Little boxes – the genre-fication of music

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.


Happiness, harmony and Central Africa

Melbourne harmony singers Co-Cheol

A musician friend alerted me on Monday that not only was it his birthday, it was also International Day of Happiness. Once I’d finished doing cartwheels around the room in response to this spiffing news, I wished the dear boy a very happy birthday. As if that was not enough to get the cockles of the heart percolating, the next day She Who’ll Sing at the Drop of a Hat went down town to celebrate World Harmony Day.

Continue reading “Happiness, harmony and Central Africa”

The demise of Page Turner

Paige Turner 02
Beth Allen turns the page for Wendy Harper, accompanying soprano Marina Poŝa at Lift Gallery

Technology’s great, except when it does you out of a job. My friend Spike trained in the 1960s as a hot metal typesetter, a printing technique dating from the late 1800s. This industry relic was replaced by phototypesetting, which produced columns of print ready to be ‘pasted up.’ This last bastion of the printing trade was made obsolete by digital newspaper publishing systems, the personal computer and desktop publishing software.

In the music world, the traditional role of page turner is threatened with obsolescence by the advent of clever new apps for Ipads and tablets, controlled with a foot pedal. You may have seen singers at gigs with an Ipad attached to their mike stand – foot pedal optional. This is the modern musician’s answer to the wind snatching your chord charts or lyric sheets from the music stand during the four bars between the end of the chorus and the next verse. The job of piano page-turner, however, is a little harder to render obsolete, because the pianist relies on a human being to know, by visual cues and musical knowledge, just when to turn the page.

Our photo today shows Beth Allen turning the page at a critical point in the aria La Maja y el Ruisenor (The Maiden and the Nightingale) by Granados for Wendy Harper, accompanying soprano Marina Poŝa at Lift Gallery.

This is old school and Beth, who is a good sport, puts up with her partner Kim’s jokes, introducing her as ‘Miss P. Turner!’

Just so you know, Page Turner is a Korean TV drama and there are at least two people who go by a similar moniker, one being Daniel Frank Kelley, aka Paige Turner or Showbiz Spitfire, an American drag queen, comedian and singer.

There’s more, but this is a family show, so I won’t be directing you elsewhere.

The classical music page turner does indeed have to read music, pay attention and not beat the pianist to the turn. Wikipedia describes the typical page-turner as ‘a friend or acquaintance of the pianist and preferably a pianist as well’. The job is a handy earner for music students; to wit, notes left on conservatorium noticeboards – “free-lance page-turner, available nights and weekends – attentive and reliable.”

Now there are Ipad apps which will turn the page for you, including Tonara for Ipad and Pageflip, an Ipad app which comes with a foot pedal. Ipads and tablets have become quite the thing among musicians and sound engineers. You may have been at a live gig and seen the sound guy wandering around the room, tablet in hand – that’s his mixing console.

My versatile musician friend Silas Palmer scored a gig last year accompanying octogenarian balladeer Kamahl on a tour of Queensland. They were using backing tracks, with Silas on whatever brand of grand piano was in residence at the various venues. I noticed he had a tablet on the music stand, where pianists normally put their scores.

“What’s with the tablet?” I asked after the show.

“Oh that’s just chord charts,” said Silas, “and the set list”.

But getting back to the human page turner, sitting patiently to the left of the pianist, watching and waiting for the moments (there could be dozens of turns, depending on the length of the piece), to show their skills. Some classical musicians scoff at the notion of using a tablet or Ipad, saying good page turners have a ‘job for life’.

Organist Michael Hammer, someone whose knowledge of page turning seems beyond reproach, has devoted an article (with photos) to the subject, leavened with a noteworthy sense of humour.

He advises page turners to ask the pianist to perform a “windmill’ with their arms so the turner can judge how far away to sit, given that some pianists can get a bit carried away. It is also important, he says, to watch the pianist to see where they are up to on the score.

“If he is short enough, you might be able to make out when he is at the top of the page. Despite their good looks, it is still advisable to look at the music and not at the pianist.” 

But on to more weighty matters

I came to this subject after pondering the business world’s most common response to declining revenues: making do with fewer people. Along the way, big business appropriated the words redundant (defined by as the state of being not or no longer needed or useful) and retrenchment (the act of retrenching; a cutting down or off, as by the reduction of expenses.) The meanings of these words are so closely entwined the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) considers them interchangeable. (Some, perhaps more sensitive, employers try to soften the blow by explaining that it’s the job, not the person that is ‘redundant’. However, given that ‘the sack’ is still the result, it is questionable whether this does actually make the ‘sackee’ feel less unwanted. (SWSLTHAS) (She who sometimes like to have a say.)

The hardest form of retrenchment is the list posted on the cafeteria wall of those whose jobs will go on (date). The softer form is what is known as ‘a round of redundancies’, typically offered to well-paid middle managers, those whom upper management may have identified as not delivering value for money. So they go home, do some sums on the back of an envelope, talk it over with their spouse and maybe go to work next day and say “Yes thanks, I’ll take the redundancy.”

Some big companies offer up to four weeks for every year of service, plus accrued holiday and long service leave entitlements. The trouble with waves of redundancies and retrenchments, they are often linked to companies doing it tough or going broke, usually at a time in the economic cycle when it is difficult to find another job, especially when your last position was made redundant. The word has some pejorative connotations that cannot be easily shrugged off.

According to the ABS, retrenchments peaked at 7.3% of employed persons in 1972, fell away to 4.1%-4.6% between 1986 and 1990, but rose again to 6.5% during the 1990s recession.

We can compare those historical figures (almost half of those retrenchments happened in the manufacturing sector, by the way), with the period 2000 to 2013, when the rate fell from 4.0% in 2000 to a low of 2.0% in 2008, before increasing sharply in 2010 to 3.1% and remaining at that level through 2012 and 2013. But it does depend where you live and work. The Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia had the highest retrenchment rates, harking back to February 2000 (6.0%, 5.4% and 5.1%).

The future for manual workers looks bleak. A study by real estate firm CBRE and capital management group Genesis forecasts that robots will make 50 occupations redundant by 2025.

And if you are training (or re-training after a redundancy), this Daily Mail report includes two handy lists: (i) which jobs are most likely to succumb (e.g. telemarketers, photographic process operators and tax preparers) and (ii) those occupations which may prove to be retrenchment-proof (e.g. chiropractors, orthodontists and supervisors of correctional officers).

Journalists did not make either list, which is surprising, given the recent flood/spate/outrage/raft of media redundancies. This scary story by Ross Miller in The Verge is cause to ponder the omission: