Monday, October 25, 2010


Further along the road less travelled:
Re-reading my 'Competitive Music' blog, I realise that, caught up as I was in the throes of maniacal ranting, I left out a few things about the competitive nature of modern music.

Ever heard of SoundScan? If you're merely a music consumer (sorry, fan) you probably won't have, but if you're in any way involved with making and selling music in the US or Canada, you live, move and have your being with SoundScan. SoundScan (just made a typo there... wrote SoundScam and had to correct myself, but what a Freudian slip that was) is 'the official method of tracking sales of music and music video in the US and Canada'. In other words, there's a score-card of every CD or DVD that gets sold, and as an artist you can track your impact on the market week-by-week by checking the SoundScan reports.

On one hand, that's merely an efficient system-within-a-system. It's definitely a lot more accurate than Billboard's old way of doing things, which was to call up stores across the US and enquire about sales quantities. On the other hand, it can lead to something I experienced first-hand in Nashville: feverishly checking SoundScan every week, phoning the record label obsessively for the latest scans, and comparing the latest scans to other artists' in the hope of having outdone them.

What the hell is that all about?

A good friend of mine put out his third album in early 2007, and his website was full of news items about the latest scans. "Good news, fans", he crowed, "our scans are up to 15 000 in the first week! Awesome!!" I also had festival organisers refusing to include us because our scans didn't match some of the other bands.

Popularity is now a quantifiable commodity, and if it doesn't look good on paper, it won't even merit a listen. It really doesn't matter anymore how good or bad the music is on its own. It's all about how many truckloads of shiny plastic discs (or, more recently, mp3's) you can sell to as many consumers.

I sound grumpy. Angry. Sour-grapey. I know it. I just wasn't cut out to compete to the death. I make music because I was just born to. Commercially-viable or not. I don't wield my talents like a weapon over the heads of my music-making colleagues, much less the people most musicians have all but forgotten about: other people. 

More 'Competitive Music' soon. Thanks for listening.
And thanks SoundScan for helping me be better than those other crappy bands.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


As legendary 80's Saffa band No Friends Of Harry so memorably sang (albeit in a faux-Goth accent), "it's a raw deal, for the competition rules". Granted, that's probably out of context, but it helps me make the following claim with a certain amount of grim satisfaction: modern commercial music is actually nothing more than a blatant trade in commodities, and worse, it's starting to sound like it.

We've all known for decades, of course, that music in the West ceased being music somewhere around Bing Crosby/ Frank Sinatra. It went the way of everything pure and free and natural and good (especially post-WW2): it became a consumable commodity. Elvis was the apogee of that process, and it's all been downhill since "That's Alright Mama".
The Beatles perfected it, and there's a straight line to be drawn between their epoch-changing Ed Sullivan TV appearance in February 1964 and Lady Gaga in a meat dress in 2010.


One of the many anti-music skills I was told to learn during my years making music in Nashville was how to shrink-wrap songs. Music labels have staff-writers (they have for years) whose sole function is to sit in a room and craft hit songs for artists. That's called a laboratory in other fields of human endeavour.

And in the studio, giant leaps in technology have brought the process of sound recording into our bedrooms: everyone and their dog can buy a laptop and a version of Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase or the like and be uploading their 'songs' to myspace in a matter of hours. This democratization of the music-making process is a great thing, by the way, but that's for another blog.

Modern Top40 commercial radio fodder (this morning: Rihanna, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Usher, Ke$ha) blatantly sounds like what it is: jingles for products. You could have made a case a few years ago for Eminem being worthy of some kind of genius, but not anymore. And I don't think I'm being old-fashioned grumpy bastard: when the Beatles were brand new, at least they could actually play real instruments, really sing, and write their own songs.

We just listen passively to test-tube music now. Lady Gaga (sorry to keep going on about her, but she's truly a new frontier) is selling Lady Gaga, not CD's. All artists are brands. The music is competitive: each artist competing for rapidly-disappearing chart space, WalMart shelf-space and Twitter followers in a war of popularity attrition, like some kind of never-ending audio Pop Idols.

It's becoming like listening to ad jingles all day, and it will eventually drive us all insane.

So, viva indie music, indie labels, bands with guys with beards and girls who don't give a shit, great songwriters who've never had a Top40 hit, kids learning guitar in their bedrooms because they love it, people who make music because they absolutely have to.

And death to Top40 radio!

Friday, October 8, 2010


I  recently started teaching an English & Communications class at the Durban University of Technology (DUT). I always try and engage the students outside of the textbook, because it's such an amazing opportunity for Previously Advantaged White Suburban Boy to swap ideas with young African and Indian students. There aren't any white students anymore, but that's another story.

So this morning, I had a class of Electrical Engineering (Light Current) students, made up of young Zulu men and women, and during our customary Veering-Off-Course, I happened to ask the class who thought ANCYL president Julius Malema was a good leader. I was shocked (although I was careful not to register it) when most of them said yes, he is. A few were particularly adamant that Malema's "calling a spade a spade" was the thing that made him great.

I pointed out to them that already, not even having completed their first year of technology-based tertiary education (which most of them are failing), they are better-educated than Malema. That didn't phase them. "You don't need education to be a good leader", one of them said. "Look at Zuma", another one agreed. Look at Zuma indeed.

The final straw came when one guy said to me, "Malema is a great leader, just like Mugabe". I wasn't sure how to respond to that. When I told them a few Zimbabwean Horror Stories, they all agreed that no, Robert Mugabe had made a mess of Zim, but that nevertheless, Malema is going to be president of South Africa one day, and he and Mugabe have much in common.

These are fairly intelligent, urbanised young South Africans.

They completely believe this.

Nkosi sikilele iAfrika.
Because nobody else will.

Monday, October 4, 2010


I recently had the dubious pleasure of judging auditions for a Gospel singing competition. I say 'dubious' for two reasons: 1. it's heart-breaking to say no to people who are giving their all, and b) what are we doing asking people to out-Gospel each other in the first place?

I don't know if I would've said much about this episode in my life, apart from the fact that the 2-day auditions were held in Umlazi, a massive sub-city outside Durban, and that I was exposed to a huge slice of humanity that I usually don't get to encounter, being a white suburbanite and all.

About 300 entrants came through the doors, and one by one they stood in front of myself, Deborah Fraser (a South African singing legend and shoe-fetishist) and Siya, a well-known DJ from Durban's Gagasi FM. Out of my depth? You bet! The other two judges weren't too sure who I was or what I was doing there, and neither did I.

A quick briefing didn't prepare me for the depth of talent I was to encounter over those 2 days. I had to be ruthless, apparently, but each entrant was better than the last, and I had the privilege of hearing some of the most powerful singing voices I've ever heard. Choirs, trio's, duo's, solo singers, keyboardists... KwaZulu-Natal (my 'province') has it all, and I was dumbfounded.

We managed to choose two finalists (picture below), a young guy named Sakhile who has possibly the loudest voice my guitar amp-addled ears have ever heard, and a trio of young ladies who called themselves the Divas Of God and who possessed the honeyed tone of the Andrews Sisters. It was incredibly difficult; you could see the hope people arrived with, and the crushing disappointment when our judges' lack of consensus meant 'no'.

Two things struck me: South Africa is alive with musical talent. We've always known that, but we tend to forget. These spine-tingling voices seem to emerge from the bush and disappear back into anonymity, and no-one is any the wiser. The other thing: talent competitions suck, especially the ones where people of faith are involved. Their faith isn't the thing in question, it's not on the table, and yet they are encouraged to compete with others of like-minded faith for decidedly earthly rewards. I know I'm being a bit 'bah humbug', but there's just something tacky about the whole idea. Pop Idols For Jesus.

Well, I'll try not to do that again in a hurry. I'm not thick-skinned enough. I was impressed by everybody, gobsmacked by more than a few, and mindblown by at least 25 or so entrants. South Africa is crawling with music, and I had a front-row seat.