Hard News by Russell Brown


Media Take Takes a Break

There is no more reliable weapon in the war for attention than a viral video. And I presume I wasn't alone in assuming Labour's Corrections spokesperson Kelvin Davis had provided the tip for One News' "exclusive" on the so-called "fight club" videos shot inside Mt Eden Correctional Facility. But as we explain in tonight's Media Take, that wasn't the case.

The videos were actually spotted on YouTube by a newsroom staffer looking for something else and when the story went live, Davis was away hunting. He got a phone call alerting him to "the biggest story of your life" and rushed back to work.

The pictures – and the ready phrase "fight club" – made news in a way that no amount of conventional advocacy could have. They created space for stories that needed to be told.

The other factor was political: a vulnerable government minister and the whiff of a cover0up. It's hard to watch this clip of Sam Lotu-Iiga fumbling in Parliament and not feel just a little sorry for him.

Crime and punishment in the media is almost always dominated by the harshest voices. But we now find ourselves with a rare moment to to publicly consider not only the wisdom of inviting Serco to run our prisons – but the way we run our prisons in general. We discuss those things on the show with Davis and with Mike Williams, speaking as the CEO of the Auckland-based NZ Howard League for Penal Reform, and the impressive Julia Amua Whaipooti of JustSpeak.

It's surprising how often what we hear in the building can inform the making of the show. I got the word on One News' story in a chance conversation before we recorded. And before that I got talking to a member of the crew with insight into ACRF and the way Serco runs it.

In his experience, the problems were systematic. The very design of ACRF makes it difficult to keep order. Remarkably, guards do not carry keys and it might take five, even 10 minutes for centralised approval to open a door and enter a space to intervene in a risky situation. Serco's guards don't command the respect of prisoners in the way that Corrections' own staff do. Things get out of hand very easily. People get hurt.


The third part of tonight's programme is another topic altogether: good news in local film. After years of fretting about New Zealand films not getting made, not reaching audiences and not ever returning their investment, a new kind of low-budget production is beginning to work.

We talk to Ant Timpson, who had a hand in production of the most fun films in this year's New Zealand International Film Festival – Turbo Kid and Deathgasm – and Tom Hern, producer of two of the gems at last year's festival, The Dark Horse and Everything We Loved.

Their respective success is down to more than one thing. On one hand, the changes to the Film Commission's funding system are making it easier to get projects to completion. On the other, there are different sources of funding. Turbo Kid is a Candian co-production, and Hern's partners in Four Knights Film, Ihug founder Tim Wood and his wife Sasha, have brought private money and business sense. It's very notable that the Woods' $500,000 investment in The Dark Horse has already been returned.

You can catch all this on Media Take at 10.15pm tonight on Maori Television and again at 9am on Saturday.


Anyway, tonight's Media Take is the last for the year. We're hopeful of returning next year, but we've had our 20 weeks and we all have to go and find other things to do.

In my case, the first of those things will be LATE at the Museum: Songs of the City next Tuesday evening. There's considerable creative energy going into the event and if you're at all interested in the way music has shaped and signalled Auckland I'm pretty sure you'll love it. Tickets are available for purchase here at the friendly price of $20.

I'm also not far off announcing what will be the first of a series of sponsored talk events, beginning at the end of this month. Pretty excited about that too.

I will, of course, be highly available for work for the rest of the year. For speaking and MCing work, contact my agents, Johnson & Laird. For anything else, drop me a line.

And if you missed Get Your Arse Off the Table, an entertaining and intriguing exploration of tikanga Maori by my Media Take colleague Toi Iti, it's here on demand.


Friday Music: Not just consumers, but patrons too

Lydia Jenkin's New Zealand Herald feature on the paltry earnings of New Zealand musical artists in the age of streaming services is a story you should read if you care about having music made here. To say it's sobering is an understatement.

The key point is that streaming is killing retail music sales but coming nowhere near replacing the revenue from such sales. That's hardly a revelation, but actually looking at the numbers shared with the writer by Jeremy Toy of She's So Rad for the band's current album, Tango, underlines the reality in a very stark way:

... they've sold 20 CDs, 20 digital copies through Bandcamp, and 30 digital copies through iTunes since they released the album in May. They had 300 people at their album release gig at the Kings Arms, and sold 1 CD.

But when you look at their streaming data, they've had 90,000 streams on Spotify in the last month, and something in the realm of 80,000 individual song streams on Soundcloud.

The projected revenue for their online streaming was $130, though their distributor has since said it's likely to be higher, probably equal to 25 album sales.

This isn't some numpties complaining because no one likes them. They've had reasonable radioplay (including two songs on A-rotate on Radio Hauraki), a string of great reviews and one of the singles from the album has a place on the longlist for the Silver Scrolls.

I also led with the album, one of my favourites of the year, here in the week of its release back in May. I checked with Jeremy and 15 of you clicked through from that blog post to the album page on Bandcamp. You presumably didn't all buy the album, but even if, say, 10 of you did, that would account for half their sales through Bandcamp.

I heard from the other artist quoted in Jenkin's story, Anthonie Tonnon, that when I raved about his new album, Successor, back in April (for the second time), that provided a nice little bump in Bandcamp traffic, which made me happy. He seems to be doing a bit better with his album, telling Jenkin:

"The numbers I've experienced with this album release aren't bad - I'm doing well enough selling CDs, vinyl, and digital downloads. But I play a lot of live shows, and I sit on the merch desk every night because that's the difference between selling two CDs and ten CDs for me."

That's a really interesting observation. It's not just having a merch desk that's important at gigs, it's making the time to personally sell your stuff, before and after you play: to always be hustling. Anthonie also played a launch show for the vinyl release of the album – it was at a tiny venue (Frieda Margolis in Grey Lynn) but it sold out and there were enough people there to make a material difference to sales.

But streaming? Not a way to support a career. Anthonie:

"I got off stage in Australia, I was playing to 300 people, and as I was running to the merch desk, a guy stopped me halfway to say "Are you on Spotify? I've got a premium account!", and I just thought, 'Dude, that's great for you, but that's not the same thing as buying my record" Tonnon laughs.

Jeremy concludes the story:

"The idea of owning a digital file is not appealing to anyone and fair enough" Toy adds. "I pay for digital content not because I want to own a digital file, but because I want to show support to the artist which in turn helps make their art sustainable ... Streaming doesn't help to keep music a sustainable resource.

"It's tricky to work out what that means in the future. It just seems a pity that music can't thrive because it's an important part of our culture. I mean, I guess everyone could just be making it for free, which is essentially what a lot of us are doing, but everyone will burn out I think."

There's a reason I link you a Bandcamp sale wherever possible. Actually, two reasons. The first is that Bandcamp offers the best deal by far to the artist. The second is for me: Bandcamp is often the only way to buy music in lossless formats – that is, at a quality as good as (or in some cases, better than) CDs. If I'm going to own a file, I want one that I can convert to another format without a loss of quality and 256k AAC from iTunes are not like that.

There's a third reason. Bandcamp is often really cheap. Anthonie's album is only $12.50 (vs. $15.99 on iTunes) and the She's So Rad album is name-your-price on download, and the limited-edition CD in special packaging is at any price from $1 upwards.

The question occurs: is Jeremy too generous? After all, She's So Rad had nearly as many streams on Soundcloud, which pays nothing, as on Spotify, which pays a pittance. It's a tricky one. Artists want to get their music in front of audiences – both consumers and the likes of booking agents, who may take Soundcloud popularity as evidence of a live act's viability. And I love being able to present a free Soundcloud download as much as any other blogger.

Of course, the same technological and social changes that have made it hard for music to pay its way have also made it easier to record and distribute. It's also much easier for New Zealand artists to work with overseas labels, as the Phoenix Foundation have in becoming part of the excellent roster at London's Memphis Industries and Anthonie Tonnon has in signing to Pittsburgh's Wild Kindness Records. Even in deepest indie-land, the scale of larger markets is valuable.

There's a comparison case in Jenkin's story, and again it's someone I've written about here. Thomston, the unorthodox young pop-R&B singer, has enjoyed more than 10 million plays across his two EPs on Spotify, which is somewhat more viable. Ironically, Thomston isn't even looking to turn a dollar yet. He's managed by Scott Maclachlan, the man who helped guide Lorde to stardom, and he's yet to release anything via the recording deal he signed recently in Australia. But Maclachlan has been able to get him through to some kind of meaningful international scale. He even has a Twitter fan crew.

The theory is that at some point streaming services will reach a critical mass, where there are enough people paying their $13 a month that it becomes a viable substitute for sales. How and when that would change the harsh equation of streaming revenue – which currently really only works for big stars and (more so) companies that can aggregate thousands of separate copyrights – is open to question.

For composers, publishing income remains important, but its blessings are unevenly shared. For performance rights revenue, radioplay is massively important, but New Zealand music's share of the schedules has been tanking. That matters double because performance rights revenue from businesses that use recorded music (from cafes to bars, gyms and hairdressers) is allocated on the basis of radioplay. (This needs to change, but that's a whole other blog post.)

As things stand, people who licence music – looking at you right now, advertising creatives – hold the ability to deliver artists chunks of income that are basically inconceivable from any other source. Sean James Donnelly probably made more from licensing two tunes from Songs from a Dictaphone to big advertising campaigns than he has from career sales and streaming put together. 

The irony here is that in some ways things were better when I was 20, no one had a clue about publishing and Chris Knox was lugging boxes of Flying Nun platters between Auckland record shops in his shorts and jandals. Back then, any bunch of kids could do a run of 300 copies and stand a decent chance of selling them all. When a band pressed a hundred singles it seemed paltry. These days a hundred sales would be just fine.

To make it worse, some of the money from live gigs has drained away too. It bugs the hell out of me when people shy away from paying 10 bucks at the door of a show. That's one drink, or a quarter of what you'll spend on taxis, and it's meant to be the whole purpose of your evening.

What we're dealing with here, on all fronts, is the war for attention, where a wonderful short film like Hamish Bennett's Loading Docs story about Tihei, a very special rapper, competes with a million clips of of cats and babies – and where the price for music is set by piracy.

So here's my advice. If you're streaming a local record and loving it, take five minutes and go and dump some money into Bandcamp, or buy the CD or the vinyl, especially at a gig, where the margins are better for the artist. I know it feels counterintuitive – Apple Music has a "buy in the iTunes Store" option that always makes me think "why would I do that?" – but it's best thought of as patronage, without the social pressure of crowdfunding.

And maybe if we want to keep on having a culture we need to think of ourselves not just as consumers, but as patrons too.


A reminder to book your place for LATE at the Museum: Songs of the City on Tuesday, August 11. I'm chairing the discussion and doing a fair bit of the creative work on this event, and it's going to be special. Not least in that it's the first time Simon Grigg will talk publicly about his book How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the song that stormed the world. My advance copy of the book arrived last Saturday and (even though I'd been cleaning up the debris of a very late, loud and fun birthday party) I literally could not go to bed until I'd finished it. It is one hell of a story, frankly told.

Speaking of Simon's endeavours, Audioculture has an intriguing new entry from David Maclennan on Wellington's alternative music venues in the late 1970s and early 80s, which functions in some ways as a social and political history of the capital.

Mark the date: Friday September 4, for The Others Way Festival, a multi-venue party on K Road, featuring a reformed Garageland, Silicon, The Bats and many more.


Since we last communed via blog, there have been a number of great local videos released.

Firstly, the clip for Anthonie Tonnon's 'Railway Lines'. As with 'Water Underground' (a song about indignities committed on democracy in Canterbury), Delphine Avril Planqueel's video has little to do with the text (the story of an ageing lefty seeing things he's fought for so long taking shape in Super City Auckland), but it looks lovely:

The strange digital conjuring of 'God Emoji' by Silicon, aka Kody Nielson:

Some crazy, imaginative work for Kody's brother Ruban's band Unknown Mortal Orchestra by Indian director Manoj Leonel Jahson:

The occulist kook of Sam Kristofski's video for The Phoenix Foundation's teeming, tumbling 'Mountain':

And, finally, something completely different. On Wednesday last week, Sile Hartung's 'Freak the Sheep' show on 95bFM took the form of a live video stream of of 20 acts (including Tami Nielson, Tama Waipara and Anthonie Tonnon) playing in the station's scruffy little on-air studio over two hours. It' was a pretty amazing live viewing experience and it's still available to view here:


It was nice this week to catch a bit of bFM play for Schips, the new EP from Blair Parkes' solo project Saturations. I think it's one of the stronger things the prolific Parkes has done in a while, and I particularly fancy the LEDs-like 'Other Side':

The Chills have offered another peek of Silver Bullets, their first new album in, gulp, 19 years, which is out in October. 'America Says Hello', a meditation on the quest for success, is a great song:

Australia's Chet Faker got together with Banks and made this. It's pretty cool:

If you love Jamie Xx's 'Loud Places', you might want to grab a free download of this Leftside Wobble rework of the classic track that provides that tune's key sample (hat-tip Pete Darlington!):

I cannot wait for the forthcoming Funky Taxi album if the rest of it is like this cover of 'Chain of Fools', set to 'The Message' rhythm "relicked" by Sly & Robbie and mixed by John Morales. Wowzers.

And finally, not a track but some dudes talking about all kinds of shit. Tom Scott and Lui Tuiasau finally take their turn on the How Not To Be An Asshole podcast, stuff ensues ...


Deep Dream: Looking at clouds

Computerised image recognition is on the one hand a technology so advanced as to be  "indistinguishable from magic" and on the other so far short of what our human brains do from infancy as to be almost banal.

Either way, it's a vital tool for Google, which has developed neural networks – sets of algorithims – that can be trained on a corpus of existing images to recognise what's in a picture on the internet. Thing is, it's impossible to ever look at Google image recognition in quite the same way since two of the company's engineers published a post called Inceptionism: Going Deeper into Neural Networks on the Google Research Blog.

The post basically explains what they've designed their software to do:

We train an artificial neural network by showing it millions of training examples and gradually adjusting the network parameters until it gives the classifications we want. The network typically consists of 10-30 stacked layers of artificial neurons. Each image is fed into the input layer, which then talks to the next layer, until eventually the “output” layer is reached. The network’s “answer” comes from this final output layer.

One of the challenges of neural networks is understanding what exactly goes on at each layer. We know that after training, each layer progressively extracts higher and higher-level features of the image, until the final layer essentially makes a decision on what the image shows. For example, the first layer maybe looks for edges or corners. Intermediate layers interpret the basic features to look for overall shapes or components, like a door or a leaf. The final few layers assemble those into complete interpretations—these neurons activate in response to very complex things such as entire buildings or trees. 

But their neural network also does things they didn't quite expect:

So here’s one surprise: neural networks that were trained to discriminate between different kinds of images have quite a bit of the information needed to generate images too ... If we choose higher-level layers, which identify more sophisticated features in images, complex features or even whole objects tend to emerge. Again, we just start with an existing image and give it to our neural net. We ask the network: “Whatever you see there, I want more of it!” This creates a feedback loop: if a cloud looks a little bit like a bird, the network will make it look more like a bird. This in turn will make the network recognize the bird even more strongly on the next pass and so forth, until a highly detailed bird appears, seemingly out of nowhere.

Sounds cool, huh? Google thought it was so cool that it released the code as Deep Dream, in a format that would allow anyone with the requisite software skills to to run it themselves. If you've seen any Deep Dream images, you may have thought "that computer is on drugs". There's a reason for that:

If Deep Dream looks psychedelic, it's because the computer is undergoing something that humans experience during hallucinations, in which our brains are free to follow the impulse of any recognizable imagery and exaggerate it in a self-reinforcing loop. Think of a psychedelic experience, where "you are free to explore all the sorts of internal high-level hypotheses or predictions about what might have caused sensory input," Karl Friston, professor neuroscience at University College London, told Motherboard.

Deep Dream sometimes appears to follow particular rules; these aren't quite random, but rather a result of the source material. Dogs appear so often likely because there were a preponderance of dogs in the initial batch of imagery, and thus the program is quick to recognize a "dog." This reinforces Deep Dream as not just a piece of technology but as a discrete visual style, the same as Impressionism, Surrealism, or the geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian. Just as Mondrian's work was printed on pants or the iconic Solo Jazz Cup pattern reproduced on T-shirts, Deep Dream imagery will eventually enter into the vernacular. It will no longer be strange, but instantly recognizable.

You may have wondered what Deep Dream would make of the images of what must be considered another part of the vernacular: pornography. Vice's Motherboard channel was quick to answer that question (warning: NSFW, obviously) and, to save you a click, it's every bit as weird as you might have thought.

Most people have contented themselves with Deep Dreaming pictures of pets, people and places. And the results are trippy. They really do look like what you might fancy you see on hallucinogenic drugs. I've posted below some of the images I ran through the Deep Dream interface at Psychic VR Lab (there's another one here).

You're warmly invited to post your own Deep Dream images in the discussion for this post (just click "Choose file" under the commenting window – you can save each one then edit your comment and add another two images per comment if you like). Do bear in mind that the Deep Dream process isn't instant – there's a queue at Psychic VR Lab and it will take a day or two to process, so you'll need to bookmark each confirmation page and come back to it to see if your image is done.


Political palatability and charter schools

Kirsty Johnston's story in the Herald today presents a range of claims about the management of West Auckland school Middle School West, including that it appeases students with junk food on a weekly basis, which, acording to one staff member's letter to the Education Review Office, "highlights a lack of leadership management and lack of effective teaching practices."

More seriously, the same staff member claimed bullying and drug use were rife and that there had been a suicide attempt by a student – the school's management denies these things happened – and cited a draft ERO report which raised further concern about the physical and cultural safety of children at the school.

Further, Johnston cites documents which appear to show the school's management deliberately misled the Ministry of Education about its relationship with another school with which it shares a site.

It's the kind of thing you'd think would be a sitter for the right-wing blogs, but you won't be reading any damning denunciations of the system in those places –  because Middle School West Auckland is a charter school. And because they've invested far too much time and energy cheerleading for the people who run it.

In the Sunday Star Times in February, Simon Day reported the problems suffered by an autistic boy and his family at Mt Hobson Middle School, the private school run by Villa Education Trust, which also runs Middle School West Auckland and South Auckland Middle School as charter schools.

It was a sad and troubling story, which raised questions not only about thousands of dollars of teacher aide funding which was not used for the purpose for which is was provided, but about the school's grasp on basic special education practice.

On the same day, Whale Oil ran an "open response" from Villa Education Trust spokesman Alwyn Poole to what it described as a "hit job" by the Star Times. Poole's open letter is a meandering affair in which he trumpets the school's methods,  flatly refuses to address the parents' specific claims and and warns Day "you should be very ethically wary of exploiting a vulnerable child – even when the parents are complicit."

Poole also says this:

Sometimes people read the prospectus, come to the interview, sign all the contracts and then ask us to change or compromise our methodology. That won’t happen. Twenty plus years or research into it – and practice of it – means I will always back it.

Poole has also been given space on Kiwiblog to expound at length on his theories, including in a guest post headed Educational Aspiration in Crisis:

Solutions have to be found. There are a lot of tyre-kickers in education in NZ. People who criticise outcomes, criticise attempts at solutions, attack all manner of people who are doing the job but do nothing to assist. The kids who are missing out don’t need theoreticians – they need on the ground solutions. The vast majority of those solutions involve people and not flash buildings. People who understand the new learning paradigm understand that all children, given quality teaching/coaching, repetition/practice and opportunity can develop remarkable skills and knowledge sets. These young people need to be surrounded by adults who understand aspiration and change.

And this rallying cry for the charter school concept:

As I think back to the readings of systemic failure thrust upon me in 1988 through to misguided people today stating that schools can achieve nothing because of socioeconomic disparity – I see a light in the tunnel that is not just a train coming the other way. There is growing hope of a genuine means for Partnership Schooling to be a part of systemic change and a quiet revolution in the provision for children who are otherwise not doing well. Like all changes and challenges it will not be smooth at every stage or with every establishment – but for the children and families that need innovation and choice the necessity to persevere and enhance the model is clear.

For those who doubt and have genuine interest in the well being of the young people of New Zealand our doors are very open and we are willing to collaborate and share our experiences. For those that criticize from a distance – have some courage and come and see.

It's not only the usual suspects in the blogosphere. This year NBR afforded Poole yet another unchallenged opportunity to expound at length on his ideas and make claims for his schools.

It's abundantly clear that Poole believes in what he's doing, but whether we ought to is another matter. The trust's website offers almost nothing in the way of background to or evidence for its practices and Poole's default response to what are now very substantial and troubling questions seems to be to claim he's misunderstood.

I think it's time for Poole's ideological enablers to stop providing space for his long, muddled manifestos and acknowledge that mere political palability is not an excuse for obscure, arbitrary and possibly damaging educational practices.


Auckland: The songs of the city

It was music that brought me to Auckland more than 30 years ago and music that, in large part, has helped define what being an Aucklander is for me. So I'm understandably delighted to be chairing the first event of the 2015 LATE at the Museum season, Songs of the City, on Tuesday August 11.

The whole season ties in with Auckland Museum's Taku Tāmaki: Auckland Stories exhibition. And in this one we've chosen people who have been part of – and helped tell – Auckland stories.

Simon Grigg will be familiar to many of you. He's been at the centre of Auckland’s musical history since, inspired by a childhood meeting with legendary Auckland promoter and manager Phil Warren, he assembled and managed the city’s first punk rock group, the Suburban Reptiles, in 1977. He went on to form the city’s first indie record label, Propeller, and ran its most famous nightclub, The Box.

And then he signed Pauly Fuemana to his Huh! record label and released the global hit ‘How Bizarre’  – a story told in his new book How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the song that stormed the world. The book is published by Awa Press on August 21 and this will be the first time he talks about it length. From the author’s note:

How Bizarre is also a little more than that, it’s the story of a coming together of the cultures in Auckland – it's the time when the first generation of young Polynesians born in New Zealand from that great immigration of the1960s and 1970s came to town and changed our city forever. 'How Bizarre', the song, is a child of that uniquely Auckland phenomenon.

Simon is now the creative director of the New Zealand music legacy website Audioculture, which will be a key partner in the event, especially in providing images of the city and its music.

With her co-creator James Griffin, Rachel Lang incorporated music into the West Auckland stories of Outrageous Fortune from the very start. In this year's prequel Westside, music took an even more important role The writers took us to Hello Sailor’s infamous Ponsonby pad "Mandrax Mansion”, saw a young Dave McArtney (played by Dave’s son) working out the chords to ‘Gutter Black’, visited Auckland’s first punk rock club Zwines, and experienced a moving resolution to the strains of Split Enz’s classic ’Stuff and Nonsense’. The creators have underlined the importance of the songs by publishing the soundtrack for each episode. But the importance of music to Rachel’s stories goes back much further – through the songs of Shortland Street and 1996’s City Life, which was threaded through with local pop music and scenes from Auckland’s musical nightlife. She’s a fan.

Philip "DJ Sir Vere" Bell has been a DJ since he stepped up to the turntables at the age of 14 when his dad needed a toilet break – and hip hop has been his musical life since he saw Beat Street at The Civic at the age of 17. He ran Auckland’s first 12-hour dance party, Planet Rock, in 1988, and founded bFM’s long-running Tru school Hip Hop Show, the huge Major Flavors hip hop compilation franchise and the Beat Merchants store, the centre of Auckland’s hip hop scene. He’s been the editor of Rip It Up magazine and programme director at Mai FM – th4 station that found an Auckland audience the rest had ignored – and has worked with everyone from Che Fu to Savage. He'll be both on the panel and playing a special DJ set after the talk.

Dave Dobbyn was born in the working-class Auckland suburb of Glen Innes and got his musical education from the sounds around him: the Irish songs in the home, the singing in the church over the road and the tunes on the radio. He joined a band and he grew up to write the songs of the city and playing the artist as critic in works like 'Madeleine Avenue'. For more than 20 years, he has lived in Grey Lynn, which, according to Apra's figures, is still the national capital of songwriting. Which makes dave honorary president or something. Dave will be both talking and singing on the night.

Emma Paki has seen both sides of the city. She has won awards, had gold records and lived on the streets. And through it all she has created her waiata. After years living in Northland, she's now back in Auckland, and it will be her singular voice that opens this special night.

 I think this is going to be a lot of fun and I'd be very happy if the house was full of Public Address whanau. You can book here.