I Am An Independent Musician

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I am an independent musician.

What does that mean? It means I record, release and promote my own original music. No record company backing, no massive PR machine. Just me, a laptop, and a Twitter and Facebook account. It also means that many of you will not have heard my music. We hear a lot these days about the demise of the record industry but, even if this is the case, it has not led to the democratisation of the music industry. If anything, the music industry is more homogenised than it ever was. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: “Never has so much been controlled by so few.” In the past, no matter how powerful the record label, no matter how famous their acts were, they could never – for instance – have dictated what song would be a Christmas Number One.

Today, Simon Cowell can.

I am an independent musician. This means that you will never see me – or the hundreds of other independent musicians like me – on shows like “X-Factor” and “The Voice”. This is not because we’re musical snobs; it’s because we write and perform our OWN music. The acts who appear on those shows are judged on their ability to perform OTHER people’s music. And, let’s face it, they are also judged on their looks, their age, their potential to be packaged as a TV and radio-friendly commodity. No independent artist would want to subject themselves to this. And this is not some dismissal of musical reality TV shows. Those shows are entertainment; they are enjoyed by millions of people; and the acts that appear on them are often incredibly talented. They should be able to co-exist side by side with independent musicians.

Sadly, this is not the case.

If these TV shows were simply that – TV shows – it might be the case. But they are something else entirely. They have become a monolith that has obscured so much other music. The influence of the shows, their creators and the acts that appear on them has permeated every aspect of the music business – the record labels, the radio stations, the music magazines – so that there is little room any longer for the independent artist.

So it’s all doom and gloom, then? There is no hope?

On the contrary, there is. There is always hope because there are always people – many people – out there who don’t want their music homogenised and delivered to them in a “cookie cutter” package. There are people out there who want to discover their own music. So, what can they do? What can YOU do?

A lot. First of all, the obvious. You can buy music by independent artists; you can go see their shows. But there’s a lot more you can do to not only support the artists but to also change the way the music industry works.

  1. Contact your local radio station. Ask them to play your favourite independent artist. Most radio station’s playlists are narrow and repetitive but they also need listeners and they need to keep their listeners happy. If enough listeners ask to hear independent music, the radio stations can’t ignore them. Especially the smaller, more regional radio stations whose listenerships are their lifeblood.
  2. Spread the word. Word of mouth is still the most important thing to an independent musician. And the means to spread word of mouth has never been so —-. Tweet about your favourite independent artist, link to their YouTube videos, write a post about them on Facebook.
  3. Further to that, if you’re a music blogger, why not start focussing on more independent artists. Nobody – including Daft Punk themselves – needs yet another review of Daft Punk’s new album. But a review of an independent artist’s new album could mean more publicity, more sales, and more people at their next show.

The landscape for artists has changed dramatically in recent years. Whether you’re a musician, a writer, a filmmaker, the tools to produce your work are so much more accessible than they’ve ever been. But that’s only half the battle. The other half is getting it into the hands of the people you want to hear/see it. I’d like to believe that people will support those artists out there who are trying to do things for themselves, without the weight of the corporations behind them.

That right there is a revolution in the making.

(I’d appreciate you passing on this post to any independent musicians you know. Thanks!)

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“The Old Testament” or “Choose-Your-Own-Morals”

Moses

There is a debate going on in Ireland again at the moment about abortion. This is not something I’m going to get into here. However, there is something about the debate that has caught my attention. We all know that the Catholic Church does not agree with abortion. And while there is nothing in the Bible directly referencing abortion, Christians tend to point to the Sixth Commandment “Thou shall not kill” as proof that the Bible condemns abortion. And this is the thing that has caught my attention.

Now, I will be the first person to admit it has been many years since I was a regular churchgoer. But I have been to church for weddings and christenings etc. in recent years and, as far as I can tell, little has changed when it comes to the liturgy since I was a child. The attention of the Christian church is focused on Christ. Most of the reading’s – gospel and otherwise – are taken from the New Testament. Most of the time the church is not interested in promoting the ideals of the Old Testament – with its archaic tribal customs and violence – and instead is more interested in promoting the values of Christ and the New Testament. And this is admirable. However, it would seem that when debates about issues such as abortion or homosexuality arise, suddenly the Church invokes the Old Testament.

This is the Old Testament of Leviticus that allows the owning of slaves:

 “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves … You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” Leviticus 25:44-46

and quarantines a woman when she has her period:

“And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” Leviticus 15:19-24

 or Exodus that prescribes death for working on a Sabbath and allows the selling of daughters:

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.” Exodus 35:2

 “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do.” Exodus 21:7-11

or Deuteronomy that calls for the stoning to death of anyone who believes in any other gods:

 “If a man or woman living among you … has worshiped other gods … take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death.” Deuteronomy 17:2-7

Now, there are many Christians who will say that this is too easy, that Leviticus and Deuteronomy are easy targets. And they would be right. But the reason they are easy targets is because they are there. There is no denying them: these stories and rules are there and they cannot be changed. And if we are going to invoke certain rules and moral codes of the Old Testament and use these to further an argument, then – it would seem to me – we must abide by ALL of the rules and the moral codes of the Old Testament. And if this is not the case, then why not?

And I am not being facetious here. If we are to accept that certain laws contained in this book have a moral certainty (and this is certainly how they are portrayed by Christians) then surely all the laws contained therein must have equal moral certainty? Otherwise, the entire house of cards collapses.

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The Truth About …The Dark Ages

Dark Ages

I’m a huge history buff and I find I’m often surprised to see the types of inaccuracies that exist out there when it comes to some historical facts. It’s not just that certain people believe long discredited myths about history – it’s that these “facts” are repeated in books, on websites, in TV and movies and sometimes – shock horror! – by teachers and academics.

So, I’m starting a blog series today called “The Truth About …” which will look at and – hopefully – rectify these historical myths.

So, first up: The Truth About … The Dark Ages.

The “Dark Ages” is the phrase commonly used in the past (not so much anymore) by historians to refer to the period (roughly) between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. As historians of yore would have us believe, this period was a time of superstition, the rise of the Catholic Church, lack of intellectualism, and a time that was, just generally, a bit crap. The reason modern historians rarely use the phrase anymore is because … well, the “Dark Ages” weren’t really that dark.

It was the writer Petrarch who first invented the idea of the “dark ages” in 1330. He was using the phrase to refer to the lack of writers that existed in the period.  This attitude continued during the Age of Enlightenment when philosophers such as Kant and writers such as Voltaire referred to the period as the “Dark Ages” also. The reason they did so, however, was different than the reason Petrarch did. They regarded religion as the antithesis of reason and because religion had been so prevalent during those years, to them, the period was dark.

This attitude changed during the Romantic period of the 1800s. The reason for this was because of the advancements in the industrial revolution and the awful conditions that many people found themselves in. The Romantic writers idealised the mediaeval period as a time of innocence when man was at one with nature. So, while Petrarch and the others thought of the people of that time as illiterate savages, the Romantics thought of them as carefree, hippies. And, of course, they were both wrong.

There are a number of myths about the “Dark Ages” that are simply incorrect. The main myth is that the Middle Ages were a time of superstition when people valued religion over reason. While this might have been the case to a certain extent, the fact is, rationality was a dominant force in the Middle Ages. Historian of science, Edward Grant:

“If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed [in the 18th century], they were made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities”.

One perfect example of this is the myth that everyone in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat. This was not the case. Many lecturers in the mediaeval universities often put forward evidence to support the idea that the earth was round. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers write:

“There was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth’s] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference”.

Of course, the very fact that there were mediaeval universities at all puts paid to the idea that people in the Middle Ages were crawling around in the dirt. It is true that most of these universities were set up by the Catholic churches, but the simple fact of the matter is that without the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, we wouldn’t have many of the classical written works that they preserved. Not that that excuses the whole inquisition thing and all, but that’s a post for another day.

Another myth connected to the church is the idea of religion’s suppression of science. This myth probably came about because of the Church’s treatment of Copernicus and Galileo. But again, this is not true. David Lindberg says that:

“The late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led”.

As Richard Swan points out in an article in The Independent newspaper:

“Modern law and parliamentary democracy depend on Magna Carta and the development of the parliamentary system in the 13 and 14 centuries. Modern philosophy builds on the work on many great medieval thinkers, such as Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas. Universities are a medieval creation, and scientific and technological innovations were numerous. Such is the continuity of change that historians now identify at least three medieval ‘renaissances’: the Carolingian, the Ottonian and one in the 12 century.”

Knights-of-Ni

And, of course, the Middle Ages gave us the Knights who say Ni

So, all in all, the “Dark Ages” weren’t as primitive and intellectually-lacking as some would have us believe. Of course, they didn’t have shows like “X-Factor” and “Dancing on the Stars with Ice” so … Eh, yeah, what I just said!

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Time To Throw Away the “How to Write” Books

How-To BooksI recently interviewed the Irish author, Peter Murphy, who’s just published his second novel Shall We Gather at the River with Faber & Faber. The novel – while being a rollicking good yarn – is also a rather experimental book. The plot is oftentimes surreal; it has a main protagonist, but a lot of the book focuses on other minor or incidental characters; the narrative is non-linear – it jumps back and forth through time and place and person.

When I asked him how this came about, he said:

“[The book] did make itself apparent that it wasn’t going to be what we’d call “traditional narrative” with one protagonist all the way through going in a sequential, chronological fashion. I’d love to write a book like that because there’s beauty and elegance in simplicity but it just became apparent to me that the only way that this was going to work was in that fashion. And, you know, the novel is an extremely wide universe … it can accommodate many, many different types of books. And I do get a bit annoyed when I see schools of criticism that seem to be stuck in the 18th century that say the novel has to be written the way that Henry James or the Bronte sisters did it. The methods are as disparate as the subject matter.”

When I asked him if it was difficult to sell this kind of an experimental novel to an agent/publisher, he said:

“It depends on how good the publisher is. I mean, I got an amazing response from Faber when I submitted the manuscript … they were pretty gung-ho, they were pretty evangelical from the start about it. Which I was relieved and surprised by. But, at the risk of sounding glib, to me you just write the best possible book you can and if it’s good, it sells itself.”

Bearing all this in mind, let’s look at some of the responses that authors often receive from agents/publishers when submitting their novels:

  • Too many characters; needs to have one specific protagonist
  • Too many flashbacks pull the reader out of the main story
  • Anything under 80-90,000 words is too short
  • Needs to be one definable genre

Now, I think we all know that even a briefest perusal of the “New Fiction” shelves at your local bookstore will show that some novels break many – if not all – of the commandments laid out above.

So, what’s my point? Well, my point is simple. Had Peter Murphy listened to all of this advice, he never would have published his novel (a novel which, having read, I believe will go on to win awards). Now this is not to say that a writer shouldn’t listen to feedback, criticism or advice – we most certainly should. Every writer – whether established or beginner – is always learning, and feedback and advice from our peers is essential. However, I think sometimes we can listen a little too much and get led up a blind alley.

Perhaps, it’s time to stop listening to the “Don’t”s – don’t have more than one protagonist; don’t use flashbacks; don’t fall short of the suggested word count – and, instead, focus on “doing”. Write the story you want to write in the way you want to write it and, as Peter says, “If it’s good, it sells itself.”

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Creativity – The Initial Spark

2. Writing furiously

I was thinking recently about creativity and the first thought that struck me was the initial act of creativity. As writers, we all know about the second and third and sixteenth drafts, and the critiques and so on, but what about the initial spark. What about that moment when you first pull the words out of the ether and put them together into a sequence that (hopefully) makes sense?

This set me thinking about writers going back a century ago, and their initial act of creation. It’s very different from writers today. Even just going back to the Forties or Fifties – before the advent of television and certainly before the advent of the internet – a writer sitting in a room was not bombarded with any of the things that they are now. There was no sensory overload. The writer sat – as many writers still do – with a pen and paper, or at a typewriter, but the mind worked differently. Many writers probably still sit quietly writing and don’t have all this external flotsam coming in, but I would imagine that’s increasingly less common. There’s this constant multi-tasking going on. Previously, if a writer got to a point where they needed to research something, they would have just made a note – “Need to research that” – and gone back to the writing, or gone off and picked up an encyclopaedia. But the speed which we can research something now is amazing. And, of course, this is not always a good thing. Because while you can research 18th century Parisian townhouses in a couple of Google clicks, this doesn’t make up for the two hours subsequently lost reading about the Three Musketeers. (No idea how I got to that page!)

For a long time – probably since the first person sat at a desk with parchment and a writing implement – writers pretty much sat at their desks and wrote. And they still do, but there are different ways of going about it now. I often use a Dictaphone, and it’s a much more off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness way of writing. So, I can be dictating whilst looking at something else, and all these ideas are coming at me, and I can stop and research, and so on. And oftentimes I’m just throwing down random ideas, rather than necessarily keeping on a constant train of thought. It’s an interesting way to work. It’s not a way that I used to work. And, funnily enough, when I dictate while I’m out walking, I actually write more “conventionally” because I’ll get on a roll and I’ll start to write an actual whole scene. When I’m at my desk dictating, oftentimes another idea pops into my head because of something I’ve just seen on the computer and I’ll go off on a tangent with that. And I know there are writers who would gasp in horror at the idea that you would write with all this going on around you, but I think that’s the difference between the initial writing and the later edits. I would find it impossible to edit and rewrite that way; for the later drafts, I have to work from hard copy and the computer has to be shut off. But it’s the initial phase that I’m interested in, and that initial phase of creation has certainly changed radically for writers in recent times and I think will continue to do so.

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An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom

Visual

“Since 1993, 14,525 murders have been committed in Ciudad Juarez bordering on the United States, of which 1,248 have victimized women. Most of these crimes against men, women and children remain unpunished.”
Extract from Men and Women of Juarez, Julian Cardona, Mexico, 2012

A new exhibition entitled “An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom” was on show recently at the VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art in Carlow. The programme states:

“Since 2009 Brian Maguire has travelled on a number of occasions to Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. Described as the most violent city on earth, this is a place where the most heinous of crimes are often met with impunity. On a journey to uncover and bring to international attention the endemic injustices and cyclical nature of the violence that occurs in this place, Maguire has involved and collaborated with a number of artists, journalists and human rights activists. This exhibition has brought together five artists, who through their practices challenge the absence of humanity that allows for these conditions to continue.”

I’ve blogged here recently about one of the many tragic deaths of the Mexican drug wars – Maria Santos Gorrostieta, who was abducted in front of her daughter, beaten to death and dumped by the side of the road. But – as this exhibition illustrates – Maria is just one of the many innocent victims caught up in this senseless slaughter. It is almost impossible to gauge an accurate figure of the number of women who have been murdered in the Ciudad Juarez region. Wikipedia says:

“There are various media reports with different numbers ranging from hundreds to thousands of female homicides in the Ciudad Juarez region. For this reason Amnesty International reports, ‘Inadequate official data on the crimes committed in Chihuahua, particularly accurate figures on the exact number of murders and abductions of girls and women, has led to disputes around the issues that obscure the quest for justice.’ According to Amnesty International, as of February 2005, more than 370 young women and girls have been murdered in the cities of Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua … the statistics of female homicides per capita in Juarez is significantly higher than any other major city in Mexico or the United States.”

But it hardly matters what the actual figure is – after all, every one of those numbers was a real person not just a statistic. This is something that the artists try to get across in this exhibition.

The main part of the exhibition is made up of “The Portraits” by Brian Maguire. These portraits of the murdered women/young girls are painted from images given by each woman’s family (Maguire painted a second version of each portrait to give to the families involved).

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Beside each portrait is the story of how the woman featured was murdered. It does not make for easy reading or viewing, but it is essential, nonetheless. Essential in that it gives each of these murdered women a voice, it presents the human face behind the numbers.

Norwegian Artist Lise Bjørne Linnert’s contribution is an international participatory art project which has involved the collaboration of thousands of individuals since 2006. It is a wall installation of 6,100 hand embroidered name tags. The embroidered names that make up this delicate wall are of women who have been murdered or gone missing in Ciudad Juárez since 1993.

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4,400 individuals in 352 globally-arranged workshops were involved, embroidering two names: one, the name of a murdered woman from Ciudad Juárez, the other, the name of a victim of similar crimes from the participant’s locality. It is a wonderful and very moving piece. The viewer can also participate by embroidering their own name tag in a space provided in the gallery.

Apart from being an excellent exhibition in its own right, “An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom” highlights an awful issue that is woefully ignored by the mass media. Recommended.

#FridayFlashFiction “Ghosts of Montparnasse”

Montparnasse

Ghosts of Montparnasse

Sitting outside “Le Select” on the Boulevard Montparnasse. A cold, October night, underneath a heater. There were no heaters in 1929, when the writers and artists sat here, talking and arguing and laughing, and wringing art from nothing. Is that how they kept the cold out?

The motorbikes and cars fly past, a symphony of noise. The tourists and the locals pass by, talking and arguing and laughing. Do they feel the ghosts of Montparnasse walking in time with them? Do they hear the ghosts call to each other across the intersection? They wouldn’t rush across the street to greet each other as they did in those days, or they might end up in the back of one of the ambulances that zoom by, sirens singing through the Parisian night.

La Coupole doesn’t look the same as it did all those years ago, when its neon shone like a beacon to the hungry and starving artists. These days they would have to make do with staring through the window at the well-heeled tourists and Japanese businessmen.

And what of the waiters who flit around brandishing their trays like weapons? Do they hear the ghosts at these tables that they wait every night? Do they feel the weight of history bear down on them? Filling the footsteps of their predecessors who watered and fed the armies of men and women who would change the face of the world.

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