born free. died rather expensively.

something has been on my mind a bit lately. i’ve been back and forth over whether or not i should say anything on a public forum, wanting to express my opinion but not wanting to insult or offend anyone in the process. i thought i could swallow it and leave it alone, but it won’t go down. apparently you can’t ply a golf ball with motor oil. and what’s the point of having a blog/website/self-absorbed digital playground if you can’t say whatever you want to say?

so i begin, with the caveat that i am about to express an unpopular opinion, and perhaps start an argument or two in the process. i don’t really want to participate in an argument with anyone. i just want to get rid of something that’s been taking up a bit of space in my brain.

lately, it seems more and more people are starting to do the “free MP3” thing. bandcamp seems to be the medium everyone is choosing to use right now. i see more people jumping on board all the time, and they generally receive praise for being all about sharing the music, and not about making money.

maybe i’m cynical, but in most cases it seems more like a calculated move, hopping onto a bandwagon, and not really about a genuine desire to cut money out of the equation at all. you still have to pay for the physical album if you want a tangible representation of the music with artwork, lyrics (where applicable), and sound quality that won’t make your hi-fi cry. a small number of people have started throwing in WAV files with the MP3s, so at least you can get the music at full fidelity, but this is so rare it might as well not be happening at all.

i don’t have anything against people doing this. free music is free music. what’s weird to me is how celebrated giving away lossy files is (while still making people pay if they want to own the music in a more meaningful way), while what i do (giving the physical album away) is looked at by some as being “wrong”.

think about it. the only thing these people are giving away for free is something that costs them no money to produce in the first place. you rip MP3s and put them up somewhere on the internet in a matter of minutes, at no cost, with little effort involved. you don’t even have to pay for server space. sites like bandcamp (the new myspace?) will take care of it for you. then you advertise the existence of the MP3s, knowing the people who like the music, and those who care about sound quality and/or supporting the artist, will still shell out for the physical product.

people who do the MP3 thing and then make a big show of calling attention to it being amazing and free like they’re saving the rain forest or something kind of make me feel a little funny. “it’s free! in digital form. but, you know, if you want it in a physical format, you gotta pay. if you come out to a show, you gotta pay. if you want any merchandise we may have available, like posters and shirts, guess what! you gotta pay.”

it’s a bit like saying, “you can have a degraded VHS dub of my movie (with no case) for free if you like, but if you want it on DVD the way i really meant for it to be experienced, at a level of quality you can really enjoy and with a booklet full of pictures and writing you won’t find anywhere else, well…you have to pay me for it.”

i guess this is a step in the right direction, since i don’t think MP3s are worth paying for in the first place. but until people start giving physical albums away for free and making everything else related to their “art” free as well, i won’t believe they’re not just interested in making money any way they can, just like almost everyone else is.

the thing is, if you really aren’t about making money off of music, you LOSE money. that’s how it works. no one wants to do that. i lose money every time i put a CD out there, and i never make it back. not through music, anyway. but hey, i’m crazy.

some people don’t seem to mind giving something away for free when it at least doesn’t cost them anything to do it (or when their band broke up a few years ago, they’ve got leftover CDs they want to get rid of, and no one wants to buy them anymore), or when the product isn’t at a level of professionalism anyone would be willing to pay for to begin with. but doing something you know will cost money, putting an effort into making it something you can be proud of, and then going out of your way to not be reimbursed so things are free to your audience and no one but you pays for anything…that’s a whole new ball game.

i find it interesting how people thought i was nuts when i finally became somewhat visible as a musical entity, and all of this bizarre speculation went on, in part because of the whole “everything is free” credo. and yet none of these people who are giving away MP3s are considered crazy at all, regardless of who they are or where they operate. no one thinks they’re going too far or making anyone else look bad. wouldn’t you know? they’re just doing a wonderful thing for the sake of sharing music. it’s now considered cool to be all about the free, or to act like you are, but is anyone really cutting money out of the picture? i don’t see it. anywhere. i see a lot of people taking baby steps while trying to make it look like they’re sprinting.

i’m not saying people giving away music digitally is wrong, or a bad thing. we’ve covered this before. i understand the way things work. i realize most people can’t afford to just sink money into producing something, eat the expense, and give it all away for nothing. i can respect that.

and i’m not pissed off about other people getting praise for not really doing anything out of the ordinary or putting anything on the line, when i’ve been giving physical albums away for free for years, losing money every step of the way, with no one really paying any attention until recently. it does grate a little, but the reason is thus: i don’t think it’s quite right to make a big show of not being in it for the money, when all you’re really doing is generating some free promotion for yourself in an effort to sell more CDs and get more people out to your shows, so you can MAKE MONEY.

sharing music is a good thing, however you choose to do it, whether the music being shared is any good or not. the part that doesn’t sit right with me is the dishonesty about how it’s being shared, and the motivation behind the method. just call it what it is. you don’t get  to take a leak on jesus’ feet and call yourself a christian just because you give some grainy xeroxed bibles to street kids on your day off.

i realize that analogy makes no sense at all, but it amuses me. and amusement is the spice of life. or at least it’ll spice up your spaghetti if you treat it right.

i could say a lot more, but i think i got my point across. i feel at least six ounces lighter now. no offense intended to anyone specific, the opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of those affiliated with blah blah blah, my headache made me do it, so on and so forth.

half-assed non-disclaimer aside, i stand by everything i just said. them’s just the feelings i got.

in less rant-driven news, i have been making inserts and covers for CDs from the back catalogue that never got the proper treatment the first time around. it’s a good time-killer when you’ve got bloodshot eyes and your sleep is out of whack.

i thought i would just prioritize, concentrating on albums i wouldn’t mind sharing with anyone no matter how old they are, and things i would have made more widely available long ago if the “packaging” didn’t consist of my handwriting using different coloured pens. i expected maybe (at best) i could come up with ideas for ten or so CDs. if i was lucky.

then i discovered the paint option in discus, the program i use to design inserts and print text onto CDs. it came bundled with the little CD printer, and i’m only beginning to discover all it can do. yeah, it’s a pretty simple, no-frills program. but it’s also stupidly easy to work with, which is always a good thing in my book when it comes to computer software.

since drawing things by hand and then scanning them can get to be a little time-consuming, i thought i would try drawing badly with one finger, on the computer, to save some time and have some fun. the next thing i knew, i was making covers for albums i don’t even consider to be very good or reissue-worthy, and having a ridiculous amount of fun doing it. within a day or two i progressed from intentionally crude scribbles to…well…i’ll show you.

here are some of my favourites from the cover art i’ve come up with so far, for 30 different albums. this means every papa ghostface and guys with dicks album now has cover art of some sort, as do some earlier solo CDs. some even have two different covers, in case i decide i like one better than the other. if i keep this up, by the end of the long weekend every single CD i’ve ever recorded will have inserts ready to go, whenever i decide to get them printed.

this was badly-drawn on purpose, with one finger. like i said before, the image i have in my head as being most appropriate for the album would not be very easy to bring to life, and i sure couldn’t draw it to save mine. instead, you get a rendering of the band. i am an angry, crude triangle, gord is a chicken drumstick, and tyson is a metal-head in vehicular form, looking…well…my finger didn’t flatter him. sorry, tyson. maybe if you had stubble like gord it all could have been different. we’ll return to this album in a bit.

this one is self-explanatory. nothing subtle about it (i can’t just churn out an impressionistic painting full of symbolism over here, as much as i wish i could), but i like how it turned out. what the dude is doing there is pretty much what i felt like doing at the time. i coloured him in manually instead of using bucket fills, ’cause i’m fly like that. more on this in a bit as well.

is it wrong that i laugh every time i look at this? i think it probably is. but i still laugh. i laughed when i was drawing it, too. the guy just looks so happy to be stabbing himself in the side of the head. crude as it is, this may be one of my favourite things i’ve come up with so far. make of that what you will.

all i did here was take a picture of elmo and “invert” the image so it looks reverse-exposed or something. it’s done in one click. but it feels ridiculously appropriate somehow, because (A) i do an impression of elmo on some of the songs (i did a pretty good elmo back in the day, i’ll have you know) and (B) it’s absurd-looking, and the album itself is completely bonkers.

now, this one i’m actually kind of proud of. i started importing existing pictures into the program and sketching on top of them just for something to do, using the image as an initial guideline and then throwing it away, and i found the results were more interesting than i expected them to be. so i thought i would try sketching the person who was inspiring a lot of my mixed-up-ness (and music) at the time, and this is what came out.

it’s far from perfect. the hair is rough, and i left out some details while adding others that were never there before. i wasn’t after recreating the image i was working with by rote, but rather trying to sketch an “impression” of it, and i think i managed to pull it off. kind of scary to think i’m a better “artist” using one finger and a mouse than i am when i have both hands at my disposal.

the subject is a lot more attractive than this rendering makes her seem, but it’s probably a good thing it didn’t end up looking much like her when it was all over, given some of the lyrics. i did some experimenting while refining my one-finger-computer-drawing technique, and what you see above turned into this:

i think it’s a marked improvement, and most of what i did was reductive, cutting out unnecessary lines and cleaning things up a bit. i’ve started to play with colouring different things in unusual ways as well — giving someone blue hair, or a green hand, or whatever i think looks cool.

about that one-finger thing: because the program i’m using was not designed with drawing in mind and only features basic painting tools, i have to colour things in with my finger. let me explain how ridiculous this is.

normally, you would create layers and “fill” certain areas in with whatever colour you like. easy as cake. i can’t do that. when i try to do that, it almost never turns out well. i can set a general background colour, but if i want to colour in something specific, i have to move the mouse back and forth over a small area, over and over again, and slowly change trajectory, and keep doing it for quite a while before i start to fill anything up with colour.

the largest amount of ground i can cover at any given time is about the size of the head of a nail. the fastest way to go about it is to keep seesawing back and forth in one continuous motion, making lines like you’d make scribbles, but this has its drawbacks. you make a mistake and colour outside the lines, and you either have to undo everything you just did, or (if you’re lucky) you can get it with the eraser tool and not end up accidentally erasing things you don’t want to get rid of.

it’s not quite as time-consuming as i just made it sound. it just gets a little frustrating when you make a mistake and have to take five steps backward instead of one.

don’t think the hilarity of this is lost on me. i’m using a no-frills CD-printing program to do increasingly ambitious things with computer-based drawings, using an index finger, where most people would get a program designed for this stuff, a tablet, and a writing/drawing tool, they’d use their whole hand, and life would be much simpler. hell, i can’t draw anyway, so i might as well stick with what i’ve got. it seems to be working pretty well so far. like i said, i’m better at drawing with one finger in an unnatural position (my mouse is one of those touch-pads built into the computer itself, affording even less control and precision) than i am with a free hand and a piece of paper. go figure.

i’ve always had a hard time making anything i draw look the least bit feminine. so i’ve mostly been working with images of women in an effort to figure out what makes them so much more interesting to look at than most dudes, and how i might go about capturing whatever it is that makes this so. the more i do this, the more people start to look like themselves. like carly pope here:

it…looks…like a woman! my god! i never thought i would see the day. the ear could have turned out better, but still…i’d be kind of tempted to use that as an album cover at some point, because i like it. but i’m not sure using the likeness of a celebrity is a good idea, even if nothing is being sold, not a lot of people are going to see it, and you’re not using an existing image while passing it off as your own (or neglecting to credit the person who originated said image). maybe i should send carly a letter asking if i can have permission to put her face on a random CD cover at a future date. i’m sure it wouldn’t seem odd at all.

at the other end of the spectrum entirely, this one isn’t even attempting to look nice. the album itself is pretty crude (and crudely recorded), so i suppose it fits.

this is one of the albums i’ve long felt was deserving of cover art, but coming up with something appropriate seemed hopeless. the other day i thought i would try using a picture i took myself, of myself, and attempt to modify it enough to come away with an image of what i looked like around the time the songs were recorded, eight years ago. more or less. the result is a little grotesque and doesn’t look a whole lot like a period-correct me (no way could i cultivate stubble like that back then). but i think that’s appropriate, since i was feeling pretty grotesque at the time and the subject matter is hardly sunny.

then i thought, “shit, i can do something better for SUBLIMINAL BILE. as amusing as it is to see gord as a chicken drumstick and tyson as a…goofy-looking…vehicle, maybe i can come up with a better representation of us. and we should definitely all be there, looking at least a little like ourselves, since this was the exact moment at which we became a real band once and for all, and something really clicked. the camaraderie and excitement generated by the noise we were making (which i considered some of the best music i had made in my life at the time) was at least as important a part of my life as the mind-numbing telemarketing work that made me want to murder people, the anger and confusion inspired by an ill-fated long-distance relationship never to be consummated, and a growing interest in illicit substances.”

so i came up with this:

i am a disembodied head, gord is looking kind of serene, and tyson looks a good deal less goofy, and a lot more menacing.

the more people i draw, i find myself relying less on the image used as a reference, and adding more of my own touches. i could probably go back and redo the STELLAR cover with a much better likeness now (look at the progression from that one, to BEAUTIFULLY STUPID, to this), but i ain’t gonna.

in this case, tyson had quite a bit of hair in the picture i was working with, but i had to make him look hairless in order for his rendering to be period-correct. and the picture of myself i used as a guide looks nothing like what i turned it into. i didn’t just have a proper body in the picture, but a lot of facial hair, and my hair was tied back. all of that had to change (which meant effectively rebuilding my facial structure without anything to guide me, since the beard made it difficult to know where my chin was in there), because in 2001 i hated tying my hair back, avoiding it as much as possible, and in spite of my best attempts i couldn’t grow the swarthy stubble i wanted. how things change.

in the end, this is probably another one of my favourites, and i can hardly believe i created it myself, in less than an hour. i think it might even be one of my coolest-looking CDs ever, once it’s assembled.

i made visual art that doesn’t look like shit. me. how on earth did that just happen? i wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an actual artist or what i’m producing actual art, but this stuff isn’t just miles beyond anything i’ve ever done or thought i could produce in the realm of drawing…it’s a whole new universe. from a free program and a finger.

and back to the crudeness we go. turns out i was capable of coming up with artwork for this one after all. that’s right…a bearded man with large breasts. i don’t care who you are or what gender you identify as — if you ever wake up to find your nipples looking like those guys, please seek medical attention. immediately.

now, you might be starting to think i’ve been spending an unhealthy amount of time over the past day or two drawing ridiculous things with one finger on the computer. but no. i also used some photos.

i managed to find a picture of gord from some years back, passed out on the floor, and combined it with a picture of me pretending to be passed out from around the time this papa ghostface stuff was happening (albeit with less hair than i really had at the time of this particular album’s recording). will there ever be a papa ghostface album cover that’s not ridiculous in one way or another? probably not. but this one became a lot cooler after i messed with some more of that photo-inverting fun:

paper chest hair (2000)

that just looks cool to me. who cares if by the time we recorded that album i was growing my hair out? you only get so many pictures of yourself pretending to be unconscious in bed to work with in a lifetime. you gotta take ’em where you can get ’em.

okay, so i lied. this one is pretty normal. it’s funny, because the album is about as far from “normal” as you could get. but i thought it was appropriate to use a picture of what my “studio” space was at the time this CD was recorded, to make it clear how little room there was, and how small an assortment of equipment i had to work with.

there was more in there than what you see in the picture, but not by much. a few keyboards, a bass (the acoustic was a rental), two guitars (those were the days…when i only had two guitars), an SM57, an SM58, the digitech guitar effects processor, the boombox i was using as my monitors, and that just about covers it.

the first four papa ghostface albums (and most of the fifth), my first seven or eight solo CDs, the radio-active waste stuff with johnny smith, the traveling westburys EP, the first jesse topliffe CD, the starving artists album, and a few things i recorded for other people were all born in this tiny room, along with a bunch of cassette tapes before the mixer came into the picture.

there was something special about that glorified storage room. i think sometimes not having much of any equipment, or space, or really knowing what to do with either can be an asset. you get down to work with what’s at hand, and you have no rules or guidelines to restrain you, so you make it up as you go along.

i wouldn’t trade the equipment or space i have now for what i had back then, but i still have nostalgic feelings for that little room and the music made within it from time to time.

there’s a lot more in the way of album art, ranging from “things i spent ten seconds on that are kind of shitty, but they’ll do the job and the albums aren’t the best things i’ve ever done anyway”, to “holy shit…i just came up with that?!”

a few of my favourite things are for albums i don’t even rank that highly. to wit:

there’s a classic papa ghostface album cover if there ever was one, and the album it’s for isn’t even one of our best. i keep trying to change the title so i can use it for something else, but it doesn’t feel right. damn you, cream-coloured guy shedding your dead skin. damn you for making me dream about you.

and there’s this, which is for an album that isn’t even an album, but a recorded conversation about our band and its possible future, when things were at their most exciting:

it looks like a ridiculous exposé or something. oh my god! we smoked stuff and talked about stuff for an hour! stop the presses!

i’ve been having some surprising revelations and rediscoveries involving the music these images are meant to accompany as well, but i’ll save it for another time, lest i write a book.

one more thing, though — i would be remiss if i didn’t give a shout out to wordpress. over the past few days i noticed my videos didn’t seem to be working anymore. all the other media was fine, and the video player would load, but the videos themselves wouldn’t play anymore. i sent a message to wordpress support asking if there was anything i could do to fix this, went to sleep, and when i woke up all my videos were working again. now that’s what i call customer service.

5 comments

  1. My 2 cents for free :-D:

    My pet peeve in the world of free stuff are the free self-help DVDs. Free plus $19.99 for shipping and handling.

    I’m more likely to spend money if the deal is honest. Anyone with an asterisk next to their free (or prices) will probably never see the colour of my money.

  2. grainy xeroxed bibles – that is the number one analogy for mp3s.

    For me, it’s like if I only want to hear a song or album (e.g. one time), then I don’t want to buy it. So, I download it or burn a copy of a cd (or listen to it on the radio – if they ever played music I like on the radio). It’s like borrowing a book from a library.

    Also, I buy books because I know I want to revisit them later, same with music. An mp3 works as a sample of the music, like hearing it on the radio or borrowing a book from the library – so it seems like it should be free!

    Even with lossless compression (or no compression wav), people like to own a physical representation of the thing they’re listening to. I can’t see human nature changing so much that physical albums will end. It’s like buying a fiction novel as an eBook – it can’t last. Once the novelty of electronic goods wears off, people will stop buying albums off iTunes store etc, unless it’s just as a sample.

    I do think the packaging of physical albums could get more creative, so people feel they’re getting more value from them. I have a Ben Sidran album that has the best packaging ever. It’s a cd-sized hardcover book, with lyrics, stories and pictures throughout, and the cd is just tucked away at the back. The album’s a bit of a let down though … I guess you can’t win them all.

    Great album covers by the way! My favourite is Beautifully Stupid.

    1. Hi Ismal ~ it was a very entertaining watch! I would have liked the music to be more in the forefront, but even still it was fun to listen to everyone’s stories about the big man JW!

      My favourite bits were the discussions of how Johnny’s art is somehow exulted by being given away for free. And Angela’s occasionally coherent comments were great.

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