Category Archives: Music Musings

I know this is mainly a political blog, but I love to write about music too. This wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t.

Music Musings: The Jackson 5 Celebrate 50 Years As Recording Artists

In 2018, they are known to music lovers around the planet.  Their surname is instantly recognized as the most prominent, most prolific and most successful family in the modern music industry.  For multiple generations now, there’s just no parallel to The Jacksons.

Of the original 9 Jackson siblings– Rebbie, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, La Toya, Marlon, Michael, Randy and Janet– all have released at least one solo music project, and have produced hundreds of hits.

That family’s legendary recording history began 50 years ago this month.  Here’s more from Jake Austen of The Chicago Reader

By 1967 Steeltown had released several singles without scoring a hit. Keith had seen enough Jackson Five show placards around town to convince him that the group was hardworking—he figured they might be the rare young act that combined talent with discipline. He got the family’s number from a group that studied with the Jacksons’ music teacher, Shirley Cartman (another reasonable claimant in the Jackson Five discovery sweepstakes), called patriarch Joseph Jackson, and was invited to the family’s home for a private performance. Before they’d even played a note Keith saw something that convinced him Michael was extraordinary—something he says he’d never seen before and never saw again. “They were setting up in the living room,” Keith recalls, “and Michael walked over to Tito’s guitar cord, which was stretched between the guitar and amplifier, chest high to Michael, and I seen him flat-footedly jump over that guitar cord . . . not a running jump, flat-footed! I was pretty sold right there.”

[…]

So after school one afternoon in November 1967, Michael, 9, Marlon, 10, Jermaine, 12, Tito, 14, and Jackie, 16, piled into the family Volkswagen with Joseph and rode across the state line to Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood, parking in front of Sunny Sawyer’s recording studio on West 69th. Today that address is a vacant lot overrun by six-foot weeds, neighbored by the last surviving commercial buildings on the block—a tavern called Mitchell’s that’s attached to Rainbow Food and Liquor and a boarded-up pharmacy. But in the late 60s it was at the heart of a busy business district.

[…]

“The Jacksons were little angels,” Sawyer says, “and real professionals, doing their own stuff.” Joseph had trained Tito on guitar and Jermaine on bass, and young family friend Johnny Jackson (no relation, though Motown would bill him as a cousin) was an excellent drummer. All three play on the recordings, but Keith supplemented Tito and Jermaine with adult musicians, including Richard Brown on rhythm guitar, Freddie Young on lead guitar, and Ray Grimes on bass.

And just like that, the young Jacksons recorded their first ever songs in a marathon session, displaying skills that would soon prove critical to their incredible abilities to produce and record so much music, so fast.  The best result of those sessions, Big Boy, was released as their debut single on January 30th, 1968

Though not an immediate chart success, the single caught on well with local radio in the Chicago area, and was a great seller at the groups shows.  But ultimately, it was a live performance, opening up for Motown act Bobby Taylor, that would finally get the attention of legendary label magnate Berry Gordy, and put them on the world stage.

And so it goes… the start of the Jackson family story in the recording industry.  But in 2018, the family is ready for a whole new era.  Over the holidays, crowds were left stunned by Jaafar Jackson, performing with his father Jermaine and brother Jermajesty.  In the coming years, we can expect big things from him, and lots of other members of this incredible family.

Happy 50th Anniversary to The Jackson 5, and their debut single, Big Boy.

Music Musings: SZA Keeps Us Going Through ‘The Weekend’

SURPRISE!!

You were probably expecting an angry post about today’s big news… about how the Republican-led Congress has delivered its massive tax giveaway and healthcare destruction bill to President Trump, just in time for the holidays 😀

Trust me, there will be plenty of time to discuss all of that.  But on days like today, I think it’s better for our collective mental and emotional health to conserve our energies, and hit some music.

A favorite artists that has helped me to cope as of late?  R&B phenomenon SZA.  2017 has been the breakout year for this artist, with her debut studio album CTRL hitting number one on the Billboard R&B chart.  As captivating as her music is for it’s innovative soundscape, songs like The Weekend have also drawn their share of discussion and even controversy.  Written from the perspective of a woman having to share a man that is already in another relationship, the work has often been referred to as a “sidechick anthem”, though SZA herself clarifies to say it is not.  In any case, the discussion has been vigorous, so interpret for yourself… ..

My man is my man is your man
Her, this her man too
My man is my man is your man
Her, that’s her man
Tuesday and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday
I just keep him satisfied through the weekend
You’re like 9 to 5, I’m the weekend
Make him lose his mind every weekend
You take Wednesday, Thursday
Then just send him my way
Think I got it covered for the weekend

Much like the way Republicans in Congress tend to treat their constituents, one has to wonder if today’s tax giveaways serve as proof that the American People are the GOP’s ‘sidechick’, while the real people they’re working for are those mega-rich donors??

Oh, wait… did I just go back into the tax bill again?  Well, anyway… here’s an epic performance from SZA.

 

Logic’s ‘1-800-273-8255’ Shows the Power of Music With a Message

In the fickle world of contemporary pop music, lots of artists are working hard to either get noticed, to reach the top, or to stay there.  It’s a fast-paced, calculated, and highly competitive environment where people are constantly tempted to compromise and sacrifice their artistry to reach the top.  In an era where sound physical record sales have given away to digital streaming and piracy, it’s no surprise that artists are under extreme pressure to stay away from controversial topics, or anything that is not a ‘safe bet’ to generate revenue.

But on rare occasion, an artist turns down the industry noise, follows their instincts and gathers the courage to tackle a taboo subject in the pop sphere.  For artist Logic (and his songwriting collaborators Alessia Cara, Khalid, 6ix and Drew Taggart), the decision to write a song about suicide prevention has yielded ground-breaking results.  The song ‘1-800-273-8255’ takes its title from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  Not only has this incredible work become a huge hit, but the song has made a real impact.  Here’s more on that from Zack O’Malley Greenburg of Forbes.com

On April 28, 2017—the day 30 Under 30 alum Logic released the song “1-800-273-8255,” named for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline—the organization received 4,573 calls, a 27% surge. It was the second-highest total in the organization’s history behind the day Robin Williams died; the only other event that generated a comparable influx was the election of Donald Trump.

“[It’s about] being able to be a part of something that’s truly bigger than yourself,” says Logic’s manager, Chris Zarou, 28. “Getting the data, to actually see the people it’s helping, is just a special thing.”

Via Twitter, the rapper shared further statistics from the NSPL showing a similar impact after the song’s performance on the MTV Video Music Awards.  There’s no doubt that this song is helping to save lives.

Thankfully for us, ‘1-800-273-8255’ appears to be just the start to Logic’s success.  After the breakout success of the single, the rapper’s new album Everybody debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, becoming his biggest success to date.  Tackling a variety of issues from equality to domestic violence, the pop pantheon hasn’t seen a such a diversity of socially conscious music since Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.  And much like that iconic work, Logic has found a public hungry for music and art that tackles serious issues, and ready to hear what he has to say.  Despite the pervasive fears of industry leaders, music with an important message is once again creating space, and reaching the people that need to hear it.

If you haven’t heard ‘1-800-273-8255’, check it out below.

 

 

CONFIRMED: Tidal Music Streaming Counted On Billboard Charts

Anyone that has been following the music industry knows that the 2010s have been an exciting, yet turbulent time.  The digital age has led to a mass democratization of nearly every possible information source, but few areas have been rocked by that impact like music.  Once a dependable source of revenue, physical sales of albums have dwindled to fractions of their former strength for all but a few superstar artists. Even while artists and chart hounds continue to boast about massive amounts of streaming activity, the truth is these plays earn just cents on the dollar when compared to physical sales.  To turn a profit today, artists have had to get rather creative.

One leap in that creative space was Tidal, formally launched on March 30th, 2015 by rapper Jay Z and other Artist Owners.  Tidal’s goal was to set a standard for paying artists a larger percentage of royalties than mostly free streaming titan Spotify at the time.  And while Tidal has actually kept that promise (able to pay between twice and 6 times per stream what an artist would receive on Spotify, dependent on their record label’s contract terms), the service has had a tough time building a sizeable subscriber base.  With no free tier for music listening, Tidal subscribers have to pay a minimum $9.99 per month to utilize the service.

Another significant set back for Tidal?  The service’s streaming data was not previously counted on any of Billboard’s official charts.  In other words, if an artist released music exclusively to Tidal, they would be unable to claim success on the charts.

But after months of confusion and social media debate, Billboard has finally confirmed that Tidal streaming data is now factored into their charting methodology.  On the strength of Jay Z’s explosive new album 4:44 being certified platinum by the RIAA in less than a week, Billboard gave this clarification

According to an RIAA spokesperson, a sale can count towards a certification if purchased directly by the customer, or a business can purchase the album or song and offer it to customers. In the latter case, customers must take affirmative steps to acquire the album or song (submitting an email address and promotional code, for example).

Note: for Billboard charting purposes, as per the current pricing policy, the Sprint-supported downloads would not count towards 4:44’s chart ranking. However, any streams reported by Tidal to Nielsen Music for the album’s songs in the week ending July 6 would contribute to the album’s ranking based solely on streaming equivalent album units.

So by next week, fans should expect to see Jay Z’s new album somewhere on the Billboard charts, even if it doesn’t place as high as it would if streamed on all services.

For those confused as to how a platinum certification is even possible if the album’s not “for sale”, here’s the breakdown…

  1. As part of Tidal’s mammoth deal  with Sprint, Jay Z gives exclusive rights to the music to Tidal subscribers for a window of time.
  2. Upon release of the Album, Sprint offers its customers a free 6 month trial of Tidal and attach the album as a free download, as long as they actively sign up using their email address.
  3. Tidal can then report these sign ups as equivalent sales, with Sprint being the sole purchaser of the content.  And they clearly got over a million people to sign up.
  4. It’s worth noting that before anything was even posted on Tidal, Jay Z probably made far more from the Sprint deal than he ever could have in traditional album sales or digital downloads.  Even under the old sales model of $15/cd ($15 million) an artist would be lucky to net even a quarter of that sum after paying product costs, distribution, the co-writers and artist performers and the label.

But this victory is only one in a much longer fight.  Though the launch of Tidal and Apple Music have improved the dismal profits of streaming since their low point in 2014, audiences continue to prefer the ‘freemium model’ of music consumption via Spotify, or illegal piracy.  And while Tidal’s superstar artist owners like Jay Z, Madonna and Beyoncé have the power and influence to be able take risks and discover innovative new methods of revenue generation, less known artists are still caught in a challenging situation to profit from their craft.  Just like the political landscape, the music industry’s future is a lot more complicated than one success.

We’ll see what comes next for Tidal.

 

 

Encore!! Houston Classical Music Gains Dedicated Radio Coverage

Recent years have proven challenging for Houston’s incredible Arts Scene.  After KUHF’s Award-Winning program The Front Row closed its doors in 2013, the city’s diverse collection of artists and musicians lost one of their greatest champions.  In the years since, Houstonians have been wondering what will become of the once robust local music and arts coverage that was offered on public radio.

Past live performance from KUHF’s The Front Row featuring members of the Houston Ebony Music Society, 2012.  Performers are DuWayne Davis, Adavion Wayne, Wayne Ashley and Leon Turner with Dr. John Cornelius at the piano.  

Even with excellent intermittent feature stories from the great folks at Houston Public Media’s Houston Matters and the dedicated work of Arts and Culture reporter Amy Bishop and TV8 program Arts InSight, Houston Arts have dearly missed the programming options and connectivity that our former program schedule provided, and have been left wondering if there will ever be additional options.

Luckily with 2017, part of that open question is getting answered, as Houston Public Media premieres a new program dedicated to classical music in the area.  Here’s more from Clifford Pugh of CultureMap

Fans of Houston’s classical music scene will have a new outlet as Houston Public Media debuts a new weekly radio show and podcast that highlights performances of local concert organizations. Encore Houston premieres Saturday at 10 pm, with an encore performance Sunday at 4 pm on Classical 88.7 HD-2 and online at houstonpublicmedia.org/listen-live.

The first episode features Mercury‘s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, also known as the “Choral” Symphony, from May 2016, along with commentary and details about the chamber orchestra’s upcoming performance from Houston Public Media classical host and producer Joshua Zinn.

[…]

Other classical groups that will be featured during the first season are KINETIC, Chamber Music Houston, DaCamera, Ars Lyrica, Houston Early Music, Context, Musiqa, Bach Society, Houston Chamber Choir, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, and St. Cecilia Chamber Music Society. The length of each show varies according to the concert performance; most shows will run between one and two hours.

Like other HPM program offerings, each episode of Encore Houston is also available via podcast, so if you’ve missed the debut, you can always go back and check out the previous shows.  Beyond listening, you can also show your support for Encore Houston (and any possibilities of future arts coverage) by posting about the program on social media.  Host and producer Joshua Zinn is on Twitter as @HPMZinn, and though there’s no Facebook page for the specific show yet, you can always like the Houston Public Media page and like/comment on posts about the new show.

After a noticeable drought of music and arts coverage, it’s great to see those resources slowly reforming in the community.  Encore, indeed!

Music Musings: BET Celebrates The Obamas

As America prepares for a new President and uncertain times, many across the nation have had a tough time accepting the inevitable.  In the coming days, the Obama Presidency will end.  Even as folks do their best to sound reasonable and put on a brave face, the coming Inauguration is going to be difficult for a large part of this nation.

But thankfully, a much-needed healing agent is available to soothe us in our grief.  If you missed BET’s Extraordinary Salute to President and First Lady Obama at the final White House musical event of his Presidency, it is highly recommended.  Top notch performances abound from Jill Scott and Janelle Monae, to Usher, Common and De La Soul, Kierra Sheard, Yolanda Adams and Michelle Williams, this event might leave you crying, but it may also fill the soul with hope for the future.  BET pulls all the stops to let our nation’s President an First Lady know that they are loved, and will be missed.  As the President said himself, “thank you for coming to MY Block Party”!!

None of us can know what lies ahead, but we can be thankful for what this First Family has accomplished over the last 8 years:  always graceful, always thoughtful, and ALWAYS taking the high road despite all of the challenges thrown their way.  That is definitely worth a celebration.

Janet Jackson: The First Millennial

If you’re going by much of the press regarding the Millennial generation, it’s easy to think that all of us are lazy, overly opinionated, and self-involved.  Of course this is simply not the case… this generation is one of incredible knowledge and skills, and has unmatched command of the digital sphere.

But sadly, those skills have been hampered by some difficult times.  Unlike the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers before us, Millennials have come of age in an era of economic uncertainty.  Though we have much to contribute, many opportunities for advancement were put on the back burner in the wake of September 11th, and the Great Recession.  Lacking the access lanes of our older counterparts, Millennials instead have chosen a different path.  A generation of global citizens, we choose to not only focus on ourselves, but also spend much time tackling some of the world’s most difficult problems.

Long before the Millennials developed their sense of identity, many of these same traits showed up in one pivotal GenX artist.  Though born into a family of extraordinary fame and privilege, Janet Jackson was less apt to the headlines than others.  She may not have had access to cell phones, internet or social media, but she nonetheless grew up as an ultimate observer and seeker of knowledge, as her siblings provided the youngest Jackson a crash course on how to be famous and successful.  Inspiring as it was, this situation was also a challenge for Jackson, as she had to struggle with how to find her  voice in the long shadow of her family.  After a few unsuccessful attempts, Jackson finds her lane on the Control album, thanks in part to the talents of legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

The trio may have established a new lane with Control, but it was their next project which would catch the whole world’s attention and set an example for future generations.  Released on September 19th 1989, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 departed from the safety of pop music’s typical subject matter, and put focus on some of the world’s toughest challenges (most of which still plague us today).  Even today, the lyrics from title track Rhythm Nation read as an anthem for the modern global citizen

With music by our side
To break the color lines
Let’s work together
To improve our way of life
Join voices in protest
To social injustice
A generation full of courage
Come forth with me
People of the world today
Are we looking for a better way of life
We are a part of the rhythm nation
People of the world unite
Strength in numbers we can get it right
One time
We are a part of the rhythm nation
This is the test
No struggle no progress
Lend a hand to help
Your brother do his best
Things are getting worse
We have to make them better
It’s time to give a damn
Let’s work together

Interestingly enough, even as Jackson longed for equality over the song’s infectious beat, she was also keenly aware of how unequal the world was, especially for Black communities.  From the ‘RN’ album cover, to the videos to its overall theme, Jackson wanted to provide a positive image for Black America to combat the negativity being constantly thrown their way.  Here’s Ms. Jackson’s quote on the subject.

The color black has become increasingly important to me. It hurts my heart to watch the television special ‘Black in White America,’ when the Black girl picked the white doll over the Black. That’s why I decided the color scheme for Rhythm Nation – the costumes, the cover art, the overall feeling – would be positively, uncompromisingly Black.

In the Millennial generation, these same sentiments have led to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Forth from it’s title track, ‘RN’ continues to heed the call for social change.  State of the World tells stories of homelessness and prostitution (concepts too easy to ignore in pop music), while The Knowledge gives listeners the one key to improving these tough circumstances which can’t be taken away.  After watching news coverage of an horrific murder of school children, Janet Jackson felt compelled to write the ballad Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make) to speak out against gun violence.

Once the business is handled, Jackson, Jam and Lewis also know how to have some fun, and talk about love.  Like any Millennial of today, Janet shows in the rest of ‘RN’ that she’s much more complex than commander of social change.  Fun romps like Miss You Much,  Escapade and soothing ballads like Lonely bring this album back to an intimate connection.  An interesting oddity that the latter ballad seems a near perfect fit for the typical Millennial love struggle

As we all know, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 was a huge success… a Grammy Award winner, the best selling album of 1990, 4 Number 1 hits across 3 calendar years, and a record-setting 7 top 5 singles.  But even a full 27 years since its debut, this work continues to resonate where many others have fallen away.  From the timeless beats and instrumentation to the important message, ‘RN’ has proven an important voice across four decades and two centuries.  That’s no small feat in the fickle world of pop music.  As Millennials continue their journey to prominence, they will find much to discover in the work of Ms. Jackson.

rn