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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A new ramble: a film, some lists, the death of Michael Jackson, and new South African music.

I haven't posted anything here for a year and a half. I'm not sure why. It's certainly not because I'm less cynical nor less inclined to ramble. I just came to think that there HAS to be a balance of rambling whinging (this) & positive output (in my case, making music.) Only lately, really, has the latter started to find some footing. Which means, yay!, the whinge can continue in a mind-boggling ramble...

So, I just watched (by chance) a film called The Big Kahuna. I really enjoyed it, though I was quite surprised that they chose to use Baz Luhrman's Everyone's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) at the end & over the credits. That's from Romeo + Juliet right? Well, no. A bit of Google & Wikipedia and you find the origins of the song here, and that the song is not in Romeo + Juliet, even if it is on the soundtrack release...and so the tangled twists of trivia continue. Pursue them if you want to...

I finished watching the film, and on my way back to my computer to do some scoring work, and somewhat still reeling from something of a caffeine overdose (intense, complete with twitching & anxiety) earlier in the day, I thought THIS:

I'd say that Michael Jackson embodied everything that sort of gets my goat these days. That's not to say I don't like his music - far from it. His music is fantastic.
But, the (global? mostly Western?) obsessions with:
money (and lack thereof - see: global economic meltdown);
fame (and fear of anonymity - see: the ever present tabloid media);
dog-eat-dog competitivity (and loss there-in - see: televised embarrassing auditions for 'reality' talent shows, tears and disappointment included, the glee of rejection);
and childhood as the supreme human state (and nostalgia for its passing, see: endless tirade of comic book films & remakes, see: billionaire fluff 'artist' Miley Cyrus).
These are all gripes of mine, and Michael 'Scapegoat' Jackson personified all of them.

So, MJ was The 20th Century Man:
fabulously rich (yet impossibly in debt);
globally familiar (yet highly reclusive - even a shape-shifter... ultimately unrecognisable as himself but entirely unique in his appearance, male/female/black/white/adult/child/dead/immortal);
a recognised, enormously successful & genuine artistic genius in all dominant popular mediums (music, dance, television, fashion - yet always at the mercy of public whim, their critics, incessantly, publically scrutinised & ridiculed);
and a man who spent his entire life (basically) in his childhood, so powerful was his rebellion of its loss.

Renaissance Man, the last...Recession Man, the ultimate.

I thought I had posted this next link before, and written something about A Necessary Music, but it looks like I haven't. Follow this to find & read Robert Ashley' s lecture on the future of music, (in four parts, presented in 2000). Maybe I'll write my thoughts on it someday, 'cos it was quite striking - for now I'll just say this: 9 years down the line and the man seems to have been on to something...scary, but exciting too.

Aaaah.... now that's a trail of thought threads that I don't care to trace backwards... but I do know where they started, even if I don't know quite how they got to this point, and that was watching The Big Kahuna. Without wanting to give anything of the plot away (I hate when people do that!), I was just left with the thoughts of purpose, and the meaningfulness of just doing things, and allowing other people to just do their things, and how honesty will always prevail, and how in 2009 the purpose of the composer and the songwriter and the performer are suddenly incredibly different from what they were just a few years ago - which reminded me of Ashley's lecture. The death of Michael Jackson might hopefully stand for the death (or now-necessary decline) of those gripe-inducing factors he was the (probably unwilling) bastion of. At least, I think that the last of the great, Earth-dominating entertainers, has passed.

The only reason I've actually posted this is because a man I've never met sort of asked me to, because I listened to his album, which he has offered for free, and I really like the album, and I told him so, so he read my blog, which I don't post to anymore, so...

I think that's pretty neat. You can download Righard Kapp's latest album here: Strung Like a Compound Eye. Enjoy....

Monday, February 11, 2008

BBC Collective - Questions to Tom Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher)

Here is a great set of questions and some great, intelligent, articulate, thought-provoking answers. I'm so happy to read interviews like this because it reaffirms the way I think about what I do and what I am doing, and dispels the myth of the sprezzatura rockstar.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Now, a dose of real cynicism. South African rock music and the pie in the sky.

Right, so I'm not commenting on the David Byrne article. Interesting as it is, it is obvious that the South African markets are rather different from the ones Mr. Byrne is involved in. Which brings me to a particular point. Being South African is a strange thing and I get the impression that we're always looking outwards and upwards, instead of a more practical homeward and grounded view. If you have access to Facebook, have a look at this group: "Save Radio 2000 - On the verge of commercialising". If you don't have access, or can't be bothered to look, the gist of the situation is this: the management of Radio 2000 (a public broadcaster) has intentions of changing its standing to that of a commercial broadcaster. The differences between these two are not made clear in the group at all, but essentially the difference would be that the station would start focussing on selling advertising slots. Radio 2000 broadcasts predominantly in English, and has an incredibly broad cross-genre playlist. The concern in the 1,200-strong Facebook group is that, should the station become a commercial station, they'll play far less rock music. And they're probably right. The appeal is to unite, petition, write, and so forth in protest of this potential change. Fair enough, stand up and have your say. There are strong letters from all sorts of people, fans, musicians and industry types pleading and demanding that nothing changes, making appeal to ideas such as fairness, equality, representation, support of local artists, etc.

Well, I'm listening to Radio 2000 (via a very low quality stream) and they're playing Pearl Jam's "Daughter". I can't remember hearing that on the radio...ever. It's a great song, I've always loved it and it's a great surprise to hear it. But, I do own the album ("Vs." - it's superb) and can listen to it when I please. I don't want to rain on the parade of the protesters, but I want to make a point about the rock industry and perceptions of it in general. I can't understand where anyone really believes, with any bit of reason, that the rock-listening population of South Africa can hold any weight in the South African industry at all, and I'll tell you quite simply why: it's too small. (The Pearl Jam's over, now they're playing reggae...) I went to Statistics South Africa to get some proper figures of the South African demographic. The last national census was in 2001, and these are the numbers I'm looking at. Here come some (I think reasonable) generalisations. (Oh, reggae over, some wishy-washy jam-band muzak that sounds like my band rehearsals when I was 18 now...)

Let's assume that rock music is listened to by white people, and I'll look at the largest reasonable age group. So, it's white males and females between the ages of 10 and 50. In 2001 that number was at 1 313 599. Of the 44 819 778 total population, that's just under 3% of the population. (Do you see where I'm headed with this?) I think that age group is far too broad, let's look at a population group that is most likely to be buying new music and going to shows, say 15 - 35? Right, that drops the number to 244 481. Now, what proportion of this group actually listens to rock music? This is some of the dodgiest number work, I know, but we're just speculating, right? Let's consider the other national radio station (a commercial one) which is English: 5fm. As a commercial radio station they'll be looking to appeal to the best demographic to maximize sale of adverts. Highveld Stereo is a local radio station, based in Johannesburg, and appeals to a similar demographic as 5fm, but probably to an audience a little older. How often do they play rock music? HARDLY EVER. I'll start paying attention, but I'd be surprised if 1 out of every 4 tracks played is a rock song; for the most part you're presented with Top 40 material, which is mostly hip-hop and pop songs, which is also an accurate reflection of the current trends. But let's be generous and say that half of our white population likes rock music... 122 240. Let's say that half of that lot are prepared to buy their music and not copy it (ha!)... 61 120. Let's say that half of those are prepared to drive to shows, pay the R20/30/40 and hear new acts (ha!)... 30 560. Now, let's consider the various types of rock music prominent in South Africa: metal, hard-rock, "screamo", MOR (middle of the road - Parlotones, that's you), punk. There are 5 easy-peasy genres. Let's again be generous and say that these genres are not mutually exclusive, and a person might go for 3 of the 5 (60%). You're looking at a nationwide fan-base potential of 18 336 people. And you think Radio 2000 is going to keep the rock industry alive?

I'm sorry...but it's not. Bear in mind that I've tried to be generous with all these numbers... shall we consider how these 18 336 people might support a number of bands? I've known popular bands who walk away from gigs with R50 for each member. Hell, I've played in bands that have had the same thing happen. I've done these numbers before in a similarly ad hoc way, and always come out with a much lower number. I'd be surprised if the South African rock industry has 20 000 supporters in total, across all genres throughout the country. Your band's slice of that pie will never keep you going, and, I'm afraid to say, that's all the pie there is.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Real Value of Music and Strategies for Emerging Artists: Articles from

I've not written here in ages, though keep getting hits from all over...weird. I will soon begin again in earnest, I think.

For now, two thought-provoking articles from Wired magazine... comments will surely follow. They include interview/conversation audio clips. Any musician who hasn't thought and isn't thinking about these things is living in some sort of dream world....

David Byrne's Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists
(this is interesting)


Thom Yorke & David Byrne on the Real Value of Music
(this is a conversation/interview & maybe less interesting)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

the mysterious and fleeting appearance of the contradictory veneer at a josé gonzález gig.

It is very difficult to articulate my point today...

José González performed at the Wits Great Hall a couple of weeks ago, and I went along. He is touring in support of his album Veneer, originally released in 2003. You may have heard his music in Sony's advert for the Bravia LCD televisions, where thousands of bouncy balls make their slow-motion way down San Francisco's hilly roads. There is actually a website exclusively concerned with the advert here. I like his music; I like that he's a classically trained guitarist; I like the fact that he's actually Swedish.

It's amazing what thoughts and questions can arise from an ordinary event. Admittedly, performances by independent artists in Johannesburg (or South Africa) are not ordinary events. González was supported by local pop duo Harris Tweed (Cherilyn MacNeil and Darryl Torr). The lighting design was incredibly effective and the sound quality was excellent - the Great Hall was tranformed into a bona fide performance space. MacNeil gushed thanks and amazement before the concert began and while one might say it's actually not such a big deal at all (González has only released one album, to good but not overwhelming acclaim), it is a big deal against the live music desert that is Jo'burg. Can't say I think much of their music, it's good, if a bit samey and twee, and if you like that sort of thing. González gave an excellent performance, starting on his own and bringing out a couple of friends to ever-so-subtly play congas and sing backing vocals.

To draw a comparison between the two would be a mistake, because they are really from different schools. But, in reflection, there was something of an elucidation regarding the state and attitude of the South African audience, and even my own ear. For example, in the performance of one of Harris Tweed's songs, MacNeil hit a bum note on the piano...and it sliced through the music sharply, immediately drawing my attention. There was a sense of panic that arose in me, and a baited waiting for the next false note. Then, in González' performance, I noticed that his singing intonation was sometimes off...a bit flat. The point here is that MacNeil's error seemed glaring, while González' singing was acceptable.

The venue doors opened just after 7, but we waited for an hour before Harris Tweed took to the stage. A long wait, but the hall wasn't near capacity. However, when González began his set the hall was full up. Friends had complained that at R210 and R260 the ticket prices were exorbitant, and they didn't come to the show. It is a little steep, but I felt it was worth it and was delighted that the venue had sold out. Yet, when I saw the seating arrangements, I was mystified. People who had paid R260 were seated in the front half of the hall, some of them right at the edge. People who had paid the lower price (like I did) were seated in the rear half. It's important to note that in this venue, the best vantage point of the high stage, and the best acoustic position is actually in the center, in the back half. I was just left of the center. It was impossible to sit in the rear center as these seats were reserved for Just Music (distributors), and Look & Listen (major music retailer). I find that odd... González was actually in SA towards the end of last year, where in some clandestine fashion he performed small invite-only shows, for retailers and distributors. It was difficult to tell how long he played for, but it was at least an hour. His songs are pithy, lasting just as long as they need to. I found his performance sincere and charming...something which didn't seem quite present in the support act.

I can't understand the attitude which would have a small artist fly all the way out here twice, and where a high-priced ticket gets you a second best seat, and where the best seats are actually unavailable - reserved for the privileged few with an interest and their possibly interested acquaintances. Odd. Or is it? I've often wondered at the way the South African handles these smaller events, and the audience's attitude to such events. In 2002, Benjamin Darvill (of the Crash Test Dummies) was brought to South Africa by Authentic Ideas (small management company/agency). I found out about this when the single poster happened to catch my eye, and it advertised Darvill as 'the percussionist from the Crash Test Dummies'. He is not a percussionist, as a matter of fact he plays harmonica, guitar and mandolin for the band. When I suggested to the staff at Roxy Rhythm Bar that they correct it, they steadfastly insisted that he was in fact a percussionist. Nonetheless, I was delighted as the Dummies are one of my favourite groups, but I was horrified when I went to his show. I found an almost-empty Roxy's Rhythm Bar where the few attendees were mostly people heckling the man as he masterfully looped bits of beat-boxing and scat, along with his harmonica and shaker, and whipped out some of the strangest blues I've ever heard. It was exhilirating. I spoke to him afterwards and, feeling ashamed by the heckling, apologised for the audience. It was difficult to hear him over the heavy metal that the club began to play immediately after his set. He was leaving in a couple of days, and so I rapidly set about arranging a performance opportunity at the University's theatre complex, and even though he was very eager to perform, Authentic Ideas 'couldn't manage' the performance at such short notice and he didn't play. And I don't think he'll play here again.

There is something about sincerity, a very fragile but powerful thing, which seems to appear between and above the performances I've mentioned. There's a thin but robust veil that separates them. I don't claim to know what it is, but it has felt somewhat tangible of late. There's something of a contradiction in the superficial approach to performance - both in the audience and the performer. What is good, what captures the imagination, what is striking and challenging, these things all seem to be blurred into the same plane as those which are imitative, florid and familiar. There is something in the back of the mind that says that South African artists are, by default, second rate; that international performers are all exemplary. And it worries me that I might be of the same mind-set. The audience also seems strongly conservative, and strangely liberal about that...both sure and surely naive.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Future of Music Policy Summit

Last year's Future of Music Policy Summit took place at McGill University. If you've the time, and a decent internet connection, there are videos of the discussion panels here. They're generally over an hour long, but you can skip through them.

Related to yesterday's post, there's a discussion called " The New Deciders: Metafilters, Blogs, Podcasts". Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a collection of papers or abstracts available. Wish I could have heard David Byrne's talk!

Monday, February 19, 2007

There's not enough bad music.

I've been reading reviews and news articles from Pitchfork Media (there's a link under "Good Reading") for a while now. I read it mostly for news, trivia and the occasional review. Pitchfork has a very particular genre focus, mostly dealing with releases in the realm of 'alternative'/'indie'/'alt.' which would also include releases from hip-hop and electronica artists . And there's the occasional pop record (for example, they reviewed Kylie Minogue's 2002 release Fever.) None-the-less, there is a definite bent towards the 'other' music of today's popular music.

The reason I've put it into the "good reading" link section of the blog is not because I necessarily value the contents, but because the contents are very interesting. For instance, the fact that they would review Minogue's 2002 album, but not any of the subsequent releases is interesting. Today there is a feature on Lily Allen's naive-pop/ska-pop/yob-pop album Alright, Still next to an article on indie-rock/emo/pseudo-experimental Pinback frontman Rob Crow's new solo album. I can't deal with those sub-genre's very well; suffice it to say the two are (at least stylistically) from very different places. So this is all very interesting.

Since I've started my occasional visits to the site I've had a look at the record reviews from the last month, not so much as to keep up-to-date but rather to check on how many reviews were published. Consistently, over the past year, over 100 new reviews have been published on Pitchfork Media every month. So that's over 1200 new reviews in a year, which implies 1200 new albums every year. Of course, let's give some room for compilation albums and call it 1000 new albums in a year. Hell, let's call it 500... That's 500 new albums in a niche genre of popular music every year. That's more than one a day. What about the jazz, classical, and 'world' (I hate that term) releases?

So, there's a lot of new music being released. A lot. What of it? Pitchfork Media gives a point score out of 10 to each review they make. In January 2007 there were 110 new reviews, of which I count 8 compilations and one retrospective. Of the remaining 101 releases only 3 received a rating below 5. What does five mean? I'd imagine that 5 would be a score that reflects something like, "It's okay; I don't know; If you like this sort of thing...;" or better still: Average. So only 3 releases in the past month were below average?! Well, according to the critics at Pitchfork the answer is yes. At random, I chose a month from last year: October. Surprisingly, there were also 110 reviews that month, but this time there were five releases that scored below average. May 2005: 100 reviews, 10 below average (ooo...a bad month.) September 2004: 105 reviews, 5 below average.

Ok, ok... so there's a trend. Not only is there a lot of music being released, but the vast majority is meeting with favourable (above average reviews). Now, I'm not a mathematician, but my little bit of education in social psychology, research statistics, general statistics, and natural science, combined with common sense is raising a warning alarm. The bell curve or natural graph (correctly called a "normal distribution") reflects values from random sampling. It's called the natural/normal curve because, naturally (i.e. generally in the natural world) the graph would look like this, all things being equal:

A perfectly normal curve would find 50% of the reviews with a score below 5, but the Pitchfork below average score constitutes less than 10% of the reviews. I'm not going to do the math on this, because I can't be bothered, but it is clear from the few sampled months that a curve generated from the Pitchfork reviews would be seriously skewed to the right (i.e. towards good). I found another website called Metacritic which compiles weighted averages (i.e. some reviewers have more effect on the final score than others, but won't reveal the weightings, which makes sense) from reviews across the internet and paper publications. A quick glance at the history of reviews on that site reveals a similar situation, where most releases receive above average ratings.

Ultimately, it seems that things are not equal. I can muster several possible reasons for this:

Firstly, things are not equal because reviewers and media publishers are already receiving filtered material to review; so, the bad stuff isn't even getting to them. If that's the case, then I have a problem with the fact that reviewers don't have a point of reference for comparison and neither do the readers.
Secondly, things are not equal because there are other motivations behind the good reviews (conspiracy theory!)
Thirdly, reviewers find themselves in an overwhelming position where it is actually difficult to tell the difference between good and bad. Or, worse, they're not prepared to give something a bad review because ... I don't know; no one wants to be the bad guy?
Fourthly, the music being released is actually all above average and worthy of critical praise, which would be great, but I hardly believe it's possible.
Fifthly, music is a socially unnatural phenomenon, and so can't be referenced in normal analytic terms.

What's most likely to me is a version of the third explanation, that music has become so "samey" that it is actually very difficult to tell it apart from other music. A student of mine made a mix disc of songs she liked and I honestly have a very difficult time distinguishing between one group and the next.

My friend Robyn told me about a directing class she was in, where performances (weak performances) given by fellow students were praised by the lecturer for their 'subtlety'. In response, Robyn pointed out (euphemism) that there is in fact a great difference between 'subtle' and 'arbitrary'/'meaningless'/'boring'/'random'. If there was (statistical) normalcy in the class, we'd expect some students to be adept, while others should be weak. Yet when weak is called "subtle" it suddenly become adept, because subtlety is very, very difficult to get right.

Perhaps the same situation exists in the review of popular music... the ability (and will) to distinguish between strong and weak lies in acknowledging that the difference is so slight that it is very difficult to tell whether there are subtle strengths, or arbitrary weaknesses.