Monday, 21 May 2018

Are you local?

The first gig my band played in our home  town was on a Sunday night. It was the only night that our manager, Simon,could persuade the landlord to risk putting on a band, he had never done it before and he was bothered about upsetting his customers. The only places music was  performed was in the clubs, of which there were several, including an underground venue (Joy Division played there once) and a couple of social clubs who would sometimes let the local bands put on their own gigs in their function rooms but aside from that, there was a regular jazz night and that was about it..


The result of us playing there was that the place was rammed, the bar take was more than doubled and the enterprising manager eventually invested in equipment including a PA and lighting show and thereafter ran the place as a small venue successfully for many years.  The buzz around these events resulted in contact with the band from a label (thought nothing came of it).

Sounds far fetched, right?  Well, its a true story.

The way it happened is this, and you should remember that this is before the internet so the only way to get information and to communicate with anyone was by mail, by telephone and face or word of mouth. What we had going for us was that we had a space to rehearse, which we did every day for several weeks until we had good material we could play well and a fantastic manager who worked really hard getting us gigs.

Simon had worked as a croupier in a casino in Amsterdam and had never managed a band before but he was very good at speaking to people and would travel around with a cassette of us in the rehearsal rooms and would persuade the music pubs in the neighboring towns within a 50mile radius to give us a gig and sometimes in pubs that didn't normally have music on strength that we had our own PA and lights. This was true but we are talking a vocal PA and just four cans and a disco controller.  Sometimes nobody came other than the regulars, who were suitably entertained and possibly bought a drink or two more than usual so everyone was reasonably happy, including us because we almost always got paid enough to cover our fuel to get there.

Fly by night...

In those days, if youhad a gig to publisise you flyposted. This is almost impossible when you are playing gigs out of town, though we would put up the odd poster and hand out flyers on the way to the gig, we made up for it, though, by absolutely plastering our home town with flyers for our other gigs in the hope that people would come. They didn't,  but  why should they? Nobody knew who we were.

Simon managed to get us eight or nine gigs in the space of a month. The neighboring towns had a couple of music pubs and small venues each so by the time we  had played these we were running out of options which is why Simon tried and succeeded in getting us a gig at a largish pub at the far end of town though a few of the local bands had tried and failed in the past.

It seems, in retrospect that the flyposting we did to publicise our gigs in other towns in the preceding weeks created a buzz, so when we finally hit town, on night when nothing else was going on everyone turned  out to see what all the fuss was about.  The irony of being known locally is that  if you are ONLY known locally  that makes you a local band but if you are known outside your own town you become a Manchester band or Liverpool band or a Cleethorpes band (Cleethorpes! #Where the hell did that come from?)  Eighties band Squeeze , who spawned the inimitable Jools Holland hailed from Blackheath in South London were always a Blackheath'

Flyposting is rarely done these days and even then it was "dodgy" in that it was not just the authorities that could bust you but other flyposters were known to have "roughed up" a few people for intruding on what they considered their turf . The beauty of flyposters was that they tended to hang around for a little while afterwards before dissapearing which was a good bit of advertising that would not usually come back to haunt you shoulod you change your style, unlike the interweb which is "forever"!

Appreciate the subtleties of buzz creation. Try playing outside your home town. There's a cache to being a band from out of town especially if you are from somewhere with a "scene" do try to avoid the "local band" pitfall. We were lucky. Our early gigs seasoned us so when we played our home town we played to them as if they were anyone, no quarter asked.

Whenever you post to social media, consider what it might look like in the future, Is it a cool relic from your 

Friday, 6 April 2018

What's with all this Autotune business..?

The trend towards using Autotune as a vocal effect has become so prevalent in some types of music that it almost qualifies as a genre. Frankly, the sound of it slathered over a voice, especially a male one, gives me the creeps. Is it just me? I'm not decrying it out of hand since it can be useful when used properly but when it is used for its own sake it find myself being irritated by it almost from the off. Even barking Swedish dark metal doesn't have me prodding for the skip button quicker. Okay I'm an "older" listener, the internet thinks I should be buying "occasional incontinence" pants and the doctor wants to take a routine look up my bum so well outside the 16-24 demographic but I consider myself quite catholic in my tastes and wouldn't dismiss any musical genre per-se ( though my jury is out on ragtime and some of the fustier variants of trad jazz) but I'm far from being a philistine and taste, at the end of the day, is something that can not be accounted for. 

Is Autotune nearly a genre...

Did I say genre? The use of Autotune is becoming ubiquitous in many mainstream contemporary popular music styles. The name, which is the trademark of Antares Audio Technologies (though other pitch correcting processes are available) has, like "Hoover" and "Band aid" come to represent all forms of pitch correcting technology and to the public "that "Cher" sound" Since her release of "Believe" put the effect (and remember, prior to this Autotune was widely used as a tool to correct any unwanted "jazz"-notes in an otherwise on-point performance) into the public consciousness as a "sound". It also receives a fair share of derision from people who watch "The Voice" and "X Factor" when they believe it is being used to "cheat" to make a mediocre voice sound "better" when in fact probably most if not all vocal recorded vocal performances use the technology in some form because it is an incredibly valuable and useful tool when properly used. It's use as an effect is likely attached to some anecdotal story like the genesis of the infamous Phil Collins gated reverb effect (see what I did there?) which arose from technical serendipity and the ability to recognise its possibilities. 

Unctuous? Moi..?

Cherilyn Sarkisian (Cher) is a much loved and well liked performer whos voice perhaps is a little too well known to be exciting and new, so adding a effect which creates a sort of synthetic intimacy (like the proximity effect of close miking plus some musically harmonic phase distortion, like when someone is singing softly close to your ear down a tube) does add a little frisson, however, the sound of some (probably) precociously bearded millennial strumming on his lute and attempting to acoustically insinuate his way into the bedroom of some teen about the same age as my daughter with an unctuous and sickly  meandering non-tune with questionable lyrical value delivered through the harmonic sausage machine that Autotune has become raises my ire so much, sometimes I worry that a little bit of wee might come out.

BBQ sauce...

Yup, some square probably said the same about  The Beatles and their trademark backing vocals that made all the girls loose control of their faculties (and some of the boys) but that was different. That required craft. Autotune is like BBQ sauce or the Red Goop that you squirt on your ice cream cone. Worse of all it is used like a hailing signal or Station Ident the way Scousers (love them, love them all) sometimes do that "eeeeh" thing at the beginning of a sentence. As if declare "this has got Autotune, its the sort of music you like". It could even be considered as a faux genre in the same way that "indie" has become.  This would be preferable since I can be pretty well be sure that if I am going to hear music that at least will be engaging in some way It will not be smothered in Autotune. Failing that, a warning of some sort?  Some kind of filter?

Style vs. substance...

So to those Autotune fanciers out there, who think singing like ventriloquists on helium is a turn on, consider reviewing your personal style guide. Its  almost always a complete deal breaker for me, comedy and irony being the only acceptable application I would approve, oh and Cher of course. Sorry, but even the best song can be rendered inaccessible by that goop in a way that even the Lowest-Fi recording couldn't.  

Or maybe its me.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Spotify? I don't even know what it is...

A friend, who despite being an accomplished and talented singer-songwriter commented that they did not know what Spotify was the other day. This is no detriment to their ability to get gigs or reach an audience as they built their reputation prior to the digital domination of music watershed which I would estimate took place just after the turn of the century. They simply did not know what it was. In explaining, I thought that saying that it had pretty much replaced radio for the 16-24 demographic was pretty fair. 

Try another flavour...

I had forgotten about juke boxes because they are a rarity nowadays and as are mix tapes because Spotify has replaced them as well. Youth culture expresses itself differently than when some of us were in the 16-24 age group but little seems to have changed in the intensity and passion this group directs towards the music it consumes and identifies with. The biggest difference is the sheer diversity of styles and sheer quantity of content available. It is less and less likely that people in general and the all important music consuming youth market identify with a particular brand or artist in as much as they are approving of a set of production values which present their ears with a relentless stream of similar sounding, usually highly processed audio product.

Fourteen hours per minute...

Over fourteen hours of content is uploaded to Soundcloud every minute, clearly it is impossible to listen to so much material in real time, unless of course, there is a team of eight hundred and fifty or so people listening to the stream. Well, that's if they are going to listen to all of it, and what would be the point?  Music is a time based medium, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. A musical composition almost always ends (resolves) to the note on which it started so the first seconds of a piece of music can tell you this. within two or three notes it is possible to discern if the key is a major or a minor, is it happy or sad? The tempo is either fast or slow and where are the pulses in the rhythm. If you are looking for a cheerful tune that you can go running to then you can know fairly reliably within seconds if the next track on the playlist is going to be suitable. If not, hit "skip". So within a few seconds (it is estimated that this is around seven seconds)  a decision whether to listen on is made. If the track continues to be tolerated for thirty seconds then that counts as a "play" for most streaming platforms.

Don't waste my time with long intros...

The genre, style, loudness,  production values, and emotional valency are all quickly discernable without listening to the whole track, so if hardcore techno is not your bag you can quickly jog on to the next. With more complex genres the finger hesitates to hit that "next" button for as long as the ear and brain take to be sure they know where things are going which is the true meaning of entertainment. Long intros, of course, are risky as repetition and variety must be finely balanced. Too much repetition will make any impending novelty stand out and if, like me you are offended by heavily pitch shifted male vocals, you will not only skip to the next track but develop an aversion to that artist for having wasted so much of your valuable time before revealing this to you.

Very very frightening me...

Consider if Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody never existed but was uploaded to Soundcloud tomorrow. Do you think it would be curated into a popular playlist and become a viral hit? If not, ask yourself why and consider if the very way we consume music is affecting the sort of music we produce. I think it is, and its not good.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Everyone hates being ripped off...

There are some horror stories to be told about rip offs and acrimony between band mates, labels venues and everything from roadies to riders (anyone know the story about Keefs shepherds pie?) and there will no doubt be more to come. The people at the coal face who are dedicating their lives, health and sometimes their immortal soul to their craft or their artistry thoroughly resent even one crumb of what they consider to be their "dues" not reaching them. And rightly so, however sometimes this comes across as an exaggerated sense of entitlement, coupled with a lack of appreciation of others worth. It's a toxic mixture in any situation and it needs to be avoided.

Blurting out the phrase "Let's move before they raise the parking rate" by a session keyboard player in the studio probably doesn't constitute work for fee as they were paid to play a keyboard part so why feel disgruntled when you contribute to the hook of a famous song (allegedly) and not receive any royalties as your fee will not be affected if the song is a hit or not? 

Ego, pride, call it what you will, the egocentric nature of some creative individuals and  in general is unfortunate because its not productive, its certainly not sexy. Productivity and sexiness seemingly being high on the tick box list of attributes required to make it as a performing artist apparently, or at least I would have thought so.

Suspicious minds...

The attitude that some artists have towards other music professionals, especially promoters and agents is often one of suspicion. The idea being that if they can see a good reason for having them play, there must be something in it for them (the promoter or agent) and then the subconscious keeping of score begins. The years of practice, the costs of rehearsals, the wear and tear on equipment starts to get bigger as more beer gets served over the bar and more wristbands get distributed at the door. The pissy smell in the dressing room, (which is a toilet anyway) starts to matter, as does the derisory fee and all the work you put in to sell your ticket allotment to your mates and anyone who you could. Starts to feel like a rip off. But you are there, ready to give your all for the unappreciating, who will probably talk all the way through your set, as the excitement of telling all your nearest and dearest that you've "got a gig" fades into the distance. Still, you are getting exposure, right? 

Do your thing...

I somewhat approve of the DIY ethic, it has a good provenance. Nowadays it is quite possible to be your own publisher, producer, promoter and record label from the comfort of your own web enabled device. You can even put on your own events stream them on line, even have your latest creation mastered by a robot. However all of this takes time, and creative energy and of course money... My point? Keep to what you do, which is being a creative artist and allow yourself to trust those who aim only to assist your creativity. Just because you can do it, there is no reason why you should if it takes you away from your core business. We aren't all multi talented and some of us have only a little sliver of talent but have a certain something that makes us great at what we do so don't risk diluting what you have. Sure there are slim pickings to be made at the entry level of the music industry and it seems like everyone is out to exploit your dreams to make a fast buck for themselves but, in truth,  people who have that formed that impression have likely been hanging with the wrong people. 

Your inner state is what projects to the audience on stage. If you are gnarled, desperate and frustrated after a weekend of tagging Mp3s and writing individual submission emails or the disappointment of playing in some sticky carpet stank hole (again) for free or worse, it is going to show. 

The next time someone approaches you at a gig and offers to promote you or sends an email offering a service please don't dismiss it out of hand, and assume that they are out to exploit you. They may be saving you from yourself. 

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Relevant radio or digital dominance?

Streaming of digital music is now the most common means by which the largest consumers of recorded music, the 16 to 24 age group, who previously would have been the age group that would have bought vinyl singles and put your band on Top of the Pops. Playlist curators have replaced record companies and streaming is the new vinyl. But wait a minute. What is happening is that music consumers are listening to what essentially is radio. Radio with a difference in that instead of being "broadcast" it is being "narrowcast" to sometimes just one individual.   

I don't know about you but listening to live broadcast radio has its charms, it feels like a shared experience somehow. The RAJAR Midas Audio survey on broadcast radio listening habits is interesting reading for those who wonder about the relevance of traditional audio broadcast in terms of reach. Web based services pale to near insignificance by comparison with live broadcast radio having a near 75% reach. Almost half of the listening hours are outside the home, mainly at work and in a vehicle. 

In terms of reach, live radio, despite being "unfashionable" is still a force to be reckoned with and is likely to become more so since DAB receivers are becoming standard in vehicles and car audio systems. Interestingly, the uptake of live broadcast media where on demand streaming is available is undiminished. It will be interesting to note the effect of increased availability of on demand media in vehicles. The car being a popular location for listening to audio content which may convert up to 20% of total listening hours it represents to on demand and away from broadcast.

Listening to the radio at work accounts for a significant number of listening hours (32%) and this is increasingly spent listening to on demand services.

Before we all get too excited though, 91% of live audio consumed is speech based. So in terms of reach for music promotion this suggests that live radio airplay might reach 1.6 million listeners under optimal conditions. The Radio 4 Today program reported peak listening figures of  over 11 million. 

The take home message I think is that the power of live radio is vastly underused in terms of music promotion. Half of the listeners in the survey stated that they listened alone, which might explain the propensity to listen to speech content. 

As I suggested in my previous post, capturing an audience is as much about situation and timing as it is about form and content. Live media leaves something to serendipity in that respect.

Monday, 26 March 2018

When popular becomes outsider.

In the swirling morass of content which is uploaded to the internet minute by minute it is remarkable that any of we appreciators of independent music get to hear anything above the background noise of playlists, recommendations and likes on social media that assail us from every angle. What is it, then, that makes a tune catch on in the public domain outside of its niche? 

Some of us are old enough to remember JCB song by Nizlopi. (2005). Championed by Radio Two and played during the times when many who can relate to the experience of being stuck behind some slow moving piece of plant or agricultural implement whist projecting subconscious derision towards the hapless driver and finding their ire being tamed by the unfolding realization that the song on the radio is about a young lad who, being bullied at school is empowered by the experience of going to work with his dad... Nice.

What Bob Dylan said...

“The world don’t need any more songs. They’ve got enough. They’ve got way too many. As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs. For every man, woman and child on earth, they could be sent, probably, each of them, a hundred records, and never be repeated. There’s enough songs. Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story. But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it. If you see me do it, any idiot could do it.”

"A pure heart and something to say..."

Sure, that song ticked that particular box and on the exposure received the band's first album went platinum (300,000 copies) and the single entered the UK charts at number one, one week before Christmas following its release on December12th. Truly meteoric, however they weren't able to sustain their career despite their efforts and split soon after recording their second album. The other tick box that Bob didn't mention.

The bands guitar technician, the then unknown Ed Sheeran opened for them at one of their rare live performances and went on to have five platinum disks. The other side of the digital watershed has served him very well, in fact. Though downloads and social media were a "thing" back then (remember MySpace?) Between 2008 and 2011 the new paradigm of popular vs niche and physical vs digital had consolidated.

So here we are in 2018, with niche within niche and playlist within playlist which pretty much ensures that people are listening to music that some of us will live out our entire lives without awareness of its very existence or the artists that create it. Yes, I appreciate that there is a wealth of back catalog music that this applies to as well but with the sheer volume and diversity of styles, genres and sub genres all of which are related by algorithms and playlists how does that 'Pure heart with something to say" get heard these days? Answers on a postcard please. 

The acceptable face of outsider music.

An recent article in the industry blog "A&R Factory"  caught my eye; entitled "The Acceptable Face of Outsider Music"  I was naturally curious, having an awareness of outsider art I expected something primitive, slightly mawkish, and against the grain. No, what is considered outsider is in fact pop (as in popular) rock. 

The digital age has not only turned the music industry upside down, it now seems to have turned it inside out..(cue for a song) in a way that hitherto only Jazz, Rock and Roll and Punk cam lay claim to. And what can we call this "insider" movement, since what is popular is now "outsider"?

We have gone full circle it seems. Pre-punk, the majors controlled what music was allowed to be served up for popular consumption and now every man and his dog is their own record label and the result is that it is equally hard for the great performers who write and perform great songs to get themselves heard above the general clamor unless, of course, like in the "bad old days" they get lucky, have access to a lot of money or get spotted busking in the street by David Bowie's record producer, whether they are any good or not. 

If ever there was a need for the outsiders to start kicking in doors (metaphorically speaking) it is about now. We need good songs with popular appeal and artists who can keep them coming, can fill venues and have meaningful careers, they are out there, and they need to come through or we'll have to put up with, err... Ed Sheeran.