Saturday 5 May 2018

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 7

Greetings from the height of Spring - post-May Day - and three new offerings. We start with something rather different. A timely opinion piece on how women artists in dance music find themselves at a disadvantage whenever deals are struck between the DJ-Producer and music platform. Male vocalists suffer too, but there is an ongoing legal limbo for the invariably female 'featured' singer. It is a plea, but also a challenge. Next, comes a fascinating Q & A (mainly 'A') with dark short tale supremo of forty years and counting, STEVE RASNIC TEM, as his retrospective collection 'Figures Unseen' is released by Valancourt.  Finally, a review of PRIYA SHARMA's impressive debut collection, 'All The Fabulous Beasts.' Slainte...

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An opinion

How male-led technology has deprived women artists

Thirty years ago, the new dance music of house, 'rave' and techno also heralded, unseen behind the celebration, a subtle but decisive shift in the creative hierarchy. With music production, above playing or even performing, becoming an increasingly accessible art-form, the producer became the artist; one considered at least as important, if not more so, than the singer / songwriter herself; for it was mainly women artists who were the faces and voices of this new medium. The faces as the commercial selling point; the voices for the soul and, often, beauty, the new producers couldn’t possibly evoke from their digital electronics alone. The producer then became the DJ, remixing multiple versions of established hits 'live,‘ and performing them before club-goers‘; the new audience for this new form of artist.
  As technology has become increasingly sophisticated and accessible since then, the voice, from wherever the source, has become no more to the successful DJ-Producer than any other sampled sound, remixed and utilised to serve their whims. In tandem, the track’s 'lead‘ vocalist had been quietly and successfully relegated to that of 'featured' vocalist in less than two years. A decade on, the related ambient branch known as trance (or ambient trance or psy-trance) demanded further use of the woman’s vocal as a means to enhance a track‘s already existing beauty and subtlety of atmosphere. By now, the DJ-Producer was The Star and – unchallenged - called the shots.

So, let‘s define what, and who, we are talking about here. Many such cases stem from the role of 'featured vocalist,' where a DJ-Producer invites a professional singer to add their voice onto the chorus or repetitive 'hook' of the track they've constructed in their studio. If the vocalist has written neither the lyric nor melody to that chorus or 'hook,' how it is subsequently used is up to the DJ-Producer. However, this form of ownership – legally or otherwise – is often used to encompass those choruses and 'hooks' that have been written by the vocalist.
  Of course, popular music has always progressed – and thrived – as the technology that produced it became increasingly sophisticated. This has been the case since shellac was discarded for vinyl and the CD for the download. However, the role of creator, and his definition, has since become vague. A position very much to the DJ-Producer’s advantage. The goalposts as to who does what and where have crucially shifted, finding no new home, leaving the woman artist in a legal limbo. The mainly male DJ-Producers have taken advantage of this, big-time. The singer-songwriter who has penned the original track and mix she has contributed her vocal to won’t necessarily receive either payment or named credit for her work. Not only this, any subsequent remix will also be out of her control where a fellow DJ-Producer wants to put his very different signature on the original mix.
  It is the case that not all vocalists' write the tracks they appear on; but, to treat those artists who do the same way, (for independent artists is who they remain), as if they are merely another worthy sacrifice to serve the sound, and ego, of the all-powerful DJ-Producer, should be called out for what it is – artistic theft. Thankfully many artists have recently gotten wise to this situation and refuse to work in the 'featured‘ vocalist role ever again, now viewing it as toxic.

One singer-songwriter, whose debut release made the Top 10 in the early 90s,‘ recently related how she receives requests to use her vocals, for unsanctioned remixes, on a weekly basis. She emphasised that no permissions to use her name or voice on these remixes have so far been given for use on any of the big name music platforms. It appears that, whatever her response, it is casually ignored as is crediting her as vocalist. She says she had previously been burned early in her career and so, unsurprisingly, has been left somewhat scarred.       'These people can leave a sensitive person feeling like they are nothing...,' she says. 'I hear it, day in, day out, from fellow vocalists and it's disgusting, vile behaviour.' She is, however, moving on. She adds how learning from these experiences has enabled her to write and record new music and release it through her own label. She's fighting back – and on her own terms.

Another, Susan Brice (aka CocoStar), recently reflected:

'Due to the birth of the internet and it's grim dilution of most things (we are in a different time with music), it is mainly male dominated and throw away. The industry as a whole has not changed at all with regards to the 'cut throat' stigma which it seems to rely on.... Most businesses in the world have become harder to run due to dilution, thus creating a plethora of mass production services and items all easily had at the touch of a button. Sad times indeed, but years ago we had to wait for everything which created a feeling of worth and gratitude for the individual. There is no waiting anymore for most things For the younger generations this situation is forcing them into a boredom vortex in a fake 3D world, which is not their fault.'

This artist adds that she has had at least five self-penned songs stolen, the rights for which she is currently fighting.

Consequently, such artists have been left to fend for themselves, leaving them in territory legally impotent. Rather than farm themselves out to DJ-Producers' whose work they might otherwise distantly admire, artists, since burned, are now returning to those whom they’ve worked with in the past and feel they can still trust. Retreating back to those they know appears the only alternative. Long-term, this can’t be a settled response, mitigating against future creative and monetary growth. Some readers may think, 'well, why wasn't this situation dealt with by the artists themselves, years ago?' Such protection to become law requires its recognition in Government legislation. Successive Governments‘ have proven toothless in this regard; consequently, in the eyes of many artists, so have The Musicians‘ Union. As someone pro-union himself, this is disappointing to say the least. According to their homepage, their mandate here is to "lobb(y) Government to protect these rights on the basis that only a small number of MU members have regular salaries. Most are Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), whether they are sole traders or members of a band, and they therefore rely on their copyright and performers’ rights to make a significant part of their income. In essence, their copyright and related rights are an important part of their ‘product’ and of the diverse income streams that make up their income, and, like any SME, they have to protect their product." Fine so far. They add:

'What we are arguing for is fair compensation for musicians from the device manufacturers. These manufacturers are already paying for patents to software developers and the like on each device sold, and yet the act of copying onto these devices the ‘software’ the consumer is most interested in – music - is not currently generating any income for musicians, unless it is through legitimate download purchases.'

Under a page entitled ‘Fair Pay for Musicians’ they state their recognition that, “musicians rely on live revenue to survive. Income from CD sales is decreasing and illegal downloading continues, making a sustainable career difficult without fair pay for live performances.
  Still good. Or is it? Reading between the lines – and looking elsewhere – there is a disconnect here.   This is two-fold. An assumption exists that all artists are full-time and, being so, must be the sole recipients requiring MU support. The problem with this line of reasoning today is that most women artists in particular can’t be full-time due to the very exclusivity of the deals being struck between the platforms and the DJ-Producers. Allied to this is the aforementioned lack of permission sought to use a singer-songwriter’s vocal elsewhere on the track of another DJ-Producer. Such precariousness for the artist means payment is not only inconsistent but often non-existent. Thus, maintaining any kind of career – even as a second-string – is unrealistic. Secondly, if the MU are mandated to do little more than lobby, (and, legally, that’s presumably all they are able to do), then the Government – not known for having fingers on pulses when it comes to an artist’s ability to produce – are the final arbiter. Surely, the MU should be ‘upgraded,’ made independent enough to make their own rules – specific to artists’ needs – apart from Government diktat?

Today, of course, there are many women DJ-Producers challenging this decades-long patriarchy. Annie Mac, Lisa Lashes, DJ Heather, Maya Jane Coles, DJ Rap, Ellen Allien and many others have been well known for years around the clubs of the world, many owning their own labels. Such a high level of commitment, e.g. the touring, anti-social hours, hotel stays, hiring and firing of staff, etc., suggests this much-feted role is no less full-on than that of any successful, full-time band. It also suggests those artists with life commitments prioritised elsewhere (be it another business or to young family) are equally feted to lose out and be treated not unlike agency workers in other, more regular, jobs; where a recording contract is a two-sided deal between the DJ-Producer and music platform, freezing out the artist that actually supplies their product. While a woman artist becoming a DJ-Producer may be one way out, it isn't a solution to the live, ongoing issues of writer credit or vocal theft.

The ripping-off of singer/songwriters is nothing new. It's been going on since the days of Tin Pan Alley and, subsequently, Colonel Tom Parker. Its latest manifestation resides with the deals being cut between music platforms and – the usually male – DJ-Producers. Currently, in the US, The Music Modernization Act is a bill intended to ensure songwriters have 'a seat at the table' when it comes to payment and the collection of royalties from the big digital platforms. One clause, however, has proven controversial. This would exclude any retrospective legal claims from those music platforms who have signed-up to it, such as Spotify. The compromise which ensured their participation. (Update: on the 25th April, the bill was passed, unanimously, by the House of Representatives). This is, at least, the start of some official recognition and recompense and not necessarily the end of the road. Meanwhile, independent voices in the field have started up, offering advise and support to those already established, but suffering the lack of credit and payment. (See below for an example).
  Welcome, if somewhat belated, (if historical social media posts are anything to go by), are the fans finally coming around to showing some empathy with their idols‘ situation; the realisation dawning that they may lose both the work and their favourite artist unless this situation is dealt with. I know of at least one other case (an artist once interviewed in these pages) who – while not entirely giving up on her love – has been forced to work elsewhere due to unreliable payments.
  I’d be the first to admit that the dry concept of regulation in the arts would normally make me very queasy. However, seeing the ease with which work can now be stolen and manipulated, and the negative effects this has on the original artists, surely justifies singling-out this field as a major exception. With credit and payment being such live issues in music – and gender-favouring issues at that – certain obligations must be fulfilled before the DJ-Producer can so casually finger-press that final 'click.'


a Q & A with
Steve Rasnic Tem

FIGURES UNSEEN collects your more recent work, published since 2000. How do you think your writing has matured, or changed, over the last eighteen years, compared to your earliest published work?
Steve Rasnic Tem: Actually, FIGURES UNSEEN collects work from all stages of my career, beginning with my first professionally published short story, “City Fishing.” I think the confusion is because I selected stories from each of my collections, and my first English collection, City Fishing, didn’t come out until 2000. (There was an earlier, French language collection Ombres sur la Route.) Basically, I tried to select a representative sampling of my short fiction, a book I could point to when people asked, “What do you do?”

That said, there is an evolution in my stories from the beginning until now. When I finally became serious about writing I started out studying and writing poetry, and my first fiction actually came out of my experiments writing prose poetry. So these first stories tend to feature the compression of poetry, use echoes and choruses and alliteration and other poetic techniques, and they also tend to be more dream-like and fabulist than the later fiction. They also tend to be very short.

The initial evolution from that early work largely consisted of learning how to write longer stories—more narrative-driven, more complicated plots, more characters, using more than one obsessive theme per story, etc. The use of language and tone also became more complicated. What drives me now is more thematic. I’ve been picking up on events and themes I once found too personally troubling to write about. One thing about getting older—you tend to grow less reticent about revealing yourself. You grow beyond embarrassment.

Several of the tales in FIGURES UNSEEN feel particularly personal. Familial grief and loss seem especially foregrounded in tales such as 'A House by the Ocean,' the seminal 'Wheatfield With Crows,' 'The Figure In Motion' and 'Firestorm.' Was this conscious on your part? Were you - perhaps intentionally - working through similar feelings during their writing?

SRT: I think my work has always been somewhat personal, but I’ve gotten better at incorporating the personal material, so readers are seeing more and more of it. But even when I’m writing about events which I haven’t experienced myself, the key is to be empathetic and to make them personal. Some aspects of writing are very much like acting. You must try to “inhabit” your characters, especially the protagonist. Oftentimes problems in tone and awkwardness are due to the fact that you haven’t learned how to fully inhabit your character yet. Also, usually when I write about personal material it’s after I’ve worked those feelings through, not during.
I particularly enjoyed the dark humour of ‘The Poor’ and ‘Crutches.’ I could relate to how I, myself, view the coldly callous treatment meted out in the former and the sense of inevitable defeatism in the latter. Do you have a strong sense of social injustice, the way Governments’ can often treat people and how they respond?
SRT: The inherent problem with any government is that it by necessity must treat people as numbers and percentages to a certain degree in drafting policy. If it’s a just government then it also tries to protect and preserve justice for the minorities and outliers whose needs and sense of identity is at variance with those in the majority. But still, we’re basically talking about numbers and percentages here. But human beings are not numbers and percentages. They’re far more complicated than that, and they expect and demand empathy. And empathy makes things messy. So messy in fact that there is pressure to disregard empathy in making policy. There is even pressure to disregard empathy when leading one’s life.

The result I get from all this is absurdity. Much of modern life abounds in absurdity. And my sense of the absurd is expressed in stories like “The Poor” and “Crutches” and “Head Explosions” and a number of others. The only way around this is to find ways to humanize government, to make empathy into a tool for handling large numbers of folks. We’re not very good at that yet—maybe we never will be. One of the reasons we’re not very good at it is that anytime we don’t understand someone, any time they scare us or disappoint us or they trigger our own anxieties or even when we just feel sorry for them, we fictionalize them, we make stories up as to who they are and what they’re about. And sometimes those stories are bad enough they veer into prejudice, racism, misogyny, etc. Perhaps if we were more aware of how we fictionalize other people, we’d do it a lot less.

This question is, I’ll admit, something of an old chestnut, but it’s one I’ve yet to reconcile for myself. I’m not a fan of the term ‘horror,’ as describing what I either like or the audience I’d like to attract. As both reader and writer, Robert Aickman’s use of the word ‘strange’ is more my starting point; where the ‘weird shit’ that occurs is almost supplementary, from left-field, rather than the driving force of the tale. What do you think of the term ‘horror’ whenever critically applied to your own work?
SRT: I’ve been back and forth on this question over the years. In part because of its association with movies, “horror” has come to imply this big emotional response, this open-mouthed, hands-in-the-air, heart-stopping response to something incomprehensibly terrible. Well, that doesn’t fit what I write at all, and it doesn’t fit most of what I like to read. 

I do like Aickman’s “strange stories,” and to a certain degree I like “the weird,” but we can get into endless conversations as to actually what these terms mean. In fact, currently we seem to be drowning in terms attempting to pinpoint the various shadings of this literature: “Smart horror” and “Elevated horror” and “the weird” and “dark suspense” and “bizarro” and “dark fantasy,” etc. And in the end they really don’t seem to clarify anything.

But, whatever we do, the label “horror” never seems to go away. That’s the one that sticks, inaccurate or not. And I have to say I have loved a great many things over the years with that label emblazoned on the spine. So I suppose I have come to just accept the term. Call my work “horror,” but if you really want to know what I’m about just read the stories.

Of the current generation, who are your own favourite short tale authors who you feel are woefully underrated or underexposed?
SRT: There are so many—it’s a golden age for this literature in the short form. As for underrated or underexposed, it depends on the context—very few names seem to be known everywhere. But here’s a sampling of people I like to read: Caitlin Kiernan, Simon Stranzas, Lynda Rucker, John Langan, Kristi DeMeester, Nathan Ballingrud, Mark Valentine, Jeffrey Ford, too many to name, really.
How far are you into your latest project and can you hint as to its form or content?
SRT: I’m playing with a lot of things. I just finished a short story I’m very proud of, “The Parts Man,” which will be in The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories this Fall. Also coming this Fall is my short story “Thanatrauma,” another one I’m very proud of, in New Fears 2. In terms of books, I’m half-way through finishing a YA horror novel, Summerdark, and I’m working regularly on the novel Bodies & Heads, a rather strange extension of my short story of the same name that was in The Book of the Dead. It’s hard to say how much I’ve completed on that because I know I’ll be doing a lot of rewriting. Maybe 35%?

Huge thanks to Steve for the giving of his time.

See the Tems' official site here:

All The Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma, Undertow Publications

Priya Sharma describes herself in her day job as a doctor and general practitioner, having formerly studied medicine at university. Certainly, her debut collection reveals an interest in biological transformation and its effect upon personal relationships. Her best more precisely invoke what the back cover refers to as her melding of 'myth and ontology.' On a personal level, this is what I try to achieve in a strand of my own; where an individual in the present cannot – either by choice or design – surpress their past or true nature. This is the overarching theme hiding in plain sight behind the fantasy. Beside this, the bonds of love, lust and loss play out in familial situations.
  'The Crow Palace' refers to 'the altar of the childhood rituals that bound us'; a bird-table gradually constructed in increasing layers, over years, by the father of twins, and possibly at the expense of their own home.
  In 'Egg,‘ a young woman's infertility is bargained away for the promise of motherhood when a witch with ambiguous intent offers her a daughter; except this child is in an egg. Once the shell breaks, she gradually bonds with the offspring as she would any daughter. Yet, this is only the first test of her commitment. Sharma posits an interesting dilemma; the strength of a mother's love in the face of her spawn being a different species.
  'The Sunflower Seed Man' sees the secret of a sunflower, planted by the late husband and father buried beneath it, appear to fulfill its unknown promise from the perception of his wife, desperately mourning his loss.
  In 'The Englishman,‘ the most affecting tale, Kris Sharma has been away from India for twenty-five years. On his return to the country, his wife and old life having passed, he wants to know who he now is and where he now belongs. In his quest for identity, he stumbles upon an answer that, ironically, subsumes it. The title then is also ironic, in that it recognises his definition as one kind of 'Englishman' by the Asian and another kind in England itself. Such a tale, with its nod to the human condition, reveals Sharma as a definite cut above most of her contemporaries.
  'The Nature Of Bees' is a personal favourite. At an age-old family community that harvests honey, a woman falls for a handsome, sensual male whose covert intention is revealed as much wider than she could have foreseen. (I appreciated the false sense of security intimated in his depiction as a louche romantic).
  'Fabulous Beasts' is something of a domestic drama as a father with a history of violence, having served his time, is released back to the family home. His view of reintergrating-into-society is to continue his psycho-sexual dominance from where he left off. However, his growing children share an ability his self-serving mind could never encompass.
  Sixteen tales for a debut collection feels excessive. Fortunately, Sharma is one of those cut-above new voices from whom the best harbour prose, as beautiful as it is visceral, that elevates them above mere horror.

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 8 will be here in July

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