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Reblog: Five Years of Kung Fu Tea: Making Martial Arts Studies Matter

Ben Judkins giving his keynote at this year’s Martial Arts Studies Conference
Happy Birthday to Kung Fu Tea – the most important and influential martial arts studies blog around. To celebrate his blog’s fifth birthday, Ben has posted the following statement and essay. The essay is the keynote he gave at my conference in Cardiff two weeks ago. Follow the link below or read on here:

benjudkins posted: "     Happy Birthday   Attentive readers may have noticed a few changes here at Kung Fu Tea.  This blog launched its first post five years ago, on July 27th 2012.  Since that point we have published well over 500 posts.  Looki"
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Five Years of Kung Fu Tea: Making Martial Arts Studies Matter

by benjudkins

 
 

Happy Birthday

 

Attentive readers may have noticed a few changes here at Kung Fu Tea.  This blog launched its first post five years ago, on July 27th 2012.  Since that point we have published well over 500 posts.  Looking back at my drafts this adds up to over 2,500 pages of single spaced type.  This material has received more than a million page views by over half a million visitors.  At this point Kung Fu Tea averages over 20,000 page views a month.  That demonstrates a remarkable level of interest in the academic discussion of the martial arts, and far exceeds my expectations when I first posted this welcoming message.

All projects evolve over time.  Still, looking back on that first post what strikes me about this blog is how much has stayed the same.  It still seeks to provide a home for thoughtful martial arts discussions while showcasing the diversity and strength of Martial Arts Studies as a scholarly project.  It is my hope to continue to do that for many years to come.

Of course, some things have changed.  Since the launch of the blog I have published a book, started work on another, and helped to create the interdisciplinary journal Martial Arts Studies (an imprint of Cardiff University Press).  Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Paul Bowman (with whom I co-edit the journal), the field of Martial Arts Studies has evolved from a mere possibility to a realized fact.  We just concluded our third annual Martial Arts Studies conference at Cardiff University and it was wonderful to see so many old friends and new faces.  At this point in time new books and articles are coming out faster than I can read them.

Technology has continued to evolve and an increasing number of readers were having trouble accessing KFT‘s content on certain mobile devices.  As such I decided to treat the blog to an updated template that not only looks sharp, but will be easier to read across a wider range of platforms.

Nevertheless, if anyone deserves recognition on this anniversary it is you the reader.  Without your support none of this would be possible.  It only makes sense that you should receive a gift as well.  Please accept this essay, presented as my Keynote at the 2017 conference, as a token of my gratitude.  It begins with a discussion of the seeming triviality of a topic like Martial Arts Studies, ruminates on what it is that our field has to offer, and presents a frank assessment of some of the challenges that we may face over the next five years.

 

Rifles and bayonets for a school military drill class behind two Judo students. Vintage Japanese postcard, late 1930s. Source: Author’s personal collection.

 
 

Are Martial Arts Trivial?

 

Consider the following photograph taken from a vintage Japanese postcard printed in the 1930s.  It is one of the more powerful images of the traditional Asian martial arts which I have come across in the last couple of years.  At first glance, it might seem unremarkable.  Here we have two young men practicing Judo in the campus dojo of a local educational institution, much as young men in Japan had been doing for decades.  And much as they still do today.

Yet while the Asian martial arts are often associated with a sense of peace or harmony (occasionally for entirely orientalist reasons), this image is unsettling.  One’s eyes are immediately drawn to the racks of waiting rifles on the wall behind our martial artists.  And beneath them we can see a row of hanging bayonets.  Anyone familiar with Japanese military history will find this arrangement familiar.  Rifles and bayonets were stored on identical racks in the barracks where Japanese soldiers worked, ate and slept.  In this case these weapons are intended for the school’s drill team and military education classes.  Their presence was not intended to cause any alarm on the part of a contemporary Japanese viewer, who was simply supposed to register a well-stocked modern educational facility.

The very banality of the scene invites a set of subconscious associations to flower within our minds eye.   Compulsory military training became an increasingly pronounced component of the Japanese educational system during the 1930′s, at much the same time that Japanese aggression in China increased.  Indeed, this was an important decade for the Japanese martial arts.  Disciplines like Kendo were reformed to strip them of their sportive elements to better prepare students for battlefield encounters.  Jukendo, or bayonet fencing, which has been in the news recently due to the Chinese protests that erupted over plans to once again make it available in Japanese schools, took on an increasingly ideological character and became the most commonly practiced Budo in the immediate run-up to the second world war.

Yet this image is powerful precisely because none of that is shown.  We do not need to see Japanese naval landing forces in Shanghai, or soldiers digging pill boxes on Pacific Islands, to know what year it is.  We do not need elaborate backstories to understand who these young men are, or what their future holds.  And no one who looks at an image such as this is going to ask whether the martial arts are “trivial.”  Nothing answers that question quite like a row of neatly polished bayonets making an appearance in a Judo dojo on the eve of WWII.

Do the martial arts matter and, by extension, does martial arts studies matter?  Questions of triviality versus substance are interesting to me as a social scientist because they have a cyclic quality to them.  We are privileged to live in a time when we can ask that question in earnest.  In 1941 quite a few people may have been asking whether Kendo was an effective training mechanism for practical swordsmanship, or whether judo or western boxing would provide American soldiers with better self-defense skills.  But no one saw the physical, social or the ideological aspects of these systems as trivial.  During the post-WWII period the American occupation forces in Japan moved to tightly regulate and even ban martial arts organizations and activities because they understood that these things create social externalities that reach far beyond the realm of individual practice.

Nor were these observations restricted to discussions of the Japanese martial arts.  Consider this photograph, printed as part of an American newspaper report on the Chinese resistance to the Japanese occupation in Guangdong on June 7th, 1939.

"Back to Weapons of Forefathers in War with Japanese." Vintage newspaper photograph. June 1937. Source: Author’s private collection.

 

Here we see a female Chinese militia leader, silhouetted against a stark sky. The empty expanse at the top of the frame visually highlights the blade of her long handled dadao, or great knife.  While American newspapers readers in the 1930s knew little about the details of the Chinese military, their exotic blades had acquired an iconic status, much like their counterpart, the Japanese Katana.  The reader cannot see where the woman’s gaze is directed.  Nor do we need to see an artillery scarred landscape to understand who she is and what is about to happen.

A backstory is ultimately unnecessary to understand who she is and whether the martial arts were socially significant in China during the 1930s.  Indeed, it is fascinating to compare these contrasting photographs of Japanese and Chinese martial artists, both caught up in the early stages of the same conflict.  On the one hand, Japanese consumers are meant to understand how the discipline of the Budo arts was producing a body of effective and efficient soldiers for the state’s highly modern army.  It goes without saying that they are all willing to make sacrifices for Emperor and country.

In contrast, American voters, wondering about the wisdom of sending war aid to China, were assured that this country’s martial traditions would produce heroes and heroines willing to stand up and individually oppose the Japanese no matter the personal cost.  While not a modern and disciplined fighting force, such brave individuals should enjoy more than our empathy.  They should also receive our support.  Again, it is the essential simplicity of these images that made their message effective.

In the introductory editorial of the Summer 2017 issue of Martial Arts Studies, Paul Bowman and I asked whether Martial Arts Studies is trivial?  These images suggest that the answers to this question are not always obvious.  We cannot really engage such a question without making explicit our scope and domain conditions.  Who is our intended audience?  To whom do these arts matter, or not matter?  When is this question being asked?  Is the year 1939, or 2009?  And by what standard should we evaluate the question of substance?

There is much that could be said about each of these conditions.  For the sake of time I think that we can simplify a few things.  While I have drawn on some historical resources, when asking how we can make martial arts studies matter I am most interested in the current era.

Likewise, the audience that we need to think about is not mysterious, though it has its complexities.  In my own writing, I try to imagine myself being read by an audience of three different persons.  The first of these could be anyone in this room.  I want my writing to speak to, and build off of, critical conversations that are already happening within the martial arts studies literature.  And yet every week I encounter scholars who are writing about the martial arts who do not yet know that our field exists, or who cannot quite figure out where the bridges lay between their projects and ours.  It is important that we continue to work to expand the scope of our discussion, bringing more of these voices into the conversation.

Second, I imagine myself writing for a certain type of practicing martial artist.  While not a processional academic, this individual generally has at least some college education and a burning passion for their chosen style.  They would like to see their art discussed with the same rigor and conceptual toolkit that they were introduced to in school, and yet they want to be able to identify some aspect of their personal experience in the resulting discussion.  Keeping these lines of communication open is not only rewarding, but it helps to ensure that we will continue to have access to the sorts of data needed to develop interpretive or causal theories in the future.

The final, and in many respects most challenging, reader is a fellow academic from one of the disciplines who has no long-term interest in the martial arts.  Given my background I tend to imagine a fellow political scientist, and I recently had an opportunity to present my current research to an entire conference venue full of political scientists, none of whom had any prior experience with martial arts studies. What such readers really need is an assurance that our discussion is both factually sound and theoretically relevant.  In other words, can Martial Arts Studies speak to the big questions in the discipline?

At this point in time our books and articles are likely to encounter all three of these types of readers. And this creates a challenge when asking what we can do to make martial arts studies matter.  Simply put, not every reader, academic committee or funding organization is looking for the same sort of thing.  We must be conscious of our audience and where their desires overlap at every stage in the research process.

It is this last aspect of the puzzle that brings us back to our introductory photographs and the title of this paper.  In truth, it has never been difficult to the make martial arts matter in a narrow disciplinary sense.  One locates a critical debate in the discipline, for instance, how national identity is invented and stabilized through the creation of an imagined past.  You find an aspect of martial arts history, practice or representation that speaks to these specific questions. Next one writes a case study or two in which the martial arts are used to stake out a position on this debate, critique some leading thinkers, and advance a theory of your own.

Success within a disciplinary framework is formulaic by design.  That is because (as Derrida noted) every discipline generates and publicizes its own standards of evaluation.  Knowing how our work will be evaluated, we know something about how to go about doing it.  And in some respects, this is a critical exercise.  As a purely practical matter, Martial Arts Studies must be seen to make contributions to the disciplines before anyone will be willing to engage with us on a more fundamental level.

Still, as we look around this room, it is clear that when writing for other parts of our audience, things become more complicated.  Martial Arts studies draws it strength from the fact that it is a resolutely interdisciplinary exercise.  We do not all share the same methodological orientation.  Indeed, we come from many fields, all areas of the globe and study fighting systems from every hemisphere.  And I have no interest in challenging that to impose a narrow understanding of what good “martial arts studies” must be, or to define substantive relevance in theoretical or methodological terms.

Yet how do we make martial arts studies matter in the absence of shared disciplinary or methodological perspectives?  Or even a shared perspective that these things should be central to an academic discussion?

It may be helpful to remember that we are not the first group of writers to face such a challenge.  Lacking an audience with a unified personal perspective, storytellers and filmmakers long ago discovered that the best way to create understanding was to cultivate a sense of personal investment and empathy.  If we want to continue to encourage the growth of Martial Arts Studies, we will need to do the same sort of thing as we encounter editors, colleagues and funding officers who, while not necessarily hostile to our project, will likely have never heard of, or have thought that much about, it before.

To draw on the classic piece of advice originally attributed to Anton Chekov, it will never be enough to simply tell these individuals that they should be excited about martial arts studies.  Rather, we need to write in such a way that we both show them what we can contribute, and demonstrate the unique perspectives that will be lost if our voices are not represented at the table.

 

Jukendo in the 1930s and today. Source: a slide presented at the 2017 MAS conference.

 
 

Connecting with a non-specialist audience

 
 

How then do we “show” that the martial arts, and by extension martial arts studies, matter?  Again, the introductory images of the Judo dojo and the female militia leader provide some hints on reaching a non-specialist audience.  Or perhaps we want to think about some of our favorite martial arts films and what makes for an effective visual story?

Authorities on screenplays have noted that good stories often share three basic characteristics.  First, they feature an active protagonist who reveals their character through the choices they make.[1]  Second, some aspect of this character’s beliefs, either about themselves or society, is challenged allowing the character to develop a meaningful story arc.  This is what K. M. Weiland poetically termed the “lie your character believes,” and heaven only knows that we have a few of these in the martial arts.[2]  Finally, effective writing needs to show that something is at stake.  The audience must feel that the actions of the characters have meaningful consequences both for themselves and other individuals in society.

Our images of the Judo students and the female militia leaders, while single photographs rather than entire screen plays, draw the audience in (and by extension reassure them that the martial arts matter) precisely because they hit each of these points in a remarkably effective way.  The female militia leader is clearly an active protagonist.  The lie that she believes is that her efforts, even in the absence of modern American military aid, will influence the outcome of the war.  That belief defines her story arc.  And obviously there will be meaningful consequences for what happens next if modern military aid is not forthcoming.

These same three hints, with a bit of translation, can also help us to communicate more effectively when discussing our own academic research with a non-specialist audience.   It is not simply enough for us, or half a dozen of our close colleagues, to understand why some aspect of the martial arts matter.  We must get much better at conveying these insights to groups of people who have less of a personal or professional connection to these questions than we do.  And again, editors and funding officers are right at the top of that list.  And these same three principals of communication: developing an active protagonist, describing complete story arcs, and emphasizing meaningful consequences, can with a bit of tweaking, be the key to demonstrating that Martial Arts Studies, as a field, really matters.

A slide presented at the 2017 Martial Arts Studies Meeting.

 

An Active Protagonist

 

Let us begin with the idea of having an active protagonist.  In a screenplay, or even a photograph, there is usually little question as to who or what the protagonist is.  Luckily, academic theorizing, whether interpretive or positive in nature, also forces us to focus our attention on certain key actors or variables.  In the social sciences, we sometime make a distinction between independent variables, by which we mean basic causal forces, and dependent variables, the thing that is being explained.  The question then becomes, where do the martial arts, or individual martial practices fit into this equation?

If we always approach these questions from the perspective of the various disciplines, where we start off by saying, “I am a political scientist,” or anthropologist or historian “who researches martial arts,” a certain bias can enter our research design without our realization.  After all, the big questions of political science often take political and social institutions as the key factors in any situation, and they might then ask how other groups, like martial arts movements, are co-opted and subordinated to these larger processes.

Perhaps, as in the previous example, the martial arts come to be tolerated, or even supported, by the state as they can provide a unifying mythology that serves the instrumental needs of a nationalist agenda.  That is basically the story that Andrew Morris told during his examination of the Central Guoshu Institute which was an organization backed by the Chinese state and the ruling KMT during the 1930s.  In a project like this the martial arts organization is examined, but only as an extension (or subsystem) on a larger and more fundamental project.

These can be very interesting sorts of questions, and they clearly focus on the martial arts.  Morris made important contributions to our understanding of the relationship between the modern Chinese martial arts and society.[3]  Yet as the dependent variable, or the thing that is explained and interpreted, the martial arts are being cast in the role of a “passive protagonist.”  As voluntary social institutions, these groups may face dilemmas, but because (in these models) their agency is limited, the choices they make reveal little information about their values or identities.  In this sort of structure, the martial arts might function as a lens for political or social analysis.  Yet they are only one potential lens among many.  Beyond a case study or two, both we and our editors will be forced to ask, is it necessary to look at the martial arts at all?  Why not labor movements, or film industries or sports leagues?

A wide range of other voluntary associations or popular culture phenomenon, most of which are probably better understood and more respectable, would work just as well.  Or to return to our original metaphor, passive protagonist can help us to explore the world.  Yet in the long run narrators tend not be very interesting guides.

In the hands of a skilled story teller, active protagonists reveal their character to the audience not through exposition, or as victims of fate.  Rather, the actions that they take reveal their core identities, values and strategies for navigating a challenging environment.  In our own writing, we can replicate this insight by remembering that individuals often join martial arts groups precisely because they seek to make changes in their own lives or in their communities.

Rather than simply accepting elite views of what a modern Asian state should be, authors like Hurst, Gainty and Morris have demonstrated that martial artists in both China and Japan spent much of the 1920s and 1930s actively opposing elite opinion and championing their own vision of what modern Japanese and Chinese society should look like, and what values should be represented in the educational system.[4]  Indeed, through savvy public relations work and making good alliances, martial artists in both states enjoyed more success than one might have thought in not just carving out a niche for themselves, but using government resources to spread their ideas throughout society.  It wasn’t the idea of the ministry of education to put all of those kendo classes in Japanese schools during the 1910s and 1920s.  Rather, they were the result of decades of lobbying by Japanese martial arts organizations.

In the work of authors like Hurst, Gainty and Morris the martial arts are transformed into independent variables that have a measurable effect on a broad range of other social institutions.  More precisely, the martial arts of the 1920s and 1930s cannot be ignored because they generated many interesting social externalities.  No longer are the martial arts merely a lens.  Cases such as these reveal that Martial Arts Studies is more than an adjunct to the preexisting disciplines, it is critical tool for understanding fundamental aspects of the human experience.

In practice, any sufficiently complex research agenda has the potential to approach martial arts as both dependent and independent variables.  The arrows of social meaning and causality are often deeply recursive, and some mix between the two will be necessary.  Yet we make the best case for the existence of Martial Arts Studies as a truly independent research area when we discuss the martial arts as an active protagonist.

Kickboxing trainig in the Hague. Source: Sports Provocation. Photo by Jasmijn Rana

 
 
 

Giving the Martial Arts a Story Arc – The Balance between Theory and Data

 

Now that we have established the martial arts as a potentially important social force, what do we intend to do with it?  Good screen plays encourage the audience to empathize with the protagonist as their actions reveal fundamental insights about who they are, and demonstrate how their view of the world evolves.  In short, the martial arts need to do something, they need a story arc.

And luckily for us in academics, engaging story arcs often focus on the process by which a character comes to realize that some of their beliefs, either about themselves or the world, are either false or mythic is nature. This is what K. M. Weiland called “the lie your character believes.”  It is when a confrontation between myth and reality finally erupts that we really discover who our protagonists are.

It seems that there are few areas of social life in which marketing myths, half-truths, lies and legends collide more frequently or forcefully than in the martial arts.  It is very difficult for anyone to think about the historic European martial arts without envisioning a world in which just knights charged around on white horses. Michael Ryan’s work on Venezuelan stick fighting, which I recently reviewed for the journal, evokes images of a world in which small land holders have resisted waves of outside oppression with nothing but their machismo and polished hardwood garrotes.  And it seems that every Chinese folk martial art practiced today must trace its origins to an imaginary burning of the Shaolin temple or it forfeits its right to the title of Kung Fu.

Yet this does not exhaust the potential misunderstandings or lies that seem to define the martial arts.  For every internally generated legend, historical exaggeration or marketing myth, there is also an externally imposed social myth.  In France and the Netherlands various social actors, including successive governments, decided that kickboxing was a good cultural fit for the immigrant Muslim community and so it encouraged the sport as an aid to cultural assimilation.  Yet as Jasmijn Rana points out in her article “Producing Healthy Citizens”, it’s hard to imagine programs like this actually working when supposedly naturally aggressive Muslim youth are encourage to join kickboxing classes, while all the rest of the citizens are given public pools and swimming leagues.[5]  And while all parents in the United States instinctively know that Taekwondo classes are a wonderful mechanism to instill self-discipline in children (the trait that society seem to value above all others), they also know that there is something just a little bit off about adults who continue with these hobbies, rather than turning to more serious pursuits. They get internet parody videos instead.

One would be hard pressed to find a more detailed examination of the stories that we tell ourselves than Paul Bowman’s recent, and highly recommended, volume, Mythologies of Martial Arts.[6]  After reading this book it would be impossible not to see the many ways in which the martial arts, and their social position in the modern world, have been shaped by these myths.  And there is an undeniable thrill that comes with the discovery that seemingly common-sense propositions might be anything but.  Sometimes this might lead to attempts to debunk certain popular misconceptions.  But in all cases students of martial arts studies should first strive to understand the social externalities, which might be either positive or negative, that these myths generate.

Or put a slightly different way, how is it that the lies that you believe about your own practice impact other people who have never thought of themselves as martial artists?  Students and instructors might believe anything they want.  Yet those belief are not without implications. Indeed, Douglas Wile, in his article “Fighting Words” demonstrates at length that the implications of current Chinese academic debate on the origins of Taijiquan stretch far beyond a handful of history buffs.[7]  It touches on vital question of both Chinese identity, academic freedom and the party’s control of traditional culture.  This seemingly arcane dispute has implications for everyone.

Indeed, if you follow the Chinese martial arts, and are wondering why a poorly recorded 10 second challenge fight between a low-level MMA trainer named Xu Xiaodong and the Taijiquan practitioner Wei Lei became such an important cultural moment (even though the vast majority of individuals in China do not really spend a lot of time thinking about either Taiji or MMA), you need to read Wile’s article.  The sudden interest of massive numbers of Chinese citizens in the fate of Taijiquan, not to mention the Chinese government, will become clear.

To fully explore these implications any research project needs to find the appropriate balance between theoretical development and empirical exploration.  Without an appropriate theoretical lens we cannot identify the interesting puzzles that surround the martial arts.  And if we fail to dive into the historical or social data, we will never be able to convince the non-specialist readers that these social discourses and causal mechanisms have a substantive impact on the broader community.  Again, that is the bar we are striving to reach when we attempt to show that martial arts studies, as an interdisciplinary project, really matters and brings something to the table that more traditional approaches might not.

 

Weapons confiscated in Chinatown, New York City, 1922. This haul shows a remarkable mixture of modern and traditional weapons. Source: NYPD Public Records.

 
 

Conclusion: Meaningful consequence

 

This brings us to the final piece of advice.  We need to clearly convey to our own audience that all of this will have meaningful consequences.  This is one area when I think the Martial Arts Studies literature has come up short in its discussion of these hand combat systems.

After all, who wants to preach to the choir?  We do not need to convince our colleagues and interlocutors within the field that the reconstruction of Spanish fencing systems, or the reemergence of Haitian machete fighting, matters.  Any one of us could come up with half a dozen research questions to pursue through the embodied study of those disciplines before the end of this talk.   Nor do we need to convince the cross-over audiences composed of actual practitioners which many of our books and articles enjoy.  The very fact that they are willing to wade through another ethnography on some aspect of Capoeira speaks to a level of obsession that makes any apologies unnecessary.

Yet it seems that there is a great deal of low hanging fruit, of potential value to wider discussions, that remains un-plucked.  In the opening editorial to the Summer 2017 issue of martial arts studies, Paul Bowman observed that there are very few discussions of actual violence coming out of the field of martial arts studies, yet this is a pressing theoretical and policy issue.  It is also a problem that students of the martial arts, and scholars of Martial Arts Studies, might be uniquely qualified to consider.  Nor is there only one conversation to have.  Violence exists in many modalities, from interpersonal to interstate conflict.  The nature of martial arts schools means that they have often been implicated in, or been forced to respond to, community violence in pretty much every region of the globe.

A few voices in the historical and anthropological literature have picked up on these threads.  Yet as a field we are well positioned to examine the current trend towards greater levels of organized ethno-nationalist, social and political conflict.  How should we approach the rise of organized alt-right groups dedicated to public acts of violence?  Can we speak to the somewhat complex connections between various forms of terrorism and martial arts training? And what insights martial culture might open on the nature of domestic abuse?  I doubt that these topics will reflect our individual experiences with the martial arts, and there is always a bias towards writing what you know.  That is another bit of advice that you might get from a screenwriter.  Yet the many faces of violence are a topic that must be tackled.

Still, I do not want to downplay our accomplishments.  They are important to consider as well.

In the last few years Martial Arts Studies has firmly planted its feet on a new and more difficult path.   For decades pioneers like Burton, Draeger and Hurst attempted to bring the study of the martial arts into the academy.  And yet, for a variety of reasons, they failed.  Hoplology never gained the traction that Martial Art Studies currently enjoys, remaining essentially a hobby, and the few real successes that emerged, such as Hurst’s study of the armed martial arts of Japan, or Wile’s work on the Taiji classics, while a wedge in the door, tended to fall within the confines of disciplinary bounded discussions.[8]

The view from 2017 looks very different.  Rather than studies of traditional fighting systems or combat sports being a personal eccentricity, something that an individual scholar might pursue in lonely isolation in addition to their “serious” academic work, the martial arts are now receiving a greater degree of respect.  We no longer ask whether it might be possible to treat the martial arts as an academic subject of inquiry, we just do it.

And we do it rather well.  The last few years have seen the creation of academic journals, research institutes and networks, a book series, and even annual conferences series such as the one that has brought us together.  Top university and academic presses have taken on an increasing number of martial arts studies manuscripts, and their appetite for these sorts of projects continues to grow.  I know that I have a pile of manuscripts needing to be reviewed as soon as I get back to the United States.

All of this is good news.  And yet a moment of reflection reveals that this rapid success has also raised the stakes.  A university press can only publish so many monographs in a calendar year.  Which means that our acquisition editors must argue not just that our project is interesting, but that it is more important, and will generate more enthusiasm, than something else.

More graduate students in fields like anthropology, cultural studies and history are focusing their dissertations on martial arts related research projects than ever before.  And every year a number of these students hit a highly competitive job market full of interesting and well qualified candidates.  Likewise, the increase in university press publications reminds us that the first generation of assistant professors (to use the American academic terminology) is rapidly coming up for tenure review.  And as part of that process they will need to demonstrate to a number of individuals that not only were they capable of getting works on Martial Arts Studies published, but that these works have made critical contributions both to their disciplines and beyond.

The question posed by Paul Bowman and myself in the editorial of the last issue of our journal may have been somewhat rhetorical.  No one in this room believes that the martial arts, or Martial Arts Studies, is trivial.  Trivialities do not inspire so many individuals to embark on transoceanic flights.

Yet this same understanding may not be shared by the funding officers, tenure committees, and acquisitions editors who are even now getting their own vote in whether and how Martial Arts Studies continues to develop.  Ironically the success that we have enjoyed up to this point has simply moved us into a position where we are likely to meet such gatekeepers with increased frequency in the future.

Our next challenge as a field will be to establish a regular presence at the various professional meetings that dominate the academic calendar.  Beyond that we need to find the sources of funding necessary to institutionalize the gains that we have made to this point. These are exciting opportunities and we are fortunate to be working from a solid foundation.  Yet making Martial Arts Studies matter within the larger academic context is a challenge precisely because the stakes keep getting higher.

Rather than explaining the many ways in which the martial arts have mattered, we need to show the gatekeepers what we as a field can do.  We must show them the unique insights that we can bring to the table.  Of course, all of us in this room will approach that goal from the same perspective, and that is one of the strengths of the interdisciplinary approach.

When we strive to treat the martial arts as an active protagonist, or as an independent variable, we make a stronger case for the independence of Martial Arts Studies.  When we balance theoretical insight with historical or social data, we have the best chance of reaching non-specialist readers and convincing them that the martial arts generate externalities that extend beyond the realm of individual hobbyist.  Lastly, by emphasizing the meaningful consequences of these discourses and practices we answer the question of whether the martial arts are “trivial.”  When we do these three things we show that Martial Arts Studies matter.

 

 

[1] Syd Field. 2005. Screenplay: The Foundation of Screen Writing. Delta; Revised edition.

[2] K. M. Weiland. 2016. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development. PenForASword Publishing.

[3] Andrew Morris. 2004. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sports and Physical Culture in Republican China. University of California Press.

[4] G. Cameron Hurst III. 1998. Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. New Haven: Yale UP; Denis Gainty. 2015. Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan. Routledge

[5] Jasmijn Rana. “Producing Healthy Citizens: Encouraging Participation in Ladies-Only Kickboxing.” Etnofoor, Participation. Vol. 26 Issue 2. 2014. Pp 33-48.

[6] Paul Bowman. 2016. Mythologies of Martial Arts. Rowman & Littlefield.

[7] Douglas Wile. 2017. “”Fighting Words: Four New Finds Reignite Old Debates in Taijiquan Historiography.” Martial Arts Studies.  Issue 4 (Summer).

[8] Douglas Wile. 1996. Lost Tai Chi Classics of the Qing Dynasty.  Albany: SUNY Press; G. Cameron Hurst III. 1998. Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. New Haven: Yale UP.

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44 years after Bruce Lee

 

This is a draft chapter written for a collection on cult film, edited by Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton.

 I write these words on the 44th anniversary of the death of Bruce Lee (July 20th 1973). When he died I was two years old. Lee was at the height of his fame. At the time of his death, his fourth martial arts film, Enter the Dragon, was being released internationally. He was already well known around the world: in Asia he was stellar; in the West his films had a growing cult status (Hunt 2003; Teo 2009; Lo 2005). For all audiences, he was becoming the exemplar of a new type of masculine cool invincibility – a simultaneously impossible yet (possiblyalmost) achievable ideal (Chan 2000; Nitta 2010). It was impossible because Lee was invincible, but it seemed (quasi) achievable because Lee’s invincibility was always shown to be the product of dedicated training in kung fu. So, his image wasn’t simply fictional. His image wasn’t merely fake. He wasn’t magic. He was simply a kung fu expert. This meant that all you had to do to be like him was train. Anyone could train. Everyone could train. So, very many people did. And this became known as the ‘kung fu craze’ of the 1970s (Brown 1997).

At the time of his death, Enter the Dragon was about to push Lee into the mainstream of global popular consciousness. If up until this point he had achieved ‘cult’ status in the West, he was about to attain the status he had already attained across Asia: superstardom. But this would not involve selling out or dampening down any of the ‘cult’ features that characterised his kung fu films. Rather, Lee’s success would amount to the international explosion of martial arts film and martial arts practice: its leaping out from the shadowy margins and into the bright lights of the mainstream.

This explosion is still referred to as the kung fu craze of the 1970s. Bruce Lee was the image and the name that exemplified this ‘craze’. There were other martial arts stars, of course, both before and after Bruce Lee; but he was and remains the quintessential figure. His name still sells books. Documentaries are still being made about him [1] He is still credited as an inspiration by athletes, boxers, UFC and MMA fighters, and martial artists of all stripes [2]

I do this because there is not now and there never has been a single or singular cult of Bruce Lee. It has always been cults, plural. The ideas, ideals, injunctions and aspirations associated with Bruce Lee were always multiple. In effect, there have always been several Bruce Lees – different Bruce Lees for different people. Lined up side by side and viewed together, the ‘Bruce Lee’ constructed by each group, audience or constituency often appears, on the one hand, partial and incomplete, yet on the other hand, larger than life and impossibly perfect. There are biographical, technological and textual reasons for this.

Firstly, Lee died unexpectedly, very young, in obscure circumstances, and for a long time afterwards much of his life remained shrouded in mystery – a mystery that largely arose because of a lack of reliable, verifiable information about him, his life, and the circumstances of his death. It is arguably the case that his family, their advisors, and his estate made a series of less than ideal decisions around the dissemination of information about Bruce Lee both in the immediate aftermath of his death and in the subsequent years and even decades


[1] I have been told this numerous times by editors of martial arts magazines and bloggers, both UK, US, and transnational/online.

[2] I discuss the ways in which the term ‘Bruce Lee’ organises a complex field of images, ideas, citations and allusions in Beyond Bruce Lee

Out Now: Issue 4, Martial Arts Studies

I am delighted to announce that today is a day of two big events for martial arts studies: One is the opening of the third annual martial arts studies conference at Cardiff University. The second is the publication of issue four of the journal, Martial Arts Studies.

Martial Arts Studies, issue 4, Summer 2017, contains the following:

 

Editorial: Is Martial Arts Studies Trivial?

Paul Bowman and Benjamin N. Judkins

 

Fighting Words: Four New Document Finds Reignite Old Debates in Taijiquan Historiography

Douglas Wile

 

Virtually Legitimate: Using Disembodied Media to Position Oneself in an Embodied Community

Lauren Miller Griffith

 

Trans-regional continuities of fighting techniques in martial ritual initiations of the Malay world

Gabriel Facal

 

From Realism to Representativeness: Changing Terminology to Investigate Effectiveness in Self-Defence

Mario S. Staller, Benjamin Zaiser & Swen Körner

 

Review of Paul Bowman’s Mythologies of Martial Arts

by Sixt Wetzler

 

Review of Lauren Miller Griffith’s In Search of Legitimacy: How Outsiders Become Part of the Afro-Brazilian Capoeira Tradition

By Kyle Green

 

Review of Michael J. Ryan’s Venezuelan Stick Fighting: The Civilizing Process in Martial Arts

By Benjamin N Judkins

I hope to see some of you at the conference over the next three days. For everyone else, enjoy the journal for now, and lookout for highlights and keynotes from the conference online in the coming weeks.

Audio Damage are bringing their plug-ins to iOS – and more

We’ve come a long way since the early days of apps on iOS, which brought a handful of interesting experimental noisemaker toys and some simple standalone tools. Now, you’ve got powerful DAWs, full-blown synths and effects – basically, the same sort of virtual studio you get on your desktop.

What you tend not to get is the selection of plug-in tools that would complete your desktop arsenal. And that’s too bad, both because it’d help you to finish tracks, and because plug-ins might be really useful in a live situation – even if you aren’t quite set to ditch the desktop/notebook in studio workflows.

Apple introduced Audio Units for iOS, bringing their desktop plug-in architecture to mobile, but developers haven’t been terribly quick to embrace it.

That makes it news that Audio Damage is making a big plug-in play. On Friday, Audio Damage rounded out their offering by adding Dubstation 2 to the list, following up Rough Rider 2 (compressor), Grind Distortion, and Eos 2 (reverb).

You can use these as plug-ins in other software (like Cubasis or Modstep), or fire them up standalone. And note that they’re significantly cheaper on iOS than desktop – $5 for most of these means you’re basically taking off a zero from the end.

Rough Rider is free on both desktop and mobile.

Audio Damage’s Chris Randall tells us he intends to port all your favorites over, instruments and effects alike. Next up: Phosphor, the alphaSyntauri clone.

You can also expect a couple of iOS exclusives.

With apps like AUM, AudioBus, and various live performance tools, iOS badly needs a tempo-synced live looper for live performance – and it seems we’ll get that from Audio Damage. That would be some terrific news for live iOS use, so you can bet we’ll be watching for this one, as looping is essential to how a whole lot of people play, irrespective of genre or instrument.

It’s also worth observing that Audio Damage’s path may be one for the future – modular hardware, desktop software (plug-ins), and mobile (plug-in/standalone) are all parallel pathways for development. That doesn’t mean every tool is in every place; that wouldn’t make much sense. But for something like the Eos reverb, you now see the same algorithms and code reused on all three. (Yes, Eos is Eurorack.)

There’s a lot on iOS to keep up with, of course, and watching the App Store every day is a chore.

If only there were a way to stay on top of the news.

If only…

Well, we can keep dreaming. And… you might… want to refresh CDM, too. Like, this week, for instance.

Here’s a look at those lovely interfaces, made with the care we’ve come to expect from Audio Damage:

cm_dubstation2

cm_eos2

cm_grind

cm_roughrider2

Kudos to Chris for clever technology adoption, keeping quality high, and staying attuned to musicians’ needs – as well as remaining engaged with that community online.

audiodamage.com

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Someone made a bot for The Black Madonna, and it zeitgeist is

Presumably, very smart people are working on Artificial Intelligence, and soon even my clumsy prose will be replaced by a bot. Until then, though, readily available bot code spits out random text like a combination of magnetic poetry, William S. Burroughs, and a feline on catnip walking across a laptop.

Of course, sometimes the results are simply beautiful in their absurdity. (For more on this phenomenon, check Horse ebooks. Relevant: “Is the dance floor calling? No” … “unfortunately, as you probably already know, people”)

Such is the case for The Black Madonna – the being the acclaimed international DJ with outspoken attitudes on the role of marginalized groups in music and the army of pointless naysaying trolls to match.

Sorry, my own bot may have written the last line; I went out for a beer. Don’t worry, if you don’t know who The Black Madonna is, it’s worth finding out – and the tweets below will still be no less, in my view, profound.

Let us marvel:

. I am I will suffer through the

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 4, 2017

Identity politics:

Also queer and we do

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) May 24, 2017

Music:

This AND SOME SOUND ARTISTS PAINSTAKINGLY CRAFT SOUNDS AND THEY ALL

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 12, 2017

Speaks on so many levels, really:

It seems very smelly

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 13, 2017

Any article mentioning anything to do with techno needs the cliched references to Berlin’s coolest club:

During the post Berghain head if you're going forward

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) May 22, 2017

Inspiration:

Hahahahahahahahahahaha. You won by going

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) May 27, 2017

To be awesome

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) July 6, 2017

On justice:

I fought hard. Support and listening

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 11, 2017

. I am I will suffer through the

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 4, 2017

But don’t mess with The Black Madonna, either.

I WILL SUFFOCATE YOUR OWN

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 5, 2017

Politics:

What does say Trump

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 30, 2017

Understanding life’s meaning:

Sorry, Star Wars. Ok. Great.

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) April 30, 2017

If you’re curious about her name:

I am perpetually Madonna – He Is The subtext

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 11, 2017

Touring life:

Didn't cry

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 23, 2017

DayQuil: when he canceled and my power move. Something

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 19, 2017

The Internet:

HAHAHAHAHAHA I think we tragically lost my Tawny Kittan meets Jem wig owt the rise from peacefully taking the comments

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 26, 2017

And my favorite:

Somehow Moby

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) July 6, 2017

Bonus – this one needs to be turned into a house track:

ALERT: A FUCKING LOVE

— The Bot Madonna (@botmadonnachi) June 14, 2017

Oh yeah, this is a music site, so do enjoy some mix to get you through the end of Friday from The Black Madonna:

We Still Believe

Now, all I want in the world is to learn silly Twitterbot programming. Who’s with me?

The post Someone made a bot for The Black Madonna, and it zeitgeist is appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

SoundCloud matters because artists and labels depend on discovery

There seems to be an extraordinary amount of resentment, in my social media feed, at least, directed at SoundCloud. That may be because the service as originally launched was aimed mainly at small-scale file sharing, and bears little resemblance to the much larger, more public-facing service that evolved after round upon round of investment.

Or maybe it came from the confusion generated by takedown notices. There, the motivation is easy to understand, if misplaced. It’s the same logic that causes people to yell angrily at an airline desk clerk, even if what’s to blame is a complex logistical structure that’s outside that individual’s control. So, yeah, you can try to tell people that SoundCloud is obligated to a complex structure of rights owners and legal obligations. But they’d rather just turn to Twitter to gripe that their DJ mix was taken down.

And certainly I know that SoundCloud, juggling expanding listening audience with serving a dedicated base of users, hasn’t always treated its loyal customers in such a way that makes them feel good about that relationship.

But leaving that aside, I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what SoundCloud, right now, presents to the community of music producers, artists, labels, and DJs.

SoundCloud gives us control, data, and above all, an audience.

Control and data matter – and here’s why I can’t fathom why many people will gripe loudly about SoundCloud but ignore Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and the like. SoundCloud is the only major unlimited streaming service that gives individual artists real-time control over the audio that appears. (The closest equivalent is, indeed, Bandcamp, but it’s a stretch to view Bandcamp as a streaming site, so much as a store that lets you optionally stream your collection.)

On top of that control, SoundCloud is also the least expensive service that allows collecting widespread data on listeners. I can right now look back at my data back to 2008, and see not only who listened, but where – essential if I want to think about promotion and touring. Mere mortals don’t have anything like this data on Spotify or Apple Music.

Now, to either of those points, you could certainly run your own server, and have all the control and data you want. And indeed, in the midst of this conversation, we should absolutely be talking about that course – especially as the readers of CDM tend to be more technically adept at such things than average musicians. (Running servers and making websites is the day job for a whole lot of people here.)

But that brings us to audience.

The very things people criticize about SoundCloud’s growth trajectory – that it invested huge amounts of money to expand – are exactly what makes it so useful to a lot of us.

I can watch this in my own statistics. While a popular embedded player does indeed generate enormous amount of plays, a lot more do come from SoundCloud itself.

That’s fairly easy to understand. What SoundCloud has done since 2008 is to build a set of tools that increase engagement on its site. That engagement turns out to be good for musicians, because unlike on sites like Facebook, more engagement leads people to listen to more music – our music. So whereas engagement on social media would otherwise stocking up on fake news, posting pictures of cats and babies, and getting into endless arguments with trolls (or arguing about the value of SoundCloud), people heavily using SoundCloud are listening to music.

And a lot of that music – an enormous part – comes from independent artists. Even with major artists, it often includes material outside record releases. People listening to those major artists are also exposed to independent artists.

SoundCloud have been making this argument for some time, but of course, they’re biased. The thing is, you can actually see all of these tools when you use the site.

SoundCloud exposes you to new music in the feed you see when you log in – allowing friends’ tastes to propagate. And it has uncommonly clever algorithms for finding and playing related music when you’re listening, now on both mobile and desktop.

I’ve found an extraordinary number of DJs, for instance, who say they find new music they wouldn’t have found otherwise by listening to those related tracks.

Anecdotally, I can say this is what continues to draw so many users to SoundCloud. People upload music there because otherwise it doesn’t get heard.

Now, does this mean all this consolidation is a good thing? No, not necessarily. But if you’re going to talk about alternatives, those alternatives have got to serve some of the same functions.

But there seems to be two fundamentally different questions to ask. One goes something like this:

1. “Artists deserve to get paid. How do we pay them?”

2. “How do I get people to find and listen to my music?”

The problem is, question 1 makes an enormous leap. It assumes that because artists ethically, theoretically, ought to be paid, then the question is simply how to disperse money. That’s absurdly simplistic and, frankly, naive. Poets also might ethically deserve to be paid, but almost no one who sits down and starts writing poetry finds money suddenly flooding in their door. And if they don’t, it isn’t necessarily because some greedy capitalists stole the money before it arrived. If they didn’t have an audience of people paying for their work, there was no money to begin with.

Always-on subscriptions have indeed depleted the value of music, but it’s hard to imagine SoundCloud, with its catalog of mostly independent music, as the source of the problem. The low perceived value of a monthly subscription is clearly the work of services like Spotify, in their ad-supported and cut-rate subscription fees. (Spotify wasn’t first, but most successful – and Apple effectively dismantled their download store in order to compete.)

So people are fond of saying the “blockchain” is a solution. It’s not. Using blockchain technology to decentralize payment collection could be the basis of new solutions for music, but the technology itself only solves the problem of how artists get paid for plays in a decentralized context. The question of how to then make music available around the Web and on mobile, and how people can then share that music, and how listeners can discover music, are all important questions that aren’t answered simply by talking about how to track plays and collect money.

The reality is, a lot more of an artist’s life is spent solving question #2, to the point that invariably it involves investing money, not collecting it. Artists will spend upwards of hundreds of bucks at a fairly low level just to pay for a PR agency, potentially spend thousands of dollars pressing vinyl at a loss, spend money on press photos and, these days, buy ads on Facebook just to get attention.

SoundCloud, meanwhile, gives you some tools to significantly increase audience for free, adding additional features for a few bucks a month. And you retain control of your music and data all the while. SoundCloud even promises that soon you will see some share of their revenue earned on subscriptions and advertising, though we’ve yet to see that in reality.

The loss of SoundCloud could cost a great deal more than that in lost attention. Now, indeed, that itself might be the best possible argument for decentralization. Our dependence on SoundCloud is also its worst liability.

But whatever some trolls online say, let’s be honest with ourselves about what it is we’re dependent on. SoundCloud created an enormous centralized place for people to listen to music. They build a large scale audience for us. And at this point, the one thing independent music can’t lose afford to lose is more audience. Talking about how artists get paid is important. But if no one’s listening to our music, that discussion is purely academic.

And my concern remains: if costs of running a centralized services outpace revenue, we could lose this relatively recent audience – one that has produced a lot of value for artists. That revenue and cost expectation wasn’t set by SoundCloud in the first place: it’s a combination of rates the industry has set and the amount people want to pay for monthly listener subscriptions. Advertising could offset that, but listeners and producers have indicated they don’t like obvious advertising.

For their part, SoundCloud continue to say they can solve all this. In absence of an alternative of significant scale that serves musicians, I continue to hope they’re right.

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SoundCloud cuts 41% of staff as streaming music business melts down

There’s a famous line in business by Tom Peters, in his book The Circle of Innovation: “you can’t shrink your way to greatness.”

But shrinking is exactly what SoundCloud now has to do, with its survival – let alone any ongoing greatness – at stake. As founder Alex Ljung puts it in a blog post for the company today, massive headcount reduction and the closure of two offices is necessary to put the company “on our path to profitability and in control of SoundCloud’s independent future.” The implication is, without a buyer, the company may not last without cutting staff.

Asked for comment, SoundCloud pointed CDM to that post:

A note from Alex Ljung

SoundCloud will lose a lot of the people who made the service valuable. 173 out of 420 employees – 41% of staff – are being made redundant. San Francisco and London offices are closing, leaving New York and the headquarters here in Berlin. (That may have implications for Berlin’s reputation as a European Internet capital, as well, as SoundCloud has been its best known poster child.)

I know some of these people personally. I’ve seen what they bring to the service and our music community in general. I’ve also seen how significant SoundCloud has been in helping musicians share music and people to discover that music, its impact on record labels, on artists getting bookings … on daily life.

I think artists and ex-employees alike could feel legitimately betrayed by the course music streaming has taken. SoundCloud at least is increasing revenue. Ljung says the company has “more than doubled” revenue in the past 12 months, without citing specific breakdown of producer subscriptions, listener subscriptions, and advertising. But the issue is how revenue compares to costs.

Now, ironically, the writing has been on the wall for a decade. Ten years ago – and one year before SoundCloud was founded – Pandora co-founder and ex-CEO told CDM he thought streaming rates would shutter companies. The weird part of this is, he may have been right – it’s just that an ongoing influx of investment has prolonged that failure over the years.

If Streaming Rates Stand, “We’ll Have to Shutter”, Says Pandora Founder

If it seems greedy that he’d suggest such a thing, one reason is that there aren’t such royalties collected on radio broadcasts.

Whether you want to blame the services, tech giants like Apple and Amazon, or the music industry for setting rates, the business model just doesn’t seem to add up anywhere. And 2017 could be the “s*** hits the fan” moment as it becomes ever clearer that no one is able to turn that business model into a win.

Just last week, co-founder and returning CEO Tim Westergren left Pandora. That company has never made a profit, and it seems new investors Sirius XM (satellite radio company) have other plans.

Then there’s Spotify. As its revenues and number of users grow rapidly, its losses are actually growing even more rapidly. That should mean that Ljung’s comment about growing revenue is as much a red flag as it is encouragement.

Spotify’s Loss More Than Doubles Even as User Growth Surges [Bloomberg]

Noticing a trend here? Pretty much anyone in the streaming business is losing money. That overall picture also will rule out some acquisitions, or reduce the price. And it’s not surprising that this combination might frighten away some investors.

It’s not that there’s no hope here – just that it’s going to be a very delicate balancing act if SoundCloud is going to make its planned profitability. Fast Company took a good look at the 2017 plans at the beginning of the year, along with its potential pitfalls:

SoundCloud vows growth in 2017, but time is running out [FastCo]

Now we’ll have to see what Ljung means when he promises to share more plans in the coming weeks – how they update this roadmap.

CDM readers and associates frequently compare Bandcamp to SoundCloud. But perhaps if any comparison is apt, it’s because of the contrast in business models, growth rate, and intended audience. Bandcamp remains a niche site for people to consume music, not only as free streams, but as downloads, physical media, and in the form of merchandise. It’s the always-on, “tap water”-style streaming that is having trouble.

To state the painfully obvious, it’s also troubling to look at the streaming players who are thriving. Facebook has stayed out of music (unlike Russian social media network VKontakte). But three other big tech giants – Amazon, Apple, and Google – are able to offer streaming services as “loss-leader” offerings, directing sales elsewhere. Apple may lag Spotify, with 27 million users to Spotify’s 50 million. But then Cupertino doesn’t need Apple Music to turn a profit, since the company can instead sell iPhones, iPads, and Macs.

It’s just as easy to find music on YouTube – which also spells further pain for artists and labels.

Music press have been quick to jump on SoundCloud, often without much to back them up. But now, I believe it’s reasonable to sound some alarms. Staff cuts this significant could slow growth and curb the efforts that would expand revenue. They suggest serious financial obstacles. And there’s still not a clear picture of how streaming will be sustainable as a business model – not for SoundCloud, and not for the entire industry.

And the implications there go far beyond SoundCloud’s offices. They should raise serious questions about what a record label is, how it collects revenue in the digital age, and how much control artists and publishers will have on their music being shared and discovered.

Of course, that absolutely means now is the time to talk about alternatives, including innovative solutions like Blockchain-powered sharing and the like. But the popularity of SoundCloud and Spotify for finding and playing music is going to be a tough benchmark to match.

Whatever happens next, it’s going to involve some major changes. And if these companies do start to contract, a lot of the talent that was working on the problem is going to wind up elsewhere.

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Elektron’s Analog Four, Analog Rytm get MKII treatment

Elektron’s Analog series are getting the OLED screen, updated pads, and new aluminum enclosure design that the Octatrack MKII and Digitakt did. Bonus: new Analog Four synth circuitry, and Analog Rytm for the first time does sampling.

Both Analog models get the higher-quality OLED display and new pad and encoder design that first debuted on the Digitakt. But it seems Elektron are also giving the Analog models a style all their own. The aluminum chassis is in a distinctive gray color and tilts up.

In fact, it’s really increasingly feeling like the Octatrack got the short end of the stick. And given the passion of fans of that model – particularly because it’s uniquely suited to going all-hardware live and replacing a laptop – I think the existing disappointment from fans is likely to grow louder. The Octatrack MKII doesn’t have this nice new case design. And there are no software updates or new features. And there’s no Overbridge support (for integration with a computer) – or even something as simple as USB MIDI support. (Now, I’m not negging you, Elektron – an OS update would make that same crowd happy campers, I suspect.)

That said, there’s not much to complain about on the Analog Four and Analog Rytm side – and indeed, here there may be pretty good reason for existing users to update, particularly with sampling on the Rytm.

elektron-analog-four-mkii-angled2

elektron-analog-four-mkii-back-angled

elektron-analog-four-mkii-side

elektron-analog-four-mkii-top

Analog Four

The analog synth in Elektron’s lineup gets the physical updates just as everything else, including more quick-access performance controls.

Most of the rest is about sound:

Elektron promises “reworked” circuitry for the bass, plus “enhanced” overdrive. Deeper? More defined? More bite and growl? Uh, well, something. We’ll have to hear these in person to judge.

You also get more I/O – stereo audio outputs for each voice, expression and CV inputs for external control, and even higher-bandwidth Overbridge.

All of this would seem to come together in a nice package, one that should look and feel and sound at least a little better than the original. Now, whether that means you should upgrade or not depends on how much better it sounds, and what difference you can get between selling your used model and buying the new one.

1449 EUR / 1349 USD, available September.

elektron-analog-rytm-mkii-back

elektron-analog-rytm-mkii-back-angled

elektron-analog-rytm-mkii-side

elektron-analog-rytm-mkii-top

Analog Rytm

Sampling.

That’s probably going to outweigh anything else we could say about the Analog Rytm. So, all the MKII stuff is true here, too – better encoders, better display, more performance controls (less menu diving/shifting, that is).

And you get Expression/CV inputs as on the Analog Four and higher-bandwidth Overbridge.

But the big breakthrough has to be sampling. You have balanced sampling inputs on the device and can sample directly on the hardware. That would open up lots of new creative ways of working – grabbing an idea off a synth, for instance, without the usual chore of going via the computer.

There’s not a lot of information here and Elektron haven’t yet posted a manual, but this sounds promising.

The post Elektron’s Analog Four, Analog Rytm get MKII treatment appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Tool to make music from Leap Motion gestures is free, VR could be next

This is about as affordable and easy as gestural interaction with music can get. The powerful Geco music controller app pairs with the $80 Leap Motion hand tracking hardware – and now the app is free.

But it could be just the beginning.

For its part, the Leap Motion is now sort of yesterday’s news. But the small rectangular box is still a quick-and-easy way to get your computer tracking hand gestures – if you’re into that sort of thing. Geert Bevin’s Geco app provides the glue between the Leap’s sensing capabilities and your music software, allowing the computer to recognize gestures and then convey them as MIDI or OSC messages (among other tricks).

And if for some reason you had a Leap and waited to pick up the app – or if you needed an excuse to give this a play – now the app is free. (Since its release, it’s also had some major updates, so it’s worth another go even if you tried it before.)

I’ve played with Geert’s app before, and it’s fairly impressive. You’re always going to be a tough critic of any sort of gestural interaction, because the link between hands and perception is so finely tuned. But the Leap opens up some possibilities – even if you don’t really want to wave your hands around for a whole performance, it could add the ability to perform quick shortcuts or control a single parameter. And it’s a huge advance in comparison to things like Roland’s IR-tracking technology, for instance.

But it’s what’s coming round the bend that may be most interesting. The reason Geert had to make Geco free at this particular moment is that Leap is killing its app store. (See their blog post on the topic. It’s not the most elegant “sunsetting,” but then it seems the whole industry had to get over this idea that everyone should create an app store as Apple had.)

Leap are moving on to take the software and hardware smarts of the Leap Motion and start to build it into two new (overlapping) arenas – mobile and VR.

lm_mount-curved-bundle-for_store_large

Right away, in fact, you can use the Leap Motion with Windows and Android VR headsets. (The, erm, sophisticated integration technology there is a “universal adapter” that involves just mounting the Leap Motion to the headset itself – plastic and 3M adhesive.)

The thing is, the Leap Motion is kind of cool when tethered to a computer, but way more interesting when it’s set loose. And that’s the next step, with something upcoming that Leap is calling the Leap Mobile Platform.

Think virtual reality and augmented reality – battery powered, untethered from a computer, and totally mobile.

For music, this is especially compelling as it opens up the possibility of new experimentation with interfaces. VR and AR have given us the visuals of what that could look like, but that’s meaningless without the ability to interact with those worlds.

Geert tells CDM he’s working in this direction: “I’ll be getting an early version in order to be able to take what I’ve learned from my GECO and GameWAVE Leap Motion apps and apply this to Mobile Leap Motion with VR and AR,” he says. “I’m really interested in the AR part for live performance.”

AR is augmented reality – that is, a visualization that you see atop the real world, instead of replacing your vision entirely. AR beats VR onstage, unless you want to shut yourself off from your audience with enormous goggles.

In the meantime, there’s no need to wait – you can use Geco right now, provided you can get your hands on a Leap Motion. And with Apple having unveiled its augmented reality solution last month, and a bunch of parties jumping on VR and AR on Windows, Android, and beyond for gaming and other experiences, we’ll be watching to see whether musicians find a way to use these technologies in coming months.

http://uwyn.com/geco/

https://developer.leapmotion.com/

The post Tool to make music from Leap Motion gestures is free, VR could be next appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Check out this detailed workflow comparison of Digitakt, Octatrack

One’s more compact and cheaper, one has deeper sampling capabilities and a longer history. Which Elektron drum machine is the one to buy?

We now know the flagship Octrack’s follow-up, the just-announced Octatrack MKII, shares the software and workflow with the original model. So it’s really a question of whether you want Octatrack or Digitakt. (And the Digitakt, in turn, will have to compete with the option of finding a used price on a first-gen Octatrack, too.)

Cuckoo continues to be our go-to YouTube source for insight into drum machines, and this time he goes feature by feature over the course of an hour, in depth.

There’s tons of great stuff in the video. But if you want to skip to the end, Cuckoo goes into some lovely detail about how he works with both machines.

Bottom line: Octatrack is definitely the deeper box. You can pre-load more materials, and it combines the functions of other gear.

But Digitakt, which Elektron are billing more as a sequence generator rather than an all-in-one performance machine, has its own unique character. Those limitations add a certain personality. And it might be the better option if you intend to work with other gear. (Plus, you know, all other things being equal, there’s that price.)

Still want more? In the Octatrack corner, here’s some insight into why you’d use that box for performance:

— and Elektron’s official workflow video:

For Digitakt, here’s a great jam combining that gear with Roland’s lovely TB-03 (oh, acid, how I’m addicted to thee):

— and Red Means Recording have been making a diary of Digitakt impressions:

Which way are you leaning? Or which box are you using now? Let us know in comments.

The post Check out this detailed workflow comparison of Digitakt, Octatrack appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

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