Pathological Positivity

I feel sad.  I feel sad with very good justification.  Events are happening in my life, at present (and in the world in general), to which the most rational and appropriate response is to feel sadness.  I think that the emotion of sadness wouldn’t have still been with us, as a species, if it didn’t serve some very useful evolutionary process.  Otherwise, it would have been selected out, millennia ago.  We feel sadness because it is important to do so.  While not exactly a pleasant feeling, it also leads you to contemplation and quiet behaviours, which I conclude, are part of self-preservation and survival.

Expressing sadness is supposed to connect us to other empathetic people, when we need their emotional support the most.  It’s supposed to signal a need for others to care about you a little more than usual.  It’s not supposed to be something that makes you feel guilty or ashamed, for the sin of feeling sadness publicly.  It should not make you an untouchable pariah, or the target for unwanted help with feeling cheerful.  False cheer is not the right thing, in this circumstance.  Some reverence and respect is.

Feeling sad is, I think, a way of helping you get through sad things without falling to pieces, psychologically, in a massive, sudden unleashing of the tidal wave of grief that builds, as if in a pressure cooker, inside ourselves.  If we didn’t have sadness, I think we’d explode, when confronted with the inevitable saddening things we all encounter, at some time or other, in our lives; if not immediately, then certainly eventually.

So why does everybody want to nail your relief safety valve shut?  Why do people think they’re doing you a huge favour to try to kid you out of your sadness, as if you were some kind of imbecile, incapable of responding with the appropriate bubbly cheer, in the face of things that are really, really sad?  What’s with the forced smiles and tortured bonhomie?  Why is it thought to be an offence to society to express a natural emotion?  Why can’t I be sad?

I came across this article, recently:

It reported on research that found that extremely positive people think they’re more able to empathise than they really are.  In other words, they see themselves, because of their extreme positivity, as caring, sharing, sympathetic and empathetic human beings that everybody should be pleased to know.  How they are actually perceived, by those on the receiving end of their extreme positivity, is as hard-hearted, cold, insouciant, self-involved, arrogant, sanctimonious, judgemental air heads who heap insult, injury and emotional harm on those that are at their most emotionally vulnerable.  Rather than being a source of comfort and support, they are perceived as a destructive, uncaring force, happy enough to stamp all over the feelings and hurts of other people.

Pathologically positive people, it seems, are less able to feel the emotions of others (both positive and negative) than those that reported themselves as being less than bubbly.  This is not surprising, when you come to think about it.  If your repertoire of emotional responses habitually excludes anything that isn’t bubbly positivity, then you aren’t going to recognise and respond to the wider gamut of emotions, displayed by others, outside of your limited range of self-permitted feelings.

Sadness is not the same as negativity.  People often mistake those two things for each other, but they’re different.  The latter is relentlessly seeing everything in the worst possible light and as such, is a distortion of reality.  Sadness, on the other hand, is responding to sad things with the appropriate emotion.  Fake positivity, in the face of saddening events, is bizarre.  It’s unhealthy.  I think it’s actually twisted and pathological.  It’s pathological positivity.

Encountering pathological positivity can feel isolating and frustrating, when you feel sad for good reason, but all around you seemingly want to stay uninvolved, don’t want to listen to your sadness and don’t want to comfort you.  It can feel even worse when they insist you should be feeling emotions other than sadness.  It’s not as if sadness is a contagious malady.  They should worry about that less.

Of course, if your sadness merely alerts another person to their inappropriate lack of response to sad things, then it can be contagious, but isn’t that a good thing, in this context?  Shouldn’t people that are not feeling sad, in response to sad things, be reminded that the best response is actually to feel sadness?

The alternative to pathological positivity is aware and awake positivity, grounded in reality and respectful of when it’s healthy and life-affirming to be productive and creative and when withdrawal from the melee is the right thing to do.

Aware and awake positivity is characterised by facing problems with empathy and solving them with optimism.  It doesn’t deny sadness, it embraces it, but it never loses sight of the fact that things can and most likely will get better in the future.  It’s quite uncommon for one’s life to be an endless downward spiral, though there are, of course, countless documented examples of just this unfortunate turn of events.  Aware and awake positivity is very different to “head in the sand” positivity, which is all about appearances, selfishness, superficiality and a belief that you have to be positive to get what you want.  Positivity that acknowledges, accepts and respects sadness is gentle, calming and effective.

Sympathy is also not the same as empathy.  Empathy requires that you share the negative feelings of the person you’re trying to support, at least temporarily, so that you can genuinely step into their shoes and understand their problems from the heart.  To be genuinely empathetic, you need to feel their feelings, at least for a short while.  Simply offering them chocolate just doesn’t cut it, as well-meaning as that gesture might be.  It’s too disconnected and emotionally remote to qualify as empathy.  That’s actually sympathy.  You want to comfort the person, but without feeling what they’re feeling.

Art practice requires some positivity, it’s true, or you get stuck and paralysed.  On the other hand, there are things that are more important than art and if you feel sadness, why should the demands of staying creative override thinking about the things that have made you feel sad?  Perhaps they deserve additional attention, at this moment.  Let your artistic life ride, for a while.  You weren’t put here first and foremost to be a creative robot.

The same applies to all sorts of issues, actually.  Not just art related ones.  Sometimes, sadness serves to divert your focus to something more important, that needs your immediate attention.  It’s probably a mistake to fight that inclination too fiercely.  The feeling is valid and it would be foolish to ignore or suppress it.

We can all agree that positivity is necessary for progress, but you can’t be blind to the genuine obstacles and problems, or you’ll never solve any of them.  You also can’t assume somebody else will solve them for you, or leave it to them.  They’re all waiting for you.  Skating over the problems you must face and solve, with a vapid grin plastered on your face, to hide the heartbreak and emotions below, is sheer folly.

Reversion to the vacuous is not an answer, either.  Scratch beneath the surface and most people are eating whole tubs of ice cream on their own, or nursing chocolate addictions, in an attempt to stave off the feelings of existential loneliness that trying to portray your life as unfailingly happy, positive and perfect brings on.  We’re all more vulnerable than that, our pretences and protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.  We feel sadness, despair, pointlessness, failure, discouragement, defeat and hopelessness, from time to time.  We all do and we all should, I contend.  Denial doesn’t change anything.

You can express your sadness through your art.  I know I play music and compose very differently, when I feel sadness.  It’s not better or worse than my usual music, but it does convey the inner feelings to the outside world as effectively as I am able.  It also brings me comfort.  If just one person responds to that kind of music, wrought from my sadness, then so much the better.  I feel as though I have connected, emotionally, with people who are genuinely able to feel the same feelings as I am feeling, through my music.  That’s an inclusive and embracing feeling and just what you need, when you feel sad.  The sharing of that music feels like a hug.

(Humorous aside:  Who was it that said, “If my music reaches just one person, then I’m going to need to take a day job to survive”?)

We don’t need to try to change the world.  We just need to hope that those that are wrecking it will wake up in time and take a long, hard, serious look at their own behaviour.  Those that are greedy, cruel and harsh need to understand how damaging their behaviours are to everyone, including to themselves.  In fact, I assert that these negative behaviours are far more damaging, to society, than a few people feeling sadness in response to sad things.  Oddly, though, the greedy, cruel and harsh do not meet with the same sanctimonious disapproval and opprobrium that those feeling sad do.

Our economic system funnels our will into the pursuit of material prosperity and comfort, insisting we remain bright and breezy at all times, in the process.  This is the very opposite of freedom.  In fact, it’s oppressive.  It stifles creativity and forces our life energy inwards instead of outwards, turning us into what Nietzsche describes as “the sick animal”.  Despite our material prosperity, we suffer from “affluenza” and write self-help books to each other, in an attempt to diagnose and treat the panoply of mental and physical afflictions caused by our wealth and disconnectedness from our own emotions and those of others.  We should be allowed to feel.

In Nietzsche’s book, “Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None”, a work considered to be his most important, he warns humanity about the perils of the very last human being.  He described a possible future for humanity in which we are mindlessly naive, happy and healthy, but lacking in spirit, vitality and creativity.  In his words, we lack life itself.

Nietzsche would abhor the modern cult of happiness seekers, seeing the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain and suffering as being equivalent to the avoidance of life itself.  Pathological positivity would horrify him.  Embracing life necessarily means embracing the painful and the difficult elements of life, as well as the facile, enjoyable and easy parts.

Feeling sad, therefore, is feeling life itself.  There is a little comfort and reassurance in that thought.


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Explaining Is Different to Describing

There are two distinct approaches to writing, I’ve found.  This applies mostly to writing about ideas, so it encompasses technical authorship as well as most punditry and texts about complex subjects, like economics, philosophy, popular science and so on.  You get the gist.

The two approaches are descriptive versus explanatory.  They’re very different approaches to telling a complicated story and one is apparently in the ascendant, while finding excellent examples of the other is becoming increasingly rare.

Strangely, the two approaches to writing about things seldom overlap.  You don’t find very much highly descriptive explanation or very much explanatory description.  It’s like they’re poles apart and created by two very different writing practitioners, with different aesthetic approaches to storytelling and narrative.

Too much news reporting and commercial communication (especially in technical user manuals) is all about describing, instead of explaining.  It’s done in the name of non-committal balance, but it’s also obfuscation and we should call it out as such.  The author thinks that if he expresses no preferences or viewpoint and simply lays out the ideas, like some sort of smorgasbord, the reader can do the hard work of interpretation and mental modelling, without the blame attaching to the descriptive author.  In not revealing the underlying purpose, goals and schema, or even a damned opinion, the author obscures the point they are trying to make.  You are supposed to be able to discern it, as a reader, but the more controversial or debatable the idea, the less likely it is that you will guess correctly, given the description alone.

Authors who lack courage often hide behind reams of technically correct description, without committing to exposing their own analysis and viewpoint, regarding the evidence they have just presented.  I find that frustrating.  Reading a descriptive work like that leaves me cold – cold and baffled.  I feel like my time has been wasted and that the author has done his best to leave me confused, rather than enlightened.  Maybe that was the author’s unstated intention.

Describing is often about cataloguing, stating the readily observable without revealing the underlying logic or connecting framework of thought.  Explanation, on the other hand, is about providing a framework of understanding, sufficient to extrapolate the particular from the general.

For example, user manuals that tell you everything you can do, with a device, without explaining why the feature was added or what you might want to do with it, in the context of a real world workflow or task, are simply catalogues of available buttons to push.  The sequence of operations and what to do if exceptions are encountered remain opaque and must be discovered, through experimentation and error, by the user.  The user must spend time, much of which is wasted, trying to figure out how to use the device, despite having read a thick manual full of description.  The underlying reasons why you might wish to push certain buttons, in a particular sequence or order, are rarely even alluded to in the manual, let alone discussed in adequate depth.  The consequences of particular sequences of action, or what happens when things go wrong, are seldom described.  How to back yourself out of a corner is almost never described.  You’re left with no idea why the feature was dreamt up and whether or not it was added by committee, on the whim of marketing or just to fill an embarrassing space on the panel.

The reason we don’t read history as a simple bullet point list of catalogued events is because that description of history doesn’t really tell you anything useful about history, from which you can learn and act accordingly.  The date of occurrence of one historical event, in isolation, tells you very little.  Context is incredibly important and so are the motivations and forces that led up to the event.  Historians are rarely informative and accurate about the real reasons for historical events occurring.  In fact, they’re often completely naive and simplistic in their analysis, such as it is.  The consequences of the events are never fully explored, connections with other people and events never investigated and the extrapolated, underlying meaning of the sum of the causes never alluded to.  You also seldom find discussion about how history could have worked itself out alternatively, or what other options were not taken.

In descriptive history, things just happen.  They’re acts of God:  isolated “events”.  In explanatory history, the reasons why, the people who decided to cause the events and their deeper motivations and allegiances are revealed.  You get a thread that weaves itself, via sequences of connected and related events and people, back to a hidden agenda.  Without that discourse, the description of the event is incomplete and the real perpetrators remain obscure, but that is, all too often, how history is presented to us.  Descriptive history is a great way to propagate lies.

Knowing everything about something, at a descriptive level, can still leave you none the wiser about the thing itself, because you have no coherent explanation for it.  On the other hand, once you have a credible explanation, the seemingly mystifying observed events can suddenly make perfect sense.  Explanation can be illuminating.

Needless, repetitious complexity results from exact, detailed description, whereas explanation can greatly simplify and aid understanding.  Understanding aids utility.  Explanation provides insight.  Description just provides a long list of observable facts, which you can easily observe for yourself.

Descriptions omit important details and fail to tell you what to do in the case of exceptional circumstances, because to describe all details and all possible exceptions is an onerous task.  However, an explanation that leads to an understanding doesn’t have to describe every possible scenario in detail, because knowing how it works, via the explanation, is all the information you need to predict how something will react in your own particular circumstances.  The particular case is predictable from the mental model of how it works that an explanation gives you (and a description does not).  Mental models tell you what to expect, when different circumstances apply

In reading about ideas, understanding the motivations, connections and reasons is vitally important.  Without those things being illuminated for you, it is tragically easy to be misled, often deliberately.  How was it possible to fire so many shots in such quick succession?  If it is not physically possible, then what does that tell you about the lone gunman?  What were the motivations and connections of other people that could have fired the other shots?  These are important questions to think about.  The plausible explanation is missing.

Most government enquiries fail to explain the reasons for the events they examine and describe.  All they try to do is make the observable events fit a set-piece narrative.  When the observable events do not fit the suggested narrative, we’re left with an intellectual stalemate.  Things are left as open, unexplained mysteries.  Clearly, the description of the events does not fit any plausible explanation proposed.  If no plausible explanation is offered, then the reader must infer one.  The real explanation has been hidden.

Mysteries are actually exceedingly rare, in the real world.  What they are markers of is an explanation that has not been revealed.  The true explanation, more often than not, resolves the open mysteries perfectly, yet remains consistent with the description.  In fact, that’s a good acid test for an explanation.  If the proposed explanation fits the description and resolves the mysteries, it is said to “ring true”.  It’s the moment when everything makes sense and intuitive understanding is achieved.

Insight and analysis beat straight repetition of observable facts.  Knowing why is much more important than knowing what.  Our innate curiosity and thirst for truth seems to indicate that we’re more or less hard-wired to seek the reasons why.  It is an evolved, survival strategy that prevented us from future, surprise ambushes.

Today, many people have lost that early warning facility.  They are lied to, deliberately and repeatedly, by people that take advantage of descriptive prose, who insist you accept their description, without question or an underlying understanding, or a plausible explanation for the observed facts.  These are discordant pieces of information, uploaded into our brains.  They do not ring true.

Description, on its own, makes understanding more difficult, because you have to provide your own analysis of the observations described and the description you’re given to work with may be incomplete, partially or fully fabricated or state-dependent, without revealing itself to be so.  They’re hard to trust, because it is only through direct observation of your own that you can verify a description.  If we’re meant to accept the description, without explanation and with many open mysteries attaching to it, then we’re open to being manipulated.  If we cannot see the evidence directly, we’re dependent on the author’s integrity and honesty to describe it accurately, completely and without bias.  Omission of inconvenient facts is a favourite and age old method of hiding the truth.

The motivations and connections of purely descriptive authors should always be questioned.  This is how they pull the wool over your eyes.  If they can bury you in spurious detail, without allowing you to examine underlying explanations and you take it all at face value, based on your trust in the author, they can easily betray that trust and convince you of anything they want.  Selecting what to describe and what to omit is a subtle way of distorting understanding.

Description can be complete and still tell you nothing relevant, because it may bury you in specious details.  Always beware of becoming mired in the details.  What matters more is to understand why the details are as they are.  You don’t need to necessarily examine them all, to trust in the underlying explanation, if it rings true, though for complete rigour, you should test each one against your explanation.  So-called “conspiracy theories”, whose explanation is consistent with all the observed facts described and which resolve open mysteries are worth more than official explanations which do not and which leave open mysteries.  Also you can’t treat facts as opinions, which are open to debate.  Facts ought not to be changed according to popular opinion.  The most complete and comprehensive explanation, on the other hand, should always be preferred over the others.

Beware of descriptions. Always seek explanations.

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Transparency in the Business of Art

There is an insidious double standard that operates, whenever an artist makes a business out of their art.  Everybody and his dog feels an entitlement to criticise the fact that the artist is trying to survive in a world that demands cash just to survive, saying that they should be happy to make their art for free, while conveniently neglecting to talk about the fact that they, by the same standard, ought to do whatever they do for a day job for free, too.  You should paint, pot or make music for free, but filling in tax forms, or assessing insurance claims – that’s something that ought to reward you handsomely.

Also, if an artist happens to make a decent business out of their art practice, then they are subject to criticism for the way they spend and risk the money they earn.  People are less critical about the way bankers spend their bonuses, to be frank.  Nobody views the art business as a nascent enterprise, with all the same risks and rewards that go along with running a restaurant, or opening a pet grooming salon.

If you announce you’re a professional artist, then people immediately assume you live the life of Riley, either sponging off the State, or else lying around like some wastrel, chest deep in ten pound notes, unable to decide how to spend all your money.  When the truth of your finances is shared and revealed, then people feel compelled to tell you how you’re wasting your time or spending your money in foolish ways.  This doesn’t happen to people that open a retail store or start a service business.

I read this article and it got me to thinking:

Compare and contrast how the owner of an art-based business is treated and regarded, with other kinds of start-up companies.  Start a technology start-up company and you’re permitted to cover your living expenses.  A roof over your head and regular square meals are not considered an extravagance.  They’re essential for your success.  Start a band, though, and you’re expected to sleep in your fifteen year old van, with the equipment and subsist on a bag of hot chips, once a week.  A technology start-up can buy expensive and exotic hardware and software tools and this is considered to be an investment in their future, but buy a few hard shell guitar cases, to prevent your instruments, upon which you rely to make your living, from being splintered into small shards and people think you are spending like a drunken Lord.

When you compare the public reaction to technology or other entrepreneurial start ups to bands, potters or painters, also starting their artistic careers, you quickly realise that most people don’t regard the work of an artist as “real work”.  Why is that?  The hours, effort and preparation required to be a musician, or a painter, far exceed the rigours of becoming a quantity surveyor or accountant.  For one thing, a level of originality and distinctiveness is required of artists, which is not a requirement of becoming a tax inspector or an auditor.  You can audit in the most journeyman-like, routine, trite way, like all the other auditors before you and still you are considered worthy of earning a living.  Go out as a painter and paint in the style of some great master, exclusively, and you’re a worthless hack.

Why is a technology start-up a sacred, if wholly misunderstood, religious artefact, but a start-up art business, like a band or professional painter, not?  I call for transparency in the double standards of the critics.  You cannot both demand the production of unique, outstanding works, never before seen and executed to the highest standards of craftsmanship and quality, yet insist that your four year old could have knocked one of those out at nursery school.  The standard required of artists, to be accomplished and wholly original, is incompatible with insisting that it’s all right, but not like the old masters used to make.  When critics hold the quality bar so high, why do they simultaneously insist that anybody that reaches it do so for next to no monetary reward?  They don’t hold themselves to the same high standards.

In the minds of critics and the vast majority of the general public, an artist should make art for the sheer love of it, not to earn enough to keep their family from penury.  However, their own jobs as columnists, legal counsel or financial advisors, or market traders, are clearly worth a lot of money.  You never hear of a lawyer doing the work for the love of law.  Market traders don’t make trades for the love of the market.  Financial advice isn’t dispensed for the sheer joy of working in finance.

Interestingly, the same “for the love of it” argument is often used against software developers in technology start-ups, who work extreme hours, but earn meagre wages and have little stock participation, because they are told that they “are getting to do something they love”.  Why should loving what you do be accompanied by financial penalties?

Since when did doing something you love become an offence to society, or a transgression against those that don’t have the courage to try to do what they love?  Why is doing what you’re best at considered to be some kind of self-indulgent, lifestyle option, instead of the natural state of things?  Why do we make the assumption that we are destined to have to do things for a living that we utterly detest, to prevent our own starvation?  Why do we believe there is no alternative and that it’s the way it should be?  That’s a controlled society, by definition.

Art is about purity of intention, but so are many businesses.  Could we, as artists, do without money?  Sure, if everybody else throws the shackles off at the same time, but why should artists, uniquely, be martyrs, eschewing making a living within the current, utterly corrupt, unjust, fraudulent, inequitable and broken monetary system, when everybody else acquiesces and upholds the stinking, rotting edifice it has always been.  Artists might be able to tear down that cancer on humanity, one day, but they need not commit suicidal, blood sacrifices in order to achieve it.  Feed the artists and they will show you the way to a better future.

People say that music, art and information want to be free and ought to be free.  I would agree only if food, shelter, warmth, transport, tools, supplies and utilities were free too, but they aren’t, so for the moment, the only way you can get music, art or information for free is in one of three ways:

  1. The maker gives it to you (in which case, they’re covering the costs of its production for you)
  2. Somebody buys it for you and gives it to you as a gift (in which case, they’re covering the costs for you, often for ulterior motives)
  3. You outright steal it from whoever paid for it (in which case, you’re a common thief)

Which kind of free art are these critics expecting?


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Signature Sound Songs

Have you ever noticed how some signature sounds become an indelible part of how a song is remembered?  There are just some unique sounds that are so distinctive, that they become permanently associated with the song, forever.  Any attempt to cover the song, without its signature sound, leaves the audience wanting more.  The song and the artist are immediately recognisable, from just a bar or two of the signature sound.

Examples of signature sounds might include the choir sounds from the introduction of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the vocoder vocal in Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, or the fuzzy opening riff from the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”.  Kylie Minogue’s “Cant’s Get You Out of My Head” has a very distinctive bass line, played on a sampled organ, articulated on the usually unaccented beats of the bar, which immediately identifies the track.  There are many examples.  You always know them when you hear them.

As a song writer and music producer, the signature sound can be a platinum award winning song hook, but it’s a double edged sword, in some ways.  The use of particular, contemporary pieces of music technology to create that signature sound can very quickly date a song, making it seem very old fashioned, after a while.  As those pieces of equipment become obsolete, you can find yourself scouring museums and second hand sales sites, to buy a single working example of the gear that is necessary to let you create what has become your professional, audible calling card.  On other occasions, a signature sound can make a song live forever.  You can never tell.

The use of a signature sound takes that sound out of circulation, thereafter.  Any other artist using the sound will be immediately and unfavourably compared to the extremely popular song that brought the sound to prominence.  It also tends to place the context of the more recent song in the timeframe of the older, more popular song, thereby making the new song seem dated and less relevant too.  You can’t even use your own signature sound in new songs much more, yourself, as an artist, without making it appear that you haven’t had a fresh, original and exciting idea in years.

Music producers should be very careful, when employing a signature sound in a record production.  It can either become a stamp of undeniable originality, staking out some piece of sonic territory forever, or else it can backfire and make your track sound derivative, facile, copied and unoriginal.

The problem with many sound libraries sold to music producers, to use with popular sampling instruments, like Kontakt, is that they sell themselves on the basis of reproducing signature sounds.  The same applies to synthesiser sound sets.  Be careful when using these sounds.  They’re likely to make your brand new music sound like a copy, not an original.

Indeed, among guitar players, there is a whole industry producing the same guitar, amplifier and effects as one famous guitar player, or another.  They claim to allow you to reproduce their signature guitar sounds and so you can, if you want to be seen as coming second and as a cheap, knock-off copy of these guitar players.  The only justification for buying signature models is so that you can take that artists’ signature sound and bend it into something uniquely your own.  You have to transcend the sound they got with that same gear, somehow.

These distinctive sounds are called signature sounds, because they are analogous to a painter signing their painting.  It’s a shorthand aural stamp to instantly bring to mind the artist that made the music.  Consequently, musicians should choose and use their signature sounds with care.

You can’t use it everywhere, because if you do, you look like an indiscriminate graffiti artist, tagging everything in sight.  People tire of it quickly, if overexposed.

You also have to be able to live with it.  There is no point deciding you hate making your signature sound, later in your career, because you’re going to be stuck with it.  It’s your signature.  You’ll be forced to embrace it, whether you like it or not.

A signature sound can backfire on you, too.  If, later in your career, as an older man, you find yourself singing what have become politically incorrect or age inappropriate lyrics, because people want to hear your signature sound just one more time, that can strip you of any vestige of dignity and credibility you had left and leave you looking like a sad, old man, rather than a cutting-edge, youthful rebel.  Don’t marry your signature sound to a song that has questionable lyrics.

If your signature sound is very distinctive, it becomes difficult to move on and develop as a musician, because every new signature sound you come up with is going to be compared against the standard you already established.  Eddie Van Halen initially had a hard time of it, when using synthesisers in what ultimately became some of his most popular songs, because everybody was expecting to hear searing lead guitar.  The uniqueness and memorable qualities of the opening synth phrases of “Jump” took a while to be accepted.  Now, they’ve been cemented into fan consciousness and the opening notes alone can identify the song and the artist.

I don’t know if artists are always aware that they are creating something with a signature sound.  I suspect not.  I don’t think it is common for a music producer to deliberately go after a new signature sound and end up finding it.  My belief is that there is a lot of “happy accident” about it and a lot about the way the musician plays that is as important as the gear they happen to be using to produce their sound.  I’ve heard lots of people with identical Joe Satriani guitar rigs, down to the same plectrums and gauges of strings, who nevertheless, having bought the signature model guitar, effects and amplifier, utterly fail to sound anything like their hero.  There’s more to a signature sound than the equipment in use.  It’s down the notes played and how they are played.

Would I advise identifying and highlighting a signature sound in your music?  Yes, I would, but with reservations.  You have to be careful.  A signature sounds is a bit like a tattoo.  They’re really hard to get rid of, if they’re no good.  Use them with judiciousness and caution and they can serve your musical career well.  If used recklessly, though, they can become a stone around your neck.


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The Corrosive Effect of Pay to Play on Artists

Yesterday, I posted an article about the prevalence of pay to play, or payola, in modern mainstream radio.  It isn’t officially acknowledged, or even legal, but it goes on in many clandestine and disguised ways.  Rest assured that any mainstream label artist that enjoys chart success has bought their way to that position.  It wasn’t on the strength of their artistic merit.  There are a number of industry sources that confirm this is how it works.  The most popular mainstream artists are the ones whose record company, usually using funds the artist will have to earn back through sales or otherwise repay, paid the most money to independent promoters to get their songs onto radio play lists.

What effect does this have on an artist?

Artists might think that the goal of their musical adventure is to achieve fame and wealth.  They might see that as the goal.  In fact, they might be told, repeatedly, that this is the goal.  The industry which surrounds artists doesn’t actually care about the art.  They have nothing to do with it.  What they want are riches.  Hence, they are biased toward telling the artists that the true goal of their career is the maximisation of wealth.

Artists mistake fame for adulation and love.  What artists really want is the love of their fans.  Fame isn’t like love.  It’s nastier, more jealous and more intrusive.  Fame takes a private life and turns it into a public entertainment.  This is a real life that is being transformed.  Artists think that fame will guarantee that everyone they meet will think well of them and appreciate them as human beings, but what it really does is exposes them to judgementalism, rejection, sniping, bitching, criticism, envy and dismissal as lightweight irrelevancies.

It must be hard for artists that really care about their music and their art, to find themselves in the midst of a melee that undermines the ability for the art and music to be judged on its own intrinsic qualities.  Even  if your art was good, and genuinely, dearly beloved, by millions of people, could you really trust that judgement, if you had the knowledge that you were, in round about ways, paying for exposure and force feeding your music down the gullets of millions of unsuspecting people?  The accolades and acclaim would be tainted.  However much people told you, sincerely, that they really loved your music, you would always suspect financially motivated sycophancy or assume that the person telling you had no idea they had been manipulated, by the application of money and power, into liking your music.  In short, you would never regard any fair and unbiased assessment of your music as reliable.

Buying the audience’s undivided attention is akin to living a lie, as an artist.  You want people to like what you made and appreciate its aesthetic qualities, but if money changes hands in order to influence people, covertly, into liking what you made, then how can you be sure they’ve even noticed the fine aesthetic qualities you laboured to include in the music?  What makes you think they even care about them?

All musicians with any skill and integrity want people to like their music because it’s good music that speaks to them.  It completely distorts the assessment of an audience, if competitive offerings remain hidden.  The playing field is not level, so the victory feels like a cheat.  Sure, the artist might achieve fame and wealth, but it’s a hollow sort of victory.  The fame becomes a serious hassle and the wealth doesn’t buy the fulfilment of knowing you did something worthwhile with your art.  Did you touch the audience in their hearts, or just their wallets?

I think that the existing system of major labels paying shady independent promoters to get music listed in mainstream radio playlists is utterly corrupt and has not served the audience or the artists well.  Artists are left with pyrrhic victories and audiences have had their tastes utterly and cynically manipulated, for sheer profit.  That does the art no good at all.  The only people that have benefited are the greedy money men in the industry, who don’t care about the artists, the art or the audiences.

Meanwhile, the practice eats at the hearts and souls of artists corrosively.  Is it any wonder that so many succumb to substance abuse?  The despair must be unbearable.  They’re as alienated from their audiences as they are from the rest of society and beholden to a corrupt business that traps them in long term contracts, from which only one in ten artists benefits financially.  The rest are collateral damage.  The music industry’s body count is unconscionable and it’s always dismissed lightly, as the inevitable side effect of dissolute, Bohemian lifestyles.  That isn’t fair on the many artists that have died.  They had lives.  They came from families who loved them.  They wanted to live.  That they became enmeshed in such a monstrous business may have been something they deeply regretted, but had no way of escaping.

With such conditions prevailing, foul play is exceedingly easy to deny and disguise, as it is seldom properly and thoroughly investigated, free from prejudice.  We sweep the deaths of musicians under the carpet, telling convenient fictions about their wild, out of control lifestyles.  The travesty of it is that we rarely know what the actual truth of the circumstances surrounding their deaths even is.  It’s all too quickly subsumed into the gossip press as entertainment, distorting the sequence of events and perverting the course of justice.  Speculation and hearsay replaces the actual events.  This circus of slander and innuendo ensures that the truth about their deaths can never be known.  The evidence and witnesses become too compromised and the truth too entangled in the fictions and falsehoods.  Everybody’s making money, except the poor, dead artist.

I feel sorry for the mainstream, big label artists caught up in all of this.  I am certain that most sign their record contracts naively, with the noblest of intentions and expectations.  I am equally certain that the reality of the business comes as a bitter shock and mortal blow to people that care, first and foremost, about their music.  Nobody likes to believe that they have been bought and sold, by cynical manipulators, for sheer profit.

There are, thankfully, new opportunities for artists to reach audiences, independently of the diseased mainstream record industry.  More artists are able to bring their music to fans and have honest, direct assessments made of the aesthetic and artistic merits of what they have made.  The human connections with the fans are on a better, more honest footing as well.  They’re genuine reactions and personal connections that are being made.  This, I think, is altogether a healthier situation for artists, even if it brings them less fame and wealth.


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Radio’s Inevitable Day of Reckoning

The jig is up for radio (or should that read, “The gig is up”?).  Radio is on the verge of falling off a cliff.

I have honest, decent, hard-working friends in radio and still more that depend on radio for their livelihoods.  Bad news, my friends.  You’re going to have to move your skills into another medium.  Broadcast radio, the type we listen to on clock radios and in the car, is about to vanish and it will vanish quite suddenly, just like the Yellow Pages, telephone directories, printed encyclopaedias  and local newspapers already have.

We’re just one clever iPhone or Android app away from destroying the broadcast radio industry completely.  I’ll say more about that shortly.

Today, I can get into my car and it has a Bluetooth-equipped in-car entertainment system.  I can connect my iPhone to the system, wirelessly and can take control over the car’s speakers with my mobile device.  Whatever audio I play on my iPhone, I now hear in the cabin of my car, in pretty good quality and with plenty of volume.

My car’s entertainment system still has a traditional FM radio tuner in it, but I find myself listening to my own music, from my iPhone, using the phone’s inbuilt music player app.  If I have the satellite navigation (GPS) application running, at the same time, the music will dim, whenever there is a verbal driving instruction to be announced.  It comes through my car’s speakers too.

Here is the thing:  With so many podcasts, free audio downloads, audio books, catch-up, on-demand radio streams and Spotify stations or playlists to listen to, why listen to local broadcast radio?  That’s anachronistic.  With traffic, weather and talking maps in your mobile device already, why would you wait for the radio announcer to get around to telling you what you need to know?  If you can get the information right now, on demand, why put up with the frustrating delay?

The only reason you don’t abandon radio, right now, with your existing apps and technology, is because you don’t want to have to fanny around with all the individual apps on your mobile device’s tiny screen, while you’re driving, especially if you need to wear reading glasses to see the screen properly.

I alluded, earlier, to a single app that will kill radio and here it is:  A single app that programmes your other audio emitting apps, according to your preferences, so that instant, on-demand local weather, traffic, news, driving directions and music (that you really like) is just a single screen tap away, is all it will take.  You could even let it run automatically, according to a schedule you define.  Traffic updates every five minutes?  Why not?  You want international or business news, every other bulletin?  Knock yourself out.  It’s up to you.

A technology called “Audiobus” already exists on iOS.  I’m sure there is something similar on Android, or soon will be.  That’s the foundation technology that can enable individual apps to contribute audio streams to a single audio programming app, which will do little more than fade in and fade out the right audio streams, on demand.  You’ll hear that mixed and subtly cross-faded programming on your car speakers, thanks to Bluetooth.

This app is like an extension of your familiar Spotify playlist, if you like, dimming the music stream to overlay audio from your other apps, which know your locality and can give you weather, traffic and news information relevant to your current locale, your destination, or to your home town, in another continent, if that’s what you want.  You can mix and match.

Seth Godin, in his article entitled “An End of Radio”, commented that listening to broadcast radio is now a quaint practice from a bygone age, similar to smoking a pipe.  Here’s the link:

The future of radio is, I’m afraid, everything on demand.  No stupid DJ banter talking over your favourite song, no intrusive advertisements that have no relevance to you, fuming shock-jock talk radio programming only if you really want that sort of thing, with weather and news delivered on-demand and localised to you, if not fully personalised.

With the in-car listening environment fully covered, I suppose that relegates broadcast radio to waking people up in the morning, but who uses a clock radio anymore?  Only old people who still wear wrist watches do; that’s who.  Most young people use their smart phones as alarm clocks.  The same killer application finds application here, too.  There is no convenient, tuned-to-just-one-station radio receiver in a smart phone.  Kids wake to iTunes or Spotify music playlists now.  It’s a short stretch to run an app that programmes and personalises their audio information for them.

Streaming media, delivered over 4G or other wireless networks, will ultimately eat radio, with its rigid format and expensive frequency spectrum allocation.  When the advertisers abandon radio, because the listeners they most want to reach no longer tune in, they’re sunk.

There are other reasons why radio’s day of reckoning is sure to come.  The bigger reason consumers will ultimately dump broadcast radio is that it treated them like garbage.  FM, as a radio technology, could have been a coast-to-coast thing, just like television, which used essentially the same technology.  It could have had wider reach, but it was artificially restricted to protect AM broadcasters, who were the incumbents at the time.  FM radio was crippled, technically, to protect AM.  Who even listens to AM radio now?

The other unsavoury thing about music radio programming is payola, whereby record companies pay to have their artists’ songs played exclusively, on high rotation.  This practice was ruled illegal and outlawed, but the payola thing never really went away, it was just worked around.  Sharp operators found other ways of passing equivalent monetary value, from record company (i.e. the artist, who usually footed the bill) to the radio programme directors and management.  This is why radio stations, increasingly all owned by a handful of consolidated, conglomerate mega-corporations, broadcast universally homogeneous and depressingly repetitive play lists.

Records are played on mainstream radio only if they are promoted by major record companies, not on the strength of their own musical merits or even in response to listener popularity ratings.  Independent artists, without the connections and money to pay to play, almost never find a place on mainstream, commercial, music radio programming.  What the major labels promote is what you hear, irrespective of whether or not the audience likes and wants their garbage.

How you think a song becomes a hit, on merit, because the programme director or DJ of a radio station likes it and because listeners phone in, asking for it to be played again, is a quaint fiction.  It’s all for appearances.  Records become hits because major labels pay for them to be played.  Nothing else becomes a hit, at least while radio rules the roost.

Today, this old-boy corruption is being eroded, increasingly so by YouTube and Spotify, which is why the major labels are keen to do deals with these new music delivery services that consumers are favouring.  It’s also why radio owners are diversifying into live music production and staging companies, and concert venues.  They desperately need to own and control these channels to market too.

From the major label artists’ point of view, the bribes always came out of their recoupables anyway, so they bore all the risk, not the record company.  If they were a big hit, then they made enough money from all the sales to not worry about the cost of the bribes, but if they were a miss, it came straight out of their own pockets, even while the record company was still making profits on the records sold.  Now that physical formats and downloads barely earn what they once did, the money major labels take, to pay independent record promoters and “programme consultants”, is actually hurting those artists financially.  They can also see independent artists succeeding in retaining more of their earnings, without a record company and all the associated spongers that happily spend their money.

Radio, as a business, has been rotten to the core for decades.  They’ve hidden it well, but kept dark secrets.  Playlists have been anything but representative of what the station’s listeners would want to hear, if they could choose.  Now listeners can choose.

Increasingly, as radio’s audience share dwindles, due to the availability of more on-demand streaming services, via cheaper and faster wireless IP networks, radio play will be irrelevant to the sales of independent artists’ music, or to building their fan base.  Independent artists are already tooling up for other ways of relating to their audience and monetising their music.

And we’re just one obvious, clever mobile app away from all of this happening.

It’s sad to say, but nobody, apart from the very most dewy-eyed and nostalgic, will miss radio as it has become.  Fans will, in all likelihood, turn against the artists who previously used the services of shady independent promoters, to get air play and come to prominence.  The backlash against the recent Apple/U2 album release is an indicator of the abandonment of major label artists to come.  These artists are tainted by association and the facts surrounding “pseudo payola”, which has continued unabated until the present day, throws their objective appeal and artistic merit into serious doubt.  Who wants to idolise an artist that paid to be idolised and treated you as a contemptible, gullible fool, in the process?

Radio’s days, it would seem, are numbered.

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Could We Be Thinking and Creating Less?

I read an article, over the weekend that argued, convincingly, that human progress has ground to a halt.  The age of breakthroughs appears to be over.  We seem to be creating, but only the most trivial, derivative things.  Here is the article and I recommend reading it:

I’m somewhat persuaded by the argument, because of what it takes for creative breakthroughs to happen.  Like a garden, breakthrough creativity requires certain conditions for it to flourish and it must be carefully tended, in order for the fruits to blossom.  The article seems to have missed these obvious reasons why progress may have been stifled, in recent times.

Firstly, fertile ground for creative ideas is an environment where you’re free to explore seemingly crazy ideas.  For that, you need some privacy.  You also need some degrees of freedom, in your life, to enable you to pursue those wild and crazy notions, undisturbed and unexamined.  What you cannot tolerate is constraint or opprobrium.  Judgementalism kills nascent ideas before they’re even evaluated.  You also shouldn’t have to justify your curiosity.

Secondly, creativity requires a tolerance and ideally a celebration of our precious cranks and eccentrics.  Uniformity of thought and approach is anathema to unbounded creativity and diversity of learning and backgrounds is important, rather than the rigid, regimented products of a standardised learning system who occupy research posts today.  If we don’t protect the dissenters and the curmudgeonly people that insist we have it all wrong and that a better way can be found, we cannot expect them to discover amazing things that nobody suspected were possible.

Thirdly, you need the peace and tranquillity for genuine concentration, not the frenzy and constant distraction, coupled with the “cult of busy” and perpetual rush of more recent times.  The faster everybody is whipped into going, the more intellectually exhausted we become.  Intellectual exhaustion is no place to start, when seeking breakthrough creativity.  Ironically, being exhorted to go faster just makes everything worthwhile go slower.

Maybe we are all too controlled, monitored, surveilled, regimented, propagandised, homogenised, distracted, obedient and culturally dumbed down, now, to replicate the creative feats of the Golden Quarter.  Perhaps the wriggle room that we need just isn’t there, anymore.  This reminds me of Soviet Russia, where the more the regime tried to assert its control and lock ideas down, the fewer the genuine innovations produced by its society.  Could we be living in such an oppressive state of mind today and is the cost of that the destruction of our capacity for breakthrough creativity?

We don’t nurture our cranks and eccentrics, today.  Instead, we medicate them; from an early age, too.  We take the daydreamers and the kids frothing with curiosity and energy and diagnose them as ADHD sufferers.  We then destroy that spark with drugs.  We want them to be placid and docile; receptive to the dogma and orthodoxies that their teachers will tediously filter into their brain cells, over a period of years.  Whatever intellectual difference exists, we seek to smooth it over and take off its edges.  That process wasn’t quite so efficient and industrialised, a generation ago.  Some of our cranks slipped through the net and thrived.

Today, they’re not being allowed, let alone encouraged, to think in their own peculiar, idiosyncratic ways.  They’re examined and punished for any failure to intellectually conform, through low grades and sidelining.  We don’t value the gifts they have, but instead reward the styles of thinking we prescribe.

Square pegs no longer have anywhere to go, where they can make a modest income, enough to survive, while they pursue crazy notions and curiously explore uncharted intellectual territory.  How would we produce a Turing?  The irony of the Turing test is that no human being could pass themselves off convincingly as Turing, I feel.  Turing was a local boy.  I can see the vestiges of the life he must have known, in his formative years, preserved as anachronistic features of the local area, but I can also observe how these vestiges of an intellectually fertile time are all being washed away, replaced by corporatisation, globalisation and chain stores.  All the stuff that fed your brain and provoked your wonderment are slowly being destroyed and taken away.

Another aspect of the all pervasive power of corporatisation, in all spheres of intellectual life, is that only sure bets get funded.  The things that have an easily demonstrable path, from exploration to commercial return, get the money.  The strange ideas, that nobody knows what they’re good for, languish for want of resources.  In fact, they’re never even proposed.  Why go to all the trouble of promoting and explaining a crazy idea, whose ultimate benefit to humanity is unknown or obscure, when you know it’s going to get shot down in flames and rejected?  We’ve become risk averse in what we choose to investigate.  Had we been as risk averse, in earlier times, there would be no lasers.  Initially, nobody knew what a laser was good for.  Today, we cannot live without them.

Even while we have more opportunities and tools for creativity and for distributing our creative works more widely, for practically no money, than ever before, in all of history, it’s like we all stare at the blank canvas presented to us and we don’t know what to paint.  We’re too afraid to make a mark, for fear of it being the wrong mark.

Education has now become so regularised, homogenised and industrialised, batch processing children by date of manufacture, that we crush creativity and curiosity brutally.  We might not even be aware that we are doing so.  I am sure that teachers, working within that rigid system, beholden to Ofsted inspections and detailed, prescribed curricula, aren’t deliberately constraining the modes of thought of their pupils.  They wouldn’t want to do that.  However, that is the net effect of what the education system is doing and like the metaphorical boiled frog, with each incremental stripping away of just one more intellectual freedom, so the process of homogenisation of thought cements itself, unnoticed and unremarked.  Each new straightjacket binding is banal, routine, expected and on its own, declared to be harmless, but the weight of all of these curiosity killers is onerous.

Creative thinkers once looked to alternative cultures, to inspire new modes of thought.  They could travel to far off lands and immerse themselves into lifestyles and ideas very different to what they grew up in.  Today, there are few outside influences.  The dead hand of globalisation has infected culture, too, so that the same chain stores and corporations have a globally uniform presence, no matter where you are in the world.  The same sitcoms and the same consumer products, fads and trends and shared, the world over.  The weird old traditions, belief systems and communal celebrations have all but gone.  Today, there is no sufficiently different culture to give your creativity a whack on the side of your head.

I regret to say that maybe we are thinking and creating less.  I think the commercial, material gains we have indulged our biggest global investors and corporations with have come at a massive cost.  We’ve noticeably and demonstrably lost the conditions under which creative breakthroughs are grown.  We’ve torn up the fertile, intellectual farm and laid down a tarmac parking lot in its place.

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