Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ralph Peer, American Music Pioneer

(Photo courtesy of PBS)

"During a two-week period late in the summer of 1927, a little-known producer named Ralph Peer recorded 77 songs in a hat warehouse he had converted to a studio. It would turn out to be a landmark moment, known as the Bristol Sessions, that Johnny Cash would later call 'the single most important event in the history of country music.'"

So begins an article recently published by PBS, evocatively titled "The modern music industry was shaped by a man you've never heard of." It follows the release of a new book by music journalist Barr Mazor, called "Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music."

So, who exactly was Ralph Peer – and why all the sudden fuss over a man we've "never heard of"?

Born in Missouri in 1892, Ralph Peer built for himself a successful career in recording engineering and record producing – by completely changing the way those things were done. In particular, Peer is credited with pioneering the field recording of music: In June of 1923, he strayed from the norm (which involved inviting artists to record their music in unfamiliar sound studios) by taking his recording equipment on the road. He traveled south to Atlanta, Georgia, where he recorded regional music in places like hotel rooms, ballrooms, and empty warehouse so as to bring the studio to the artist, instead of the other way around. In that way, he revolutionized the way that things were done.

But he didn't stop there. Peer also transformed the way we listen to music, and the way in which artists were paid. He was known to seek out rustic, emotional songs that relied heavily on improvisation, rather than those that could be easily transcribed to sheet music. He then helped create Broadcast Music, Inc. to monetize those records once they were recorded and also guarantee that the musicians were paid whenever their songs were played. To this day, BMI remains an important entity in the music industry. It is a Performance Rights Organization paying royalties to its members for performances of their music and representing some of the biggest names in every possible genre.

In addition to those mighty accomplishments, Ralph Peer may have been the one to give us the first-ever country music recording ("Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane"/"That Old Hen Cackled and The Rooster's Goin' To Crow" by Fiddlin' John Carson) and his efforts as a talent scout gave us Jimmie Rodgers (who later became known as the Father of Country Music) and the Carter Family, whom he discovered while touring the southern states with Victor Records in August 1927. He recorded both of them as part of the Bristol Sessions.

Peer's ear was not only tuned to country music. He also went on to publish and record jazz artists through the Southern Music Publishing Company. Those artists included Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. In addition, he worked with popular music artists and recorded Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell's "Georgia On My Mind."

In the 1930's, Peer discovered Central American music and was one of the pioneers to bring those sounds to the United States. During and after World War II, he published such American classics as "You Are My Sunshine" (sung by Jimmie Davis, covered by Bing Crosby and many others) and "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" (Russ Morgan.) Before eventually retiring from the music industry, Peer ventured into the world of '50's rock: Southern published hits by Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and others.

Although Ralph Peer was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1984, we don't seem to hear much about him today. He worked behind the scenes, letting the stars he recorded outshine him with their fame – but his contributions to American music as we know it today were immeasurable.

Now, at a time when the music industry is once again going through a period of great change, it is important to look back on the careers of those who came before us – those who gracefully dealt with and adapted to change, and (perhaps more importantly) those who led the charge. Ralph Peer was one of those people. He altered the landscape of the American music scene by adapting local music to suit a broader audience – and also by making sure that those musicians were paid their fair share. He would surely have a lot to say about today's migrating culture, and about the technologies that are once again changing the ways in which we record, listen to and pay for music.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Giving Thanks For This Month's Best Music Festivals

As November's notorious chill draws us indoors, we see fewer and fewer music festivals on the calendar – but that doesn't mean there aren't events to look forward to as the year winds to a close. Especially in warmer states like Florida, this month offers an array of fun-filled festivals. Here are a few we've got our eye on:

Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival (11/7/2014 – 11/8/2014) in Wilmington, Ohio
How to hold a music festival in November? Why, have it in doors, of course! This event brings the great outdoors in with live music and exciting events. The lineup will feature the finest bluegrass and acoustic music from around the region, and it promises to be a great time for all.

Sixth Annual Native Rhythms Festival (11/7/2014 – 11/9/2014) in Melbourne, Florida
Now in its sixth year, this event just keeps getting better. It offers plenty of live musical performances throughout each day (the headliners play from late afternoon through 10:00pm) as well as a variety of free workshops on everything from the history of different instruments to beading. There will also be over 40 vendors selling musical instruments, arts and crafts, and food. Feel free to bring the little ones, as the festival is family-friendly.

Chandler Rock the Block (11/8/2014) in Chandler, Arizona
A one-day-only event that is one of the city's biggest, Rock the Block is something that Chandler residents wait all year long for. This year it will feature two stages of live entertainment, including a community stage home to the Chandler's Got Talent show. Additional highlights of the event include a gigantic kids zone, a stunts display presented by Redbull, food trucks, a beer garden, and merchandise booths. The fun is scheduled to start at 10:00am and admission is free.

Dallas Modern Music Festival (11/14/2014) in Dallas, Texas
Dedicated to engaging audiences in the best of modern music, this celebration encompasses everything from twentieth-century masterworks to brand-new compositions. Attendees can expect to enjoy the best from living composers, brought to them via unforgettable live performances.

Venice Blues Festival (11/15/2014) in Venice, Florida
If you love the blues and live in the Florida area, you don't want to miss this fantastic event. It will be taking over Maxine Barritt Park and packed with live performances by the likes of Mac Arnold and Joe Moss. The music will surely be wonderful, and the setting idyllic.

Rockefellas Music Festival (11/15/2014 – 11/16/2014) in Lake Elsinore, California
Come to this inaugural event to enjoy popular classic rock tribute bands on a large main stage as well as a classic car show, an art walk, vendor booths, beer and wine gardens, and even a ferris wheel. With everything from local food and drink to live local bands, this festival has truly got something for everyone. The lineup features seventeen tribute bands including The Ultimate Stones (Rolling Stones), Vintage Halen (Van Halen) and The Petty Breakers (Tom Petty).

St. Johns River Blues Festival (11/15/2014 – 11/16/2014) in Palatka, Florida
A two-day blues festival and music competition, this event draws crowds from around the region. It celebrates the diversity of Palatka's Southern Blues heritage while also promoting tourism and the arts. Nearly two dozen local bands are scheduled to play on  multiple stages, and admission and parking are free.

Dunedin Celtic Music & Craft Beer Festival (11/22/2014) in Dunedin, Florida
This unique event combines beautiful Celtic music with locally brewed beers to create an atmosphere that is lively and fun. The lineup includes Albannach, the Cutthroat Shamrocks and My Three Kilts. The beer will be provided by Dunedin Brewery, 7th Sun Brewery, Cigar City Brewery and more. There will also be local arts and crafts, and food for sale.

Lake Park Seafood & Music Fest (11/22/2014 – 11/23/2014) in Lake Park, Florida
With two full days of family-friendly fun and fresh local seafood, this event would be great even if it didn't have a Grammy-winning national touring act – but it does. Headlined by Montgomery Gentry, this music festival has everything from arts vendors to a paddleboard race. There will also be cornhole competitions and other events sure to keep the entire family having a wonderful time.

Sonora Christmas Craft and Music Festival (11/28/2014 – 11/30/2014) in Sonora California
In anticipation of the 2014 holiday season, this crafts show offers more than 150 quality craft and graphic artists from around the West Coast. Browse though booths selling everything from artisan food items to homemade candles and jewelry while enjoying a fantastic lineup of entertainers. Four stages will feature carolers, vintage jazz and steel drum musicians, jugglers and storytellers as well as Santa & The Merry Elves and more.

For even more live music events near you, be sure to visit – and remember to keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records as we bring you the latest news and updates from the American music industry.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Behind the Music: Special Art Exhibits to See Now

The music industry is abuzz with the news that a new exhibit is coming to the Country Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee – and it's not about country music.

Instead, the special exhibit – which is entitled "Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City" – is all about rock, in terms of how it affected the scene in Nashville and other parts of the country. Of course, there will be some crossover into the country music genre, but the focus will be shifted onto a part of the city’s musical history that is a bit lesser known.

Says Museum Director Kyle Young in a recent interview with BillboardBiz: “Nashville has always been a more nuanced music center than it commonly gets credit for, and the same thing could be said for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. We strive to tell the full story of country music’s evolving history using a mix of provocative learning experiences, and this exhibit is a great opportunity to talk about the early confluence of country and rock.”

“Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City” won’t be coming to the Country Music Hall of Fame until March 2015, at which point it is scheduled to run through the end of 2016. However, if you are itching to explore the history of rock music in an educational and interactive way, here are some other museum exhibits that are worth checking out:

“David Bowie Is” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
September 23, 2014 – January 4, 2015

Lauded as one of the most pioneering and influential performers of our time, David Bowie has a story that simply does not fit into words. Instead, this incredible exhibit showcases the legendary artist’s influence on music, film and fashion through a state-of-the-art combination of sound, video, lighting and props. Listen to the voiceover tour that follows from room to room via advanced headset while touring the impressive collection of artifacts from Bowie’s own private collection, which MCA’s website describes as:

Alongside such prominent examples are more personal items such as never-before-seen storyboards, handwritten set lists and lyrics, and some of Bowie’s own sketches, musical scores, and diary entries, which help reveal the evolution of his creative ideas. His chameleonic character transformations throughout the years are central to his contribution to contemporary culture and highly relevant to contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman, Wu Tsang, Janelle Monae, and Lady Gaga.”

This is apparently the only U.S. stop that this tour will make – so if you’re in the Chicago area, you won’t want to miss it.

“Common Ground: The Music Festival Experience” at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Opened April 25, 2014

Instead of focusing on a singular artist or genre, this well curated exhibit gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of music festivals – all kinds of music festivals, from Muddy Waters at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival to Deadmau5 at Lollapalooza in 2011.

From the official website: “Whether it’s forging human bonds, building a sense of community, providing broad exposure for musical artists – both old and new – or as one of the most important economic engines of the music industry, the story of the music festival is inextricably linked with music’s powerful cultural impact around the globe.”

“Common Ground” is currently one of the major exhibits at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but certainly not the only one. While you’re there, you can also view Beyone’s personal fashion collection as well as the “Right Here, Right Now” exhibit featuring contemporary artists like the Black Keys, Lady Gaga, and Bruno Mars.

For more information on upcoming events and news from the American music industry, be sure to keep checking back with us at HillTop Records.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Beyoncé, iTunes, and the Future of the Album Release

Last December, internationally renowned recording artist Beyoncé took an unprecedented risk: She released a self-titled album on iTunes without any pre-release promotion at all. The surprise album had the potential to completely flop for lack of advertising – but, of course, it didn't. Instead, it sold 80,000 copies in the first three hours and 828,773 copies over the weekend – completely shattering iTune's previous record. To this day, it remains iTune's fastest-selling record.

There were many reasons for this massive success, not least of which were Beyoné's immense talent and fame. It is not likely that an artist with a much smaller existing fan base would have been able to achieve such a feat. However, the accomplishment still shed light on what had been until then an unexamined system: the traditional album promo cycle.

"I didn't want to release my music the way I've done it," she said in a press release following the event. "I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There's so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans. I felt like I didn't want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it's ready and from me to my fans."

While this may have indeed been the singer's primary motivation, the unconventional method of release also served (perhaps inadvertently) to address one of the music industry's most pressing concerns: piracy.

Traditionally, when an album is released, it hits different markets on different days: The first sale is usually on a Friday, in countries like Australia and Germany. Three days later, the U.K. will release that same album – and then a day later, on Tuesday, the U.S. will release it. A negative side effect of this staggered system and its affiliated promotional campaigns is the fact that certain markets (the U.S. in particular) are forced to wait days for music that has already been released in other countries – and most likely been leaked onto file-sharing networks. And it is exactly this sort of delayed gratification that prompts illegal music downloads.

So what if the system were changed, and instead albums were released to all markets on the same day? Well, that is the question that the global music industry is currently discussing – and rumor has it that the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry is planning to revamp the old schedule, beginning July 2015. From then forward, we may be seeing a kind of album release date – the kind that hits the whole world at once. Beyoncé proved that it can work (and what's more, see incredible success) and it may even help to curb music piracy, as American fans will no longer be asked to wait to hear music that has already been released overseas.

Another novel idea introduced by last year's Beyoncé phenomenon is that of a completely ad-free release. While this may not be feasible for a lesser-known artist, we may soon start to see a shift in how bands promote new albums. As more and more brands turn to social media to connect with consumers, marketing as a whole becomes quieter and more personal. The music industry is certainly no stranger to that trend, long using guerrilla methods to leak news of secret shows and bonus tracks. In the age of Facebook, Twitter and the like, the entire concept of "word of mouth" is changing – and it is an exciting time for newcomers to the scene, who are likely to make up for lack of a large marketing budget with ingenuity and innovation.

Be sure to keep checking back with us at HillTop Records as we continue to bring you the latest news and ideas from the world of music.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Emerging Trends in Social Media – and How They May Impact the Music Industry

For quite some time now, the world has been going digital at a rapid pace. Social media is an ever growing and evolving realm – one wherein entrepreneurs and artists are able to make their mark in an immediate, impactful way that was once practically unheard of. And it appears that at least in this regard, things will only get better.

In particular, here are some emerging trends in social and digital media that will most likely change the music industry:

24-hour, multi-channel engagement
Only a mere few years ago, you could only go shopping for certain items (groceries, home renovation supplies) during certain hours – and many local stores still only accepted cash. Nowadays, that's simply not the case. You can order a gallon of milk online to be delivered to your doorstep the next morning, with a few simple swipes across your iPad. You can even schedule automatic refills of grocery and drug store items that you purchase the most, so that you no longer have to think about buying them each month. We have become accustomed to being able to get everything at any time, and in a variety of ways. The music industry has only scratched the surface of what this means, and it will be interesting to watch how this 24/7 mentality becomes a bigger focus for artists and producers.

Streaming vs. packaging
The music industry still has yet to figure out something that its counterpart, the film and TV industry, has seemingly mastered: the art of "windowing," or releasing products to different markets or methods of distribution at different times. When a film is first released, it is only available in theaters; it then becomes available on DVD, then Video-On-Demand, then pay-TV, and so on. Each of these "windows" lasts a finite amount of time and sets a new (lower) price point – thereby reaching a wide variety of fans and viewers, but at different times. Diehard fans are willing to pay more to see something first, whereas casual viewers are willing to wait longer to pay less – but in the end, both parties will watch the same film.

Meanwhile, when a song or album is released, it tends to be available on all channels (streaming, radio, MP3 download) at once. If and when the music industry figures out how to re-configure this, it will be a game-changer.

The "Internet of Things"
There has been a lot of recent chatter surrounding the "Internet of Things," the term used to describe the relationship between the digital and tangible worlds. Cars, televisions, watches and now even household appliances are being designed to be connected to the web. Apparently, it won't be long until your dryer can send you a text message to tell you that the laundry is done!

What does this mean for the music industry? Well, for one thing, many possibilities are presented by the new Facebook-connected wristband concepts that have been popping up at this year's more innovative music festivals and events. Add to these our growing tendency to share our habits and preferences via social media (think Spotify's Facebook integration) and we're sure to see new opportunities for web-based engagement among music fans in the near future.

Increased mobility
Each year, reports show an increase in mobile app sales and profits – and music-based mobile apps are currently one of the fastest-growing app categories out there. From apps that let songwriters compose new music on the fly to those that allow for constant streaming to those that help artists connect directly to their fans and followers, the variety and success of these apps are stunning. We have no doubt that the music industry is going to continue to shift and evolve to better accommodate this increase in mobile technology – and, perhaps more importantly, our dependency on it.

Check out our recent review of the latest and greatest mobile apps to hit the music scene, and remember to keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records as we continue to bring you current news and updates from the industry.