music

Alternate Tunings

With school coming back into session, I’m reminded that it’s time to get back into the grind of my thesis.

The tail-end of the summer and these first few weeks of school have brought my mind back to focusing on my work, and also questioning some of the ideas I’ve had about the final form my project will take.

A quick TL;DR of my life: my band released an album, I played a lobster festival in Chicago, and I’ve been accepted as an Andrew Carnegie Society Scholar, which I hope will fund a trip to SXSW to meet industry executives and leaders in March.

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All of these experiences have led me to question what the final form of my thesis project will take.

Initially, I wanted my project to be presented as a film, more specifically a documentary. This film would be 30-45 minutes, and more or less be a traditional linear narrative that puts forth my argument about the Pittsburgh music scene.

However, I find myself now questioning myself. After finishing my research this past summer and limiting my scope, I now worry about almost being too argumentative and having tunnel vision with my film.

My music experiences and interactions with individuals have taught me that, if anything, the developments in the music scene are inextricably tied to huge other cultural factors locally, nationally and regionally. It’s no surprise that with huge amounts of money coming in from the tech boom and with younger, more affluent people moving into the city there has been a shift in the live music scene.

Also, I’m quickly realizing that the notion of making a large film has a learning curve, and even with a team to help, could lead to us getting mired in production aspects rather than focusing on content.

As a result, I’ve been debating using an online, interactive method of conveying my narrative as opposed to a traditional film.

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This narrative would be less “linear” and act more as a timeline that displays information with firsthand videos and documents accessed by the reader. As a result, the reader can move around more and create their own personalized experience in learning about changes in the music scene. Also, as the music scene continues to develop and change, more people could post and add to this narrative.

The one weakness of this change would be that my ability to convey an argument would be weakened. My ability to control how the narrative functions and is followed is hindered by the increased interactivity and responsibility of the user/reader.

Ultimately, I think that this hurdle of deciding the final form of my project is the next challenge for me to tackle (and fast!)

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Curtain Call

As the summer draws to a close, I’ve been thinking more about my successes, failures and overall experience with the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program.

Overall, I think my biggest success this past summer was being able to narrow my topic down to a narrative that I was truly interested in. At the beginning of the summer, I was somewhat lost in what I wanted my final film to be about. I was pulling at various threads without getting any real leads. Now, I’m happy to say I have finalized my narrative: I will focus on how Pittsburgh serves as a microcosm to study the effects of technological innovations on the overall democratization of the music industry.

Some of my other successes were more personal goals of mine. For example, I learned that I was able to complete an independent study and create my own research syllabus for the summer. Another goal of mine was meeting and learning about key individuals in the field, such as Dr. Kathryn Metz of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, reading books by David Byrne and getting in contact with executives at record labels.

With that being said, I think I also hit a few bumps and fell short along the way. One aspect of my thesis that I definitely have to work on is aggregating and going through more sources, and faster. One of my weaknesses is getting bogged down in reading and over-analyzing each source instead of finding the information that’s pertinent to my research. However, I think this will become easier because I have a more set narrative in place to follow.

Another failure of mine would be the amount of writing and synthesis I have done. Moving forward, I definitely need to write more about my project and its progress. Beyond using this a tool to keep relevant parties informed of my work, it also helps me realize where the gaps in my research are, and where I need to focus on.

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Moving forward, the next step for me will be working on the film. This includes creating a  storyboard, finding a videographer and editor and beginning production on the film.

Overall, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity given to me by Dietrich College through this fellowship. I would like to thank the fellows, the Dean’s Office staff, my advisers and the countless others who have supported me throughout the summer with my work. Thanks again!

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Why It Matters (#SaveJamesStreet)

It’s always distressing to see the problems addressed in my thesis playing out in real-time within our music community. One incident in particular hit me hard – the shutting down of the James Street Ballroom during the Deutschtown Music Festival on July 9, 2016.

During the weekend of July 8 and 9th, Pittsburgh held its fourth annual Deutschtown Music Festival. For local residents and members of the Pittsburgh music community, this weekend holds a special place in our hearts. For two days, the North Side of Pittsburgh is taken over by incredible local music, showcasing the best talent in the city and our thriving music scene.

However, one situation nearly put a damper on the entire event. On Saturday, the James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy was shut down by the PLCB due to a noise complaint from a nearby resident.

In short, the PLCB threatened to permanently shut down the ballroom, and arrest management at the establishment (for a more thorough analysis of the incident, click here.)

The situation created a huge uproar within the local music scene and brought city-wide attention. Members from all corners of the scene, from musicians to booking agents to production company owners, had harsh words for the action taken by the PLCB.

On my end, this situation highlighted the huge hypocrisy that underlines action taken against music in the city.

Unlike some of the spaces and venues I am studying, the James Street Ballroom is a completely legitimate venue – it has its codes, it has permits and has showcased 300+ person shows with national headliners for years.

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By citing antiquated laws, a neighbor with a personal vendetta has now almost completely shut down a legendary music venue.

Now, I’m not someone who wants to preference the needs of music venues over other residents of an area. For example, the wrong action to take is to completely ignore the concerns of residents when creating spaces for live music. This can only exacerbate these situations and further create conflicts between members of music communities and larger communities at a whole.

Yet local law enforcement and city authorities must have a way of discerning between legitimate concerns and those that hide behind legal loopholes and rhetoric. In the case of James Street, one specific space was shut down during a neighborhood-wide music festival, with no complaints given against any of the other significantly louder outdoor stages.

But there is a silver lining to this whole debacle. One, it really demonstrates why my thesis matters, especially in a time when the Pittsburgh music scene is growing. By understanding how neighborhood changes are affecting the local music scene, residents and local music venue owners can work together to create a more amicable scene.

Second, and more importantly, the situation highlights just how strong our community is. Hundreds of people have come together to support James Street in their time of need. A recent Indiegogo campaign to help the historic venue hit its goal 22 days before the deadline, with money still being raised. A plethora of fundraising events have been planned in order to help the management pay for the high soundproofing needed to get the ballroom functioning again. Members of the community have united and even created the #SaveJamesStreet hashtag to unify the efforts and create more traction on social media.

The incident at James Street exemplifies how even the most established music venues can be threatened, but also demonstrates just how powerful a helping community in action can be in times of need.

 

“Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain”

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One of the most misunderstood elements of the music industry is the industry itself.

For many, the music industry is a narrative with artists as the most public figures, and a hodgepodge mix of agents, managers and executives who are largely unknown. “Success” is often seen as a stroke of brilliant luck, and failure often blamed on artists becoming burnt out or washed up.

However, like most convenient shorthand historical narratives,  this story removes many of the major characters that dominate the music industry and shape an artist’s career.

Unbeknownst to many, there are countless stories of artists coming into conflict with their industry companions. For example, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys — perhaps the most acclaimed American pop songwriter — famously shelved albums’ worth of material due to labels not believing it would be commercially successful in the market.

For others, these men behind the curtain curated the success of global phenomenons. The Beatles were not just a group of musical geniuses – they had a highly developed and responsive team to assist them in all aspects of their career. In fact it was their manager, Brian Epstein, who led them to early success by firing their original drummer, Pete Best, and convincing the group to change their wardrobe to the now famous suits and ties onstage.

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But how does this relate to my thesis?

Well, my thesis studies how cultural factors have affected the local Pittsburgh music scene and pushed it more underground in college areas. However, I’m also interested in studying how the music industry itself has changed with advancements in technology, and, particularly, how these advancements have changed the role independent musicians play in the industry.

I quickly realized that in order to understand how the music industry is changing, I had to understand its historyI decided to pick up a book called “Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry” by Gareth Murphy.

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I  drew three conclusions from Murphy’s work:

The first conclusion is this: Since the inception of the record industry with the creation of the phonograph, industry executives  have always struggled to maintain monopolies over all aspects of an artist’s creation. By using a plethora of legal, financial and personal means, record executives have always sought to seek control over how artists create, and what they create.

Even today, artists still come into contractual disputes with labels over issues like ownership of material, royalty distribution, album obligations and more. In the mid-1990s, Prince had a famous dispute with his label Warner Brothers, creating a string of albums (releasing three in 1996 alone!) over his album obligations to the company.

The second conclusion is that, with every technological advancement, music becomes increasingly democratic and creates a new power struggle between artists, consumers and industry executives.

For example, when radio first became accessible it gutted the phonograph market. It also led to a new wave of youths learning how to use the technology and privately broadcasting before a series of laws were made to retain broadcasting power in the hands of a few. This is still seen today with the debates over online streaming, and using music pirating services.

The third conclusion I drew is that, as music becomes democratic, new fields of music begin to emerge in the marketplace and the record industry seeks to monopolize on these as soon as they are financially feasible. This leads to the formation of new genres becoming thrown to the forefront of the industry, and why certain periods of time are marked by the prominence of certain genres.

This is demonstrated by the rise of country music in the early- to mid-twentieth century. As the technology changed, more acoustic instruments were able to be recorded and records were cheaper to produce. As a result, new markets were found for newer artists in areas like Appalachia, the south and the midwest. Realizing that there was a demand in the marketplace, the record industry prioritized creating these records, leading to a sudden boom of country, folk and bluegrass music. Within a decade, individuals like Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and more would become household names thanks to record labels understanding and responding to marketplace demand.

But Dhruva, why is this important to YOUR thesis? 

Well here’s the interesting thing: For decades, maybe even centuries, the music industry has confronted these three conclusions in various cycles. Yet, our current global music scene may be the first where artists can truly be independent from labels and potentially achieve total success. 

Technological advancements in recording, music consumption and music distribution have given more power to artists than ever before. Of course some of these technological advancements, such as online streaming, have fundamentally changed the economic landscape for many musicians (that’s a discussion for a later blog post). Yet, an artist could now create and record an entire record, and promote and release it to a global audience without the support of a record label at any point in the process.

(As a side note, the Grammys recently corroborated this point with an announcement that they are allowing online streaming albums to be nominated for awards).

Connecting this back to my thesis, this is a major shift in the music industry. Especially looking at a city like Pittsburgh, where a large chunk of the music scene exists in DIY spaces, it raises questions and challenges the narrative around an artist’s success. Artists may have the ability to actually shape and curate their own careers from the ground up.

Whether or not the man behind the curtain is there to help, artists now have the choice to follow the industry’s yellow brick road or forge their own path.

Tuning Up

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Music is the most powerful form of human expression.

Sure, that’s a bold claim but think about it – each of you reading this probably has a subconscious (or Spotify-curated) playlist of your life. Songs that can make you remember, that can make you forget, that can make you laugh, that can make you cry, all in just a two minute and thirty second snippet.

So I’ll say it again – music is the most powerful form of human expression.

Music has been my companion through breakups, new loves, mental struggles and more. Music gave me the ability to speak my mind and share my experiences with others. It let me connect, taught me how to empathize and keep an open mind. More than anything, music gave me a voice.

It’s with this same love for music that I approach my Dietrich Honors Research Fellowship.

If you haven’t read the summary of my project on the official Dietrich homepage, here’s a quick review: My project studies the changes in the Pittsburgh music scene over the last 10 years, and how cultural forces like gentrification and urbanization have pushed the scene underground and into different neighborhoods outside of college areas. In turn, I’m interested in looking how these changes, notably the rise of the “Do-It-Yourself” or DIY aesthetic are signs of larger changes within the music industry, particularly how music is distributed and heard by consumers.

Although the final shape my project will take is still tentative, I want to make sure I can capture the way music has transformed the lives of so many people in the city. I also want to capture how music itself is transforming, for better and for worse. To do so, I’m hoping to incorporate filmed interviews, audio clips, concert footage and more to curate an intimate experience demonstrating the power of music.

But why is this project so important?

Compared to other projects that may be more scientific or even  more ambitious (sorry, no Hyperloops or cancer cures here), I admit my project may seem a bit trivial. Yet, every day people are being displaced by large corporations that inherently change neighborhoods and the nature of our city. These cultural forces do more than just bring J. Crew and Apple to Walnut Street – they first repress, and then oppress, the disenfranchised, stripping them of their homes and then their voices.

For many of you, this may seem a bit political (#feelthebern). But music is political – it connects us and helps us communicate and understand things across cultures and times. When the music is pushed out and eventually begins to die, the implications are more than not being able to see Beyoncé at Heinz Field. It’s the death of creativity, the death of compassion and the death of what makes us human.

At the heart of my project, and why I believe it’s so important, is my firm belief that everyone should have access and be able to perform, see and have the same musical outlets that changed my life. Everyone should have a voice.