Sunday, 26 August 2007

Games Without Frontiers-Jeux Sans Frontieres-Spiel ohne Grenzen

How far would you go, and what would you be prepared to do to increase the size of your audience? No, put it/them away, that's not what I meant, although yes, you're right, very impressive, yes, thank you that's plenty for now...what? do I want pictures?, I'm fine. Got a nice cup of tea here, that'll do me...ok. Some other time...yeah...cheers.

Seriously, though, this week I've been pondering the question of why so many of us don't appear to be interested in catering for speakers of other languages - I've even gone and done some research, so there might (or, of course, might not) possibly be some useful conclusions buried in amongst the usual tangle of asides, deviations, tangents and dead-ends. Now, by "us", I ought to be more specific, and say "English-speaking musicians"...or maybe, "British & American musicians", because in general we are by far the most grudgingly lazy when it comes to foreign languages, and I'm just as guilty of it as anyone else. I was in a serious relationship with a delightful Norwegian woman for two years, back in the mid-90's. So, what d'ya think was the sum total of my Nordic linguistic brilliance when, at a jazz/rock club in Skien, I ambled onstage with my Chapman Stick (upon which I never achieved more than a reasonably well-oiled mediocrity), to play an improvised duet with a really good local drummer?

"Hi, my name's Andy, I'm from Edinburgh in Scotland. Sorry, but I don't speak Norwegian."

Great. Ambassadorial material, for sure. Still, at least I was polite. And please, don't make the same mistake I did,of assuming that everyone in Scandinavia speaks English-as-a-scarily-competent-second-language simply because many of them do. You just try buying batteries for your camera in Bo (small town on the main Stavanger-Oslo train line), that's all. You just try. I was reduced to exaggerated facial expressions, low-grade mime, and lots of pointing. Not impressive. Especially when you compare it with the effort so many "foreigners" make to reach out to us - quick examples... Amberian Dawn, Derdian, and Melancholy - Finnish, Italian & Russian rock bands from my brief Myspace "friends" list alone. Kudos to them (and all the others doing likewise)!

Now, I know the internet is (inevitably) enormously Anglo-centric, and that it is claimed that over 2 billion people on the planet speak English (although this can easily be chopped-down to about 1.35bn - you only arrive at the original figure if you include the population of India, where English is, indeed, an official language, but spoken - and not necessarily fluently - by about 350 million people, roughly a third of all Indians), but when you start to look at the numbers, some interesting possibilities arise.

A lot of us would like to be able to play music full-time, and the internet certainly offers plenty of possibilities - cheap global marketing, mp3 downloads, etc. So why not make a little extra effort to maximise your potential audience? Now, (the great and kind) Peter Gabriel had a bit of fun in the 1980's with two German-language albums, which could now potentially reach c. 110 million native German speakers worldwide. But if he'd plumped for French instead, that number goes up to a conservatively-estimated 180 million. And when you take into account the law in France that means 40% of broadcast music on radio has to be sung in French...there could be a pretty little niche market all ripe for your picking.

Let's take it up a notch - but still sticking with European languages, since it's fair to say they're a bit easier to learn for most of us linguistically-challenged idlers than, oooh, Chinese or Arabic. If you put out a song in Portuguese, for instance, you're looking at 230 million native speakers - not bad going at all, but only just above half the total number you could flog yourself to if you opted for Spanish. More than 400 million people (!) speak Spanish as their first language - not including those in the USA, whether they be honest, decent, legal immigrants...or working for Mitt Romney (sorry, couldn't resist it). Put another way, if a mere 0.001% of the world's Spanish-speaking folk downloaded a copy of your latest album of anguished-yet-jaunty songs of failed luck, love and lycanthropy, that could be 4,000 sales in the bank.

Singing in several different languages has long been a basic requirement for classically-trained performers (even if you have to do it largely phonetically - my favourite material, back when I was being a basso profundo, was always German lied, especially Schubert...oh man, if you've never tried some, go and listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Der Doppelganger. Gives me the chills, every time), but is usually regarded as "uncool" in rock & pop. Maybe it's time for that to change...?

Oh, one last thing (it's the "Columbo" moment!), if you do decide to try this, get someone who knows what they're doing to translate your lyrics. I had a go with a few of the free online translators (of which WorldLingo seems the most highly rated), and they don't seem altogether trustworthy, if the following example is anything to go by: (usual game - translate into Spanish then check by translating back again)

"If you like to gamble, I tell you I'm your man,
You win some, lose some, it's all the same to me."

"Si usted tiene gusto de jugar, le digo que sea su hombre,
usted gane alguno, pierda alguno, él sea todo el igual a mí."

"If you have taste to play, I say that he is its man, you
to him you gain some, loses some, he is all the equal one to me."

Or maybe that's just the 'prog' version...


Martin Lennon said...

180 million??!! 40%?? Shit! Where did I put all my French schoolbooks??!!!

Andy Gilmour said...

To be fair, only ("only" !) 61 million or so of these French-as-first-language speakers actually live in France, but it still seems worth a go to me.

Ooops - I just realised I hadn't even added Quebec into the mix - that's another 7 million or so to think about.