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  by W.S. McCallum  © 2004


Stranded in Paradise

22 October 2004

Having spent most of the last four weeks in Slovenia, it was interesting to compare the music scene there with New Zealand’s. The parallels were particularly evident during a music show on TV one night which, on this particular occasion, had four guests (two performers and two grizzled rock journalists) nutting out the issues facing Slovenian popular music. They talked largely uninterrupted for about an hour, something that would be difficult to achieve in New Zealand, given Kiwi TV programmers’ demands for money-spinning ratings and their mania for interrupting programmes with revenue-generating advertising every few minutes.

So, what exactly does Slovenia have in common with New Zealand?

Firstly, they are both similar in that they have a small population base - New Zealand with 3.8 million inhabitants, and Slovenia with 1.98 million. For Slovenian musicians this means that, like their Kiwi counterparts, they have a limited domestic market for their music, with it being unlikely that they will be able to make a living from it due to the limited number of venues, the low level of CD sales, and the smallness of their target audiences in their respective musical genres.

The second factor both countries have in common is isolation. As we all know, New Zealand is a long way away from anywhere except Australia, and even then it takes two to three hours just to fly to the other side of the Tasman Sea. This is probably the main reason why so few bands from here are successful overseas: the sheer cost and logistical hurdles involved in touring for Kiwi bands are something their North American and European counterparts can’t begin to comprehend.

Slovenia’s isolation is different in nature. While any Slovenian group wanting to tour abroad has an easy drive to practically any country in Continental Europe, and a somewhat longer drive and a fairly cheap Channel ferry crossing if they want to get to England, they have an almost insurmountable barrier once they leave their homeland: their language. Very few foreigners speak Slovenian and not many foreigners are prepared to buy or listen to music in a “minor” language they can’t understand. We all know how condescending the Poms can be to Kiwi musicians. Just imagine trying to crack the UK music scene if your songs were in Slovenian, except for a couple you had painstakingly managed to translate into broken English. It ain’t gonna work sunshine, is it?

If you’re from Africa or Cuba or some other exotic locale, you can play the World Music card and get your foot in the door that way. Slovenes however don’t have that luxury. They’re not seen as being particularly exotic and, coming from Eastern Europe, the assumption is that their music must be naff. Consequently, the Poms aren’t interested, and nor are many people closer to home. Various Slovenian bands get to tour in neighbouring countries like Croatia, and various of them even write songs in Serbo-Croatian in order to boost their international appeal in the Balkans, but here too they encounter the same sort of prejudice they get when they sing songs in English - the accent isn’t quite right, the lyrics come out sounding clunky, and so on.

So, like their New Zealand counterparts, who know they are probably never going to be rich and famous, for Slovenian musicians what counts is the music itself. This is the third main point they have in common with Kiwi musicians. Sure, you get the same manufactured Top 20 posers in Slovenia that you find in New Zealand (I won’t bother mentioning names), but more often than not the musicians just think “fuck that for a joke” and play what THEY want to play. The unfortunate result is that there are a lot of really bad punk and heavy metal bands in Slovenia, but there are some good ones too, along with various acts that are true originals. Acts like Siddharta, Big Foot Mama, Orlek, and Adi Smolar are easily as good as anything here or anywhere else in the world, but you’ll probably never see their CDs as it’s hard to find their music outside the countries that once formed Yugoslavia.

The only group from Slovenia anyone in the international (read “US/UK”) music scene has heard of is Laibach, which is a bit sad as they were always a bombastic group at best. Tellingly, what allowed them to break internationally in the 1980s is that they recorded their music mainly in German and were consequently able to ride on the coat-tails of Kraut rock. Still, how many New Zealand groups adopt the same stratagem, concealing their national identity behind a foreign image, trying to sound like rappers from L.A., or like Metallica, Blink 182 and so on?


L’homme à tête de Gainsbourg

17 October 2004

Jean-Yves Legras

The scene is a Jewish restaurant in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris. “Jewish” is possibly a misleading word, conjuring up images of a Middle Eastern or Eastern European establishment serving bearded men in black wearing wide-brimmed Homburgs. No - this is a place with a multi-national clientele, including blacks and Arabs, and serves “cuisine raffinée” (as it declares on its business card) of the sort you would find in any good French restaurant.

As I happened to be seated facing away from the table in question, I had to have him pointed out to me: “Have a look at that guy over there - he’s the spitting image of Serge Gainsbourg!”

Serge Gainsbourg: the author of an international hit in 1969 that was banned by the BBC and the Vatican for its sexual references and erotic noises; the man who released a reggae version of the French national anthem in 1979 (back when most French people didn’t even know what reggae was); and, also, the man who not only shagged Brigitte Bardot (she happened to be married at the time), but also who didn’t hesitate to let Whitney Houston know on national TV that he wanted to fuck her too.

And there he was, sitting at the head of a large table in this obscure neighbourhood restaurant along with all his drinking buddies: Serge Gainsbourg’s double. Just to emphasise the similarity, this guy had the same haircut, wore the same sort of denim shirt, and was nonchalantly puffing Gitanes as he held court with his band of followers.

To be strictly accurate, he wasn’t Gainsbourg’s exact double, given that Gainsbourg has been dead for over ten years now; but he was an accurate reproduction of what Gainsbourg looked like in his early 40s, after he had had his first big international hit in 1969, some years before he lost his celebrity wife (Jane Birkin) and headed down a path of debauchery that left him looking totally wasted.

Whoever this guy in the restaurant was, people had probably started pointing out his resemblance to Gainsbourg in his early adulthood. When you are confronted with such a huge imposition on your own personal identity, you have two basic options: you either radically change your appearance (by dying your hair, growing a beard etc.); or you embrace it and adopt that person’s look.

Some people even make a career of it, appearing in adverts, dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, Queen Elizabeth, or whoever. This guy was definitely in that category. If he had appeared in a TV ad, French viewers all over the country would have done a double take. Maybe that’s even how he makes a living. Whatever he does for a crust, he must lead a strange life, this double of Gainsbourg’s. Having effaced his own personality in favour of a dead man’s public image doesn’t leave a lot of room for individuality. It’s a bit like all those look-alike cover bands that go around pretending to be the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin etc. and who are judged solely on their ability to provide a replica or a reasonable facsimile of long-dead groups or performers.



Some Women and What They Are Worth

24 August 2004

Jim Marshall

Ahh, the Warehouse! Every trip is a new expedition into the unknown. Your anticipation over the new bargains to be had rises as you approach that familiar big red box. In you go, walking past the security guard who always looks askance because you don’t dress/look/behave like the “normal” people who usually shop at the Warehouse. Never mind, you continue onwards, past the shoppers queued up at the checkouts, until you get to… the music section.

The music section’s precise location may vary from one outlet to the next. In some outlets (Wanganui, for example), it is as far away from the entrance as you can possibly get without putting it out the back among the forklifts and the pallet trucks. In other locales (Upper Hutt), it is tucked away in a corner, neither near nor far, whilst in yet other outlets, it is the first thing you bump into once you have gotten past the friendly security guard. The fair city of Palmerston North is one of those fortunate conurbations; being blessed with a Warehouse that has a music department right inside the door.

Young musicians wanting a ground-level insight into the rise and fall of the market value of contemporary recording artists should make a bee-line for the Warehouse. And just to avoid getting distracted, make sure you don’t take any money: just a pen and a piece of paper.

For here you get the opportunity to see just how much a name and a reputation propelled by major label hype is really worth in dollars and cents terms, in what is now New Zealand’s largest retailer of recorded music, with prices kept rock-bottom both by savvy bulk-buying from all sorts of markets (Indonesian cassettes anyone?), and a policy of aggressively slashing the price of stock that does not sell after a given period.

Here’s one for the old fogies out there in music land - remember when Oasis were the greatest thing since sliced bread? How much would you have paid for a new Oasis CD back in the mid ‘90s? It’s safe to say you would be doing well if you found one for under $25. These guys were GIANTS. They were QUALITY. And, they were on a MAJOR LABEL. So all the Oasis fans shelled out full price, because Oasis’s latest release was what you had to have to maintain your rep, and stay cool with the other hip and happenin’ Britpop kids.

Well, if they had waited a few years (just a few, mind), those Britpop fans might not have been quite so cool, but they would have saved themselves a lot of money. These days, practically the whole Oasis catalogue can be had at the Warehouse for $6.99 or $9.99. And no, we’re not just talking about the old albums, but also the more recent ones that came out in the last two or three years. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! And Oasis aren’t the only ones. To some extent, most of the stars of the ‘90s have been devalued by the Warehouse: Moby’s “Play”, that monster epic for SNAGs the world over, can now be had for $19.99. Bits of Nirvana’s oeuvre can be had for $14.99, as can CDs by the likes of Korn and Pearl Jam. Go even further back to the dinosaurs of the 1980s, and the price reductions are even more marked. Phil Collins’ biggest-selling album (I refuse to utter its name) can be found in the Warehouse’s racks for a paltry $9.95.

It’s prices like these that are proving to be the wrack and ruin of owner-operated record shops all over the country. After all, who wants to pay $30-40 for a CD by a big name from your local retailer, or even pay $15-30 at a chain-store music outlet, when you can get the same CD for even less from the Warehouse?

Let’s look at a specific cross-section of music and the pricing applied to it. Female artistes, for example. The following are a few randomly-selected performers and some typical prices for their CDs at the Warehouse, in descending order of monetary value:

PJ Harvey $28.99
Michelle Shocked $28.99/$19.99
Anastacia $24.99
Tina Turner $19.99
Avril Lavigne $19.99
Bic Runga $19.99/$14.99
Madonna $14.99
Kylie Minogue $14.99
Carly Simon $14.99
Aretha Franklin $9.99
Ella Fitzgerald $9.99
Carly Binding $9.99
Annie Lennox $6.99
Olivia Newton-John $6.99
Shona Laing $2.99

Tastes vary, but it’s safe to say that future generations will probably agree that the likes of Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald, down in the lower price brackets in the Warehouse’s scheme of things, made a greater contribution to music on an artistic level than the likes of Avril Lavigne and Anastacia, sitting at the upper end of the price scale. Unfortunately, Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald did so forty-plus years ago, and consequently their market value is not as high as these two latest flashes in the pan.

Having said that though, isn’t it interesting that performers from the 80s like PJ Harvey ($28.99) and Michelle Shocked ($28.99/$19.99) are considered by the Warehouse to be worth more than their contemporaries Madonna and Kylie Minogue ($14.99)? I don’t have the figures at hand, but it’s safe to bet that Madonna and Kylie have shifted more units over the years than Polly and Michelle ever will. Is it that fans of Polly and Michelle have higher disposable incomes and can be counted on to pay more for recordings by these alternative music stars? Food for thought.

Poor old Shona Laing though - $2.99! And that was for a 2CD “Best Of”! Is she really worth so little? Didn’t she even have chart hits in the US in the 80s? Or is it because of the lapse of time combined with the fact that, unlike Madonna and Kylie, she doesn’t seem to be releasing material any more (or at least any material being pushed by a major label). And Carly Binding doesn’t seem to be doing too well either: her album was only released last year, with a great deal of advertising and related hoop-la to go with it, and already it has been marked down to $9.99. Still, Bic Runga seems to be holding her own in the mid-range, but how long will it be before she too descends to the lower price brackets?

Just to round things off, here are two closing questions to think about:

1) How long do you think your recorded music would stay in the upper price brackets if it was in the racks at the Warehouse?

2) Once it begins its slide down into the lower price brackets, how do you maintain your profit margin?



Finally, Some Real Rock Journalism

18 August 2004

Are you tired of those repetitive rock band interviews you see in the music press all the time? The ones where the “journalist” (I use the word in the loosest sense) asks the same old tired questions?

They tend to go something like this:

So when did you guys get together?
What are your musical influences?
When is your album coming out?
Any big plans for the future? Etc. etc.

Doubtless, there is probably a Web site out there somewhere with an idiot sheet full of such questions for debutant music journalists to print off and carry around with them, so they can pull it out and reel them off regardless of whether they’re talking to an opera singer or a Norwegian death metal band.

Thankfully, there is a new generation of young journalistic talent out there, daring to ask the questions none of the tired old twentysomething hacks will ask. Don’t believe it? Well then, check out:

in which Lucas, a 5 year-old, gives us an incisive perspective on Jack White’s world, asking the White Stripes’ guitarist all those telling, perceptive questions you just have to get the answers to:

Has the Monkey stopped jumping out of bed?
What colour is the school bus in “Sister Do You Know My Name”?
Do you like bowling?
Did you have to wear good clothes at Easter?
Do you have a favourite song by the Coasters?
What's your favourite building (besides your house) in Detroit? Etc. etc.

The best rock interview I’ve read in years, and it was done by a five year-old! Which speaks volumes about the level of journalism in rags like the NME.

The piece ends with the words “Lucas said he may interview someone else soon if he isn’t too busy”.

A kid with attitude! And proof that the old guard had better watch their backs…



Go Johnny! Go! Go!

12 August 2004

Photos Fournier

Some noteworthy musical news came out of France earlier this month. Although it was widely reported by the French media, it will probably go largely unnoticed in the English-speaking music press, if only because the main protagonist involved, Johnny Hallyday, tends to be a bit of a standing joke outside his homeland. Hallyday is the closest thing the French have to Elvis, and has proved far more resilient. Yet in light of a musical career that started in the early 1960s, and repeated chart hits limited to his home country ever since, his show business profile is more comparable to Cliff Richard’s.

On 3rd August, Johnny (as his French fans prefer to call him) won a landmark court case against one of the giants of the global music industry: Universal Music. In response to his accusations of unfair treatment from the company, a Paris tribunal ruled that its subsidiary, Universal Music France, has to hand over all the masters of the recordings Hallyday has made, right back to his first studio sessions in 1961. The catalogue involved is considerable: over a thousand songs, including a good many million sellers, and over forty studio and live albums recorded over the last 43 years.

The tribunal’s ruling also stated that Hallyday’s current contract would be terminated as of 31 December 2005, and that he would only be required to record one more album for Universal before its end, instead of the six he had been required to record.

The ruling is the outcome of discontent from Hallyday that has festered over many years. Like most of Hallyday’s contemporaries who were signed by major labels in the 1960s, his contractual terms were not as advantageous as might be imagined, and even a million-seller like him came to notice certain inequities over the years. Hallyday is relatively lucky compared to most of the people who hit the musical scene in France and elsewhere in the 1960s though. They experienced such fleeting success and such short musical careers that they did not have the chance to amass the fortune required to take on a company the size of Universal.

On top of which, the ruling should not be overestimated. According to the Paris newspaper Le Monde (3 August 2004), Hallyday will probably have to come to some arrangement with Universal over future releases of his back catalogue given that the production rights over the recordings are still owned by the record company. Also, a good many of “his” songs were actually written by other songwriters and lyricists, so he does not control the publishing rights to them.

Nor is the court case necessarily closed - should Universal decide to take the case to a higher court, the tribunal’s ruling may be thrown out on appeal.

This is a cautionary tale for budding young performers eager for a deal with a major label: signing a contract with a recording company and managing to become incredibly famous and successful (and Hallyday is as big as they come in his own particular market), is not necessarily the road to nirvana. If you decide, however many years down the track, that your corporate overseers are nothing but a bunch of exploitative so-and-so’s, you may find you have very limited options indeed if the production rights and copyright for your recordings, and even the songs themselves, are owned by the company or one of its publishing or production subsidiaries.

A further illustration of this came from France recently: on 21 June, MC Solaar won a major court case, also against Universal Music. Concluding legal proceedings instigated by the rapper in 1997, the French Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that Universal had failed to fulfil its contractual commitments and had set unreasonable timeframes for recording and working with the company to release his music. The court ruled that the French rapper was entitled to have his contract cancelled, and have all his original recordings and performer’s rights returned to him.

Here too though, there is a tangled web involved. Just to give one example, MC Solaar’s biggest hit, “Nouveau Western”, includes a sample from Serge Gainsbourg’s 1968 hit “Bonnie and Clyde”. The rights to that particular recording are held by a company called Mercury France, which is a subsidiary of… Universal Music.

Stéphane Sednaoui


Tug Your Forelocks and Bow Low, Peasants!

3 August 2004

There was some noteworthy information to be gleaned from the June/July 2004 issue of NZ Musician in Richard Hobbs’ article entitled “Music Video PDs [that’s “Programme Directors” for those of us who still use English] - Be Nice To These Guys”.

Mr Hobbs’ message is that we have to be very very nice to the Programme Directors of both Juice TV and C4 (that’s Daniel Wrightson and Andrew Szusterman respectively) because not only do they decide whether your music videos get airplay, they also “help decide” who gets music video funding from NZ On Air.

Am I alone in wondering about the ethical grounds for allowing the representatives of two commercial TV channels input into deciding who gets funding to provide the aforementioned channels with free product?

Not that I, as a musician, would ever dare to criticise. As Richard Hobbs points out, we should instead be aware that these two guys are “two people you really need to get on side with if you want to go through the ranks. So if you ever see either of them in a bar, make sure you shout ‘em a drink”.

Very rock’n’roll. Just remember fellow musos - it ain’t the quality of your music or your clip, but how well you suck up to the gatekeepers.


No logo

27 July 2004

W.S. McCallum

One of the great paradoxes of rap is the sight of rebellious youth strutting its stuff up on stage, arms flailing, faces grimaced, railing against racism and other injustices, looking very politically correct… and then you stop and have a closer look at what they’re wearing: Nikes, Adidas and other brand clothing, the product of merciless multinationals that use slave labour in Third-World sweat shops.

On a less benighted but just as paradoxical level is the sight of po-faced indy rockers or death metallers jumping around singing about life in the gutter or on the edge. All fine and well until you stop and look at the very expensive gear they’re playing. The drummer will be pounding away on several thousand dollars worth of kit, the guitar players will be brandishing their equally expensive Fenders or Gibsons, standing in front of their Marshall stacks, etc. etc.

It’s the gap between posing and credibility - a mere stage act and something that is actually sincere. Unfortunately sincerity is all too rare in the music business.

One of the more tedious aspects of musicians, like rappers (the two are often, but not always, mutually exclusive categories), is their mental slavery to brand names. You can’t go on stage unless you’ve got the designer clothes. You can’t crank up an amp unless it’s a Marshall. If it’s not a Fender it’s not worth playing. Then there are the drummers who only swear by brand X drums. Its all about as radical as housewives and their fixation with certain brands of home consumer items.

But most nauseating of all are those free puff-piece magazines you see in music shops, issued by certain manufacturers of drum kits, guitars, electronic gizmos or whatever, all of which feature name musicians (and quite often people you’ve never even heard of, but who must be famous to someone out there, or they wouldn’t be in the mag), preaching the virtues of a given brand. You know damn well it’s because said brand gave them thousands of dollars worth of gear or some sponsorship deal in exchange for them whoring their names around. Pretty radical eh?

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, one of the more admirable aspects of the White Stripes is Jack White’s use of an el cheapo Japanese guitar that only with time and changing fashion whims is now a bit of a collector’s item. Going further back, there are blues people like Hound Dog Taylor, who championed the use of junk shop Japanese guitars, or old country blues players who played on battered no-name guitars they mail-ordered from a catalogue. Even some of the big names, like Pete Townshend, prefer to assemble their own electric guitars from various manufacturers’ components rather than relying on a certain brand.

Because when it comes right down to it, it’s not the brand that makes the musician, it’s whether you know how to play the instrument. And you don’t need a $3,000 guitar to produce good results. So next time you are buying equipment, why not save yourself some money and stop promoting the monopolies that certain brands have in certain sectors of the music industry by trying instruments or equipment made by a name you’ve never heard of? You may just be surprised at how good the gear sounds.



How’s your health insurance?

20 July 2004

The March 2004 issue of APRAP (the APRA newsletter) offers some interesting things to think about. Lindy Morrison, in an article entitled “When Music Hits Hard Times” points out the flip side of the fleeting fame and fortune the music industry offers to a lucky few. Specifically, she refers to someone few Kiwis will probably ever have heard of - an Aussie glam rocker called John Cave (presumably not a relation of Nick’s). He had a number one hit in Australia in the 70s that was in the charts for about 20 weeks, had guys like Vanda & Young (from the Easybeats) writing songs for him and, in terms of his sudden rise to fame, appears reminiscent of Scribe. Unfortunately, by the late 1970s, faced with the down slope of fame, John Cave freaked out and ended up having mental health problems, from which he apparently still hasn’t fully recovered. Lindy Morrison points out:

“In recent years, it’s become clear that there are many performers in the popular music industry who are struggling in their middle age with sickness and ill health and have no resources to see them through their sickness or the rest of their lives.”

Actually, it’s not really a new realisation - when they reached the USA in the 1960s, people like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton discovered just how shoddily the US music industry (and American society in general) treated the ageing black men who were their blues heroes. But nonetheless she has got a point. The music industry, in New Zealand as elsewhere, has a habit of hoisting a select few up high, giving them their proverbial 15 minutes of fame, and then unceremoniously ditching them once they are no longer flavour of the month.

Lindy Morrison’s article discusses Support Act Limited, a benevolent society set up by APRA (among others) to assist impoverished musicians with health and other problems.

It makes me wonder - does Scribe have medical coverage? Or will he be left waiting in Christchurch Hospital’s A&E along with all the other unfortunates who have to rely on the failing public health system? Do the Datsuns have health insurance? What happens if one of them cracks under the pressure of touring, or if there’s an accident out on the road in some social welfare-deficient spot like the USA? These are top billing Kiwi acts - they may just have some sort of coverage, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t. And what about superannuation plans, or income insurance? What guarantees, if any, do the record companies offer acts signing to them, other than the whiff of a promise of a percentage of royalties and the signing over of the copyright on the songs they wrote? Something to think about for young bands being asked to sign on the dotted line.

And should you be thinking that such mundane considerations are not very “rock ‘n’ roll”, then ask yourself this: if the suits running the record companies enjoy benefits like retirement plans and medical cover, why don’t the musicians who create the music?


And it starts with a bang: The Venetic Blog

15 July 2004

This could be one of those blogs where readers are regaled with rockist tales of salacious carrying on in sleazy circumstances, mixed in with copious amounts of alcohol, whipped cream and other illicit substances, but such is not the stuff of my whimsy. Instead let’s start with a concert review:


Gomez at the Starlight Ballroom

Wellington, Friday 9 July 2004

After arriving, having to wait in the booze barn foyer until well after 9pm, getting fed up because they advertised an 8pm start time (yes, we all know they do it to raise the bar take), and going away, I came back to find that Rhombus had nearly finished their loose set. An odd choice for a support band for Gomez, but there you go… There was an additional wait as all the Gomez roadies came on and made a great show of fiddling around, testing mikes and waiting from the flashlight OKs flashed by the ageing hippie behind the control desk (which, with its surfeit of knobs and faders, was so impressive you probably could fly a space ship with it, but so large you would never get it onto the space shuttle’s flight deck).

I waited in bated breath as Gomez finally strode out onto the stage and then stood there thoroughly underwhelmed at what I was hearing. Don’t get me wrong, I love Gomez - great blokes, and doubtless they played a great set, but with the quality of the mix that night, how was anyone in the audience to know?

How do I put it? Imagine a not very large rectangular concrete box, with reinforced concrete girder pillars and beams - basically your multi-floor carpark sort of architecture. Not the best environment acoustically speaking, but hey, it is what it is. Now fill it up with people, place a band and speaker stacks in it, crank ‘em up, and press play. What do you get? A great sludgy noise, with an excess dollop of blurghy bass noise completely enveloping it.

Was it the fact that the ageing hippie at the controls had been to too many concerts and was too deaf to know any better? Or that Gomez’s crew were used to playing stadium-sized venues rather than a more compact concrete box like the Starlight? Undoubtedly it had something to do with the room’s acoustics. Whatever the explanation, it was a disappointment - a band you go to see to enjoy the vocalist’s singing, which turns out to be inaudible through the shonky sound. You want to hear the great lyrics, which are indistinguishable through the sludgy sound, and miss the subtle guitar playing you hear on the albums, which is lost in the din of bass frequencies.

It’s ironic Gomez have based their latest album on the Who, also renowned for their loud concerts back in the 1970s. In their dotage will the lads end up like Pete Townshend - staging endless tedious comeback concerts on acoustic guitars played on tiny little amps to avoid destroying what’s left of their shattered hearing? We shall see…







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