MIDEM ’09: Day 3 – morning…

Tuesday morning, 10.15-ish:

It’s still looking dreary in Cannes this morning – but at least it’s not raining. I have at least two and a half hours before my first big appointment for today, so I’ll recap on the rest of yesterday – starting with the gigs I saw.

Best of the evening had to be Monica Giraldo’s MIDEM Talent showcase at Magic Mirrors. Monica’s from Colombia; a new act and a recent Latin Grammy winner who sings, plays guitar and can handle traditional Colombian (read “African”) drums very well indeed. She sang with a three-piece band and was absolutely fantastic. Estoy totalmente enamorado – with her music, that is… Earlier in the day, I’d met a guy from her record label and he’d given me a copy of her debut CD. I will be playing that quite a lot, I reckon…

About eight or so British acts played as part of the ‘British at MIDEM’ line-up in the Ambassadeurs and Méditerranée venues in the Palais des Festivals. In the end, Paolo Nutini didn’t make it to Cannes, but Seth Lakeman was blazing! Pity I had to leave early to catch the last train home – only to discover there were no trains going my way anyway! So since I would have to take a taxi home (and therefore it didn’t matter when I left) I headed back to the Palais to see Jamie Cullum, who was headlining the British line-up. Halfway through his “swingified” version of Rihanna’s Don’t Stop the Music, I began to think that my more hardcore jazz-loving friends might have a point when they say he’s a one-trick pony. I stayed for a couple more songs, then left. Prior to arriving at MIDEM, I’d been all stoked up to see the Bomb Squad. But there was no way I was going to hang around here until 3am, or whatever unearthly hour the Electronica night was scheduled to finish.

I met a few more interesting people yesterday (the cocktail parties different exhibitors put on are great for that). Hanging around the Norway stand, eating chorizos and having my first taste of Linie (how does anybody drink that stuff and stand upright afterwards?), I met Jan – a friendly Canadian who runs a record label, an online radio/TV channel, and also works as a voice coach to singers. This is his 19th MIDEM; his first one coincided with the Gulf war kicking off (“Our plane in to Nice had a military escort,” he recalls). Jan confirmed yet again that MIDEM has scaled down this year – and that it’s not just a new thing because of the world’s economy, but that it has shrunk steadily over the years. And speaking of money – or more precisely, the lack of it – the issue of who gets how much was a big talking point here yesterday.

The first thing you see as you walk in to the Palais des Festivals is the enormous Napster banner draped across the front. It’s even bigger than the “Welcome to MIDEM” signs next to it. Many of us can remember the days when the music industry regarded Napster as Public Enemy No. 1. They may have gone legit (and, let’s be honest, totally overshadowed by the monster that is iTunes), but the file-sharing that made Napster’s name is still regarded as a problem by many in the industry. But the industry has had to learn to live with it. Which brings a new problem: How does the industry make money if they’ve accepted that people want free music, and more and more platforms are opening up to provide them music for (apparently) nothing? That was the issue under discussion at the Mobile Entertainment Forum’s workshop titled Music That Feels Like It’s Free – But What Does It Actually Cost?

Eric Nicoli, a former EMI boss, summed the industry’s predicament up pretty well. “Any company that relies on music sales will be exceedingly challenged,” he said. But Tim Clark (Robbie Williams’ manager) didn’t have much sympathy for record companies. “How can the major record companies justify taking 90% of the revenue and leaving the artist with less than 10%?” he asked. Then he had a go at the guys who provide the technology that helps people get free music, pointing out that the richest man in the record industry today is Steve Jobs (of Apple/iPod/iTunes fame).
Away from the heated debate, there are some people here with a more hands-on approach to helping both artists and their supporters gain from making music. Yesterday I had a chat with the CEO of Sellaband; today there’s the launch of NoMajorMusik – a new company with similar to Sellaband and with a ‘fairtrade’ approach to what they do. More on those later… but I will just throw in my own 2p on the “free music” thing. Music can’t totally be free. It takes a lot of hard work to make good music, and the guys who put in those long hours should have some reward for their efforts. Making music costs money, too. A couple of years ago, I met the guitar maker Matt McPherson. He let me hold and play one of his creations… and then he told me how much the guitar cost, and I nearly dropped the thing in shock! A decent guitar can easily set you back a grand or two – so how can music be free?

Anyway, that was most of yesterday’s goings-on here in Cannes. Along with all that, I also met a guy representing Chile’s number 1 hip hop act, who gave me the guy’s CD and some of his merchandise – which included a handful of condoms in packets with the guy’s picture and branding on. I had a chat with a friendly Norwegian singer – then lost the note with the venue of her gig on it, so couldn’t see her sing! I’ve had breakfast courtesy of the press club; I’ll post this, then head down to the exhibit area and hand out a few more CDs before the showcases and press conferences start.

The Freed Bird Sings

 I haven’t been as prompt with my updates on here as I’d like to. But I should share a really heart-warming moment from a couple of weeks ago with you.

 Actually, I’ll go back further – back a few years to when I was hosting my World Beat radio show on UCB, and I first heard about an Eritrean gospel singer who was serving a prison sentence inside a freight container.

 Helen Berhane was a member of an Evangelical church in Eritrea – one of the many religious groups deemed ‘illegal’ by the Eritrean Government. When she refused to renounce her faith, she was arrested.

 Torture and imprisonment followed; Helen was held in a freight container in sweltering heat, with a mentally ill woman who’d tried to assassinate a Government official as a cellmate (probably in the hope that the mad woman would try to kill her too).

 Helen’s plight caught the attention of several people outside her homeland. Amnesty International joined Christian groups such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Release International in campaigning for her release. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie took up her cause. As well as give her album T’kebaeku airplay on my show, I also lent a hand in remastering the only available cassette of it for a CD release.

 In November 2006, we received the news that Helen had been released after spending two years in her makeshift cell. The following year, she was granted asylum in Denmark, where she now lives. And that brings us to Saturday before last, when she was a guest speaker at CSW’s annual conference in London.

 She couldn’t come to the conference in person, due to the terms of her asylum status (if she leaves Denmark within her first three years there, she loses all her benefits). But thanks to the power of Skype, we were able to see and chat with her, and have her sing for us. I don’t mind telling you it’s been ages since a singer’s voice made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end…

 Helen is free. But there are still hundreds more Eritrean Christians facing heavy persecution in their homeland. As long as that’s the case, the fight continues. 

So, how will Jesus vote?

Well, Indecision 2008 (or whatever nickname Jon Stewart and his Daily Show chums have given it this time) is nearly here.

Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be paying any attention to an election taking place in a country I don’t live in (yes, I know: a black man is running. Big woop). But when writing about Christian music is part of your job, you’re kind of forced to take an interest. You see, politics is a biiiig part of American Christianity, and a lot of the art, media and teaching that come from there are heavily coloured by the partisan stance of whoever produced them – a point many of us non-American Christians who feed voraciously on the Christian culture industry’s output often fail to realise.

Every April, I take a trip to Nashville to attend the Gospel Music Association’s annual GMA Week. I remember turning up at GMA 2004, and being greeted by a giant banner covered in signatures, proclaiming “The Christian music community supports our troops in Iraq” (this was the same GMA at which my friend Mike Rimmer went about wearing a T-shirt with WWJB? (Who Would Jesus Bomb?) written on it). As one of the millions who’d marched the streets of London in protest against the war, you can imagine how that made me feel…

I’d kind of resigned myself to accepting that Christian music = rightwing politics. But in recent years, I’ve seen quite a few of those fiercely conservative Gospel/ccm people become less so. You still have guys like Redeem the Vote (ostensibly non-partisan, but in reality very pro-Republican) rallying young Christians’ support – first for Mike Huckabee, then for McCain once Huckabee was out of the race. But it appears that this time round, Christian voters are looking at other options beside the GOP – and are being helped to do so by some of their favourite gospel/ccm acts. The Democrats – famous for not ‘doing God’ – have even enlisted gospel singers such as Donnie McClurkin and the Mighty Clouds of Joy to help bring folk round.

I met Frank Schaeffer (author of the book Crazy For God) at Greenbelt this summer. Not only did he openly pledge his support for Obama several times during the festival; he also had a lot to say about how Christian voters’ moods were changing.

“A lot of Evangelicals now realise that they were sold a bill of goods by the Republican leadership,” he told me. “The one stick in the mud that won’t go away is abortion. But that said, most Evangelicals – with that as a caveat – are becoming more comfortable with voting for a Democrat, because they see the absolute failure of not only the Bush administration, but also this idea that you have to pass a sort of theological test in order to be President. That’s insane; you’re not hiring the guy as Pastor-In-Chief.”

As I’ve spoken to American Christians (musical and non-musical alike) over the last couple of years, many have cited one guy as being the catalyst for so many of them re-examining their political views: Jim Wallis, the Vicar of Dibley’s husband (no, seriously!) and author of books such as The Soul of Politics and God’s Politics: How the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.

“People like Jim Wallis have taken a lead in getting people involved in a larger conversation than abortion and homosexuality as the touchstones,” said Jars of Clay’s keyboardist Charlie Lowell, when I interviewed him before the band’s last UK gig. “He’s got us looking at issues such as taking care of the poor and ultimately what we’re building as a future, rather than what we’re against.”

I’ve met Jim Wallis several times over the years – usually at Greenbelt, where he’s a regular speaker, as well as at events organised by Faithworks and Make Poverty History. He’s told me more than once that “the monologue of the Religious Right is over,” but I’d always had a hard time believing that when TBN – along with the other Christian satellite channels – shouted the opposite so loudly. Brian McLaren, another speaker at this year’s Greenbelt, had an explanation for that.

“Something people outside the US just don’t understand is the degree to which religious broadcasting has enormous power,” he said. “I sometimes – being very tongue in cheek – refer to it as ‘Radio Orthodoxy’. The most powerful denomination in the USA is actually not Baptists or Pentecostals; it’s the people who control the Christian broadcasting networks!”

Brian longs for more Christian musicians to be more questioning of the political process, and cites the singer Derek Webb as one bright spark in the ccm pool. Having heard Derek’s The Ringing Bell album and seen the hilarious video for his song “Saviour on Capitol Hill”, I have to agree with Brian. When I actually got to interview Derek, I wasn’t disappointed – nor was I too surprised to learn that some of his more edgy songs haven’t gone down too well within the Christian music scene.

“The Christian music market is traditionally a fairly conservative one,” Derek said. “So when you as a Christian artist start looking at the more social implications of following Jesus, it does kind of concern people. I’ve always found that ironic, because looking at just the simplest teachings of Jesus, he clearly puts a high priority on caring for the poor. When you start to look at the social implications of what Jesus said, applying it socially is not only inevitable; it’s commanded. And when you look at the social implications, it inevitably becomes political.”

As you would expect, Derek’s been observing Indecision 2008 with interest. “So far, I think it’s better now than it’s been in a long time,” he said enthusiastically. “There does seem to be a heightened interest in having a more nuanced political conversation. I’ve been surprised by some of my friends and people I know, who four or eight years ago would simply have looked for the conservative candidate and blindly pledged their allegiance to him. Now I’m seeing some of those people are more interested in a whole discussion.

“I’ve been hoping that over time, Christians would begin to realise that politicians are primarily in the election and re-election business; willing to go to any group of people whose language they can decipher, and say to them whatever they need to say in order to get their votes. That’s just how it works. As you look over the history of the last 20 or so years of Evangelicalism and how it touches elections, people are bound to start realising, ‘these guys aren’t necessarily on my side!’

“Whoever you discern as the ‘Christian’ candidate – the guy who seems to have all his spiritual ducks in a row – has more likely deciphered the Christian language and is able to get in front of Christians and make himself seem appealing and electable. That’s not to say that some of these men aren’t whom they say they are, but Christians have to be a little more savvy about the game that’s being played. The politicians understand what they’re doing, but unfortunately, the public – and most often, these Christians – hear the politicians talk about the few issues that those politicians know are the only issues that are important to them, and they’re just swayed really easily. We should be a little more careful.”

Derek has some valid points, IMHO. And I’m all for Christians getting involved in the political process, whatever side of the fence they’re on or whatever country they’re in – just as long as they don’t try to claim God as a member of their party of choice (which is why I agree 1,000,000 percent with the line in one of Derek’s songs that one of the two great lies he’s heard is that Jesus was a white middle-class Republican). But is this “more nuanced political conversation” going to have any real effect on the poll results? Well, they’re nearly in; lets see for ourselves, shall we?

Still Human, Still Here…

Like most other people I know, I care about stuff. Unlike a hardcore few of them, there are limits as to how far I’m prepared to go in support of my causes of choice. So I’ve always had a grudging respect for the guys I see camped opposite the Houses of Parliament, whether I agree with their stances or not. I’ve had my moments on that big patch of grass myself – the last time being in support of Burma’s human rights campaigners – but I’ve always come home to my warm bed afterwards.

A couple of weeks ago, someone I know set up camp there. I first met Ben Gilchrist when he was leading SPEAK, the Christian organisation that encourages students and young people to get involved in social justice issues. Last month, Ben spent over a fortnight camped on Parliament Square as part of a campaign on behalf of asylum seekers, together with another Ben – Ben Gibbs – as part of the ongoing Still Human, Still Here campaign. During their time camped on Parliament Square, the two Bens had meetings with a number of MPs. They also had a pattern of prayer built into their routine, praying at 8am, noon and 7pm each day.

I did a lengthy interview with the other Ben outside Parliament Square during their stay there, which you can hear here. You can also check out the blog the guys kept during their outdoor vigil here.

Bens, thanks for being a lot more committed (and less attached to your comfy beds) than I am. You’re an inspiration, guys.