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Reduced to the Fundamentals

21 Nov

I watched the final of the Australian X Factor last night. Actually it was probably a combined  six minutes of the final, but that was about as much as I could stomach and was plenty to set my neural pathways on a course towards this blog. I don’t want to pick on an easy target, that’s not what this is about. This is about what happens when the development of a cultural value nears its logical end. The approach of the far end of a polar scale. It is a subject I haven’t seen discussed anywhere (specifically), yet once I explain it, I’m sure you will notice it everywhere.

I am talking about the value that mainstream western culture places on the pure fundamentals of the human voice to the exclusion of its timbre.

It’s easier if I explain it how most people would experience it: Like I did.

So I turned on X factor. Some pretty teenage girl was singing a run of the mill pop song. She was pitch perfect. She hit every note high and low without so much as a hint of vocal stress, emotion or character. I was unimpressed. I mute the TV until the next contestant comes on.

The next contestant is some guy in his early to mid twenties wearing a dinner suit and singing (what I’m guessing is) a Michael Bulblé song. Once again pitch perfect, no audible effort, no character, no emotional connection between the singer, the lyrics and the audience. Terrible. This guys was playing dress ups. I mute the TV ahead of the last finalist’s performance.

You can guess what happens here. The next contestant was a boyband. I thought they were One Direction making a guess appearance. They looked and sounded exactly the same, except I was apparently wrong. Absolutely inflectionless. No defining character was to be found in any of their voices. I turn the TV off and now I’m sad.

In audio engineering there are essentially two aspects that an engineer is attempting to capture and shape:

  1. The fundamental; and
  2. The timbre

The fundamental is essentially the key aspects of the sound that allows the listener to identify the core elements of the song they are listening to. The melody, the chords. We’re basically talking about pitch, but it can cover other things such as lyrics. It is what you are left with when you remove the timbre of the sound. The fundamental is what helps us identify a song even when no-one is singing it. Like an instrumental version of a popular song.

Timbre is the aspect of the sound that gives it its character. The reediness and airy hiss of a saxophone, the imperfect oscillations of a bowed violin string and those characters of the human voice that help us tell one person’s from another.

It is no secret that audio engineers have long been able to master the fundamentals of the human voice via the use of pitch correction – more popularly known as auto-tune. The fundamental is easy. It is in all music. Without the fundamental there is no music.

At the other end though we have the the timbre of the voice. Infinite techniques and effects exist that effect timbre. It is possible to remove the timbre characteristics of a person’s voice, but you can’t add them in. For instance there is no effect that can make anybody’s voice sound just like Elvis. These are therefore the collective characteristics on which we base our preference of one singer over another. Well that’s how it has traditionally worked. I am not sure it’s like that anymore.

I have noticed over the last decade that the kinds of pop singers that rise to A list status have had less and less distinctive voices, or rather the lack of character in their voice has been the closest thing to a defining characteristic. For me it started with Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Akon, and has spread to the point that I am hard pressed to think of a pop star today that has a voice of true character in their timbre. Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Pink, Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift, Kelis; These artists might appear on the odd decent track, but their voices could be interchangeable.

I’m preparing for the wrath of Beyoncé fans at this point, but I think that one need only look at the central conceit of her role in Dream Girls (that her character was picked out for solo stardom by Jamie Fox’s character because her voice lacked character – it was good enough, but not great, and certainly not the best in the group) to see her career mirroring that of her character’s and also Diana Ross’.

I recently read Underrated Overground by Noah Berlatsky, an article defending modern R&B as an artform. In which the writer had this to say:

“Take one of the most common contentions — the argument that the performers’ voices are lousy. I’ve seen this said of Ashanti, Ciara, Kelis, Teairra Mari — even, bizarrely enough, of Mariah Carey. And it’s undeniably true that few of those performing R &B can belt out a tune like Aretha. The thing is, they’re not supposed to. Contemporary R &B has very little to do with classic 60s Southern Soul. Instead, it’s rooted in the high-gloss production and intensive harmonies of Motown and Gamble and Huff. There are a couple of exceptions: Shareefa’s debut deftly combines old school grit with new school gloss, and Faith Evans unbelievable“Mesmerized” sounds like Stax on steroids. In general, though, a big voice and giant production add up to a faux- Broadway disaster (hello, Christina.) Contemporary R&B just works better with less dramatic singers. Tweet and Monica, for example, both use smooth, creamy deliveries that swirl languidly into the backing tracks. And then there’s Cassie, whose vocals might be kindly described as wispy. That doesn’t hurt her a bit, though; on her debut, her voice is so processed and multi-tracked that the singer becomes just one more electronic blip among many — part of a robotic, flawless glucose-delivery system that makes Pizzicato Five sound clumsily robust.”

I added emphasis in the above passage. I’m not arguing that there is no artistic merit in mainstream music (a friend of mine performed on one of the biggest worldwide hits of the past two years, and I think it was a genuinely great song), but the inclusion of the character of one’s voice and high production values are not mutually exclusive ingredients in a pop song. The writer of the above passage is an informed and willing participant in the shift of cultural values, whereby the fundamental is the only element of the human voice that is of value, and it’s character has none. In fact  a voice that lacks character but is capable of carrying off the fundamental without inflection is more likely to be successful than a voice that is both proficient and full of character.

It wasn’t always like this. Most any of the enduring pre-millenium vocalists possessed very distinctive voices with unique characteristics – regardless of genre: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, Dione Warwick, Lennon and McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Harry Nillson, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Joe Strummer, Johnny Rotten, Arri Up, Michael Jackson, Cindi Lauper, David Byrne, Debbie Harry, Frank Black, Henry Rollins, Kate Bush, Glen Danzig, James Hetfield, Axl Rose, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Trent Reznor, Perry Farrel, Chino Moreno, Chris Cornel, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Björk, Thom York etc. etc. Even Christina Aguilera and Ronan Keating had distinctive voices.

I struggle to come up with a list of singers that have distinctive voices from the past 12 years. Here’s an attempt: Brandon Flowers, Adele, Kimbra,Feist, MIA, Lily Allen, Julian Casablancas, Daniel Rosen, Lykke Li, Jack White, Lana Del Ray and… I’m out. I hate lists, and I’ve essentially incited a pissing match by writing these two, but you get my point.

It used to be that you identified the artist performing the song by the voice, now the voice is literally just another instrument, and the holder of it is merely name-checked as a hangover from a previous cultural structure. Vocalists are no longer even associated with the writing of the song. It’s all about the producer featuring [insert name here], and if you are lucky enough to be releasing music in your own name you’re also lucky enough to possess a voice bland enough to appeal to the masses.

The best explanation I can give as to what I think has caused this shift has to do with the convergent nature of electronic music. That electronic music and the wealth of technologies creates a natural gravity in song writing and production whereby purely electronic sounds are manipulated to approximate natural sounds and natural sounds are manipulated to sound artificial and electronic. These developments have been at play since the early days of electronic instruments in the 1950s when analogue synthesizers were endowed with as many features as possible to approximate natural instruments, and samples of real world things were recorded and manipulated to sound unreal (the original Dr Who theme is a really good example of this). What tends to happen is that the more manipulated natural sounds meld well with electronically generated sounds that imitate real instruments and sounds. I’d say that the preference of character deficient voices is the result of this production technique that has been employed to such an extent over the last 20 to 30 years, that it now forms a cornerstone of mainstream taste.

So yeah, next time you are watching a TV talent quest (X Factor, Idol, The Voice et al.) you’d have a better chance of predicting the eventual winner by picking the contestant with the blandest voice. So good luck. I’m changing the channel.


Time and Place

31 Oct

“Ladies and Gentlemen all the way from Akron Ohio – The Black keys!”

The crowd screams. “Woooohooo! (whistles) (claps) Yeah!”

Most of the merchandise says nothing other than “The Black Keys – Akron, OH”.

So what of this Akron Ohio place. It must be important. After all the Black Keys have attached their brand to it.

Turns out Akron doesn’t have much to say about itself in popular culture. Chrissie Hynde wrote a song about it once, no-one other than her and the The Black keys ever really came from there, yet it has a population of 200,000 so I wouldn’t call it a small town. That’s a city.

Dunedin New Zealand is much smaller, yet it had a sound. A sound I might add that countless bands from New Zealand and even elsewhere continue to attempt to attach their name to. So what of that place. If you are a band from there, are you of that sound. What claim do you have.

I find the attachment of a place to a band or musical artist’s brand a little tenuous. It is both inclusive and exclusive depending on the context and at worst it only works to pad out a headline for an act.

I was once sitting in the greenroom for a shins concert and some idiot approached me with “All the way from Portland Oregon, it’s the SHINS!!!” – Sorry bro, I’m not in the shins. Red-faced before his companions he muffed a recovery and slunk away only to be heard in the distance repeating the same excited intro when he stumbled across the real Shins. They were equally unimpressed. The point being his emphasis on the place was supposed to give the band a fantastical quality. He might as well have said “All the way from Mount Olympus….”.

But what does the place name add? I still don’t know. I played around Dunedin for about 5 years. I never claimed connection to the Dunedin sound, yet I strongly identify with the creative architecture of the city that allowed me to grow as an artist and play more shows than I have since. The town has an amazing musical history that I think all acknowledge, whether they identify with the music of the stars from its glory days or not. What if I was there 16 years earlier?

What if I was in Akron 6 years ago? What if I was in Portland instead of Dunedin? What if I was making music in Bristol in 1991. In Manchester in ’81, in London in ’76, in Mississippi in the 30s.  It’s difficult to imagine that just being in those places at a certain point in time could provide one with a promotional edge. Like your music was better for being there at that point in time.

Time and place are often cited as key ingredients in the success of an artist, like you had to be there, but somewhere deep down I call bullshit. Yes you can be part of a movement, but because something is going on around you shouldn’t mean your music gets raised to mythical status. Because you’re from a place shouldn’t give you a claim to musical superiority, or fame in and of itself. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe Akron Ohio appears on the T-Shirts because it is a symbol of defying the odds. Maybe the same goes for Dunedin, it was a scene and a sound that was international in spite of itself. Portland, Detroit, Nashville, Memphis, Bristol,  Manchester, Liverpool, Nigeria, Cuba, Brazil – all appear to me to be symbols of success in spite of great obstacles. The movements associated with each are famous because the music was born out of adversity of some kind – even if that adversity is simply emerging from a cultural wasteland unscathed.

I like to think there is hope in that. So many artists from small towns or seemingly insignificant places write their chances of reaching an audience off purely because of where they are, but from what I’ve seen the place doesn’t put the artsist on the map. The artist puts the place on the map. I for one know where Akron is now.

Internet Piracy: How it’s a McGuffin, and an excuse for bullies to bully

26 Jan

Late last year I was approached by a friend who works at the head office of one of the largest record companies in the world. They told me that it looked like there was a position in the Intellectual Property/Legal team and that I should apply for it. They told me that the Label wanted someone who was aware of the problems that the company was facing and had some “fresh ideas”. I took this to mean that they wanted someone who might have a solution to the overall decline of sales of recorded music, which had effected not just this particular label, but the entire music industry for over a decade.

Well it just so happened that I had dedicated a lot of brain hours to dissecting the problem of declining music sales since the advent of the Mp3, and I may have a solution to the problem.

I spent quite some time putting together my job application, fantasizing about meeting with the execs, telling them they had to hire me before I give them my idea, and then (having got the job) successfully enacting my plan.

Whether my idea could have solved the problem became moot when I didn’t even get an interview. In digesting my disappointment it dawned on me that, maybe the Label wasn’t looking for a workable solution to mitigate or reverse the issue that had been slowly eating away at it for so long. Maybe they wanted someone with “fresh ideas” that might advance their current agenda.

So what was my idea? Not rocket science; I won’t even presume that it was original; But I’m sure that if it was done right it would have helped. It was basically this:

If the record labels really wanted to stem the problem of illegal internet downloading of copyrighted music and film they would need to change the way they have been behaving toward the massive number of people that have been downloading music, without paying the Labels for it. Instead of trying to beat music listeners into submission through draconian legal proceedings, why not try educating them about why dowloading music without paying the copyright holder for it was wrong. Why not try having a large scale public discussion about it? Instead of defining the Label’s relationship with the public as that of adversaries, why not show the public how their interests are aligned, and best served by having copyrighted material bought and paid for. The issue may have been touched on in the media here and there, but I don’t think it can be said that an open public discussion on the issue has ever happened.

It is now 12 years since Lars Ulrich et al sued Napster, and major labels have attempted countless times to sue individuals (successful or otherwise). Yet illegal internet downloading is more prevalent today than it has ever been; aided by improving technology, faster broadband and countless ways to share files without shedding a cent.

It would appear that suing music consumers hasn’t worked……yet.

Instead of quitting a failed strategy when it was obviously not working, the Labels have instead chosen to intensify their efforts.  If the Labels hadn’t been taking the scalps they wanted through legal action, it appears obvious that the problem remained a legal one, i.e. the law wasn’t good enough to protect their rights.

The labels were faced with this: First of all it’s costly constantly suing private individuals (corporate or natural) on your own dime. Second of all if theft is a crime punishable by the state, why shouldn’t the state be prosecuting private individuals for copyright infringement? Thirdly, maybe there is some other way of making someone else uphold the Label’s property rights?

The answer to the first is provided by the second. This is what happened in the USA where the SOPA and PIPA legislation has been introduced. It is also the technique used in the current Megaupload debacle, whereby the FBI (and for some reason the NZ Police) have been acting as mercenaries for a conglomerate of major labels and studios.

The answer to the third is what has been provided for in New Zealand under the so called 3 Strikes legislation, whereby it now falls upon internet service providers to police the usage of its customers.

Now, there is a ginormous stratagem that is being played out at the moment, in which the end of internet piracy is but a McGuffin. It has been years in the making, and the crescendo of its gathering momentum is building steam.

If the issue at the heart internet based copyright piracy was the fact that most people did it because it doesn’t feel wrong, wouldn’t the obvious solution be to make it feel wrong? If there are 100 children at a playcentre, and each of them steals lollies from the teachers jar, how many children learn not to steal from the jar if the teacher only takes one aside and  tells them off? What is the child being disciplined likely to say? “Everyone was doing it. It didn’t feel wrong.”

A lot has been said over the years about the inability of the law to deal with copyright infringement over the internet; That technology moved faster than the law could keep up with – but most of it has been untrue. Copyright law has always allowed civil claims for infringement, and has also been a crime if the unauthorized activity was on a large enough scale.

What changed was the effectiveness of the legal system to solve what was essentially a problem of cultural values presented by the new technology. There are even hints at the where the crack in the dyke started in the offence provisions of the NZ Copyright Act (see 131 (6)).

You see where copyright as property differs from physical property is that the crime of stealing physical property stems from the exclusive nature of holding that property: e.g, if you steal my book, you have excluded me from having the use of that book. Whereas if you copy an Mp3 of my music from my computer, I still have the use of the original file. It may also be difficult to determine whether my Mp3 has been copied at all, let alone whether you unlawfully duplicated it.

The other factor to bear in mind with copyright is that copyright holders tend to only care about it insofar as it makes them money. It is the money that they make from the copyrighted material that is of central importance, not the intrinsic value of the idea or expression contained in the material itself. Copyright was only invented as a way for artists to make money from their ideas. The delegation of those rights to third parties was inevitable once they became a tradeable commodity.

There is another reason why it is difficult to prosecute casual downloaders and that has to do with how proportional any punishment will be to the crime committed. The cost of copyright infringement is notoriously hard to pin down because like any saleable commodity, its cost is dependent on market forces. If people suddenly value copyright so little as to not be prepared to pay for it at all, how can the copyright holder fairly say that a song was stolen if the lions share of the market are taking it for free?

One of the basic tenets of criminal justice is that the punishment should be exactly proportional to the crime. The problem with proportionality is that the scale of the crime tends to shrink if its taboo nature is lost, and the crime essentially becomes socially acceptable. This usually ends up either with a law change (e.g homosexuality or prostitution law reform), or the law remaining in force but never being used (e.g. the crime of blasphemy).

Currently the criminal offence of copyright theft (bar a few exceptions) is mostly limited to infringing copyright for business purposes, and it is here where the main battle has been fought. This is because if someone sells copyrighted material without permission and does not pass on any of the proceeds from that sale to the copyright holder, they have in fact stolen the only thing that matters to the copyright holder: Money.

If we look at the Megaupload case, the FBI has accused the site owners of a “MEGA CONSPIRACY” involving copyright theft, racketeering and money laundering. I have had a quick glance at the Indictment, and the Racketeering and Money Laundering charges all hinge on whether the copyright theft is proved. The Indictment makes the crimes that the Mega Conspiracy have been accused of sound grandiose, designed by a criminal mastermind of Blofeldian proportions; but in truth they are essentially accused of using a standard Premium Subscription business model to steal copyright on a massive scale for profit. In my opinion the FBI should really struggle to make the charges stick because Megaupload does not provide any content to its users itself. Kim Dotcom himself likens the websites service to that of an external hard drive. All of the sites content is supplied by its users. Yet you don’t see the FBI rounding up the CEO and Directors of Western Digital, Maxtor or Seagate. I’m not the only one who is of this view. There’s also an interesting discussion on it here.

There is another far more disturbing facet to this case and it is just how far the arm of US law enforcement has been able to effortlessly reach. Dotcom and his compatriots were rounded up in New Zealand on the issue of the indictment with apparently no procedural hold-up, in an exercise that was so well planned and carried out – it eerily mirrored the Birthday Party drug bust in the Johnny Depp film Blow.

One could have expected there to be some form of  delay between the issuing of the Indictment on 5 January to the date of the bust in NZ; but it only took two weeks, and was carried perfectly to plan to coincide with Dotcom’s birhday party. It seems somewhat unnerving to know that the NZ Police had been working with the FBI on planning the raid since August.

I think everyone one should be worried that somehow a German national who is a New Zealand resident can somehow find themselves facing extradition to America to face trial. America’s status as world police no longer operates only on a military level, but effectively on any level it wants. The Megaupload story seems a lot like this story from a few years ago turned up loud.

Don’t for a moment think that because our own cyber-Megacriminal didn’t get extradited that it won’t happen to a NZ resident or citizen in the future. This guy has been fighting extradition from his home country for 7 years. Seeing how chummy our governemt and its subsidiary bodies are with US law enforcement, it seems only a matter of time before NZ citizens can look forward to a trip to the states to face charges.

People should be really pissed off that the sovereignty of their own nation’s justice system has been hi-jacked by an international cartel of companies via a foreign law enforcement agency. The “F” in FBI stands for federal – as in the federal union of the united states – not “I” as in international.

I have so far focused on some of the detail which has gone missing or unconnected by the media in evaluating the area of internet piracy and cyber-crime, but the big question – and the most important question – still remains unaddressed: Whos is behind the push and why?

On the face of it, it would seem obvious that the the record labels and music studios are behind it, but if you were to follow the money, or more particularly the labels’ lack of it, and their stark defiance of following basic logic in solving the problem of internet piracy by treating the symptom but not the cause; I think you would find that there are probably other forces at play behind labels themselves.

If record labels are bleeding money in lost sales; If record labels are spending tens of millions of dollars in mixed result law suits; If record labels are going out of business, or being bought out by other companies in droves – how can they afford to continue with a failed strategy to stem internet piracy? And how do they think it will improve sales when their PR has been about as bad as it can possibly be? And where are they even going to get their reserves of copyrighted ideas to keep selling into the future if they don’t sign new acts, but insist on selling re-issues of old artists and acts?

So yes, how awfully naive of me to offer my services to solve a problem that never was.