Music Business

Movie Music: Dead Men (1995)

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photo credit: © Gregory Briggler

Some times music chosen for movies plays against type and that makes the movie better. Dead Man Walking, Oscar bait for Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, is clearly made better by an unusual soundtrack. In the case of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, it can make a great movie grate.

What made Dead Man Walking so exceptional was director Tim Robbins use of music that didn’t have any cultural association with the deep South setting or even the United States. Instead of the boring, second-rate-slide-guitar-go-to of most films set in the exotic, gothic (hot, humid…) South, Robbins went with something exceptional. The music featuring the amazing, piercing voice of Pakistani Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, tabla and sitar, adds a lens of otherness. The beauty of the story shows through because the music removes tired stereotypes which allow the larger questions of the movie to come into focus. The worth of all is a people problem. It is not only a Louisiana problem or a United States problem.

The horribleness of Dead Man’s soundtrack cannot be overstated. The music is a Neil Young vehicle and in my memory consists of one electric guitar, one chord, and one chorus effect pedal. The stoic, solitary guitar is supposed to create an emotional connection to the enveiled main character, John Milton, played by Johnny Depp, as he wanders toward nothingness in the Pacific Northwest. Instead, the lonely guitar sounds stumble into the frame like an unwanted busker on a crowded subway car when you are reading a good book. The attempt to set a mood without orchestra swells and french horns playing open fifths is admirable but fell well short of effective.

(This post is the first in a rolling series about movie music.)

 

 

Government Money : Prog Rock vs. String Quartet

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Photo Credit: © Larry Beckhardt

There are many challenges when American democracy wants to give money to “the Arts”. When a single patron supports a string quartet, they are showing their personal preferences. When a string quartet is given a portion of collective money on behalf of population of three hundred and twenty million, problems arise. Should the Tulsa Ballet get money at the expense of a square dance troupe? The Fort Worth Symphony over the Madison Scouts? A string quartet before a progressive rock band? Who makes these decisions for us?

Committees can give away money on behalf of “us”, but these committees are not elected and not necessarily representative of the nation. Decisions at the National Endowment for the Arts are made based on the cultural or political bias of a cadre of people who are “experts” in their fields before being passed on to The National Council on the Arts. This public face of the endowment, to their credit, is a diverse group of people from all over the country.  However, there is no easy way to find documentation about how the “experts” make their decisions before reaching The National Council.

Let’s consider a funding death match that could rage between a string quartet and a prog rock band. Naturally, ensembles that are traditionally dependent on the government money such as string quartets are a common sense choice for funding to their supporters. This is a problem. There is no way to justify an individual giving public money to support one over the other.

Both ensembles (both bands?) play complicated music, have four members, and have die-hard fans. One could argue for the “cultural relevance” of either. Although I dare not call myself an “expert” in the wide-open plains of music, I would certainly qualify as well informed and knowledgeable in a number of music styles. Regardless of my personal feelings about the worth of one group over the other, justification is hard to find for choosing one.

In a government for the people,  giving government money for the arts based on “experts” is a problem. A possible solution to make the process more democratic will be offered in a future post.

How Can Free Work For You?

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Photo Credit : © Larry Beckhardt

I am happy to tell you all that I will be moderating an event for Michelle Bogre and the Parsons Institute for Intellectual Property (PIIP) at Parsons School of Design, the New School. February 17 at 6:30, please join me and the panel – musicians and music business insiders – for a discussion about how musicians can make money using free online resources. It will be exciting to talk about how to make a living making music.

Click here for details!