressive aspect of the rule for reciprocation and the sense of obligation that goes with it is its pervasiveness in human culture. It is so widespread that after intensive study, sociologists such as Alvin Gouldner can report that there is no human society that does not subscribe to the rule.”

So on to In Rainbows. Like a speedy base runner who rounds third base but chooses the sure-fire triple instead of going for the inside-the-park home run and risking being called out, Radiohead seems like it knew it had a very, very good record but decided to quit while it was ahead.

I’ve listened to this at least six or seven times, and while it’s highly engaging, it hasn’t clawed its way into my mind as much of my favorite music does.

In Rainbows is soulful, technically accomplished, and still very much sounds like Radiohead and no one else. While incorporating a more organic and intimate sound, Radiohead makes sure that electronic bleats and beats still worm their way in alongside agile guitar work, gentle percussives, and sheets of cascading beauty. Radiohead still can create moods and passages that are distinct, exotic and otherworldly.

Yorke’s plaintive cry thrills (listen to the gorgeous “Nude” for a showcase of his stunning voice). And when Radiohead picks up the pace, it generates genuine excitement on “Bodysnatchers” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place.”

“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and “All I Need” deliver endings that are staggeringly beautiful and transcendent. In fact, you’ll find many of the album’s best moments in the final minute or two of a number of songs. “All I Need,” which ends the record’s superior first half, represents the album’s peak.

However, some songs don’t develop much and risk turning, or do turn, repetitive. That’s never a good thing, particularly on a short 10-song record that’s just over 42 minutes, where each song’s contribution is magnified. This criticism applies mostly to the second half, where energy, memorable melodies and songwriting chops are scarcer.

“House of Cards” flat out bores and is too long at more than five minutes. A house of cards, indeed, that falls in slow-motion. “Reckoner” takes a pretty Yorke vocal melody and stretches it out for almost five minutes without adequately advancing the song.

And the following lyric from “Jigsaw Falling into Place” is cringe-worthy, even to a cat owner like myself: “You’ve got a Cheshire cat grin.” Ugh.

Ultimately, In Rainbows is largely defined by what it isn’t, lacking the melodic grandeur and accomplished songwriting of The Bends and OK Computer as well as the experimental courage of Kid A and Amnesiac.

The good news is that In Rainbows has its own identity. The bad news is that the identity isn’t sufficiently defined or bold. It comes across as somewhat tentative. I’ve always admired Radiohead’s willingness to try new things. At the same time, a hidebound determination to not tread upon previously trod terrain can be taken to an extreme.

(BigTakeover.com, Nov. 3, 2007)

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Devo at the Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza (New York, NY) – Nov. 20, 2009

By Greg Bartalos

The spudboys are back!

After creating little of artistic merit during most of the eighties and all of the nineties and this decade, Devo made a triumphant return in Manhattan playing their 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! from start to finish to a sold-out crowd.

This surprisingly proved to be an incredible show. I last saw Devo in 2005 and remember that for some reason words like “nostalgia tour” and “money grab” kept coming to mind. The band seemed fat and happy and didn’t exactly burn with intensity.

So when I learned that on this tour Devo would alternate playing this Brian Eno-produced album and their breakout third album, Freedom of Choice, I was tempted as Devo has always held a special place in my heart. But I was extremely wary based on past experience and because shows on this tour have been very short (just the album each night and a couple songs in the encore).

After much hand wringing, I thankfully went.

Devo kicked out the songs with so much energy and conviction that you forgot you were watching the group 37 years after its inception. A big reason for this was due to the drumming of Josh Freese who gave these early songs the spice and speed they required.

The band fed off the crowd’s warm embrace and started the night with the driving and anthemic “Uncontrollable Urge.” The usual suspects like “Mongoloid” and “Jocko Homo” thrilled but “Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy” was flat out sensational. The building intensity of the organic sounding first half segued perfectly to Mark Mothersbaugh’s singing, which pleaded and implored with passion and precision. He even nailed the triumphant madman howl just before the last part of the song begins. (He also nailed the howl at the beginning of “Too Much Paranoias.”)

One of the best things about hearing a full album played live is that even obscure songs get played as all too often shows are “best of” performances. On that count, “Shrivel Up,” a song that never held any deep fascination, deeply fascinated. The group even faithfully recreated the omnipresent soft percussive from the studio version that sounds vaguely like vocal samples of Sleestaks from the old TV show “Land of the Lost” looped into an ascending and descending sequence.

“Space Junk,” another obscure cut, perfectly illustrated just how adventurous and playful the group could be both musically and lyrically. And as with so many songs on this record, Mothersbaugh’s personality shines through in his singing…”A Soviet Sputnik hit Africa. India, Venezuela (in Texas, Kansas), it’s falling in Peru too.” If you know the song you likely can hear Mothersbaugh in your head.

This same personality-drenched singing can be found on the manic “Too Much Paranoias”… “I been dipped in double meaning. I been stuck with static cling. Think I got a rupto-pac. Think I got a big mac attack…Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way. Too much paranoias…”

Strangely, the best part of the show may have been the encore. “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” was electric, offering an exhilarating fusion of punk/experimental/electronic music. Then “Gates of Steel,” one of Devo’s best songs, was played with majestic yet understated power. The next and last encore saw Devo cranking out the very good “Secret Agent Man.”

The affection for Devo ran so great that at one point a visibly humbled and chuffed Mothersbaugh stopped to take in the spectacle of a packed Manhattan audience cheering his group on. As he slowly scanned from left to right, absorbing the enormity and emotion of the moment, I saw on his face a sense of gratitude that was as deep as the crowd was large.

Devo was one of the first bands that truly resonated with me in my youth and remarkably after seeing them now three decades after their first record, I got goose bumps watching them receive a hero’s welcome. Whether you want to call Devo legends or not, their highly influential legacy is finally being given its due.

Devo will reportedly release a new record next spring. Though I’m not expecting a great record (well shucks, the last time Devo made a truly good album Cal Ripken Jr. played the first game of his 2,632 consecutive game streak and Sony just launched the first compact disc player) my fingers are crossed. After all, cough, cough, I’ve been wrong about Devo before.

(BigTakeover.com, Nov. 29, 2009)

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Hard to Spin Dreary News on Compact Disc Sales

By Greg Bartalos

The compact disc is in serious trouble. That’s no secret. But recent headlines suggest it’s in even worse shape than previously thought.

The U.S. consumer, responsible for more than two-thirds of domestic economic activity, is facing a possible recession. Oil is near record levels. Inflation is rising. Credit problems are growing. The real estate bubble is bursting. And the stock market is getting hammered.

And unlike the late nineties when stocks—and tech stocks in particular—pumped money into oh so many brokerage accounts and unlike the past several years, when real estate exploded in value, we are now in a period where no widely owned assets are in a bull market.

Heck, even people who stash cash under their mattresses are coming up short. In a bid to stimulate economic activity, the Federal Reserve, in an inflationary move, this month slashed interest rates dramatically at a time when the dollar is already at multi-year lows against other major currencies. (In November, the Taj Mahal said it would no longer accept payment in dollars!)

Within this increasingly negative macro-environment, the music business has more than ever to worry about (not to mention Radiohead’s name-your-price experiment, which we’ll likely see more of in the future from other acts).

According to Nielsen SoundScan, U.S. compact disc sales plunged 19% last year. With the consumer wobbling like a Weeble (but with no guarantee that he won’t fall down), results will likely be even worse this year.

Alicia Keys’ latest topped the Billboard charts for the past week, selling all of 61,000 copies, according to Nielson SoundScan. That’s the lowest weekly figure ever for a #1 album aside from the “Dreamgirls” soundtrack, which sold 60,000 copies last year.

And there was more bad news this month.

On January 10th, Barnes & Noble surprised Wall Street slashing its fiscal fourth-quarter profit projection, saying, “Sales of recorded music were significantly below forecast.”

Yes, even with all this doom and gloom swirling about the industry, the numbers still were a shock.

Barnes & Noble stock suffered its biggest one-day decline in seven years, plunging almost 20% to a 52-week low. The sell-off cut about $400 million from company’s value. Later that day, Borders Group said its music sales fell almost 13% from a year earlier.

Barnes & Noble’s results – in particular – weren’t a total surprise.

I’ve bought discs at Amazon.com, Overstock.com, eBay.com, Amoeba Records, Virgin Records, the WFMU Record Fair, stoop sales in Brooklyn and even a flea market in Rome (the Fabulous Poodles’ hard to find His Master’s Choice).

But never from Barnes & Noble.

Why?

It offers the worst of both worlds: limited selection at awful prices.

As a bookseller, first and foremost, Barnes and Noble should seriously rethink its music strategy, up to and including exiting the business entirely.

But don’t shed any tears for the big boys. Save them for the smaller players who have much more to worry about than just downloading and CD ripping.

A lack of scale, resources and product diversity prevents them from competing effectively against deeper-pocketed rivals who can sell music at a loss to attract customers in hopes that they’ll buy higher margin items.

Therefore, CD sales will come from fewer and fewer retailers. And because these are primarily general interest destinations that cater to the masses, if you’re looking for something even relatively obscure, well….good luck to ya! Go online.

Exacerbating this downtrend, many retailers are reducing or plan to reduce the amount of space allocated for CDs. An April 27, 2007 Wall Street Journal article pointed out that 65% of U.S. music sales (including digital sales) are through big-box chains like Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy. To be fair, although these retailers offer little to discerning music fans, they shouldn’t shoulder all the blame:

“For his part, Best Buy’s Mr. Arnold [senior vice president for entertainment] says the blame for waning consumer interest in CDs lies with the record labels, not with stores like his. “Music has become a commoditized item,” he says. “The CD is perceived by the consumer to be a $10 item, and the manufacturers continue to release new titles at $15 to $18.98.” To remedy that situation, he says he has urged labels to move to a “paperback-book model,” with no-frills packages priced cheaply for most customers, and more deluxe presentations for die-hard fans.” (WSJ 4/27/07)Mr. Arnold is right. The take it or leave it one-price approach is increasingly anachronistic.

My question to the record companies: Since I, like many people, won’t pay a retailer $18.98 for a new CD why not get some of my business rather than none of it?

Yes, that would require some adapting. But if adapting is out of the question then empty stores will soon provide the answer.

(BigTakeover.com, Jan. 26, 2008)

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U2 Fans in Brazil Feel the Heat

By Greg Bartalos

Time Magazine selected U2 frontman Bono along with Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates as its “Persons of the Year” in 2005. Whether or not they deserved to win is debatable, but all should be commended for their noble efforts to fight poverty and HIV.

That said, last week BBC News reported that the cheapest full-price ticket for a Feb. 20th U2 concert in Sao Paulo costs “about two-thirds of Brazil’s minimum monthly wage.”

As an advocate for the poor—and a super-wealthy one at that—how could Bono sign off on these exorbitantly priced tickets? If he would claim to not be aware of the prices, why wasn’t he informed?

For perspective, in the U.S., the monthly minimum wage is $824 (computed at 160 hours times the federal minimum wage of $5.15).

If Bono treated American minimum wage earners similarly, the cheapest full-price tickets for U.S. concerts would cost $552.

I wouldn’t normally knock a musician for setting ticket prices to what the market will bear, but when someone becomes a self-appointed savior for the the disadvantaged, his actions by all means should mesh with his message.

In an ironic postscript, if Bono wishes to keep touring, he may first have to save his band before he saves the world; his fervent evangelizing appears to be alienating his band mates, reports UPI:

U2 guitarist the Edge has reportedly hinted that the current Vertigo tour could be the last for the Irish rock superstars.

Britain’s XFM said the band’s growing disdain for Bono’s on-stage preaching and political aspirations may play a part in the decision to hang up their road shoes.

Recent news reports said drummer Larry Mullen Jr. times the frontman’s speeches and sends him a message if he is taking up too much concert time with talk about eradicating global poverty.

Although U2’s official site doesn’t show it, according to Pollstar.com, the band has added a second date in Sao Paulo.

U2, which certainly doesn’t need the money, should consider giving something back to the people of Sao Paulo. How? It could play that second concert—‘pro bono.’

(BigTakeover.com, Jan. 21, 2006)

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