Version / Aversion

Cover versions are always tricky – for some fans, the thought of another artist messing about with a song by their favourite singer can come across as sacrilege; for many others, a cover version can bring to their attention music that they might never otherwise hear. At their best, cover versions can reveal unfamiliar elements in a familiar song, uncover hidden depths, and add an extra dimension to established work. At their worst, cover versions are simply pedestrian, lazy reworks, or mere replicas (slavish copies). Many renditions veer on karaoke or like those over-hyped performances (which are inflicted on an undeserving public courtesy of “reality” shows such as The Voice, Pop Idol and The X Factor), they seem mainly designed to demonstrate vocal gymnastics, rather than exploring the essence of a song. Far from making an iconic song their “own”, the performer ends up with a Xerox facsimile.

ABC Triple J’s “Like A Version” veers between true inspiration and mere replication….

Our preferences for particular cover versions (even over the originals) are purely subjective. The other night I was at a small social gathering, and the host started playing Frank Sinatra’s version of “Mack The Knife”, a recording from late in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ career. Hearing it for the first time, I recognised the song and the singer, but not this rendition. My own reference for this particular arrangement of the Weill/Brecht standard is probably Bobby Darin – but he was following in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong who first brought the song into the Top 40. Perhaps if I had heard Sinatra’s version first, would that be my reference point?

There are probably lots of songs we all know by way of cover versions, rather than the original. Which is understandable. First, in jazz, country and blues, of course, standards and evergreens are the staples of many a repertoire. Second, in pop music of the 1950s and 60s, multiple versions of the same song (usually written by jobbing song writers, rather then by established performers) would be released, often at the same time, to cater for different markets. But in both these categories, these are not so much cover versions as different interpretations – which is not quite the same thing, in my view.

What draws me to a particular cover version tends to be one or other of the following factors: first, what prompted or inspired the artist to record their own version? second, does the new recording bring an unfamiliar artist to my attention, that I then end up exploring further? third, how does the cover version interpret a well-known number, beyond replicating it?

Here are three examples of cover versions, whose original recordings were unknown to me when I first heard them, and which remain my reference points for these songs – but they have also prompted me to explore the original artists’ back catalogue:

  1. “Song to the Siren”, written by Tim Buckley, as recorded by This Mortal Coil
  2. “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, written by Sly & The Family Stone, as recorded by Magazine
  3. “My Funny Valentine”, the Rodger & Hart evergreen, as recorded by Elvis Costello (who was referencing Chet Baker’s version)

In contrast, here are three recordings of songs which I love, but I hate these interpretations, because, as happens with many cover versions, they do not add anything, or they are poor replicas, or the vocal interpretations are simply out of kilter:

  1. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, written by Joy Division, and bludgeoned by Paul Young
  2. “Ziggy Stardust”, written by David Bowie, and made soulless by Bauhaus
  3. “Hallelujah”, written by Leonard Cohen, and rendered overwrought and histrionic by Jeff Buckley (sometimes less is more – as demonstrated by John Cale’s majestic and elegiac interpretation, recorded a few years before Buckley brought out his version)

Of course, a good song will generally shine through, regardless of performer, style or arrangement – revealing itself to be a perennial work of art. A few random examples:

  1. “Computer Love”, originally by Kraftwerk, but turned into a laid back, disco-style torch song that manages to bring warmth and humanity to an electronic classic by Glass Candy
  2. “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, a classic ballad by The Smiths, yet when rendered as “The Light 3000” by Schneider TM & Kptmichigan, it becomes a mournful song of love, loss and regret that could easily have been performed by HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey”
  3. “She’s Lost Control”, Joy Division’s post-punk anthem, given a reggae makeover by Grace Jones that works because it sounds like Ms Jones could easily be singing about herself in the third person…

But for all my reservations, cover versions do have their place. If it wasn’t for This Mortal Coil, I wouldn’t have heard Big Star’s “Third” album; if not for Nick Cave’s “Kicking Against The Pricks” album (which at the time, set off a trend for tribute and covers albums – with varying results…), I’m not sure I would have encountered much of his own music; and without Robert Wyatt’s series of cover versions in the early 1980s, I probably wouldn’t have been as engaged by or aware of the music of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis or even Chic….

Next week: Startupbootcamp – Melbourne FinTech Demo Day

Antler Virtual Demo Day

As with other virtual demo days I have attended this year, it was remarkable to hear how far the teams in Antler’s Sydney Cohort #3 had progressed in light of the current pandemic and associated lock-down restrictions.

Each participating team was categorised into an industry sector:

Consumer Tech

Remote Social is designed to connect remote and hybrid teams. The ethos is that with the shift in working patterns (heightened by the current pandemic) corporate culture and organisational engagement are “at risk”. The solution aims to foster socialisation and build culture through curated games and activities. Claiming to have generated over 200 organic signups, including team members at big tech brands, the founders are adopting a “bottom, land and expand” customer acquisition strategy. In addition to a seat-based subscription model, the platform will also offer a revenue share for marketplace providers.

Coder One claims to be “the home for AI sports”. The team describe their project as an API platform for AI games, with unique combination of AI and e-sports. The goal is to make AI and programming more accessible via an AI Sports League, where bots compete, programmed by developers. With more than 250 registrations for an upcoming competition, the team are also looking to secure sponsorship deals. The commercial model has three components: free access to programs for developers, individual subscription fees to access games/tournaments, and corporate fees to access talent for potential recruitment.

Feather is an online platform which enables instructors and creators to deliver and monetise their digital services. According to the founders, existing tools are not fit for purpose, complex or clunky. Initially targeting yoga teachers, the solution will sell tiered subscriptions, plus take a small revenue share. The team also see themselves as part of the “creator economy”, but I was confused by the name – is it a deliberate attempt to suggest a link to Dumbo Feather magazine? Plus, there was some feedback that the platform may be vulnerable once tools like Zoom start putting up more pay walls.

Tactiq is a tool to “capture valuable insights from remote meetings”. The founders claim it can be used with any conferencing software, and is platform agnostic (although currently limited to a Google Meet via a Chrome Extension). The product, essentially “speech to text plus”, also generates AI assisted summaries, and the team has attracted over 100,000 users from around 4,500 organisations. Pricing is $9 per user per month, plus $20 per month to access team functionality. While the team appears to know and understand their target users, they were questioned about privacy and security issues. Although the transcription content is not stored on the platform, my experience of other similar tools is that once they are integrated, they have a tendency to “take over” and insert themselves, unprompted, into e-mail and calendar applications – “you seem to have a meeting now – would you like me to record it?”

SaaS

Upflowy wants to help B2B companies improve their customer conversion rates. Intended to be a “no-code” sign-up engine, the team explained that from their experience, in-house developers tend to focus on product features, rather than improving the sign-up experience. Typically, in-house sign-up optimisation is slow, expensive or totally non-existent – the key issues being scaleability and reliability. Essentially a form builder, the solution enables A/B testing, and claims to deliver a 40% improvement in conversion rates (compared to 17% improvement achieved with other optimization tools).

Flow of Work Co is positioning itself as the “Future of Work SaaS”. With a mission to help companies to retain the best people, it is HR tech using AI in the form of a smart matching engine to identify in-house talent, based on proprietary ontology. It also helps employees to find development resources, as well as to match projects with in-house talent. According to the founders, talented staff leave because they are bored or lack career development. With an initial focus on software companies, the team then plans to tackle the financial services sector. The team was asked about integration with existing HR tech stacks, and how they ensure objective assessment of competing project candidates – but it wasn’t so clear how they achieve either.

Portant is an end-to-end project reporting tool, designed to be a “consolidated single source of truth”. Asked why existing project management tools don’t work, the founders identified a number of factors: teams are using different tools, the process is often repetitive and/or highly manual, or project tracking typically relies on data from different sources. The team have launched an MVP on Google Workspace Marketplace, and will soon launch on Microsoft AppSource (and appears to use AWS Comprehend as the analytical tool?). There is an SaaS pricing model, and content privacy is ensured via end-to-end encryption plus the use of private keys.

StackGo helps clients achieve stronger B2B sales via SaaS marketplaces, rather than relying on direct sales. However, the initial setup costs and effort required to connect to existing SaaS marketplaces can be daunting. With an approach based on “build once, deploy many”, StackGo enables users to connect to multiple SaaS marketplaces via a single solution. However, the team, did not explain what the setup costs are for StackGo nor were they very specific about the price range or typical sales value their clients achieve – “free to hundreds of dollars per month”.

EdTech

GradVantage wants to reduce the cost of getting graduates job ready, and reckons it can save employers $30k per new hire. Offering a personalised learning experience for each user, the founders have adopted a “Slack” model – team first, then enterprise sale. Acknowledging that the EdTech sector is crowded, the team think their point of differentiation is the fact that they are a career-entry solution, and not in the K-12 market. The focus is on tech talent and SaaS vendors. Employers pay per learner, and the platform saves time and reduces on-boarding costs. Typically, 30% of program content is about tech applications, and 70% on how to use the tech. A more fundamental issue is the huge gap between university courses and actual job requirements.

HealthTech

eQALY is an integrated tech platform that enables the elderly to achieve a higher quality of life in their own home, by predicting their individual needs in advance, and identifying the right Home Care Package funding (which can be worth up to $26k). Using 360 degree data inputs, a risk model, and a proactive care plan, the product takes into account client needs as well as family concerns, plus financial considerations. Although the aged care industry is regarded as being slow to adopt new technology, the founders plan to focus on aged care organisations, who will then distribute predictive data and analytics to care providers and managers. The platform is tech agnostic but IoT devices, AI tools and virtual assistants can be integrated, plus new voice analysis technology is emerging that can monitor client well-being, and
all of the activity monitoring tech is passive. meaning the end user does not have to worry about learning new applications.

Retail and E-Commerce

The One Two is a very specific, and very targeted, D2C solution offering a hyperpersonalised service for fitting and buying bras. According to the founders, current customer experience suffers from ill-fitting products, poor product design, bad materials, and inadequate size configurations. As a result, customers feel overwhelmed and give up. The basic product IP has been tested, along with an on-line measuring and fitting tool, combining to provide better customer diagnosis and product tips. The team have already secured a startup partnership with a global lingerie manufacturer and distributor.

m8buy did not make much sense to me. Maybe I’m the wring demographic, but why would anyone want to “shop online with [their] friends”? Describing itself as “a social layer on any e-commerce store”, it feels like this is aimed at the “buy now, pay later” audience.
According to the founders, merchants will only pay a commission (“low single digit %”?) on successful sales. But it’s not clear whether this is a group buying service, a discount marketplace, or a loyalty programme, nor how it will be differentiated within the Shopify marketplace.

PropTech

Sync Technologies is a digital solution for construction industry – with the tag line of “turning data into insights”. The problem being addressed can be summarised as follows: 1) Building
sites are fragmented and complex 2) Progress reporting and bottleneck identification is poorly done 3) 12% of a typical job has to be reworked 4) 80% of projects are late and/or run over budget. Using a digital twin concept, the solution aims to provide a “single source of truth”, and the team are already working with some key firms, and have 2021 forecast revenue of $2m.
Key obstacles to overcome are entrenched on-site behaviours, and slow the tech adoption across so many stakeholders in the construction industry. The founders claim to have identified the solution via their Construction Assistance System which offers better project and status visualisation via the digital twin.

Next week: Version / Aversion

Coming out of our shells

As we gradually emerge from 3 months of lock-down in Melbourne, there is a noticeable level of unease and anxiety about going shopping, sitting in cafes and restaurants, joining outdoor gatherings, and simply being out and about again. Many people are understandably exercising a degree of caution when it comes to interacting with members of the public. One of my friends describes this as “FOGO” – Fear Of Going Out.

The need for the Stage 4 lock-down (one of the longest and severest in the world) was largely the result of failures in the local hotel quarantine programme, and the consequent community transmission. It has been a long journey back to opening up, with a few speed humps along the way. Apart from a few objectors and dissenters, Melburnians by and large were happy to comply with the lock-down regulations, given their undoubted success in reducing the number of new cases. This was especially so when comparing our local situation with the second and third waves in other parts of the world.

I must admit to being wary when I see people not wearing masks in public, given that this measure (which I believe should have been introduced during the first wave back in March) has been a significant factor in reducing the rate of transmission. Even though, as from this week, masks are no longer mandatory outdoors (but will continue to be required indoors (shops, cinemas, etc.) and on public transport, I will continue to be on my guard. If people get offended at that, then all I can say is they don’t know where I have been, and I don’t know where they have been – I’m not yet willing to trust everyone on face value. (Reference the recent problems of people lying about their exact whereabouts during contact tracing.)

The general willingness to comply with the lock-down measures, and the resulting public wariness about opening up again, prompted my significant other to describe this as a form of Stockholm Syndrome. We have become conditioned to our circumstances, even against our own will or inclinations, and continue to act in lock-down mode (social distancing, self-isolating, avoiding public gatherings) despite the lifting of restrictions. I know from the few social engagements I have had over the past couple of weeks, including with family members and long-standing friends, there is some awkwardness in greetings and face to face interactions as we become accustomed to COVID-Safe etiquette.

There is also the challenge of re-entry as we emerge from lock-down. When the first lock-down was eased in June, notwithstanding the partial relaxation, I continued to maintain my distance. I anticipated that some people would over-compensate and even go overboard in their rush to “get back on the beers”, and start socialising again in large numbers. It felt like people forgot that as with deep-sea diving, if you don’t decompress gradually, you can get the bends. That’s what appears to have happened in a number of the hot-spots which led to the second wave, as evidenced by significant transmission rates in domestic settings.

One podcast I heard recently was recorded by an academic who studies people working in long periods of isolation (Antarctica, Space Station). A key part of her research is in helping them to re-adjust to their new environment as they emerge back into the community. So we in Melbourne will need to keep re-calibrating over the coming months as we establish a balance between comfort and caution.

As we head into the summer holidays, the next challenge for many employers and their staff will be in going back to the office, once the “work from home directive” is lifted.

Next week: Antler Virtual Demo Day

Is the Party over?

In the wake of allegations and revelations concerning election shenanigans, branch stacking, dodgy donations, and other improper behaviour by MPs, our trust in the democratic process is being severely challenged.

At the heart of the democratic process are the core principles of universal suffrage, and the open nomination and free election of individual candidates. However, in reality, it’s the party system that gets people elected, even though political parties are not mentioned in the Australian Constitution.

Thanks to factional disputes, evidence of corruption and general party machinations, I don’t believe voters are being well-served by their elected representatives. The highly partisan nature of party politics is making it increasingly difficult to build consensus or build inclusive, progressive and sustainable policy outcomes – even within the same party!

At the risk of making a huge generalisation, the problem I have with most politicians is that they have to play the party game in order to get selected, elected and re-elected. Thus they are overly beholden to the party that “backs” them (factional elements and all) rather than the electorates they purport to represent.

Look what happened to both Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull during their (brief) terms as Prime Minister: neither had a sufficient power base in their respective parties that they could rely on for support. (Both essentially came unstuck on energy and climate policies. And interesting to note that despite their differences whilst in office, they seem to have found a modicum of mutuality around media ownership – and I’m sure they agree on a whole lot more, they just aren’t allowed to admit it in public.)

Also, it’s a paradox that once elected (especially to leadership roles) most politicians seem to lose the power of natural speech. Instead, they feel compelled to use tortuous and convoluted verbiage to avoid saying what they actually think, because the internal logic and policy constraints of party-think over-rules common sense.

Over the years, I’ve heard various politicians speaking at first hand at non-party and non-Parliamentary events, including Keating, Hockey, Tanner, Turnbull, and Morrison. As a general observation, they are far more engaging, authentic and sincere when they are away from the hustings, pressers or dispatch boxes. It seems as if they all appear to lose a huge part of their humanity as a result of elected office, and the strictures of the party machine.

So has the political party had its day? Increasingly, that feels to be the case. Which is a dangerous thought, given the fundamental requirement to build policy platforms to take to the electorate, and the essential nature of Parliamentary democracy to have a functioning opposition to hold the Government accountable. Plus, we need a healthy democracy to ensure a pluralistic, inclusive, secular and liberal (small ‘L’) society. Dictatorships thrive in one party states, theocracies and autocracies alike.

Unfortunately, the media finds itself having to pander to the increasingly shrill, strident and destructive discourse of party politics. The press has to play along with “gallery briefings” and “doorstops” (i.e., selected disclosure at best, selected leaking at worst). I also hate the whole process of policy testing via party focus group soundbites rather than considered debate in Parliament.

I have seen some recent suggestions that political parties should be banned (dangerous precedents there…) or that election candidates shouldn’t reveal in advance their party affiliation. Whilst the latter idea has some appeal, how would we know where their backing comes from if they don’t disclose their party membership? Perhaps we should also ban all political donations, campaign funding and paid-for ads (and/or introduce stringent “truth in advertising” laws). Or, what if every candidate can only spend an equal amount, whose budget is drawn from Government funds, and only once they have secured the minimum amount of voter support to stand for election in the first place?

I don’t have the answers, and even with “non-party affiliation”, candidates would self-identify or be tagged as belonging to a particular vested interest. But the party system looks increasingly broken, and the nature of binary politics is not helping us to address or solve the enduring problems of our age.

Next week: Coming out of our shells