Fin de Cyclical: Millennial Musical Musings

Diary entry, November 4, 1899: Mr. Jaberg from the publishing house has requested an autobiographical sketch to accompany “Pearl Street Rag,” the first of my compositions to be printed by his sheet-music company. So I turn to you tonight, dear diary, to order my thoughts, lest I craft a personal representation high on hyperbole or short on substance, thereby offending those who may wish to understand the man behind the rag.

I was born in Albany, New York, in 1874, the year in which the worthy academic center in Syracuse first offered students a degree in the fine arts, a coincidence noteworthy only because I myself was to earn that degree 22 years later. I was a precocious child, creative from my earliest days and a dabbler at the piano during my adolescence. Studying the arts seemed natural to me accordingly . . .

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“I always wanted to work in a recording studio as an engineer,” says singer-songwriter Rob Skane. “And when I worked at Sweetfish Studios, I learned how a lot of things were physically done — but I never understood the why behind those techniques.”

Skane learned where to learn the why when Sweetfish hired an intern from the College of Saint Rose’s Music Business Program. When Sweetfish closed its doors a short time later, Skane’s next move seemed suddenly obvious.

“I auditioned for the Saint Rose program and somehow they let me in,” Skane continues. “So now I’m studying studio technology, comprehensive music classes, orchestration, improvisation, artist management and even — the hardest class as far as I’m concerned — sight singing. And while I’m not sure that I’d recommend this to all musicians, since some have no interest in knowing how a studio or music theory works, this is an incredible resource for those players who do want to learn.”

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My life’s course was altered in 1894 when I chanced upon a performance by Scott Joplin and his Texas Medley Quartette in Syracuse. The Negro Texan’s jig-piano music (as we called it then, before “ragged time” or the diminutive “ragtime” entered the vernacular) opened new musical vistas for me with its bouncing bass and syncopated melody lines. The John Philip Sousa Marine Band tunes over which I had once doted seemed suddenly quaint and old fashioned.

So I had found my calling. Upon matriculating from Syracuse in 1896, I returned to Albany, claimed the piano from my parent’s sitting room, accepted a mail-clerk’s position at the newly founded Albany Felt Company and dedicated myself to learning the great Scott Joplin’s art. Within a year, I was playing his works in taverns throughout Albany, sometimes for interested audiences, sometimes just for the chance to visit and compare techniques with other players . . .

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“I think it’s important to have an infrastructure for music, if for no other reason than to provide reinforcement for what musicians are doing,” says Amy Abdou. “And there is an infrastructure here, although so many people undermine it by saying ‘Oh, we’re only Smallbany, it doesn’t matter.'”

Abdou has long worked to reverse that mentality by serving as the now-defunct Capital Area Musicians’ Association president and contributing to programs offered by the Albany-Schenectady League of Arts.

“I get a great sense of community just from participating,” she says. “And I think that more musicians need to be proactive and take it upon themselves to get involved with others. So I encourage people to see what’s out there. I encourage people to share their gigs and to participate in the free seminars that the Arts League offers.

“And I just wish more musicians would realize just how lucky we are to have the community we have in Albany. I mean, I came from Utica, so I know how good I’ve got it here!”

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In the autumn of 1898, I began to work as an organist at the ancient First Church of Albany on North Pearl Street, while also playing piano for church meetings and other gatherings when the opportunity arose. “Pearl Street Rag,” in fact, was inspired by the jumble of feelings I experienced as I rode the trolley to the First Church — after having been reveling all night the evening before!

While the Reverend Father regularly cautions me, lest my “profane” music defile his sacred space, I remain convinced that church performance is a worthy endeavor, if for no other reasons than to hone my skills and permit those who don’t frequent Albany’s taverns to hear my work . . .

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“It’s the show that features you!”

Or so says the tagline on MotherJudge‘s Open Mike On Air, a local radio show that runs every Monday at 4 PM on WRPI (91.5 FM) and is hosted by one of the Capital Region’s most respected performers and songwriters.

“We host an Open Mike every Wednesday night at the Lark Tavern,” MotherJudge explains. “It’s open to all performers and we try to air everything that’s played. In fact, about the only thing we tell performers is that they’re not going to get on the air if they swear a lot, since we go on in drive time and I think we should try to be responsible about that. Other than that, though, we’re not picky.”

While MotherJudge’s radio show is a fairly recent arrival, she’s been a long time participant in open mikes around Albany.

“Open mikes really reconnect me to my audience and to other performers,” she explains. “And we have a lot of seasoned performers dropping by to try out new material, stay in touch and see what people are doing. We also provide a way for newer performers to learn how to perform: how to work the microphone, how to interact with an audience, whatever.

“So we try to provide a safe place where performers can do their thing — and then get their thing heard.”

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Earlier this year, I began copying my compositions and sending them (along with testimonials from my admirers) to the sheet-music publishing houses whose addresses appeared on the pieces in my collection. While I assumed that my efforts would have as little chance for success as does that ridiculous American Association of Baseball discussed in today’s news, I was pleasantly surprised when Mr. Jaberg wrote to express his interest in “Pearl Street Rag.” Soon after, Mr. Jaberg’s agents and I negotiated a contract that is pleasing to us both. And who knows? Maybe “Pearl Street Rag” will someday sell one millions copies, as some of my cohorts believe Joplin’s new “Maple Leaf Rag” is destined to do . . .

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“There was a time when every band wanted to get a major label record deal,” says Cacophone Records co-owner (and Metroland staffer) Jeff Smith. “But a lot of people are questioning whether that’s necessary anymore, since bands can put out professional sounding product on their own or on a smaller label like ours and actually compete with the larger labels.

Cacophone represents an impressive roster of bands, all of them dedicated (per the label’s promotional material) to creating music that “makes you high, makes you have fun, makes you dance, makes you angry that life can’t be like this all of the time.” But given the fact that bands can create such music in their own garages, record it on their own computers and prepare it for release on their own CD burners, why would they bother with a record label?

“The main thing that we offer them is distribution routes that get their product into stores,” Smith explains. “And bands have hard times doing that on their own, since Caroline Distribution isn’t likely to talk to a band, but they will talk to us. So people here may be able to get their music into Border’s locally, but not into Border’s all across the country. We can do that for them.

“And frankly, small record companies are as much managers, promotions people and publicists as they are anything else these days — and after years of doing this, we have experience and ideas that can help a new band connect with its audience.”

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I must confess to having one small, nagging concern about the pending release of “Pearl Street Rag.” I have not seen the imagery Mr. Jaberg plans to print on its cover, and I despair at the thought of him choosing a concept that is neither pleasing to the eye nor harmonious with my music. I suppose I must simply have faith in the company’s expertise in such matters . . .

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“There’s so much look-alike product out there–and that makes it essential for a band to create a nice-looking package that can get people’s attention,” says Overit Multimedia’s Dan Dinsmore. “But you’ve got to be smart about how you produce it. Lots of bands spend extra money to create multiple panels for their CD inserts, for example, but if the front and front back look really killer, you don’t need those extra panels to sell the CD — since customers don’t see them until after they buy it.”

Overit Multimedia produces such killer covers, along with stickers, t-shirts, websites and “CD-ROM business cards” that can help get a band’s music noticed, not to mention save (or make) them some money. And their expertise is not limited to the music industry: Dinsmore’s company currently counts the Chicago Bulls, Colorado Avalanche, Denver Nuggets, USWest and PepsiCo among its clients.

“We’re a full service provider that offers the easiest, most comprehensive and professional looking package possible,” says Dinsmore. “We also encode music for CD-ROMs and the Internet and produce websites, so bands can give their music away there. And that access will help them make money later on merchandise and live performances, which have higher profit margins than CD sales do, particularly when a major label is involved.

“So if you can sell CDs yourself at shows or through the Internet, you’ll be much better off in the long run since you can make more money selling fewer items when you’re working for yourself,” Dinsmore concludes. “So as far as I’m concerned, the bands in the best positions today are the bands that don’t have contracts yet!”

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In a fit of good humor after negotiating the publication of “Pearl Street Rag,” I purchased an incredible piece of musical equipment called the Aeolian Pianola. This remarkable machine actually performs by itself! I have but to push its cabinet against the keyboard of my piano, insert a specially-prepared paper roll, press two bellows with my feet — and marvel as the Pianola’s wooden fingers play my piano as masterfully as the great Mr. Joplin himself. I’m hard pressed to imagine a greater scientific leap in the creation of music . . .

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“The Korg Trinity came out about five years ago,” recalls keyboard aficionado, performer and songwriter Jed Davis. “And at the time, Korg said that you would be able to expand and upgrade the Trinity until the day when you stopped playing keyboards. Four years later, however, Korg came out with the Triton — and they discontinued the Trinity altogether!”

While Davis may covet the powerful sequencing, sampling and modeling capabilities that the soon-to-be-obsolete Korg Triton offers for the technologically sophisticated work he produces with Collider, he also values the sense of connection that the simple stand-by piano offers.

“My style demands that old style, coffee house piano,” he states. “And I can’t think of a singer-songwriter venue of significance that doesn’t have its own piano, so there are probably other people out there who feel that way too. Or at least I hope so, since so many folks today are creating music in a vacuum on their computers with ProTools or Sound Forge or whatever.

“And personally, I think their over-reliance on technology is a joke. Where’s the musicianship in clicking a mouse? I just can’t see losing contact with my keyboard when I compose — and by that I mean keyboard keyboard, not the thing in front of a computer.”

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Having had such success with sheet music publishing, I now hope to get my compositions coded for the Pianola, so that listeners can hear my music in their homes without having to play it for themselves. Imagine a family from as far away as Chicago sitting in their parlor, listening first to Scott Joplin — and then to me! Oh, brave new technology . . . .

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If you visit the Albany section of MP3.com’s on-line music warehouse, you’ll see the name of electronic ensemble Wetwerks placed highly in the cumulative download charts.

“Right now, we’re letting people download for free,” says Wetwerks’ Rob Parzek. “We’re not going to be so pompous as to assume that you’re gonna pay us at this point, so our mission is to get our name out there. We do make money, however, when someone actually purchases the MP3 CD, which contains songs in CD audio formats. And if you buy the MP3 CD, you get the bio and cover art too, which we have to upload and maintain — although ultimately MP3 takes all responsibility for packaging, production and layout. Which is a good deal.”

Parzek also appreciates the fact that his band’s Internet presence perseveres, regardless of what the band’s members themselves are doing.

“Our website and MP3.com are still up and kicking, even if we’re having a crappy day,” he explains. “They don’t get tired. They don’t have fights with their girlfriends: they just sit there and work for us. And we appreciate that, since all the great music in the world isn’t going to do anything for us if it’s sitting in our basement.”

“So I’m always surprised when people ask why we’re doing this. I mean, think about the sheer number of people who live on this planet and how many are rushing to the store to buy computers. Sooner or later, some of them are going to chance across your music. Why pass up that opportunity?”

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And so back to November 4, 1899, a fortuitous time to be a musician indeed, as sheet music and piano rolls make it all but certain that our work will endure through the ages. It gives me great pleasure, in fact, to contemplate that 100 years from now, my grandchildren’s children will while away their spare moments with their pianolas, listening to “Pearl Street Rag” as the trolley cars that inspired it rumble by outside their windows.

And with that thought, dear diary, I remain
Ever truly yours,

John E. Smith, musician.

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