Hard News by Russell Brown

23

Happy Days

On last night's Media Take, which you can watch here, Simon Wilson talks about moving on after five notable years as the editor of Metro magazine.

In the normal course of things, this would be more bad media news, but it became clear in the conversation that it is, in its way, reason to be cheerful. Simon realised that he was enjoying writing more than editing – as might have been divined from the sheer number of words under his byline in recent issues – and has managed to negotiate a new position as contributing editor (essentially a staff writer with bonus mana), which will carry a full editorial salary.

From Bauer Media, which has frequently given the impression of being unwilling to spend money on anything, this is notable. Although Metro's long, slow decline in circulation has more or less halted under Simon's tenure, it's not exactly a cash cow. The company hasn't transformed overnight – it's still trying to force rancid and unfair contract terms on freelancer writers – but even small victories over mere bean-counting are cheering these days.

Simon will stay on until a replacement is found, in order to enact a handover. The recruitment ad for the job is quite interesting. It refers to Metro seven times as a "brand" and only five as a "magazine" and even proposes that the successful candidate will be (gulp) a "solution orientated brand champion". But within that is an acknowledgement that a magazine like Metro needs to be more than a monthly pile of paper. A new editor – indeed, any modern editor – will need skills in business development. This is how things are now.

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In the same generally upbeat episode of Media Take, Damian Christie talks about Yours TV, the latest evolution of the Yours project for teenage broadcasters and journalists that he kicked off about three years ago. The significance of Yours TV is that it won some NZ On Air digital funding, and that it's there on TVNZ On Demand, like a proper programme.

As Damian pointed out in his announcement on this site recently, the distinction between being "only" on-demand rather than grown-up broadcast is less and less material to the demographic making and watching the programme. TVNZ is quietly looking for more content to present on this basis, and I would not be at all surprised to see Lightbox embrace local production soon. The budgets will be tighter, but the scope should be broader.

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The other guest on the programme was Anna Guenther, the founder of the New Zealand crowdfunding site PledgeMe, which is currently celebrating its third birthday with a series of parties in different centres. It bears noting how far crowdfunding has moved into the mainstream in those three short years – especially with respect to what is now a core PledgeMe activity: equity crowdfunding.

Three years ago, raising capital through a crowdfunding website was not only a fringe idea, it was legally impossible. Now, PledgeMe has no fewer than five equity campaigns in motion and PledgeMe itself has just announced a second equity round. Several of these campaigns have been strongly oversubscribed. Some of the investors might have been game for a conventional sharemarket investment, most probably would not.

PledgeMe has also provided a way forward for our friends at the independent news service Scoop. An initial crowdfunding campaign was a success, and now Scoop has launched a campaign offering memberships starting at $16 annually – it closes next week if you're interested.

Although these purposes are serious, they keep the cultural elements of crowdfunding. PledgeMe, for example, offered new shareholders the reward of literally having their names in lights.

I think there's something in this, I really do.

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In further happy news, the journalists at NZME have received some. No, not the departure of Rachel Glucina – although everyone seems pretty pleased about that – but the end of outsourced sub-editing. After seven years of unsatisfactory results, the company's relationship with Pagemasters will end when its contract expires in August.

A new groupwide sub-hub will be developed and that will mean some new hiring. I wouldn't expect it to dispel the often-awkward relationship between the company's radio and print cultures, but a return to keeping the institutional knowledge of the sub-editors in-house – rather than the work being done by people with no stake in the actual editorial product – is absolutely a good thing.

24

What's in the pills? It matters.

Earlier this year, I spoke at some length to someone who had done something interesting at a New Zealand summer festival, and it's probably not what you're thinking. This person had, with a small team, tested the recreational drugs people had brought with them to the festival. And the results were alarming.

The large majority of festival-goers had not bought the drug they thought they had. In the case of substances bought as LSD, the situation was particularly troubling. Fully 80% of people who thought they had LSD in fact had NBOMe drugs, which are far more risky than LSD – they have a scary dose-response curve and overdoses can be very harmful and even fatal.

Later, I became aware that some people in my wider social circle were buying pills whose ingredients had been obtained – as such party drugs increasingly are – via the "dark web". People liked the speckled blue pills and believed they contained MDMA. I watched people who'd taken them and I had my doubts.

I proposed a story to my editors at Matters of Substance, the magazine of the New Zealand Drug Foundation. Could, I asked, a budget be found to have ESR test one of these pills? It could, we made the arrangements and one afternoon I drove over to ESR with the pill. (I passed three police cars on the way and I confess part of me wanted to be pulled over and searched so I could honestly say "It's for WORK!")

The meeting there was fascinating and informative. I started to get an idea of how the party drug scene had evolved in the past few years, and of how much of a problem it is becoming that we don't know what's in the pills.

I spoke to a number of other people, including Wellington emergency doctor Paul Quigley, who has to deal with the consequences. He was remarkably frank:

“Quite frankly, there’s growing evidence that MDMA is a safe form of intoxication – especially when you compare it to alcohol and so on – but that’s not what you get. You look at the recent hauls in Wellington of alpha-PVP, which is a highly stimulating hallucinogenic. So not only do you hallucinate, but you get the tachycardia and hypertension. That is not an enactogenic effect.

“Even the dealers know this, so they’re mixing things like benzos into these tablets. The high from the amphetamine effect is almost too high, so they try and balance that by putting in a benzodiazepine. Now we’re talking really dangerous, because benzos are addictive – they’re enough of a problem in prescription medicines, let alone the recreational ones.”

It turned out the the blue pills contained a mix of chemicals people like Dr Quigley had not encountered. Chemicals that were not the most harmful thing that can turn up in an "E", but chemicals that have some important caveats associated with their use. In certain circumstances, people have died from taking them.

I readily shared the information with Dr Quigley and a couple of other specialists in advance of publication, because in the end that's the point of the story itself. The problem with our present drug laws is that they force out well-understood drugs whose place is taken by new drugs, which are less well understood and often much riskier. And people like Dr Quigley don't even know what's coming in the door when something goes wrong.

There are various solutions, including permitted onsite testing. But that's a politically alarming step. Dr Quigley would like to see MDMA licensed and regulated for sale. More within reach right now is a risk register – which should be public. That saves lives.

But that's a problem for politicians too. At the least, medical staff should be as well informed as possible about what's in the market, so they know how to respond when they have to. And, mercifully, that small step is beginning to happen. It's a step.

My feature has just been published online by Matters of Substance as If it’s not true to label, then what are people taking? I think it's pretty important.

32

Friday Music: About Apple Music

The relationship between me, music and Apple is ... complicated. Music has sustained and excited me since I was a kid. I still listen to it every day and I still regularly pay money to hear it. With a single early exception, every computer I've ever used has been an Apple product. I cannot imagine working on something else. In the past week I've used five different Apple devices.

And yet, I hate the iTunes Store. I'll try anything to avoid purchasing from that dull, barren place and I'm offended by its refusal to sell me lossless files. I can live with the iTunes application itself, although I know it's a different matter for those who must endure it on Windows. It has some major flaws – how could they get something as important as search so wrong? – but no alternatives I've played with have moved me to switch.

So it was always likely that I'd have mixed feelings about Apple's long-awaited launch of a streaming service in the form of Apple Music this week. And I really do.

For starters, Apple has pretty much laid a turd with its three-month free trial for Apple Music. The trial period will be free to users, which is sensible – but it will also earn zero dollars for artists and labels. Who would release an important record in the three months from the Apple Music launch on June 30, in the knowledge that it will not only earn them nothing on Apple Music, but will suck a lot of revenue out of both the iTunes Store and Spotify?

Really, Apple's cash reserves are almost exactly the same as New Zealand's annual GDP. You'd think it could take the hit on this one.

Actually, it's probably the case that the three major record companies have reached an agreement with Apple over this, and it's just the indies out in the cold. One industry publication is saying that it's still possible that Apple Music could launch without important independent labels like XL, Matador and Cooking Vinyl. So, no Adele, Arctic Monkeys or The Prodigy.

But one story it seems safe to discount is that Apple will pay out a markedly lower share of streaming revenue than the 70% Spotify says it redistributes. Digital Music News has backed down on its story to that effect, and granted that Apple Music may even pay out a larger revenue share than Spotify.

In the cause of a fairly messy onstage launch, Apple ushered on Drake to pump up Apple Music and, more particularly, Apple Music Connect, the service that will let artists share things directly with fans – demos, exclusive recordings, pictures, videos and news. Apple's MySpace, if you will. In his five minutes on stage, Drake said this:

Connecting with an audience has never been closer and more reachable than right now. See now, we encourage you to spend the time on your body of work, spend the time on your craft, assemble the right body of work – and instead of having to post your stuff on all these different and sometimes confusing places, it all lies in one very simple, very easy place. And that is Connect.

Apple is pitching young artists the idea of only being present in one place, reaching one audience, as if it's actually a desirable thing. Meanwhile, out in the real world, you can upload your stuff to Soundcloud, Bandcamp or YouTube yourself and all those sites have embeddable players that will let it be present in your own blog, or someone else's, or on your Tumblr or Facebook. You can set up and start selling on Bandcamp all on your own. Telling a kid that this is "sometimes confusing" and Daddy Apple will keep everything make it all better for you is very patronising.

It's not just me choosing to bang on about artist discovery and bedroom producers. In the Apple Music promotional film, Trent Reznor  talks about "combining a catalogue of the world's music with music that's not in that catalogue yet, direct from the artist to you" and making it for "not just the top-tier artists but the kids in their bedrooms too".

Not really, and here's why. You can't upload directly to Apple Connect – or, rather, you can once you're in the door. But to get in the door, you need a label or an aggregator from the fairly short list published by Apple. 

There is one listed aggregator in New Zealand, DRM, and they're good people (another business in the same group operates this blog's sponsor, The Audience). Or you could go to one of the international aggregators, like CD Baby or Tunecore, but whatever you do, there are fees involved. And if you've knocked out a Drake cover in your room (ie, exactly how Eddie Johnston/Lontalius made his name on Soundcloud), there's publishing too.

I do appreciate that Apple's onboard music advisors, Jimmy Iovine and Reznor have recognised the importance of direct and informal contact between artists and audiences, but Apple is a mediated and formal space. That's why its social game sucks. The only way it makes sense to have all your stuff in one place is if you're able to share it out to everywhere else.

But while fans will be able to share to Facebook, Twitter and email,  it doesn't seem there will be tools that will let artists use Connect as a sharing hub the way they might use Tumblr. Or any embed code. Or the kind of API access that lets third-party apps run in Spotify (or – shudder – Spotify to be intergrated into DJ applications). As an artist, you're invited to assume that you'll achieve everything you need to inside Apple Music. You won't.

The irony of Apple's "oh-so-simple" pitch is that Apple Music is largely a cobbling together of existing products with the streaming service added on. Connect is another try at Ping, the iTunes social feature that flopped mightily. Apparently, Apple Music, which allows playback of not only a big musical catalogue in the cloud but songs from your own library that you upload to the cloud (say, streaming holdouts like The Beatles or Metallica), doesn't duplicate iTunes Match, which does the same thing. And the iTunes store is still the iTunes Store. It's a little confusing.

And Beats1 is just a better iTunes Radio. Actually it's way better. It will be available in places like New Zealand, for a start. It will be free to listen to (no word on whether there'll be ads). And it boasts a pretty impressive lineup of on-air talent, including New Zealander and former BBC Radio One star Zane Lowe. I'll certainly give that a listen. I think the element of of human curation embodied in Beats1 and across the other services will work well. I'd find that more appealing that yet another algorithim.

It seems notable that Iovine indicated to the Guardian that Apple Music is taking on not only Spotify, but radio itself:

“What I saw in the record industry is it’s just getting more restricted, more restricted, more restricted to where everyone’s trying to figure out what kind of song to make to get on the radio, that’s researched and where advertisers are telling you what to play,” says Iovine.

“What’s happened to the music industry, from my perspective, is a lot of great music is behind the wall that can’t get through, and therefore a lot of artists are getting discouraged. And we hope that this ecosystem really helps revive that.”

Despite the criticisms above, I think Apple Music will do well. Apple has a financial relationship with hundreds of millions of people. Given Apple's push into China, it's probably going to get to a billion before too long. These are people who largely already spend money with Apple. The people who have made the iTunes Store the overwhelmingly dominant retailer of digital music. That's quite a different position to be in than Spotify trying to convert its free listeners to paid.

I also think a shift in the subscription streaming market from advertising-supported to paid will be good for music. The ad-supported model is never going to sustain the music industry. 

Moreover, I will be an Apple Music customer. I pay for Spotify now, but my loyalty to Spotify is zero. I hate its user interface. I'll cancel my Spotify account on day one and enjoy three free months, probably on Apple's attractively-priced family deal ($18.99 a month vs $12.99 for a solo account).

But it won't be all I need.

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It's a shame that Real Groovy Records will have to move by January because its landmark building has been sold – the more so because, as Chris Bourke points out in a nice blog post, the musical heritage of the site is so rich.

But I shopped at Real Groovy before it was in its current home and I'll do so wherever it goes next. K Road would seem to fit.

Actually, it's K Road I'm worried about. The very soul of the strip, St Kevin's Arcade, has been bought by a new owner and it looks like they're going to turn it into Ponsonby.

Well, that's the worry, and for all his fine words to the Herald, Paul Reid, the face of the new owners, hasn't exactly got off on the right foot with the arcade's current community by, I'm told, making an appearance as a drunk do-you-know-who-I-am dick at Whammy Bar recently.

But the building won't, and can't, be demolished. It's just that phrases like "the new Ponsonby Central" make the locals feel unwell.

Reid was formerly the frontman of the band Rubicon and played the wayward Marshall Heywood on Shortland Street. Alex Casey at The Spinoff has done what needed doing and studied Marshall's character for clues as to his plans for the arcade.

UPDATE: I'm told Paul Reid has said he definitely doesn't want to turn the arcade into Ponsonby Central, just to refurbish and restore it, and more particularly he has no plans to do anything to Wine Cellar/Whammy. Benefit of the doubt, I reckon.

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Speaking of Real Groovy, I'm spinning a few discs there on Saturday June 27, as part of their Saturday DJ thing. I'm on at the store from 11am till 1pm – and then that evening, from 7-11pm, I'm playing a bunch more tunes at Golden Dawn. This is very exciting and you all have to come.

If you happen to be part of our Queenstown reader contingent (I have no idea whether we have a Queenstown reader contingent, but it stands to reason there must be one or two of you there – hi!), I'm playing tunes at The Sherwood from around 8pm till 11pm, next Thursday the 18th. They've even snuck me into the Winter Festival lol.

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The singular Dudley Benson is crowdfunding to complete his third album, Zealandia. There's a Stuff story on the project, and Dudley explains it himself in this video:

The Newmatics have been back making music together – and they have an album launch show next week:

Gareth Shute has done a Top 10 New Zealand Political Songs for Audioculture. Oddly, he mentions Shihad but makes no mention of their highly political most recent album FVEY.

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The sophisticated Auckland gentlemen of Leisure have dropped another tune. It's smooth, naturally:

Basement Tapes is back and he has a new EP, Loving Me, due for release soon on New York label Ralenteer Records. Here's the first single:

Breezy jangles from Dirty Pixels at The Audience. Pretty classic guitar pop imo:

Also, this moody, graceful thing from Idio, who recently had the odd distinction of having their last single, 'Sway', covered on X-Factor (click through for a free download):

And finally, last Saturday night I went to a great gig at Neck of the Woods in memory of Daisy Ram. It was an eclectic bill in what now seems to be the Auckland style – from the blazing rock 'n' roll of Rackets to a hugely enjoyable funky fresh set from Tyra Hammond, with the tireless Jeremy Toy on gadgets.

Tyra goes one better in Wellington tomorrow night, playing the Matterhorn with a full band, including the redoubtable Chip Matthews on the bass guitar. I'd go if I were you, Wellington, I really would.

Meanwhile, here's her soulful, surprising cover of UMO's 'So Good at being in Trouble':

That's from the new Tyra Hammond EP, which you can pick up for a mere $8 on Bandcamp.

Oh wait ... one more thing. Bandleader James Last left us this week, at the age of 86. His records filled the radiograms of our parents. Here he is with the orchestra covering Hawkwind's 'Silver Machine'. Fuck yeah.

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The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:

theaudience

60

A dramatic and unremarkable decision

The remarkable thing about minister Peter Dunne's welcome decision to approve the import of Elixinol, a cannabis-based oil, to treat the refractory status epilepticus being suffered by 19 year-old Alex Renton, is how unremarkable it should have been.

Status epilepticus, a state of epileptic seizures so frequent there is no opportunity for the patient to recover between them, is not only a terrible condition, it is deadly. Alex's doctors have tried more than 40 treatments to halt the condition, many of them more onerous and risky than cannabis itself.

Except Elixinol isn't cannabis. It's an oil manufactured from industrial hemp, in which the concentration of THC, the main cannabinoid that produces a high, is negligible. The primary ingredient (at around 18-19%) is CBD, a cannabinoid that mitigates some of the effects of THC and has developing applications in treating a variety of conditions, including anxiety disorders – and some forms of epilepsy.

The Science Media Centre has helpfully sought expert commentary on the issue. Including this, from Associate Prof Michelle Glass, head of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Auckland:

The compound that has been approved for Alex Renton is not Epidiolex which is a pure 98% CBD oil – but Elixinol, this is reported on the manufacturers web site to be 18% CBD hemp oil, which to the best of my knowledge has never been tested in clinical trials - however, there are some anecdotal reports of similar products proving useful in seizure disorders.  There is even a suggestion from animal studies that less pure products with a range of plant based cannabinoids in them might be preferable to a highly pure product.

My lay understanding is along similar lines: that medical applications may not all be found in isolating CBD or any other single compound in cannabis plants, but in combinations of cannabinoids – and even of aromatic terpenes, which also appear to have a modifying influence on the high that smokers enjoy from any particular strain of marijuana.

But, as both the SMC's experts say, it's very early days and trials in the area area still in progress. Yes, trials of a plant that has been used for medical and recreational purposes for thousands of years have only relatively recently got underway. Because Prohibition. (Prohibition is also the reason that, if you're older, today's pot seems a bit full-on and makes your heart race – in the past 20 years, the natural ratio of THC and CBD has been bred out in pursuit of maximum bang for buck.)

The answer isn't necessarily breeding out THC in favour of CBD, as the Israelis have already done. A paper published last year found  "dramatic reductions" in the size of glioma brain tumours when an equal (and low-dose) mix of THC and CBD was used in conjunction with radiotherapy – greater than for radiotherapy alone, and for radiotherapy with either THC or CBD alone. There have been promising results in treating leukaemia with a mix of half a dozen cannabinoids.

Except in its use for analgesia – if it helps your subjective pain, it helps your subjective pain – I've been a sceptic on medical marijuana. But in the past couple of years, the whole area has been, if you'll excuse the pun, lighting up. And New Zealand should be there. We are world leaders in plant breeding, and the space for selective breeding of cannabis is wide open.

It's also material that the cost of Sativex, a spray containing a 50-50 ratio of THC and CBD, the sole cannabis-based product approved for use in New Zealand, is obscene. It is approved for the treatment of multiple sclerosis symptoms, but its use is severely limited by the $20,000 annual cost of buying it without subsidy. Very few people on a supported living payment can afford that. It is literally a rort on the part of the companies that manufacture and distribute it. It seems that Novartis, the licensed distributor for this part of the world, would rather tout its own multiple sclerosis drug. It's a ghastly and wholly unjustifiable situation.

None of this has anything to do with recreational cannabis, except as it relates to cynical, risk-averse politicians. Politicians like Prime Minister John Key, who this week said medical marijuana was a topic we should not be debating.

That was the atmosphere in which Peter Dunne, as Associate Minister of Health, made his "one-off" decision to grant permission for the import of the Elixinol. He deserves real credit for doing so.

It's important to recognise that this drug may not be a cure for poor young Alex Renton. Indeed, the chances are, it won't. The point is that it should not have been such a political challenge to approve a drug which is much better tolerated than some of the treatments he's already undergone.

Let's grow up about this. And when we've grown up, perhaps we can talk like grown-ups about recreational cannabis use.

20

Laughing from diversity, and the rise of fake news

This week's episode of Media Take looks at New Zealand screen satire and humour and where their edges might be found – especially where they touch on race and ethnicity.

The idea came up after one of Jeremy Wells' 'Like Mike' parodies of Mike Hosking went beyond an audience that immediately understood what it was – and seriously upset some people who didn't understand or appreciate the irony in fake-Mike's commentary on Prince Harry's encounter with Maori.

The first panel features Kiel McNaughton, the director of Maori Television's brilliantly funny Find Me A Maori Bride, who notes that the concept for the mockumentary – where much of the humour derives from te reo Maori and its use and abuse – actually came from its writer Dane Giraud, a Jewish Australian documentarian who has made his home here.

Alongside Kiel is Roseanne Liang, the director of the game-changing webseries Flat3, which delivered some very edgy humour from a community whose leaders can be very conservative. And yet, they got the lovely gentlemen of the Auckland Chinese Association to participate in an episode where they drew penises on people's foreheads. Respect. I'm looking forward to the team's next project, a comedy show call Friday Night Bites, for which they've already crowdfunded a pilot.

It strikes me that one reason both of these shows have worked so well is that they draw on humour that's already there. My Chinese friends had jokes about "Asian glow" and Jackie Chan years ago. And the comic and satiric archetypes of both white and brown embraces of the reo and tikanga are pretty well established too. In that this humour comes from diversity, it's Auckland humour. It also means it might be a while before you see shows like these on middle-market mainstream TV.

The second part introduces Robbie McNicol, whose second White Man Behind A Desk web video was ideally timed and perfectly pitched for the week of Campbell Live's demise. I can confirm he's as much of a livewire in person as he is on the internet.

And it was really nice to hear from Nathan Rarere about how they're making Maori Television's other new comic show, Brown Eye. The show's implicit pitch – and the burden it carries – is that it's the "New Zealand Daily Show" people have been talking about for years. That's quite a bar to reach, but Brown Eye has has been growing week by week.

It's also notable that it's not just a Maori Show. Key parts of Brown Eye are made by Hweiling Ow and the young Pakistani-Iranian comedian Pax Assadi, who last week did vox pops on who looks like a terrorist:

So, again, it's Auckland humour. It even goes to South Auckland, the part that most media forget even exists.

The last part of the show is quite different, but also worth your time. Brioni Gray has a really nice video report on the intriguing and provocate Waitangi Wahine exhibition.

You can watch Media Take here.