Islands in the Stream 

In 1990 I brought a copy of my first record, Coming of Age, to the offices of a small radio network in Sudbury. The music director saw me right away and we listened to the album in his office. He liked what he heard and so we strolled down the hall to the studio where he made a carte (1/4 tape cartridge) of a cut he thought would fit their format. He later put the song “Heaven on Earth” into light rotation which meant the record would be "spun" from five to fifteen times per week. For every time the song was heard on either of the network's FM and AM stations I received $0.70 from PROCAN (now SOCAN), the performing rights association that sells public performance licences to radio stations on behalf of its members.* In one year, from a single song, I earned $555.84 for 800 performances on commercial radio. 

Radio, like much of the mainstream media, has been severely undercut by the digital revolution. Most people today consume music through streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music. This has drastically reduced the amount of income artists receive from performances of their content. Every time my music is streamed, i.e. performed, I receive $0.0007. If one of my songs was streamed 800 times (the same amount of spins "Heaven on Earth" received in 1990) I would earn $0.56. In order to make $555.84 my music would have to be streamed 794,057 times. To put this into context, if commercial broadcasters paid the same ridiculously low rate as Spotify my song would have to be in light rotation on every radio station on the planet (approximately 44,000 of them) for eighteen years to earn me the same amount. 

The Internet age has turned out to be an incredible time for independent artists. It has never been easier to create fully realized works then distribute them to an audience. But information technology has also made it nearly impossible for a creative person to earn a living. Whereas radio and television broadcasters used to represent an opportunity for professional musicians to earn a moderate income, now streaming has rendered our products essentially valueless. Streaming one of my songs amounts to 7/10000 of a dollar being transferred into my Paypal account. Even the most egregiously ripped-off blues artists from the early days of the record business got a better deal than that.  

A traditional broadcaster's use of creative content is governed by long-standing and legally binding agreements with organizations like SOCAN, the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada. Public performances of music owned by individual members are logged into a database. Four times a year rights holders, through licence fees, receive a share of the revenues earned by the broadcasters that use their content. In Canada the common interests of more than 135,000 individuals are represented by SOCAN who in 2015 collected over $300,000,000 on behalf of rights holders worldwide. 

Income from digital streaming on the other hand is based solely on a lengthy legalistic “artist agreement” between each individual rights holder and a digital music middleman like CD Baby. Content is uploaded to a database then the rights holder simply decides, by checking boxes on their computer screen, which streaming services will be allowed to use their content. Most artists scroll past the 20,000 word contract, select the box beside "anything that pays,” and hope for the best. After the artist clicks “I agree” they have minimal control over how their content is propagated. They have little say in how they will be compensated neither do they have any practical relationship with the corporate entities that use their music. There are no collective agreements between the individual owners of digital content and Apple or Pandora or Spotify. A rights holder either agree to the terms and conditions or their content is not distributed.  

The difference between these two models is obvious. One depends on the work of an organization that advocates on behalf of its members all of whom share a common interest namely to be paid fairly for the use of their work. The other pits several large corporations against millions of individual rights holders who all wish their CD Baby accounts had a balance of more than a few pennies. 

When I first heard my music on CHNO in 1990 I took a great deal of pride in the fact that I had (with the help of a small circle of musical friends) produced something beautiful from almost nothing. The satisfaction of connecting with people through my music was the fulfilment of my aspirations as a creative person. But it wasn't until I received my first payment of royalties collected on my behalf by SOCAN that I realized that my livelihood was based not on my own individual efforts but the collective will of thousands of people with the same interests as me. As I developed as an independent arts professional I found that while my creative endeavours remained intimate my livelihood was wholly dependent upon being widely engaged with thousands of other people with the same goals. 

The digital download horse fled the barn never to return when Napster opened the door in 1999. Merely complaining about the pittance we receive from streaming is futile. Engaging with other arts professionals and rights holders remains the wisest approach to protecting our interests. The days of the gruff but friendly radio man programming music solely on a whim are gone. More than ever and regardless of our position in the music industry it is important that we support the organizations that are working to meet the challenges of the digital age through political action. It is only after we come together as an organized and articulate group that we will cease to be islands in the stream. 

*(“SOCAN obtains 100% census performance data from approximately 160 radio stations, which provides approximately 65% of SOCAN’s domestic radio revenue. SOCAN uses Digital Audio Identification technology, or DAI, which uses pattern recognition to identify musical works aired on radio by comparing them against a BDS library of known works. SOCAN conducts an extensive survey of non-census commercial radio stations representing different music formats, regions and languages. Stations are surveyed 3 or 4 days each quarter of the year for a total of 28 days per year (only performances reported in these surveys are paid). Stations broadcasting less than 12 hours of local programming are not included in SOCAN's survey.This survey system benefits those members having more widespread airplay of their songs over a longer period of time. College and Community radio is also subject to a survey four times annually (3 or 4 day periods.” http://www.socan.ca/files/pdf/Radio%20Eng.pdf)

Anchors Away 

On May 27 I'll board flight AC872 (Toronto-Frankfurt-Edinburgh) to join the G Adventure team for two months exploring the Norwegian coast. Then in August I'll hop on the MS Ocean Endeavour with my Adventure Canada mates and return to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. I'm looking forward to the hard work, laughter and especially the music. 

Playing on a cruise ship was something that never seemed appealing to me. I imagined months of daily boredom and endless nights grinding my way through "American Pie" for inebriated retirees. But an adventure cruise is different. 

First of all, the vessels are much smaller. While typical cruise ships can accommodate thousands of people, the MS Expedition and MS Ocean Endeavour, are both only a little larger than the Chi-Cheemaun. We host around 200 paying passengers, a small enough bunch to learn everyone's names. After a couple of days of adventuring the ships become more like summer camps than cruises. 

Second of all, I have a "regular job". Besides playing music in the evenings I'll be piloting a Zodiac during the day. A Zodiac is a large inflatable rubber boat with a flat metal bottom that carries up to twelve people from ship to shore for sight seeing. Driving a Zodiac is not only fun and challenging but it makes me feel like I'm part of the team not just a token guitar strummer. Being at sea is much more rewarding when you've got your hand on a tiller and your eye on the starboard bow. 

Finally, adventuring allows me to become genuinely close to people I would otherwise never even have met. The landscapes of the Canadian Arctic, Greenland and Scandinavia certainly are awesome in the truest sense of the word. But it is the people who live in these places that have turned me from a homebody into a traveller. I'm sure there are opportunities to meet good folks on big ocean liners. But sharing a joke with a fisherman on a pier in Ilulissat or hearing children throat singing in a community centre in Grise Fiord beats wandering back and forth from the spa to the casino on the Ocean Princess any day. Big cruises are floating luxury hotels designed to separate you from your retirement fund. Adventuring is about expanding your circle of friends into uncharted waters. 

Last year with Adventure Canada I found myself taking fewer pictures and barely touching my journal. As we sailed into the heart of the Arctic I wanted to soak up every moment with the people around me rather than find a particular turn of phrase to describe the dawn or choose the right Instagram filter for yet another iceberg shot. When we arrived at Kugluktuk after eighteen days at sea I felt so at home in the north that journaling felt a little false. 

When I return to Sudbury in the fall it will be with a heart full of the spirit of adventure and comradeship. With those emotions and experiences I will gain not only new songs and stories but a whole new way of looking at the world around me. That is not just a job but a gift beyond price. 

(Photo by Ian Tamblyn, Sisimiut, Greenland)

Not For Sale! 

Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine that the federal government decided to fully fund Classic Rock radio as well as the CBC. Picture the Minister of Canadian Heritage walking into Q107 in Toronto and announcing, “Good news everyone! You no longer have to sell ads to support your fine programming!” Do you think the general manager would shout, “Thank Goddo! Now we can just focus on the important work of playing “Magic Carpet Ride” ten times a day.” No, he wouldn’t. Because private radio isn’t in the business of providing (or creating) content; they’re in the business of selling ad space. The content is simply the bait to catch a bigger market share (29-49 year old white males) which they then sell to travel agents and beer companies. Despite the romantic image of Andy Travis standing up to “the man” and bringing great rock and roll to the good folks of Cincinnati, corporate radio isn’t Johnny Fever; it’s Herb Tarlek through and through!

Public broadcasters don’t “compete” with private for-profit media; they are in a completely different world. If corporate radio couldn’t sell ads they would simply stop broadcasting. Their business isn’t Led Zeppelin and Rush, it’s iTravel2000.com. People have to stop thinking about corporate radio as this place where long-haired 60s rebels “fight the system” by playing “Crazy On You” over and over again. Like the biker is to organized crime, the gravel-voiced iconoclast is to private radio, just a brand, a logo you can put beside the Metal Mulisha decal on your truck. I’m not immune from wanting to crank Nazareth once in a while and letting my libido drift back to a time when running out of Body on Tap was my biggest worry. But I don’t delude myself; I know that I’m being manipulated and sold down the river to corporate interests. And yes, I feel dirty afterwards.

Don’t be tricked by the conservative lie that privatizing CBC is about freedom of choice and forcing the public broadcaster to compete in an open market. They wouldn’t dare say the same thing about the armed forces, the justice system or our parliamentary democracy, although they do say that education and health care are next on their list. The CBC is a public institution. It is about information not entertainment. It doesn’t sell ads because it doesn’t represent a demographic. Or rather, it strives to reflect one large demographic: Canada. There are things we pay for that benefit all citizens and the CBC is one of them. We have as much right to listen to a fully funded public broadcaster as we do to having a fair trial, fair elections, education for our children and health care when we’re sick. The CBC is not for sale!

In the Court of the Twang Bar King 

Sometime in the spring of 1982 I bought a copy of Guitar World Magazine. I was interested in an article about my musical hero, Randy Rhoads, who had just been killed in a plane crash while on tour with Ozzy Osbourne. On the front of this particular issue was a geeky looking dude with a buzz cut and a pink jacket. "The World's Premier Electric Guitarist" the cover proclaimed. How could that be? The guy didn't wear any leather at all and he looked like a villain from an episode of Simon & Simon. The burnt Strat was cool but everything else about this so-called "premier guitarist" screamed "weirdo" to me.

In the article, Belew said that what was important was creating your own unique sound with the tools you had, even if what you had was a Strat with a broken neck pickup. No minimalist, Adrian, a serious devotee of Hendrix as electronics pioneer, embraced technology, especially compressors, fuzz tones, flangers and synthesizers. It sounded exciting and exotic to me so the next time I was at Wally's Music in Espanola I bought a copy of Lone Rhino, Adrian's first solo record.* All of a sudden my perception of what it meant to be a guitar player changed. It wasn't about looking cool, it was about being creative. It didn't matter what kind of guitar you owned, what mattered was what you did with it. Through Adrian Belew I came to the pure artistry of David Bowie, King Crimson and Frank Zappa, and I started to take seriously the pop music of anti-rock stars like Talking Heads.

Belew's music is about exploration within a tradition, in his case, 60s pop and rock & roll. Adrian's songs are constructed like Beatles songs but it seems like every time he comes to a cliche or a convention he asks himself, "What else can I do here? Where else can I take this?" Songs like "Life Without A Cage" and "The Rail Song" sound like they could be B-sides to Beatles singles from the Revolver era. But even though the canvas is the same, the palette is radically different. Instead of guitar hero flash or urban blues noodling, Adrian made his guitar shriek and roar, warble like a burning bagpiper, purr like a cybernetic panther, and stagger and groan like Robby the Robot on a bender. In a strange way, too, Adrian Belew became my benchmark for friendship; If you didn't get "Elephant Talk" we couldn't hang out.

Belew is still my main inspiration even though I don't write or perform music anything like his. What I hold to is Adrian's ethic of pure originality. You don't have to be a blonde Adonis with miraculous chops, a Marshall stack and a polka dot Flying V. You can make magic with a pawn shop Fender Mustang, a Big Muff and a bit of creativity. Discovering the genius of Adrian Belew was like finding out about a new continent or life on other planets. Suddenly there were infinite possibilities where before there were only dead ends. Of course, the electric guitar has always been a symbol as well as a musical tool but Adrian reminded us that an instrument could make you creative as well as sexy.

Adrian Belew continues to be far ahead of everyone when it comes to exploring the possibilities of electric guitar music. Sadly, the world has become more conservative and corporate, making Belew's feral muse seem not so much an outlier as anti-social; weird for weird's sake. But maybe weird will come around again. Revolutionaries are usually ahead of their time and things that seem exotic and strange may only be the new normal waiting for us to catch up. Adrian always related to the romance of the endangered animal, the lone rhinoceros, misunderstood and mistreated. But I believe what he represents is the first of a new species rather than the last of a dying breed. Rock & roll has certainly had its day and then some. But electronic music has only just begun to be explored. The king is indeed dead; long live the king!

* I'm sure if it had been today I never would have found Adrian at Walmart. Thank you Wally!

Is This The Right Room For An Argument? 

After spending an unsatisfying day setting up an internet shopping cart, relearning Sonic Bids (fail), trying to remember the user name and password for my CBC site (no luck), and googling Spotify and Rdio (still don't know what they really are), I've come to the realization that what I really need right now is feedback not marketing savvy.

I've always thought of songwriting as a conversation. I respond to the music of other people, preferably played in real time. I'm inspired to write when I hear a new idea, musical direction, or exotic instrument. Any artistic vision I have comes from a deep desire to harmonize, to play along, to jam, man!

I don't really want an audience, I want a debate. Music is how I communicate and communication is supposed to be a two way street. This is the danger of the Internet and so-called social media. Despite being hailed as a cultural revolution the personal computer is also isolating. Screens shut us in and make us needy. Infantile is how I describe the worst traits of the information age.

Music is supposed to be dynamic, dangerous, and disruptive. When it's just another part of someone's "lifestyle" it becomes sterile and bland. I need to take my own advice and get off the laptop and out of the house. The whole concept of the social network is a fraud. What started out as a better way to mail a letter has turned into a colossal waste of time. And it despite all the porn it is without question a total turn off.

An Evening With . . .  

I don't know if the first music I ever heard came from a loudspeaker or from a live human being. It must have been the latter (both my parents are musicians) but even if it was a radio or record player that first connected me to music it was the live experience that turned me on. I have a memory of a guitar player coming to my school in the early 70s, long haired and denim clad. What kind of musician was he? A songwriter, maybe a friend of one of my teachers, trying to make a few extra bucks on the road? Was he a music student bringing some culture to rural Ontario kids? Who knows? But I can still feel the tingly excitement I felt when he played. I can also picture a young teacher my parents knew bringing an electric piano to the house and singing pop songs. The sense of joy he expressed as he belted out Beatles tunes remains with me today. The sound of my mother playing standards from the hit parade on the family piano, my father struggling with his clarinet, all these musical memories are as vivid now as when they were first imprinted.

 

 

 

I've lately become bored with recorded music. I hear about some great new musical artist and lean into the radio prepared to be thrilled. But it never happens. Hungry rockers, soulful blues singers, jazz wizards, they all leave me cold. I flip though my CDs looking for some road music but nothing calls to me. Spinning though the radio dial scanning folk, rock, dance, jazz, classical, it all seems dull to me, uninspired. On the other hand, I can sit in a pub and hear a musician play yet another rendition of "House of the Rising Sun" and be moved. The edgy romance of Arcade Fire (on record) can't hold a candle to a local rock band having their way with "Ziggy Stardust". Maybe it's a part of growing old but passion just doesn't reach me down the long line of the recording process anymore. I need real fire to burn.

 

 

It's probably just me, or just the older me. There occasionally seems to be a buzz around this band or that singer that matches the hysteria of the early days of rock. Or is it just manufactured hype? Young people I know seem as excited about music as I used to be. Or are they just victims of insidious marketing campaigns? I wonder if the age of discovery is behind us and pop music is just rehash after rehash of tired old formulas, old dogs and older tricks, dressed up and pimped out with digital effects to distract from the tedium. I once heard my young son complain that the radio station "plays the same song over and over again." If he was already tired of "The Joker" at the age of 10 imagine how I feel! I hear the great records of the 20th century from early jazz to the revolutionary music of the 60s and it all seems faded to me, like old keepsakes that need to be brought to the thrift store. It seems like an age has turned and we're in a holding pattern waiting for a new upheaval of imagination.

 

 

 

So if the past has been strip mined and the present is recycled junk then why make records at all? No one buys CDs anymore anyway so it's always going to be a money losing proposition. Technology has made it so that everybody has a CD. I recently met a grandfather who pulled out a tool case filled with harmonicas at a social event. On top of his harps was a brand new CD, "my second" he informed me before stumbling through "What A Friend We Have In Jesus". The CD has become, for the independent musician, a glorified business card, something to hand out at gigs. They make great coasters and five boxes of 50 will make a great speaker stand. Putting out a record is frankly not impressive in the least. So why not leave a dead medium in peace and work toward a living future? Shouldn't we be striving for something new, something truly original, something that will electrify us again? We live in a time when hundreds of thousands of artists are releasing tens of millions of songs but what are they all saying? Is it just vanity? Or is each CD a mini-revolution for family and friends? One thing is certain, nothing is going to happen until we kick out the jams MFs.

 

 

 

It's Alive 

The first song I remember concocting was for my high school rock band, Blitz (later Tyrant, then Kroam, bass player names all). I still remember the song, an abomination called "Next Door Neighbour" which sounded suspiciously (alright, exactly) like "Room Service" by Kiss. I don't really know why I thought I needed to manufacture a song for Blitz. We couldn't even scrounge together a night's worth of three-chord covers. The song certainly wasn't saying anything important. I just thought that, for better or worse, we should be playing our own tunes. I don't think the other guys in the band thought much of ma chanson. Not only was it not very good but it was just too much trouble for everyone to learn. Why bother with a song nobody knows when "House of the Rising Sun" is right on the tips of your fingers? I suspect that many songs don't get written or performed for just that reason: it's just a pain.

 

 

 

I made a few more attempt at song-craft in those early years but without any real results. It felt like flogging a dead horse without the horse or the . . . flog. Songwriting is more like flailing around in the dark than anything creative. At least sculptors and painters have materials that already sort of look like something. The songwriter starts with absolutely nothing unless you consider a G chord something. So how do you make something out of nothing? Hit Parader and Song Hits magazines had lots of messed up lyrics and bad articles about pop bands but nobody was talking about where the hell songs like "Surrender" and "Hot Blooded" actually came from. This was long before songwriting workshops, Garage Band and the Internet. Heck, we didn't even have the Portastudio yet! If you wanted to play your own song, by God, you had to bang it out on a guitar in your bedroom then teach it to everybody in the band and play it a hundred times until it lurched to life.

 

 

 

You hear a great song and it seems like it's just always been there. It's hard to imagine someone thinking of it, coming up with the melody, finding just the right words, then giving it life. Like any act of creation it seems divine, a product of alchemy. The greatest songs achieve a level of subtle grace that rivals nature herself. Are "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" or "Summertime Blues" any less sublime than a weeping willow or a great white shark? To want to write a song is to aspire to the loftiest heights, the realm of the immortals.  I think Colin Clive, the actor who portrayed Dr. Frankenstein in the 1931 film, perfectly expresses the kind of giddy horror you feel when you finish a song and play it through for the first time. "Now I know what it feels like to be God." Indeed.

 

 

The doctor's creature was his first attempt and not a very good one. Fortunately a poorly constructed song won't cause the kind of mayhem his monster did. A bad song will ultimately only live as long as its creator is around to plug it. Henry F. learned the hard way that man should not play God at least not so near a village of angry townsfolk with a large supply of torches and farm implements. Songwriters however never seem to learn this lesson. They are notorious suckers for punishment, positively itchy for some pitchfork action. We no sooner unleash some new terror on the world and we're back in the lab cranking up the electrodes and sending our assistants out for fresh corpses. For the songwriter the obsession becomes the process not the results.

 

I've had the "it's alive!" moment about 100 times. Some of my creations positively leaped from the slab as beautiful and seductive as Michael Sarrazin. Others had to be prodded and jolted every inch of the way, as awkward and ungainly as Peter Boyle. But after every song I was able to look at my creation and say, "I made this. First there was nothing, now there is this. Let there be light." But do artists bring light to an otherwise gloomy world or do they create darkness so that they can feel the thrill of the sudden flash of inspiration? Perhaps the light we make is so small and insignificant that only in complete darkness can its spark be seen. Maybe what we really create is the gloom not the radiance. Maybe Mary Shelley's warning is not just for those who would tinker with the machinery of life. Anyone who delves into the darkness, manufactured or otherwise, should remember, the flickering torches and angry mobs are only a G chord away.

 

 

Give Us A Kiss 

Every once in a while a band puts out a record that reminds us that pop music can be more than bubblegum. For the generation before mine it was probably Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds, but for me it was Queen's A Night at the Opera, although I heard it a few years after its 1975 release. It took a while for pop culture to drift to the end of Manitowaning Bay in the late 70s. Our TV brought in three stations and the only time rock music was featured on the tube was if it was outrageous or tragic enough to make the national news, like the punk rock phenomenon, the death of Elvis or The Who concert disaster in Cincinnati. There weren't any older brothers in my house and the one good rock station, WLS (AM!) from Chicago, only intermitantly drifted in at night. Even then I only knew about singles and 45s. My awareness of the rock LP ended with Nazareth Greatest Hits, Trooper Hot Shots and maybe Kiss Destroyer.

 

 

Pop music has always been about the hit song. FM and AOR (Album-oriented Rock) notwithstanding, the record business is driven by short, catchy singles with simple repetitive melodies and easy to remember lyrics. For all the artistic integrity of bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, pop music was and is about marketing and promotion not creative exploration. But A Night at the Opera remains unique. Most people think of "Bohemian Rhapsody" (thanks to the Wayne's World movie) if they think of the record at all. But what made Queen's magnum opus important and memorable was not the faux-opera section of the album's "hit" but that every song was distinct, every track a story different from the one before. From "Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon" to "I'm In Love With My Car" to "39" the album has everything from campy show tunes to hard rock to skiffle. Musically fun and endlessly interesting, A Night at the Opera is fearless, curious, and definitely "not cool". Queen (led by a bisexual south-Asian with a penchant for vaudeville!) always rejected the chauvinism and conformity of "cool" identifying with "geek" and "queer" before those concepts even existed. Unfairly lumped in with the "bloated excesses" of corporate rock, the band was, in fact, highly subversive, a counter-culture movement disguised as mainstream.

 

 

Obviously Queen's greatest achievement is a result of four very different songwrtiters with a budget and a top recording studio for a playground. And while I don't know the original rationale (if there even was one) behind putting out an album that mixes bouncy ukulele songs with screaming guitars I suspect there must have been serious discussions about whether the record would work as a whole and whether fans would accept such a mad jumble of styles and sounds. Imagine the lead singer of a cult band that was desperately trying to become a headlining act bringing a song like "Seaside Rendezvous" to the table! Remember, in 1975 Led Zeppelin ruled the rock world. Important music was "heavy" and humourless and violently heterosexual not to mention almost exclusively white. A Night at the Opera eventually became a huge commercial hit but when it was conceived it was unconventional in the extreme, flamboyantly exotic and culturally and sexually ambiguous.

 

 

That no artist has released anything even remotely matching the audacity of A Night At The Opera proves not only the genius of Queen but also the persistence of homogeneity and chauvinism in pop music. Tragically the corporate fantasy of "cool" is continuing to cow the masses into conforming to a cultural identity which serves the interests of the so-called "lifestyle industries". After all, how could McDonalds and Coke, with their banal "products", possibly be expected to seduce a hoard of sexual and cultural mongrels each with a unique and indefinable identity? There is sound reasoning behind the hysteria and sheer volume of mass media today: it is becoming harder and harder for these merchants of bland to shout down the millions of voices singing in their own unique and beautiful voices. Human beings thrive on diversity and wither in monoculture.  We need a range of experiences and stimuli. We need kotos and Marshall amps. We crave both vaudeville and glam. We demand machismo and mincing. Our hearts don't beat at a consistent 120 beats per minute, neither are our souls tuned to one prefab emotion. The sooner we all reject the "normalization" of pop culture and embrace our inner complexity in all its weirdness the better. That's why, when it comes to music I say, "God save the Queen."

 

Don't Call Us 

 
Of all the wicked things I've heard spoken, the worst came out of the mouth of a record company A&R* man. He said: "If you've done your best work, quit." He said this at a panel discussion during Canadian Music Week in Toronto. The room was full of young people like me eager to hear some insider insights from veterans of the biz. But instead of wisdom we got bitterness. Instead of encouragement we got the sort of contempt usually found festering in deposed dictators. It was obvious that this sad and defeated man despised us. Worse, he hated us because we were everything he used to be or wished he could have been: optimistic, creative, open-hearted, free.

 
I don't need to make a list of all the people who did their "best work" later in life or after they had been burdened by some sort of handicap. And I don't need to fall back on clichés like "hold on to your dreams."** It's obvious to anyone who cares to think deeply about such things that life is always about improvement, actualization, realization. Despite the failures, the setbacks, the obstacles, life's journey is driven by the need for completion. Desire is neither diminished by age nor defeated by death. One's "best work" is always ahead, always over the next hill. Movement is the meaning of life and activity both the means and the end.

 
What had embittered the A&R man was not his long-lost dreams but the emptiness of what he had in abundance: status, wealth, power and prestige. Everything he had placed the highest value upon had turned out to be false, fleeting and insubstantial, while all that he had dismissed as inconsequential—love, friendship, honesty—had turned out to be the real riches, the true blessings of life. In the end his great failing was not his dim view of existence. Rather it was his refusal to humble himself and embrace striving for its own sake. Life has no winners and losers, no eternal reward for the well endowed, no places of honour for the strong. Everyone, both high and low can share equally in gift of the struggle.

 
Giving in to cynicism and despair is a turning away, a rejection of world, a betrayal of humanity. Life is not a competition, a race to some imaginary jackpot where everything is easy and pleasure is poured out for the idle. True happiness is found in striving for something, sharing the work and the bounty of life with your fellow man. Quitting is never an option and your best work is the work you do today. Failure is usually equated with the inability to attain some sort of goal. But the only real failure is in failing to see through the lies of those who would have us reject life in order to justify their wickedness. There is evil in the world but it doesn't look or sound like what we've been taught. Instead it usually wears designer shirts, drives a Lexus and says things like, "let's do lunch."

 
* Artists and Repertoire
** A great song no matter what you think of Triumph

We're Rolling 

 

Making a record is a strangely ironic endeavour. It is deeply personal yet highly public. It begins as a meditation on eternal truths and ends as a disposable plastic product. The work is fulfilling but also exhausting. Recording a musical performance traps spontaneity, wraps it around Styrofoam and gives it glass eyes. It is the taxidermy of sound. In many ways, making a record undermines the essential spirit of music. Even capturing "live" music is, in the end, an exercise in futility. When the red light goes on, the excitement generated by music is diminished or at least put in the past. Like a photograph, a record is nothing more than a memory aid.

 

Then again, the studio has become a place of musical experimentation. Today's writers of popular music use the multi-track studio as an arranging tool. Composition is no longer a job involving quill pens and paper. Complex electronic music is created on the fly. The studio allows musicians to hear what tones and timbres sound interesting next to each other. The invention of overdubbing in the 1950s transformed composing into an occupation of listening and doing rather than thinking and scribbling. The studio musician is more like a sculptor or a painter than a composer. Except instead of marble, clay or paint his medium is air.

 

It's obvious to many that music has been in a state of decline since the advent of recording technology. For all the excitement recorded music generates it has transformed music from a literate culture to a consumer culture. People don't engage with music like they did before the 20th century. Enjoying music is a passive experience and passivity leads to boredom. Boredom in turn creates a need for entertainment rather than enlightenment. Even if you don't understand classical music it is obvious that people who followed the careers of Beethoven and Liszt were experiencing music on a different level than people who follow Lady Gaga.

 

But perhaps modern music isn't just the cause but also the cure for this devolution in musical culture. It's certain that there are many reasons for the widespread loss of sophistication in music. And if technology is the main culprit perhaps it is also the stop gap that is preventing us from losing musical languages altogether. Music is a code which sums up the human experience. It transcends time, space, culture and creed. Perhaps, hidden in today's country, rock, and rap, lies the essence of what it means to be a human being waiting for its renaissance.

 

The Internet and the mp3 have made music universally accessible. And while this has been a disaster for musicians and the music industry it has also fired people's interest in music. A young person today is likely to have music from dozens of cultures, genres, languages and styles on her iPod. Unlimited access to the entire history of recorded music has freed the listener from the tyranny of the populist, the ad man and the politician. Musical tastes can no longer be dictated. They spring from a natural curiosity and find their home in the folk music of Madagascar as easily as in the dance clubs of Los Angeles.

 

Indeed, much was lost in the 20th century and a lot of the blame can be laid at the feet of technology. But modern recorded music is enormously complex. There is a reason the music of Mozart sounds boring to people today. Their ears are used to unmeasurable and untranscribable depths of dense musical overtones. Distorted electric guitar may sound like noise to the ear trained to hear simple polyphony. But likewise a string quartette sounds dull to the rock music fan because it is sonically unsophisticated. What is lacking is education and appreciation on both sides.

 

Music seems to stand now on the cusp of a massive rebirth. There is a critical mass approaching where centuries of musical knowledge are about to be reformed in an unimaginable way. It may be another technological innovation or it may be a true renaissance, an awakening of lost wisdom. Order may yet rise out of chaos and introduce to us new forms. The collective unconscious has surprised us before. And though there is as great a risk of calamity as there is hope of beauty, I'll throw my lot in with music.

 

Whether it's heard live on the street corner or in the solitude of your ear buds there is a secret in music that no one can capture. It cannot be bought and sold, neither can it be theorized and codified. Music remains the freest language, the song of the trickster, the cry of the soul. It is a principle good, an ultimate end. It defies irony, repels cynicism. It is both primordial and trivial. Music is the twin spirit of life, the tension that drives existence forward, orients us towards eternity. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” the psalm says. Good advice that has yet to go out of fashion.