Archive for category Writing

Demoitis

Studioitis isn’t the only widespread malady in the world of recording. There’s also the much more serious demoitis.

Artists often make quick ‘demo’ versions of songs they’ll consider recording properly later on. In fact, during the making of an album dozens of versions of a song might circulate for the consideration of the creative team in the studio, and sometimes the business team at the label. The differences in the demos may be subtle: slight variations in volume levels, an altered word here and there, a few bars edited out. Or they may be sweeping: a new draft of the lyrics, a different tempo, drastically rethought instrumentation. But when a collaborator or an executive fights to retain elements they’ve become attached to in an earlier iteration of a track they are said to have a case of demoitis.

Debates follow. Often heated, sometimes explosive.

‘I just can’t get used to that new line in the second verse. It feels awkward to me.’

‘Cut those four extra bars before the bridge. The demo got right into it…I wouldn’t have changed that.’

‘This new tempo doesn’t give me the energy the demo had. What happens if we speed up the final mix digitally?’

Though experienced musicians often agree when something is ‘wrong’ with a song, music is ultimately a subjective thing. And it can be particularly difficult to maintain perspective on an ever-changing song you’ve heard played back a hundred times. How do you decide what goes out to the public?

First, try to hold back on presenting a song to the label or the artist’s management until it’s as close to finished as possible.

Making creative decisions by committee can leave a piece of music bloodless. Especially when the incubatory environment of the studio has been opened up for business executives to phone in some input from their offices. I’ve been involved in situations where two ‘final’ versions of a song were given to a room of A&R people at a label to vote on. In the end they asked for the two ideas to be merged, creating a frankensteined chorus that didn’t really preserve what was good about either version.

In my opinion, the Clive Davises and David Geffens of the world—music business executives who aren’t necessarily experienced in creative work but have a golden ear—are few and far between. (Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic and Berry Gordy at Motown are examples of label presidents with an inside understanding of craft. They spent a good amount of time writing and producing themselves.) From what I’ve experienced, the majority of music executives are business-minded people with a love for music. While they will jump at the opportunity to participate in a creative decision, much of their input seems arbitrary. Suggestions seem to be lifted from trends or rules they’ve heard bandied about in the office.

‘How about a dubstep breakdown in the bridge?’ was popular this past year.

‘What about a filtered radio voice in the intro?’ was big with executives around the turn of the millenium.

I don’t want to fault execs for wanting in on the excitement of making music, but if it’s actually a situation of ‘I want to be able to tell people I suggested this [obvious, trendy] idea in a successful radio hit’ while at the same time being vague enough to claim no responsibility if the song flops…well that’s not helpful. Nine times out of ten the suggestion made becomes an awkward corporate mandate for some clashing parameter the studio peeps now have to work into the song. It’s not a solution; it’s just created more problem-solving work. As evidenced by the most successful labels and managers, who send a trusted producer and artist into the studio and have the wisdom not to open the door until the souffle rises, I think it’s better for all involved if executives use their creativity to come up with a kickass marketing plan instead. That’s something the artist likely can’t do, and the expert executive can take full credit for.

Ahmet Ertegun: Good Executive Input

What about the decision-making that happens between the creatives behind that closed studio door?

Many times I’ve worked with a relatively green artist that wants to take demos home to get the input of their friends, family or significant other: input from people who aren’t necessarily creative but are either regarded as a Average Joes in the target market or a good barometer of whether the song is right for the person they know. I get it. Songwriting is new and mysterious, and on top of that you’ve been thrown into the studio with an opinionated person like me that you don’t know well enough yet to trust.

To be frank, it takes time to develop a sense of what’s working in the studio. When people have to go outside for input, it’s because they’re aware on some level that they don’t have enough experience to feel it when something—a line, a snare sound, a chorus vocal has squarely hit the mark. It’s a palpable feeling most experienced people in the room agree on when it happens. I started to recognize it after I’d been recording for about 6 years, and it took another few years to begin to know how to problem-solve things that weren’t giving me that ‘right’ feeling. (Don’t panic. Some people are faster at getting it than I was. And I make it my mission to help new artists get there ASAP.)

There’s a strong argument against doing a whole lot of market testing in lieu of relying on the gut instincts of a few professionals when you’re being creative. I’m gonna go all granola here and say that the origin of the song’s feelings and ideas is situated inside of the writers. I don’t see how polling others outside of the process can bring the song closer to its emotional center, and therefore closer to emotional impact for listeners.

The beauty of making music is that any new song you work with may have its own set of rules that generate a new approach. When you’re truly open to where a song wants to go, there are always new worlds to visit. No one person in the room has the answers, but if everyone drops their egos and taps in to what the song is dictating, a common direction usually emerges. In some cases of an extreme loss of perspective on the part of the makers, I think you can get an opinion about structural issues or the overall approach from another trusted professional who has their craft down.

Sometimes the demo does have something special about it.

For my solo work sometimes I like to write lyrics at the mic, changing words and lines until the puzzle pieces come together. And I usually feel the most effective vocal deliveries are the takes I record while I’m writing, moments after I’ve come up with the words I’m about to sing. That’s because I’m usually writing about something that’s going on with me at that time, and there can be an honest moment of catharsis or discovery in that first take. I’m not averse to re-approaching the vocal later on to try different things, but almost inevitably I end up with final vocal tracks made up mostly of my ‘discovery’ takes. One great thing about modern recording technology is when I’m co-writing with an artist I can get proper recordings of everything we come up with, using the same microphone as we go. This is like shooting a documentary film, trying to capture something that’s happening now to the singer, or even just a moment of honesty as they recall something in their past with great clarity. You never know when you’ll capture lightning, and I think it’s valid to fight to preserve moments like these from a demo, tweezing out individual recorded lines and conforming them to a later version of the song if necessary.

Other times—usually with seasoned performers that possess both highly developed vocal control and an actor’s ability to inhabit a song—I’ve found that capturing a great performance is a two-step process toward the end. 1. Have them take it home and learn the finalized version of the lyrics. 2. Have them come back in and record it three or four times, more or less straight through, over a fully produced track. The disjointedness of recording line by line with this type of performer tends to break their flow. What they want is to hear the song roll for a while so they can get inside it again and access the emotions of what they’re singing. As a producer, this is more akin to letting an actor play their part in a fictional narrative film. They’re skilled at using the power and nuance of their voice to create an illusion that this is happening to them right now. In truth it might be something they wrote years ago, or a fictional situation someone else wrote about.

When it comes to choosing vocal takes—or guitar solos or drum tracks—it doesn’t really matter how you got there. Whichever take gives you a chill down your spine is the one to go with. Though another version may be sonically better, or tighter, or more lushly produced…I’ll always feel that the version to go with is the one that made me, the producer, feel something. That’s a distillation, ultimately, of a producer’s job.

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Platinum Hit: Under The Hood Of The Music Industry

I am LOVING this show. For all the wrong reasons.

I’m not a fan of the Idol franchise because it’s put in place a concrete, standardized checklist by which the general public believes singers should be judged. The idea, alone, that a vocalist should display versatility within a range of genres disqualifies the Billie Holidays and Neil Youngs of the world.

Before Idol, artists signed to labels existed in a reality parallel—but separate from—the rest of the world. Someone who ‘knew something about music’ had given the stamp of approval, pulled all the levers, and forevermore the glossy finish of album jackets and posters would seal that artist away, just out of fans’ reach. Talent was curated primarily by savvy executives like Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun, who certainly had a basic checklist for their signings (‘Can Sing,’ ‘Has A Look,’ ‘Has Presence Live.’) But, with a similar latitude that radio DJs had decades ago, one tastemaker’s gut instinct could play a large part in an artist’s destiny.

Today, with profits plunging and monster record labels merging to survive, indie labels have risen again to service niche markets while the majors pump out increasingly formulaic product. Those executives simply cannot afford to experiment, so clunky corporate procedure is de rigueur. I’m loving Bravo’s new reality series Platinum Hit because, perhaps for the first time, the curtain has been pulled back…the average music fan can get a relatively true-to-life view of the working parts inside the LA machine.

Platinum Hit on Bravo

Appropriately, fallen singer-songwriter Jewel hosts. Her mis-step in 2003 with dance-pop single Intuition alienated her audience after her earthy image had been solidified with five ubiquitous alt-country radio singles. (We certainly saw under the hood of the industry for a moment there.)

The show is a competition in which 12 songwriters get thrown in rooms in various combinations to come up with hit songs…usually with a specific topic or genre, and sometimes for a specific artist. They work against the clock to deliver material to a panel of executives who then analyze the structure, melody, lyrics and chord changes to measure market potential.

This is exactly what goes on in Los Angeles.

I’m into this show because the corporate standardization of songwriting is in plain view. Heavyweight-songwriter-turned-reality-TV-judge Kara DioGuardi lobs constructive advice at the contestants, guiding them on how to get a green light from executives. Label-executive-turned-reality-TV-judge Keith Naftaly’s feedback often hinges on how well the song hits a market demographic. When in Episode 9 he told contestant Scotty Granger that he believes the lyrical content of his dance song is a little deep for high school kids, my eyes nearly rolled out of my head.

This is the type of ‘dumb-it-down’ thinking that permeates the industry. Scotty’s song was barely ‘deep’—in its narrative, we find out there’s just one day left on earth and everyone’s decided to dance all night. A bit dark, maybe, but hardly deep, and quite appropriate for the angst high school kids feel. Maybe this is why Britney Spears’ conceptually identical single ‘Until The World Ends,’ tore up the charts recently.

Regardless, kids, like anyone else, sense when they’re being talked down to, and this usually results in them finding a counter-culture that reflects their feelings more honestly. I remember a DJ friend pointing out to me that in the early 80s MTV was the only source for music videos, so all demographics were exposed to everything from Kate Bush to Run DMC. No one suffered from it. To the contrary, I believe it was a time of rich musical cross-pollination.

The last few episodes of Platinum Hit have gone slightly off the rails in the sense that contestants have clearly been eliminated not based on the quality of their songwriting but rather in order to maintain dramatic tension between characters: this still has to be entertaining TV. Nowhere was it more blatantly obvious than in shots of Granger’s own disbelief at having his song—which he had just described as unsuccessful—come in first at the end of an episode.

Scotty Granger: How Is It Possible That Our Song Won?

Artificially-imposed narrative aside, Platinum Hit is an interesting first glimpse into the world of beatmakers and topliners. The role of melodies, titles, song concepts, and chord changes is contextualized within the construction of a successful artist’s facade, giving some much-needed perspective on all that’s behind the front end of hit music.

The final episode of Season 1 airs this Friday August 5th.

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Pop Smarts: Robyn

In 1997, RCA Sweden and legendary writer-producer Max Martin unleashed cute 18-year old popster Robyn on the world, sending flares up international charts with the R&B-tinged ‘(Do You Know) What It Takes’ and ‘Show Me Love’. The rest of the world was left to wonder once again how—from Abba to Roxette and The Cardigans—many a Swede has been able to tap in effortlessly to the North American pop sensibility. Further, she was a nordic girl with a measure of genuine soul in her voice. After a few more minor hits in Europe, Robyn disappeared from the world stage as quickly as she had arrived.

Body Talk Pt. 1

Self-Packaged Pop Heroine Robyn

Fast forward a decade.

Word of mouth began rippling through the English-speaking world: undefeated by her major-label crash-and-burn, she’d quietly and intelligently risen from the flames. Taking the reigns both creatively and businesswise, she’d honed her songwriting craft with some hot producers and tested a new electro-pop direction locally with singles like ‘Dream On’. After necessary alterations, a deftly conceived full-length album—titled, simply, Robyn—followed on her newly christened Konichiwa Records. (The album also kicked off with the braggadocio rap ‘Konichiwa, Bitches’ — it’s Japanese slang for ‘Good Day’.)

A further revised version of the album arrived internationally and was supported with exhaustive touring. In concert she gives 110%, with heaps of cover songs along with her extensive canon of self-penned work. Her choice of covers shows a wide appreciation of other artists’ work: ‘Buffalo Stance’ by Neneh Cherry, ‘Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart’ by Alicia Keys and ‘Hyperballad’ by Bjork. Why all the YouTube links in this post? Because each one is worth it.

What’s special here is not that she’s come with great material, or that she put in the grunt work to rebuild the value of her brand from the ground up. It’s that she has the rare gift of self-awareness as an artist; the intelligence with which she’s packaged and marketed herself.

This year was the best example of it yet. After a couple years of radio silence, late 2009’s stunning collaboration with Röyksopp, ‘The Girl And The Robot’, primed us for a well conceived three-part ambush in 2010. Rather than releasing an album, she presented three shorter EPs. Distilled, the contents of Body Talk, Parts 1-3 would make a solid longplay album. But in an era when digitally downloaded music makes the number of songs on a release irrelevant, by conceiving a flexible new model like this she’s found a way to keep the excitement going all year long. Installments arrived in June and September. The final disc is slated for November 22.

Musically, the Robyn formula is smart. By giving us 1 part emotionally-level dance fun (‘Handle Me’, ‘Dancehall Queen’, ‘We Dance To The Beat’) and 1 part pseudo-gangsta attitude (‘Curriculum Vitae’, ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do’, ‘Fembot’) upfront, we’re ready to go the distance with her as her heart bleeds through the remaining third of the material. And this is the material that really sticks: ‘With Every Heartbeat‘, ‘Be Mine‘, ‘Dancing On My Own’, ‘Hang With Me’, ‘Indestructible’.

Cleverly, the first two EPs also contained acoustic ‘preview’ versions of the lead-off single planned for the next EP, guaranteeing a boost of familiarity when the single versions of ‘Hang With Me’ and ‘Indestructible’ arrived with a Giorgio Moroder-esque thud.

What’s also striking is that Robyn, the artist and the businesslady, seems to have captured a demographic few else realized was there for the taking: the 30-something ex-raver that still craves rap and club music but wants something personal, melodic…clever.

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The Creative-Commercial Cycle: How Pop Eats Itself

If it’s agreed that the following creative-commercial cycle occurs continuously in popular music…

The Cycle Of Music

The Cycle Of Music

…then there are a couple of things I find interesting. Namely, the process by which naturally compelling artists learn to create music with mass appeal, and the fact that this cycle seems to be speeding up as the executives get quicker at identifying and exploiting new trends.

U2 In 1980

U2 In Their Freeform Days

For an example of the cycle, we can look at U2’s output. In the early 80s they had underground ‘alternative rock’ cool factor. The songs on their first two albums Boy and October were somewhat freeform.  Melodies were cockeyed and noncommittal, lyrics never too direct. Bono’s voice and Edge’s guitar sound, together, supplied compelling personality. Steve Lillywhite’s production captured the band’s raw electricity without stylizing it.

War and The Unforgettable Fire followed, with ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ ‘New Year’s Day’ and ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ showing the first signs of a desire to write for radio. However, an inspired change in personnel brought a new depth to the sound of that fourth album: ambient visionary Brian Eno and roots musician Daniel Lanois were brought in to produce.

Not surprisingly, the subsequent writing on The Joshua Tree was significantly distilled.  The straight-ahead stock chord changes and emotive melody of ‘With Or Without You’ as well as the clear, sweeping subject matter of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ brought a mainstream audience to them as if by magnetic pull. If Eno and Lanois hadn’t purposely educated the band about mainstream pop writing, some form of growth-through-osmosis had happened as they opened up their creative circle.

Here’s a wordy section from ‘Drowning Man’ on War, followed by the confidence of the continuously building ‘With Or Without You’.

Since the watershed success of that album and the Rattle & Hum stadium tour–amid their core audience’s protests that the band had sold out–U2 has ridden out the last 20 years in various states of expectation-busting experimentation (Zooropa, The Passengers’ Original Soundtracks project) and pop duty fulfillment (All That You Can’t Leave Behind).

Bjork Exploring Blindly

Bjork’s Explorations With Kukl

Bjork–who, incidentally, at first used her voice much like Bono had in the early 80s–first helmed Icelandic band Kukl, followed by The Sugarcubes. Her childlike voice and persona showed commercial promise amidst the disarray of the bands’ post-punk art-rock.

Teaming up with respected electronic producer Nellee Hooper, she emerged as a solo artist in 1993 with Debut, securing her place in pop history. The follow-up album was Post. ‘It’s Oh So Quiet,’ the big band single America loved to hate, was as straightforward as she would ever get before making her way back into ever-deeper experimental waters.

Compare the atonal rant from ‘Copy Thy Neighbour’ by Kukl with the soaring melody on the chorus of ‘Hyperballad’.

10,000 Maniacs Before Leaving Jamestown, NY

10,000 Maniacs Of Jamestown, NY

10,000 Maniacs is an interesting case that I made an effort to crack recently. I always had a like-hate relationship (as opposed to love-hate) with their In My Tribe, Blind Man’s Zoo and Our Time In Eden albums because I never quite understood how a band could sabotage moments of melodic virtuosity with such poorly considered arrangements. Or how such a compelling voice–meaning Natalie Merchant’s vocal instrument as well as the interesting angles she took on the songs’ subject matter–could be ruined by an equal helping of preachy condescension. As well, even after a string of five pop singles (‘Like The Weather,’ ‘What’s The Matter Here,’ ‘Trouble Me,’ ‘These Are Days’ and ‘Candy Everybody Wants,’) the band seemed to retain ‘alternative’ cred. Surely it couldn’t just have been based on their name.

A listen through their early recordings, reissued later on Hope Chest and The Wishing Chair, explained much. Like early U2 and Kukl, these songs are meandering stabs at writing, with hookless melodies, wordy, unclear lyrics and unremarkable chord changes. Also like Bono and Bjork, Merchant’s singular personality came through in her voice and the way she used it.  10,000 Maniacs guitarist Rob Buck, too, had an original style. Perhaps not as iconoclastic as Edge’s, but enough to show promise to a record company like Elektra. The band’s ‘alternative’ roots show in these recordings: in addition to the beginnings of their brand of quirky rock, we’re taken through painful world music experiments in Soca, Zouk and Dub Reggae.

‘Death Of Manolete’ from Hope Chest demonstrates the freedom of their wide-open creativity while the exquisite ‘Dust Bowl’ from Blind Man’s Zoo shows us the focus that took hold by the band’s second album with major label producer Peter Asher.

And so we have the artists, feeling around for something new to chew on, and the executives, racing to learn how to capitalize on a movement, a sound, an idea, a persona. They can’t exist without each other, so I don’t mean to imply that executives are the Cruella DeVilles of the world. But the crops need time to grow before the combine comes along to harvest. And in the age of the internet, traces of new artistic energy are identified and absorbed into the machine with breakneck acceleration.

One such ‘absorption cycle’ that makes me shudder is what occurred somewhere between 1995 and 2008, when Jill Sobule and Katy Perry each released a song called ‘I Kissed A Girl.’ Sobule’s song felt like the honest confession of a woman testing the fluidity of her sexuality. Perry’s felt like a market-researched ‘girls gone wild’ capitalization on straight mens’ fascination with girl-on-girl action. The sincere feminist perspective of artists like Sobule through the early 90s was officially absorbed into the machine when Simon Fuller auditioned British Barbie dolls for the Spice Girls. What was their mantra?  ‘Girl Power’? Fast forward a decade, and it’s as though the feminist consciousness of the early 90s never existed. Lillith Fair sales are slipping this summer while the promo machine runs full-tilt for Katy Perry, who’s selling an updated Betty Page wet dream. Well, straight men still pull the budgetary levers at the major labels.

I was never fond of the smugly-named British band ‘Pop Will Eat Itself.’ As this creative-commercial cycle accelerates, however, I’m beginning to wonder if they were onto something. Adding momentum to this cycle is the fact that music went post-modern about 20 years ago. That is, sampling signified the gradual decline of truly new forms of pop music in favour of mixing original combinations of retro styles. If artists’ formulas weren’t made of old ingredients, it would be that much harder for executives to hack the recipe.

Janelle Monae Now

Janelle Monae Now

The ‘no rules’ artist to watch at this moment is Janelle Monae. She’s 24, she’s thoroughly disregarding anything that might be put on her as a female or a person of colour (in her own words: ‘I don’t have to do anything by default’), she’s got a big budget and she’s interesting. And–oh yes–she can sing. She can perform.

Andre 3000 and Big Boi of Outkast began working with her years back, and P. Diddy, of all people, has diverged from pop formula long enough to sign her and give her the kind of backing true artists only dream of in 2010.

Her trip is highly conceptual. Through a four-part suite, she’s reportedly telling the story of a robot named Cindi Mayweather who orchestrates an uprising in Metropolis. Her lyrics are so cryptic, however, that this storyline is barely apparent in the songs. At this early stage her output is coming across as a whole lot of disjointed concept, borrowed from many sources. If Fritz Lang doesn’t turn over in his grave at her shameless appropriation of his story, other visionaries like James Brown might. Virtually every song ends up a pastiche of the styles of several decades over the last century.

Melodically, the material is somewhat flat, the most memorable hooks lifted from elsewhere. Near the beginning of  ‘Many Moons,’ a single from 2008’s Metropolis: The Chase Suite, she blatantly bites a riff from the Sesame Street pinball song we all know. After escaping the distraction of the very high budget of the ‘Many Moons’ video, it struck me that the most memorable moment of the song itself was that riff.

Selections from the new album, The ArchAndroid, include: ‘Cold War,’ its arresting single-shot video summoning the moment Sinead O’Connor shed a single tear for the camera in ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’; ‘Tightrope,’ with its main ‘on the scene’ hook lifted from ‘Sex Machine,’ (something she appeared to cop to as she donned a James Brown cape while performing it on David Letterman); ‘Sir Greendown,’ something like Shirley Bassey singing a version of ‘Moon River’; and ‘Make The Bus,’ like an outtake from David Bowie’s 70s trilogy produced by Brian Eno.

Another album track, ‘Locked Inside,’ feels good because it’s written over the chords of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Golden Lady’. It’s all crammed in there, cryptic and disorganized, from cabaret to hot jazz horns and 80s hip hop. And though it’s the work of an artist getting her bearings, both overdoing the concept and underdoing the original substance, she does appear to have the potential to change the game.

In order to keep that high budget record deal so she can mature creatively, it’s important that she have a bonafide hit sometime soon. And for that to happen the songs may have to fit into a framework that people understand a little more readily. There’s the catch-22: before the artist can ignore creative boundaries and lead the way, it seems she must first learn to simplify her writing. In days gone by labels could allow an artist several albums to reach a commercial stride. These days, it’s possible that other executives may be able to pinpoint what’s special about Monae early on and manufacture other acts that are capable of overtaking her. Hurry, Janelle, hurry and grow your garden!

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Studioitis

A few years ago I switched family doctors, and at my first physical he asked me what time I got up in the morning. He then quickly corrected himself: ‘Oh, sorry, you’re a musician…what time do you get up in the afternoon?’ Ha ha. But I was kind of relieved to find that my body’s stubborn adherence to a late-night schedule was so normal for a musician, even the doctor had a de facto acceptance of it.

In my late teens, when I began writing and recording in earnest, the quiet and dark of the night proved to be an effective ‘blank slate’. Without the overt influence of weather, or the sound of the neighbour’s lawnmower asserting what season it was, or somebody phoning for a chat, it was easier to stay inside a song about almost any subject or feeling.  A late schedule worked so well for me that I intentionally booked my university classes and part-time job around it, and all of these years later my body is so attuned to the rhythm it’s a tricky manoeuvre to shift out of it, even temporarily.

Most studios have no windows, partly to reduce the unwanted sonic reflections of glass, but mostly, I believe, to block out the influence of the outside world on creative types who are trying to be inside the work together. There’s a long-running joke sound engineers throw around about having a ‘studio tan’: that sickly pale look fair-skinned individuals get when they see no daylight for weeks on end.  And there’s the joke about the ‘studio diet’ that traditionally consists of sugar, caffeine, and nicotine.

But of all the maladies specific to musicians, the one that’s the most fun by far is studioitis.

Studioitis

For those who know the feeling but have never heard it by name, I’ll spell it out.  I myself am just coming out of a long bout with studioitis, lasting several months, while working with the very talented Micah Barnes on his upcoming record.

It’s not like tonsillitis or any of the other common itises we hear talked about. Studioitis is more like what happens around 4 AM at a junior high slumber party: everybody starts getting stupid, and everything is funny. Except in the studio the predisposing exhaustion might come at 8 in the evening if you’ve already been looping the same few bars of music for six hours, approaching that point where sound begins to unravel into something very abstract…like what happens when you stare at a word on a page for too long and it starts to look foreign.

Working on an album in an expensive facility usually means blocking out weeks of studio time without days off, because you’re riding a wave of creativity, you need the room to remain set up for you, and you’re on a deadline.  So an acute case of studioitis might strike early some afternoon weeks into a project. While staring at a screen that no longer makes sense, or arguing about the conceptual purpose of a guitar riff, or trying to capture a fleeting, ethereal feeling in a vocal take…it will strike, and you will find yourself in a bizarro world where everything is funny.

Last month Micah spent long days here in the vocal booth, in an unbearable heatwave, getting his lead vocals down.  My job, producing, meant lots of discussion between takes about motivations and intentions around the lyrics. Soon enough, we found ourselves in Studioitis, Population Two: the funniest thing imaginable was stopping the take to yell ‘LOOK’ or ‘LISTEN’ at each other in the most convincingly angry tone possible.  ‘FEEL’ and ‘SMELL’ got thrown in…who can say why?  It’s the mad nature of the illness.

Probably my favourite episode of the itis struck 15 or 16 days into sessions with Jon Levine for JackSoul’s second album, ‘Sleepless’.  We had been focused for hours on getting a groove right, and, scrolling through drum sounds on a machine I came across a sample of what sounded like a group of middle eastern men yelling ‘HEY!’  It may have been Israeli men, at a wedding…I’m not sure.  But definitely the sort of ‘HEY’ you’d hear with traditional middle eastern folk dancing of some kind.

It broke Jon’s composure, so I triggered it a few times until we were both on the floor, laughing loudly…then laughing silently because we were unable to breathe.  I slowly and pointedly reached up from the floor to press the button again, once, which started us all over again, and I did it again until Jon was begging me to stop.  Lead singer and frontman Haydain Neale, rest his soul, was not impressed. A couple of days later, in the afternoon, the studio secretary came into the room with a bag of candy and mentioned there was a fully-stocked candy store around the corner.  Jon and I looked at each other silently for a moment and then bolted out of the studio for our own bags of candy, with Haydain’s yell fading behind us: ‘awwww guys come onnnnnnn!’ He was feeling the pressure of a looming deadline from BMG.

But it was no use…it seems studioitis kicks in when your body actually needs a break from the kind of serious focus music takes. My theory anyway. And believe me, there is no use fighting it.

Oh look–it’s 4 AM…almost time for bed.

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Sade As Wounded Warrior

It hurts to write a single sour word about Sade. Being a lover of music in many disparate genres it’s difficult to play favourites, but over time I’ve come to realize that Sade does hold the Best Artist spot for me. Against much more obvious competition, ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ has unexpectedly landed as my favourite song, and 1985’s ‘Promise’ would be the album I’d take to a desert island.

She, the woman, and they, the band, have come to represent high taste and integrity in music. They’ve built a trust in their fans that the product will be filtered and distilled before it reaches us: there is no chance for cheapness to get through. Much of their music has been slow-burn: it takes time for such subtle grooves and sparse melodies to get under the skin. The last few albums of new material, each released in a different decade, have been increasingly moody and subtle–increasingly less immediate, but with a satisfying payoff after repeated listens. Although Sade has never professed to be a vocal athlete, the band is always on point and the ambiance she brings with her cool presence makes them one of the few live acts that I cannot miss. With a 10-year gap since their last studio album, curiosity and expectations were high. I put off writing about the band’s new album, ‘Soldier Of Love’ for several weeks in order to digest it and give it a fair shot.

Sade has allowed unprecedented media access this time around, and in the course of it much has been made about her previous insistence on privacy. She shook hands around the room at the NYC album listening party, performed the single on every major talk show, and satirized herself in a guest appearance on the Wanda Sykes show. Articles like this one in the London Times have combined historical context with personally revealing interviews. Soundbites from a recorded interview were made available here. A short film surfaced discussing the making of the album, and then another appeared about the making of the first video.

Sales have been excellent, indicating that the band’s following is still a faithful army in this day where the pirate download has become standard. The album went straight to number one on the Billboard chart and held strong, proving strong radio action is not required to sell such a trusted band these days.

So is the new disc good? It is. I’m afraid to say however that it’s not phenomenal, and certainly not groundbreaking or revelatory.

SadeRecording1

The Making Of 'Soldier Of Love'

Let’s do a little bit of history. The band began as a live jazz outfit. 1984’s ‘Diamond Life’ was made up largely of songs they’d already been playing around London, including most notably their throwback anthem ‘Smooth Operator’. Robin Millar produced, beautifully packaging their organic jazz café sound, a sound which spun out into a movement in 80s England with bands like The Style Council and Simply Red filling out the genre. In the first few videos a narrative was built around Sade as a jazz-club diva mixed up in a gangster plot. Album tracks like ‘Frankie’s First Affair’ and ‘Sally’ brought seedy, urban characters to life. ‘Hang On To Your Love’ and ‘Your Love Is King’ were classic, universal love songs.

The band’s follow-up, ‘Promise,’ arrived just a year later with the melodically sweeping first single ‘Is It A Crime’ continuing the torch song tradition. ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ was a light singsong with darker lyrical undertones, built around a highly original syncopated kick-and-rimshot pattern not heard in music before or since. ‘You’re Not The Man,’ another stunning jazz ballad, only appeared on vinyl as the b-side of ‘Taboo’; it was thankfully included on the non-vinyl versions of the album. ‘Maureen’ and ‘Tar Baby’ were again character pieces, but this time Sade took a page from her personal life, singing about her best friend and her grandmother. The first hint of sequenced electronics appeared on ‘Never As Good As The First Time’ and a quick scan of the album credits reveals that this was one of the band’s first forays into sharing production duties with Robin Millar. It was the first sign of a departure they were about to take.

While it’s easy to see that most of their early material was built around elaborate, classic melody, ‘Never As Good’ is a groove-based song.  Sitting somewhat conspicuously next to fully organic songs on the album, the drum machine loop and percolating synths settle us into a hypnotic groove, and the verse vocal weaves itself rhythmically into that groove, the melody flipping between two neighbouring notes. It is a different way to write music: it comes from the opposite angle, building on a rhythmic foundation rather than a melodic one.

There was a 3-year break. When the band returned with ‘Stronger Than Pride’ in 1988, they had taken over production duties from Millar, who, tragically, had gone blind from an inherited retinal disease during the recording of ‘Promise’. The jazz influence had faded, echoed only on the horn arrangement in ‘Clean Heart’. It was replaced by the band’s own unique R&B sensibility. Most importantly, they were favouring this new approach of writing over programmed loops, and here I believe is where Sade’s melodic and lyrical approach began to change from the lighter character-based storytelling of ‘Sally’ and ‘Maureen’ to a longer, drawn-out process of feeling around for the singer’s own subconscious undercurrents. There seemed to be a belief that the lyrics needed more sombre depth to them, more of a message.

1992’s ‘Love Deluxe,’ and 2000’s ‘Lover’s Rock’ furthered this direction, forging original works over many different feels and grooves. Unlike the big jumps on the first two albums, melodies generally fluttered between a few neighbouring notes, except on the more commercially viable songs ultimately chosen as lead-off singles (‘No Ordinary Love’ and ‘By Your Side’ respectively).

SadeRecording2

At The Microphone

And now ‘Soldier Of Love’.

Despite the band’s insistence that they work hard not to repeat themselves, for the first time I feel there is a degree of repetition going on here. The title track bites chord progressions from ‘No Ordinary Love’ and melodic bits from ‘Somebody Already Broke My Heart’. The bouncing tambourine in the drum groove on ‘The Moon And The Sky’ also recalls ‘No Ordinary Love’; the rhythm track on ‘Skin’ recycles that of ‘Cherish The Day’. After ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ and ‘The Sweetest Gift,’ the title ‘The Safest Place’ looked oddly familiar in the track listings. It is also the obligatory beat-free moment on the album–a tradition that began with ‘Fear’ on ‘Promise’ and carried through, one track per album, with ‘I Never Thought I’d See The Day,’ ‘Pearls,’ and ‘It’s Only Love That Gets You Through’. If they were putting out records every two years, these similarities wouldn’t matter so much. But considering we’ve just had the longest gap between releases, I would have loved to see the band forge new paths rather than rely on old habits.

Once stating that timelessness was one of the mandates of her writing, Sade’s first lapses in taste have now happened: the cheap reference to Kool Moe Dee’s ‘Wild Wild West’ on the ‘Soldier Of Love’ single, perhaps meant to show light irony; the reference to ‘Michael, back in the day’ layered with a simulated MJ holler behind it on ‘Skin,’ likely included to acknowledge the loss of a personal hero;  and a few somewhat embarrassing moments in ‘Babyfather,’ beginning with ‘she liked his smile, she wanted more, the baby’s gonna have your eyes for sure.’ The idea of including Sade’s daughter Ila and bandmate Stuart Matthewman’s son Clay as a childrens’ chorus on ‘Babyfather’ points toward a lapse in judgment due to unchecked parental pride. It is unfortunately likely to be the second single because it is the only light storytelling moment on the record, and there’s not much else with an obvious radio hook.

Production- and writing-wise there are some developments on the disc. A blues influence–something we first heard in the band’s cover of ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ on 1994’s ‘Best Of Sade’ collection–has emerged more strongly here on ‘Long Hard Road’ and ‘Bring Me Home’ among others. The reggae influence of ‘Lover’s Rock’ has deepened in the form of dub basslines peppered through the album and some lush three-part harmonies reminiscent of The Wailers on the bridge of the ‘Soldier Of Love’ single, which also boasts the new sonic colours of army battery drumming, futuristic synth effects and one ferocious hip hop snare. I welcome back Stuart Matthewman’s saxophone lines after their absence on ‘Lover’s Rock’. Upon sitting with the record, ‘The Moon And The Sky’ seems as though it will be one of the songs that will deepen with time. ‘Morning Bird,’ while cryptic and mournful, is exquisite and feels like the gentler moments of the 1996 Sweetback album (the band’s side project without Sade). ‘In Another Time’ feels like lazy writing, full of melodic gaps, but lyrically it is special in the way it captures a mother-daughter advice session.

There is a sentiment of sombre fortitude or bitter resolve present throughout the album; a running theme of being a soldier (the title track) or warrior (the closing track). The rest of the songs tend to lament loss or to wearily offer encouragement. I’m not sure whether this darkness reflects where Sade is at personally, or whether she feels it is only worthwhile to document the heavier things inside her, because the writing itself also feels quite laboured to me. One of her gifts as a writer has been her ability to reach in and describe a feeling directly or metaphorically, yet without a trace of cliché…case in point: the phrase on ‘Be That Easy’ where she states both simply and profoundly ‘for I am a broken house, I’m holding on a broken bow’. However I believe she has become fixated on this one particular gift rather than using her complete palette: for a very long time the songs have not been melody driven and they have not included those narrative stories less related to her personal demons and philosophies.

In the ‘Making Of Soldier Of Love’ footage–the first time information has been let out about the band’s creative process–there is a lot of talk about the ‘struggle’ involved in the writing process. The band and Sade herself express, wearily, an exhaustive search that goes on in the writing of each song. She explains that she stays away from the studio for long stretches of years because it’s such a commitment to go in and make an album. She sighs with the heavy weight of her own expectations that the music be built on truths and constructed with love. She flips through a stack of papers several inches thick saying ‘look how many words, look, all of this, it’s one song,’ revealing that there are endless rounds of adding and chipping away at words in the search for the right ones.

Writing & Rewriting

Writing & Rewriting

She analogizes her process: ‘once I start working on a song I sort of feel I’m on a boat, and the boat knows which way it’s going…sometimes the boat will go off course and I have to fight to steer it back.’ Also, ‘the three minutes where the song really comes together in that moment where it sort of arrives from the ether or wherever, then the rest, a lot of the rest is working on maintaining the spirit that came to you from no will of your own, and that’s the difficult part…being loyal to the original vibration and spirit of feeling that came with that song.’  This struggle, I feel, is a process Sade has put on herself, and in my experience it’s what would produce the heaviness, the laboured feeling of the music. While this gradual syphoning of the subconscious–of connecting to the ether without staring it down directly–is not an uncommon approach and it is valuable for some songs, we also know from her earlier work that she’s capable of balancing out this heaviness by writing sweeping melodic stories off the cuff.

And this is really what I want to say about the new album: it may be that Sade now goes into the studio simply trying to initiate the purge she believes is expected of her. In that way I believe she’s gradually misconstrued, by small degrees, what her job as a musician is. At the other extreme we have artists that push the boundaries as far as possible with each new album to break out of the shell of what’s expected. I feel the best work happens somewhere in the middle, in a space when original ideas are allowed to flow naturally with little reaction to what’s worked before. And the best songs seem to come when the conscious mind vaguely teases the subconscious out, but it is not always helpful to approach the studio expecting drawn-out martyrdom. I want Sade to have fun writing the music she presents to us.

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A Perspective On Madonna

Celebration...and Scrutinization.

Celebration…and Scrutinization.

I’m not a music snob.

As boring as I think Britney Spears is, I own a copy of the 12″ single of ‘Baby One More Time’ because I think that song was a piece of pop writing on par with some of Abba’s achievements: every line of the melody is a hook. When I find myself in conversations with people who pride themselves on being perceived as connoisseurs of far-flung artists just for the exclusivity of being in on the obscure, I tend to bring up top 40 songs like ‘Love At First Sight’ and ‘In Your Eyes’ by Kylie Minogue…not because I’m a fan in particular, but because those are well-crafted songs whose writers chose the right moment to cleverly bite the style of some 80s Olivia Newton-John singles. Whether an artist’s material works or not, to me, is a separate issue from how commercial or anti-commercial they choose to be.

However I don’t think it’s coincidence that many of the biggest female icons in music have been regarded as nothing more than pop fluff.  They are not thought of as making musical contributions on the level of, say, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Prince, or even John Legend or Robbie Williams…in part because, when it comes to music, western society still shows its dyed-in-the-wool patriarchal values: the straight white male audience still ultimately dictates what is perceived as serious music in the mainstream.

But it can be argued that gay men, in fact, stand at the epicenter of pop music. Because, as early adopters and fiercely loyal supporters of the artists that appeal to them, they cause everybody else to look up and wonder what the hell all of the commotion is about.

The undying support of an army of gay men stands behind virtually every major female star from Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Cher and Bette Midler to Diana Ross, Tina Turner and Donna Summer, through to Cyndi Lauper and Whitney Houston, past Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan, up to Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.  It seems clear that the messages strong female figures are apt to convey help give voice to a part of the gay male psyche. Surnames are dropped as gay men begin to regard these women–from Janet to Kylie to Celine–as close personal friends. Few male artists get that kind of rousing support from the gays, besides passing fixations with boy bands and a handful of gay-like-us mascots such as Elton John, George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys, awarded the solidarity of the queer masses even when the relevance of their output has dimmed.

Labels know they’ve got a hit act when straight men begin to find themselves dragged to homocentric concerts by their hip girlfriends.  And you won’t find many solo male artists with the staying power of these women, doing huge stadium shows years or decades after first appearing on the scene.

Of all of the female icons, Madonna has carved out the deepest, widest swath. My fellow gays have tried to engage me in ‘Kylie vs. Madonna’ or ‘Britney vs. Madonna’ arguments.  You may be drawn to Kylie because she’s more refined, or you may be drawn to Britney because she’s more Of-The-Now, but personal taste aside those arguments seem somewhat ludicrous to me: it’s a fact that Madonna has had the most impact musically and culturally for the longest period of time. An important distinction: unlike many on the Diva List, she’s been at the helm of her career this whole time…from manipulating her own image to co-writing much of the material she sings (right back at the beginning she wrote ‘Lucky Star’ on her own).  The release of her fourth hits compilation, ‘Celebration’, seems as fitting a time as any to discuss what exactly her contribution has been.

I followed her output with increasing anticipation from the beginning up until the late 90s, around the time of ‘Music’. For me, the golden period was from the release of the ‘Like A Prayer’ video to the release of the ‘Erotica’ single, inclusive, because during that run she seemed to tap into the subjects and aesthetics I was ready to absorb at the time. Through the various phases of her career, that type of synchronistic experience has not been uncommon for whoever her 20-something gay male fans happen to be at the time. After the release of ‘American Life’ I rolled my eyes when a 20-ish gay grabbed my shoulders and shook me saying ‘no you don’t understand how brilliant she is’.  ‘How brilliant she is’ was old news, and this was just a new incarnation of Madonna doing her thing…pushing the hot buttons of the collective psyche of a new generation.

She’s stated that button-pushing is her agenda.  Having been given the name ‘Madonna’ at birth, she then had the wits to parlay those built-in religious connotations into a Mother Mary vs. Mary Magdalene (ie. a Madonna-Whore dichotomy) by introducing a heavy dose of overt sexuality into the balanced equation that became her persona. Other female icons who opt to sexualize their image don’t have that built-in balance, because they aren’t inherently pressing that other universal button…the Religion button…all the while.

In the late 80s and early 90s the trendy way to dismiss Madonna was to say ‘well, she’s a great business person, I respect her for that,’ – implying that there wasn’t much else to respect her for. But I think it bears repeating that she’s often had her finger on the pulse, not just in a surface way, co-opting fashion and dance from subcultures at the right moment, but also in that synchronistic way, tapping into the questions people in their late teens and early 20s are grappling with at any given time.  Her precocious curiosity has caused her to ask the right questions at the right moment…coaxing the public consciousness forward to confront specific sexual, religious and political issues…coaxing a little bit of liberalization here and there.

Nobody ever considered Madonna a great singer, herself included: she admits it in the ‘Truth Or Dare’ documentary, and a few years later, before filming ‘Evita’, she began taking singing lessons in an attempt at self-improvement. In her earliest recordings she was squeaky and uncontrolled. But there’s something else there that I feel is rarely, if ever, acknowledged: there’s a spirit in those performances, an unbridled, uncontrolled passion that made it clear to all of us that she was really throwing herself into it. And because she believed so strongly in what she was singing, many of us bought it too.

Witness the moments of full throttle rasp on this series of clips from her pre-singing-lesson days: ‘Holiday’ (from her self-titled debut album), ‘Into The Groove’ (from the ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ soundtrack), ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, ‘Open Your Heart’ and ‘Where’s The Party’ (from ‘True Blue’), ‘Express Yourself’ (from ‘Like A Prayer’) , ‘Vogue’ and ‘Rescue Me’ (both from ‘The Immaculate Collection’).  On the last three, support from her new mainstay background singers Donna DeLory and Niki Haris drove her to push even harder.

In those days, she also did something vocally that gave the impression she was on the verge of tears as she sang. On certain lines in ‘Stay’ (from ‘Like A Virgin’), ‘Open Your Heart’ (from ‘True Blue’), ‘The Look Of Love’ (from the ‘Who’s That Girl’ soundtrack), ‘Dear Jessie’ and ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ (both from ‘Like A Prayer’) she articulates a depth of emotion by lowering her tone to a throaty yawn.  (The most obvious example is the line ‘your love parade’ toward the end of the clip of ‘Dear Jessie’.)

According to vocal teachers this yawny tone is the result of a singer lowering or ‘depressing’ their larynx, and it’s not considered good vocal technique. However it’s emotionally effective: we hear her veering toward tears and we veer emotionally with her. I doubt this was pre-meditated on her part; she was probably just using what she had available to her, naturally, to make us feel something. To me, this is what music is about…when something works emotionally, technique is quickly made irrelevant.

After training for ‘Evita’ she immediately became self-conscious of her delivery. On ‘You’ll See’ (from ‘Something To Remember’) she’s lost all of her spontaneous passion…and we’ve lost the Madonna that threw herself into things so fully.  On ‘Frozen’ and ‘The Power Of Goodbye’ (from ‘Ray Of Light’) she’s found a more suitable direction, material-wise, for her opera-esque vocal approach…but it was not until many years later on ‘Hung Up’ that she reconnected that improved vocal technique with her passion and urgency.

Self-consciousness has also been her enemy when it comes to lyric-writing. At a certain point, perhaps after the personal, confessional writing on the ‘Like A Prayer’ album received critical praise, Madonna decided she could go deeper lyrically…sometimes to good effect, but more often not. ‘Erotica’ contains a mess of a ballad called ‘In This Life,’ a song dedicated to AIDS victims. While her intentions may have been good, this is the definition of poor writing: going nowhere melodically, and lyrically hitting us over the head with overwrought emotion and clichés.

On ‘Bedtime Stories,’ her foray into R&B, she succeeds in growing, lyrically, on ‘Secret’ and ‘Survival,’ discovering clever ways to deliver heavy-handed philosophical messages indirectly. On the former she delivers the universal truth of ‘learning to love yourself’ in an egoless fashion by presenting it as a secret someone else possessed (and she didn’t); and on the latter she confesses, with humility, that just like everybody else her life is about survival.  After gaining our trust by speaking to us as equals, we can receive her ‘no risk, no glory’ philosophy without feeling that we’re being preached to.

Madonna had also contacted Bjork, asking her to write a song for this album. Bjork culled ideas from a track rejected from her own ‘Post’ album (‘Sweet Intuition’ a/k/a ‘Sweet Sweet Intuition’), remodeling it as ‘Bedtime Story’ for Madonna. Knowing this, one can only postulate that Madonna admired Bjork’s esoteric lyrical sensibility, and, feeling co-opted, Bjork’s response was to work the system by giving her a recycled b-side that then became a lucrative writing venture…after all it became a Madonna single.

Madonna’s writing style on ‘Ray Of Light’ seemed to be an attempt at that off-center Bjork-esque weirdness she admired. Many of the sincerely introspective songs succeeded, but songs like ‘Skin’ rang with an obvious attempt at obliqueness: it’s not believable when Madonna pushes herself to be anywhere near as eccentric as Bjork is. On songs like ‘Sky Fits Heaven’ she takes it upon herself to dispense lofty advice to us from a prophet. Later in the track she tempers her preachiness, bringing herself back down to our level by listing what her life choices have been, for better or for worse.

Much of ‘American Life’, and parts of the albums on either side of it, presented a Madonna that had come to believe she had important philosophies to teach the world. This was likely an intersection of Kabbalah evangelism and her self-awarded position of ‘experienced elder who had been through the fame machine and come out the other side’.  She is equally obnoxious critiquing her country of birth from her adopted home in the UK (on the title track) as she is chastising herself aimlessly on ‘I’m So Stupid,’ a song that seems as though it was written off the top of her head. On ‘Let It Will Be’ (from ‘Confessions On A Dance Floor’), she can’t resist interrupting a great return-to-form album with more advice from the other side of fame. This Madonna wasn’t received as readily, partly because her promotion to teacher was not entirely believable, and partly because it’s not easy to stomach famous people lecturing on the woes of fame.

‘Nothing Fails,’ (from ‘American Life) works when she confesses personal feelings of love. It falls apart in the next verse when she speaks to us from her high horse again, proclaiming her own wisdom with ‘you could take all this, take it away, and I’d still have it all cause I’ve climbed the tree of life and that is why I’m no longer scared if I fall’.

What Madonna fails to realize is that she makes music that connects and transcends…but only when she zens out: only when she doesn’t overthink her singing or pressure herself to be deep, oblique or wise. I’m glad this new compilation is themed as it is, because her celebratory songs like ‘Holiday’ have served a more profound purpose than some of her spiritual musings.  Her delivery of the melody in ‘Holiday’ has a tinge of melancholic depth to it and the groove has lifted many a spirit over the quarter century since it first appeared.  ‘Express Yourself’ was a passionately belted call to action that was equally feminist, fun and sexy. The ‘Ray Of Light’ album caught her at a moment of reflective experimentation before she fully decided to crown herself armchair philosopher with a really loud microphone. The meandering path she’s been on since then, only broken briefly by the core of ‘Confessions On A Dancefloor,’ has proven that even after plying us for years with sugar and honey in the form of fun dance anthems, the world doesn’t need every artist to enter a ‘deep experimental’ phase the way the Beatles, Radiohead, Bjork or Joni Mitchell have: Madonna’s rousing anthems and unselfconscious, sincere moments have been profoundly useful enough to earn her a place in many of our lives.

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The Polaris Music Prize

Have you noticed in recent years that Beyoncé and Alicia Keys have performed on every major American awards show? As much as I respect Ms. Keys (and am not particularly offended by Beyoncé) the only way I can explain their awards-show ubiquity over, say, The Roots, is that they’ve made it into The Club…an elite club of ‘artists chosen to be promoted by the majors’.

Widely accepted as the institutions that bestow the highest honours in music, England has the Brit Awards, America has the Grammys and Canada has the Junos. As viewers we watch thinking that we’re seeing musicianship rewarded…yet it always feels curiously like we’re seeing advertisements for pop albums we are expected to buy.

But last week I attended a refreshing and inspirational night here in Toronto: the Polaris Music Prize gala. There’s been an alternate reality taking shape in the world of music awards: since 1992 the UK has had the Mercury Prize, since 2001 the USA has had the Shortlist Music Prize and since 2006 here in Canada we’ve had Polaris.

Awards

Anarchy in the UK, the USA...and Canada.

All three Prizes are similar: the award goes to the band responsible for the best album released that year. Not the album that sold the most copies, but the best album…determined via large numbers of music critics submitting lists and/or voting. For the American Short List prize, nominees’ albums must not have reached Gold sales status (500,000 copies).

The Polaris winner gets a $20,000 cash prize, often used by the band to fund their next endeavor. This year’s ‘long list’ of 40 nominees included veteran folkster Leonard Cohen and newly-indie rapper K-Os.  The narrowed shortlist of 10 bands performed live at the gala, simulcast on MuchMusic and CBC radio. CBC host Jian Ghomeshi was one of ten Canadian luminaries that each introduced a nominee, waxing personal about how the album affected them.

At one point a food-fight broke out between the tables of the obvious forerunners: celebrated new wave band Metric, Somalian-born rapper K’Naan and esoteric rock band Patrick Watson–who won the audience over by performing as a marching band weaving through the audience, wearing backpacks that sprouted bouquets of lights over their heads, the singer manipulating his vocal with effect pedals hanging from his neck, the rest of them handing out cookie sheets and wooden spoons for the audience to bang together as a room-wide rhythm section.

Newfoundland’s Hey Rosetta! stunned the audience with a performance that came in like a lamb and out like a lion, featuring a huge ensemble of supporting musicians crafting a painstaking climax around singer Tim Baker’s unmistakeable voice. The surprise of the evening came at the end, however, when hardcore punk band Fucked Up took the stage as the final performers and then walked away with the prize. Indeed, we’re looking at an unbiased jury process here!

I was shocked at the sheer amount of talent laid out before us that night.  I was exceedingly proud to be doing music in Canada, which the world has begun to recognize is a disproportionate exporter of great music. Ask me if I cared about the Grammys after that…?

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On The Radio

Tuning In

Tuning In

Radio was initially a live medium of announcers, actors and orchestras. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that it became widely acceptable to play records on the air. A royalty system then had to be developed to pass on some of the income from the advertisers to the songwriters and musicians for their content.

Regulations were soon put in place (by the FCC in the United States and the CRTC in Canada) to cap the number of stations a parent company could own; to prevent the conflict-of-interest that would be brought on if record companies were to own radio stations and try to control what was played; and to ensure that radio DJs had a degree of freedom in selecting music they felt their audiences would enjoy or benefit from.

In the 50s a handful of radio DJs were paramount in breaking rock’n’roll.  Late in the decade America began a federal investigation which effectively stamped out payola (the practice of record labels bribing DJs to promote specific singles), helping to cement the DJ’s role as trusted tastemaker, and eventually, provocateur. In the 60s radio DJs were key figures in a rising counterculture and the 70s brought FM radio, where jockeys had the freedom to present entire sides of albums in high quality stereo if they so chose.

Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton's 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History Of The Disc Jockey'

Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton's 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History Of The Disc Jockey'

Since the 80s, however, a series of policy and practice changes as a result of the mergers in big business have, in my view, pretty much castrated the radio DJ. Huge chains of stations are owned by single companies. Clear Channel monopolizes the U.S. with 1240 stations nationwide; Astral Media (the company behind Virgin Radio), CTV, Rogers and Corus Entertainment are the big ones in Canada.

DJs are handed playlists that they cannot stray from. (Actually the music is on hard disk now, and the next song on the list comes up in computer-selected order, eliminating the possibility for the DJ to stray.) Those playlists are determined by program directors who tend to add songs that are a) performed by established artists on major labels (because unfamiliarity would greaten the risk of listeners turning the dial and missing advertisements); b) no longer than 3:30 (because the shorter the songs, the more of them you can play between commercials); and c) rated highly by focus groups (who tend to react positively to songs that fit an immediately recognizable mold, ruling out many of the songs that would grow on people and promote change or growth in music).

Radio stations identify themselves by a particular ‘format’ – that is, they categorize themselves by the style of music they play. These formats are constantly in flux: if a chain of stations decides to alter what they’re playing and rename the format to appeal to a slightly different demographic, the rest of the stations in that format tend to follow suit. ‘Adult Contemporary’ used to mean Perry Como, and now it means Katy Perry––because it’s a format that plays music by the artists adults are listening to. (It’s also apparently on the verge of being renamed ‘Mainstream Soft’ to try to shake the Perry Como image.) A quick rundown of the formats:

  • CHR – Contemporary Hit Radio/Top 40/Mainstream – for the tweens and teens, currently includes pop, dance and rap
  • AC – Adult Contemporary/Mainstream Soft – for adults, including pop, rock, soul, dance that is quieter or a little slower
  • Hot AC – for adults, but a little rockier or dancier
  • Triple A – Adult Album Alternative – for 30-somethings looking for subdued album-oriented artists like A Fine Frenzy, Missy Higgins etc. – there are currently only 2 stations in Canada in this format, both on U.S. border towns
  • Modern Rock – Punk pop, a la Sum 41 or Hedley
  • CAR – Contemporary Album Rock – Rock, a la Nickelback
  • Urban – the latest euphemism for ‘black music’ – Rap and R&B – there are no longer any urban stations in Canada as Toronto’s Flow 93.5 has changed to CHR

As well there are Jazz, Classical, Country and, in the U.S., plenty of Christian format stations listed by Nielsen:

Nielsen's Complete List Of Current Formats In North America

Nielsen's Complete List Of Current Formats In North America

Since songwriter(s) get paid anywhere from $1.65 to $25.86 per radio play (SOCAN’s payout rates depending on the station) you’re ideally hoping to get your single charting on as many formats as possible, as Jason Mraz recently did with ‘I’m Yours‘.  It broke a record by hitting number 1 on the CHR, AC, Hot AC and Triple A charts.

The major labels feed their new singles to radio stations instantly through a digital delivery service (such as DMDS in Canada). Established artists’ singles get de facto rotation, newer artists get test spins. With such a closed system, now, how does a new independent artist get a song on the radio?

Generally, by paying an independent radio promoter to get it past the gates. Radio promoters have usually been in the industry, in various capacities, for a while…long enough to develop relationships with program directors at the key stations.  In a sense, radio promoters have supplanted DJs as the tastemakers because they are relied upon to do quality control on the material they pass through. In another sense, however, they have their hands tied just as much as anybody else in the chain: nothing over 3:30, big chorus hook, no long intro without a vocal…all of the same rules apply.  There is not much chance that a radio promoter is going to be able to sneak through something utterly genre-busting by an unknown artist.

Expect a radio promoter to charge $3000-$5000 to take on your single, send it digitally to the stations in the format that supports your genre of music, and then follow up with the stations’ program directors by phone and e-mail for a 3-month period.

In English-speaking Canada, some of the most successful radio promoters include Toronto’s Dulce Barbosa (who graciously educated me about radio formats recently), Dale Peters (also in Toronto) and Oscar Furtado (in Vancouver).

Further words about Canada: federal CanCon (Canadian Content) laws exist here to ensure that our own homegrown music is promoted at radio. So, 35-40% of the material Canadian radio stations play must fulfill two of the following ‘MAPL’ designations:

  • M – Music – The music was written entirely by Canadians
  • A – Artist – The recording was performed entirely by Canadians
  • P – Production – The recording was made entirely in Canada
  • L – Lyrics – The lyrics were written entirely by Canadians

I used to feel that CanCon laws skewed my perception of what was really going on in the world––that radio play should simply be awarded to the best songs by the most polished artists––and I resented the fact that some of the artists Canadian radio had led me to believe were bonafide ‘stars’ hadn’t even scratched the public’s consciousness anywhere else in the world. But I appreciate the unique contributions Canadian musicians have made on the world stage…contributions that were possible in part because they were at first protected here by CanCon laws next to the more powerfully promoted American and British artists. We are roughly 10% the population of the United States, so labels down there have 10 times the selection when looking for an artist to promote. This also means Canadian labels have roughly 10% of the budget their American counterparts get to throw behind their artists’ promotional plans. CanCon laws are a necessity.

The burning question of the moment, however, is how much radio play even matters to an artist’s success these days. In an age when music is increasingly discovered virally on the internet in blogs and links to YouTube sensations posted on Facebook, less people spend time waiting around for a song to come on the radio. Even fewer seem to be sitting around watching music video channels. However one unique feature radio does provide is a linear, programmed stream of music and news that can be enjoyed in the background while at work or in the car, not to mention that bit of human presence the hosts bring. So for the time being, new songs will continue to be broken at radio and songwriters will continue to profit from broadcast. For the independent artist, it’s a question of whether investing in an independent radio promoter will pay off short-term, financially, or in the endgame of building a fanbase.

It is possible to do the legwork yourself, getting your single heard by individual station managers or programmers in hopes that they’ll put it into rotation and, best case scenario, cause a domino effect with other stations. But if you want to hit everybody at once and stay on top of the stations, it’s best to get serious and hire a radio promoter.

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