Sunday, May 27, 2012

Eurovision? Call it Euro-porridge!

By Emmanuel Legrand

A senior politician in France once crushed all attempts from the local music industry to be treated seriously by telling a room full of executives that “the film industry has Cannes and music has...the Eurovision Song Contest”. And he did not mean it nicely!

The irony is that this weekend, we had both Cannes and the Eurovision. And it was not too difficult to see that the politicians' remark had not aged. Cannes had Ken Loach, Michael Haneke and Alain Resnais while Azerbeijan hosted The Hump, Roman Lob and Anggun. No disrespect to these artists but it is not the same league.

As Ken Loach said when he accepted his Jury Prize in Cannes, cinema is "not just an entertainment, it shows us who we are”. The problem with the Eurovision Song Contest is that it is just entertainment, and does not show us anything but, as CNN described it, the geopolitical state of affairs in Europe. It is an entertaining evening and sometimes a good laugh, but it not an elevating evening, and it certainly does not say much about the state of Europe's music scene (or if it is the case, then we are doomed!).

Creatively, the Eurovision celebrates the lowest common denominator between 45 countries. Rather than highlighting the creative differences between these countries, and therefore enrich us, entrants look for songs (and arrangements) that can please audiences from Baku to Kilkenny, Tromso to Amalfi. Consequently, the end result sounds like Euro-porridge, gooey and thick. It makes Pop Idol and The Voice look like beacons of avant-garde music.

If Ireland were to send U2, France Daft Punk, Germany Rammstein and the Brits Adele, they would not win (OK, Adele would win!). Let me rephrase: if countries were to send artists with talent, depth, inventiveness, style and substance, they probably would not go far in the competition.

But isn't time to try to be different? Isn't it time to try to break the mould or, as some voices already suggested, withdraw? And isn't is time for the organisers of the event to make significant changes in order to make more room for more musical diversity (why are Europop or Eurodance the dominant genres?)? 

One simple change could be that artists participating in the contest must have performed live in at least three of the countries part of the Eurovision. 

Entrants would not even need to be famous: on the same night the Eurovision Song Contest took place, Jools Holland was featuring in 'Later...' a new talent, previously unheard, I suppose, by most viewers, Jake Bugg, an 18-year-old from Nottingham. Alone with his acoustic guitar, he performed one of his own folky songs, and he was good, eye-catching and engaging. He would have made a perfect representative from the country that gave the world the Beatles and Adele. He would have had my votes!

PS: This year's winning song, Loreen's Eurodance track 'Euphoria', is another triumph for Sweden's songwriting and production teams. How do they do it? As far as porridge goes, they are doing quite well, aren't they?

Monday, May 21, 2012

The dual legacy of Robin Gibb

by Emmanuel Legrand
Gibb with Javed Akhtar
(Photo by Michael Chia)
Robin Gibb was above all a songwriter. On his own or with his brothers, that’s what the thrived for -- writing the best songs that would be endorsed by the wider public. Having achieved global stardom at an early age, he never lost sight of his songwriting roots. And until his very last forces, he did write songs.

It was easy to mock the Bee Gees’ dress code or their unbelievable haircuts in the late 70s, but it was impossible to deny them a unique talent to write catchy songs, from ‘How Can You mend a Broken Heart’ to ‘Tragedy’. When asked a couple of years ago by The Guardian what he considered his greatest achievementGibb’s answer was straight and simple: “Having the most successful catalogue of songs in the world, alongside Lennon and McCartney.”
In 2007, Gibb became the president of CISAC, the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers. As the conference programme manager of the World Copyright Summit, organised by CISAC, I’ve had the privilege to see him “at work” and had the opportunity to witness first hand the impact of star power. And when it came to star power, Gibb was A++.
Gibb with European Commissioner
Michel Barnier at the
World Copyright Summit 2011
(Photo by Michael Chia)
His name would open doors, his statements could swing situations (like when he took a stand in favour of changes in India’s copyright law and supported the efforts made by fellow writer Javed Akhtar to get the country’s policy-makers recognise the rights of songwriters), and his signature at the bottom of a letter could catch the attention of the most austere politician.
At the Summit, Gibb would usually deliver a couple of speeches and he would also make himself available for the countless policy-makers and fellow creators eager to meet with him (and get their picture taken with him!), something that he would always do with patience and charm. He came with a very limited entourage, usually consisting of his secretary and sometimes of his wife Dwina.
He was probably more at ease singing on stage rather than giving speeches, but he knew that his speeches would set the tone. He liked to remind the world that creators were the foundations of the whole creative industries, and that they were usually the weakest element (hence also his support for collective management organisations). 
Gibb will have a dual legacy -- the one linked to his songwriting and performing talents, with a body of work that has few equivalents in the world; and one as ‘the voice of creators”. In both cases, it will be a long lasting legacy.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Busy agenda for France’s new government in the creative and digital fields

by Emmanuel Legrand
It’s time for change in France. Following the French presidential elections, which crowned the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, a busy agenda awaits the new government headed by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
Just to focus on topics of interest to this blog -- the creative economy -- the new rulers will have a full plate. Traditionally, the French State has always been active in the creative fields, regardless of their political side. As usual, in its own very idiosyncratic way, France will certainly experiment in the creative field.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy and the creative sector had a love/hate relationship, but many in the community praised his capacity to address the issue of illegal file sharing through the Hadopi law, which introduced the three-strike scheme. Sarkozy was also instrumental in the creation of the Centre National de la Musique (National Centre for Music), a new organisation that will inject over €150 million each year in the music sector to support the production, distribution, live exposure and export of French music.
Many executives within French music trade bodies (shared also by the film industry) are worried that a Socialist-led government would dismiss on political grounds all the achievements from the previous government, especially the Hadopi law. But there is also concern about the CNM. 
The much controversial Hadopi law will most certainly be revised, if not abolished. It was a pledge from the candidate Hollande, and it is likely President Hollande will be true to his word. What is less clear though is what he will replace it with. 
The creative sectors will have at least two ports of call within the government: the Minister of Culture and Communications Aurélie Filipetti -- who replaces Frédéric Mitterrand -- and Fleur Pellerin who is Minister in charge of SMEs, Innovation and Digital Economy. (Incidentally, both women highlight the mixed origins of today’s population in France: Filipetti is the daughter of an Italian miner, and Pellerin was born in Seoul and was adopted by a French couple.)
According to French newspapers, the government will call for a vast consultation this July and discuss with stakeholders all the key internet related issues and the future of Hadopi will certainly be high on the agenda. Other issues include the VAT on creative goods such as books, films or concert tickets (raised from 5.5% to 7% by the previous government), the financing of creative works, or the role of collective rights management organisation (Filipetti is in favour of greater control of such organisations). 
A writer and a teacher, Filipetti has been in charge of cultural issues within the Socialist Party and was one of the most ardent opponents to the Hadopi law when it was presented before the Parliament by the previous government. The Socialists reluctance to endorse what many in the creative community, especially the music and film sectors, traditionally supporters of left-wing policies, considered as a necessary step to combat piracy has created a divide between the the two sides.
The fact that the Socialist Party, in its vast majority, also supported in 2005 the introduction of a “global license” which aimed at creating a single blanket license for all online usage (and thus putting an end to exclusive rights and making P2P sharing legal), had not helped either. However, many also believe that being in power will lead to a “reality check” and that the government will need to find a balanced solution between rights owners and .
Filipetti was critical of the CNM too. She has voice on several occasions her view that it favours too much the “majors” and should be more geared towards indie labels and non-profit structures helping up and coming artists. (Overall, Filipetti does not really like major companies, it seems!)
But Filipetti’s actions will also be balanced by another voice in the government, that of Pelerin, whose digital agenda crosses many Cabinet departments. Pelerin -- who was seen at Midem 2012 in Cannes where she met a wide range of industry executives -- was already in charge of digital issues at the Socialist Party and has a balanced view between the need to foster a dynamic digital industry and the necessity to ensure that those who provide content for these industries get properly compensated.
There are also two influential voices that could have a significant say in defining the policies in the creative sectors, and they are both at the Elysées Palace, close to Hollande: one is David Kessler who has been appointed adviser on all cultural and communications issues, and the other is the President’s chief of staff (directrice de cabinet) Sylvie Hubac.
Kessler has made most of his career in the creative sector. He has been the director of the CNC, the National Centre for Cinematography, and most recently served as managing director of arts weekly Les Inrockuptibles. He is understood to be close to the creative community. Hubac is a civil servant who has held various positions in cultural-related organisations. Both Hubac and Kessler will benefit from the closeness to the president and it can be quite certain that both will be heavily lobbied by the creative industries.

[Update (23/05/2012): the government has appointed former CEO of pay-TV group Canal+ Pierre Lescure to head a consultation on the future of Hadopi.] 

[Typed while listening to 'Dark Eyes' (Indica Records), the exquisite debut album from Quebec's Half Moon Run (think early Radiohead mixed with Arcade Fire), and Gravenhurst's 'The Ghost In Daylight' (Warp).]