How to get paid to write about music

SXSW held a panel where successful editors shared their perspectives on music journalism

So, you want to make a career in music journalism—interviewing and writing about musicians and artists from all walks of life, and get to pay your bills while you’re at it? It’s not as simple as we would like to think. Editors from various media publications have to juggle freelance work with full-time jobs and publish articles by night to make ends meet. With this in mind, SXSW held a panel where successful editors and journalists offered their perspective on how to make it as a music journalist. The panel, held at the Austin Convention Center on March 15, featured Emilie Friedlander, the editor-in-chief of THUMP, Matthew Schnipper, the managing editor at Pitchfork Media, Eric Sundermann, the editor-in-chief of Noisey/VICE, and Andre Grant, the associate digital editor for GOOD Magazine. Each editor shared their struggles and successes as they climbed their way to journalism success.

From left to right, Emilie Friedlander, Andre Grant, Matthew Schnipper and Eric Sundermann. Photo by Sandra Hercegova

Before becoming the editor-in-chief of Noisey/VICE, Sundermann had his fair share of jobs and internships after graduating from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He interned all around New York City at SPIN Magazine, to and at Rolling Stone all while working at Vinnie’s Pizzeria. This continued until he landed his first staff job at The Village Voice, an online publication local to New York City. According to Sundermann, the experience of combining internships with a night job taught him a lot. “The bottom line is that you have to work really hard and you have to be okay with that, and you have to be okay with not being rewarded for that,” he said.

Schnipper’s first article was on hip-hop record producers, Cool & DRE for Fader, about 10 years ago. “I did not have any interest in Dre. I sent a bunch of [pitch] ideas to a friend and they didn’t like any of them—nobody wanted to write about this story, so they called me and said, ‘Hey do you want to do that?,’” Schnipper said. “I would say that’s how a lot of the rest of my career went—trying to get people to pay me for my ideas. Usually they didn’t, but then I could do [their ideas], so that was helpful.”

Grant got his first paycheck after writing a small introductory paragraph on Big Sean. “I remember how bad the interview was,” he said. “I freelanced a lot for small publications. Eventually, I got a job out west in Los Angeles at Hiphopdx and moved on from there to freelance again.”

Friedlander’s trajectory began not by working at any commercial publications, but by self-publishing. “I had my own little blog that I started a couple years abroad after college,” Friedlander said. She did that for many years and then started freelancing for various small publications. “They would send me 10 records in the mail, and I had to pick some to write about,” she said. She then moved back to New York and got hired at a Pitchfork sister site called Altered Zones, which was the first editor job she got paid for. “That site didn’t survive, as a lot of sites are short-lived. There’s a lot of change in the industry,” she said. Eventually, Friedlander became an editor for Fader and VICE.

After introducing themselves and giving some background on their careers, Friedlander asked the panelists which characteristic or decision helped them get paid to write about music. According to Sundermann, it’s the relentlessness that matters. “You gotta keep on doing it—it’s not a glamorous thing. Even if you are successful, you’re still not paid a lot of money. You really have to love music, obviously, and you have to love to write about it,” he said. It is also important to be flexible, he added. “You are pitching to editors who run their publication the way they run them, and they are inviting you to write for them so you have to play by their rules,” he said. “As an editor, when you get pushed back from a writer from certain angles, it’s like when someone invites you to their house and you start insulting their house,” said Sundermann.

Friedlander said that every publication is a commercial entity that formats stories in certain ways and that as writers, we should be willing to listen to the editors. “You have to take it with a grain of salt — that might not be fun, but that will help you get invited back,” said Friedlander. She added that versatility and being receptive of feedback is very important. “Just be the kind of person who really wants to dot every i and cross every t. When you see someone who is like that and who really wants to put in the extra mile and make the story great, those people are actually rare and editors will be grateful,” she said.

Schnipper said it is vital to always have new ideas when it comes to pitches, “I was pitching like crazy, I thought some ideas were genius and someone said, ‘No. Not for us or not for anybody,’” he said. “You can’t get mad at that—being able to move past those failed pitches and come up with new ones, that is what’s important,” Schnipper said.

Grant added how persistence is important as well. “It’s definitely not Sex and the City, you’re not getting paid $500 a word,” he said. “Always come up with new pitches. It’s a grind and it’s a journey, and you just have to be there for that journey.”

The editors then discussed the key ingredients that make a great pitch. According to Schnipper, pitching is all about expressing your writing skills as much as you can through whatever mode available. “If you are going to send emails, send one with a good subject line. If you can write a good email, you can probably write a good story,” he said. “Be brief. If you can send me a quick email that is eloquent, pertinent, if it’s got a joke in there—I’m not against a joke, ever—if you’re funny, be funny, if not, maybe don’t try.”

“When I’m putting your work on the site, it’s important that it is good for the publication, and having a pitch that makes that clear is the most important thing for me,” Grant said regarding successful pitches. “Yes, it is your work, it is your writing, but you are working for someone. They are paying you, so for that exchange they need to see the value in what you are providing,” Sundermann said.

Both Friedlander and Sundermann also added how internships are a great way of landing a potential job in the music journalism field. They have both interned at various publications themselves, which has led them to where they are today.


From Austin to Montreal: Les Deuxluxes and Charlotte Cardin perform at SXSW

The SXSW Festival welcomed Montreal bands and artists at the Quebec Sugar Shack

The SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, welcomed Montreal with open arms to the Quebec Sugar Shack, an event organized by M pour Montreal and Planet Quebec which invited bands and artists from Montreal to meet-up in Austin. The showcase took place at Bungalow Bar on March 14. The Quebec Sugar Shack featured Montreal duet Les Deuxluxes and singer-songwriter Charlotte Cardin. Les Deuxluxes opened up with their glam, rock-and-roll demeanor, bringing high-energy to the crowd with every pair of eyes fixated on them.


Anna Frances Meyer and Étienne Barry of Les Deuxluxes rocking the stage at Bungalow Bar. Photo by Sandra Hercegova.

Les Deuxluxes consists of Anna Frances Meyer on vocals and guitar, and Étienne Barry on guitar, drums and vocals. Meyer studied classical music and opera at McGill University, while Barry studied the piano. “I don’t know how we became a rock-and-roll band,” Meyer said. The duo began playing together in 2012. “It was during the student strike. Étienne had six months off of school. Instead of getting a shitty job at a restaurant or something, we decided to put together some songs real fast and go play in the metro to make extra money,” Meyer said. Eventually, their metro busking gathered much attention and, the duo got invited to open for a band in Terrebonne. “It all took off from there. Ever since that show, we’ve never stopped touring,” Meyer said. “In the last three years, we have three to four shows per week, every week—we hit Montreal real hard for the first couple of months. Then we started getting invited in other regions, and now we tour all over Quebec all the time.”

In fact, Les Deuxluxes has gone from a local scene to an international one. Prior to their show at SXSW, they were touring in South America. “We went to Sao Paulo, Brazil, we are soon going to Mexico for a whole month tour, we are also going to Lafayette, Louisiana—it’s like l’année international Deuxluxes,” Meyer said.

While in South America, both Meyer and Barry said they experienced a strong musical connection with the audience. “We connected with the Latino audience on an energy level. Something really happened down there—people were just so receptive to our music. It was really exciting for us,” Meyer said. “We just love the culture. It’s people who like to live. No matter what their financial situation is, people there always have a smile on their face and they are ready to have a party,” Barry said. “That’s very inspiring for us,” Meyer added. “We connect to that on a musical level. It’s not the easiest job, but it’s very rewarding when we get to go to places like this.”

Anna Frances Meyer and Étienne Barry of Les Deuxluxes proudly waving the Canadian and Quebec flags, representing Montreal at the SXSW music festival. Photo by Sandra Hercegova.

Meyer and Barry have been studying music for the past 15 years, which they said makes the process of writing lyrics slower for them, since they are more experienced composers as opposed to lyricists. However, when it comes to finding inspiration, anything can spark it. “We get inspired by conversations. We have a song called ‘Tobacco Vanilla’ that’s a song inspired by a perfume,” Meyer said. Meyer and Barry had went to see a band called The Jim Jones Review in Montreal. “We were right in front of the lead singer, Jim Jones, and he smelled amazing. It was intoxicating and it was part of the show. After the show, I asked him, ‘What’s your perfume?’ And he said, ‘Tobacco Vanilla, baby,’ and we went home and wrote that song,” Meyer said.

Barry also performed with another band at SXSW, called Orkestar Kriminal, where he played the accordion. “I do backup vocals for that band too,” Meyer added. “It’s gypsy gangster music. It’s about gangsterism and prostitution. It’s old repertoire from the 20s and 30s.” Since Orkestar Kriminal was invited to play at SXSW, the duo planned on being at the festival anyway. They ended up performing as Les Deuxluxes as well. “We ended up getting four showcases for ourselves. That’s pretty great,” Meyer said.

Les Deuxluxes latest album is called Spring Time Devil, and they are currently writing their second album to be released next year. The glam rock-and-roll duo will be playing on April 1 in Montreal at the Fairmount Theatre alongside Brooklyn rock band, Crushed Out. “It’s our first show in Montreal since we launched our album and it’s going to be an amazing show. We did a mini tour with Crushed out a couple of summers ago, so we’re really happy to be reunited with them—they are super inspiring to us,” Meyer said.


Singer-songwriter Charlotte Cardin and bass player Mathieu Sénéchal performing their first showcase at SXSW. Photo by Sandra Hercegova.

Next to hit the stage was Montreal singer-songwriter Charlotte Cardin alongside her bandmates, Mathieu Sénéchal and Benjamin Courcy. She first became known on the television series La Voix, the Quebec version of The Voice, where she made it to the top four. Cardin released her solo debut EP, Big Boy, last summer.

It is cliché to say her voice sounds like no other, however, it truly is unique. Cardin has a beautiful, soft, sultry voice, which complements her R&B and pop-electro ballads. “We came here just to share our music with a new audience. It’s always super exciting to do that,” Cardin said. Cardin’s first show gathered many people at the Quebec Sugar Shack. Her voice hypnotized the crowd. “Our first show was fun, however, we couldn’t hear ourselves on stage. There was a problem with the soundcheck and stuff, but we ended up having a lot of fun and it was a good first showcase,” Cardin said.

Cardin’s musical journey began when she was just six years old. “I played the piano just for a year—I then switched for singing lessons when I was seven years old and then I took singing lessons for almost 10 years. It was just for fun, a thing I would do after school,” Cardin said. Little did she know, her extracurricular activity would one day lead her to success. “I didn’t expect to make a career out of it, but it ended up sort of happening. I started writing songs and one thing lead to another. It’s been so great,” Cardin said.

Cardin writes all her lyrics, and most of her songs are about different kinds of relationships. “It’s the thing that inspires me the most, but it’s not only about romantic relationships. I write about friendships and meeting people who stimulate something different in you. That’s something that intrigues me: personalities and different ways to connect with people,” Cardin said.

This is Cardin’s first time at SXSW, where she performed a total of four showcases. “I just want to share my music with new people, and if people who haven’t heard us before can relate to our music and lyrics, that would be the best that we could accomplish,” Cardin said.


Warren G tells his story about the rise of G-funk

G-funk documentary in honour of Nate Dogg premiered at SXSW

The documentary G-Funk portrays Warren G, Nate Dogg and Snoop Dogg rapping together in their childhood years and charts their progress as international hip-hop stars. From their early days at Long Beach Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, Calif., the trio had talent and dreams to become famous rappers. They rap-battled their friends during recess and at parties. In 1990, they formed a rap trio called 213, and eventually became the pioneers of a hip-hop subgenre called G-funk, or gangsta-funk. G-funk emerged in the 90s in southern California and is also known as West Coast hip-hop. It is a combination of motown, funk, R&B and gangsta rap, and has become a staple in mainstream American music culture.

As mentioned in the documentary, G-funk is different from East Coast hip-hop—it doesn’t fit the flow of New York City. G-funk is mellow and smooth, and is meant to be heard in your drop-top below the palm trees as you cruise along Sunset Boulevard—it has a laid-back, West Coast feel to it. Some classic G-funk tunes include “Regulate” by Nate Dogg and Warren G, or “Ain’t Nothin’ But a G Thang” by Snoop Dogg. The film featured several hip-hop artists who played leading roles in the rise of G-funk, such as Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre. There were also interviews with hip-hop artists, who have been around during the rise of G-Funk or who were greatly influenced by Warren G’s career, such as Russell Simmons, Ice T, Wiz Khalifa, Too $hort, George Clinton, Deion Sanders and Big Boy.

The documentary depicts the rise of drug and gang violence in Los Angeles in the 1990s, and the many who lost their lives or were incarcerated. G-Funk also highlights how black men often faced severe police brutality and racial profiling by the Los Angeles Police Department. It was a tough time for these up-and-coming rappers, which is probably why their music connected with so many people since they sang and rapped about their hardships.

From left to right, Bob Ruggeri, Karam Gill, Warren G, Gary Ousdahl and Rafael Chavez at the G-funk panel. Photo by Sandra Hercegova

The film touched on G-funk’s contribution to the rise in sales and popularity of the hip-hop genre. The film premiered in Austin, Texas, during the SXSW Festival at the Paramount Theatre on March 15. It was a tribute to one of the main leaders of G-funk, Nate Dogg, who passed away on March 15, 2011. The film portrays Warren G, Nate Dogg and Snoop Dogg as a family. “Snoop is one of my best friends,” Warren G said. “We talk all the time, you know. He crazy, but that’s my dog.” As for Nate Dogg, “I miss him. We all miss him,” Warren G added. “Nate wrote songs that people go back to. ‘The Hardest Man in Town,’ that’s one of the dopest records ever,” he said.

Prior to the film’s screening, Warren G and members of the G-Funk crew held a panel at the Austin Convention Center. The panel featured filmmaker and director of G-Funk, Karam Gill; executive producer, Matt Carpenter and producers; Warren G, Gary Ousdahl, Robert Ruggeri and Rafael Chavez.

Gill, who is 22 years old, began filming G-Funk as an undergrad at Chapman University. Warren G met Gill at one of his shows in Orange County, Calif. “He came in with his buddy, Daniel, and asked, ‘Can I film your show tonight?’ I was like, ‘Shit, it’s all good,’” Warren G said during the panel. When Gill showed him the concert footage a few days later, Warren G was impressed. “The stuff he was doing was off the chain—this guy can help me get my documentary laid out how I want to, and that’s how he came on board,” Warren G said. G-Funk portrays the ups and downs of the journey of an artist, “back then when I was young … I’m still young, I ain’t that old. I just went through a lot—I knew that I wanted to do a story just talking about a lot of the things that I went through before I started getting success,” Warren G said.

According to the film producer, Ruggeri, while many producers might think it insane to put their complete faith in a 22-year-old director, Gill was prepared and competent. “We flew our investor [out] to meet him and Warren and the four other producers. Karam had every single thing laid out. This film was in his head because he had been traveling with Warren previously—he had the passion and we could see this in his eyes, that this guy had it all under control,” Ruggeri said.

To Gill, G-funk is the backbone of all pop songs today. “Rappers were never singing on songs before Nate Dogg,” Gill said. “When you are thinking about Drake and hip-hop artists who sing, that’s a by-product of G-funk.”  In the hit song “Regulate,” Nate Dogg would sing on the track while Warren G would rap to it, combining singing and rapping into one song. This is an example of how G-Funk influenced hip-hop as we know it. According to Gill, G-Funk is an homage to Nate Dogg. “Nate would have wanted it to be a celebration,” Gill said. “It’s not an RIP Nate movie—it’s celebrating his life in a positive way.”

A soundtrack is to be released along with the documentary. “There’s going to be a lot of G-funk artists who you guys already know, but there’s also going to be new artists there. It’s going to be dope, trust me,” Warren G said. An artist Warren G said he would appreciate working with for the soundtrack is Erykah Badu. “I always wanted to work with her. Her voice is really dope to me, and I would love to hear her on one of my tracks as far as doing a hook and doing verses,” Warren G said. “G-funk never left,” Ruggeri added. “Everything you are hearing right now is influenced by G-funk. We are hoping this movie will revive it.”


Discovering artists in the live music capital of the world

Recommendations of up-and-coming artists seen at the SXSW festival in Austin


Across from the Hotel Vegas music venue was an outdoor performance by Valley Hush (pictured above) on March 13. I was intrigued by their experimental pop sounds, so I decided to walk over and check out their show. Valley Hush came all the way from their hometown of Detroit, MI to perform for the first time at SXSW. The band’s lineup consists of singer-songwriter Lianna Vanicelli, guitarist Alex Kaye, bass player Mat Hofman and drummer Dave Dionise. Vanicelli has been playing music for the past 10 years, and became the vocalist of Valley Hush when the band formed in 2014. “Our music is a lot of everything,” she said. “We like textured sounds so we use a lot of organic samples. It’s experimental pop, but it can vary—it’s the type of pop music that has a lot of meaning behind it.” According to the band members, music is easier for them and the audience to get into when it has a deeper meaning. “I like to write about what I am struggling with in life, and I think everyone struggles. I struggle with money and jobs, love and relationships,” Vanicelli said. “The meaning of life is a big theme in our last album.”Back in Detroit, Valley Hush has their go-to performance venue: “L Club!” they all said enthusiastically. “L Club is our favourite! Shout out to L Club!” Kaye said. Yet the band is very eager to be playing outside of Detroit. “Detroit is a small scene, and I think we have been playing for almost three years now so we are definitely ready to play more in other cities with more industry,” Kaye said.That’s why Valley Hush will soon be moving to L.A to pursue their music. “We just got funding for touring purposes so we are ready to fucking… sorry. Fuck, whatever! We are ready to fucking do this!,” Hofman said excitedly. “We will be closer to Texas,” he said. “But further from Montreal,” Vanicelli added. The band is glad to have been in Austin for SXSW. “It’s a great festival—the opportunities here are really cool, and just to have five or six shows is a blessing. It’s cool to have one week where you’re playing a shit-load of shows,” Kaye said. “And in the same city—it’s kind of crazy,” Vanicelli added.


Australian musician Josh Cashman performing at the Hyatt Regency for his SXSW showcase. Photo by Sandra Hercegova

Australian singer-songwriter Josh Cashman performed a soothing, romantic alternative-folk show on March 14 at the Hyatt Regency venue for SXSW. Cashman came all the way from Melbourne for his SXSW showcase. “This is such a worldwide-renown showcase and festival for up-and-coming artists, so [our team] applied for it, not thinking that we would even get it,” Cashman said. Cashman has been taking advantage of the opportunity by scheduling shows in cities across the U.S. “We toured around America for three weeks before SXSW. It’s been a hectic month and a half,” he said.The singer-songwriter has also been playing guitar since his early childhood. “I grew up in a house where we listened to music rather than watching television. That’s why I do music and that’s why music is a part of me,” he said. Cashman described his sound as soft, alternative folk with electronic textures. “Musicians usually describe that [their] genre is a mix of everything that you listen to over your lifetime, the things that you really like, and you pick and choose,” he said. According to Cashman, it’s all about taking elements from artists and genres he likes and creating his own kind of sound. “My music is always changing. I’m releasing an EP later this year, and I’ve got no doubt that the next EP that I will release after that will probably sound a little different—every artist evolves,” Cashman said. The new EP, he said, will focus on personal lyrics about love, relationships and heartbreak.


Rock-metal band Kevlar performed a killer show at the Dirty Dog bar. Photo by Sandra Hercegova.

Rocking the stage at the legendary Dirty Dog bar on Sixth Street on March 14 was the hard rock-metal band Kevlar. Coming all the way from the small town of Erie, Pa., this was the band’s first time performing at SXSW. Kevlar consists of Kelci Margaret on vocals, Anthony Sanzo on bass, Nick Sanzo on drums and Jake Flaugh on guitar. Brothers Anthony and Nick started the band back in 2010. Flaugh joined the band five years ago, and singer-songwriter Margaret came on board two years ago. “They were looking for a new singer, and I have been a part of the band ever since and it’s been amazing,” Margaret said. Kevlar often plays gigs in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo. Their dynamic on-stage energy makes them great performers and a blast to watch. “We always try to put energy into our stage performance as well as in our records,” Margaret said. Kevlar recently put out a single called “Alibis.” “We worked with an amazing producer on it, and we put our whole heart and soul into that—we’re really in love with it,” Margaret said. The band members said they were thrilled to be at the festival. “It’s a celebration of music,” Margaret said. “We’ve never actually played at a festival like this—just to be in a town where people are all here for music and arts is incredible.”


Alternative rock band Shadowplay drove all the way from New Jersey to perform at SXSW. Photo by Reji Berrouet

An alternative rock band all the way from New Jersey, Shadowplay consists of Andrew Corkery on vocals, Dan Holden on guitar and backup vocals, John Sellers on bass, piano and guitar, Jamile Wiggins on drums and Edward Flynn on bass. Flynn, unfortunately, could not make it to Austin, so Michael Brandt covered bass for the SXSW showcase. The band got to play at the Dirty Dog bar venue on March 14. Shadowplay has a classic alternative rock sound, with lyrics about self-reflection. “Our music is about our life experiences with a twist of surrealism,” Corkery said. “It’s about accepting loss in your personal life, accepting it and seeing the beauty of it and moving on.” According to the band, their music is a cathartic. Although the band hails from New Jersey, they also consider themselves a Philly band, as they play a lot of gigs in Philadelphia. Corkery has also visited Montreal before. “I’ve been to that venue, it was pronounced like, ‘Orange Couch’?,” he said, referring to Divan Orange. “One of our favorite bands is the Montreal band Godspeed You! Black Emperor.”


Gareth Edwards on success, failure and not giving up

Rogue One director delivered final film keynote speech at the SXSW Festival

When Gareth Edwards was a child, he knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up—he wanted to join the Rebel Alliance and help blow up the Death Star. But then his parents told him Star Wars was actually a lie, created by film. Having to change his career path, Edwards decided to become a professional liar himself and make movies.

His name might sound familiar. Maybe it’s because his first film, Monsters, which premiered at SXSW in 2010, did so well, considering its low budget. Or maybe it’s because he directed Godzilla in 2014.

But if his name is familiar, it’s probably because of his latest film,  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which grossed over US$1 billion worldwide and was nominated for both Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects at this year’s Academy Awards.

Edward’s success is indisputable, but it’s not like he took the express lane from dreaming about filmmaking to being at the helm of multi-million dollar mega-blockbusters. That’s something the director continually stressed during his keynote address at the SXSW Festival on March 13. It wasn’t a straight line to success, and he nearly gave up many times along the way.

For all of his current success, Edwards remains humble. And funny. He’s a geek who grew up to direct the franchise he grew up with and who worked hard to achieve what he has. During his keynote, he spoke about the hectic nature of filmmaking, the unforgiving tight shooting schedules and of accidentally walking onto the wrong set. But the main point he wanted to stress to the audience was to continue working towards your dreams and goals until you achieve them.

Edwards said he wanted more than anything to emulate the trajectory of his hero, Steven Spielberg. He had a checklist he wanted to follow: make films with Dad’s camera, get into film school, make a professional short, direct his first movie.

But when he didn’t get to check that last step of directing his first movie, Edwards felt as if he had failed. So he bought the new supercomputer of the era, running on the high-tech Windows 95, and started tinkering with visual effects (VFX) software.

“I did lots of these silly things like animating dinosaurs and robots and putting them in my parent’s driveway,” said Edwards. “And I’d go for job interviews in London and try to get directing work, and they would watch my short films and be very unimpressed. And then suddenly these robots and dinosaurs would turn up at the end and they’d go ‘well what are these?’”

The animations baffled the studio representatives. They were paying exorbitant amounts for professionals to create these realistic, ground-breaking animations, while Edwards could make the same high-quality productions at a fraction of the cost in his bedroom. What initially started out as a fun experiment soon turned into a career. He soon earned a reputation at the BBC as the kid who makes graphics in his bedroom.

Although working in VFX allowed him to work in the movie industry, it also made him idle on his goal of directing a film. His fear of failure made him play it safe, and so, for a time, Edwards concentrated on buying the newest software upgrades, getting the latest lens and, ultimately, postponing his dream.

But in the end, his fear of failure was met head on with his fear of never having tried. And so, with funding from a studio in London which specialized in low-budget feature films, Edwards launched into making his first feature, Monsters, which screened at SXSW and launched his career as a filmmaker. He was eventually was picked up by Legendary Entertainment.

Edwards shared a handful of funny stories during his keynote address, such as the time he rushed onto the set of Planet of the Apes instead of Godzilla, or how he was late to almost every meeting with potential production companies post-Monsters.

But perhaps one of the funniest stories he told was of how he picked the name for a planet in Rogue One. While on break at a well-known international coffee chain, the barista misspelled his name, writing ‘Scarif’ instead of ‘Gareth’ on his cup. And thus, the military planet in the third act of Rogue One was named.

Edwards also admitted to giving himself one cameo in Rogue One. At the end of the film, when Vader is wreaking havoc on the ship and killing everyone in sight, one guy runs down the hall, and pulls down a lever which launches a ship away, saving the entire rebellion. That guy was Edwards.

But for all of his jokes and quips, Edwards was serious about one thing: “Never ever, ever listen to anybody who tells you something is impossible, because if you never give up, you sometimes can join the Rebel Alliance and help blow up the Death Star.”


Virtual reality @ SXSW

Displaying the best and brightest upcoming VR artists, companies and installations

The Positron Voyager chair rotates and tilts, allowing for the sensation of movement.

The buzz around virtual reality and immersive technologies has been building in recent years as more companies and individuals embrace this new frontier. There is a scramble to see who can make it to the forefront of the medium, by creating ever-more poignant VR stories, more immersive technology and more impressive experiences.

The Virtual Cinema at the SXSW festival displayed some of the most innovative game-changers in this budding industry. Included in the exhibition was NASA’s Mars 2030, in which the participant becomes an astronaut exploring the red planet’s rocky terrain.

Montreal-based company and industry leader Felix & Paul Studios was also in attendance, displaying several new works. These included Miyubi, their first immersive narrative experience, and Dream of “O,” a fantastical visual journey featuring Cirque du Soleil’s famous Vegas show, O.

Though the Virtual Cinema exhibition had many works from well-known creators, there were also many newcomers: artists who knew the stories they wanted to tell could only be told through the VR medium.

Fistful of Stars is one such work. You are a space voyager floating in the infinite sea of stars in the Orion Nebula, and get to witness both the birth and death of a star.

“When I first started thinking about this piece, I wanted to make people feel as if they were going on a journey through the cosmos, and I wanted to make them feel as if they were floating in space,” said Eliza McNitt, the director. “Virtual reality was the only way for me to be able to tell that story.”

The work, which had its world premiere at SXSW, incorporates movement that shatters conventional immersive boundaries. It does this by coupling a VR headset with a Positron Voyager Chair, which rotates, spins and tilts to give you a sense of complete weightlessness.

It makes you feel as if you are actually floating in space rather than simply witnessing space.

Whereas Fistful of Stars eloquently and masterfully used the technological aspect of the medium to tell its story, Notes to my Father grips the audience and emotionally invests them in the piece.

This heart-wrenching story tells the tale of a woman whose marriage to a stranger was arranged by her father. Except, when the marriage fell apart, she was sold to an Indian brothel, unbeknownst to her father. Notes to my Father is a story of grief, love and reconciliation between a father and daughter. It is an emotional journey through pain, heartbreak and, ultimately, forgiveness. Despite having a close relationship, neither father or daughter has ever spoken about what happened to her. Yet deep down, both know. Their silence speaks volumes to the pain they both feel.

Notes to My Father is a heart-wrenching story that perfectly uses the VR medium’s empathy-enabling capabilities.

Director Jayisha Patel said empathy is crucial in having an authentic, captivating experience. VR puts the viewer right into the setting, and so this complete immersiveness into the story creates an emotional bond between the viewer and the characters.

“I’d love for different survivor-led organizations to be able to see this and connect, so we’re planning on doing that,” said Patel, who specializes in narratives about women, women of colour and gender violence. “I’d like to reach out to survivor-led organizations in the U.K., U.S. and Canada and get them to create a dialogue.”

VR is a strong medium for its empathy-inducing abilities because, as a viewer, you are part of the story instead of just a passive onlooker. When watching a film, if a character looks at the camera, it makes it seem as if they are looking in your general direction. But with VR, when a character looks at the camera, they are looking right into your eyes, because the camera is in fact a character in the story.

Both Fistful of Stars and Notes to my Father use the VR medium to its utmost potential. Though both pieces couldn’t be more different, they both fully and masterfully conduct their storytelling in an immersive and interesting manner that leaves a lasting impression on the viewer in different, but no less meaningful ways.


Using technology to shape and understand the future

 Immersive technologies and emotional responses can help us plan ahead

How can we prepare for the future when we don’t know what we’ll face? Enter speculative design: designing products, services or scenarios to address future challenges and opportunities.

Sci-Fi by Design: The Speculative Revolution, a panel discussion at SXSW on March 15, addressed the need to design for the future, today.

Moderated by Phil Balagtas from GE Aviation, the panel consisted of Ashley Baccus-Clark and Carmen Aguilar Y Wedge from Hyphen-Labs, a speculative design company, and Jake Dunagan from verynice, a global design-strategy consultancy.

“We have advanced as a civilization so far that we might be able to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs and deflect an asteroid if it were coming towards us,” Dunagan said. “That’s an amazing accomplishment. But I think the big problem is that we are the asteroid.”

Eliciting an emotional response is the most effective way of getting people to seriously think about the future, said Dunagan. Hyphen-Labs and verynice both do this, but with different approaches.

Hyphen-Labs uses immersive technology to present possible futures. In the real world, products are often designed with a demographic in mind. Their latest VR work, Neurospeculative Afrofeminism, challenges today’s designers to consider wider demographics by developing virtual technologies and designs that take into account the security, protection and visibility of, in this particular work, black women’s bodies. Their designs include earrings that record police altercations and scarves that thwart facial-recognition technology.

In contrast, Dunegan fights against apathy and dismissal of the future by using installations that present hypothetical futures in an attempt to emotionally invest people. One such project, set in in Hawaii, invited people to drink from water coolers containing various levels of plastic, representing ocean plastic levels in 1990, 2000 and the forecast for 2030.

The future might seem intangible, but we can use speculative design to start thinking about it now and ensure we steer towards a brighter future.


From Montreal to Austin: Felix & Paul talk VR

Felix & Paul Studios, held a panel discussion at the SXSW festival in Austin on March 14

The first time Felix & Paul Studios was at the SXSW festival was back in 2014, where they screened Strangers, one of their first virtual reality projects. Since then, the Montreal-based studio has become a leader in immersive storytelling.

Co-founders Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, along with chief content officer Ryan Horrigan and director of sound design Jean-Pascal Beaudoin, held a panel discussion on March 14 on virtual reality (VR) production.

Their studios have become experts in cultivating presence-based storytelling, which, as Raphaël pointed out during the panel, doesn’t just ‘happen’ because you have the technology. A 360-degree film isn’t inherently immersive because it is 360 degrees. It is immersive because of the way the visual and auditory elements work together to make you feel present in the story.

“The first step, and the most important one, is to position the viewer inside of the scene,” says Lajeunesse. “The way we place the viewer inside the scene will create the relation to the characters, to the story, so that’s really the most vital decision we have to make on set.”

In order to cultivate the abstract notion of ‘presence,’ a cornerstone of successful immersive works, the panelists spoke about building a bond between the audience and the narrative, making the viewer part of the film rather than a static spectator.

One of the challenges with 360-degree cinematography is that there is no single frame, since you can look around. However, there is composition, which can be separated into near field, mid field and far field. These fields add depth to the visual aspect of the medium. According to Lajeunesse, the objects in near field are the most crucial, as they make the viewer feel integrated in the scene.

One of the complexities of immersive film is the audio component. In order to be successful, the audio aspect of a work must be taken into consideration at the beginning of the process. In VR, sound cannot be an afterthought, and must be totally integrated into the production.  According to Beaudoin, sound is a pillar of the VR experience. Without good sound, the notion of presence is lost.

Interested in seeing some of Felix & Paul Studios’ newest projects? Head over to the Phi Centre in Montreal, where several of their works are currently being shown. Admission is free.


A youthful gathering of music enthusiasts

Forty-eight bands of all sorts of genres and styles played at The Blackheart bar over four days

I was strolling down the Rainey Street Historic District, a street known for great music venues and parties during Austin’s SXSW festival. I noticed many young people with festival badges and music equipment gathering in front of The Blackheart patio—I was intrigued. As I entered the venue, I was soon greeted by Christopher Moon, the general manager of NoiseTrade, a PledgeMusic company. NoiseTrade is a website that shares albums of up-and-coming artists for free. Moon is also the music curator for the Clif Bar Bash, an event which took place at The Blackheart bar from March 14 to 17. Moon and his team were in the middle of preparing to showcase their much anticipated lineup.

McNally Smith College of Music students helping with the stage set-up for the first performance by Charly Bliss. Photo by Sandra Hercegova

This was Moon’s 18th year at SXSW and his third year curating music for the Clif Bar Bash music showcases. Moon is responsible for booking bands for this event alongside his team. “It’s a big team, but a resourceful team. We started organizing this event last fall in September,” Moon said. Being a music curator involves a long process of music selection. “I must have listened to 400 to 500 different artists—I want to listen to their music and I want to know that it fits with the ethos of what we do at NoiseTrade, PledgeMusic and also our sponsors for Clif,” he said. “You want to make sure it’s high-energy, interesting, fun and that it’s going to be a good experience for everyone who comes out,” he said. According to Moon, curating music is the best gig. “I get to choose 48 of my favourite bands to come and play at a venue over the next four days, and at least at some point during each set, I can soak in a song or two from everyone—that’s pretty perfect,” he said. Twelve different bands played each day at The Blackheart bar. Each band had their own distinct sound from either grungy pop-rock to alternative folk ballads. Some of the bands included Charly Bliss, Swimming with Bears, Communist Daughter and Temples, who all performed on March 14.

The Blackheart’s backyard

Hanging out at The Blackheart’s backyard, I met up with McNally Smith College of Music students who came to SXSW as part of a music business class. Each student helped to set up the outdoor stage area. Millie Gibson is a vocalist and performer with a vocal major and a minor in business. “I came out here to venture opportunities and meet people and network,” she said. “I have never been to Austin or SXSW, so I thought it would be a really cool opportunity to go with my class and fellow peers and see what was out here.” According to Gibson, the attending SXSW is part of their class mandate. “When we come back from the trip, we are going to talk about our experience, what we learned, who we met and which shows we saw,” Gibson said.

Millie Gibson and Alex Sandberg, students from the McNally Smith College of Music, experiencing SXSW for the first time. Photo by Sandra Hercegova

Alyssia Kangas, is majoring in music business and, like most of her peers, this was her first time at SXSW. Kangas has been classically trained in music for the past nine years, she also enjoys jazz music. “I’m really excited to see Communist Daughter perform, I work at First Avenue bar in Minneapolis and I’ve seen them play there and they’re really good—I’m also excited to see Agnes Sobel, Delta Rae and Lincoln Durham which is an americana style band,” said Kangas. Alex Sandberg is an aspiring music promoter and photographer who is also majoring in music business. “I came here for networking. Communication is key—you’ve got to meet these people face to face and make a name for yourself,” said Sandberg.

The Concordian music editor Sandra Hercegova and singer-songwriter Mary Elizabeth Wachs hanging out at The Blackheart music bar.

I also spent some time with Mary Elizabeth Wachs, a passionate singer-songwriter. “I have a big heart, I have big dreams. Part of what drives me as a musician is that I want to be able to share my personal life story with as many people that I can,” Wachs said. Another student from the SXSW class was music business major and emcee, Alex Hall. He has been making hip-hop music for nine years. “Me and my old rap crew, we didn’t have a good business sense,” he said. “I decided that that’s the one thing that we were missing, so I’m going to learn more about it so that we can do music full-time,” Hall said. Each student had their own inspiring story, and they each expressed their delight at being at SXSW and how willing they are to make their musical goals come to life.


Charly Bliss at The Blackheart

First to perform on The Blackheart outdoor stage was pop-rock band Charly Bliss. They were hanging out by the stage before the show, so I passed by for a quick chat. The band had driven all the way from New York City to perform for the first time at SXSW. This four-piece pop punk-rockish band consists of lead singer and guitarist Eva Hendricks, Spencer Fox on guitar, Sam Hendricks on drums and Dan Shure on bass. “I think our music is very fun, it’s very poppy—we are influenced by pop and indie rock music,” Eva said.

From left to right, members of Charly Bliss: Eva Hendricks, Spencer Fox, Sam Hendricks and Dan Shure. Photo by Sandra Hercegova.

The band agreed that performing in Austin for SXSW is a right of passage. “You’ve got to do it once,” Fox said. The band will also be releasing their new album, Guppy, on April 21. All the band members pointed out that the album name was Fox’s idea. As they did, Fox put his hands on his cheeks, feigning innocence and gazing off into the distance “There’s an underdog-y feel to our band and our trajectory, and I feel like the title sums it up really nicely,” Eva said. Charly Bliss has been touring a lot lately—in fact, they played at Montreal’s Bar Le Ritz PDB back in January. “We are coming back in a couple of weeks,” Eva said. “We are playing with Operators in Montreal on April 1.” Charly Bliss then took centre stage and performed their first SXSW show with enthusiasm and high-energy. Few venues truly stand out and capture the vibrancy and energy of Austin during SXSW—The Blackheart is one of them.

Charly Bliss rocking out on stage as the opening act at The Blackheart bar. Photo by Sandra Hercegova

Nile Rodgers speaks to the souls of a million strangers

SXSW hosted a keynote panel with composer Nile Rodgers at the Austin Convention Center

“When I was younger, my jazz guitar teacher, who is the single greatest influence on me—other than Bernard Edwards—asked me one day why I was studying with him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m studying with you because I want to play at concerts, I want to make records, I want to compose, do big orchestral works and films.’ He said, ‘Really? Is that the only reason why?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Oh that’s no problem, you could easily do that.’ I said, ‘Wow, really? How? And he said, ‘Play better,’” said Nile Rodgers.

Nile Rodgers is a legendary Grammy award-winning composer, producer, arranger and guitarist. He has released numerous hit records over the last four decades. He has greatly influenced popular music—he has over 200 production credits to his name. Rodgers has produced hit records for David Bowie, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Maroon 5, Britney Spears, Sam Smith, Pharrell Williams, Daft Punk, Michael Jackson and many others. He is also the co-founder of CHIC, one of disco’s greatest bands. On March 15, Nile Rodgers held a keynote panel at the Austin Convention Center as part of the SXSW festival.

Singer-songwriter Mobley opened Nile Rodgers keynote panel with an energetic performance. Photo by Sandra Hercegova

The panel began with a performance from experimental pop singer-songwriter Mobley. Originally from Austin, Texas, Mobley opened with an energetic performance. He jumped high up on the stage and as he landed slammed on his drums. His high energy on stage, along with his talent, made for an unforgettable performance. Mobley will no doubt be a big star in the near future.

As Rodgers took to the stage, the press swarmed to the front row to get close-up shots of him. Rodgers began his speech by telling us anecdotes on how he discovered success in the music industry. “They told me that they wanted me to talk to you about discovery. ‘Really,’ I said. Discovery? My whole life has been about discovery,” Rodgers said.The musical legend began performing as a classical musician. “I played in the symphony orchestra at the various schools that I went to,” he said. Rodgers never touched a guitar until he was 15. “But I could read music pretty well,” he said. “This gave me a huge advantage—when I started playing guitar, I was a really good music reader from the jump. That helped in my career because guitar players are notoriously known as bad music readers, even though they are amazing players.”

In the 1970s, Rodgers’ got his first job working for the children’s television show, Sesame Street. “I auditioned—they wanted a kid who could read the music for ‘People in Your Neighborhood,’ and ’Rubber Duck,’” he said. Rodgers read the music charts during the audition and got the gig, which set him off on an immense journey of musical and personal discovery. “The great thing about music is that it’s probably just like the universe. We’re just like planetoids, asteroids, just out there spinning around and we’re bumping into stuff. And as we bump into stuff, our trajectory changes and that’s what happened to me,” Rodgers said.

It was in the early 70s, during his gig on Sesame Street that Rodgers met Bernard Edwards, who was a record producer, bass player, singer-songwriter and a fellow member of CHIC. “Bernard Edwards was amazing. He was such an incredible musician,” Rodgers said. “He had such a fine ear, and I decided that I wanted to go on the journey with him.” Rodgers then formed a band with Bernard Edwards called The Big Apple Band. Both Edwards and Rodgers also worked as back-up musicians for a vocal group called New York City. “We had one hit record called ‘I’m Doin’ Fine Now.’ It did well,” Rodgers said. Eventually, the band became The Jackson Five’s opening act, which solidified Rodgers’ lifelong friendship with Michael Jackson. “We became friends forever,” Rodgers said. “I kept bumping into all these wonderful people, and my life just kept expanding. I found that I wasn’t intimidated by stars. I was comfortable with them, and I had some kind of innate talent for being able to communicate with them,” he said.

Whether Rodgers is in the recording studio, conducting a symphony orchestra or producing music for multiple artists, all he wants to do is help as much as he can. “There’s a certain love that I have for that musician, for that situation, because I think that music is the voice that I speak with,” Rodgers said. “And when I am working for you, I try to help amplify your own voice. I try to help you become better than you were because that’s what my teacher used to always do to me.”

A great musical influence for Rodgers was his jazz tutor who tutored him when he was around 15 years old. “I just idealized this dude. He was incredible, such a great musician. His knowledge of harmony was just amazing—he taught me how to play that way. That’s the essence of my style,” he said.

During the panel, Rodgers told an anecdote about the day he complained to his jazz tutor about having to perform top 40 records during a show. “I’ve got to play these bullshit songs like, ‘sugar, sugar, ohhh honey honey’—it’s all lame stuff,” Rodgers said, recounting what he’d told his tutor. Rodgers said his jazz tutor answered that any song that sells and gets to the top 40, top 20 or top 10 is a great composition. Rodgers then asked him, “how can you call, “Sugar, Sugar” a great composition?” “And he said something that changed my life. He said, ‘Because it speaks to the souls of a million strangers.’” Rodgers said this quote was so profound to him. “I wanted to learn how to speak to the souls of a million strangers—it woke me up to the power of what we call pop music,” he said.


Bill Nye fights ignorance with reason in new doc

Bill Nye documentary takes a look at the scientist behind the TV persona

Bill Nye the Science Guy inspired a generation of children to pursue science and think critically about the world around them. He made topics that often appear dense and unappealing interesting to a general audience.

But who is Bill Nye? Who is this man who made topics like friction, gravity, chemistry and electricity palatable to elementary school students? Bill Nye: Science Guy, directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, takes a closer look at the man who made science fun.

Nye noticed in the 1990s that America had a bad relationship with science, and he wished to do something about it. Through his educational science show, he wanted to raise a generation of critical thinkers.

But the end of the show in 1998 left Nye in flux. He was struggling to find where he fit in the scientific community. Anti-scientific sentiment was still strong in America, with climate-change deniers disputing the established scientific consensus. Nye has made it his personal mission to counter the voices that are shaping a generation of scientifically illiterate children.

The film looks at how Nye challenges the core beliefs of science deniers by engaging in debates with them. He does this to try to bring awareness to the general community of climate-change deniers, and hopefully change their minds so they in turn can use their platforms to change the minds of others.

Nye struggled with his image as he attempted to transition from kid’s show host to reputable scientist. The documentary tackles who Nye really is, separating Bill Nye the character from Bill Nye the person.

For audiences familiar with Nye and his science show, Bill Nye: Science Guy is a documentary that allows a peek behind the curtain to see the real person behind the character, and explores where Nye ends and the Science Guy begins. It looks at how pained Nye is at the rising scientific illiteracy in America, and how he has made it his personal mission to turn it around and bring science back to the masses by eliminating one dissenting voice at a time through logic and the scientific method.

Bill Nye: Science Guy premiered at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas on Mar. 12.


Drawing a line between truth and fiction in marketing

Drib spins an original tale with a truthful core by embellishing the details

Amir Asgharnejad is a Norwegian Internet performance artist. Or, at least, that’s what he calls himself. He’s more of a provocateur who likes to see how far he can push boundaries.

His videos, in which he instigates physical conflicts with people who are usually much bigger and stronger than he is, typically end with him getting beaten and bloodied.

His Internet fame led to him being called by an advertising and marketing company to help promote Drib, an energy drink. Drib, directed and written by Kristoffer Borgli, tells the story of the events that followed. Facts and embellishments intermingle to create a hilarious docu-fiction that brings the audience right to the middle of the pretentious L.A. marketing world. The film premiered at the South by SouthWest Festival in Austin, Texas on March 12.

In the film, Asgharnejad, who plays himself, agrees to become a spokesperson for this international, American-based ad agency. To him, this becomes the stage for his next great performance. To them, it means capitalizing on the Internet trend of stupid stunts going viral. Their target market is boys aged 13 to 17, and they are positive that Amir holds the key to this demographic. Creative director Brady Thompson (Brett Gelman) has a vision for the energy drink campaign. Describing energy drinks as something that loosely keeps a balance between immortality and collapsing from exhaustion, he flies Asgharnejad over from Norway to take part in the project.

The film makes a farce of the marketing agency and the God complex of creative director Thompson, who keeps insisting Asgharnejad is not ‘part’ of the corporate world—his line of work just happens to be ‘in’ it.

The story is a meta-satirical analysis, poking fun at the unglamorous reality of marketing, but also poking fun at itself. It is a movie filming people filming people, told from Asgharnejad’s point of view. Because of this, there is a slight slant in the ridiculousness, as the characters involved are all over the top. The clients are hard to deal with. The actors are finicky. Thompson’s protectiveness over his creative work is overwhelming. Drib tries to not take itself too seriously, yet the ‘seriousness’ of the situation is what’s funny.

One of the challenges of the film was working with Asgharnejad—a point made clear by breaking the fourth wall to let the audience know. Whenever he felt Borgli’s vision was taking the film in a direction he didn’t agree with, Asgharnejad would improvise and change his lines or actions—the outtakes of which are included in the film. This makes Drib not only a movie about Asgharnejad’s experiences, but his stubbornness as well. It also serves to remind the viewer that, although the core story is true, there were creative licenses taken.

For more information on Drib, visit their website.

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