Sharon Van Etten’s new album “Are We There” Soars.

Sharon Van Etten's Are We There.

Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There.

Sharon Van Etten has been wow­ing the good folks at NPR’s All Songs Con­sid­ered (reviewed ear­li­er here) and the boys from Pitch­fork for some time now. Her last album Tramp (2012) was pro­duced by The National’s Aaron Dess­ner and includes a guest appear­ance from Beirut’s Zach Con­don. And in his pro­file of her in this month’s New York­er (‘Relaxed Fit”), Sasha Frere-Jones describes her lat­est album as “aston­ish­ing”.  In oth­er words, we’re talk­ing indie roy­al­ty here.

Her fourth stu­dio album, Are We There, is a seri­ous piece of work. But on first lis­ten, it seems to be a tad con­ser­v­a­tive, con­ven­tion­al even. There’s noth­ing here that we haven’t heard before. Songs of heartache set to pleas­ing melodies lay­ered with lush harmonies.

The mandatory All Songs Considered podcast.

The manda­to­ry All Songs Con­sid­ered podcast.

What’s “aston­ish­ing” is how the whole adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts. These are songs that real­ly ache, and those melodies and har­monies build and grow with every lis­ten. Before you know it, they’re secure­ly lodged in the com­fort of your subconscious.

This is the album Van Etten has been build­ing up to. Son­i­cal­ly, she’s come a long way from the hushed con­fes­sion­als of those ear­ly record­ings. This is a much fuller sound, but it’s achieved with­out sac­ri­fic­ing any of the inti­ma­cy. On the con­trary, the big­ger sound ampli­fies the emo­tion­al heft. What’s she’s pro­duced in oth­er words is the ulti­mate Fleet­wood Mac album.

You can see the video for Every Time The Sun Comes Up here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best ad Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

The New Yorker Magazine, A Beam of Light Illuminating Innumerable Worlds.

The New York­er staff writer Jon­ah Lehrer resigned in July, after even­tu­al­ly being forced to admit that a num­ber of the quotes he’d attrib­uted to Bob Dylan in his best sell­ing book Imag­ine: How Cre­ativ­i­ty Works had been made up by him.

You can read about it here in The Wash­ing­ton Post, or you can get the full account of pre­cise­ly how he was unmasked by the man respon­si­ble, Michael C. Moyni­han, in his fas­ci­nat­ing piece in The Tablet, here.

Inevitably, some peo­ple have sug­gest­ed that this could be as dam­ag­ing for The New York­er as Jayson Blair was for The New York Times after sim­i­lar behav­ior there. 

But Lehrer’s “lies” were in his best sell­ing book, not the mag­a­zine. And if any­thing, what both cas­es point to is how increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult it is to get away with that kind of dis­hon­esty in this day and age. Espe­cial­ly when you write for a pub­li­ca­tion like The New York­er, which is so just­ly famed for the qual­i­ty of its writ­ing and the metic­u­lous care with which each and every piece is put together.

I’ve been sub­scrib­ing for about ten years now, and I waft about the place in a per­ma­nent state of won­der at the qual­i­ty of each and every issue.

The July 9th and 16th edi­tion for instance con­tained the fol­low­ing (there are 47 issues every year so some of the hol­i­day issues cov­er two weeks, instead of the usu­al one):

There was a fas­ci­nat­ing if inevitably depress­ing overview by Dex­ter Filkins of where Afghanistan is after ten years of US occu­pa­tion, and what’s like­ly to hap­pen there after they leave in 2014. 

At over 10,000 words long, there are few if any oth­er pub­li­ca­tions in the world pre­pared to pro­vide their writ­ers with that kind of win­dow, and to give them the funds need­ed to con­duct the sort of research a piece like that demands.

Then there was a piece by Michael Specter on Oxitec and the genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied mos­qui­tos that they’ve released into cer­tain care­ful­ly con­trolled envi­ron­ments in the Caribbean and, now, in Brazil. These have been genet­i­cal­ly designed to self-destruct.

What will the unfore­seen con­se­quences be of releas­ing crea­tures cre­at­ed by man in the lab­o­ra­to­ry into the envi­ron­ment? On the oth­er hand, very unusu­al­ly, mos­qui­tos appear to exist for the sole pur­pose of reproducing. 

They don’t seem to be part of any­thing else’s diet, and the only crea­ture they seem to rely on is us. And they’re respon­si­ble for half the deaths in the his­to­ry of human­i­ty. So sure­ly the pos­si­bil­i­ty of elim­i­nat­ing them is some­thing to be welcomed?

Nathan Heller had a piece on the uber-hip TED talks and their mes­sian­ic advocates. 

And there were won­der­ful­ly illu­mi­nat­ing and qui­et­ly mov­ing extracts from the diary kept by the Amer­i­can writer Mavis Gal­lant as she strug­gled to bal­ance being a woman, a writer, and an Amer­i­can try­ing to eek out a liv­ing in the detri­tus that was left of Europe in the after­math of the II World War.

Then there are their sta­ble of crit­ics. Antho­ny Lane on cin­e­ma, Alex Ross on clas­si­cal music, Judith Thur­man on fash­ion and Peter Schjel­dahl on art, to name but four of their unflap­pable titans. Plus the finan­cial page, their Shouts and Mur­murs (Joel Stein was par­tic­u­lar­ly fun­ny in this issue), their car­toons and of course their fiction.

It’s a slow week when I man­age to fin­ish read­ing an entire issue in any giv­en week, and the short sto­ry that they pub­lish is usu­al­ly, alas, an inevitable casu­al­ty. But I make an excep­tion for William Trevor, Junot Diaz (who had a piece in the fol­low­ing issue), Alice Munroe, Colm Tóibín and any of the old­er pieces by Updike or Nabokov that they occa­sion­al­ly publish.

It is by a coun­try mile the best writ­ten, most metic­u­lous­ly researched and impec­ca­bly curat­ed pub­li­ca­tion in the world. And at a lit­tle over $100 a year for a sub­scrip­tion, it’ll cost you bare­ly two Euro a week. If you’ve any curios­i­ty at all, about any­thing under the sun, you should treat your­self now.

And so what if you don’t man­age to fin­ish read­ing it (or even open­ing it) every week. Your read and unread copies will be greed­i­ly wel­comed by friends and fam­i­ly alike.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

Apple, Amazon, the Big 6 and the Future of Publishing.

In May, Apple and three of the Big Six lost the first round in what looks like­ly to be a long and cost­ly fight (two of the oth­er three had reluc­tant­ly set­tled and one, Ran­dom House isn’t involved). What’s at stake is, not to put too fine a point on it, the future of pub­lish­ing. So here, very briefly, is the sto­ry so far.

When Ama­zon began sell­ing ebooks through their Kin­dle in 2007, the price they charged for them was a lot less than for actu­al phys­i­cal books. For one thing they did­n’t cost as much to pro­duce. But much more impor­tant­ly, ebooks were a com­plete­ly new idea, and peo­ple had to be encour­aged into try­ing them out. So fre­quent­ly, Ama­zon would sell their ebooks at a loss, for even less than they had pur­chased them from the pub­lish­er in the first place.

Cul­tur­al­ly then, this dis­count sell­ing was both wel­come and nec­es­sary. Eco­nom­i­cal­ly how­ev­er, it meant that Ama­zon quick­ly estab­lished a stran­gle­hold on a rapid­ly expand­ing mar­ket. Not only that, but the rise of ebooks threat­ened to ren­der the tra­di­tion­al book­store and indeed the con­ven­tion­al pub­lish­ing world redundant.

Nobody want­ed to let what had hap­pened in music take place in pub­lish­ing. So when Apple entered the ebook mar­ket with the iPad two years lat­er (fol­lowed by Barnes & Nobles and their Nook), a new pric­ing sys­tem was put in place; the agency mod­el.

Instead of pub­lish­ers sell­ing at a dis­count to retail­ers, who would then take their cut from the price they sold it on to the pub­lic for, pub­lish­ers would set the price that the pub­lic would pay for a book, and the retail­er (whether Ama­zon, Apple or who­ev­er) would get a flat 30%. This is what Apple did in music.

But Apple would only agree to enter the mar­ket in the first place if a min­i­mum of four of the big six (see image below) agreed to imple­ment their new agency mod­el. In the end, five of them did, and the sixth Ran­dom House joined in a year later. 

So Ama­zon had no choice but to play along. But they were as the Amer­i­cans say pissed. They made more mon­ey from the books that they sold now, but their share of the still grow­ing ebook mar­ket had gone down from 90 to 60%. And cul­tur­al­ly, they were being forced to sell books for more than they might have liked. Or to put in anoth­er way, they were being pre­vent­ed from so dra­mat­i­cal­ly under­cut­ting their rivals. 

So they went to the courts, and in May the US Depart­ment of Jus­tice found in their favour. After all, as Ken Aulet­ta says in his much more in-depth piece in the New York­er here, the let­ter of the anti-trust leg­is­la­tion is crys­tal clear. Did­n’t Apple say that they would only go ahead if they got agree­ment from at least four of the big six? And hadn’t the cost of books to the pub­lic gone up once their agency mod­el had been put in place?

But wait a minute. The cost had gone up, but the pub­lish­ers were now receiv­ing less. So how can it be a car­tel, if the peo­ple orga­niz­ing it end up mak­ing less mon­ey? What’s more, Ama­zon was now get­ting more. And was­n’t the whole spir­it of the anti-trust leg­is­la­tion designed to curb the likes of Ama­zon, and pre­vent them from putting the much small­er pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies out of business?

Of course Ama­zon could afford to sell its books at a loss. Books make up just a tiny frac­tion of what Ama­zon sells. But books is all the big six do.

All of this has been bril­liant­ly chart­ed by pub­lish­ing (and now dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing) guru Mike Shatzkin, whose blog (here) is a must for any­one inter­est­ed in the world of pub­lish­ing. But what it all seems to boil down to is this: 

The pub­lish­ing world allows for a wide vari­ety of books to be pub­lished by using the mon­ey it makes from the few books that sell huge­ly, to fund a pletho­ra of books that might, but almost cer­tain­ly won’t do any­thing like as well.

And the phys­i­cal book­store is the best and only place for some of those small­er titles to get noticed. And who knows, maybe even take off.

By sid­ing with Ama­zon against them, the DoJ is seri­ous­ly putting that whole eco sys­tem in grave dan­ger. And there is a very real pos­si­bil­i­ty that the only thing that will result is a sig­nif­i­cant­ly nar­row­er choice of books to read from, with sig­nif­i­cant­ly few­er writ­ers mak­ing a liv­ing from it. 

And the ques­tion then is, if Ama­zon is the only play­er left stand­ing once book­stores and the world of pub­lish­ing have been dis­man­tled, will they have any inter­est in try­ing to do any­thing about that? Or will they just be far too pre­oc­cu­pied in hav­ing to com­pete with rival mono­liths Apple, Microsoft, Google and Face­book for an ever-nar­row­ing choice of prof­itable content?

Oh, and for all of you who still think that e‑readers are a fad, have a look at this one year old try­ing to oper­ate a mag­a­zine, here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!