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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Need any more proof that smartphones have taken over our lives? You know it’s true when artists start writing songs about losing their lovers to them.

These pocket-size computers have made everyone’s ability to stay in touch with music — and the world — more convenient, more portable and more distracting than ever. The notion that any piece of music you can possibly crave is just a click away, anywhere, anytime, is getting more refined with each new iteration from tech companies that have in many ways usurped the role of record companies, radio stations, video channels and record stores.

“The paradise of infinite storage,” as McGill University professor (and former Clash producer) Sandy Pearlman once rhapsodized, has arrived.

It’s indisputably paradise for music fans. It has empowered them to an unprecedented degree, not only granting them immediate access to just about every piece of music ever recorded, but allowing them to play with, remix and distribute it, then discard it as soon as the next musical bauble comes along.

For artists, the results have been less idyllic. The downturn in physical media — compact disc sales have been cut in half the last decade — and the transition to online music have forced musicians to take at least a temporary pay cut on recording royalties. The transition to digital put new emphasis on individual songs over albums. So instead of paying $15 for a CD, listeners downloaded a favorite track at iTunes for 99 cents. Now they’re paying fractions of a penny to stream tracks at digital platforms such as Spotify, Beats Music and Pandora. And some aren’t paying at all to acquire music; a recent study by the NPD Group concludes that mobile applications have eclipsed file-sharing services as the most widely used source of free music downloads. About 27 million mobile users have downloaded at least one song in the past year, most from unauthorized sources.

Artists benefit by showcasing their music on an accessible platform that is less restrictive than commercial radio, but streaming revenue in general has lagged what artists once made selling CDs or downloads.

“As a consumer, I love (new platforms such as) Spotify,” says Norwegian singer Ane Brun. “They cover so much music. But as an artist, it’s still not there. The payment is really low for musicians. There are different options coming in all the time, more companies. Eventually if consumers have more choices, the competition could help artists. But we’re not there yet.”

For emerging artists, streaming services combined with relentless social networking can deliver much-needed exposure. Alexander Beggins of Texas-based Wild Child says the band owes its steadily growing following to building one-on-one relationships with fans that wouldn’t have been possible in the pre-digital era.

The smartphone culture “is absolutely the reason we’re doing as well as we are,” he says. “If you’re on Facebook or tweet us, we’re right back at you. We respond to people every day and have an ongoing dialogue with our fans. It’s so important to stay connected to the people who spend money and talk about you. With Spotify, we had 7 million plays on our first album, and that does translate into dollars that help us stay on the road. It’s such a wide net you can cast, reaching people in different countries that we never would be able to reach before.”

But there are deeper implications about what it all means. For some, the shifts in human behavior that have been promoted by the tech boom do not augur well for the quality of music.

“I have very dark, complex feelings about the way social media operates and the omnipresence of iPhones,” says California soul singer Nick Waterhouse. “It has become an appendage. It’s how people I care very much about interact with everything. And it’s (terrible). It’s no way to live. It’s just dark. This naive unleashing of an epidemic, to the point where it’s how people process everything. I used to think it was fine, like having an AM radio. But I know so many people who listen to music out of their iPhone speakers. It becomes background noise, part of the wash. It makes music not special anymore. If you eat pizza all the time, it doesn’t taste like pizza anymore.”

There’s no disputing that sound quality has been degraded in the digital era. MP3 files heard over tiny iPod or smartphone ear buds just can’t match the quality of CDs or vinyl, nor was that ever the intention. In recent weeks, one of digital sound’s biggest detractors — Neil Young — introduced a new digital player, Pono, that he contended rivals the fidelity of a phonograph playing a vinyl album.

Vinyl is a fetishized relic of the 20th century, a beautiful artifact celebrated by the crackle of sampled riffs and drum breaks on hip-hop tracks. It’s also a growing industry, particularly for indie bands and record stores; vinyl sales have skyrocketed in recent years (up 33 percent in 2013 from the previous year) but still represent a tiny fraction of overall music sales.

As frustrating as its limitations can appear to artists craving better sound, more attentive listeners and fairer compensation, the digital world is still in its awkward adolescence. The digital overhaul of intellectual property and entertainment media — not just music, but books, newspapers, magazines, video, movies and television — has just begun. The world will be radically different in 10 years. Smartphones will only become smarter. Relatively new innovations such as Instagram, Vine and Twitter will fade and be replaced by new digital fads, just as MySpace, Napster and Xanga once were.

“Five years from now, we’re going to be saying, ‘Can you believe we were obsessed with 140-character conversations?’” says Matador Records publicist Nils Bernstein. The next decade, he says, should be about how technology can facilitate deeper understanding and wider appreciation of music and culture. Because without an incentive to create — and artists have been creating under adverse conditions for centuries — all the technological innovations in the world won’t matter.

Photo: Patrik Moen via Flickr

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was forced to defend President Donald Trump's recent attacks on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Tuesday, an unenviable task she nevertheless intentionally signed up for. She desperately tried to divert the attention back to Scarborough — without engaging in the president's conspiracy theorizing — but offered no credible defense of the president's conduct.

Trump has been spreading the debunked theory that Scarborough killed a staffer in 2001 while he was in Congress, even though it was determined she died of natural causes. The staffer's widower wrote a released a letter on Tuesday pleading with Twitter to take down the president's offensive tweets promoting the thoery. He said he was "angry," "frustrated," and "grieved" by the president's promotion of the harmful allegations. Trump is perverting his late wife's memory, he said, and he fears her niece and nephews will encounter these attacks.When asked about the letter, McEnany said she wasn't sure if the president had seen it. But she said their "hearts" are with the woman's family "at this time." It was a deeply ironic comment because the only particularly traumatizing thing about "this time" for the family is the president's attacks, which come nearly two decades after the woman's death.

McEnany refused to offer any explanation of Trump's comments and instead redirected reporters to a clip of Scarborough on Don Imus's radio show in 2003. In that show, Imus made a tasteless joke obliquely referring to the death, and Scarborough laughed at it briefly.

"Why is the president making these unfounded allegations?" asked ABC News' Jonathan Karl. "I mean, this is pretty nuts, isn't it? The president is accusing someone of possible murder. The family is pleading with the president to please stop unfounded conspiracy theories. Why is he doing it?""The president said this morning, this is not an original Trump thought. And it is not," she said, bringing up the Imus clip. But she made no mention of why the president is bringing up the issue 17 years later and with a much larger platform.

When pressed further on the president's conduct, she again diverted blame to Scarborough, saying his morning show unfairly criticizes the president. But again, she offered no substantive defense of Trump.

After McEnany had moved on, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor brought it up again: "Why won't the president give this widower peace and stop tweeting about the conspiracy theory involving his wife?"

McEnany said she had already answered the question, which she hadn't, and said the onus is on Scarborough to explain the Imus clip."The widower is talking specifically about the president!" Alcindor shot back. But McEnany called on Chanel Rion, with the aggressively pro-Trump outlet OAN, who changed the subject to conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russia investigation.

"Are you not going to answer that?" Alcindor called out, still trying to get a substantive response to her question, but Rion spoke over her.

At the end of the briefing, another reporter asked whether Trump was looking for any actual law enforcement steps be taken in response to his conspiracy theory. But McEnany had nothing to add, and simply told people to listen to the Imus clip again. As she hurried out of the briefing room, a reporter asked if Trump would stop promoting the theory — but she left without answering.

Watch the exchange about Klausutis, which begins at 48:45.