Little boxes – the genre-fication of music

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Old-school CD music collection by Mr Shiraz)

Yes I know it’s my fault, but early in the days of turning my music into online MP3s, I accidently chose Christian Rap as a genre for one of my songs. The song I incorrectly categorised is called 53 & Fragile, about a fellow taking stress leave to ponder his future. I guess you could rap to it, in a God-less sort of way. It only took three years to discover this error.

An enterprising blogger (Glenn McDonald) compiled a list of 1,264 micro-genres; they include goa trance, aggrotech, gabba, yellow mellow, happyhardcore, terrorcore, ghost step and Nordic house.

There are many reasons why the recorded music business is in a state of flux but I continue to believe (and I’m not alone), that the industry’s insistence on streaming music into little boxes called genres has robbed many a musician of potential fans.

As Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Bernard Zuel said of a Luke O’Shea album it is put into a box labelled Country and as a result, a great many people will never open that box. This is likely to be the case, despite someone with Zuel’s acumen identifying all manner of pop, rock and hip hop influences in O’Shea’s music.

When we released our CD, The Last Waterhole, in 2015, it was our first real engagement with online music. After labouring through the online applications (and printing out paper copies), our music was magically turned into MP3s (compressed audio files), and made available for download on CD Baby and subsequently ITunes, Amazon Music, Google Music and more.

We sold the expected number of CDs, but three years later our album has drifted out to sea as thousands of new releases come in with every second wave. Online sales are about as sporadic as our public appearances.

The indie market is cluttered with home-made CDs recorded on a laptop and flogged at markets for $10. Those with loftier ambitions engage a producer and typically spend $6,000 to $10,000, which is all very well if you can sell 500 copies at $20 each. At the high end of the game, production companies spend up to $100,000 on a CD that will jump out of the radio like a rabbit on steroids. But over a long span of time, I suspect, the listening public’s ears are getting tired of it all. There’s way too much of it, no quality control and the harsh, metallic attack of compressed digital music has taken the edge off the listening pleasure.

And, as our producer predicted, the day is coming when people won’t need to own CDs anymore – all they‘ll need is a Bluetooth speaker.

“OK, Google, play The Goodwills.”

“OK, here’s the YouTube channel for the DJ Goodwill.”

The science is imperfect, but it seems to be enough for an alarmingly large group of people, who can buy an OK-quality music-streaming speaker for a few hundred dollars. The latest research estimates the value of the global portable Bluetooth speaker market at over US$4 billion, expected to double by the end of 2025.

A few years back the grand dame of folk and blues Margret RoadKnight posted an article on Facebook from Digital Music News with the droll comment “Why I’m up for House/’Salon’ concerts!!”

The article outlined the industry’s 99 (main) problems, the key one being that musicians and artists are finding it harder to “monetize” what they do, whether performing or selling merchandise.

People have got used to free stuff and now they won’t pay unless they are very drunk and you’re giving away a t-shirt or stubby holder as well.

I asked a 20-something lad why he thought nothing of shelling out $20 for a pizza but he was reluctant to pay $20 for an album.

“Yeh, but I know what a meat lovers’ pizza is like, right? And I get garlic bread.”

“But you only get to eat the pizza once,” I reasoned. “You can play a CD over and over. A pizza won’t make you think about social issues.”

“Meh,” he said.

The Digital Music News article by Paul Resnikoff identifies issues with the method of delivering music. Streaming (subscription services which offer consumers a wide variety of music to listen to in-house but not download), continues to explode, but not enough to compensate for declines in physical CD sales and paid downloads.

We chose not to take up the offer to have our music on Spotify, a subscription streaming service, which in hindsight seems to have been a counter-productive decision. A musician friend Sarah Calderwood recently asked if we were on Spotify as she was compiling a playlist of Australian indie folk music which she planned to put on ‘repeat’.

If you have a Spotify account you can listen to Sarah’s playlist, which includes acts like Gone Molly, The Barleyshakes, Michael Fix, Women in Docs and Mark Cryle.

The independent musician, defined as a musician without financial backing, has to constantly find fresh ways of reaching new ears.

There’s a lot of indie musos around, competing with each other for gigs and CD sales. Increasingly they busk, or play for nothing at ‘walk-up’ venues which ask people to put their name on a blackboard and sing two or three songs. The artist might sell one or two CDs (if he or she is really good at making an impact and the song is up to the task). The alternative is a paid gig playing in a bar or restaurant where people go to eat, drink and talk.

Resnikoff writes that the key issue is that most consumers attribute very little value to the recording itself. They already heard the song on Spotify Soundcloud, Reverbnation, Bandcamp or YouTube.

The fractions of cents paid for streaming plays might add up to dollars eventually, but you need to keep selling ‘merch’ across all platforms.

From a financial point of view, it matters little to me that there are boxes of CDs in the hall cupboard, even if the ego grapples with the notion of relevancy.

It is a different story for people in their 20s and 30s who have decided to make music a full-time career. This involves constant touring, online management of their business and profile and (the thing nobody talks about), singing the same 10 or 12 songs every night, over and over. If you’re going for it, you have to keep churning out new material (thus consigning your older material to the remainder bin).

As one musician told me, “You have to keep putting new stuff out, even when you know it won’t pay for itself, otherwise you get forgotten about.”

House concerts, and we are long-term supporters, are a sure-fire way of giving musicians a listening audience. Even if only 20 people show up, it’s a better result financially and aesthetically than a rowdy Friday night pub gig. Audiences love the intimacy and the musical and lyrical nuances that are often lost in noisy, amplified venues. We’re hosting our 110th house concert on June 10: check it out at

And the homemade afternoon tea on offer is guaranteed to be yummier than a meat lovers’ pizza and garlic bread.

Further reading: How Music Got Free, by Stephen Witt.

 

The FOMM alt-Christmas playlist

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Alt-Christmas playlist Santa escaping shopping centres to go fishing in Ewen Maddock Dam, photo by Bob Wilson

The first thing you’ll notice about my carefully curated alt-Christmas playlist is the absence of Six White Boomers and The 12 Days of Christmas. I’ll walk out of the room if someone starts on that tedious epic. I was intending to write a Grinch-like piece this week, but instead decided to share my eclectic view of the world through an alt-Christmas playlist.

What set me off on this tangent, dear reader, was making visits to three different shopping centres in the past three weeks. It wasn’t so much the crowds, the noise, the proliferation of tattoos or the inappropriate wardrobe choices that got me down. It was being assailed, or should that be wassailed on all sides by different streams of Christmas music. It ranged from Bing and that tired old northern hemisphere trope to Jose Feliciano wishing us a merry one from the heart of his bottom.

For someone whose preferred background music is Bach or Riley Lee playing the shakuhachi, it is an assault on the senses. It seemed to me, though, that most people were oblivious to Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman, as they trudged around shopping centres at Carindale, North Lakes and Morayfield. In fact, as their laden trolleys would indicate, they seemed intent upon spending.

A survey this week by finder.com.au reckons Australian shoppers will spend $492 (each) on Christmas gifts alone. Women will apparently spend $58 more than men. Finder’s Bessie Hassan said the 2017 spending estimate was slightly lower than 2016, when Australians spent on average $539 on Christmas presents.

The shopping swarms were probably to be expected, given the 3.6% rise in the consumer confidence index between November and December. The Westpac Melbourne Institute’s Index is 5% above the average for the September quarter, which saw a ‘disturbing’ slump in consumer spending.

While consumer confidence may have bounced back at a critical time for retailers and their landlords, the keepers of the index are circumspect.

“…with ongoing weak income growth, a low savings rate and high debt levels, we cannot be confident that consumers have the capacity to sharply lift spending, despite higher confidence.”

The irony of my three visits to large shopping centres is, had I planned ahead to buy the small but well-chosen gifts, I could have done it online and saved myself the grief.

So to the FOMM alt-Christmas playlist; they’re not all leftie, anti-Christmas rants and there’s a thread of peace and love running through all of them.

There are a couple of genuine carols, a peace anthem or two, some Australian content and more.

My music correspondent Franky’s Dad offered to create a Spotify alt-Christmas play list for me. Until he did that, I had not subscribed to Spotify. (Hands up who else has no idea what ‘Spotify’ is. Ed.) Unlike many list stories you will find on the Internet, these songs are not in order of preference. I happen to like all of them, but feel free to disagree or tell me which alt-Christmas song I should have included instead.

All of the links here are to YouTube videos. Just dip into them as the spirit moves you. For those who have Spotify, here’s the link:

1/ The Little Drummer Boy, interpreted here by my favourite acapella group, Pentatonix. If you like the group and this genre of music, they do a splendid version of Jolene with songwriter Dolly Parton.

2/ River, by Joni Mitchell. Ah, what a wistful, sad song. They’re cutting down trees and putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace. But Joni just wants a river to skate away on (as you do if you live in Canada).

3/ Fairytale of New York, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, a bawdy anti-Christmas ballad of drunkenness and fractious relationships. I like the bit where the boys from the NYPD sing Galway Bay. A classic.

4/ I’m growing a beard downstairs for Christmas, Kate Miller-Heidke and The Beards. This quirky, M-rated Christmas satire won the best Comedy/Novelty song category in the 2015 International Songwriting Competition.

5/ 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night, Simon & Garfunkel, 1966. Half a century later, this timeless carol’s theme of peace and goodwill is still being drowned out by the negativity of global news.

6/ Suddenly it’s Christmas Loudon Wainwright III. Yep, it starts with Halloween (forget about Thanksgiving, that’s just a buffet in between). As Loudo sings – it’s not over till it’s over and they throw away the tree.” The Spotify version is a remix, but the impudent tone is still there.

7/ Happy Xmas (War is Over). One of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s many pleas for world peace.

8/ Getting Ready for Christmas Day, Paul Simon. From early in November to the last day of December, he’s got money matter weighing him down. Simon cleverly intersperses the lyric with a 1941 sermon, voiced by black American preacher, Rev J.M Gates.

9/ The Silver Stars, Brisbane Birralee Voices. This is an Australian carol by William James which has also been sung by our Maleny chamber choir, Tapestry.

10/ Little Saint Nick, the Beach Boys. I’ve got Macca from Australia all Over to thank for this as he played this merry tune to close out his show last week. It sounds a bit like a rebadged Little Deuce Coupe, but who’s complaining.

11/ How to Make Gravy, Paul Kelly. Where would we be in Australia without the letter to Dan from Joe, who’ll be spending Christmas in jail? Kiss my kids on Christmas Eve and make sure you add a dollop of tomato sauce to the gravy.

The Christians and the Pagans, Dar Williams. The definitive song about disaffected families and how they come together at Christmas and try to find common ground.

(Our friend Rebecca Wright does a cracker version of this one).

Meanwhile, people, there are only 2+ days more shopping days to spend your quota. The Australian Securities and Investment Commission’s Money Smart tells us that the average credit card debt after the holiday season is $1,666.  While 82% of Australians will pay this off in up to 6 months, 11% will take six to 24 months; 4% will take two years or more and 3% believe they will never pay it off.

If you are worried about waking up with a debt hangover, go here, where you’ll find helpful tips, It’s probably too late for this year, but as Loudon Wainwright observes, of all such holidays, ‘it’s not over till it’s over’.

Season’s Greetings and take care on the roads – Bob and Laurel.

Flashback to Christmas 2015

The autoharp, recorders and other rites of spring

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Autoharp player Evan Mathieson at Dorrigo Folk and Bluegrass Festival. Photo: Lindsay Maa http://www.evanmathieson.net

As today is ostensibly the first day of Spring, I am cleaning up the music room, starting with a dusty old autoharp. Honestly, I don’t remember where I got it from, I can’t tune it and don’t know how to play the autoharp in the first place. Yet it sits in the bottom of the cupboard, gathering cobwebs. Occasional bursts of enthusiasm about learning to play the instrument have all faded away. Like morning dew, if you will. When I catch up with Queensland folksinger and autoharp-maker Evan Mathieson (above) I might ask him what he thinks of my old relic.

The autoharp belongs to the zither family and in theory it is a cinch to play. Chords are played by pressing down on a felted bar which mutes all but the strings that make up the chord. You then lightly strum with the other hand. Start with a two or three chord-song like Catch the Wind or Banks of the Ohio.

The autoharp, though descended from a line of German instruments, was popularised in the American folk scene and taken up by some who later became pop stars. In 1965, John Sebastian’s band Lovin’ Spoonful had a hit with his song, Do you Believe in Magic. While Sebastian was highly regarded as an auto harpist and often played it on stage, it is not that discernible in this YouTube clip, although you can at least get a sense of how the instrument is played.

Do You Believe In Magic?

You’ll know the tinkling sound of the autoharp, even if you cannot describe the instrument or imagine how it is played. In 1979, the late Randy Vanwarmer’s lonesome ballad, You Left Me Just When I Needed You Most, was best known for its plaintive autoharp instrumental, played by John Sebastian.

I’m told that Queensland folksinger Evan Mathieson was inspired to start making his own instruments after hearing John Sebastian play a Bach piece on an autoharp. Hand-made instruments can be built to create chords not always available on commercially-made autoharps.

You can get caught up watching old (and new) clips on YouTube of people playing the autoharp. Dolly Parton’s there, so too Sheryl Crow, Maybelle Carter, Billy Connolly, Peggy Seeger and many more.

Crikey, they say even The Dude plays autoharp, though Jeff Bridges apparently prefers playing his Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar when performing with his band, The Abiders.

American virtuoso Bryan Bowers (he’s in the Autoharp Hall of Fame), is credited with introducing the instrument to new generations of musicians. Lakes of Pontchartrain.

I’d love to say someone played autoharp on Song of the old Rake, from Paul Kelly’s Foggy Highway. Programme notes archived by the late lamented Lonely Planet, alas, inform us that Kelly’s band, the Stormwater Boys, used highly-tuned guitars to mimic the autoharp sound. They did it very well.

There are quite a few rock bands and recording artists who use autoharp in their arrangements, but none as effectively as PJ Harvey.

This is an unusual clip in that it starts with PJ alone in a room rehearsing The Words that Maketh Murder, then cuts back and forth between the band version and PJ alone in her room. The lyrics in this anti-war song (from Let England Shake) are brutal, so if you’re the sensitive type, don’t go there.

Evan Mathieson has made a life study of the instrument and also makes autoharps, complete with the signature ‘map of Australia’ sound hole. The instrument suits Evan’s strong baritone and is ideal for a solo act performing folk songs. I’m told he’s leading a shanty session at the Maleny Music Festival on Saturday night.

The music room in our house doubles as the collective home office in which many great decisions are made, petty arguments thrashed out (and where many of the 173 FOMMs were conceived). I believe there will be no argument from She Who is Also Spring Cleaning should I decided to give the autoharp away (SWiASP found a website for the Australian Children’s Music Foundation, which provides free instruments and lessons to disadvantaged children).

Hot cross buns, anyone?

Most homes harbour at least one musical instrument, upon which lessons were learnt and quickly forgotten. Recorders, harmonicas, ukuleles, tin whistles and guitars are the instruments most likely to have been bought on a whim and discarded once lessons got harder.

Most children have a stab at learning an instrument at school – usually a recorder as they are relatively easy to learn and affordable. Any parent who has endured the period where their child struggled to play the recorder without making the infamous ‘squeak’ might want to check out recordings by Maurice Steger. The world champion recorder player has taken on compositions by Vivaldi, Telemann, Handel and baroque music composed for the recorder.

As Steger told ABC Classic FM: “In its heart of hearts the recorder is an incredibly simple instrument and yet it is so hard to make it sound beautiful. That is what makes it so fascinating.”

So before your kids get bored playing ‘Hot Cross Buns’ and decide to pack the recorder away with the jigsaws and board games, get them to check out Steger’s amazing performance of Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto RV 443.

Recorders are much favoured by schools as they can be bought for less than $10 and immediately give teachers some idea if the pupil has musical aptitude. They are also much-loved by musicians who form early music ensembles (typically using tenor, alto, bass and contrabass recorders). Like the clarinet, the recorder can sound dire in the hands of someone who has no aptitude and/or no inclination to practice.

You may notice how I have digressed from the opening paragraph which claimed I was spring-cleaning the music room. Actually it’s not all that bad – a few years ago I threw out old capos, out of tune harmonicas, a rusty tin whistle, and mailed a parcel of used guitar strings to a charity that sends them to people who can’t afford to replace their guitar strings. There’s still a lot of stuff in the cupboards: boxes of (unsold) CDs, boxes full of demo and rehearsal CDs and cassettes. I always meant to go through the cassettes and convert them to digital files (MP3s). The problem with that is the process happens in real time. So we’re talking not about hours or even days, but more like months of drudgery. So much easier just to take it all to the tip.

I found a commercial cassette – the first Spot the Dog album. After converting it to CD, I asked if anyone wanted the cassette. Not even Mark Cryle (and it was his band’s first recording), took up the offer. He told me he already had a few sitting around at home.

As for the autoharp, after a fitful hour or two grappling with the tuning key and an electronic guitar tuner, I concluded the real issue is it needs new strings. I looked up prices at juststrings.com and figured that at $100+ I’ll just give it a vacuum and put it back in the cupboard.

It’s still not in tune.