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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.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Panic! At The Radio.

Recently, while driving and listening to the radio, I encountered a what might be considered a broadcast phenomenon (although, it is rapidly becoming less surprising) where I switched from one radio station to another and heard the same song. It was "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" by a popular group from Las Vegas called Panic! At The Disco. I don't listen to the radio regularly, and had switched stations because I really didn't want to listen to the song. But, confronted by the recalcitrant track, I decided to stay with it. I don't believe in a chaotic universe and take this sort of event to imply some sort of hidden significance; so, I am compelled to investigate...

What was most striking about the track was the absurd, inarticulate and naïve lyric. So I Googled the song and found the lyric hosted by a popular lyric-hosting website called Sing365 (which seems to be, in reality, an advert-hosting site drawing hits by posting lyrics, probably in violation of copyright laws*). Nevertheless, here are the words from that site (sic):

Oh, well imagine: as I'm pacing the pews in a church corridor,
and I can't help but to hear, no I can't help but to hear an exchanging of words:
"What a beautiful wedding, what a beautiful wedding!" says the bride's maid to a waiter.
Yes, but what a shame, what a shame, the poor groom's bride is a whore."

I'd chime in with a "Haven't you people ever heard of closing the goddamn door?!"
No, it's much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poison rationality.

I'd chime in "Haven't you people ever heard of closing the goddamn door?!"
No, it's much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of oh
Well in fact well I'll look at it this way, I mean technically our marriage is saved!
Well this calls for a toast, so pour the champagne!
Oh! Well in fact well I'll look at it this way, I mean technically our marriage is saved!
Well this calls for a toast, so pour the champagne, pour the champagne!

I'd chime in with a "Haven't you people ever heard of closing the goddamn door?!"
No, it's much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poison rationality.

I'd chime in "Haven't you people ever heard of closing the goddamn door?!"
No, it's much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poison rationality.......


I'd chime in "Haven't you people ever heard of closing the goddamn door?!no"
It's much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poison rationality.

I'd chime in "Haven't you people ever heard of closing the goddamn door?!"
No, it's much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poisonnnnnnnn.....


Bear in mind that this single was a top ten hit on several US charts: Hot 100 (#7), Top 100 (#4), US Digital (#8) and #12 on the US Modern Rock chart. The accompanying video won Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2006, and this song was reported as the most requested song on a station called Z100 in NYC. The track is from an album called A Fever You Can't Sweat Out, released in 2005, which has sold over a million copies. Now, there are several thoughts provoked.

When it comes to writing songs myself, I torture myself over this sort of thing, but the song does leave me with practical questions:

Why is the narrator pacing around a church during a wedding?
Does he belong there or is he some sort of voyeur?
Is the narrator perhaps the groom?
Why are the pews in the corridor?
Why is there a waiter in the church?

These are some of my nit-pickings, but I have to wonder if the songwriter (ninteen-year-old Brendon Urie) has these same questions. Or, is he on to something that I am completely unaware of? The cynic in me says, "No."

I've also less practical questions:

What is this song actually about?
Who cares?
and, why do they care?

I imagine that the lyric was probably submitted by a fan and not by the group itself, nor any of it's representatives/managers/publicists/etc. who would likely consider such a distribution an *infringement. I come to this conclusion/assertion because:

a) the phrase "a sense of poison rationality" in the chorus makes no sense at all, contextually or grammatically. I'm not going to argue against 'poetic license' or whatever other justification may be offered, but it would make much more sense if the phrase was actually "a sense of poise and rationality", which is better but still trite. I remember struggling with that line in my car.
b) the quasi-phonetic representation of the words "again", "rationality" and "poison" ("poise and") seems, well, amateur. Essentially, the author has written down what he/she has heard and so replaced the inane text with nonsense inanities.

So, this is fascinating if we consider the implications of the way this song is heard by the listeners. I recall hearing "...poise and...", but in review it's better to say that I recall understanding "...poise and...". There's nothing new about the notion that each listener hears what they do and draw their own meanings but is that what is happening here? Or are we simply witnessing some direct illustration of the dominance of the aesthetic in popularist music? I don't think it's an appeal to aestheticism.

Is the transcriber concerned with whether or not what they hear makes sense?
Is the appeal of the song simply in its gist and sound - specifics be damned - in the same way that "you're" has become "your" and "their", "there" and "they're" are seemingly equivocal these days?
If so, then what exactly is its gist? And, if there is no clear gist, does sound dominate?
Perhaps, the lyric actually is "...poison..."?! This is entirely possible; I can't find an official published lyric and I suppose I might be wrong.

What does breakdown between the intention of the artist (I use that word with hesitation and regret) and the understanding in the listener really mean? Of course this single example cannot serve as a serious critique or inquiry of popularist tendencies, the creators of pop music, the audience and reception or, indeed, the music itself. But, I am fairly confident that it is not unique and that a similar string of questions would crop up when looking at other work. Should I come across one, maybe I should look at it, too?

If anything, the song is a weak story with some weak advice regarding church etiquette. That is, church etiquette which includes blasphemy. Admittedly, that is a simplification on my part, but even considering the piece as an allegory leaves me thinking it is weak. Yet, the song has had major chart success, the band's popularity is increasing, and the album is a million-seller. I find it worrying but interesting that among their songs listed on Sing365 are cover versions of songs by some songwriters for whom I have a great deal of respect, namely: Thom Yorke (Radiohead); Steven Morrissey (The Smiths); Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins); and Freddie Mercury (Queen).

As a matter of fact, I think a 'poisoned rationality' would be far more interesting...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Where I'm coming from.

I've decided to move my blog to from my MySpace profile to Blogger. Old blogs can still be read at MySpace. This blog will contain any ramblings I may have regarding music. But it's probably worthwhile to begin with some sort of introduction to myself:

My name is Anthony Haenen. I was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I still live. I was reading human physiology and psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand when I decided to change degrees and study music, which I did at the Wits School of Arts. My focus has always been on composition; my principal instrument is guitar. I studied classical guitar with Darryl Rule and Reza Khota and spent most of my time looking at South American repertoire, particularly Heitor Villa-Lobos (Brazilian) & Leo Brouwer (Cuban).

The majority of my creative work has been through the WSOA scoring and working on sound design for film and theatre. Most notably, I was awarded Best Sound Design at the M-Net Edit Awards (a national competition) in 2006 for work on a short film called Still Moving (written and directed by Luke Carstens). At the end of 2006 I collaborated with fine artist Nina Barnett in creating a sound installation for an AIDS-themed exhibition hosted by Alliance Francaise. I am also interested in songwriting, and am in the process of re-recording some demos and putting an ensemble together so that I can begin performing these songs.

My compositional interests center on questions of perception and cognition, always with the ideal in mind that work should be effective in the ears of the audience. Although I understand the merit of experimental/new/contemporary composition, I wonder if the chasm between this primarily academic work (which is generally unavailable in recorded form and seldom performed) and popular music needs addressing. That issue will certainly crop up in later posts.