Interview: Crossing Paths with Alanby Michael Sulaman
This year, RaeMag attended NXNE Canada’s #1 Music, Film Festival and
Conference and sister to our stateside SXSW festival. This 7-day/night festival in downtown Toronto showcases over 650 local, national and international artists and attracts over 2,300 music business delegates and panelists.
Now, in it’s 16th year, NXNE has proven itself to be a formidable launching pad for hot new talents and media creatives, with many of this year’s performers sure to join the ranks of alumni such as Fiest, Peaches, New York Dolls, Sloan and many more.
On Day 2 of NXNE, RaeMag had the great honor of interviewing iconic Canadian radio personality Alan Cross. For the Canadians out there, he needs no introduction. For those who haven’t had the distinct experience of cruising down the D.V.P in the late evening to the sounds of Alan’s voice streaming his abundant musical knowledge across the airwaves, then I introduce to you the man, the myth, the legend, Alan Cross.
RaeMag: How did you become so knowledgeable about music and music history?
Alan: Well believe it or not I actually do have a music degree in history I am very good at the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. I’ve always been a bit of a music nerd from the day my grandmother gave me a transistor radio when I was 6 years old and when I got into high school actually it was junior high, when I got into junior high, we went to my uncles place to pick up a puppy one day and he was moonlighting servicing old school juke boxes, so in addition to the puppy, he dropped a box of 7-inch singles on me. And that essentially became the beginning of my record collection.
RaeMag: What are your thoughts on music education, were you ever formally trained with an instrument?
Alan: Yes, yes, ok, the first instrument I was formally trained on and it was serious training, I mean I went to grade 8 in it and I performed at a lot of festivals, both at the local level and the provincial level [...pause] that was the accordion, I was actually pretty good at the accordion I had a Titano 120 bass with 3 reeds, which is pretty humiliating to think about it right now, but it gave me all my music theory and so I know enough about that. Later in high school me and a bunch of friends decided we were going to be in a band and we all sat down and decided which instruments we were going play and I wanted to be as far away as I possibly could from the accordion so I became a drummer. So I learned how to play drums and I actually ended up being a teacher. A drum teacher. I taught at a place called Drums Unlimited in Winnipeg all through university. I had students 3 times a week.
RaeMag: Wow, so you’re very knowledgeable about the tutoring profession and the process of what it’s takes to teach somebody and pass on musical knowledge. Do you think that’s something that can be done through online education or is that something that should be done in person.
Alan: I don’t know I think these days people want to be able to access teaching materials in some cases, on their own time and in their own environment they don’t want to get up and go across town to sit down at a piano or sit down in a chair with a guitar to learn how to play an instrument. A lot of people would love the opportunity to be able to do it in the privacy of their own bedroom where they can make all their own mistakes without being humiliated or berated by a teacher. And maybe there’s more motivation to be able to, you know, if you really want to be able to play guitar, or play keyboards, if you’re motivated you’ll do it you just maybe need some help. You know there are stories, lots of stories, about self taught musicians who don’t know a thing about theory, which can be a good thing in a sense that sometimes if you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t realize that your breaking rules, and sometimes when you break rules you can make things of great beauty. Sometimes mistakes, imperfections, add to beauty rather that absolutely perfect playing. I can see how this would be helpful to somebody, you know cause people are completely comfortable sitting down behind keyboards and in front of screens, so if there’s something that can take you through something rather slowly and at your own pace and if your motivated enough you can do it, and you don’t need that teacher there, or you don’t have to go to see that teacher.
RaeMag: How would you describe the music of the last 10 years?
Alan: The last 10 years has seen more fragmentation of music then every before. There are so many different genres, so many different styles, so many different stratifications of music that it’s pretty tough to keep up with them all. I mean we still have Rock, we still have R&B, we still have Country, we still have Jazz, we still have Classical, but within those classifications, there are still multiple sub-genres. The other thing that’s been rather interesting is the role of technology and how technology has made it possible for us to access just about any song, anytime, from anywhere we happen to be. So we’ve seen a great explosion in the creation of music, because it’s easier to create it, we’ve seen an explosion in the consumption of music, because it’s easier to consume it, whether it’s digital download or bit torrent or Myspace or Facebook. So looking back on the last 10 years I think were gonna need another 10 years to put everything into context, but I think it’s the technology years, the post-master years, where technology has facilitated a massive explosion in music.
RaeMag: Yeah, one band I feel that has sort of foreseen that coming, if you know Our Lady Peace’s album Spiritual Machine, they really depicted the whole movement of…
Alan: Yeah, the whole Ray Kurzweil thing, yep.
RaeMag: …yeah, of technology taking over the music and turning it into a more computerized version of what we would enjoy.
Alan: We’re still enjoying it, but were using technology to make it
differently and distribute it differently. I mean it used to be that you had to go down to the store and hand over money and somebody would give you a piece of plastic for you to consume music. Now, it can be at anytime of the day, wherever you are and if you have the right device in your hand you can get whatever you want. It’s to the point now, I think what’s gonna happen this last decade is the last decade where people are really gonna want to possess music physically. In the next decade, which has just started, what where gonna be all concerned about is being able to access music, we don’t have to have the file or the album or the CD with us, if we have a device that will allow us to get that music from wherever it happens to be at that second.
RaeMag: Just the link rather than the actual physical or the downloadable file, Youtube on your iPhone at all times is better than downloading all the music when you can get it anytime you want.
Alan: Right, exactly. We’re seeing the rise of things like Pandora and Spotify and this new thing called Rdio and a few others, it’s access over possession and that will change the way we consume music if we don’t have to wait for it anymore, if we don’t have to work for it anymore, if it just comes to us or we can conjure it up whenever we want to.
RaeMag: That’s less of a testing and a more of a going after what you like and want you know is good because you have the access to it.
Alan: Well you do, but the other thing that is going to have happen is that you’re gonna have to have people to help you get started, because if there’s an infinite amount of music out there where do you even being to look for it? So were gonna see also a sort of a flashback to the days of the old radio DJ where you listen to the radio because there was a guy there that you trusted to tell you what was cool, what was worth listening to, what records to go buy, what shows to go see and it made it much less confusing for you because it saves you time. We’re consuming more information or we’re being bombarded by more information and data than ever before and you know we spent the last 10 years spending so much time researching and searching for music that we haven’t spent enough time savoring it.
So, maybe the rise of curators, which is one of the things that I’m doing right now, maybe with curators giving you a place to get started, giving you like 5 or 10 songs from all these different bands that I can explore on my own pace, much like what you guys are doing, and then from there I can branch out. There, from after that, it’s up to me.
RaeMag: Yeah, get a little expertise with their music travels.
Alan: Yeah, right, and we’re seeing it more, were not only seeing it with music, but were seeing it with with books, with Youtube and videos…
RaeMag: Collections peoples’ lists, playlists, if someone has a taste along your taste you’ll most likely like their music.
Alan: …that’s right and you have experts that focus on a particular thing and if you are lead to that particular thing then you can trust that person to give you good advise.
RaeMag: Yeah, some sound judgment, if you know, your judgment is along the lines of their judgment.
Alan: Right, and you get to choose.
RaeMag: Yeah that’s the most important part, you get to choose.
Alan: Yeah, you get to choose who to trust.
RaeMag: What’s your observation of on music and society? Do you think music affects society or do you think society affects music? Nowadays, there are a lot of movements from music, but do you think anything really gets done?
Alan: I think things get done, I mean it’s a little bit different then, music I think, certain movements, certain sounds, certain songs were much more mobilizing back in the day when there were fewer of them. The 60s are a great example, Rock and Roll was still very young, not even 20 years old by the time we got into the Vietnam War and the civil unrest in the United States and a song could really get people thinking about doing something, motivating people to doing something spectacular. Today, you know music is pervasive into absolutely everywhere and there’s a billion bands and there’s billion songs and thats probably an underestimate, so it’s tougher for one song, one band, one thing, to get people excited about doing something. Consensus has broken down simply because there are so many outlets and so many distractions compared to the 1960s when you had a couple of TV stations, you had, you know, a couple of radio stations, you read a newspaper, or read a book, but today, I mean you’ve got the internet, video games, DVDs. So the idea of the consensus where everyone agrees on one thing at one time has become smaller and smaller and smaller to the point where everybody is their own consensus.
RaeMag: The paradigm in the industry doesn’t really work anymore, exactly what you were talking about using alternative ways to produce and distribute music. Do you still think bands should be going after those big records deals or is do you think avenues like the internet are the way to go?
Alan: Record deals are really good for managing distribution. I think what’s happening is that the major records labels are going to be the people who manage vast back catalogs of popular music and they’re going to be the ones who give us the Lady Gagas of the world. That’s not a bad thing, because the vast majority of people on planet earth are casual music fans, they want songs they can sing along to and tap on the steering wheel when their driving, they buy very little music, they know what they want, they know what they hear on TV, they know what they hear on the radio, and thats what they want, there’s nothing wrong with being a casual music fan. People who want more music, you know, will go to the independent labels which are specializing and becoming very nimble in following trends and sounds, and then there’s the wild west of the internet where you can get whatever you want, whenever you want it. I’m still a big fan of Myspace because there’s no other way that I can imagine you being able to sample a band that quickly without having to sign in with a login or any of that other kinda crap, like Facebook makes you do, and I can go to any band’s page and sample their stuff immediately, 10 min after they post it and I can be anywhere in the world, I think that’s fabulous.
RaeMag: That is fabulous because you have the access to it right away. So let’s say a band that’s just starting out doesn’t have a lot of money, should they approach a record label or build themselves through the internet first.
Alan: Well I think most record labels want turn key solutions, they don’t have a lot of time or money to develop acts anymore so you can present to a label whether it be a major or an indie that you understand the nature of the music business and you’ve built a fan base and you’ve work at getting your music out there through touring and the internet and mailing lists and Facebook and Myspace and Twitter and all that sort of stuff, then they’ll take a look at you because “OK, these guys get it, they understand what they have to do”. The idea of somebody being discovered on coffee house stage doesn’t happen that much anymore if at all. And things are moving much faster than before so if you can present a label with a ready made solution they’re ready to…
RaeMag: Yeah, a very liquid kinda market.
Alan: Very liquid, yeah.
RaeMag: So you started Exploremusic in 2008 which is an amazing resource for anybody that wants to take a look and get a little taste of a different genre of music or branch out. How does hosting in a radio environment differ from the internet? Because you’ve spent a lot of years in the studio.
Alan: Right, so the reason we do it this way is because there are two types of fans. There are people who still acquire and learn about most of their music through traditional means like the radio and they like the standard sort of 1/2 hr 1 hr radio show. Then there are people who prefer to access things on their own terms, on their own time which is the online people. The radio people, sorry, the online people move much faster and burn through much more stuff much more quickly, so online we can offer more stuff, because we’re, we’re not confine to a 30 min. or 60 min. window. The internet is completely organic and we’re not governed by things like CanCon and language regulations on the internet we can do whatever we want. 24 hrs a day and that’s it see, the whole thing about the internet is you go to it when you want it. With radio you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. Now what we’re going to do by September 1st (2010) is that the radio show that you hear across the country, will also be on the website so you can listen to it whenever you want. That’s a big hassle because of copyright laws and music publishers and all the rest of it, but where just going to go ahead and do it on 2010 September the 1st.
RaeMag: It’s a very proud career that you’ve had and I’m glad that I actually had a chance to talk to you.
Alan: Well, you’re very welcome.