How the Means of Distribution Affects the Role of Music in Our Daily Life

When I was a teenager I had about a dozen records. I listened to them over and over again. We listened to the radio but the stations we listened to played songs that were on the top forty list. This limited our exposure to new music.

As I got older we entered the era of the mix tape. We would make tapes of our favorite songs and share them with our friends. This was also the era of album rock FM stations. This broadened our experience quite a bit.

By this time I had played in several garage bands. We never played in garages but we didn’t play gigs per se either. We practiced a lot and taught each other songs. We even wrote a few songs along the way.

When I graduated from high school I got a job playing guitar in the saloon show of a western theme park. This experience taught me that when you play the same song four times a day, six days a week for weeks on end, you get very tired of them.

When I was in the Army I encountered what we called the barracks rat. This was a guy with no family, no obligations, and nothing better to spend their money on than expensive stereo equipment and records. I spent many a Sunday afternoon listening to music in the barracks with my barracks rat friends.

The next innovation in music delivery was the CD. It was easier to take care of than with a record or a tape and soon after it hit the market computers started coming with CD burners so that you could make copies of the music. It. was a dark time for professional musicians.

Napster came along and changed the game again. You could download any music that you wanted off the internet. This made it even harder on the professional musician. But soon we saw indie artists that were taking advantage of the situation and making their money from playing concerts and selling merchandise, including copies of their own CDs. This model seemed to work well for some artists.

This brings us to the modern streaming era. The breadth of exposure is unbelievably large. Artists are somehow managing to make a living in spite of the wide availability of free performances through music streaming services like and Pandora and video sites like You Tube and Vimeo.

I’m not sure how musicians make a living these days but I know that I listen to more different music than ever and occasionally I buy some. As much as music has meant to me up until now in my life I have to conclude that it is more of an integral part of my daily life than it ever had been earlier in my life.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

In Which, I Finally Find a Topic Upon Which to Expound

It’s been a long night tonight. This is the fourth blog post that I’ve started so far. There are some things that are just too private or too controversial to write about in this venue. My aim with this blog is to entertain and perhaps to educate. It is not to preach my personal beliefs, be they philosophical or political.

Given the dominance of political topics in the news, it is hard to think about anything else. I have racked my brain for something else to write about. When you take sports (I don’t know anything about sports), religion, and politics off the table, there isn’t much left.

I’m passionate about music and computer science. I’m passionate about space exploration and writing fiction. With the possible exception of music, I’ve written a lot about the other three topics in this blog. I need to broaden my purview.

I’ve been a string man most of my life. After a brief encounter with the Tonette, a recorder like instrument that was used to teach us the rudiments of music in the third grade, I spent the bulk of my time learning to play violin, teaching myself to play guitar, and later in life, learning to play electric and standup bass, mandolin, and Celtic harp.

There was another brief flirtation with the trombone my freshman and sophomore years in high school, but other than that, I’ve played strings.

I played classical music when I was learning the violin. The I returned to the instrument in recent years it was to learn to play Irish and Scottish music and the instrument was rebranded a fiddle. It was also around this time that I started playing the mandolin.

For those that aren’t intimately familiar with the mandolin, it is kind of like a violin with frets. It also sports doubled strings so, instead of four strings, it sports eight. They are tuned in pairs though. The bottom two strings are tuned to G, the next pair are tuned to D, the third pair are tuned to A, and the highest pair are tuned to E.

This makes it easier for me to take what I know about the violin and transfer it to the mandolin. The strings are plucked instead of bowed but I have spent the better part of fifty years plucking the strings of a guitar so it is second nature.

The thing I like most about the mandolin is its portability. Guitars and harps are big instruments. Violins are messy by virtue of the rosin on the bow. Mandolins are a perfect size to sit and pick on the couch while having a conversation. I can imagine that is part of why they are so popular in music that was born on the front porches of mountain homesteads.

I like electric stringed instruments as well, not to mention keyboards. I consider keyboards stringed instruments even when they are electronic because they were inspired by the piano. I taught myself just enough keyboards to be able to play accompaniment on one if there isn’t a guitar or mandolin available.

I have focused on instruments tonight. That doesn’t say a whole lot about the styles of music that I like. Truth be told, there are only a very few kinds of music that I’m not terribly fond of. I will save that topic for another night.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

A Late Christmas Present

I bought a new gadget today. It is a guitar amplifier that fits our current living situation better than my other one. They are both Fender amplifiers but the new one is smaller and has a headphone jack. It also has a USB connection to allow loading custom presets from an application running on my computer. It has a number of presets that allow it to simulate different amplifiers and effects boxes. I can also route the output in to Garage Band to allow me to record anything I play with it.

I spent several hours installing the software, registering the amp, and exploring the sounds it can make this afternoon. I had forgotten how much I enjoy playing my electric guitar. It is an Epiphone Les Paul. It is black and exquisitely set up. I tried out the amplifier to make sure that it worked before I went to the store and then set up the associated computer app and played with it for several hours when I got home from the store.

It was amazing to me how much difference it made to how the guitar sounded. I’ve enjoyed playing it and I even had some experience playing it with various amp models and effects processors that are available with Garage Band. I expect I will be playing guitar a little more often, particularly my electric.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Memories of a Time Before

The life we lead today is like science fiction when compared to how we lived when I was a boy. We had TV but we only got three of four channels. Some of them were intermittent at best. All television was broadcast over the air so you had to have an antenna to receive stations that were any distance away. Most televisions were black and white. There was a time when color televisions were becoming the norm.

All phones were connected into the phone system using wires. There were no cell phones. There were pay phones all over the place. Phone calls cost a quarter for three minutes. It was a luxury if you had more than one phone in the house. We would often be told to get off the phone because someone was expecting an important phone call.

Computers were large affairs that only the government, universities, and large businesses could afford. At their smallest, they were the size of a refrigerator and at their largest they could occupy an entire floor of a moderate sized building. Programmers worked with pencil and paper. They were often referred to as System’s Analysts. There weren’t many colleges with degrees in Computer Science. Most programmers had degrees in Electrical Engineering or Mathematics. IBM discovered that English and Music major were particularly good at writing complex programs and started hiring them as programmers as well.

The transistor was the newest innovation. Every kid wanted their own transistor radio. We listened to rock and roll music on AM radio stations. We formed garage bands and learned to play the songs that we heard on the radio and dreamed of signing a recording contract and becoming stars.

When your friends moved away, you wrote them letters and mailed them with an envelope and a stamp. You wrote the letters with pen or pencil on paper. There was no such thing as email or text messaging. Even when your friend moved across town you might still write letters to keep in touch.

When you took a picture, you had to either develop it yourself which required a dark room, lots of smelly chemicals, and a good bit of skill, or you would send your exposed film to a laboratory to be processed and it would be a couple of days before you got your pictures back. And there was no way to know if they were going to turn out any good until after they had been processed.

Tape recorders were relatively expensive. There were cassette tape recorders that you could record music off the radio on and then there were reel to reel tape recorders that were more expensive and were high enough quality to record demo tapes of music. I never owned a reel to reel tape recorder but my friend’s father did. We used it to record the music we composed for our garage band. I wish I  had a copy of those tapes now.

What do you remember about the time before we woke up in this science fiction story?

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Courting My Muse

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, gave a TED talk about genius in which she told us how the ancient Greeks and Romans believed the creative process worked. They believed that the artist was given their great ideas by spirits, the Greeks called them daemons, the Romans called them geniuses. Her point was that the burden of responsibility for creating outstanding works of art was perhaps too much for fragile human psyches.

I feel like my best work is done when I am able to step aside and allow the piece to just flow from somewhere outside of me through me and out to the world. It is perhaps tinged with something of myself but its source is outside of myself. I don’t know how to make this happen. I just know that I have to sit down and write. If my daemon or genius is with me, I may write something wonderful. But if it isn’t, I will still write. I will hone my craft so that when my daemon is there, I will be ready.

And this is something that I can apply to my music and my other creative endeavors. You can’t just sit around and wait for your muse. You have to court her. You have to give her the channel through which creativity can flow. You have to hone the craft with which the inspiration will become manifest.

And you also need to revel in the genius of other artists. It is through that inspiration that you can learn to summon your own muse. That is why as a writer, you must read as well as write. As a musician, you must listen to music as well as play music. And, as a programmer, you must read programs and run them to appreciate their unique qualities.

As an artist we risk so much. We put so much of ourselves on the line when we bring our art to the world. We should only have to do our best and hone our craft and be present when the masterpiece arrives. We shouldn’t have to suffer for our art. That is a misconception best laid to rest.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Madison Adventures

In previous posts I have mentioned that I am in the middle of a commitment to walk 13,000 steps per day (approximately six miles). It had rained this afternoon just prior to the time that I usually walk so I decided to go ahead and come home and get my walk in later. After dinner, I recalled that Microwave Dave and the Nukes, an excellent local blues band, were playing in the gazebo in downtown Madison, just about a mile from the apartment. I took it as a sign and headed out walking.

The grass was still damp and there were muddy spots everywhere but it was nice and cool. As I walked into downtown Madison, a train went through blowing its whistle loudly. There were young adults out hunting Pokemons with their cell phones. The train finally cleared the tracks so that I could get over to the side of the commons where the band was playing.

There was a shaved ice truck and forty or fifty folks sitting in lawn chairs. There were kids climbing on the bleachers and running around chasing each other. The band finished playing a number and I clapped loudly. The rest of the audience responded weakly. They kept playing. I realized that they weren’t through with that number after all. They came to a couple of more false finishes before the end of the number and we dutifully applauded each of them.

I was walking back and forth along the back of the audience getting my steps in. There were folks sitting on the tailgate of their truck. There was one gentleman talking on his cell phone with a little dog sitting in his lap. On stage, the band finished another number. I clapped and startled the little dog. He barked at me and his owner was forced to pause his phone call to try to calm the dog.

The Pokemon hunters came wandering through the audience. The band was just getting good and warmed up. I felt a few sprinkles of rain on my arms. I was standing under a tree. All of a sudden everyone got up and started running for their cars. Dave said, “Was it something I said?” I was already drenched with sweat so the rain didn’t bother me much. It wasn’t raining particularly hard in any case.

I made my way over to the Old Black Bear Taproom without getting too much wetter. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer. The guy next to me asked if I had been playing across the street. I do bear a slight resemblance to Dave Gallaher if you don’t know either of us very well. We are both stout men with gray hair and beard and we were both wearing black hats. Mine was a Panama Jack hat, Dave’s was a newsboy cap. I could have had a free beer if I hadn’t been so honest. I laughed and told a story of being mistaken for Dave on another occasion.

I finished my beer and walked home. I was still twelve hundred steps shy of my goal but I finished them up walking in place in front of the television set. It was an eventful evening in Madison, at least for me. I would have enjoyed listening to more music but it was just not to be.

Night Life in Huntsville, Alabama

I went to the Huntsville Amateur Radio Club (HARC) meeting tonight. My friend, Bob, got a plaque for being Ham of the Year. Then they had a very well done video about the club’s Field Day activities this year. Our club has earned first place in our division for seven out of the last ten years. We did very well this year but it remains to be seen whether we came in first again or not.

After the meeting, Bob and I checked out the grand opening of the new Straight to Ale tap room at Campus 805, one of the local Huntsville craft breweries. They had an impressive real time video menu that displayed what was currently on tap and what was in line to be tapped next. They also had a room full of pin ball machines.

After we finished our beer there, we walked done the hall to the Lone Goose Saloon where there was a guitar duo called Chelvis & da Bean playing. We had another beer and were impressed with both the music and the venue.

I get out so rarely, it’s nice to take advantage of the lively night life that Huntsville has to offer. I can’t wait until Straight to Ale has their Brew Grass Jam at their new digs next month.

It’s a Beautiful Day

Indeed, it was a beautiful day. But I want to talk for just a minute about the band It’s a Beautiful Day. Their first album, named, strangely enough, It’s a Beautiful Day, was one of my favorites. David LaFlamme and his five string violin, his wife Linda on keyboards, their passionate vocals, all combined to mesmerize me for hours on end. Or it might have been what I was smoking. But seriously, I wondered what happened to them.

I was reminded of them when I looked up at the sky tonight and saw the clouds and the moon and the stars in a pattern so very much like the cover of that album. So, when I got back in from walking the dog, I looked them up on that modern oracle, Wikipedia.

It seems they narrowly missed being at Woodstock. Michael Lang, the Woodstock promoter was negotiating with Paul Graham to get the Grateful Dead to play at Woodstock. Paul offered him two other bands, It’s a Beautiful Day and Santana. Michael liked them both but only had room on the bill for one. He flipped a coin and Santana won.

I wish things had gone differently for them. I would have liked to have heard more of their music. I didn’t seek out their later albums though. I do still love that first album though. White Bird, Hot Summer Day, and Bombay Calling are still near the top of my all time favorites.