Monthly Archives: February 2013

Wearing His Shirt

I’m decked out in one of my many Ted Leo + Pharmacists t-shirts at the office today and felt like sharing my Ted Leo story with you on this chilly Tuesday morning. 

In the early-ish 2000’s, Spin magazine was on a bit of a roll. I was actually finding new music I liked in magazines more regularly than on the radio or television. There was a lot of good stuff coming out then: The Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers, Metric, Ambulance, LTD., and so forth. One of the most consistently well-reviewed albums at the time was “Hearts of Oak” by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. I saw that they were coming to Austin for SxSW, so, without actually hearing any of the music first, I bought a copy.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, maybe something a little more twee, but “Hearts of Oak” absolutely rocked my world. It had all the bite of a great punk record with the hooks of Squeeze and the virtuoso guitar playing of…Ted Leo. It was, and remains, an absolutely great album.

Good luck getting that riff outta your head. If you don’t like that song, then you may as well stop reading.

So, after hearing and really digging the record, I was excited to the them play at SxSW. I got to see them play in a tent outside of Emo’s on 6th and Red River. The crowd was small but enthusiastic and the band absolutely killed it. They were raw, raucous, and very, very fun. Here’s a shot of them playing “Ballad of the Sin Eater.” That’s Ted on the other poor dude’s back. 

The “other poor dude” is a guy from the audience helping with the chorus. Seriously good times, folks.

I saw the band several more times over the year, eagerly awaiting the next album. That one was “Shake the Sheets” and it is, to me, still the most meaningful Ted Leo record. It’s also the most “commercial” if you put any stock into such things, but I have trouble criticizing crisp production, top-notch songwriting, and the tight performance of a band that’s hitting its stride. 

“Shake the Sheets” came out right before the 2004 election. That was a very weird time for a lot of us. It was becoming increasingly clear that this country was about to re-elect a president who had proven himself wholly unfit for the job. “Shake the Sheets” spoke to that feeling in me. It was a call to action rather than a sneering catalog of what sucks. That’s a really tough line to walk. How can you be meaningful without being preachy, and how can you protest without sounding whiny? This record is my answer to that question.

Oh, and did I mention it was commercial? This song is so unspeakably catchy that you’ll find yourself humming it and singing along with the chorus before you realize what it’s about:

And then the election went all kinds of wrong. I’m not really sure what happened next. I saw several shows where exciting new material was previewed but it would be three years before the next record came out. “Living With The Living” had a more raw sound than “Shake The Sheets”, employed more musical styles, and didn’t have the obvious singles that “Shake The Sheets” did. While I immediately loved the previous record, this one took me a little while longer.

It was worth it, though. “Living With The Living” had more punk moments, more introspection, and more to reward repeated listening than you would have thought on the initial listen. Check out the outrageous guitar playing on “Sons of Cain”:

On the best day of my life, I’ll never play guitar like that, let alone sing while I’m doing it. “Living With The Living” was an expansive record, but it didn’t seem to find an audience the way “Shake the Sheets” did. But man, they could play. They did a thunderous cover of Chumbawamba’s “Rappaport’s Last Testament” as a storm rolled in that still gives me chills to remember.

I’m not sure where to shoehorn bit in, but if there’s a worthwhile benefit going on somewhere, there’s a better than zero chance you’ll find Ted Leo performing there, with or without the Pharmacists, or else he’ll have donated some original music, or contributed in some other way. I got to see him (along with A.C Newman and Eugene Mirman and others) at the Bell House in Brooklyn doing a benefit for the hurricane victims in Haiti. I can assure you that Mr. Leo has not gotten rich off of his career and he stretches himself very thin, but he’s usually willing to get out there and do the work for the right reasons. Which is to say, not only do I dig the music, I have to admire the man, too.

The most recent record, “The Brutalist Bricks”, felt a little quieter, a little more personal and less message-y to me (if that makes any sense). There’s still plenty of rocking going on, but, to me, it felt more like Ted Leo writing about Ted Leo than about Big Issues. 

“The Brutalist Bricks” arrived after TL+R/X moved to Matador records, which is where a lot of my favorite bands are or have recently been. From the outside, Matador feels like a big, silly family. Check out some of the names and faces that pop up in the video for “Bottled In Cork”:

Ted also appeared in the Tom Scharpling-directed “Moves” video for the New Pornographers which is pretty much musical nirvana for some of us.

In some ways, “The Brutalist Bricks” felt like it was closing the loop. The first “real” Pharmacists’ record, “The Tyranny of Distance”, also had a more personal feeling to it. It’s a great, uneven, expansive record that is dotted with so many wonderful moments that it’s hard to pick a favorite. So, I’ll go with the obvious one:

So, yeah, I’m a fan…probably too old to be called a “fanboy” even if I proudly act like one. Thanks for sticking around this long. Hope you heard something you liked, and I hope Ted and the Pharmacists are around for a long, long time.

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Straw Man

From Keith Law’s baseball chat today:

Muzzy (Leicester)

Does it make sense to protect static data behind a paywall and keep time-sensitive events like chats free? Even though it violates federal law, static information like a list can and will be reposted all over the place. It’s like trying to stop people from posting music files or skipping commercials on television-it’s not possible no matter what the law says.
  (4:02 PM)

Argument by demanding impossible perfection. You don’t have to stop the illegal activity entirely to make the law valid or sensible.
I can’t tell if Law was being willfully obtuse or if the question wasn’t clear, but the question that was asked wasn’t whether or not the law was valid or sensible; it concerned how sites determine what content will be free and what will be behind the paywall. More than a few sites put blog posts behind paywalls and leave live chats free. This strikes me as bass-ackwards. Regardless of how you feel about copyright law, it is a fact that it is easier to steal a blog post than a live event. I’m sure that there is a good explanation for why ESPN and other sites do it this way, but I’ve yet to hear it because I get answers like the one above.
While we’re on the subject, even if Law’s response was pertinent to the question, it’s still a straw man. Why? Because we’re not talking about “perfection.” It’s not remotely feasible to prevent people from reposting static content, or pirating music, or skipping commercials with their Tivo*. It’s not that the laws are imperect; they’re utterly ineffective. They’re no more effective than putting a bag full of money in the middle of the street and attaching a note that says “This belongs to Bob, please do not take it.” Stealing it is still wrong, but that doesn’t mean that Bob shouldn’t have seen it coming and maybe taken a little more care with his belongings.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, I am a paying subscriber to that site. I agree that people should support content creators even if they chose to monetize their work in unenforceable ways. I just wish they’d think it through before setting up these paywalls.

This chat really was a clunker. Law is reliably one of the most rational bloggers outside of the academic realm that you’re likely to encounter, but he whiffs several times in this one. For example:

Law Prof (New York, NY)

It’s copyright infringement, not theft (a distinction that is too often not made).
  (4:03 PM)

Understood, yet the reason we drop the distinction is because “infringement” doesn’t sound that bad, but people grasp that “theft” is.
So…we’re calling something by an inaccurate name because it sounds worse? I thought of a dozen or so funny examples of why this is very, very wrong, but it’s too easy and feel gratuitous to list them. Let’s just say that if calling something what it really is doesn’t have the impact you want, then maybe the problem doesn’t lie with the audience.

Less egregious but still off-base, he responds to a question about copying his paywall-protected work with attribution:

Matt (DC)

What if people credit you for the content?
  (4:00 PM)

That would still be illegal. Even copying an article and pasting it into an email is illegal. I’m not saying copyright laws are perfect, but they exist and I don’t know of any good argument for breaking them.

This is only partially true, but, more to the point, it’s  a red herring argument. Copyrighted material cannot be freely distributed regardless of whether or not it is behind a paywall. In addition, there are fair use exceptions to the law in question. You can, for example, paste the entire work into an e-mail that you send to yourself for later use.  And, c’mon, quit with the straw man “perfect” claim. No one is suggesting the laws need to be perfect. They’re utterly ineffective. That’s a very different standard.

I’m not going to argue that breaking copyright laws is a good thing. I will argue that they are an archaic construct from the days when production, distribution, and reproduction of content was difficult and expensive. Monopolies on production and distribution were easier to enforce, and copyright infringement was less pervasive and easier to stop and prosecute.

Now, though? Posting something online for free is like leaving a bag in the middle of the street. Putting it behind a paywall is akin to taping the bag shut with a single strip of tape. Copying and redistribution are still wrong, but they’re going to happen because they’re trivially easy and utterly impossible to stop. Expecting me to spend my tax dollars (and and I never, ever thought I’d make that particular claim) to protect your unsustainable business model is selfish and it needs to stop.

Now that I’ve gone around and around with this, I’d like to point out that this all started with a question as to what would be a better way to organize a “freemium” site, not  a claim that “stealing is wrong.” The fact that the discussion got moved into something else entirely is an indication of just how far off his game he was.

* Really? Skipping commercials with Tivo is the same as stealing content? Yes, it is exactly the same. You’re
choosing to bypass the means by which the creator has chosen to monetize their work, even if those means are archaic and unenforceable. Same thing, at least from a moral standpoint.

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Filed under Personal, Philosophy