A True Born Englishman?

I did not comment on Nick Griffin’s Question Time appearance last month because I was on holiday.  But I did catch it on one of the BBC World channels which are helpfully broadcast into South Africa.

Overall, my impression was that the other pannelists collectively agreed to discredit Griffin with ad hominems, rather than engage with, and demolish his arguments.  Several obvious and definitive retorts went begging.  For example, in response to Griffin’s unsophisticated critique of Islam, Baroness Warsi could simply have pointed out similar hateful lines from the Christian bible.  Instead, she made a round-about speech on the contribution of Muslims to Britain which looked like abvoidance of the question.  Likewise with the pathetic nonsense about “indigenous” Britons.  None of the pannellists seemed to counter this in the definitive manner I would have liked to see.

What they needed was some poetry.  I am delighted to discover The True Born Englishman by Daniel Defoe, written in 1703.  An excerpt:

The western Angles all the rest subdu’d;
A bloody nation, barbarous and rude:
Who by the tenure of the sword possest
One part of Britain, and subdu’d the rest
And as great things denominate the small,
The conqu’ring part gave title to the whole.
The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit,
And with the English-Saxon all unite:
And these the mixture have so close pursu’d,
The very name and memory’s subdu’d:
No Roman now, no Britain does remain;
Wales strove to separate, but strove in vain:
The silent nations undistinguish’d fall,
And Englishman’s the common name for all.
Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;
What e’er they were they’re true-born English now.

It reminds me of England, Half English by Billy Bragg:

My mother was half English and I’m half English too
I’m a great big bundle of culture tied up in the red white and blue
I’m a fine example of your Essex man
And I’m well familiar with the Hindustan
Cos my neighbours are half English and I’m half English too.

Update

Andrew Sullivan makes this point in The Sunday Times, in a post about race in America: ‘Scratch white America and beneath it is black‘.

#MichaelJacksonRIP vs #IranElection

Evenin’ all. I wanted to make a quick point about certain global news stories, and the relative amount of news coverage given to each.

Its fashionable, yet incredibly easy to complain that the Michael Jackson death has crowded out news of other more pressing matters. Shawn Micallef sounded an early word of warning about this attitude:

There is no need to compare MJ & Iran – completely dif, just intersect on same medium, not a social/moral lesson to be learned.

Then (again via Twitter, though the link is now lost in the maelstrom) I came across this MJ/Election mash-up, and it occurred to me that coverage (be it on Twitter, blogs or the international MSM) is not a zero-sum game, and that coverage of one piece of news could promote awareness of another.

If you consider Jackson’s output, there are actually loads of other songs that could fit a revolutionary template. Songs like “Heal The World” and “You Are Not Alone” seemed (to me) quite sanctimonious and irritating when they were released. But with the passing of Michael Jackson, the self-congratulatory element to those tracks seems to dissipate. They’re now ripe for the picking as a backing track to some feel-good montages of the peaceful demonstrations in Tehran. “Earth Song”, “Black or White” and (going back a little bit further) “Man in the Mirror” also carry that We-Are-The-World vibe… as does, of course, “We Are The World”! They could all fill the role of unofficial theme-tune to a non-violent protest movement.

Too cheesy? Not one bit of it: The “Yes We Can” generation of political campaigners are unafraid of such accusations. Meanwhile, tracks like “Beat It” could accompany comedic images of Ahmedinejad and Khameni and Keyboard Cat.

I meant to post this last week, so I feel sure I am behind the curve on this one. Yet a quick search through YouTube doesn’t yield further examples. Let us know your favourites, either in the comments, or via the tips form, and maybe we’ll do a round-up or something.

+posted at Liberal Conspiracy. Comment there.

Jacko

Apparently Twitter was pretty much overloaded with the news that Michael Jackson had died.  From Toronto, Shawn gets in an early word of warning:

There is no need to compare MJ & Iran – completely dif, just intersect on same medium, not a social/moral lesson to be learned.

Guy captures the mood:

im feeling weird about Jacko dying. he was too weird and too great and it feels strange.

Was surprises me, is that somehow I am not more surprised.  By the time I got to know his music in the late 1980s, he had Thriller behind him and was already stratospheric, categorized alongside other immortals like Elvis Presley. Horrible to think it, but a premature death seems somehow appropriate for the narrative, the modern folklore.

Michael Jackson

Britain’s Got Talent Potts-Boyler Narrative

If Susan Boyle doesn’t win Britain’s Got Talent 2009 I will eat my hat.  Click the pic for some unfettered joy:

susan

It will have escaped no-one’s notice that the narrative of Susan Boyle is very similar to that of Paul Potts: the undiscovered talent, sitting dormant until middle-age.  Both tell stories of a mundane life, and both defy the judges’ expectations in the most satisfying manner.  Simon Cowell is the wicked-witch and faery Godmother, rolled into one: he is the cynic to be flummoxed, and also the bestower of fame.

Its a double-delight to watch Susan and Paul ‘turn’ the crowd in the process.  Unlike the cool kidz and the prettyboys who expect the mobb’s support (until the proven otherwise), Boyle and Potts have to win over a crushing cynicism.  And it is that sweet, sweet triumph which makes these clips so throatblockingly beautiful.

A third delight is the fact that these performances emerge from a TV format that, elsewhere, depends on precisely the cynical, sing-by-the-numbers yawnery that usually serves to suppress people like Susan and Paul.  This is clearly a feature of the auditioning process, which takes place with a live audience in situ.  Contrast this with the X-Factor, which is auditioned in lonely, acoustic-poor conference rooms.  With just Simon, Louis, Sharon and Dannicherylpaula in attendance, there is little to rein in the instinct to follow the tested formula, and the whole ungodly affair is quickly homogenized.  While token fat and/or middle-agers do get through to the second round, its generally a highly conventional face-voice combination that will win X-Factor.  The opposite seems to be true with BGT, which strikes me as much more interesting and obviously better.

Also, expect to see a Paul Potts/Susan Boyle duet album and co-tour, sometime in 2009/10. They complement each other in appearance and demeanor, and as an added bonus, their surnames could not be better suited.  Their story could be a great little Potts Boyler.  If I was a more cynical I person I might even hint at a Chart Throb/Wag The Dog style conspiracy… but watching that clip of Susan, again, drains me of all such heresy.

snarebrained

FOUND play at The Mill, 6th October 2008
FOUND play at The Mill, 6th October 2008

Remember FOUND, the five-piece innovators from Edinburgh?  They are off to the South by South-West festival in Texas, and are raising money for the outing by producing a new album.  In a RadioHead style gambit, they’re giving punters the chance to choose what price to pay for the collection.  I’ve gone for £7.50 because

  • I’m short of cash; and
  • its pretty much the amount I would have spent for eight songs on iTunes.

You could spend as much as £49 if you’re flush.

Their online marketing techniques remind me a little of the MC Yogi tactic discussed earlier: a little something for free (or in this case, below the market rate) might lead to new paying supporters later.  Appallingly though, their Flickr photos fall foul of the same Creative Commons malaise I whined about yesterday.  Since I know the musicians personally, I’m going ahead and reproducing one of their images without fear of retribution.  But guys: It doesn’t have to be this way.

Marketing, 21st Century Style

By the way, it strikes me the MC Yogi YouTube is a classic example of the way in which social media can be used to create value and sell content. A pithy case study of the lessons of marketing in the 21st Century.

Consider the Obama track in question, which has just been shortlisted on the Daily Dish’s ‘Take Back the Campaign’ competition and seems to be doing well in the ad hoc poll. As a result, it is likely to get pretty stratospheric viewing figures in the next few days. It will certainly be viewed and downloaded by more people than, say, the next British No. 1 single (two hundred and nine thousand views on YouTube, so far).

And yet, it has been provided at no cost to the consumer. How do we reconcile that with a concern for artists rights. Shouldn’t they be paid for the work they produce? Aren’t we free-riding on the back of their talent? They’ve squandered their royalties, haven’t they?

Not quite. The fact is, in this case, exposure is everything. I wouldn’t have heard of MC Yogi, and neither would Andrew Sullivan, if the track had not been available free on YouTube. The Obama track is a loss leader, a free sample. Providing free content makes economic sense. This is more true for MC Yogi, who I hadn’t heard of until last weekend, than it is for Radiohead or Prince, who both marketed their music through high profile give-aways. In these cases, there probably would be some loss of royalties.

More importantly, the free sample serves to create a loyalty amongst new customers. If they admire the free track, then they are more likely to show their appreciation but buying the full album.  As some recent research (pdf) from British Music Rights and the University of Heartfordshire shows, young people have no problem with buying music legally if they think it is good value for money.

The icing on the cake is that the medium of delivery increases margins for the artist, while at the same time decreasing costs to the consumer. Once a track or album is created, actual delivery to the end-users via MP3 download and YouTube can be achieved at minimal cost.

None of these insights are news to people working in social networking and new media. But for many people, even in the creative industries, giving something away for free still a novel approach. So it is worth pointing out positive examples of these new marketing techniques, as they happen.

Dialogues of Rain and Bamboo

Dancing in the Rain

“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!” wrote Noel Coward. I think he missed a trick: there was no corollary ditty, about mad Scotsmen going out in the rain.

Many of my recollections of peace and contentment take place in the rain. Playing cards under a canvas canopy of an eight-man Stormhaven tent on a scout-camp; Sitting at an old desk and writing a diary during the afternoon storms in Zimbabwe; Leaning against the door-frame of a rural Brazilian villa, watching clouds sweep through the valley. Sure, rain prevents you from stepping out into the street, but it also protects you. It creates a barrier you can hide behind. It isolates you like an incoming tide. It enforces privacy. Sometimes there’s nothing better to be stranded indoors by the rain. Open the window and listen to it fall.

Although, if you’re caught out in the rain, you might as well pull a Gene Kelly, and stay out. There’s a serenity to that too. A favourite quote:

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

A great deal of this stoicism was displayed at the weekend, at the Dialogues of Wind and Bamboo event at the Royal Botantic Gardens Edinburgh. The sky was not kind, and we were rained upon from start to finish. However, I had the sense that sheer bloody-mindedness would prevail amongst both performers and performance-goers, and that nothing would be postponed because of the weather.

And so we persisted, but some things are obviously odd when performed in the rain. No sane person would wander out and do Tai Chi in a cold, damp park, and I felt sorry for those giving a demonstration of the art, who did their best to ignore the rain. It must be extra difficult when people with brollys are stomping past. I think this point is true of the dance pieces too – the audience were probably not as relaxed as they could have been. And if you are distracted during a performance, it precludes the possibility of giving yourself over to the dance, incapable of submitting to the pure movement.

However, I think the traditional Chinese music gained something through being played in the storm. The hum of the rain was like a backing track, which bedded very well underneath the stringed notes.

Susie Brown’s installation Natural Progression, persists until 29th June. It consists of a set of painted bamboo sticks set into the ground, forming a fence-like barrier which slithers accross the lawn. Like an organic Fred Sandback installation, it delineates the open space and makes you think twice about crossing the imaginary boundaries it seems to define. It therefore takes a little courage to engage with the piece, which you can do by blowing across the tops of the bamboo to ‘play’ their notes.

Back in the RBGE glasshouse life was much drier, although the towering, anorexic palm trees occasionally drip onto you. FOUND and the Shanghai Jazz Project teamed up to give a performance. The glasshouse, with its collision of nature and human technology, is precisely the sort of odd venue I expect from FOUND. I’ve seen them in Warehouses and Chinese Kitchens, and they’ve played in portacabins before too.

FOUND are known throughout Scotland for their love of sampling stuff, mixing and remixing what they collect into their music. For this performance, we heard them sample an old 1930s Jazz recording, supplied by the Shanghai Jazz Project. We heard the familiar hiss and crackle of the old recording, and I remember thinking that this was not unlike the patter of the rain ouside.

Dialogues of Wind and Bamboo was the brainchild of Kimho Ip. Over at the project’s website, there’s an interesting podcast discussion with Stephen Blackmore, Regius Keeper, about the twin pleasures of nature and music, and their importance in the increasingly frenetic modern world.

iPod kills the radio star… and nostalgia

The GCap network has decided to close a couple of its radio stations, claiming that there is “no future” in digital radio. I think, for the moment at least, there is a place for DAB, since no other medium is quite as portable. To achieve the same effect via internet radio, one would need wireless devices that were much more durable than laptops, with much more powerful sound than PDAs and mobile phones, as well as a prevalence of open wireless networks. None of these innovations exist at present, but it would be foolish to suggest they will not emerge in the next few years. Indeed, since broadcasters can switch from DAB to the internet comparatively easily (many, including the BBC, broadcast via both mediums anyway), there may not be sufficient incentive for them to promote DAB.

Nostalgia of CDs

A correspondent of mine, currently at university, has observed that iPods may be killing off nostalgia too. Previously, in halcyon days gone by, she and her friends would listen to a CD or mix tape on their stereo, while they were all hanging out together in their shared flat. Since changing a CD is an inconvenience, they would often listen to the same album for months on end. These days, however, they are much more likely to be listening to their iPod (perhaps with one of those sound station amplifiers), with its near infinite playlist of tunes. No one CD evolves to become the ‘soundtrack of the summer’ which reminds them of days gone by, nothing to bond them to this time and that place. (h/t Harri)

The Trans-sexual Song

I’m busy watching the Royal Variety Performance, and one of my bug-bears has reared its ugly head: The trans-sexual song. You know, one of those songs popularised by a person of one gender… yet performed by a person of another gender. And rather than simply sing the song as was written, they take the decision to swap the words around so they don’t sound, y’know, gay or something.

Sometimes, it’s fine. For example, ‘The Power of Love‘ is a serial trans-sexual, and “You are my lad-ee, and I am your man” does not sound so unnatural next to its opposite (“I am your lady, and you are my man,” which I assume is the original).

At other times, however, the sex-change makes a mockery of the song and its lyrics. In tonight’s gala, young crooners Teatro gave a harmonised rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from Boubil and Schonberg’s private mint, Les Miserables. But, the song was given a sex change, and such poignant lines such as “he slept a summer by my side” and “he was gone when autumn came” were emasculated. Since the song is about stolen innocence, broken trust and the crushed dreams of a teenaged girl, the emotional intensity of the song was dropped into the surgeon’s waste bin along with its gonads.

Its irritating that these guys are making a living by taking this kind of liberty, and calling it art. I would rather they kept to the original lyrics, and made a stab at trying to convey the original emotions. Voice and music are powerful enough to communicate such things, regardless the gender of the person singing.

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On Killing the Music Industry

Sometimes its nice to return to those sites where one has left a comment, to see if anyone responded to it. Some blogs have a feature which notifies you when someone else responds. There is even a Web 2.0 application which does that job for you.

It was in such an act of trawling that I happened across a comment on Dave Hill’s post about the Amazon Kindle. The comment is a week old now, but still worth a response. Chip says:

I do fear that it would mark the death of novels in the way that MP3s are destroying the recording industry.

I think this is to mistake evolution for death. MP3s may be breaking the Music Industry’s current business model, but I see no reason why the model cannot change, to adapt to the new technology. At present, the way music is created and published is an anachronism. The standard album of about twelve tracks is a hang-over from the vinyl days – that was all you could fit on a 12 inch playing at 33 1/3 rpm. These days, since most music is released on CDs, you can fit a lot more than twelve three minute tracks onto an album. Double, in fact, yet the artists rarely use this free space.

Likewise with the three-and-a-half minute ‘single’ track, so designed for convenient radio airplay. If, in the future, most music is advertised online (via MySpace, say, or Last.fm) then time constraints are less of an issue. Control is returned to the artist, who can play on for five or ten minutes if they feel the need, without being labeled ‘indulgent’.

So, the idea persists that a musician should produce a coherent body of work of about three-quarters of an hour, cut up into twelve tracks, and that they should do this about once every eighteen months or so. The costs involved in this (studio time, a big marketing drive, and maybe a tour) have to be recouped by the label. All these considerations feed into the business model… and when the income demanded by this business model is undercut by MP3 downloads and sales, the new technology is blamed for killing off an industry.

The way music is published clearly needs to change, and embrace the new digital formats. Instead of producing an album per year, why not simply release a new MP3 track each month, or each week, maybe as part of a podcast? This would actually be more interesting, since fans could observe the development of an artists style over a much longer period. If the artist publishes a blog, and maybe a dynamic playlist (“Currently listening to…”) then the fans will be able to engage with the artist and their work on a much deeper level. Its no longer a case of ‘the difficult second album’ so much as the ‘difficult second year’.

As computer software becomes better, and computer hardware becomes cheaper, publishing high-quality audio becomes easier too, meaning that more people can create music. It is no longer the preserve of the elite, in their ivory studios, backed by big labels. If production costs go down, then break-even points are much lower, and fewer sales are required in order to recoup costs. And by releasing fewer tracks at a time, but with greater frequency, musicians will see a quicker return, too.

Finally, this model should also foster greater creativity, and better music. A favourite essay of mine, by a digital artist named Momus, discusses this point at length: For something to be ‘mainstream’, he says, it necessarily needs to be generic. Artists have to smooth their edge if they wish to appeal to a diverse audience with its own tastes (A pop music track of any given era sounds much like any other pop music track from the same era. This is because they are all compromises, attempts on the middle-ground). However, in the digital age, the global audience is big enough that a small yet viable audience can be achieved without the compromises of ‘mainstream’. Musicians can find a fan base, and give it what it wants. Even better, with a weekly or monthly MP3 release, the cost of ‘flopping’ is greatly reduced, allowing more risk-taking, experimentation and collaboration.

PrinceThe MP3 format may be killing the music industry, but it is also the stork of a new kind of social market for music, where the money is spread amongst a greater number of artists. The distribution and pricing models are not in place yet, but at least musicians are trying new methods. Radiohead offered fans the chance to pay whatever they felt like for In Rainbows. Prince gave away his latest album free with the Mail on Sunday.
Continue reading “On Killing the Music Industry”