Reading List: The Business of Music

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I’ve been bingeing on books about music lately, partly because there have been so many big, critically acclaimed releases by musicians in the past year or two, and otherwise fueled by my ongoing email correspondence with my dog walker/local musician on the topic of music books—a correspondence that initially took shape as comments scribbled back and forth on the notes he leaves after every walk. (My life is adorable.)  Below are some of my favorite recent reads on the topic.

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How Music Works by David Byrne

Byrne’s book lives up to the title by examining how music is created, performed, recorded and distributed to explain the influences that shape types of music and how we experience them. I was most interested in the sections on how music recording and distribution has changed in the last 10-20 years. Now that technology makes recording software available at a relatively low price and bands can sell their music on their own websites or directly through digital services like iTunes, there’s less and less incentive to pursue the traditional recording contracts. This may open up the door for projects creatively unhampered by a label’s profit demand, but it also creates a less financially stable system for the artists.

Cover.How Music Got Free

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

Witt compiles a history of music piracy and its impact on the music industry via interspersed stories of some of the most influential people on each side of the battle—the creator of the MP3 format, the head of the largest record label in the world, leaders of online file sharing collectives and one CD factory worker responsible for stealing and leaking most of the pirated music on the internet. It’s a compelling story of the [near] end of an industry continually outsmarted by nerds on the internet. Record labels have suffered mightily, but they’ve passed most of the strain onto the bands themselves.

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The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper
Hopper writes about [predominantly female] musicians from Courtney Love to Miley Cyrus, covering 90’s Riot Grrrl rock to the current pop landscape. My favorite pieces were an oral history of the production of Hole’s Live Through This that proves once and for all that Kurt didn’t write Courtney’s album for her, and a piece on the consumerism of music festival culture. Relevant to the books above, touring is an increasingly important revenue stream for labels and their bands in the digital music economy, and music festivals are at the pinnacle of this development, making for a crass experience for discerning fans.

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Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
Besides being a funny and engrossing portrait of the making of an unlikely rockstar, Brownstein’s memoir also provides an intimate look at the life of a working band whose success was more critical than commercial. She describes a band as a small business, and contrasts the humble, scrappy, all-hands-on-deck Sleater-Kinney tour experience alongside that of Pearl Jam, who traveled with what sounds like a small city in tow on a tour where Sleater-Kinney opened. It’s bands like Sleater-Kinney that suffer the most from fluctuations in the economics of the music industry—they’re not popular enough to pull tricks like withholding their music from streaming services in order to maximize sales, but they’re popular enough to demand everything from their members, making ordinary life impossible. We might all be surprised to know how many rockstars we admire who are supplementing their income as substitute teachers, like Brownstein did for awhile.

A Voyage to Mars, Real and Imagined

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The Martian had been on my reading list for a while and when the trailer for the movie came out I knew I was running out of time to read it, because there was no chance I was not going to see the movie on the big screen, and I knew this was the kind of book I wouldn’t read afterward. I don’t have the patience to spend hours on a book that’s mostly plot-driven when I already know the plot and it’s outcome, so it’s rare for me to read a thriller or sci-fi novel after seeing the movie.

It’s a captivating book—highly technical, but engaging enough that you aren’t (usually) tempted to skim. I have, perhaps, a higher than usual tolerance for the nerdy technicalities of space travel, but Weir has created a charming hero and let most of the story play out through his voice, so I think most people will stay hooked even through the longest stretches of scientific exposition.

What the story lacked, for me, was emotional weight. Watney is pretty calm and collected throughout his sojourn on the Red Planet. Astronauts are selected as much for their emotional strength as much as their scientific knowledge and physical prowess, and they’re trained for this kind of stress. But even the most well-adjusted man of science has to come away from this kind of experience with some kind of revelation or insight and I’m not sure Weir’s hero did.

The closest we get to moment of philosophical clarity is a brief monologue on the instinct all humans have to retrieve a lost soul (it’s in the trailer too), but I wanted more—a glimpse of how someone [SPOILER ALERT] returns to life on earth after more than a year stranded alone on another planet, how the experience colors our image of our species as intrepid explorers, and how the world’s attention waxes and wanes throughout the process. I’m interested to see how the movie adds–or doesn’t add–that emotional depth, but in the trailer it appears they decided to give Mark a wife and kid, which is the laziest way to go about it, so I’m preparing to be unimpressed. One of the things I liked about the book is that it avoided giving the hero the typical accoutrements of a Man Worth Saving—the dependent wife, children who will be too young to remember Dad if he dies now, a family dog. That a single man with only elderly parents to mourn him was worth a multi-billion dollar worldwide rescue effort is just a little bit revolutionary in a popular culture that generally views a single person as more expendable—but that’s a rant for another time.

The science seemed pretty sound—improbable at times, but not impossible—but I got, like, a C in high school chemistry so…who knows? I’d love to know how much time Weir spent researching the science behind a hypothetic Mars mission and what his sources were, because it is a highly technical book. Andy Weir was a computer programmer before he became a writer, but his parents were a particle physicist and an electrical engineer, so maybe some of the science know-how runs in the family. It’s to Weir’s credit that I was rarely tempted to skim the more technical passages. That said, I can’t claim this is my favorite book about a voyage to Mars.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach is a non-fiction exploration of the various preparations and experiments that space programs around the world have been going through in anticipation of a manned mission to Mars, and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Something she talks about several times is our inability to anticipate how the human mind will respond to space travel. Once upon a time, people thought that journeying into the vast, dark nothingness of space would literally drive astronauts insane, and early space flights were largely used to test the impact of the experience on the psyche.

Major Mars simulations, like this one, are already underway. But the thing is, no matter how realistic your simulation, or the lengths you go to to cut your test subjects off from contact with the outside world, there are no conditions you can create on earth that can test how a person will respond to the knowledge that they are absolutely beyond rescue. Test subjects always know there’s a way out of the simulation. Even on the Space Station, astronauts are only ever a few hours from home. They have escape pods. There’s a shuttle on the ground ready and available for a rescue mission should anything happen.

In The Martian, Watney’s options for rescue are few and far-fetched, but there are options. And in that way it seems Weir avoids answering in fiction the question that we can’t answer with fact, and that’s where I feel the novels fails, if only slightly. Throughout his time on the red planet, Watney remains focused on the the task at hand and despairs only at the lack of entertainment options. It seems a little hard to believe that he wouldn’t  be more consumed by his total solitude, but given that astronauts have usually shown themselves to be far more resilient than anticipated in the face of space’s psychological effects, perhaps it’s not so unrealistic at all.

Last fall,  I went to a panel on commercial space travel at the New Yorker festival with Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One, Adam Steltzner, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Bill Stone, CEO of Stone Aerospace, and Wally Funk, who participated in the Women in Space program and was in contention for the Mercury 13 program. As part of the program, Wally underwent extensive and grueling tests intended to determine if women were fit to be astronauts—both physically and mentally. The tests included time in a sensory deprivation chamber designed to make participants hallucinate by floating them in water with absolutely no stimuli to simulate the nothingness of space. She set a record for spending the longest period of time in the chamber (10+ hours) without hallucinating and scored higher on her tests than John Glenn, but the final phase of testing was canceled and the women were never assigned to a NASA mission. Different types of isolation tests are conducted now in preparation for Mars, but these are more about testing emotional isolation over the long term, which is the real challenge of Mars, since the missions will necessarily be years long.

Wally Funk never flew in space, but commercial space flight is now introducing that possibility for more people to take part in space exploration, whether part of a government space program or not. She was enthusiastic about her chances of finally making it to space now, and I hope she will.

The difference between private plans for Mars colonization and the fictional NASA program of The Martian is that programs like Mars One are one-way trips. Bas spoke about how many people with families signed up—some of them with small children—knowing they would never see them again. And I’d like to have seen Whatney, family or no, confront that kind of permanence, to be stranded completely without hope of rescue. It would be a different story, but one we could use.

“If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”

The cost of Whatney’s rescue comes up a few times and it’s another area I wish was explored more. The world pulls together for his rescue—both fiscally and in sacrificing existing space missions—and keeps tabs on him via a daily news segment on his status once it’s know that he’s alive, and it would be interesting to see how this attention plays out over time.

The financial cost is just part of what plays into our idea of whether a manned voyage to Mars is realistic or necessary, and Roach addresses that in her book:

“The nobility of the human spirit grows harder for me to believe in. War, zealotry, greed, malls, narcissism. I see a backhanded nobility in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying, “I bet we can do this.” Yes the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? Since when has money saved by government red-lining been spent on education and cancer research? It is always squandered. Let’s squander some on Mars. Let’s go out and play.”

But I think Aaron Sorkin said it best:

Station Eleven and California: Hope and Despair in Apocalyptic Fiction

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To say that apocalyptic literature is a trend is a little misleading, unless your idea of a trend is rather long term. Impending apocalypse has been a source of special interest for literary writers since the birth of postmodernism, and it certainly wasn’t a new idea even then. That being said, I have seemed to gravitate toward apocalyptic novels in the past year or so, like The Age of MiraclesSuper Sad True Love StoryStation Eleven and California. But the two which seemed to me both most similar and most disparate from each other were the latter two, which I read pretty much back to back.

For Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven) and Edan Lepucki (California) that world end looks pretty similar: natural forces (disease and killer storms, respectively) ravage mankind in ways that seem pretty possible, leaving only occasional encampments of survivors, and driving some survivors to become their worst selves. But where these stories differ is in their hope for the future.
In California, Cal and Frieda’s attempt to join a nearby community is fraught with danger, and their final decision (no spoilers) seems unlikely to result in a happy outcome for themselves, their unborn child or anyone else in these stitched-together civilizations. Ultimately, the people of California are practical realists, the type to face adversity by protecting themselves first, to be happy to survive at any cost, and to aspire to little else. As a reader it’s easier to root for characters who want something more. A character’s motivation is central to any story, and survival is the basest motivation of all.

So the traveling theater troupe of Station Eleven, who perform Shakespeare for a series of survivor communities in a circuit around the Great Lakes region, are more inspiring heroes of the fictional apocalypse. By resurrecting the art and beauty of a lost culture they’re trying to create, in some small way, a society where people could find joy again.

Apocalyptic novels may be everywhere, but few of them venture very far into a vision of what comes next, which is what set Station Eleven apart in my mind, and made it a more satisfying story in the end. It’s not hard to see how the world might come to an end, or how people might be forced to survive in the immediate aftermath of a societal collapse, but it’s much more difficult to imagine how a society might begin to come together again, and in what form.

Kodi Scheer’s Incendiary Girls and other fantastic fiction

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I recently finished reading Incendiary Girls, a collection of stories by Kodi Scheer. The book first came to my attention because she’s a local Ann Arbor author, but it ended up on my bookshelf because Scheer’s stories occupy a space between fantasy and magic realism that I consistently gravitate toward in my reading and in my own writing.

In Scheer’s stories, the protagonists confront any number of spectacular events; a woman’s boyfriend turns into a camel, a beauty pageant contestant is literally torn to shreds by the competition, and an army wife finds the body parts of her imperiled husband hidden around their house.

Medicine is a common theme, and it’s no surprise that Scheer once planned on a career in the discipline. She’s also the writer-in-residence at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, and that experience shines through in this collection, where several characters confront the specter of cancer or other life-altering illnesses. In “Fundamentals Law of Nature” a woman considers a possible breast cancer diagnosis after becoming convinced that her mother has been reincarnated as a horse, and in “Transplant,” a patient undergoes extraordinary physical and spiritual changes following an organ transplant.

By the end of the collection, I grew a little weary of the fixation on bodily crisis, but each story on its own investigates this common thread in an interesting way. And the final story is such a brutal and tragic semi-departure from the theme that it will make you appreciate the gentleness with which the preceding stories treat the body in its most delicate states.

A couple other favorite story collections that fall on the spectrum between the fantastic and the magically real:

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The Secret Goldfish by David Means

In my favorite story, the protagonist is stalked and repeatedly struck by lightning. These stories step in and out of the realm of the fantastic, but the collection is as notable for its fantastic qualities as for the author’s spectacular turns of phrase—they’re gorgeously written tales. Coincidentally, Means is also from Michigan—at least originally.

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Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz

In Budnitz’ stories, correlations to real world issues are often strong enough that her tales read as modern fables, with something fantastical to say about our literal lives. In “Where We Come From,” a hopeful immigrant mother extends her pregnancy by several years, as she tries again and again to cross the border so that she can give birth to the titular American baby. And in “Sales,” a family traps a traveling salesman in a pen in their living room. Flipping through the book now is making me want to read it cover-to-cover again.

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Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta

Technically a novel rather than a story collection, Dasgupta’s riff on the Canterbury Tales finds an international group of travelers stranded in an airport together. Like Chaucer’s travel companions, these characters launch into stories of their own, some of which crossing over into the truly surreal.

Can We Talk About How Much I Love Lucky Peach?

Lucky Peach is a food magazine in that it covers topics that are at least tangentially related to eating. The most recent issue, for example, includes articles on Andy Warhol’s preoccupation with packaged foods, (he ate cavier for show, but his conscience compelled him to pack up most of his meals in to-go boxes even at the fanciest restaurants and leave it on the sidewalk for the homeless) the ups and downs of political food photo ops, and why the Ojibwe tribe never developed a distinctive cultural cuisine. Great for anyone who really likes snacks, essays and also lots of other things.

Continue reading “Can We Talk About How Much I Love Lucky Peach?”

The Plague

“And it was in the midst of shouts rising against the terrace wall in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, while cataracts of colored fire fell thicker through the darkness, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence,: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can live on for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

Albert Camus, The Plague