Hard News by Russell Brown

22

Friday Music: What Alltracks is actually about

The slow, steady shift of audiences to streaming music services has been a mixed blessing for NZ On Air, whose job it is to help us hear more of ourselves wherever.

On one hand, it takes music discovery away from the strictures of commercial radio programming. The music that will fit into a radio format and the music actually being made by and for New Zealanders often aren't always the same thing, and in the past NZ On Air has been obliged to make funding decisions to try and bridge the gap.

In recent years the development of YouTube as a music platform – it's New Zealanders' biggest online listening venue by some stretch – has changed things a lot. NZ On Air can (and does) report every single play of a video it funds as a measure of its decisions. That fact actually underwrites the broader scope of the Making Tracks funding scheme introduced several years ago.

But the problem is, of course, even bringing their own music to the attention of New Zealanders when they visit the great new jukeboxes in the cloud. Spotify has no innate interest in New Zealand music and its algorithims don't particularly recognise it as a genre. Without a DJ, it all gets lost in the crowd.

The agency has already taken some steps towards curation, with useful new-music playlists on its Souncloud account. More recently, it commissioned forner Kiwi FM host Charlotte Ryan to curate an alt-and-indie playlist on Spotify.

Those now appear to have been steps towards Alltracks, the NZ On Air playlist site that launched this week with curated lists reflecting seven genres. The playlists can be played on site (as embedded YouTube clips) or – and this is really the idea – followed and enjoyed on third-party platforms. It's a very simplified version of what the BBC does with the all-singing-all-dancing Playlister.

Significantly, with the exception of Folk & Country (group-curated by Christchurch's RDU station), they're all put together by named individuals. It's no accident that Apple has hired New Zealander Zane Lowe – probably the most influential tastemaker in radio – away from the BBC to be a face of its forthcoming streaming service.

The new site has already copped a withering review from the New Zealand Herald's Karl Puschmann. Some of his criticisms are fair, others really are not. I think it's worth going through them.

He says:

... it feels like these curators have simply rattled off as many local songs as they could recall offhand before buggering off for lunch. Quantity rather than quality rules and there's barely a rare cut, deep album track or overlooked gem to be found in the mix. It's a squandered opportunity.

NZ On Air's mandate is principally to encourage audiences towards what it has funded. Since Making Tracks was introduced, it funds just that: tracks. But, particularly in the rock genres, it would be good to see less likely tracks included in the playlists.

After that BS I almost admire the utterly shameless chutzpah of Dance & Electronic curator Dan Aux who saw fit to include two of his own songs on his playlist.

Yes, and he plays his own songs on his radio shows and in the club. But the main reason is probably because those songs were funded by NZ On Air.

What I'd really like to know is why there's no unsigned or new music playlist. That should definitely be there. This site is supposedly about discovery. I'm pretty sure we've discovered all we're going to about Connan Mockasin by now. How about trying to break some new acts rather than championing the same tired old faces? Get jiggy wit it gawddamit. You're on the Internet now. All bets are off. Go crazy and wild. Please.

Karl, you'll be wanting TheAudience, another fine site funded by NZ On Air, whose job it is to present stuff straight out of the garage and the bedroom.

 ... how about each time the playlist updates the curator writes a couple of paragraphs explaining why they chose this set of tunes and what the music they've picked means to them.

Seems like a good idea.

The other big problem is that AllTracks is a "portal" site. This means it's a middle man.

You click on the playlist you want to listen to and it shunts you off over to YouTube, Soundcloud or Spotify.

Yes, that's the idea. Those sites are where the audience already goes.

I know times are tough but couldn't NZ On Air have sprung for local hosting of these local tunes?

No. It's not NZ On Air's job to run a radio station or to build a whole new listening platform and expect people to come to it. Alltracks is actually a very simple site with a fairly simple job. It's not there to replicate Spotify or Soundcloud. That would be a rather more expensive exercise.

... it's a hodgepodge of carelessness. Not every song is available on each host site. Soundcloud suffers the most in this regard, with a massive number of omissions.

On the other hand, you'll find many tracks – especially new ones – that are on Soundcloud and not on the others. That's not NZ On Air's fault, it's the nature of the platforms. It can't force record labels and artists to put their music on Soundcloud.

Unforgivably, sound quality is also inconsistent, reliant as it is on the host site. YouTube is the worst offender here. NZ On Air clearly hasn't uploaded these songs themselves to ensure the video is of decent quality. They really should have. 

No, they shouldn't. It's a condition of video funding that the clip goes up on YouTube, but the clip belongs to the artist and label. NZ On Air can't just upload everything on its own account. Apart from anything else, views of clips on YouTube are a revenue stream for their owners.

... at the moment AllTracks is fairly pointless. You can easily compile your own local music playlist on Spotify, you can easily hunt down any old Kiwi music vid you feel like watching on YouTube and Soundcloud will spin off randomly through similar acts from any starting point you give it.

Yes, you can do all these things, assuming you know what you're after and can find it. Alltracks is a simple shopfront for subscribable playlists centred (although not exclusively) on music and videos that have received NZ On Air support.

None of this is to say that Alltracks couldn't do with a bit more work and maybe a clearer focus on its job. I think the mix between the old and new on the playlists is a little awkward – the site needs a "what's new" option. Perhaps simply bouncing the NZ On Air Soundcloud playlists back over to Alltracks would be a good idea. As things stand, the dance and electronic playlist works well, because there's so much relatively new material to choose from, and it's all on Soundcloud. The rock and metal playlist, not so much.

I expect Alltracks will improve, and selling it the right way will be crucial, but it's important to remember that it's designed to fit within an environment, and not be the environment itself.

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Hot Chocolate's singles remind me of my childhood, so I did feel sad to learn yesterday that the band's leader, the effortlessly cool Errol Brown, had passed away aged 71. Apparently, I wasn't alone: his death made successive Radio New Zealand news bulletins.

Hot Chocolate's biggest hit is and will always be 'You Sexy Thing', which got another run in the 90s as part of The Full Monty. But Alexis Petridis makes a good case in The Guardian for Hot Chocolate being a stranger and more interesting band than most people realised.

He notes "the astonishing 1974 hit Emma, an impossibly morose tale of poverty, failure and suicide. The latter featured a remarkable vocal from Brown: he’s the model of resigned stoicism until the song’s closing minute, where he unleashes a series of harrowing screams."

There were the other hits, including, of course, 'Everyone's A Winner'. But there was a lot more than that. They were an odd mix in the way that only a British band could be. Alan Perrott put me onto this 1972 rock track for RAK, which sounds completely unlike any of their later music:

'Mindless Boogie', which, crazily, references the Jonestown Massacre:

And then there was 'Heaven is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac', which unfortnately put an end to the band's string of hits in 1976. I found a great rework of that:

Happily, I also located a high-quality download for it on a blog that stopped publishing in 2009. Right-click on this link and party in your kitchen, baby.

Hot Chocolate broke up in 1986 (the band replaced Errol with an Errol Brown impersonator!) and Errol's career thereafter was essentially being Errol Brown formerly of Hot Chocolate. But he was honoured with an MBE in 2003 and an Ivor Novello Award in 2004. His personal note thanking the fans who turned up for what he knew would be his last UK tour in 2008 is genuinely touching.

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When I was 20 and working at Rip It Up in the loft of a long-gone lift-less building in Darby Street, the office turntable was an education. Sometimes, when Murray Cammick put on a record, things would light up for me. One such record was Shannon's 'Let the Music Play'. I might have been a scruffy indie kid, but I loved that record. I loved the drums, the way the vocals were produced, the sound of the thing.

One day, when I thought I was aone in the office, I played the 12" several times in succession, as loud as you like. Until Snake T-shirts' designer Hal Chapman came storming out from his end of the loft promising to personally smash the record if I put the fucking thing on again. Heh.

What I didn't know at the time was that 'Let the Music Play' was effectively the start of a style of music that came to be called "latin hip hop" or electro. Or that that iconic New York style would take form on the city's independent radio stations at the hands of of a bunch of ingenious kids who – because they did not have samplers – created edits and mixes by physically splicing tape.

These days, it's a cut-and-paste job on a computer – back then it needed manual skills and real creativity. It also demanded some enterprise from the listener: the mixes were often recorded to cassette and dubbed and distributed from there. It must have been an exciting kind of radio at both ends.

That's the story told in Revolutions On Air: The Golden Era of New York Radio 1980 - 1988, a short documentary from Red Bull Music Academy.

It's not only that significant elements of today's popular music were forged at those stations, but that what the likes of the Latin Rascals did still sounds great. Here's a 107-minute mix from Kiss FM in 1985:

There are quite a few of these on Soundcloud, but this one was posted to accompany Stretch Armstrong's lengthy background essay on the scene, which concludes with an amazing edit-by-edit breakdown of the mix itself.

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Princess Chelsea has a new track. Wistful vocals, chiming keyboards and a dash of Jonathan Bree:

On TheAudience, yet another young woman producing her own. The tumbling beats of October (click through for the download):

And another (also downloadable): the hauting lo fi styles of Womb. I like this:

And one more! The lilting voice of Amber Maya, a New Zealander born in Barbados and now living in Auckland:

And finally ... last Saturday, the lineup at Weird Night Out at the St James included a kid who (and only partly because he shares management with Lorde) has been talked about as the next big thing for the past year.

Thomston was playing his first public show, which will have been daunting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the kind of pop-R&B-downbeat music he's making isn't necessarily easy to reproduce in a live setting. Secondly, because, as this week's profile in Britain's Daily Telegraph notes, last Saturday was a lead-in to a series of European festival dates, where he will be be under close inspection.

I actually thought he was pretty amazing, and that the band format he and his management have put together didn't just work, it was in some ways more impressive than his recordings, which don't always work for me.

Principal case in point, this monster ballad, which is lighter in its recorded form but was powerful and impressive live. For a young man playing his first show, Thomston brought a hell of a lot of stagecraft:

I hope they don't get too hung up on tailoring Thomston as a popstar for teenage girls, because I think on the evidence of last Saturday, his music and performance carry much more weight than that. He's a very interesting young man.

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The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:

theaudience

173

#GE2015: Proper Mad

In a few hours, Britons will vote in a traditional first-past-the-post Westminster system general election. The result will almost certainly be a mess.

Driven by pressures within – Scottish nationalism; the unfocused English discontent that inflates UKIP – and the influence of proportional elections for the European Parliament (where even the British Greens have a couple of seats), electoral loyalties have spread in a way that the old system can't accommodate. Basically, they're trying to have an MMP election under FPTP.

The standard argument for FPTP is that it ensures strong majority governments. The final Guardian/ICM poll suggests there is very little chance indeed of that. Neither the Conservatives or Labour will come near a majority of electorate seats and the most likely scenario seems to be that Ed Miliband's Labour will find some kind of accommodation with the Scottish Nationalist Party, which The Guardian predicts will win 53 seats, giving it an influence beyond its 5% of the overall vote.

Given that Miliband has already caved to pressure to rule out any kind of deal with the SNP, this is hardly an ideal way to enter government. As Buzzfeed (whose coverage is actually quite good) put it, things aren't going to plan for anyone.

Unsurprisingly, the marauding Scots' pending cross-border coup has generated something approaching panic in the English establishment. The Daily Telegraph essentially surrendered any pretence towards the measure expected of a "quality" daily with this front page this week: 

For the Daily Mail, shit has got fully existential:

The Sun has gone with the "you wouldn't trust this man to eat a bacon sandwich properly" angle:

Although the Murdoch press, pragmatic as ever, is showing a very different face to readers of the Scottish Sun:

Meanwhile, Russell Brand, influential prat that he is, has decided after a video interview with Miliband, that people should vote after allafter voter registration has closed.

UKIP candidates continue to give the impression that the systematic obstacles to their party gaining a share of power commensurate with its share of the vote is in fact a very good thing. Another one has had to be jettisoned, this time for threatening to shoot his Tory opponent, a British Indian.

Having lived in London for five years many years ago, I think I'll always feel somewhat connected to Westminster politics, so I'll be doing not much other than watching the wires tomorrow morning our time. But I'm interested in hearing from our UK-based readers about how it's been. Feel free to post observations, comments, links and the like in the discussion below. Note that if you just paste in the URL (not the embed code) of a YouTube clip, it will automagically embed.

75

Synthetic cannabis: it just keeps coming

Synthetic cannabinoids are being prepared and sold on the New Zealand black market, more than a year after they were banned from public sale by an amendment to the Psychoactive Substances Act. And a report provided to me by ESR shows they are not leftovers from the old regime, but largely new chemicals.

Since July last year, two months after synthetic cannabinoids were withdrawn from sale, ESR has analysed 15 samples – one from Customs, one from a "private client" and the others from police – as containing synthetic cannabinoids.

Two samples, one from a 158g seizure by Customs, were presented as powders. One was blotter card "tabs" that also contained 25C-NBOMe, 25H-NBOMe and 25I-NBOMe (in keeping with the rule that forcing one drug out of the market generally makes space for a more dangerous one, most blotters presented as LSD in New Zealand now actually contain the much more risky NBOMe drugs). The remainder were "plant material" prepared for smoking.

In addition, two further samples were tablets that could only provisionally be identified as containing synthetic cannabinoids – ESR had no data to aid a conclusive analysis. Those two tablets also contained MDPV (aka "bath salts") and one contained the other "bath salts" chemical, Alpha-PVP, which has been turning up in Wellington recently. They, or their constituents, are likely to have come from China.

The reports from ESR fly in the face of a recent assurance from Association Health Minister Peter Dunne that police had told him there was only a "comparatively small" underground market, trading in products stockpiled from the old legal regime.

ESR's results say different.

"There are significantly more," ESR forensic analyst Hannah Partington told me. "And it's not consistent, they change."

"It's new ones," confirmed senior forensic scientist Jenny Sibley. "We had a very new one last week. It was in our data library, so we could identify that way. But we could not find any published data in scientific published papers. It takes ages for them to catch up."

Both agreed that the large Customs seizure of JWH 018, one of the original "legal highs", banned by the minister in November 2012, was an exception. Recent samples almost all contained cannabinomimetics never listed by the ministry.

In his interview with TV3's The Nation last month, Dunne cited the near-absence of an underground market in synthetic cannabinoids as a vindication of New Zealand's "different approach" to regulation, which he insisted was not a ban.

The predominance of "plant matter" presentations suggests that criminal enterprises have the skills to prepare smokeable material – which would typically mean dissolving a constituent chemical (or chemicals – about half the samples contained mixtures) in acetone and spraying it on leaf.

NORML has suggested that the New Zealand "weed drought" in the early part of the year could be a consequence of criminal operations moving from natural cannabis production to the faster, cheaper and less risky business of synthetics – much in the way that the supply of distilled spirits rocketed and beer consumption slumped during America's liquor prohibition years.

Hamilton mayor Julie Hardaker, who, like me, appeared on the same programme as Dunne, said to me she has been told by Waikato police that the process is widespread. In March, Christchurch police found synthetic cannabis prepared for sale alongside methamphetamine in a house they said was home to several gang members.

The flow of new cannabinomimetics presents problems for ESR, whose scientists have been struggling to identify the chemicals.

"We have to have a standard of each particular substance to confirm it for the report," said Sibley. "There's a company called Cayman in the US who make analytical reference standards of synthetic cannabinoids. And they try and keep up as much as they can with the way the market's evolving but you you're always playing catch-up, always. And it can be up to a year before a new substance will have a reference standard you can buy to confirm what you think it is. It makes it very difficult and it's very frustrating for the authorities."

I think there is no doubt that networks that have formerly dealt in natural cannabis are now selling synthetic cannabis in some quantity. This is not a leftover from the "legal highs" era: it is a new market, it involves little-known and poorly-understood chemicals – and it's probably growing.

Update: A letter from associate Health minister Peter Dunne about this post, and my response.

24

Friday Music: The merry month of May

It's several years since New Zealand Music Month shifted from running a centralised, industry-focused event series to acting as an umbrella for anything anyone in the community might care to organise and associate with the concept. It works.

Notably this year, the libraries are getting right into it. Christchurch City Library has a 7pm Music Month launch this evening featuring a solo set from Martin Phillipps, Minisnap (Kaye Woodward and her fellow Bats playing her songs) and The Swan Sisters. It's all ages and there's a great-looking interactve hour for kids outside beforehand, at 6pm.

 Auckland Libraries has stuff on via individual community libraries  all over the city this month, from performances to hands-on sessions with ukuleles and samplers.

Wellington has Wellington artists playing others Wellington artists songs at Under the Covers tonight and a four show Music Month season begins in Dunedin tonight at the Robbie Burns.

Auckland's big Music Month-aligned show this weekend is Weird Night Out at the St James tomorrow night. Set times will be posted today. And do notethat although some media are describing the St James as "restored", the correct word is "reopened". Actual restoration is a battle yet to be won.

There's a lot on in general. Tonight alone sees the hometown debut for Kody Neilson's new outfit Silicon and a benefit show for Auckland Action Against Poverty at Whammy featuring Tourettes, PCP Eagles and more, Goodshirt and Ha The Unclear, Randa and friends and Wellington's Terror of the Deep. Tomorrow night there's Heavy's all-ages album release show.

I suggest y'all consult the Under the Radar gig guide for your city and the New Zealand Music Month website, which has a really-hard-to-read event listing.

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From the @SunRaUniverse Twitter account, which brightens every day. The original poster for the Space is the Place movie:

And from the Instagram account of weed_eagle, the original cassette of The Chills' The Lost EP. Fancy.

And this pretty, primitive poster from the past, found in Richard Langston's new Audioculture history of Dunedin's Empire Tavern.

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Ooh! New She's So Rad (warm, deep bath of guitar version). 'Kick Out of Life' is from their forthcoming album Tango, out later this month via From the Crate in New Zealand and Muzai Records in Europe:

Ooh! New She's So Rad (disco console version). From the 12-track Breakout remix EP up now on Bandcamp, featuring versions from a bunch of people. It really sounds like they had fun on this record.

Onehunga's Spycc, whose last outing was with High Hoops, teams up this time with David Dallas. Free download:

Ahead of tomorrow's big hooley at the St James, Weird Together have posted a track from their recent live sets, sampling the great Jamaican poet Mutabaruka. Free download:

On TheAudience, this impressive new track from Wellington-based Felix III, aka Felix Mpunga. It's a free download if you click through. There's a Martyn Pepperell profile to go with it:

And the "sexual hypno drone" of Instant Fantasy, profiled here by Hannah McGowan:

And, finally, Bill Brewster's freaky funk-rock rarities for The Quietus. Top-notch YouTube crate-digging.

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The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:

theaudience

66

Behind Baltimore

Away here at the bottom of the world, we have been experiencing this week's tumult in Baltimore, Maryland, in the modern way: through the real-time thrill, outrage and fuzzy context of live tweeting, brutal images and shaky Periscope streams.

It is worth taking a step back from the spectacle and thinking about how and why Freddie Gray was arrested then bundled into a police van where his spine was broken. If the actual means of his death was unusual, his death in police custody was less so – and his arrest for essentially no reason was just the daily reality of America's drug war.

David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who went on to create The Wire, explained it this week in an interview with The Marshall Project:

The part that seems systemic and connected is that the drug war — which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city — was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department. Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized. It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did.

Simon is even more lucid on his thesis as to how the War on Drugs destroyed "real policing" – in favour of a system where forces juke their statistics by simply visiting neighbourhoods where the fruit hangs low and making arbitrary arrests – in the award-winning documentary The House I Live In:

This film might be the best indictment of the drug war and its abject failure I've ever seen. It  also makes a vivid and explicit connection between drug law and race.

New Zealand's first drug laws – directed at Chinese opium smokers – were an act of racial persecution and they continue to fall most heavily on Maori. In the US, those laws have expanded into a broad assault on African-American communities. Virtually everything that could be wrong about them, is wrong.

The damage is such that a reversal today – and that would be a fond hope – might take two or three generations to work through. And yet, smaller steps help. In the year after Colorado legalised marijuana, black Americans were as dispropotionately represented as ever in arrest statistics:

The total number of charges for pot possession, distribution and cultivation plummeted almost 95%, from about 39,000 in 2010 to just over 2,000 last year.

Even after legalization, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be charged with public use of marijuana. Blacks were also much more likely to be charged with illegal cultivation of pot or possession of more than an ounce ...

In 2014, the year Colorado’s recreational marijuana stores opened, blacks were 3.9% of the population but accounted for 9.2% of pot possession arrests.

For illegal marijuana cultivation, the disparities didn’t just persist. They got much worse.

In 2010, whites in Colorado were slightly more likely than blacks to be arrested for growing pot. After legalization, the arrest rate for whites dropped dramatically but ticked up for blacks. In 2014, the arrest rate for blacks was roughly 2.5 times higher.

But it's a proportion of a far lower total. That's the mercy.

You may have watched The House I Live In on Maori Television on Tuesday night, before Media Take. If you didn't, it's there to watch in full on the Maori Television website. I cannot commend it to you highly enough.