Thursday, 21 July 2011

Market Research

I suspect I am a terrible person on whom to conduct market research. I don't wish to sound egotistical or anything, but I think too much. Often the multiple choice options don't include my view, and then I deliberate interminably over my response, as the researcher rolls their eyes, fidgets with their pen and generally just wills me to get on with it.

Wherever possible I feel compelled to answer surveys. This stems in part from a childhood of reading magazines with my best friend, when we took all the quizzes to see how compassionate or fashionable we were; what type of holiday companion we would make; or what animal we most resembled (very/ not at all/ tolerable/ a dog - the last was particularly hard for my 11-year-old self to take).

Furthermore, when I finished my English degree, many of my fellow students got jobs as market researchers (slightly preferrable to call-centre operators) and stood on the aptly-named Market Street in Manchester clutching a clipboard and harrassing passers-by with queries about their shopping habits and entertainment preferences. Naturally I would always take time to answer them - after all, there but for the grace of God and everything... Not that I had much to be thankful for; I was working in a book shop on arguably the lowest pay rate in the retail industry.

Anyway, the other day I passed some bored-looking geography students who were sheltering from the rain and trying to drum up enough data to write a report on tourism in Queenstown, or some such earth-shattering masterpiece. The questions ranged from 'how old are you' - they didn't even ask me to choose an option (although I could clearly see on the upside-down form that there were several brackets) to 'do you consider your occupation to be a) directly related to tourism, b) indirectly related to tourism, or c) not related to tourism at all?'

Now, to the (as you can imagine) obvious delight of the teenagers, I considered this question carefully. I am a full-time writer and work part-time as a dental receptionist to pay for groceries - or to put it another way, for peanuts. Forget what you've heard about crime; it's writing that doesn't pay. So what would I consider my 'occupation'. Is that what I do? Or what I do to earn money?

Assuming it's the latter, despite the number of front teeth shattered by snowboards or chipped during tandem sky-dives, dentists aren't really dependent on tourism. However, if there were no tourists, there would be no Queenstown. People in hospitality and tourism serve them directly; people who work in retail, trades or services administer to them indirectly, and everyone who lives here is affected by them on a daily basis.

Only the farmers are independent of their influence, although those who turn their stations into 'experiences' so Koreans can adopt a sheep, or those who havest grapes on their land to join the burgeoning tourism wine trail clearly rely on them too.

So, how to answer that question honestly? I picked c) in the end, rationalising that the occupation itself is not necessarily related to tourism, even if the location in which it is conducted is. I am certain I lost a lot more sleep over this than the hapless lads asking the questions.

You see, I used to be on the other side. I translated cold hard statistics into 'content-rich' (how I hate that expression - as opposed to what: vaccuous?) website pieces about career choices. I remember struggling with a sentence that informed me '72% of executive assistants work in Auckland'. I immediately wondered what the other 28% of executive assistants in Auckland were up to - filing their nails and drinking coffee? Skiving off to the pictures? Checking the cricket scores? Bleating on TwatFace? I was told I had 'uncommon and irregular thought processes' (of which I was silently proud) and that no one else would interpret this statistic as such.

Please tell me I am not alone!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Stars of the Future?

Underground Productions
Queenstown Memorial Hall, 14-16 July, 2011

Following on from the success of Starry-Eyed, Margaret O’Hanlon brings us Songstars in which twelve artists perform their original songs and the audience votes for their favourite. The format is the same, with an introductory video clip before each artist, and the band and backing singers provided, but we are told that, whereas previously we have seen people imitating the stars of the past and the present, we are now here to witness the talent of the future.

There is a lot to consider here – there is the melody; the lyrics and the backing. How much have they actually written themselves? For example, they have written the lyrics and the basic tune, but do they stipulate the saxophone solo as well or the violin introduction, or the specific volume and tempo of the drums?

Although they all sing their own song, some of them play their own instruments as well (four of the male artists played their own guitar), so clearly they wrote those parts; should they be given more credit for it? I am very impressed that these people are prepared to stand up in public and be judged – that’s a brave and commendable thing to do, so even if I don’t like the song, I admire the effort from all of them.

It is not, however, a level playing field. Are we voting for the song or the performance? Some of the songs might be better if performed by someone else, whereas some could only be sung by the writer or they would lose all their impetus. Some had beautiful backing harmonies, which may or may not have been written. It’s actually a very different matter and is never clarified. I based my judgements on whether I would want to listen to the song again and whether I would buy it if I had the opportunity.

Before I get down to the individual songs, it would be remiss of me not to mention the hosts, Shaun Vining and Sam Hillman (who was also the musical producer and a backing singer). These two amused the audience (Sam performed an energetic hip-hop number at the start; Shaun parodied a couple of classics on acoustic guitar) and chatted with the artists after each song. They did a great job as did all the performers and it was a highly entertaining night out.

And so to the songs themselves...

1. Point of View by Max Gunn
On the evidence of this performance, Max has boundless charisma. He says he “sat down with his guitar one night and wrote a sad song which changed his point of view and gave him a different outlook on life”. The slow, soul-searching intro with the single guitar (which Max plays himself) builds up as the drums kick in to assist repetitive chords and the inspired addition of a trumpet before a false ending and a final conclusion. He runs out of words half-way through the song and it all sounds a bit too Simple Minds to my taste.

2. Freedom by Katy McNeil
Katy says she wants to “write stuff that is real, intelligent and meaningful; that tells a story or reflects politics and provokes an emotion”. And this is what she has tried to do, although the lyrics about global suffering are a little clichéed: ‘Will you hear the cries of freedom? Will you see the tears of freedom? Will you help those in need of freedom?’ The arrangement and her voice, however, more than compensate. The big band sound and brass section provide an excellent accompaniment to her grunty vocals and the swelling choral backing.
3. See You Cry by Peti Seiuli
Peti claims Samoan and English ancestry which is evident in his music – he began writing songs for the church before moving on to popular songs and contemporary folk. With a laid-back style and bare feet he sings the sound of sunshine and lazy Sunday afternoons. This is an unashamed love song with a self-deprecating feel; ‘Everything I do is to make you smile/ Sometimes it works even only for a while’. The back-rocking beats are suffused with reggae roots and enhanced with syncopated drums. The tune is familiar and catchy and could withstand repeated listening. I can picture lying in a field somewhere in Hampshire with the sound of this song wafting in the smoky air.

4. Realise by Jazzmine Pearse
Apparently “it’s not important to have a boyfriend – you can live by yourself and be happy.” Such are the pearls of teenage wisdom that grace this song. Jazzmine is a pretty girl with a pretty voice. She sings in an American accent and postures, pouts and poses with lots of foot stomping and hair tossing, à la Avril Lavigne. The arrangement is fairly basic and predictable, but the stuff of teen marketers’ dreams. I probably would have liked this when I was 14.

5. Not Afraid of Heights by Thomas Brinsley
Thomas has written an original number with refreshing potential. If it is derivative of anything, it is of a Rolling Stones ballad in their early 70s phase, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. I still haven’t got a clue what the song is really about although I like the lyrics such as ‘I’m inclined to lie/ Like I’m coming down’. They are coupled with an unpredictable melody that ranges from sing-a-long folk to aching soul. From the violin intro and the Spanish guitar (played by Thomas) through to the solid bass and sassy backing vocals, this song has an undeniable (and indefinable) powerful undercurrent and proves that white boys can sing the blues.
6. Don’t Throw It Away by Ailsa and Lindsay Woods
The song, Lindsay tells us, is “kind of about relationships, but also about this moment”. It has a harder, rockier sound than any of the others so far, and I like the lyrics; ‘You like her taste/ Shows you a flawless dress/ She knows it’s not her best/ But it’s okay’. A catchy chorus, solid bass line, stand-out lead guitar by Lindsay, and a build to a crescendo combine to make this exactly the kind of tune you can imagine pogo-ing to at a gig. It has a touch of Van Halen about it in an 80s rock kind of way and, most importantly, it’s fun.

7. Who Are You Really? by Maeve-Rua, Junior and Nina Kopa
The family unit are something like the Jackson Five, except there are three of them, which makes for ease of harmony. The structure of their song is a basic verse/ chorus/ verse/ chorus affair with each family member having a go at singing solo. There is definite vocal aptitude here and maybe, with development, there could be song-writing talent as well.

8. He Is Coming For Me by Pearly McGrath
I’m instantly suspicious of any non-hymn with religious connotations, which raises my hackles against Pearly’s ‘He is coming for me, He is coming for me/ Son of glory he is coming, He is coming for me’. By the end of the number, however, I have goosebumps that are certainly not of aversion. The song commences with a metronomic beat (is that a xylophone?) and builds through drums, guitars and a crashing piano, pausing with a dramatic break before a breath-taking climax. It’s impatient, incessant, and energetic; layered with Pearly’s sensual and strong vocals, it’s almost orgasmic, which is not what I had expected. Imagine Dead Can Dance mixed with Transglobal Underground. I was surprised, and pleasantly.

9. Spite by Chris Parvin
This song has a full band sound and packs a whopping punch. Chris has layered levels of musical dexterity and lyrical brilliance. Like the best of Elvis Costello or Billy Bragg, the angst and pain comes through in the humour and intelligence. In fact this song has more lyrics than any other number of the night – for example: ‘She tossed her hair and tossed away my peace of mind/ Like a kitten in a killing sack.’ Chris moves about the stage in a parody of a rock star while still exuding sincerity and passion. He is a show veteran and knows how to work both the microphone and the audience. While this makes for an excellent live performance, it also demands further listening, to pick up on all the tricks and complexities of the subtle arrangement.

10. Blow All Our Money by Sarah Foley
The song is meant to reflect the casual attitude of Queenstown party-going folk and it does to begin with, although it trails off towards the end. It is pitched on a very even keel and utilises a tight range throughout. Sarah has a grunt to her voice that would suit a rockier beat – currently it is all hook with no line or sinker. Sarah has talent and she does stand out; with a bit more experience and development, she could be one to watch in the future.
11. Say Goodbye by James Rae
The death of a friend inspired James to write this slow, sentimental ballad. He says the music came instantly and the lyrics came along later, which is evident when listening to the song. There is a danger that it might become mawkish: ‘To see you lying there so still/ The girl that I once knew/ Your hand once warm but now so cold/ I guess our time is through’, but he adds a touch of warmth to his performance which rescues it. James is a good musician and the guitar (which he plays himself), violin and drums ebb and flow nicely in a poignant arrangement.

12. I’m Done (Emotional Vampire) by Katy Anderson
Katy begs to differ with an earlier statement; emo is not in for her anymore. She has written a rant about people who suck energy from your soul, and the decision to leave them behind. ‘Strain to pull away from it, searching for a sign/ I’m saving myself from you, has to be the right time.’ She says she likes to write “poems with a melody behind them” and this is a good stab at that (if you’ll pardon the expression). The mixture of guitar riffs, melody and judicious pauses is reminiscent of early U2 or Tom Petty, and there’s a healthy grunge element in there too. Katy jumps around the stage and barely restrains her inner rock chick.

I am clearly out of synch with the Queenstown voting public. My top three were:
1. Spite by Chris Parvin
2. He Is Coming For Me by Pearly McGrath
3. Don’t Throw It Away by Ailsa and Lindsay Woods

The night I went, the winners were:
1. Freedom by Katy McNeil
2= I’m Done (Emotional Vampire) by Katy Anderson
2= Blow All Our Money by Sarah Foley
3= Realise by Jazzmine Pearse
3= Who Are You Really? by Maeve-Rua, Junior and Nina Kopa

I guess it just goes to show that the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum and there really are different notes for different folks. Thankfully.