January 28, 2009

Eternally Yours, Addendum

Posted in Music tagged , , , at 9:31 pm by Andrew McMillen

As a postscript to my earlier post discussing the band and their music, here’s my review of the Laughing Clowns show in Brisbane last Friday, to be published in Rave Magazine #876 next week.

Laughing Clowns / Bob Farrell
Gallery of Modern Art, South Bank Fri Jan 23

Ed Kuepper pensively smokes a cigarette as a healthy crowd streams through the Gallery’s entrance. His eyes are focussed across the river, toward the city lights. Perhaps he’s thinking of the handful of shows that his Laughing Clowns have played since their reformation a fortnight ago at the Mount Buller leg of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival; their first full-band performance since 1984. En route to the venue, I’m nervous. Rarely do I approach a show with such trepidation: the Buller set was the apex of a weekend crammed with remarkable performances. Can Kuepper and his fellow musicians match my expectations? This question bounces around my head as we politely witness original Clowns member Bob Farrell toil through a languid half-hour split between piano, saxophone and seemingly stream-of-consciousness sing-song rants.

My apprehension is soon proven baseless. Kuepper and his four bandmates address the hundreds-strong audience with their unique saxophone-led rock style, which is augmented by keys and double bass. Their handful of studio albums are equally represented: The Flypaper, Nothing That Harms and Collapse Board are highlights, the latter of which Kuepper ironically cites as the “most depressing song in rock and roll”, while surrounded by an art exhibit named Optimism.

Immense-sounding signature tune Eternally Yours is a flawless set closer, but trust a jubilant hometown crowd to demand the band’s first-ever encore. Louise Elliott’s scorching saxophone melodies – equal parts soothing and scornful – are integral to the band’s timelessly electrifying sound: she trades sax for flute during New Bully In The Town, before Kuepper opts to close with Saints-era track Winter’s Way. Venue curfew is enforced; bassist Biff Miller is loathe to part with his instrument, but the five members reluctantly leave an equally reluctant crowd. Saxophone melodies are whistled long and loud as we disperse, smiling into the night. Classy, Clowns.

January 27, 2009

Design By Humans’ Music Series: Fleetwood Mac

Posted in Music tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 11:37 pm by Andrew McMillen

User-generated shirt design website Design By Humans have partnered with Fleetwood Mac for an upcoming world tour:

Taking a page out of rock n’ roll’s history book of music icons, DBH will be partnering with bands that span the spectrum from the great classics of all time to the hottest emerging musical artists today. Packed with tons of cool prizes and a chance for worldwide recognition, the DBH Music Series brings a whole new level to the world of t-shirt design contests.

First prize: $1500 cash, $200 DBH store credit, and 2 backstage passes to a Fleetwood Mac concert with an opportunity to meet the band.

Nevermind that Fleetwood Mac aren’t cool anymore – this is a great example of an industry dinosaur adapting to the community-based nature of the web. Hot Chip ran a similar contest in conjunction with Threadless, though the winning shirt was only available online.

No tandem announcement on the band’s website, which is a missed opportunity. While DBH would have a sizeable database, how many of those are fans of the ‘Mac? Though, maybe they’re not necessarily targeting fans of the band: the chance for your design to appear behind the merch desk of a hugely popular band’s world tour is a unique proposition.

But it shouldn’t be.

Artists across the world should buy into the opportunity to foster community participation in their merchandising decisions. Advertise, outsource talent, and encourage your fanbase to vote and comment on the result.

Unhappy with the designs presented by local artists? Advertise online describing the look you’re after, and see what comes back. A fan on the other side of the world might have kick-ass shirt ideas and the talent to deliver. So why bother with the same tired plain-colour-with-chest-logo formula that many bands still follow?

Interesting, non-standard shirt designs attract attention. I wear Threadless and, more recently, DBH designs because they’re far more remarkable than the marginally modified crap that popular Australian labels churn out each season. They stand out, so you get noticed. Which is great, if that’s your goal.

Furthermore, I know that the design I’m wearing was made by a person who was rewarded for their efforts. That’s how Threadless and DBH work: you submit a design, and if it gets printed, you get paid in cash and store credit. And your name (or pseudonym) is attributed to your work, which appears online and on the neck of the shirt.

All of these factors add to the stickiness of user-generated clothing designs. They’re worth sharing, which adds to your brand equity. People talk about your brand. The successful designers are happy because they’re rewarded for their talents. They show their friends and family. They promote their work on their personal websites.

All of these factors create a community – a tribe – around your brand. A group who’re happy to champion your cause and improve the quality of the result. If that’s not your goal as a company in 2009, it should be: maximise returns by engaging with and listening to your userbase.

I’m glad that Design By Humans are working with popular musicians to form tribes around their merchandising, which is an area of fiscal pertinence in an era of diminishing returns on recorded work. For all but the biggest bands, it’s no longer a matter of selling albums: instead, the goal is to maximise the amount of ears that hear your work in order to encourage tour attendance.

Gonzo Goals

Posted in Life tagged , , at 9:29 am by Andrew McMillen

I just finished Gonzo, the Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour oral biography of Hunter S. Thompson‘s life. An inspiring story of a writer I admire, and who I need to read more of.

As I put the book down, I re-decided that I want to be remembered for my writing voice and tone. This is tougher than ever – internet, blogs, everyone’s publishing, etc. But the way forward is to just write every day and get feedback and get better. Push through the dip, I suppose, though I’ve yet to read that book.

It’s hard. I occasionally feel like I’m languishing, plateauing, not improving. I get these feelings when I’m inactive or being too regular – sitting around, talking and drinking. Which is ridiculous, of course, since these moments shape my knowledge and feelings and dislikes and likes and experiences and memories and examples and voice.

I’m determined to be memorable like Hunter, but without the drugs and alcohol. I’m not naive enough to think that this is an original thought. Probably a hundred thousand have thought or written the same thing after reading, or reading about, Hunter. But it’s pretty awesome to realise that one person can have that affect on so many.

And I want to know that feeling.

January 21, 2009

I download music. So what?

Posted in Music tagged , , , , at 11:41 pm by Andrew McMillen

Okay, this.

According to data released by IFPI Communications in the UK this week, it is estimated that more than 40 billion illegal downloads of songs occurred during 2008.

While digital downloads accounted for revenues of around $3.7 billion last year, it is estimated than more than 95% of downloads are still via illegal means.

Yeah. So?

I hear a new artist, or existing artist’s new release on the radio or on MySpace or on YouTube or in street press or through a friend recommendation.

I immediately check whether I can acquire the mp3s, through a variety of channels that I won’t divulge here. If I can – awesome. Download immediately, save to disk; in most cases, transfer to iPod. Then:

Listen to music. Do I like?

If yes:

  • Tell friends to listen to music
  • Attend show if they tour – most often in a reviewing capacity
  • Bring friends to show
  • Buy album (in rare cases)
  • Buy merch (in even rarer cases)

If no:

  • Tell friends not to listen to music
  • Do not listen to music

This is how I’ve operated for over a year. I’ve written about this before.

Impress me, or get the hell out of my ears. There’s simply too much good music out there to waste even a couple of minutes listening to a poor, or even an average song.

It’s 2009. The above data should not be surprising. I doubt that many musicians dare to dream of making a decent full-time living from their craft. Competition grows stronger each day, and attention gets diverted further.

I download music regularly. This is my musical microeconomy. What’s yours?

Content Analysis: National Australia Bank’s Songwriting Competition

Posted in Music tagged , , , , , at 12:02 am by Andrew McMillen

National Australia Bank (NAB) debuted a songwriting competition in April 2008 to commemorate 150 years’ banking service. In their words, it’s “initiative designed to inspire, unearth, and educate Australia’s next generation of great song writer”.

Awesome! Let’s examine their execution.

Their method of presentation is out-dated, very web 1.0, if you will. The competition barriers presented are very limiting, especially for the lyrics section – “write lyrics to one of these three songs”. No streaming video; very little interaction between those who wish to enter and what the company is trying to represent.

It’s all very static. “This is the world we’ve defined, these are the rules, play within them or get lost.”

Hilariously, they ask for all entries to be mailed as a playable audio CD to a physical address. How very 90s. NAB are a bank with access to huge resources. Why couldn’t they source a vendor to build a MP3 uploader? Or commission a YouTube channel (or equivalent) solely for entrants to submit their songs in video form? This would allow them to see the songs being played live and to judge the marketability of each entrant.

But now I’m thinking outside of the confines of the competition, which exists primarily to find and promote songwriting talent. Not whether or not the artist is attractive or performs well in front of a camera.

The site is very vague with regard to the competition terms.

Get your song recorded in a major recording studio.” Which one, with which producer?

Win the opportunity to have the song performed live at a major Melbourne music event, late 2008.” Which one?

These are important questions that any serious entrant would want answered before they devote their time to the project. Why would a writer of a plaintive, introspective acoustic guitar-accompanied piece want to record with, for example, an electronic producer? Similarly, wouldn’t the same performer be discouraged from entering if NAB stated that the song would only be played between bands at a dance music festival?

It’s this ambiguity that robs the competition of a clear goal. It’s as if it were defined from a high-level, upper management perspective, and the marketing department couldn’t organise the specifics in time for the project launch. And then the content wasn’t updated once these decisions were made.

This is a real flaw; it makes the whole exercise appear as a self-serving, NAB-centric exercise instead of focussing on the artistic talents that they’re attempting to promote.

Community and sharing are what’s missing. Having the competition judged by four music industry ‘experts’ (plus a bank manager – wtf?) is fine to an extent, but very old-school thinking. And very web 1.0. Music is evolving online at a far greater rate than most labels can adapt. Hence CD sales diving, the increased popularity of digital downloads, the massive exposure gained by bands whose fanbases existed online before any label had heard of them (Arctic Monkeys, Black Kids, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, you know)…

So for them to seal off the competition so tightly is a major missed opportunity. No interactivity, no user rating, no user commenting.

The primary competition could still exist in this format, but NAB could also have an off-shoot for ‘fan’s choice’ or ‘blogger’s choice’, wherein Australian music bloggers are sourced to critique entrants’ work.

The Judging Panel page is also very static. Okay, so this Ian James guy has “credible and intimate knowledge of the Australian music business that is second to none” – link me to more of his work. I want to read his blog. He doesn’t have one? Then why is he on the panel?

There was a time and a place for these reputable, experienced figures within the Australian music industry. But if they’re not actively engaging with the Australian music community via the internet – blogging, starting discussions with fans, sharing their thoughts on what’s occurring within such a crucial entertainment industry – then they are not relevant. This point is hugely important to me: I’m easily irritated by high-level theoretical bullshit when it comes to music.

The only relevant dude on the panel is Paul Anthony, CEO of Rumblefish, a company aimed at “bringing a creative, financial and legal perspective to any licensing project with music from a pre-cleared catalog of handpicked artists”.

Interesting concept, and it seems to be succeeding. It certainly demands further study. Here’s an article from May 2005 profiling Anthony and Rumblefish. An excerpt:

Then Anthony hooked up with Neal Stewart, brand manager for Pabst Brewing’s resurgent Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, for what became the first test of Anthony’s bigger idea of music identity. Because PBR wanted to maintain a kind of grass-roots image — and also because its marketing budget was lean — the brand wanted to be associated not with hit songs but with up-and-coming local bands that connected with its product. Rumblefish researched the music scenes in two markets, Kansas City and Cleveland, identified a handful of appropriate bands, and executed a quasi-underground program that involved helping those artists cut singles (in PBR-branded packaging) that they could sell or give away as promotions. That way PBR was positioned as a supporter of local indie music — a part of the scene rather than just some outsider trying to exploit it.

If I were serious about establishing NAB as a committed “grass roots” backer of Australian’s music by differentiating from competitors and connecting to the younger generation, I’d:

  • Get several popular indie labels on board (Modular, Speak N Spell, Eleven, Ivy League, Mistletone, Inertia, Elefant Traks, Dew Process, Plus One etc) with partnership deals
  • Recruit passionate fans of bands on these labels to initiate discussions within popular Australian music portals – FasterLouder, inthemix, Mess+Noise etc. This one is hard, because it has to be believable and not fabricated; it also introduces a conflict of interests into the equation, as fans will want to assist artists they like, but might not want to be seen as being involved with a corporate agenda
  • Recruit popular/relevant artists from those indie labels to appear as guests or judges or anything associated with the project. This lends social proof: as long as a project or initiative is genuine, worth supporting and is associated with musicians that I respect, I’d give it my attention
  • Book an associated promotional tour featuring bands from the indie labels. Include the website link on the tour artwork, but don’t ask bands to mention the project/initiative: if they believe in it, they will mention it without being prodded. The promotional nature of the tour should not deter fans from attending, as long as the line-up is attractive. See: MySpace Secret Shows, which are thoroughly covered with MySpace advertising but the kids don’t care because they’re knowingly partaking in an online social movement.
  • Contact the top hundred or five hundred Australian music bloggers and give them access to everyone associated with the project. Community involvement is essential: employ someone to personally contact each of these writers, and monitor and respond to every conversation that they start
  • Film every element of planning and execution associated with the project and publish online
  • Write about every element of planning and execution associated with the project and publish online

January 19, 2009

All Tomorrow’s Parties 2009: Eternally Yours

Posted in Music tagged , , , , at 9:51 pm by Andrew McMillen

That saxophone melody. I realise on the bus ride down the mountain that I could probably listen to it forever.

The band had the restraint not to play the song as on record, which frustrated me for several minutes. Here it is, in many ways a perfect song, and they have the nerve to modify it? 

Which is, of course, an entirely irrational line of thinking, and it was soon flung from my mind.

And so five humans stood before me, carefully dabbing with brushes at the canvas of a masterful creation. That saxophone melody fills me with the most extraordinary feeling of elation, optimism, joy, compassion. Some truly primal emotions were awakened within me, and as I don’t fully understand them, I feel inadequate to even mention them.

“See you again in 2034,” smirked the guitarist, as they left the stage.

Damn him. Damn him and his band and their talent and whatever remained between them for 25 years.  This was a musical experience on par with few others in my lifetime. I am thankful that I will get to experience a similar performance at least once more.

The above was written following the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival that took place at the Mount Buller Ski Resort, January 9-10 2009.  The band in question is Ed Kuepper‘s Laughing Clowns, and the song is Eternally Yours.

My short review of the weekend:

Friday is for wide-eyed exploration of the festival’s unique locale: hitching a chairlift ride just metres away from the main stage’s massive sound system is exhilarating. We bear witness to Bill Callahan as Smog, accomplished blues artist James ‘Blood’ Ulmer at the Ampitheatre and five Kim Gordons masquerading as Beaches – a compliment, make no mistake. Not-so-secret mystery act Grinderman squint into the afternoon sunlight and pound out a powerful set of masculine depravity, which provides stark contrast to the restrained brilliance of improvisational maestros The Necks.

Dirty Three greet the night with an edited performance of Ocean Songs, while The Saints re-enact 2007’s Pig City performance with striking accuracy and largely without passion. Guitarist Ed Kuepper is much more comfortable fronting the reformed Laughing Clowns on Saturday, who turn in an enrapturing performance of their jazz-affected post-punk and conclude with the towering saxophone melody and festival highlight of Eternally Yours. 

The aging faces of Silver Apples and Harmonia are visually anachronistic and aurally futuristic, yet this doesn’t stop the buoyant crowd from engaging with the pioneering electronic sounds of either act. This open-mindedness rates among the most attractive trait displayed by festival-goers; though, perhaps this willingness to trial uncharted sounds is more indicative of our trust in the curators’ judgement, which remains impeccable across two days.

The earth-shattering electronic distortion of British pair Fuck Buttons is sonically distant from the cute thrash-pop of Japanese girl duo Afrirampo, yet both acts win legions of new fans following outstanding performances. Greek lyre-playing wonder Psarandonis inspires mass-gypsy dancing as light fades on Saturday evening, before Spiritualized conquer the main stage with their powerful, gospel-inspired noise rock. Fourteen arms and fourteen legs comprise festival curators Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who see off a memorable weekend in their affecting, incomparably badass style. 

While failing to reach venue capacity, All Tomorrow’s Parties organisers succeed in ensuring that the inaugural ATP Australian festival is smoothly-run and highly memorable. It’s heartening that this boutique event can cater for the more discerning music fan; the overwhelmingly positive consensus among attendees leads one to believe that the market for future events is only going to increase.

I reviewed the Brisbane Riverstage ATP show, too.

The Gold Coast Big Day Out yesterday was such a departure, or more accurately, a return to the reality of Australian music festivals. Unpleasant isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.

Where ATP was about open spaces, hand-picked artists, musical exploration and community, BDO represents crowded spaces, populist musical decisions, overt nationalist pride and exceeding one’s limits, ostensibly in the name of a good time. Like some kind of devolutionary race to the bottom.

I’m not complaining. I chose to attend, and I enjoyed myself. It’s just interesting to compare the objectives for but two of the dozens of festivals that dot the Australian summer calendar.

January 4, 2009

My 2008 Hottest 100 votes

Posted in Music tagged , at 8:14 pm by Andrew McMillen

The Hottest 100 is an annual poll conducted by Australian radio station Triple J. It’s the largest music poll in the world, and while I’m not disillusioned enough to believe that my input will affect the results (how’s it feel to be on top, Kings Of Leon, Presets and MGMT?), there’s still a tiny sense of self-satisfaction to be gained by voting for ten songs that enlightened my year.

Video links included where possible, else MySpace.

Pivot – O Soundtrack My Heart

Those Dancing Days – Hitten

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

Mary Trembles – Tiargo

The John Steel Singers – Evolution

The Drones – The Minotaur

The Temper Trap – Sweet Disposition

Cut Copy – Out There On The Ice

Firekites – Last Ships

Crystal Castles – Air War

Note that these are tracks were released in 2008 and appeared in the voting list. And unlike previous years, Triple J didn’t output a list of my votes in the auto-generated confirmation email, so I had to re-compile the above list from memory. 

More accurately, the songs I listened to most in 2008 are as follows:

lastfm_2008