Column 184 — Faint watermarks; Darla Farmer, Midwest Dilemma tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 5:46 pm August 6, 2008

The Faint reviews are starting to trickle in. Pitchfork posted theirs this morning (the usual 6.0 range reserved for all Nebraska acts, except for Oberst, who broken into the 7’s). The number of reviews for Fasciinatiion has been nothing near what Oberst has been getting, but what did I expect? Oberst puts out an album a year with Bright Eyes. The Faint hasn’t released anything in four years. There’s also the issue described below, but it probably didn’t impact anyone but me. I’ve still only listened to the CD only once all the way through — not enough to form a real opinion about it. I can’t listen to it at work, in my car, at the gym, at the grocery store, really nowhere but in front of my home stereo… Another impact of watermarking — this time on Joe Consumer: You don’t want to buy a watermarked promo from the “used” bins at your favorite local record store, not with all the compatibility issues (It’s very unlikely that a watermark would end up in a used bin anyway, for reasons described below). With the advent of watermarking and digital services, there will be fewer promo CDs in the used bins in the future. Hey, they’re not supposed to be there in the first place. Writers/critics aren’t supposed to sell their promo discs (but all of them do, eventually).

Column 184: Diisapoiintment
A Faint distrust…

About a week ago I got a little surprise in the mail: A copy of the new release by The Faint, Fasciinatiion. It’s the most anticipated album by an Omaha band that I can remember, even more sought after than the new Conor Oberst solo album. People may like Bright Eyes and Conor, but they love grooving to The Faint even more.

So I took the disc out of its generic promo jewel case (no artwork and only a track listing on the back) and slid it into the ear slot of my aluminum iMac to download onto my iPhone. Because I keep it with me all the time, the iPhone is where I listen to most of my music. My iMac made its usual whirling sounds, bleeps and bloops, etc., then after about a minute, it went silent. On the screen came this message: “The disk you inserted was not readable by this computer. Ignore/Eject?”

I choose eject, then looked at the CD. Along the edge in type font almost as large as the CD title was this message: “FBI Anti-Piracy Warning: Unauthorized copying is punishable under federal law.” In font small enough to make me realize I’m getting to the age where I’ll soon need reading glasses it said: “WATERMARKED AND COPY PROTECTED CD!” There was yet a third helpful message along the disc’s rim: “Acceptance of this CD shall constitute an agreement to comply with the terms of the license,” whatever that meant.

Unlike their past CDs, which were released by Saddle Creek Records, Fasciinatiion is being released by The Faint on their own. Wisely, the band is trying to make sure no one uploads it to the Internet, where it could be passed around digitally from one hipster to another without the band receiving a red cent.

No prob. I think it was Bruce Springsteen who said the real test of any recording is how it sounds in your car. So I took the disc and slipped it in my Mini Cooper’s car stereo. Blip, bloop, ERROR.

Now what. I finally turned to my ancient Sony 200-CD carousel player. Success. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to sit and listen to the entire CD, and The Faint was going to make me wait until I did.

For an explanation, I turned to Team Love Records executive Matt Maginn (who, by the way, just happens to play bass in one of the greatest bands on earth, Cursive). Matt handles promos for T-L, which puts out music by Tilly and the Wall, Jenny Lewis and Capgun Coup, among others. He said his label has never used watermark advances and has no plans to, yet. “Watermarking encodes the receivers’ information directly into the music (every track, start to finish),” he said. “So if John Smith uploads the record to the net and 100 people download it, all 100 will be traceable back to that one disc that was sent to poor old John Smith. This means John Smith’s name is now ‘mud’ and (he’ll) probably not get advances for any more releases from any labels or publicists if he is exposed as a leaker.”

Maginn said watermarking makes sense to protect against a very early leak — four to six weeks before the actual release date — but that watermarked CDs are hard to listen to anywhere other than on a traditional CD player. “If I have trouble listening to something, I give up pretty quickly,” he said. “For me, the key to loving a release is giving it enough spins to actually digest it. The harder it is for me to hear a release multiple times, the less likely I can give it a fair critique. You gotta spend time with the music to know if you love it or not.” I couldn’t agree more.

Watermarking also keeps editors from passing a disc around the newsroom to other critics who the editor may not trust to keep it to themselves.

As a critic, my preferred method of receiving promotional recordings is “digital servicing” — that’s where a label or a publicist e-mails a password-protected link that allows you to download a recording in its entirety. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s immediately on my iPhone and as a result I don’t have hundreds (thousands) of hard-copy CDs stacked on every horizontal surface in my office. Many indie labels, including Matador, 4AD, Beggars, and yes, Team Love, offer digital servicing these days, with the option of requesting a hard-copy if the writer prefers. Maginn said Team Love has even started taking demos from bands as digital submissions only. “(It makes it) so much easier for people to check out new music immediately,” he said.

But some artists are taking it even further. Oberst began publicly streaming his solo album from his website weeks before it was available to purchase (presumably with permission from his new label, Merge Records). Sure, you can’t download it, but you can digitally capture it if you really wanted to. And then there’s Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails who gave away digital versions of their last albums.

In the end, Fasciinatiion did get leaked. The night I got the disc, a message appeared on the Saddle Creek webboard saying that the files could now be found “in the wild.” Days later, Fasciinatiion also could be heard on The Faint’s Myspace page. Why not make the tracks available early to the most important critics of all — the fans?

Early buzz is that Fasciinatiion is the best Faint CD since Danse Macabre. I’ll let you know as soon as I get a chance to sit down in front of my old-fashioned home stereo, or buy it from iTunes.

Nashville circus-indie-spazz-cabaret-muppet rockers Darla Farmer, whose record Rewiring the Electric Forest was recorded at ARC Studio and came out on Eagle*Seagull’s old label, are playing tonight at The Waiting Room with mega-ensemble Midwest Dilemma (boasting flute, clarinet, tuba, violin, cello, upright bass, pedal steel, percussion, les paul, martin acoustic and vocals). Opening is Where Astronauts Go to Hide and The Audrye Sessions. $7, 9 p.m.

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