Disc-o-vering Jay: Odyssey’s Jay Fonacier

Local music retailing store stalwart Odyssey’s top guy Jay Fonacier shares his spin on life in the biz of trading tunes

On Work:

I juggle twenty things in a day, It’s my personality and also my skill, I wouldn’t be happy just doing one thing. I’m way too hands on. In fact I wish I were doing some work right now.

On Music:

I’m a real music guy, growing up I used to spend my entire allowance on records. The love of music keeps me going because retail is really challenging. You have to get fulfilment from hearing about new bands, going to concerts, and seeing hit artists fly off the shelves.

On the Digital Future:

Being a child of the 1980s I’m not totally digital yet, CDs are still my favored medium, But I have a kick-ass vinyl collection and I still have the mix tapes I made for high school girlfriends.

Besides piracy, our greatest challenge these days comes from digital downloads. We try to make the store and the products more attractive so people keep coming in. But I’ve been spending a lot of my time preparing for a digital future. We’re putting up our own download site and introducing these interactive digital kiosks into our stores. Now you can listen to an unlimited amount of music before you buy. It’s the start of an evolution to an age where everything’s more digital.

I look forward to a future where a customer would come in and he could browse through the whole catalog, choose whatever he wants, and we produce the CD for him. Since it’s all bits and bytes, it really does away with our problems regarding inventory. We could have a fantastic store where we just beam music into your portable music device.

Worst case: Nobody buys physical product anymore and they’re all downloading it for free. Nobody pays for anything digital

Best case: We’ll be there with the most popular format that the market consumes music and media in the future

On Piracy:

I think that the pirates have a pretty comprehensive offering. They’re quite creative and resourceful, I have to give them that. They have a good idea, it’s convenient. But we want to improve upon that, to offer something that’s more exciting, but legal. As the Philippine economy progresses, there should be less tolerance for piracy.

If I had my way I’d crush them under a steamroller with me driving while wearing a hardhat. They’re freaking playing dirty. I’d bury them under all the fake CDs they’ve produced. Or I’d force them to listen to really bad 1980s heavy metal, hairspray American guitar rock like Poison and Nelson.

On the Music Business:

The market is really primarily a hot hits market, it’s not very deep or into multiple genres. There are times when we tried all these titles, but they wouldn’t sell. We really have to focus on our high inventory, high turnover popular products.

A major record label may have a total of around 20 new releases out in a month, but they’ll only let 3 or 4 trickle down to the Philippine market, the rest will never hit our shores because of shipment issues. I’d like it to be more like the book industry where you can release a greater variety of material and see what really catches on. The bottleneck is the distribution policy of the major labels. Being able to release more product for the ears is what I’d really like to change.

We don’t have many niche radio stations. With the internet hopefully more people get to hear more kinds of music and the labels will be ok with trying out more vanguard, exotic titles and categories, and there’d be more radio stations for the independent listener. Hopefully they make it easy for us retailers to show them this variety. We’re only reacting to their policy that we have to keep it mainstream.

I’m happy with how some of these local indie record labels have been coming up. People have been asking after them. We want more bands of that ilk to succeed.

When there’s a certain title we really want to push, we’ll rack it out and make sure that even a blind person won’t be able to not check it out. Sometimes we’ve been successful.

You gotta support local artists. There’s this whole OPM resurgence. People think that these corporate juggernauts make so much money but that’s not really true. These guys take a lot of risks, I respect what they do. They take a bet on twenty artists and only a couple will bear fruit. Digital sort of takes out the risk in that. It’s important to show bands our support through legal means, whether physical or digital. If you guys love your music you should take a stand. Keep the ecosystem going.

Profits aside, if I could go crazy I’d just stock the stores with so many genres. Let them be a place where anybody could come in, from the coolest Brit bands to all these Brazilian samba labels. I’ll just pack them in with everything, with something for everyone.

-interview by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manual magazine, 2007

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Crash Chords: Driving Beats (music to travel to)

Interstate Love Song

Interstate Love Song (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this age where dubbing mix tapes has been largely usurped by burning mix CDs which is gradually being supplanted by composing MP3 playlists, it’s easier than ever to cook up a tailor-fit musical program to suit every activity. There’s little better than going all meta while on a road trip, plane ride or boat voyage and listening to songs about modes of transportation and travel destinations. There are old, reliable chestnuts like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or “Get Here” (lyrically they’re practically the same song), “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane”, “Sailing”, or “Ocean Deep”; the usual FM radio suspects such as Sheryl Crow’s “Everyday is a Winding Road” or Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song”; Heavy Metal spark plugs like AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”, Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights”, and Steppenwolf’s hog-rider anthem “Born To Be Wild”; or country classics like Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway”.

Hardcore travelers may choose to ditch the tunes and concentrate on the native sounds of their chosen location. But there are sure to be instances where cocooning one’s self in music, ANY music, will be much more preferable to snores or vapid chatter.

As far as I’m concerned, travel music has to be non-nauseating, non-irritating, and non-repetitive. You do NOT want to suffer from Last Song Syndrome while in transit. Nor do you want to develop a headache or a hard-on. So thematically, it’s best to stick to geography and commuting to keep your mind out of the gutter and in the right groove.

Deutsch: Logo

Deutsch: Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To set the scene, it’s useful to look to the continental landmarks such as “Africa”, Toto’s number one 1983 hit about their safari-slash-spirit-quest on the Dark Continent. Appropriately enough, this song was included in the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Then there’s Men At Work’s 1982 wonder “Land Down Under”, which I think lay the groundwork for our future tolerance of Crocodile Dundee, Russell Crowe, and the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Folk icons Simon and Garfunkel are both patriotic and pensive in “America” their dramatic ballad to Western wanderlust. Paul Simon was also later inspired by that enduring mecca of musical Americana with “Graceland”.

The band named America on the other hand, burst onto the scene with “Ventura Highway” the lead track and first single from their aptly titled album Homecoming.  As recounted by composer Dewey Bunnell, the song is about leaving, escaping the cold Omaha winters by moving to California.

Artwork for Michigan by Sufjan Stevens

Artwork for Michigan by Sufjan Stevens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In terms of geographical ambition though, Sufjan Stevens just can’t be topped. With plans to come up with an album for each of the 50 United States, Stevens started off with Michigan, a collection of folk songs, instrumentals, and odes to the cities and landmarks of his home state that is loaded with vivid imagery, characters, and sentiments on faith, humanity, and hope for the future. Illinois explored even weightier subjects, including such native sons as serial killer John Wayne Gacy and poet Carl Sandburg, and ended up as one of the most highly acclaimed and awarded independent albums of 2005. Up next, fans are speculating between Oregon, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Arkansas on the Sufjan state list.

Across the pond, Scottish band Ballboy penned the glorious strings-and-spoken-word piece “A Europewide Search For Love”. Set to swooning cellos and a shuffling beat, we hear front man Gordon McIntyre speak-singing verses such as “someone once told me ‘the world is moving because you are’, and tonight there are people travelling through Europe on trains, looking for something that they’ve never had before, wondering if they’ll find it and if they’ll recognise it if they do” in a warm Scottish burr that makes you want to line up for tickets to the Trans-Siberian railroad post-haste.

A personal favorite, the criminally underappreciated The Wedding Present, produced Mini – an EP celebrating the Michelin lifestyle, sort of like a more muscular and masculine musical version of Stanley Donen’s “Two for the Road”. Mini contains songs bearing such titles as “Drive”, “Convertible”, and “Sports Car”. These naughty rock confections feature enough fun raspy engine noises to get one’s motor running and drive purring. The Weddoes’ most recent album, Take Fountain, was greatly inspired by front man David Gedge’s own transatlantic/transcontinental romance thus featuring tracks like the jangly “Ringway to Sea-Tac”, the dense epic “Interstate 5”, and the bouncy “I’m from Further North Than You” (formerly entitled Edinburgh).

On the OPM front, we can always hum “Tayo na sa Antipolo” while taking Ortigas Extension or belt Sampaguita’s “Laguna” as we cruise down SLEX. Just a parting suggestion, if ever The Amazing Race producers were to look for a new song to base the show’s theme on, may I respectfully propose the Flaming Lips’ “Race For The Prize”?

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published under music column Crash Chords in Manual magazine, 2006

Let It Rip

Compact Disc Logo

Any audiophile will tell you that original audio CDs will always sound better than compressed music. And yet the proliferation of digital music players requires us to sacrifice quality for convenience. However, there are ways to squeeze out every last bit of fidelity from your music in the transition from disc to file.

You don’t need to have a golden ear to appreciate the difference between a badly ripped, poorly encoded file from one that was more carefully produced. For the best possible results, you don’t even need expensive or bloated software, just a few well-honed, lean and mean freeware tools. CD Ripping might be one of the more common tasks performed on PCs these days, but not everyone may be aware that not all CD rippers are created equal. At the very least, you should make sure that the program you are using has some form of error correction to prevent unwanted skips or pops.

Exact Audio Copy Icon

Exact Audio Copy Icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Exact Audio Copy  or EAC (www.exactaudiocopy.org) is widely recognized as one of the best audio extraction programs. Using an advanced reading technique called secure mode, EAC is able to recover audio data that other programs may discard.

The popular CDex (cdexos.sourceforge.net) also has a Paranoia mode that adds an extra level of error checking to compensate for defects on the CD.

And for iPod users, Apple’s inimitable  iTunes (http://www.apple.com/itunes) also has an error correction mode for importing CD audio tracks.

Vorbis Logo

Vorbis Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For convenience, you should generally rip to the format which most of your devices can play. But while MP3 may be the undisputed leader in terms of compatibility, it definitely lags behind in quality and compressibility. More advanced codecs like Apple’s AAC (the preferred format for iPods and the iTunes music store), Microsoft’s WMA (integrated with Windows Media Player and a wide range of products and services) and the open source Ogg Vorbis (gaining ground among more manufacturers like iRiver, Rio, and Neuros) all offer better-sounding music at smaller file sizes. Aside from ripping to uncompressed WAV files, you can install plug-ins into both EAC and CDex that enable them to encode directly into either MP3 and Ogg Vorbis among other formats. Naturally, Windows Media Player defaults to WMA, while iTunes encourages using AAC.

FLAC logo

FLAC logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For music archiving, you may also consider using a lossless codec that doesn’t toss out any audio data, such as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec, or Monkey’s Audio). While these codecs work on fewer portable players, they do shrink files up to 4 times smaller with absolutely no quality loss, and you can easily play them on your PC or media center. Both AAC and WMA also have their respective lossless flavors.

But if you want to stick to good old MP3, then you really need to use the LAME encoder to get the best results. LAME properly supports VBR (Variable Bit Rate) encoding, and is constantly under development by dedicated audiophiles.

As to what bit rate one should rip to, higher is indisputably better, but your mileage may vary. For MP3, 128 kbps has long been used as a standard, but you really need to use at least 192 kbps to avoid getting nasty-sounding artifacts. Over 256 kbps, and any improvement in quality is negligible. Using a more advanced codec, you can go as low as 64 kbps and still get acceptable results, although 192 kbps will sound like CD quality for most people.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in PC Mag Philippines, 2005. 

Original Pilipino Music’s Bright Spot

first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

One word to describe Christine Bendebel’s house is bright, bright with color, and bright with the light of many suns. The award-winning composer of hits for Regine Velasquez, Ariel Rivera, Rachel Alejandro, Jamie Rivera, Jaya, and Martin Nievera usually shares the cheerful space with her mom and her sister’s family, while her dad and brothers are frequent visitors and habitual tenants. The close-knit Bendebel family divides its time (and family members) between Mandaluyong and Cebu. Their cozy Mandaluyong compound resounds with the antics of her pets Diana, Whoopie, and Pusing, and her nephew, Jarrod. Their quirky sala is anchored by their beloved pianoforte and two sinuous sofas in salmon and yellow. An old wooden trunk acts as a coffee table, and an immense ceramic elephant serves as a telephone stand. The most intense space in the house though has to be the psychedelic kitchen, painted in neon colors dazzling enough to cook food and cause seizures.

Upon entering Christine’s domain, the solar motif is inescapable. The sun shines down from her cabinets and walls, even her electric fan has a sunray centerpiece. Christine gathered the pieces for her sunny collection from Vigan, Baguio, and Cebu. Scattered among the sunspots is an eclectic collection of knickknacks, her favorite piece being a miniature mask with musical notes gracing its frilly collar and peaked cap, a friend’s gift from Turkey. Her vividly patterned curtains match her sheets because they used to belong to the same set, but after a bit of creative alteration, they now also cover her windows aside from her bed. From the cherubs peeking in through the window to the maps that tile the floor, her room never lacks for visual stimulation, all the better to stir the creative juices.

Tucked away at the back of their house is Christine’s music studio. A sign proclaiming “tunesmith” greets you at the door underneath a Zagu lightbox, and a license plate saying “songwriter” perches on top of her computer monitor alongside assorted cartoon characters. One wall is completely taken up by rows of cassette tapes. If you wonder where all the CDs are, Christine admits that she mostly skipped the CD-buying stage and went straight from cassettes to MP3s. A cabinet top is laden with all her plaques and trophies from various songwriting competitions and award-giving bodies. The walls are peppered with Christine’s stamp collection, sheet music, posters, prints, photos, calendars, and collages. A Picasso fan, Christine has several framed reproductions of his works scattered about, and even has one of his sketches patching over the hole of her exhaust fan. The studio also acts as a mini-museum for her family’s small collection of vintage cameras and recording equipment.

Christine’s has been making melodies ever since she can remember. “Since elementary school, I was already known in my school for songwriting. I continued doing it all through high school and college. I got my start from Ronnie Henares, he was the one who chose my material for Regine Velaquez. Actually I first submitted songs for Janno Gibbs, I didn’t know Regine yet then, she was still Chona Velasquez. When they heard the songs I submitted, they got interested and Ronnie called me. He said that he wanted to use my songs for Chona. I asked,’Who’s Chona?’ She would turn out to be Regine,” recalls Christine. The songs and the singer turned out to be a perfect match, and it didn’t take long for both of their budding talents to be recognized.

“In a way Urong Sulong and Kung Maibabalik were breakthrough songs for both of us. Since then, the record companies started calling me already. After that, I only got to work with Regine again after 6 years for her Christmas album.”

Like all composers, Christine continues to pursue the elusive goal of a hit song. “Now I want to have a new hit. I never stop writing but it’s really hard to make a hit. Which is why I truly admire Vehnee Saturno, because even if he disappears for a while, when he comes back, he has a hit right away. He really knows the feel of the masa.” Among foreign songwriters, she looks up to Diane Warren for her seemingly effortless ability to pen hit after hit.

All the new uses other people appear to find for her old songs never fail to amaze her. “Undoubtedly my biggest hit is “Kung Maibabalik Ko Lang”. Up to this day, just yesterday, I have people negotiating with me so that they can use it again. They go on using it for TV, VCDs, DVDs, Magic Mike, and ring-tones.” She admits to being very appreciative of the income she gets from these workhorses of hers. “It’s great if you have a lot of hits, you can just relax. Like last year, I was able to rest a bit. There wasn’t a lot of pressure to come up with new songs. With the money I made, I could take a break.”

And yet her most successful songs aren’t necessarily the ones she’s most proud of. “Of the songs that were released, my favorite is “I Still Believe In Love”, which I wrote for Jaya. It was released as a single, but didn’t become a big hit. I also did a song for Ariel Rivera entitled “In My Life”. That’s also a good song,” she discloses. “But basically the songs of mine that I really like haven’t been released yet. It’s really hard to market those songs because they’re not the type that sell here. I feel that I’ve grown somehow, that I can’t go on writing the jukebox-type songs anymore. But I still enjoy it, so I still go on writing.”

Jingles, she says, are where the money is at. “But if I’m not working directly for a client, they can be a headache. Because if you go through an advertising agency you have to go past all these people who are supposed to approve your jingle. So you can be ok for the first two stages, then in the end you’re out.” Christine has done jingles for such corporate giants as Palmolive, San Miguel Beer, Purefoods, Triple V, and Kodak. Because of the ubiquity of her commercial work, she gets to hear her music in the most unlikely places. “I did the theme for the Sta. Lucia Mall. So it’s very familiar among those who live in Cainta and Antipolo. I was surprised once when I heard some kids singing the jingle. I asked them why they were singing it, and it turned out that they were from Cainta.”

Tune-smithing isn’t all fun and financial gain, she explains. “The competition is very tough when submitting songs for an album. Sometimes, there are 50, even 80, of you competing and only 12 or 14 songs will be included. So every time there’s an album, that’s what we songwriters have to go through, unless maybe you’re really asked to do a particular project. Like what I did for Jamie Rivera’s Seasons album, every month has a different occasion and I was assigned to do the father’s day song. That was a good project.”

Christine believes that the talent for songwriting is a blessing, and one has to be grateful for every break that comes your way. “You’re not always sure where your income will be coming from. When you feel that your funds are about to be depleted, you just have to write and submit your songs again. But before I get to that stage I have to go through a lot, writing songs everyday, because here in the Philippines you need to be prolific if you really want to earn. Unlike abroad, one big hit and you’re set. Over here, Vehnee Saturno and Odette Quesada are already like that. They just continue to write songs because they enjoy it. But sometimes you can’t help but get the urge to write“.

She encourages all those who feel they have it in them to try their hand at it. “It’s a good career as long as you set your heart into it. I didn’t have any equipment before. I’d just play on my guitar and piano. To make my demos I’d have to hide inside the cabinet to get some quiet. Those starting to write songs now are really lucky because we now have computers. But you really have to love what you’re doing. If you do it’s impossible for you not to break into the industry because it’s really small. So if you really want to write, it’s really fast. If you’re really serious about songwriting you’re sure to get somewhere. Maybe it’s easy for me because I’m not supporting a family so I don’t have a lot of problems.”

She reveals that the business of writing love songs has its own share of heartbreak. “There are also a lot of heartaches in this industry. There are intrigues and politics. Everybody knows each other. I’ve been in the business for the past 17 years so I’m used to it. I remember in my early years if the singer didn’t thank me, or I was left out of the recording, I’d feel really hurt. You find out that someone is using your song without your knowledge, and it’s almost like stealing. These days, I don’t mind anymore, because now I look at my songs here as material for my demos abroad.” Christine has already managed to get her food in the door to the bigger foreign markets. “Last year and in 2001, I had a few recordings in Taiwan, not for F4, but another band named IPIS. They used a few songs of mine and translated them to Mandarin. Up to now I’m still trying to get into the US market.”

Christine declares that she can get her inspiration from anything, from movies, and from friends who talk about their relationships and romantic escapades. “Urong-Sulong” is a true story, what the song says really happens. I had a classmate in college who didn’t know if he should ask me out. It was embarrassing when the song became a hit because he knew that it was about him. “Kung Maibabalik Ko Lang”, was inspired by a movie, that’s all I’m going to say. I can also get inspiration from my nephew Jarrod, my pets, my family, but mostly from my friends.”

Christine is currently in a curious stage of her long and fruitful career. “I haven’t written any new songs in a while. Now I just get songs from my stockpile and recycle them. It’s because I have a feeling that there I already have too many songs that haven’t been marketed. So now I’m concentrating on marketing the songs I’ve already written, and I’m taking a break from songwriting creation.”

Her participation in an international competition is what Christine considers to be her biggest achievement. “100 songwriters competed, 15 got in, then I was the one chosen to compete for the Philippines. That was the highlight of my career, to get into an international competition, and winning.” But Christine’s best work may still be ahead of her, and she’s already sitting on a treasure trove of unreleased material. Good songs never go out of style, and sometimes time is all it takes for underappreciated gems to get a second chance. As the world of popular music pushes onward in its never-ending cycle of hits and misses, Christine is rolling right along and enjoying the ride.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

Crash Chords: Do You Hear What I Hear?

Christmas-time cues the start of the sonic parade of nonstop carol medleys, sentimental wishing-you-were-here ballads, and religious hymns. It takes some effort to find something on the air that doesn’t sound like it’s being spewed by a perky elf, homesick OFW, or sanctimonious choirboy. During this most frenetic of seasons, ironically there’s a dearth of music to chill out too, or any tunes that just sound cool. This is supposed to be the time of Siberian winds and cold snaps and winter wonderlands (either real, imagined, or simulated) and yet the airwaves all seem to want to keep the sap-o-meter at a nice tepid level. Well, freeze that. Keep your stereo system frostily aloof by shunning those overcooked standards and reheated favorites. Crank up these CDs (or compressed audio files) and drown out the noise of the neighborhood kids and the neighborhood malls that are all just caroling and clamoring for your money anyway.

takk

takk (Photo credit: 1541)

While not exactly having anything to do with the Baby Jesus and Santa Claus, the Icelandic group Sigur Ros’ third album, Takk, can almost make you hear the finger of God stirring up the heavens as he tinkers with the Northern Lights. Takk’s soundscapes flow like a glacier surging past fjords and icebergs. Takk makes us feel the raw yearning of a land defined by ice and frost. It’s like they’ve adapted the better parts of the novel “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” into an avant-garde musical.

Lead singer Jonsi’s chilling falsetto soars over notes of frozen glory, moaning and sighing as if he were the spawn of a Christmas elf and an archangel deep in the throes of orgasm (or dying of hypothermia). With song lyrics written in the mostly-made-up language of ‘Hopelandic’, he could actually be saying “deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la la la la la” for all we know, but the swirling crescendos make it all sound so magnificently grand and profound. It’s best to listen to this record while the temperatures are still low, it just might melt in the summer heat.

The Hague Jazz 2009 - Rod McKuen

The Hague Jazz 2009 – Rod McKuen (Photo credit: Haags Uitburo)

Rod McKuen‘s carols are nothing new or groundbreaking. To most modern listeners, they’d come off as quaintly old-fashioned, but in a good way. In the right mood, his songs can both soothe and charm. Rod speak-sings in a deep, velvety sigh that we Pinoys would characterize as “malamig at suave” (cool and smooth), quite an antidote to the overproduced treacly pap that usually fills the Christmas CD sale bins. Just left of folk, drifting slightly towards ballad territory, and very easy on the ears, Mckuen’s Christmas album presents some songs that are sad, some that are upbeat, but each one lyrically deep. His compositions have the tendency to borrow grace notes from classics like Pachelbel’s Canon or to erupt into delightful instrumental interludes. These are carols you can kick back, sit down, and sip hot chocolate to without having to turn your brain off.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Photo credit: James Marvin Phelps)

For more recognizable Christmas music interpreted in an extraordinary style, check out the Trans-Siberian Orchestra‘s rock opera trilogy. This ambitious and complex work tells the story of heaven’s youngest angel called back to earth to continue Jesus’ unfinished work. This time he has to help redeem not only Christmas, but the soul of humankind itself.

Straddling the borders of rock opera, progressive rock, and New Age music, these aren’t your typical Christmas albums. But then, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra just happens to be the alter ego of Savatage, a band known for building on high concepts and complex arrangements, raising them far above the limits of ordinary creativity.

Most of the tracks consist of walls of sound constructed from a mortar of electric guitar, synthesizers, choirs, and drums. Hard and heavy power chords crash into gentle piano or delicate classical guitar melodies. Just when all the bombast starts to get overwhelming, the band intersperses a few peaceful passages featuring vocal or instrumental solos. The effect is sublime but not sentimental, ingenuous but not affected, all in all a very Christmassy contradiction.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published under music column Crash Chords in Manual magazine, 2005

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