The Pere Ubu website Ubu Projex is about as complete and thorough as any that I have ever seen from any band. What prompted the decision to make such an extensive catalogue of information available online? How involved are you with the content and maintenance of the site?
It is MORE complete and MORE thorough and MORE interesting than any other band's website. I produce the content and I am the webmaster. I aim to never have to say a word again. If I can answer everything on the website then I will be home and dry. As well it serves my goal of never having to say another word to my bandmates. I also think that how bands work is interesting. I think it should be documented. I have long wanted to publish our accounts on the site as well but there are some security and confidentiality issues to be dealt with so I'm not sure that will ever happen.
Given its seeming penchant for fidelity in regards to its more recent studio recordings, why does Ubu allow businesses such as Apple's iTunes store and eMusic to sell lower-quality copies of some of these recordings?
Believe me when I say we have tortured ourselves mightily over this issue. I will try to summarize the process of decision-making.
Every popular medium has had its strengths and weaknesses: 78 rpm acetates, vinyl, the music cassette, the 8-track, the cd, the DAT, and MP3/AAC. My personal feelings about the audio quality of vinyl vs cd have been posted so I will not repeat them here.
The weaknesses of MP3 are well-known, basically (1) lousy sound; (2) the deleterious psychology that follows from the elimination of the "personal object." Nevertheless, I have an iPod and have had one from the very first release. Apple's AAC compression is far superior to MP3 and I use it exclusively. Unfortunately, MP3s continue to dominate.
The advantages of MP3 are (1) convenience; (2) the facility to release non-commercial projects - projects that might not warrant a full-production as a cd release in the marketplace. This is something we are interested in, that eMusic encourages, but that we have not pursued so far.
In the end, here is our decision. The effort required to be the little boy with his finger in the dyke is too exhausting, too time-consuming and too frustrating. We have certain contracts that allow the record companies to release in this format. The issue in these legal negotiations was take-it-or-leave-it and needs-must carried the day. So whatever we thought about it there was always going to be some Ubu MP3 distribution.
No audio master survives intact the transition from the studio to the real world. There is always degradation. Some of this has to do with the nature of sound (every speaker, every room, every amp, the weather, a hundred / a thousand other factors change the perception of sound). And some of this has to do with our own inadequacies as mastering technicians. Long ago we made the decision that whatever mistakes are made with our music should be made by us. Hence our re-mastering of previous releases in pursuit of "perfection." Nevertheless, every audio release is flawed or inadequate in one way or another.
The MP3 market is not going away. It supplies a service that people want. And the brutal fact is that many people, for whatever reason, do not listen to music as a poetic / meaningful / cultural experience. It seems there is a sizable proportion of the population for whom music is simply wallpaper, or the soundtrack to a mating ritual or some other recreational activity. They are entitled to that view. I find it incomprehensible but as the late Kevin Coyne noted, "The world is full of fools - that doesn't make them bad people."
For at least 40 years everybody has known that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health. It is no secret and never has been irregardless of what self-serving lawyers might argue. People still choose to smoke. They have that right. Everybody, similarly, knows that the MP3 is not an audiophile experience. It is no secret. Still people choose to listen. I choose to listen. I sit here in my office and just down the hallway are my stereo and my cds. Still I choose to listen to them on my iPod or computer. In fact I will take my iPod into my living room to listen thru the stereo instead of playing the cds. (And this is the one real creative advantage of the iPod - the shuffling feature that throws up exciting random juxtapositions.)
So, finally - sorry for this long-winded essay - the turning point in the decision-making process: I am no hypocrite. At least I try not to be. I like the iPod. I want our music on the iPod. There are times I'd rather have the relatively muted iPod experience than the full-on audiophile experience of the cd. I have access to both. I make the choice. And I am immodest enough to believe that the Ubu audio experience can survive the inadequacies of the medium just as it survived the inadequacies of the vinyl, music cassette and cd media.
Additionally (and this is more just for curiousity's sake) what is Ubu's view of DRM technologies? Is it better to give the consumer the benefit of the doubt, or to strong-arm them into engaging in bewilderingly limited practices with the records for which they've already plunked down their hard-earned cash(and subsequently, in many cases, strong arming them into circumventing DRM schemas)?
I am not offay with all the technology. From the context and my shoddy memory I believe you are referring to digital copy protection. I have not thought about it much but here are my initial reactions. I generally believe that people should be trusted to do the right thing. I think they usually can be. (In any case I also know that any popular technology can be cracked.) If one of the selling points of MP3 is it's convenience and transportability then it is disingenuous to limit this. Certainly it is untoward to make people pay twice for the same thing in ordinary circumstances. On the other hand the owners of copyright should be protected and their property rights insured. I would never insist on DRM but I am not in that end of the business. I think it is an issue that will evolve because of the marketplace and eventually find the proper equilibrium point.
Why don't you provide downloadable sound samples of your recorded work?
(The following response is dated 2002 and since then we have modified our views - again, Finger-in-Dyke reasoning.) We won't degrade our work. We won't compress the sound or downsample it. We don't spend all those tedious hours making it sound the way we want it to sound just to turn around and reduce it to a dog's dinner. If you want to know what we sound like call up your local college radio station. That's what they're for, to serve your needs. Adventures In Good Listening. That sort of thing. Or go down to your mom & pop record store, we know there are some left and they need your support. Ask them to play a copy. Soon enough we'll all be living in a world where art is nothing but software and no objects have value and no ideas have value. What's the rush?
The Time Warner and AOL merger leads some to fear that this will allow the mainstream to dominate the Internet. Please comment.
I don't fear the mainstream. I fear the people who fear the mainstream. Media, politicians and generic do-gooders have dedicated themselves to retraining the ignorant mass of ordinary people. The internet is an exciting tool. History can be rewritten, science invented, political thought channelled, morality redefined. These are the people who succeed in companies like Time Warner and AOL. It's hardly surprising that corporate policy is to marginalize protestantism. So the real "danger" is not to pornographers and social renegades but to the mainstream by means of a process in which the "authorized" reference sources become a handful of anodyne internet sites rewriting history to tickle the market and contorting truth to avoid offense to vested interest groups.
What got you involved/interested in the internet?
I'm not particularly interested in the internet as a browser. I don't browse and I wouldn't go to the internet if I wanted most kinds of information. Little of what is spread around the internet is reliable. I use it for keeping up with the Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns and for developments with the Mac. Ubu got involved with it in the 80s because of email. It's a fast and efficient means of sharing information among a small group of people operating to a common purpose. We are spread around the world, it's better than using the phone and having the same conversation 5-6 times.
We have also always had a very specific approach to information and the demands of our fans. No fan should want to or need to know more than we choose to make known. For example, we don't print lyrics. Still we recognize that people want the lyrics so we send them to those who make an extra effort to get them. This used to mean folding pieces of paper and stuffing them in envelopes and licking stamps. The interent solved all that. It also makes for a source of reliable information as long as we control the information flow.
Is it only a tool for publicity?
It's not much of a tool for publicity since you have to know it exists and then have to search it out. We don't offer games and bright bells & whistles to dazzle the natives. There are no free and tacky soundfiles. It's just text and notes as to the inner workings of a rock band. If you make the extra effort you are rewarded (or not).
Why is there no access to lyrics on your Internet site, is this not what Internet was created for?
No, the internet was created for the military defense of the North American continent, primarily America. You as an internet user or as an Ubu consumer have no inherent right of access to our intellectual property. It is our art and we choose how it's presented. We provide whatever information we decide is useful. We have good reasons for not printing the lyrics. Nonetheless, the policy has always been that if you ask for lyrics we will send the most recent. NB. Lyrics are now available at the Reference page. We have gotten tired of the whole issue and sometimes it's just easier to give up.
Quoting from an internal Ubu Projex Memo: Did you find out anything about forbidding retailers the use of song clips on the net?
Response: Spoke at length to the internet specialist at the MCPS/PRS, Gavin Robertson. There are two issues: the performance of the song and the performance of the record (PPL/PAMRA)
As far as the song performance side goes, an establishment, be it a radio station, pub, club etc, is given a blanket license to perform / broadcast music. The same goes for the net - if someone applies for a license, and it is granted, there is no 'quality' issue - you wouldn't go in to a pub and complain that their speakers sounded appalling etc
So the same applies to the net - blanket licenses are issued and people are allowed to do it, and pay the royalties accordingly. This is more applicable to 'net radio', obviously.
The performance of the record is more difficult - up until recently there was no agreement in the US on royalties for phonographic performance. There was a recent hard-thrashed-out agreement (The Digital Millennium Act) between the RIA and BMI/ASCAP/etc to change this, and one of the things that was lost in the bargaining procedure was the use of sound-clips for the advertising/promotion of records - i.e. it was given a 'free use' label and basically any retailer can use any sound clip for the purposes of selling your record. As soon as it is taken out of the context of advertising / promotion of that record it's no longer within the boundaries of the agreement, and we could stop it. But we have no power to stop CD retailers using clips.
I asked about the UK situation where there has been phonographic performance royalties for a while, and he said that because this US agreement is in place where retailers can use clips willy-nilly, it becomes increasingly hard to enforce it in the UK.
I pointed out that the placing of the sound recording on the net involves digital manipulation of the recording that obviously isn't authorised or approved by the artist - he concurred but said that there is very little that can be done about it.
Publishing Royalties & ISRC Codes
Quoting from an internal Ubu Projex Memo: Just had a long conversation with Pete Rogers at the PPL who is the ISRC code expert.
It threw up a number of things:
a) he strongly advised not leaving ISRC codes off the record. He was surprised that Nimbus would consider pressing a record without ISRC codes on it. Polygram certainly won't, and he said that we may have trouble if the record was pressed abroad by a licensee, and their pressing plant refused to it.
b) An ISRC code is 'transmitted' not just at the track index point but every 18 milliseconds throughout the duration of the track. However, if there are only 11 track indexes it is only physically possible to write 11 codes onto the CD.
c) As of now, ISRC codes are not used by radio stations to pick up and log radio performances. This is a vision for the future, and it does look as if the format of the code may change, so this is not something we have to worry about. What is significant as far as ISRC codes are concerned are electronic distribution of songs over the internet or whatever medium. An ISRC encoded CD is obviously 'watermarked' such that machines which can detect the codes will be able immediately, by the ISRC code transmitted every 18 ms, be able to detect what song it is.
d) As mass electronic distribution is still some time away, and radio currently does not use the codes, this still leaves the problem of mechanical royalties. If we HAVE to have codes written to the CD (although it does seem that Nimbus don't see it as compulsory, it may be different in the States, or Japan, I don't know) we still have the problem of only having 11 codes available, and with 15 songs. Pete at the PPL said that the only way around this would be to assign more than one song to an ISRC code (i.e. as if it were a 'medley'). What I'm still waiting for from the MCPS is a decision on how this would affect the royalties.
Obviously we would want the royalties divided between the 15 songs as if it were a normal 15 song album. If we told the MCPS that there were (say) 10 tracks with one song in each and 1 track with the remaining 5, totalling 15, we need to ascertain whether those 5 songs contained on the 1 'track' (it's obviously not actually formatted that way but I ask you to go with it for a second) are each treated as the other songs are which each have their own track, or whether those 5 songs will only receive 1/5 of the royalties for that track.
This still leaves the question of how we begin to explain to the MCPS the concept that the length of a track is different to the length of a song, in the case of Mirror Man. I'm waiting for someone at the MCPS to call me back - no-one seems to be able to - or want to - answer my questions.....
The final word of authority comes from Jason Cook at the MCPS
Registering more than one song against one ISRC code (as a medley) would detrimentally affect peoples MCPS royalties as the 'sub-songs' of the medley track would get a % of the royalties assigned to that track, not their own % of the whole record
He said if there are only 11 track index points on the record the only way to assure that we get the royalties we're meant to is not to tell the MCPS there are any ISRCs on the record at all
I think we're still waiting from an answer from Thirsty Ear and potential licensees as to whether their pressing plants care about having ISRC codes on the record - if they don't it would make sense just not to bother
If they do we'll have to have a rethink, as I would imagine Ilka will have paperwork trouble telling Nimbus one thing for the allocation of ISRC codes and MCPS another for royalty collection - in fact I seem to remember it is impossible.
Quoting from an internal Ubu Projex Memo: We might be doing a deal with a company called [DELETED] for internet download sales. They use MP3 format. Do you have any advice on this?
Response: It seems to me there are some drawbacks to consider.
1. Downloading disembodied music files. The object invests value in the art encoded within the object. This is the nub of the cd vs vinyl "debate"-- little or nothing to do with sound quality, everything to do with the greater value that the vinyl object invests in the music. Losing the cd booklet and accompanying art also serves to strip the music of tangible personality/humanity. For pop groups this is no problem. For Jackie Leven it will be.
2. Sound quality. It's going to sound like a dog's dinner, a high class dog's dinner but Alpo all the same. It's like the argument over wintel vs apple. Sure, Windows 98 is just about as good as the Mac OS was 10 years ago. Sure MP3 is just about as good as consumer sound broadcast was capable of maybe 30 years ago. Technology changes. The "wiring" of human beings does not. CV is a company that survives on producing meaningful music in which the sound/production values are to varying degrees idiosyncratic and crucial. Multimedia sound systems are biased towards heavily compressed, narrow band, unsubtle, undetailed sound broadcast. Like listening to music in a pub for ALL your life.
3. Vultures. The punter can choose to buy only individual tracks. For lots of music this doesn't impact on the gestalt of the album as an artistic event. But, it does tend to trivialize music as a consumer item, it serves to strip away the person-ality of the music and in the end serves in the process that kills off the need for record companies like Cooking Vinyl. If Billy Bragg and Louise are perceived as having the same value then why bother with Billy's annoying questions?
4. Auditioning for a stranger's approval is a humiliating and demeaning experience. (This is a highly personalized POV. Note that our contract rider forbids the playing of Pere Ubu music any time we make a personal appearance in a record store or the like.) The Pere Ubu brandname is cheapened by the technique. The process by which a consumer discovers a group like Pere Ubu is critical and deeply personal. Listening to some silly snippet over the internet or downloading an MP3 file is unlikely to generate long-term commitment.
Those are the downsides. On the upside, hey! it's a gimmick - the gimmick is in its hot/up cycle. I assume they've impressed you with numbers. CV absolutely needs to market via the web. I think you need your own site but failing that this might serve. It's like taking penicillin for a mild infection. You get rid of the immediate problem but deliver another small blow against the good guys in the global battle against antibiotic-resistant viruses.
MP3 is a flawed format. Like the music cassette (remember them?) it is a novelty. In time it will fade away or be superceded. Meanwhile Ubu Projex will support the format, like we supported cassettes, because some customers like the format.