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Of movies and music

My top ten favorite film scores of all time

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter "Oso" Snell / Warner Bros. Source

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter “Oso” Snell / Warner Bros. Source

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter "Oso" Snell / Warner Bros. Source

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter “Oso” Snell / Warner Bros. Source

In an interview that’s included in the Back to the Future DVD special features, Bob Gale, one of the writers and producers of the trilogy, recounted a story of his co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis giving instructions to the film’s composer. As Gale tells it, Zemeckis said this to the film’s composer, Alan Silvestri:

I don’t have a lot of money, I don’t have a lot of really big images on the screen in Back to the Future 1, so make the music really big, so that it’ll make the movie seem bigger than it really is.

And as Bob Gale later judged: “Alan delivered that in spades.” The idea that a great film score can make a movie sound bigger or more epic than it really is is nothing new, but while the three Back to the Future movies are hardly the first examples of movies that take advantage of it, they’re still really good examples of movies that are allowed to be augmented in scope and altered in tone by a great film score. In other words, viewers feel the way they do about Back to the Future at least partially because of its score, and if there were no score, or it was a different score, your memories of the film would probably be totally different.

I guess I’ve always at least heard the score, and as I got older I occasionally noticed it enough to appreciate the big moments, particularly if the score was loud or bombastic. But in the last few years, I’ve taken to listening to film scores by themselves, while working or driving or running, and now I go into theaters listening for the score. I’ve seen a lot of movies and heard a lot of scores, and in the spirit of full disclosure, there aren’t very many that I actively dislike. But I do like some more than others, and so I’ve tried to narrow down my favorites to a top ten list. Try to stay awake (just kidding, hopefully) as I share my top ten favorite movie scores after the break.

Clear head, new life ahead

I write this evening from sunny (well, it was earlier today) Columbia, South Carolina, where I’ve recently moved. Since a long, unified rant eludes me (although I’m sure I could think of something if I tried long enough) I’ll write some tidbits.

  • After winning again today, the Indians took a series from the White Sox…and are still stuck in last place. However, since it is the AL Central, they’re only 7 games out of the division lead, and still have a decent shot at making a run.

    Fausto Carmona was demoted to single-A, which I felt was a little harsh, but hey, if the guy’s only got one option left, why not? Not only could the guy not throw strikes anymore, but does anyone else remember him throwing like 96-97 in 2007, as opposed to topping out at about 94 this year? We wonder why he’s overthrowing; maybe it’s because he’s used to getting more velocity. I predict he’ll be back up in September, hopefully as a member of the rotation, but at the very least as a bullpen guy for the rest of the season.

    Travis Hafner is back from the DL, and he has a couple of hits in eight at-bats, both of them for extra bases. If the Indians are going to make a prolonged run, they’ll need Hafner healthy and driving in runs to give a some veteran leadership in a lineup that now features Trevor Crowe, Luis Valbuena, Ben Francisco and Josh Barfield. The Indians have to be hoping Grady Sizemore and Asdrubal Cabrera come back from their respective DL trips quickly.

    Finally, we tend to forget about Jake Westbrook but he’ll be back soon as well, and should provide some much-needed consistency to the rotation. Westbrook was signed to a three-year deal in 2007 meaning he probably won’t be tremendous trade bait, but one person who may be on the move if the Indians don’t start a run is Carl Pavano, who has defied odds and pitched well since May 1.

  • I caught a late showing of Up last night. While I don’t think it was the best Pixar movie I’ve ever seen, it was a Pixar movie in every sense and totally worth seeing. Up was Pixar’s first foray into 3D films. I didn’t see it on a particularly large screen and I sat near the back, so it was tough for me to really be immersed in the illusion anyway, but the reason Up works is not because of the 3D glasses (which are designed eerily similar to the main character’s glasses); the movie is good because of the story. No studio seems to get this as much as Pixar; that’s why they’ve never made a bad movie, that’s why 4-year olds like the movies as much as 22-year olds and as much as 56-year olds. The animation is wonderful and in every sense a treat to see, but it plays second fiddle to the tremendous story that could be told with standard 2D, non-CGI animation and still be excellent. (Also worth noting is the score, which, like most of Michael Giacchano’s work, including The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Star Trek, fits the movie perfectly and is also excellent as a standalone score.)
  • Rush’s classic rock song Fly By Night (the title of this post is borrowed from lyrics from that song) came on the radio on the way home from my first day of work on Monday. Any time a song you enjoy comes on the radio, it’s a good day. But when it’s Fly By Night, it’s a whole new level. Just sayin’.

Still getting settled in Columbia, but hopefully I’ll have some pictures of my apartment with everything completely moved in by the next time I post. Until then, hope the weather’s well in Ohio (or wherever you’re reading this from) and hope things are well with you too.

Tiered pricing and why it sucks

Back in January, Phil Schiller (the keynote guy at Apple, in Steve Jobs’ absence) announced a couple changes to the iTunes music store. The first one, which I covered, was to remove all DRM (supposedly) from each song in the music store. The second one, which is really only starting to appear in the last few weeks, is tiered pricing.

Great news, right? Phil seemed to think so at the time. He thought that the $.69 songs would balance out the $1.29 songs, and that most songs would remain at $0.99, mostly because music companies weren’t up to going back and retroactively repricing each song.

Let’s take a look at today’s top 30 downloaded songs:

Out of 30 songs, 5 are $0.99. But that’s not a big deal, because there are songs that are $0.69, right? As Ars points out, turns out that music companies aren’t interested in discounting music.

A couple things here. First, is it really worth the music company’s time to make songs $0.69? As we’ve seen, not many are that price anyway, and the ones that are are rarely downloaded anyway. If someone’s searching for that song, that $0.30 isn’t going to give them incentive to buy it – they’ve already made up their mind that they want that song (for whatever reason) and they’ll pay $0.99. The record companies know this – the only way $0.69 songs could really come into play is for promotions, and in this case record companies like to discount the entire album to encourage users to buy the entire album rather than individual songs.

Now back to the $1.29 songs. If you remember, way back when iTunes Plus was first announced, iTunes Plus songs cost $1.29. This was a trade-off for the record companies – they make more money per song but face a greater risk that the song will be pirated or illegally distributed. As iTunes Plus matured, Apple realized that $0.99 was a fair price for a DRM-free song, and so they dropped the price and made all songs $0.99 and record companies could choose whether or not they wanted to participate.

Then in January, Apple announced that DRM was gone. Now if you’re a record company executive, what do you choose? DRM-free and $0.99, or DRM-free and $1.29? For songs that are selling fast (like “Boom Boom Pow” by Black Eyed Peas…wow.), $.30 is a 30% increase in profits. Why would they not take it?

I think Apple screwed up. The iTunes Music Store became successful because each song was $0.99, and research has shown that people want to pay about $1 for a song (except you filthy pirates) – $1.29, especially in troubled economic times, is a lot. By instituting tiered pricing, Apple stood up for the record companies, not the consumer. If iTunes is going to be charging $1.29, they should be distributing FLAC files (or the Apple equivalent), which are completely lossless and have no built in DRM or identity management.

That said, Green Day’s new album “21st Century Breakdown” is excellent, and I bought it off iTunes for $11.99. If you’re going to buy the full album, it’s still a pretty good deal. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the record company wants (“why download the single when you can download that song and 15 other songs you don’t like for $10?”). In terms of acquiring music legally, it’s record companies 1, consumers 0.

DRM-free downloads for everyone!*

Everyone seems to be really excited about Apple finally announcing that songs in iTunes will now be DRM-free. I’m not.

To start, let’s review what DRM is. DRM, or digital rights management, is a nasty little bugger that prevents you from listening to songs that you don’t have rights to listen to. Additionally, it prevents you from listening to songs that you feel you DO have rights to listen to (because, you know, you BOUGHT them). Apple’s iTunes Store has had DRM since its inception, largely because the labels (understandably) didn’t want one person to simply buy the music and then share it on KaZaa for everyone to download.

A couple years ago, Apple introduced “iTunes Plus”, a special upgrade for some songs that would supposedly have no DRM, and better sound quality. Initially, these special songs were $1.29, $.30 more expensive than the normal song. A couple months later, Apple announced that the iTunes Plus versions would be available at the normal price for artists who chose to release their songs like that.

Then, conveniently, for you, me and everyone who had ever bought a song before, we were offered a chance to “upgrade” our previously-downloaded songs to iTunes Plus at the low low price of $.30 a song (and $3.00 an album). What a deal, right? So now, Phil Schiller (just think of him as Steve Jobs plus a couple hundred pounds and a lot less charisma) comes out an announces that the entire iTunes library would soon become DRM-free, and that the same deal would apply for every artist: you could upgrade your existing library for about 30% of what you paid for it.

First of all, what is this crap about making us pay an extra 30% for a song we’ve already bought? That song is MINE. I bought it. Apple is fixing a “mistake” or imperfection with the system, and we’re expected to foot the bill? That’s absolute garbage. For someone like me, who has made quite an investment in the iTunes Store, 30% of your money spent to upgrade is no small figure (for me, it’s $106.78), and there’s no way to do it in pieces either: it’s one-click, and poof, the upgrade occurs.

I guess that means it downloads new copies of each song? That’s a brilliant move. A couple years ago there was a piece of software called the Hymn Project that was available for free and would strip all your downloaded music of its DRM, leaving you a completely anonymous, free MP3 file. In typical Apple fashion, instead of using what is out there and let the problem solve itself, the Hymn Project got served with a DMCA takedown, and here we are, a couple years later, and iTunes gets to serve over 100 billion new song upgrades.

But wait, you say. You don’t have to upgrade, do you? It’s a completely optional purchase, your existing music works. I guess you could say that, for a while. But instead of seeing this as Apple just spreading the musical love (Steve Jobs would play a certain Beatles song about friends right now), I’m seeing this as Apple downsizing, and not wanting to worry about DRM anymore. Sometime in the future, not this year, and not next year, Apple will release an announcement that there’s a brand-new iPod that will only work with DRM-free files, not the ones that you and I downloaded until this keynote. That’ll force you to upgrade, or lose your music.

Why? Because as consumers, we will. What’s the other option, buying it all again?

I’m definitely a proponent of buying your music, but I cannot stand how many hoops I have to jump through for doing the right thing. People who illegally download MP3s don’t have this issue. They also don’t have the issue of not being able to play their natively in Linux, or on my XBox 360.

Here’s the message: if you want people to do the right thing, don’t punish them for doing so. Make the upgrades free. If something like this happens again, I’ll either take my business elsewhere or I’ll just start downloading music too.

(And P.S.: it’s not completely DRM-free – according to Slashdot, iTunes Plus files still have personal identifiers which prevent you from sharing safely. While this issue is not as reprehensible as the others I mentioned, it’s a problem that we have to put personal information in files that do not require them. Hymn Project didn’t have this problem, so clearly the technology exists.)

And Apple: please, please, please, fix iTunes. All it would take is testing on one or two Windows machines every once in a while to determine that the performance makes iTunes unusable. When you have better programs such as Winamp, Songbird, and even WMP performing better, it’s no wonder you’re having problems getting people to buy music.

A startling revelation

So normally, I bring my trusty iPod video to work. It’s to keep me entertained, keep me busy, and keep me focused. And plus, the rest of the development team brings theirs too, so peer pressure. Today, however, I forgot my iPod.

I went to the next best thing, Yahoo! Radio. (I can’t believe this is the next best thing. Please, somebody invent something better than this.) For those of you who don’t know, Yahoo! Radio is basically free streaming music online. There are a bunch of different “stations” to choose from, but they try to push you to create your own station so it can mold to your tastes. As I would find out, though, the taste-molding leaves much to be desired.

So I fire up my “custom station”. First song that comes up is “Spilt Needles” by The Shins. It’s a good song, one of my favorites on my iPod (in fact, it just misses my Top 40 Played playlist). Maybe today won’t be so long after all.

Next song: *N*Sync. SKIP. Britney Spears. SKIP. Rihanna. SKIP. (And Yahoo!, I explicitly remember telling you I’m not a fan of this new urban music, what the heck are you thinking?) Usher. SKIP.

I’m fed up at this point, so I go to one of the pre-chosen stations, the “Classic Rock” station. I didn’t skip another song for at least two hours. I got home tonight and downloaded like 10 new songs. And it was then that I came to my startling revelation:

What the heck have you people done with popular music?

For every Maroon 5 of this generation, I guarantee you I can find at least a Bachman-Turner Overdrive of the “classic rock” generation. My point is that today, music is wildly worse than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

And I think the reason is simple – people like mediocrity. That’s why MySpace, the iPhone (any Apple product, actually – they may look sexy but they can’t do half the stuff other products can do), Hannah Montana, American Idol – it all sells.

Do yourself a favor: tune into some classic rock on Yahoo! Radio. It’s free, it’s great music. If you’re as lucky as I am, you’ll get a couple Creedence Clearwater Revivals in a row, or maybe experience the epicness that is “Free Bird”, or maybe see a million faces and rock them all with “Wanted Dead or Alive”.

P.S. Yes, I know I have an iPod, when I just said it was mediocre. Well, I stand by it. See this entry for some more criticism, or ask me how much I hate iTunes. I have an iPod because at this point, no one has done better at selling mediocrity to the record labels. The iTunes Music Store has all of the music.