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Issue 11

The New Abnormal by The Strokes

The latest album by New York-based rock band The Strokes generated a lot of buzz and excitement, both among fans and critics. After a gap of almost seven years, The New Abnormal was released on April 10, 2020, through Cult and RCA Records. Critical appreciation for the album peaked when it won the 2021 Grammy Award for the Best Rock Album of the Year. Like most of The Strokes’ discography, the album falls in an indie rock or alternative rock genre. Singer-songwriter Julius Casablancas received a lot of critical appreciation for the development of his lyrics, as well as his singing style, with a special improvement in his falsetto as we see in a number of songs in the album. The reason The New Abnormal should be on your list is because it is both a classic form of The Strokes’ music as well as packed with new elements that make it stand out amongst other indie rock albums. The singles “The Adults Are Talking” and “Eternal Summer” received praise for the mature lyrics addressing issues such as the generation gap in American society, and forest fires in light of global warming. The music is quintessential to the band, with duelling guitar riffs and an 80s-rock vibe throughout the album. Through the seven-year hiatus, fans witnessed Casablancas and other band members pursue individual projects that they seemed more invested in. However, the band finally got together for The New Abnormal and were even credited for sounding “more in cohesion”. With last year’s unprecedented turn of events due to the global pandemic, The New Abnormal is apt for listening not just because of the relevance of its name but also because of its ability to capture the uncertainty of our times. 

Picture Credits: Twitter

Akanksha Mishra is a student of political science and international relations at Ashoka University. 

Categories
Issue 9

Apartment Upstairs

If you are looking to break the monotony of your everyday pandemic routine with some feet tapping, rhythm-driven beats and rock, tune into hearing Apartment Upstair’s new single, ‘Mahua’ available on Spotify and YouTube Music. 

Starting out as two college students at Ashoka University, who shared the love for making music and ‘How I Met Your Mother’, Rohan Pai (singer-guitarist) and Shourjo Chatterjee (drummer) came together in their first year of college only to deliver constant bangers, one after the other. While it is no doubt college demands quite a bit of effort, the duo has been able to produce their first EP titled ‘Two on the Line’, mainly indie-rock music and is currently working towards exploring further genres of R&B, jazz and hip-hop.

To create their music, the pair first comes up with a vocal melody and beat which is then supplemented with relatable lyrics that take the listener to a different world altogether. Mahua released in February 2021, captures the essence of escapism that various individuals might be feeling with this prolonged pandemic of wanting to “pack up my bags and go living my dreams”. 

Their music tends to speak to the audience, because of how they share their experiences, making it personal yet relatable. They aim at actively taking part and achieving recognition in the independent music genre in India. 

While there is some hope for the pandemic to come to an end, the duo provides us something more to look forward to with their upcoming single ‘Star tonight’ going live at some time end of March 2021.

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Issue 8

Feminist Bollywood, Really?

The question – are you less of a feminist if you listen or dance to songs that demean women is perplexing. All of us regardless of whether or not one is a feminist should feel degraded by writing, singing, dancing, or listening to songs that demean any human being. 

Unquestioningly accepting disparaging attitudes -whether in-jokes, images, music, or literature –  normalizes conversations and behaviours that exacerbate an already existing unequal power structure. 

All this matters particularly in the context of popular culture. Bollywood plays such a disproportionate role in defining our culture and values that it would be the obvious place to first examine what is being propagated.  Bollywood songs are everywhere. Not only does the music influence us but so do the themes, dress, dialogues, and the subtle ideologies that are conveyed almost imperceptibly. Clearly, Bollywood’s broad reach both mirrors Indian culture and shapes it.      

This two-way stream of influence makes it difficult to establish causality. But anecdotal evidence suggests that our everyday mimicry of the reel becomes our reality.  

Let us first consider a song like ‘Makhana’ by Yo Yo Honey Singh. A hugely popular Indian singer, rapper, composer and actor. Yo Yo’s (as he prefers to be called) single hit ‘Makhna’ climbed the charts soaring to around 19 million viewers immediately. He was flooded with messages welcoming him back, cheering this song and eagerly awaiting the next release. Some viewers talk about the beat that makes one want to jump onto the dance floor. While others have protested and wanted to file a case against the vulgarity of the lyrics. At a Delhi poetry slam another rapper Rene Sheranya Verma wrote and performed an open letter entitled “Namkeen Kudi” berating Honey Singh’s lyrics and views.  The most offending verse in Makhana says: 

 “Par Main Hu Womanizer

Mujhe Akele Main Mat Mill” .  

Misogyny in Bollywood lyrics has come a long way from the now seemingly innocent “Choli ke peeche kya hai” released in 1993, which had caused such a stir in those days. 

Some critics have attributed what they call India’s ‘rape culture’ to suggestive dance numbers and glamourized often forceful courtship to Bollywood.  But did this problematic portrayal of women already exist in our culture or has it been created and exacerbated by Bollywood? Indian culture seems to hold the veneration of women goddesses and the denigration of women seamlessly in the same hand. 

The issue, of course, is not merely about the lyrics but also about the in-your-face, crass eroticism of scantily and sexily clad women who sing and dance in an exotic carnival-like location. Women in Bollywood films often are not mere objects of and in the songs but are an integral part of it – by participating in it as actors, watching it, dancing to it, and, loving it. Where does one draw the line? Misogyny is not only a men-only domain. These ‘item numbers’ are as much for what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey termed the voyeuristic male gaze as they are for women who could also take pleasure in the women but also in the bare-chested, hip-thrusting men and even the bad-boy image projected by Honey Singh’s Makhana. Is it feminist to enjoy this kind of turning of the tables or is it merely reverse sexism? 

 If we accept the huge impact of  Bollywood on the Indian psyche then the fabric of our culture is already interwoven with misogyny. Honey Singh might be a one-off example, but so much of the way Bollywood depicts women and men’s relationships remains questionable, and, yet we continue to accept them as normal – ‘it is like this only’. Till recently we took Bollywood’s men forcing their unwanted attention on women and not taking no for an answer as acceptable if not ultimately desirable.  The many ways women are mentally, emotionally and physically abused and demeaned are visible in almost all Bollywood films. Even so-called feminist films such as English Vinglish or Dangal remain problematic.

Feminism may not dictate a response but we as individuals and part of a patriarchal community should not find it too difficult to come up with our own creative responses to what we find offensive. One might be to have these kinds of songs banned or censored and have Honey Singh and others of that ilk castigated, another would be to respond in kind as did the Delhi rapper Rene but ultimately the answer would depend on each individual. However, these individual protests need to blossom into something bigger that will raise awareness about what our popular culture is actually teaching us.  

There is no one size fits all formula for the degrees of feminism one should aspire to. I find Honey Singh’s songs vulgar and lewd not only because I am a feminist but they should offend anyone because the lyrics, and indeed the whole package is offensive.

Let’s not make feminism a rigid rulebook. We know censorship is a bad approach, especially in today’s borderless world. Already we see that Ailaan and Asi Vadangey – two Punjabi songs critical of the farm laws have been taken down from YouTube at the behest of the Indian government. There is no great distance between politically objectionable and culturally offensive.  

Geetanjali is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English at Ashoka University. She has also been Senior Lecturer in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University, where she taught for 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Hong Kong University and her Master’s degree from George Washington University. 

Her book:  Indian Women in the House of Fiction (2008) is now in its third edition with the University of Chicago Press. Aside from participating in many conferences internationally,  Geetanjali has written numerous articles on various subjects including Sikh Masculinity, Representation of Sikhs in Bollywood, Children’s Literature in the diaspora, Indian women’s fiction etc. 

Geetanjali co-founded The Attic, Delhi – an interactive space for the living arts.

Picture Credits: reidy68/ Pixabay

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 8

(Mis)leading Spotify Chart Toppers: What is India listening to?

A quick glance through Spotify India’s charts will leave you surprised. India’s Top 50, a compilation by Spotify based on the most streamed songs of the previous week features homegrown independent artists, global pop stars and Bollywood artists. “Brown Munde”, a Punjabi song by AP Dhillon, has been a chart topper for nearly three months now. Alongside homegrown artist AP Dhillon is The Weeknd, an American pop artist who is currently #1 in the world based on the number of monthly Spotify listeners, and Bollywood playback singer Arijit Singh. But is this what India is listening to?

What’s surprising is that regional, independent artists like AP Dhillon are finding their place amongst global chart toppers on Spotify even though their exposure and reach do not usually match that of American pop artists or Bollywood singers. Spotify’s editorial playlists which are curated by music experts and genre specialists around the globe provide independent artists a chance to pitch their music to Spotify directly, giving music producers like AP Dhillon a fighting chance against the dominance of Bollywood or globally popular music. The chance to pitch music to Spotify Playlist Editors coupled with Spotify’s algorithms, which assess a listener’s taste and preferences to recommend AI generated playlists to them, gives independent artists a chance to feature in these recommendations. So it would not be surprising to see upcoming RnB/Trap artists like AP Dhillon in a recommended playlist with global sensations like Drake, Post Malone and The Weeknd because of the similarity in genre.

However, Spotify’s algorithmic mechanisms tend to create a deluding image of what is actually trending on the ground. According to a report on Spotify usage by LiveMint, 25-55 year olds in Gujarat are only listening to Bollywood Music, but users in Goa across ages only listen to international music. On Spotify India’s charts, these varying tastes and preferences get compiled into a single playlist, without accounting for regional outliers like Goa and Gujarat. At this point, it is important to examine the role of Spotify’s algorithm, called BART (Bandits for Recommendations as Treatments). 

 BART first analyses the language, lyrics and content of the song that listeners are tuning into. In the second stage, it detects the “vibe” or “mood” of a song and decides whether it’s upbeat, chill, heavy, minimal, instrumental, and so on as part of a mechanism to recommend new music that is similar to the listener’s tastes and preferences. Based on these results, Spotify’s AI technology will curate a playlist for listeners on a daily basis called “Daily Mix”. These algorithms have the power to create a listener’s own musical universe that is solely based on the user’s taste and preferences in music as detected by a software. For instance, if a listener shows interest in Bollywood singer Arijit Singh, then Spotify will recommend artists like Atif Aslam and Armaan Malik in the listener’s daily mix. Which is why unlike other popular Indian streaming platform charts like Gaana and JioSaavn, Spotify India charts tend to be a misleading assortment of musical choices, which are largely influenced by Spotify algorithms. Unless a listener is curating their own playlists without relying on Spotify’s recommendations, there is a low chance that listeners will move out of this musical bubble that they have been pushed into by Spotify.

External factors like Spotify’s market share in India and how listeners in India access their music are also crucial in determining whether we can rely on Spotify India charts to reflect what India is listening to. In the period between 2014-2020, India saw a massive drop in data prices from 270 INR to 11 INR, paving way for India’s digital revolution. Global service providers like Spotify, Amazon Music and YouTube Music have used this opportunity to penetrate the music streaming markets in India which were previously being dominated by Gaana, JioSaavn and Wynk Music. According to a report by INC42, as of September 2020, Spotify had amassed 42.1 million Monthly Active Users (MAU), overtaking Gaana which had 41.1m MAU. JioSaavn with 44.9m MAU was the market leader, followed by Wynk Music at 43.1m MAU. All these streaming platforms curate charts of their own, but they never seem to match. “Brown Munde” does not find itself on Gaana’s “Top Trending Hits”, or on JioSaavn’s “Trending Today” playlist. Even global hit songs like “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd and “Senorita” by Shawn Mendes, which featured on “Spotify India Top 50”, don’t make an appearance on Gaana or JioSaavn’s chart toppers. Bollywood and regional film music are much more prominent on Gaana, JioSaavn and Wynk Music charts in comparison to Spotify. This indicates that consumers remain largely divided on which streaming platforms they prefer, based on the music they prefer to listen to. Most listeners who prefer Bollywood music, are more likely to use Gaana and JioSaavn, and the reasons for this could be multiple. For instance, these platforms might offer a better collection of Bollywood music as opposed to competitors, or the price of these platforms could influence consumer preferences as well. Spotify, being a new entrant, might not have penetrated the market to its full potential, or users who have been long time users of other apps prefer familiarity as all streaming platforms have different user interfaces which are hard to get accustomed to at first. 

It would be wrong to assume that Spotify’s charts are an accurate representation of what India is listening to. While this might be true to Spotify, the music streaming market in India is still growing and largely nuanced in terms of consumption. Spotify however is a special case that still needs examination because it is run by algorithms which are much more advanced than other streaming platforms. This is simply because the app recommends music based on multiple factors through BART, a luxury that is uncommon amongst other platforms. At this point of time, it can be speculated that different factors affect the way in which songs place themselves in the charts across platforms. In the future, even when all these streaming platforms reach complete market potential, Spotify India charts are still likely to differ in their charts from other service providers. For this, only the algorithm can be blamed.

Rohan Pai is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In his free time, you’ll find him singing for a band, producing music and video content.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

Regional Rap for a National Cause

“Rap is basically poetry with rhythm”, Imbachi reveals, in an attempt to explain what rap/hip-hop is to a middle-aged man who is curious about this newly emerging music genre in India’s regional music scene. In an excerpt posted on Instagram from one of his interviews, the Kerala-based rapper is seen opening up about his knowledge of the genre and his approach towards his rap.

“I don’t see myself being too politically associated, but my politics is whatever I see in front of me, and if I think it is wrong, I talk about it”, Imbachi asserts, when asked about hip-hop’s emergence as a genre that speaks up about socio-political issues. It’s just that simple.

As self-assigned torch-bearers of the movement, these rappers will rise up against injustice, write verses that reflect the struggles of the people, and bring the revolution home through music we can stream from our devices. Human struggles have always shared an innate relationship with the representation that they seek in forms of art, and poetry placed over hip-hop beats has become synonymous with the voices of protests in India lately.

 At the start of 2020, the women-led anti-CAA-NRC protests at Shaheen Bagh were invigorated by popular hip-hop acts from India’s independent music scene, such as Prabh Deep and Ahmer. They performed in solidarity with the movement on a stage at the protest site. The distinguishing trait about rappers such as Prabh Deep, Ahmer and Imbachi is that they can rap in their regional languages, Punjabi, Kashmiri and Malayali. While the growth of hip hop culture in India is similar to how it originated in 1970’s New York, these Indian rappers are pushing boundaries with regional and often multilingual rap. By rapping in the vernacular, these artists build a platform for oppressed, marginalised communities to be heard, stepping outside the more common English or Hindi rap which has been popularised by Bollywood. Turning a Western import into something of their own, these rappers have begun to embrace the expressive medium that rap originated as. Gradually, an entire nation is now waking up to the stories that are usually not covered on mainstream media through independent rap music.

Elaan, a multilingual track from Ahmer’s debut record, is a compelling collection of verses that reveal the harsh realities of growing up in the Kashmir valley. These verses placed over a gripping beat will leave you terrified, as Ahmer raps:

Kahan se aata mein?

 sab se darrawni jagah se

Insaaf hi mana hai, gunegaari mein mazza hai yahan

Tu talve chaate toh bada hai, sach paale toh saza hai

(You wanna know where I come from?)

(The most dangerous place on the planet)

(Justice, they deny it, violations bring them joy here)

(If you lick their boots, you stay relevant, otherwise you’re a criminal)

         Straightforward, without filters or fear is the style with which Ahmer fiercely delivers his verses. Making the listener aware about the grave, repressive conditions he grew up in, he portrays what life in Kashmir is like. The central government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and Article 35A gave this song more relevance. Ahmer became Kashmir’s new, rising spokesperson in the independent music scene. Even though Ahmer raps in Hindi here, ad-libs such as “Asli Koshur Hip-Hop”, which translates to “Real Kashmiri Hip Hop”, are intended to create a regional imprint.

Prabh Deep, who features on the same track, delivers a bold verse in his quintessential, casually outspoken Punjabi style. The verse culminates at the hook,

“Jedde border ni tappe

Karan jung da Elaan.”

(those who have never crossed the border)

 (are the ones declaring war),

proving to be highly relevant since most of the opinions being circulated across India after Kashmir’s special status was revoked, were coming from self-proclaimed experts who have never actually witnessed the situation in Kashmir. Prabh Deep highlights the irony in this case, claiming that the decision-makers are always the least affected. As a consequence they fail to take into consideration what is actually being demanded by the people.

         Not only do Prabh Deep and Ahmer raise awareness about what they have personally witnessed, they provide an anthem that resonates with every affected individual who is part of the movement. They help a crowd mobilise and rise together, and provide a universal symbol of unity through their music. Ahmer’s narration of his personal experiences, and Prabh Deep’s call for action complement each other perfectly, validating the views of the protesters and the need to voice their neglected opinions.

This growing independent hip hop culture in India is incredibly encouraging in the sense that the movement is not restricted to individuals who have personally experienced gruesome circumstances. Multiple rappers have taken the initiative to raise awareness about socio-political issues that do not directly affect them. In a song titled Atithi Devo Bhava, Imbachi speaks up against the Modi government’s ideologies and attempts to expose the general demeanour with which they conduct themselves. In reaction to the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, he raps,

Hindu rashtriya malla yilla mulkul

onna bharathanadada

atithi devo bhava

(Not a Hindu State)

(But one that includes everyone our India)

(Atithi Devo Bhava)

Nammal kanda Bharatham maani pogumo kanmunbilnilna

Secularism ennula vakyala veendam beleyilla inna

atithi devo bhava

(Will we see our India fade away right in front of our eyes)

(There’s no value for the word secularism anymore)

(Atithi Devo Bhava)

By constantly invoking India’s supposedly core value of “Atithi Devo Bhava”, Imbachi brings out the bigoted manner in which the government is acting on their agenda to turn a secular state into a Hindu rashtra.

With independent hip-hop gradually cutting across India’s regional and linguistic lines and finding its comfort zone at the heart of the revolution, the movement only promises to grow bigger. While the government can censor the narratives being broadcasted or published in mainstream media, the growth of the independent hip hop movement shows how the people’s voices can never be silenced. With Indian rappers carving out their own niches by choosing to represent and reach out to their people with regional vernacular, they provide a voice to the communities that were never heard before, while also instilling a sense of belonging to the larger community of India. It is not long before the movement spreads across the entire country, and gives birth to newer voices who take inspiration from the likes of Prabh Deep, Ahmer and Imbachi.

Rohan Pai is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In his free time, you’ll find him singing for a band, producing music and video content.

Picture Credits: Jamun, YouTube

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 4

how i’m feeling now – Charli XCX

Written and recorded over six weeks during the COVID-19 lockdown, Charli XCX manages to capture a lot of emotions that one may have felt during this unusual year through this 11-track electro-pop album. There’s catchy club-like songs including claws and anthems that manage to transport you to a party with friends, there’s also more serious tracks like forever and 7 years which convey feelings of love and longing. For those of you who may be wary of electronic music, this album is a great introduction to a sub-genre called bubblegum bass––a futuristic take on pop music, with electronically altered vocals and digitally exaggerated background sounds. To sum it up, this album is a fun way to virtually escape your house for 37 minutes, and enter Charli’s catchy, exciting electro pop world!

Categories
Issue 3

Remembering Eddie – 6 Essential Songs

Eddie Van Halen was an idol for an entire generation. Van Halen, along with bands like Journey, KISS, Bon Jovi and Motley Crue defined the 1980s fantasy of being a rockstar. Thanks to MTV and the popularity of music videos, band members were as recognizable as movie stars. Eddie was able to break the stereotype that virtuosos should always be serious or brooding characters. Van Halen brought joy to rock and roll.

The name of Van Halen is synonymous with incredible solos and lightning fast shredding, but what made Eddie special wasn’t his skill or flawless technique, it was his creativity and limitless passion for music. 

Perhaps the easiest place to find his bag of tricks on full display is the solo in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” one of the biggest singles of all time. The story behind that track encapsulates his approach to life, he decided to record the legendary solo for a case of beer and dancing lessons from the King of Pop because he didn’t want to complicate their equation with contract work, initially uncredited on the track from Thriller.

Van Halen, who passed away on Oct 6th after a long battle with cancer, managed to push the boundaries of the electric guitar in a way the world hadn’t seen since Jimi Hendrix. His unique style has left an indelible imprint on all rock music that has come out since the 80’s. He expanded the repertoire of guitar players to include fireworks like tapping, tremolo picking and blistering legato (playing only with the left hand) runs across the entire fretboard.  When people heard the unaccompanied guitar track “Eruption” off Van Halen’s debut album for the first time in 1978, they couldn’t believe what they were listening to. Getting those sounds out of a guitar was unheard of. 

Reducing Eddie to just his solos would be doing him a disservice – many professional guitarists will tell you that he was one of the best rhythm guitarists of all time. Eddie was an innovator, an inventor of sounds and styles that keep him relevant to this day, more than 40 years later. He was a master of the keyboards, responsible for the unmistakable intro to “Jump”. He built his own guitars, hot-rodding different parts from his favorite models to create the “Frankenstrat”, the iconic red and white striped guitar. He didn’t stop there, he modified his amplifiers with a light dimmer to coax a rawer, more powerful sound that is instantly recognizable. It became so popular that it was even given a name, the “Brown Sound”. Head into any recording studio today and you will find some kind of replica of that particular sound, which is plastered across modern rock music.

Six songs are not nearly enough to define his legacy, but in my opinion this is the best entry to discover Eddie’s work.

Runnin’ With The Devil (Van Halen I, 1978)

The first line of their first song signifies what Van Halen is about – “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow.” This song began the Van Halen era, introducing Eddie and the band to the world with a bang. Melting horns bring in the staccato bass and legendary intro. 

Ain’t Talkin Bout Love (Van Halen I, 1978)

This song gives you everything you want from a classic Van Halen tune –  iconic riff, catchy chorus, a steady beat and a great solo. This is a tune that sticks in your head from the moment you listen to it, one of the band’s best. 

Hot For Teacher (1984, 1984)

I must confess, this is my favourite Van Halen song. The lyrical content is meant to be relatable and frivolous but the musicianship on this track is par excellence. The breakneck pace of the song seems effortless because of the years that Eddie and his brother Alex (the drummer of the band) spent practicing together in their garage. Listeners get treated to the Eddie show with leads, dynamics and intelligent rhythm on full display. 

Jump (1984, 1984)

This is Van Halen’s most successful single and perhaps their most well known song. A perfect blend of pop and rock, this song rocketed to the top of the US charts. The song is defined by its instantly recognizable keyboard line. Eddie shows off his entire synthesizer arsenal with acrobatic arpeggios sprinkled all over the track, most notably in the pre-chorus where he plays a 4:3 polyrhythm over the drums.

Panama (1984, 1984)

The band wrote this song after lead singer David Lee Roth was accused by a reporter of singing about only women, partying, and fast cars. He realized he’d never written a song about fast cars, and decided to write one. During the bridge of the song we can hear Eddie revving his vintage Lamborghini Miura! The rhythm guitar work on Panama is quintessential Eddie and this strong is a strong contender for having the best Van Halen riff. This song is a staple in pop culture, heard everywhere from Superbad to Family Guy.  

Why Can’t This Be Love (5150, 1986)

This single is often unfairly criticized as it marked a departure from the original vocalist, David Lee Roth. However, Sammy Hagar shines on this synth driven catchy track which is a perfect 80’s time machine. An interesting fact about this tune is that on the first two world tours after this song was released, Sammy Hagar played all the guitar parts and the solo while Eddie Van Halen only played the keyboard sections.

Shaayak is an Economics and Finance Major at Ashoka University. He is a guitarist at Delhi band Apartment Upstairs and a music producer.  He has also worked with the Centre for Social and Behavioural change to produce an audio adherence program for Iron and Folic Acid pills for pregnant women in rural areas.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).