Friday, 30 May 2014

On Vube Talent, Alan Gogoll, Google Ads and English Folk Music

Morning was creeping over the local church by the time I finally fell asleep last night. I’d been working late trying to get a website finished but also struggling with a problem with my soon-to-be-published Android game.

Taking a break from one kind of code or the other, I was browsing the web when I accidentally clicked on a link that took me a website called Vube. It seemed to consist of amateur (and not so amateur) musicians posting their work to be voted on by the public.

It was apparent very quickly that these people are serious about their music. For ‘unknowns’, the quality of the videos was astonishingly high. The sound quality of most of the recordings sounded, to these ears at least, on par with something produced in a professional studio. Yet as I browsed through the performances, amazed by some, I was equally depressed by others. It’s not the level of talent that I found depressing – though, I suppose the internet has collectively taught us that the world has an abundance of talent which routinely gets ignored. What I found depressing was the real lack of creativity.

By a huge margin, the majority of these performances involved the word ‘Cover’  and I very quickly established how many versions of ‘I See Fire’ by Ed Sheeran a man needs in his life before he starts to root for dragons instead of hobbits. The answer, incidentally, is five.

The experience reminded me of walking past those artists you usually find working in shopping centres. They work in pencil and produce amazingly accurate reproductions of famous faces. Because they work from published photographs, their work is a copy of another, so despite their copious ability with the pencil, it’s all a mechanical effect. There’s no true 'art' to their work. Nothing of themselves on the paper, though, of course, they clearly draw the chipmunk member of One Direction because that's what will sell.

Likewise, there’s very little of the people performing the covers on Vube, just lots of pitch perfect good looking young women singing songs that involve vocal gymnastics. Lots of seasoned instrumentalists proving they’ve mastered their instruments as well as their heroes but have no message of their own they feel willing or able to convey.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course, such as the amazing Alan Gogoll whose genuinely original guitar work just shone above anything else on the site. It’s strange how Gogoll’s talent has lodged itself in my mind. I saw a video of his posted on another website a few weeks ago and (not recognising the name then) I stumbled across more here where his name has now firmly lodged. His is the kind of talent it’s good to see emerging via the web.

I don’t know. Perhaps I’m just jaded. Everything about my work is rough and imperfect. I like that but also recognise it as a huge defect. I’ve mastered nothing, even if I put my heart and soul into every one of my projects. It also saddens me to see in linking to Gogoll's site that he earns a crust by performing at weddings. Reminds me of those amazing street musicians you see begging for coins as rich bankers stroll past. Some might say that the latter make the world turn but it's surely the former, people like Gogoll, who make it worth lingering around in that world.

I'm neither a banker nor an artist. It’s been over a week since I last blogged and I’m still slowly getting there with my game. Monday night, Unity updated to version 4.5 and immediately my game blew a fuse. As far as I can figure out by looking over their changelog, they’d fixed a problem registering touches on the screen which meant that my game had been calculating certain things based on the wrong values. With the correct values suddenly entering into my equations, things began flying all over the screen. That was a worrying few hours as I struggled to get my game back to where it had started. However, things began working again and they perhaps now work better than they did before. I’m now looking forward to trying a few of the other things the Unity gurus have fixed.

Yesterday was what’s commonly known as a ‘ball breaker’. This week I’ve been trying to add ads to the app, which hasn’t felt right. I’ve worked hard drawing every graphic in my game and I really didn’t welcome the intrusion of ads for some woeful Kim Kardashian flab busting workout DVD. However, this is the world we live in, I need the money, and I had to face the more pressing problem of actually getting the game to compile with a library of code for Google Ads. At the same time, I’ve been using all my valuable time building a website for a nursery school (just as depressing as it sounds), with breaks from that relatively easy work broken my throwing myself into the ugly world of Java libraries, Unity plugins, and worse. Yesterday was a fourteen hour stretch of work (minus a couple of quick stops for food) but the website now looks complete but more importantly, the following appeared on my game’s level select screen in the last hours of darkness.


Damn, doesn’t it look beautiful?

The answer to my problem was to remove the old Unity plugin I’d been using to integrate my game with Google’s Play Services and use the official Google plugin, which didn’t  conflict with Google’s other plugin for AdMob, their ad delivery service.

Beyond all of this, the last week has been about bug catching (both real [damn this muggy weather] and virtual) as well as adding small details, such as a credit screen that isn’t a boring credit screen. I’ve also…

Well, I really hesitate to admit this given my criticism of Vube, or perhaps out of shame, embarrassment, or what Stewart Lee once described as the horrible thought of ‘a man trying to do something sincerely and well’… However, I’ve written a song for the game. The music has been bothering me since I began because I really like doing things myself and I didn’t want to use third party music, even if it’s in the public domain. I’ve been currently using a 1920s jazz recording as my soundtrack. I’ve yet to decide whether to keep it (it fits in with the theme of the game) or go without music. My song, however, is meant to accompany my credits. I can (but rarely) write songs but this, I think, isn’t one of my worst. The lyrics are nicely twisted and, in my few spare minutes, I’ve even worked out an arrangement of odd finger-patterns for the guitar. All was good until I sat down and tried to record myself singing it. The guitar part sounds surprisingly good but the recording sounded terrible. A bad voice, my battered old Gibson acoustic fitted with new strings, and a £12 USB microphone doesn’t make for a combination worthy of Vube. Yet amid the hissing and crackles, I could recognise something I’ve never realised about my singing before. I sound like a bloody English folk singer and that’s not something that fills me with particular enthusiasm to try again, let along post to Vube, here, or the Google Play store attached to my game.

I don’t know why I should find this odd. Perhaps it’s because I predominately listen to American musicians, with the notable exception being P.J. Harvey, so I my tastes are fairly attuned to American tones. My voice seemed naturally to drift to very different places which were purely English folk. Vocally I sounded a bit like John Renbourn or (now sadly late) Bert Jansch. My guitar work sounded like Bert Renbourn or John Jansch. Perhaps I need to hire a Vube star to record my song…

I’m not sure what makes me uneasy about English folk music. Perhaps it’s the image of middle-aged real ale-drinkers talking about church sculpture. I’m now trying to convince myself that it’s not all bad. There’s always Billy Bragg.

I was buying superglue in Wilko earlier in the week (trying to repair my favourite USB cable -- yes, I have a favourite USB cables, mock as much as you like!) when they started playing Billy Bragg’s 'Handyman Blues'. It’s a great track from an excellent album but never before had I thought about the Englishness of Bragg’s voice. Perhaps he doesn’t sound enough like me to make me aware of his sameness. I suppose it’s why, when I first started to read English poetry, I found Larkin unbearable. Eventually, I realised it was only because I was responding to a world he was describing which felt too much like the grim world around me whereas a poet like Ted Hughes felt elevated, distant, heroically what a poet should be. I found Larkin's similarity  too unsettling and only after a very long time did I begin to enjoy his poetry without that sense of suffocating identification.

All of which is me rambling slightly because I can. I needed more sleep than I got last night. This is the dull reality of what should (and, in truth, usually is) a fun business. Today I really want to devote itself to rain, as I’m suddenly taken with make a late addition to my game in the form of an aesthetically pleasing rain effect. But perhaps I should just get the game finished and out the door. It's taking far too long to get everything right.


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