Border City Music Project: The frontlines of the war on culture

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Anyone planning to see Windsor-Detroit filmmaker Jon Gillies’ made-in-Canada documentary Border City Music Project (due for release in late August) should be prepared for a heavy jolt to the brain that will fundamentally alter his or her world. And they should be prepared to leave the theatre stunned, or angry and motivated to change.

The truth is coming, and everyone in Windsor, Detroit and beyond is invited. The challenge has been issued. It’s time to examine our fundamental right to know the truth, or put our heads down, stare at our smartphones and meander into the nearest fast food joint.

Either way, if Iron Street Studio owner Gillies is right, we will all soon understand that the power that once rested with the people has been wrested from the people. Worse yet, Gillies suggests, we are being herded into information bubbles – “attacked, segmented,” – shielded from true knowledge and fed personalized news and art while the vestiges of true culture calcify with the older generation.

And that’s just the tip of iceberg. As Gillies says: “The film is a documentary that identifies the modern monopolized media and the negative effects it has on our culture.”

As Gillies’ narrative points out, this region was defined by more than just its music and assembly lines. “There was also the local radio and television media that set us apart internationally. Detroit and Windsor were leaders in a time when media represented a far more responsible journalism based on fact not opinion.”

Still, when taking a break from all the disturbing messages, Gillies is refreshingly candid when discussing the genesis of his “strange, unconventional” film. “The original intent was to call attention to the Iron Street brand and build my company’s reputation and my name as a feature length documentary filmmaker,” he says.

Now, getting that kind of attention takes tremendous commitment in terms of time, energy and money. The film, a full year in the making as of June 1, has to date necessitated 85 setups and tear downs (at a cost of $10,625), 45 border crossings ($650), and 300 hours of editing with another 200 including sound mastering expected ($37,500) for a total production cost of about $48,775.

There were trips to New York and Los Angeles as well (about $2,000), Gillies says, “but I have forecasted the total cost as high as an eventual $80,000.”

In the end, Gillies will have crafted a film featuring an array of local and international talent and commentators, including Alice Cooper guitarist “The Maestro of Rock” Dick Wagner, who will feature at this year’s Bluesfest in Windsor. He calls the film “an immense undertaking and an important chronicle of our time for freedom and music.”

In far-reaching interviews with the likes of Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad), Alto Reed (Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band), Kelly “Mr. Chill” Hoppe (Big Sugar), Gordie Johnson (Big Sugar), Jeff Burrows (Tea Party, Crash Karma), Stuart Chatwood (Tea Party), Nancy Drew (Luxury Christ, Citywide Vacuum), “Plastikman” Richie Hawtin, Bluesfest International organizer Ted Boomer, Jim McCarty (Detroit Wheels, Buddy Miles Express and Cactus), Suzanne Goodman (WXYT TV), Jamie Greer, and Mark Chichkan (Helix, Mindstorm), The Howling Diablos, Kaleido, Greatest Hits Live, Mic Lordz Sauce Funky, Ashes of Soma, Inoke Errati, One Man’s Opinion, Gillies tells the story of two cities that were once cultural and economic leaders. “In fact,” Gillies says, “both were definitive through several major cultural and manufacturing eras in North American history.”

Such big voices deserve a big audience, and Gillies plans to deliver. His main target is CBC HD for the national broadcast, and after that U.S. Netflix.

“In between all of that will be festivals and other random screenings,” Gillies says, all beginning with a local release and premiere at “one of the big theatres in Windsor and Detroit.”

Drawing on a varied background in the creative industries, and knowledge gleaned from 12 years working with advertising and marketing agencies in Windsor, Gillies formed Iron Street Studio about 18 months ago. As a former professional musician who also happens to have BA in Business Administration from DePaul University (Barat College), Chicago, Gillies comes by his view of our troubled world honestly. “The economy that I studied is certainly not the economy that exists today,” he says.

In fact, not unlike that changing economy, Gillies’ film is perhaps more complex than it started out to be. But he has embraced the opportunity to draw attention to some serious issues.

“Yes, the film has evolved, but the root of the idea is the realization that technology has democratized art and music; that technology has groomed a bunch of hobbyists who pass themselves off as professionals. This led to the expansion on to the modern monopolized media delivering democratized art and music, devaluing our culture.”

Gillies, who freely admits he doesn’t have any answers, says he hopes to shake up the “bewildered herd” to start some serious conversations about a system that he says “clouds the general public and hypnotizes our youth into becoming mindless consumers.”

As such, “this film is a message from the front lines of the current war on our economy and culture itself,” Gillies declares.

The warnings and concerns are not new, but neither are they weakened by their cyclical nature. As Fritz Pappenheim wrote in “The Alienation of Modern Man” in 1959: “Societies too are often unperturbed by trends toward alienation.”

Erich Fromm, whose 1941 work, “Escape from Freedom,” is viewed as one of the founding works of political psychology, wrote that: “Alienation as we find it in modern society is almost total … Man has created a world of man-made things as it never existed before. He has constructed a complicated social machine to administer the technical machine he built. The more powerful and gigantic the forces are which he unleashes, the more powerless he feels himself as a human being. He is owned by his creations, and has lost ownership of himself.”

To paraphrase Pappenheim, “theologians and philosophers warn that advances in scientific knowledge do nothing to help us embrace the mystery of Being, and in fact often widen the gulf between the knower and the reality he tries to understand … Critics of the mechanization of life challenge the blind-faith expectation that technological progress will lead to the enrichment of our lives … (and) political scientists note that even democratic institutions have failed to bring about genuine participation by the masses,” even as the reach of those institutions is extended by technology.

One of the most obvious examples of such technology is our mass media – television, radio, newspapers and magazines – which has become the playground of too few people at the top, all presenting the same side of stories or promoting the same ideas.

Between 1990 and 2005, media mergers and takeovers were all the rage in Canada. For example, in 1990, 17.3% of daily newspapers were independently owned, whereas by 2005, some sources say that number dwindled to 1%. These changes, among others, caused the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications to launch a study of Canadian news media in March 2003. (This topic had been examined twice in the past, by the Davey Commission [1970] and the Kent Commission [1981], both of which, according to The Globe and Mail in June 2006, produced recommendations that were never implemented in any meaningful way.)

The Senate Committee’s final report, in June 2006, expressed concern about the effects of the levels of news media ownership in Canada. Among other things, the committee noted the potential of media ownership concentration to limit news diversity and compromise news quality, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and Competition Bureau’s ineffectiveness at stopping media ownership concentration.

By August 2012, The Huffington Post noted, “Canada has the most concentrated TV industry ownership of any G8 country.”

The U.S. story isn’t much different, Gillies points out. “I actually go in and prove that the media is monopolized … so very, very narrow views are coming toward us now on a mass scale,” he says.

It all flies in the face of the so-called 7-7-7 rule from 1973 in the U.S., which limited ownership to no more than seven FM radio stations, seven AM radio stations and seven TV stations in one market.

Then, in a machination that would have drawn a wry smile from George Orwell, “that rule was lifted, ironically enough, in 1984, and became the Rule of 12,” Gillies says. “So already you’re talking about getting a stranglehold, but that wasn’t good enough for the Rupert Murdochs and the Ted Turners; they needed 30-30-30,” which came into play in 1992.

The fallout is obvious. What happens when there’s no one left to offer any real competition? When one company closes in on owning everything, it can cut staff with impunity, and not worry about getting scooped. Fewer reporters on the streets leads to slack journalism; fewer DJs at the local radio station mean more automation, as computer-loaded playlists take over.

“You could definitely feel the difference (after 1992) in what was being pushed and marketed … you had the birth of the boy bands, the birth of Britney Spears and the Nickelbacks … and again, music is really subjective, and music is really just one facet, but you can apply the same (awareness) to the news and to the movies and art. It’s all about how what we’re seeing as art is being delivered to us; how what we’re seeing as art is being broken down and democratized by technology, slowly but surely.”

By 1996 the Telecommunications Act had the effect of making it legal for the Murdochs, Turners et al. to own 35%-to-8. “So, as long as there were eight other stations, you could own 35% of the market,” Gillies explains.

Tellingly, the Act, which ostensibly aimed to foster competition, instead reduced the number of major U.S. media companies to six by 2005 from a much-healthier 50 in 1983. Subsequent analysis showed that the Act sparked a wholesale decline in the number of radio station owners, while the number of commercial radio stations in the U.S. increased.

In short, while media were distracted by the Act’s attempt to rein in “obscenity and violence,” the legislation was handing the elite corporations dominating the airwaves the opportunity to further expand their reach, tightening their control over the flow of information.

As oft-quoted Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano commented: “The communication media are monopolized by the few who can reach everyone. Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few … the dictatorship of the single word and the single image … is imposing a life whose exemplary citizen is a docile consumer and passive spectator built on the assembly line following the North American model of commercial television.”

As recently as May 14, 2013, an extremely healthy cabal of TV broadcasters was courting merger deals that some said were worth US$6 billion, with post-2008 buyers – euphemistically known as “financial sponsors,’ or banks – looking to cash out despite double-digit growth in retransmission fees. The buyers, of course, are lining up to go big, to increase their footprint, which again potentially gives them the muscle to stamp out competing or dissenting voices.

TV news veteran Suzanne Goodman experienced the shift firsthand. Now retired after 39 years in the business with WXYZ Channel 7, she sees it all as byproduct of spinning profit at all costs, with standards falling by the wayside.

“Walter Cronkite spoke facts in proper English,” Goodman says. “He didn’t (tolerate) slang, and commentaries had to be labelled as such. Now, TV stations want fewer people to do so much more that they don’t have time to track down news stories, so they ambulance chase, (focusing on) murders, fires, accidents, whatever they hear on the police radios, and ‘opinion’ news has replaced facts on Fox and CNN.”

In Border City Music Project, Goodman lays the blame squarely at the feet of the usual suspects.

“As I said in the (film), big business is trying to make the machines that will fulfil everyone’s life in the same way … same food, same music, same clothes, etc.”

Goodman references Kurt Vonnegut’s chilling novel Player Piano, in which the protagonist must find a way to live in a world run by a supercomputer and machines.

“After humans had made all the machines, everyone was bored, so they smashed the machines so they could fix them. It’s what Jon is doing, only before the machines take over our lives.”

So, Goodman asks: “Where is the individual today? In media it is cheaper to have fewer people doing the exact same thing all over the country, because you can use one set of graphics, one set of writers, one set of editors and just cut and paste the news all over the country with a small section of local news. This is what Scripps did with newspapers. Then they fired all the journalists, filled the paper with Associated Press wire and ads, and wondered why no one bought it anymore…”

Be it on radio, in newspapers, on the Internet or TV, Gillies says we have lost the will to seek the truth and we have lost the ability to discern the difference between fact and opinion, which leaves us open to manipulation.

“It’s all interconnected,” Gillies says, “because culture is not just art on a wall; it’s not just music on the radio. Culture is also about how we approach decisions, how we think about our history, and how we value ourselves in the future, and how we look at ourselves … and how we look at ourselves right now is not healthy.”

If there’s any consolation in all this, it’s that films such as Border City Music Project are still being made, and artists never give up hope.

“These two historic cities represent the end result of consumerism,” Gillies says, calling it an “outmoded, unsustainable cultural and economic model. “It is now the artists that are defining the turnaround,” he says. “Artists are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine; an indicator of the ‘state of the union’ long before it hits the radar of the status quo and politicians.”

Gillies lauds the positive ubiquity of music as the connective tissue of culture and everything we do. “It’s all part of the fabric of life. A lawyer, a doctor, a housewife, a plumber, a janitor, a homeless person … they all like Big Sugar. Why? It’s something we have to be aware of, that we’re all connected. We, as a society, are steeped in irony in that we’re in this age if connectivity and yet the efficiency with which we communicate is poor.”

The film, Gillies says, is about today and beyond. “And where we can go is going to be up to the conversation that’s generated after the film. We want to change the conversation around the dinner table; we want to get to that heads-down generation. People ask what’s wrong with the world… and if we do not know what our culture is, we cannot move forward. We need to stimulate the intellect of the bewildered herd.”

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