Sunday, May 31, 2009

Remake: America - 4th Annual Maker Faire 2009

An escape into the world of arts and crafts, zany science, invention and enthusiasm has drawn thousands of people this weekend to the 4th annual Maker Faire.

The only one of its kind

on the planet, this Faire is alive with ideas translated into practice with over 600 exhibits and performances.

Held at the San Mateo County Event Center and organized by Make Magazine and Craft Magazine, it is a magnet for all ages from children upwards, and this year has attracted more than ever.

'Remake: America,' the Faire's motto for this year, has caught the Obama spirit sweeping the country, exhorting people to focus their creativity on production. To step into the Faire is to enter an alternative world of original designs, sights and sounds, many purely for the delight of their inventors.

Many inventors dressed for the part in arty costumes of a by-gone era or as 'mad scientists.'

A giant, mechanical 'Hand of Man' entertained the crowd, stretching robotic fingers skywards in salute, swooping down to grasp a traffic cone and bowing for a finale. Nearby, a pyrotechnic display blasted fiery flames into the already warm air. The Flaming Lotus Girls, an all-female troupe of the hottest sculptresses around, shape metal, glass and wood and shoot flames that can rise to over 150 ft. They meet in San Francisco on Wednesdays.

And a steamrollar puffed out clouds of steam demonstrating it's ability to drive belts and turn cogs.

Art cars were there: The Pen Guy and the Mercedes Pens eliciting fascination, Costas Schuler and his Mercedes Benz coated inside and out with recycled coloured pens; another with whirling windmills. The ArtCar Fest California amuses the Bay Area on the last weekend of September.

For children, this show offered them the opportunity to launch their first-ever rocket! Stepping up to the launch pad to power the red button, amongst those in the queues, were three-year-olds Nina and Jillian, and five-year-old Edward. They were helped by members of LUNAR - Livermore Unit of the National Association of Rocketry - who stuffed materials into the purple rockets.

Once launched, as the cardboard rockets reached their limits, they ejected plastic streamers to float gently back into the launch area, but of course the wind blew some off course and the good-natured crowd shouted plenty of warnings about the strays.

'Mad scientists' were in abundance: they melted pennies using solar rays directed through an old TV screen, recycling the metal into plaques and badges; and they shrunk quarters into dime sizes with an electric current of 15,000 joules. For this display by Hackerbot Labs - they specialize, they said, in lasers, electronic hackery and shenanigans! - we stood with fingers in ears awaiting the bang.

Among the very popular, large exhibits was a life-sized mousetrap game, behind which was Neverwas Haul, an imaginative three-storey Victorian house on wheels that you can clamber through, and the Golden Mean, a brown metal giant snail car made by blacksmith and sculptor Jon Sarriugarte.

There were macho events with model warship combat from the Western Warship Combat Club of San Jose, and a model armoured tank display from Bay Area Tankers.

By 2 pm you could hardly move around the grounds and there were long queues for food, much of which looked appetising, and for restrooms. 'We're ready to go! We're exhausted!' said a woman's voice from behind as we strolled on.

Perhaps it was because of the crowds that there seemed to be no sight of a 17 ft robot giraffe said, in pre-Faire publicity, to be roaming the grounds.

For those who like the smaller handcrafts, there were plenty to see and try with a large craft shop inside the center.

There was also a food market with exhibits with a great cheese-tasting counter and stalls on how to make French pressed coffee and beer.

One visually effective corner was Steampunk, a group of creative writers, dancers and costumiers with an alternative slant on Victiorian fashions. The St Clair Aeronauts, for example, dressed 'in what we imagine a Royal Zepplin Airmail crew would look like.'

Two of the greatest sections for kids, though, were the imaginative bikes and scooters and pedal-power swings. A child propelled himself on a small, comfy chair on wheels using a Wii controller for direction, while pairs of children pedalled their way through the air.

Yards away, a man lounged back on a raised motorized chair with his feet stretched out. 'The joystick was a huge amount of work!' he said, wheeling himself around.

Inventions that would be great fun in a family garden.

And still, as we left, we hadn't seen everything.

pics by Chris show: Flaming Lotus Girls' hot sculptures; Hand of Man; lifesized Mouse Trap Game; iron snail car, the Golden Mean

for album of pics click here

more blogs on the Faire to follow...

Diet Coke and Mentos

Yes - you have seen it before on YouTube, but now Steve and Fritz of perform LIVE at the Maker Faire. We witnessed the show for the first time yesterday at the San Mateo Showgrounds, just South of San Francisco International Airport.

Here is a link to Chris' Flickr photostream of the event

Saturday, May 30, 2009

SF Independent Musicians Campaign from London Bus - 2

Chris Hansen, musician and multi-media web company founder, is the man trying to raise the profile of the city's independent musicians and steer them through tumultuous

waves of change that are rocking the global music industry - see previous blog

At the heart of every musician is the drive to get their music heard and for young, unknown musicians this is far from easy. Which is why, yesterday, Chris and his troubadours were on an
open-topped London bus touring the streets of San Francisco.

The major obstacle facing independent musicians is recognition and it's side-kick, money. With the arrival of the internet facility of free downloading, this has opened up an avenue that many musicians have welcomed.

But not so the major recording companies for whom this form of free publicity for aspiring artists is draining their income. The 'Big 4' - Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI - are renewing attempts to block illicit downloading.

'They are trying to say all recorded music should be paid for but the reality is that 95 per cent of all music that is downloaded is downloaded illegally for free,' said Chris.

'So from an independent musician's perspective, we say why not give all our music away for free for recognition, as recognition is our currency. Being unknown, no-one is interested to help you.'

Chris stresses that they are not against the major labels but feels that they 'don't have the answer for independent musicians, especially now that we live in a post-Napster world - the first downloading service that was closed down - in which most consumers feel entitled to get their music for free.

'New technologies have spurred the do-it-yourself movement for independent musicians, but realistically we are still a long way off from being truly self-sufficient. There are thousands of online resources for musicians, but still no way for us to draw in a significant audience,' he says.

'There are tons of home recording options, but anything that will actually make you sound good is still too expensive for most people. So, what's left is for those of us at the bottom rung of the ladder to work together in the spirit of collaboration, rather than competition.'

Chris, aged 32 years, is multi-talented and in the forefront of city campaigning with his company, Bricks and Mortar Media, and plays bass and does vocals in his band, Bloomsday Rising.

Earlier, as an English and Philosophy major in Atlanta he co-founded an arts magazine, bluemilk, that expanded into a multimedia arts group - see an excellent article:

In 2004 he left Atlanta for an MFA in Writing and MBA programs at the University of San Francisco. Today he is in the throes of writing an article on the state of the music industry and the San Fran music scene - the draft is brilliant and I'll publish a link to it when it is completed. In it are some eye-opening stats for those not in tune with the industry:

'The reality is that most musicians do not have a substantial enough following to make a profit from CD sales, digital downloads and streaming royalties. According to Nielsen Soundscan, approximately 80% of all albums released each year sell less than a hundred copies. The remaining 20% of musicians account for roughly 96% of all music sales.

'But even that lucky 20% doesn’t really earn a living by selling their recorded music. The standard agreement with major labels requires songwriters to forfeit all copyright, as well as 90-97% of the revenues from album sales, in exchange for the distribution, promotion and support required to make an album a hit. It is only through extensive live performance, merchandise sales, and exhaustive touring that the signed musician earns a real profit.'

The widespread dissemination of music these days, said Chris as we stood on the bus, has turned the multi-million rock star into a mythical being and created instead a musical middle-class.

As I asked him what chance he thought he had against the big music companies, he explained.

'What is the chance is the redefining of what success means. It no longer means being a rock star and making millions, but more of a middle-class ambition. Could I quit my day job to be a musician? That is the threshold.

'It's not that we're opposed to making money but we could sell these to a few people or we could give them away to a lot,' he said, handing us a CD of his debut album, 'Rattle the Windows', and a follow-up EP, 'Unlocked.' Across the back writ in large unmissable letters: rip, burn, remix, share.

The heart of life for the independent musician in San Francisco is the Hotel Utah, a historic, green-painted turn-of-the-19th-century edifice that now overlooks the expressway exit on 4th Street and Bryant. Inside is the narrow saloon with it's famed bar back where on Monday nights the musicians get together not only to perform but to be recorded.

Known as 'open mic' sessions, these are a lifeline. 'For many musicians this is the only recording they have as they can't afford to go into a recording studio,' said Chris. The man behind the recordings is musician JJ Shultz whom Chris described as ''tireless in his dedication to the artists.'

On the website, musicians can access free streaming audio clips of their performances.

'The reason why the Hotel Utah open mic is so special is because of the selfless environment and overarching sense of community,' he says.

'For a singer/songwriter who can't afford a demo, this is a great starting point. Perhaps it would be enough to get a gig, and perhaps that gig will lead to bigger and better things...'

For now, Chris' website,, says it simply: ' 'til you drop.' So long as the work is attributed and no profits are made.

As the musicians strummed and sang their way around the streets of San Francisco atop their red London bus, this is the freedom they are fighting for.

Next Sunday, Chris will be in San Diego for the conference of the National Association of Recording Merchants - NARM - when such issues will be thrashed out.

Meanwhile BAMM leads the city campaigning. As their website says, 'Bricks and Mortar Media has big plans to create a venue in San Francisco as well as a number of exciting projects in the pipeline, so check back often for more updates.'

Friday, May 29, 2009

Independent Musicians Campaign from London Bus

An open-topped sightseeing bus rocked around the city tonight to the rhythms and vocals of independent musicians on a mission to save their music.

We stumbled across it at 5 pm outside the Mission Bay library on 4th Street, a day after our return from a wedding in the Dominican Republic.

The musical passengers were offering free music and a Happy Hour to anyone willing to hop on board.

Their aim was to publicize 'independent' ie unknown musicians and the struggles they face in getting their music into a crowded, digitized market.

Their need especially is for a voice in one of the biggest debates swirling around the music industry: what to do about free downloading on the internet.

In a $4 billion industry, the 'Big 4' music companies, Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI who are haemorrhaging profits, favour attempts to enforce payment for all music.

But this would have a detrimental effect on new artists and those trying to make their way in the industry.

Behind the organization of the London 'City Sightseeing' bus tour was Chris Hansen, executive director of BAMM - Bricks and Mortar Media, a San Fran web-based multimedia company.

He is also bassist and vocalist in the band, Bloomsday Rising.

On board, the tour was being filmed as part of a documentary Chris is making on independent musicians in the city. The film focuses on the Hotel Utah, further up 4th Street, where musicians gather on Monday nights for open mic and recording sessions.

After handing out sponsored Gordon Biersch beer, with a special of Czech-style beer, the group were ready to move on. With a casual itinerary, an hour later they were back up 4th Street outside the Hotel Utah.

An interview with Chris Hansen discussing the music industry and issues that face musicians is in the next blog.

*pics show the bus filled with musicians at Happy Hour outside Mission Bay Library, and singer/songwriter Martin Murray who with his band produced the EP, 'Fruition', in January