What is Music Worth?

…and what am doing with my new EP of downtempo electronica called The Middle Beat EP?

I’m sure many people would agree with me that music is, in fact, priceless. The paradigm shift that has been heralded by the arrival of mp3 file sharing, however, means musicians are faced with quite a conundrum. This is part of what makes it so hard to sell recorded music as a commodity and is why I am no longer focused on doing so.

According to Forbes magazine, the music industry is growing, despite the greatly decreased revenue posted by major record labels since Napster reared its head in 1999. This broad view includes live performance, publishing, radio play, synchronization with moving images, music education, etc.

When I’m not working on being an ethnomusicologist (studying kung fu drumming), I’m primarily a recording artist, so the value of recorded music is still near and dear to my heart. In the last few years, online music distribution has left physical recordings in the dust, which is a boon for independents that no longer need to rely on the physical delivery networks of the majors. This is a blessing and a curse, however, because more recorded music is now being produced and disseminated than ever before; listeners are spoiled for choices.

Big acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have spearheaded a Pay-What-You-Want approach to downloading their music. This may seem akin to a busker passing the hat, but I tend to think of it more as “crowdsourced” patronage. If someone likes a particular artist, they contribute to supporting him or her. Furthermore, there is also tremendous artistic capital to be found in making music feely available through social networking and file sharing.

If the market is potentially saturated and it’s tough to make a dollar selling recordings, why have I bothered to issue a 4 track, digital-only, release? Because I feel artistically compelled to do so, the means are available, and I think I have something to offer. As a producer, I always prioritize sound quality and production values, while as a DJ, I always dish out the beats; on this release I’ve also brought a renewed focus on instrumental melody to an eclectic blend of acid jazz, dub, and trip hop.

My goal is simple: to get lots of people listening to these tracks.

In order for this happen, I need the people in my network to share them with the people in their networks. It would be nice if people bought them, but I’m actually more interested in promotion and dissemination. Specifically, I would like for my music to reach not only the ears of audiences worldwide, but also music supervisors for film and TV, as well as publishers, DJs, journalists, bloggers, etc.

This release is available as Pay-What-You-Want from Bandcamp; for sale from iTunes, Amazon, etc; for streaming on sites like SoundCloud, LastFM, and Myspace; and posted for P2P sharing on Bittorrent, through The Pirate Bay and Mininova.

middlebeat_ep1400x1400

Mr. Pinchy (dubstep track)

Mr. Pinchy is a lobster. But he isn’t just any old crustacean; Mr. Pinchy is special.

His early years were simple enough. He was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia and spent most of his time drinking and pinching, or perhaps pinching and drinking. I met him randomly at the Halifax airport, where he was just loitering around with a bunch of other Haligonian lobsters.

We hit it off and it didn’t take long for me to realize he was no ordinary pincher. I told him he should come back to Toronto with me and try his luck in a bigger pond, so to speak. That’s when things really picked up for Mr. Pinchy.

While he was crashing on my couch, I was worried that I misjudged him because he didn’t seem to do anything except pinch, drink liquor, and sleep. Little did I know that during the day while I was out, he was training intensely in order to create his own unstoppable style of kung fu: Drunken Lobster Fist.

I was happy when Mr. Pinchy met a nice crab, got married, and had babies. It all happened so fast; he didn’t have time to get a home of his own. I just renovated a corner of my apartment and turned it into a crustacean loft for them. That was when Mr. Pinchy settled down and got a job as a Secret Agent.

Part of his new job was Research and Development for surveillance techniques. Mr. Pinchy was perfect for this because he doesn’t blink. Not ever. Then eventually he learned how to bend the space-time continuum and not only teleport, but even to be in two places at the same time. Having accomplished such a feat and sold the license to the government, he took an early retirement.

These days Mr. Pinchy still does a lot of pinching, unpinching, and even some twinching. He doesn’t drink as much as he used to but his Drunken Lobster Fist has reached new heights of kung fu awesomeness. I’m never quite sure what he does when I’m not around, but I suspect he might still do some Secret Agent work on the side… I actually can’t tell you about it though, because then he’d have to kill us both…

In honour of my buddy Mr. Pinchy, I wrote a little song. Then I remixed it into a massive dubstep track.

“I like to pinch, pinch

I like to twinch, twinch

I like to pinch everyday.

I like to pinch, pinch

I like to twinch, twinch

I like to pinch everyway.

I’m Mr. Pinchy,

I’m Mr. Pinchy.

I’m going to pinch until the day that I die.

I like to pinch, pinch

I like to twinch, twinch

I like to pinch everyday.”

Developments in Music Technology

When I first entered the world of music technology, it was at the tail end of the analog age and the cusp of the digital era. My initial forays involved cutting/splicing reel-to-reel tape recordings and building synthesizer patches using physical cables, before I ever learned to use a computer-based MIDI sequencer and 14 bit digital sampling software.  The studio where I cut my production teeth took up a whole room for all the wonderful, albeit large, pieces of equipment.

The evolution of microprocessor computers and the development of software alternatives to expensive hardware have had a profound impact on the way I make music. I am not alone in this, and countless others have joined the revolution. The pace of technological advancement has been matched — sometimes driven — by musical creativity, while new means of sound production or manipulation have often led to new music.

The importance of the move from analog to digital could be eclipsed, however, by a change from static to portable. Laptop computers are already de rigueur for DJs and live PAs, but could soon seem unnecessarily bulky compared to the advent of ultra-slim, touch screen, accelerometer equipped devices. Where could this lead us?

Notwithstanding the convenience of working on the go, I doubt that the small screen real estate and earphones of a smartphone or tablet could replace a proper studio. Instead, I think something like an iPhone/iPad could facilitate a type of live electronic music performance that previously would have been prohibitively expensive. There is also the opportunity for immersive and interactive networking with the devices of people in the audience, as has already been taken advantage of by the trail-blazing Plastikman, using Hexler’s SYNK. Furthermore, changes in the physical method of engaging with technology are bound to inspire innovative music, both on stage and in the studio.

There are already some decent apps out there (which I’m only just starting to explore) and I sense that more may be right around the corner. I am always keen to observe new directions in music technology and the concomitant developments in musical sound. Only time will tell, however, whether smartphones and music apps will be just another stepping stone, or a true milestone in the development of electronic music. A key factor will be whether developers and users alike will be willing to treat them as real tools or as simple toys.

Beat Maker 2 music production app

AutoValve analog sound emulator app

Learning Chinese

I’ve been studying Chinese formally since 2008 and quite enjoy it. Nonetheless it is also rather difficult.This year, I have had the pleasure of studying at the Yale-China Chinese Language Center at the University of Hong Kong.

Contrary to what most people seem to think, I find Cantonese to be easier than Mandarin. I attribute this to the fact that I’ve been practicing Chinese martial arts since 1997 and my teachers have been Cantonese speakers, as have many of my classmates. I guess I’m just more familiar with it.

Also contrary to what people seem to think, the number of tones (Chinese words are a combination of sound and tone) is about the same between Cantonese and Mandarin. Modern Cantonese uses 6 basic tones, though both more lively or more formal Cantonese might use from 7 to 9 tones. Modern Standard Chinese or Putonghua (often called Mandarin in English) uses 4 basic tones, a neutral tone for final particles, and a “half-third” tone for certain situations, also giving a total of 6.

Something that I find quite incredible about Chinese is that the writing system is more or less standard, while at the same time there is so much variation between dialects. This might be similar to the situation in medieval Europe where people spoke their local language but read and wrote in in Latin.

Learning to read and write Chinese takes a lot of time because they don’t use a phonetic alphabet. In order to peruse a decent newspaper, one might need to memorize upwards of several thousand characters.

As Ronin E-Ville, I take full advantage of the power available in a modern, software-based, electronic music production studio. I’m just starting to do the same with Chinese and the sort of tools available are really quite amazing. Initially, I was just using my Mac for Chinese character input typing and going to online resources like the Yellow Bridge dictionary. Then I got onto CantoFish, which is a browser plugin for Firefox that lets me roll over characters and immediately get both Cantonese pronunciation and meaning.

On my iPhone, I now have eStroke, which is a Chinese-English/English-Chinese dictionary with some nifty extra features. First of all, it takes advantage of the iPhone’s built-in touch pad character drawing input. It also has both Mandarin and Cantonese Romanization and it allows me to make my own flashcards for self-testing.  It even has character writing practice tests, so I can study on the go.

I also purchased a version of Pleco that has Optical Character Recognition. It uses video to recognize characters and spits out both the definition and Mandarin Romanization, all in real time. With a still image, it can convert printed text to data and copy/paste it to another program.  Unfortunately, it works best with black text on white paper in a regular font, and not so well with handwriting.

Using my iPhone to help me learn Chinese and navigate my way around Hong Kong is pretty awesome. Sometimes, I even feel like I’m in one of the Matrix movies…

Here is a typical Chinese New Year greeting, in celebration of the recent arrival of the Year of the Dragon. The translation is a well-wishing for good fortune and health:

What’s this blog about?

This blog has been up and empty for a couple years because I just didn’t know what to write. Ronin E-Ville is the name I use as a DJ-producer but does that mean this must only be a music blog or a production journal? Or could it also be musings on martial arts, a spiritual diary, a food blog, and a sartorial exposition. Well, I think I finally figured it out: it’s whatever I want it to be.

One of the main ideas with Ronin E-Ville is that I make eclectic electronic music and try not to get too fussy about genre labels. If someone hires me to produce a track for them, that’s one thing. But if I’m just making beats, I simply follow my muse…

So this blog will be a bit of this and a bit of that. Ultimately everything is connected and as the great 17th century Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, wrote “from one thing, know ten thousand things.”

Image from Wikipedia Commons

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