Music

17th September 2015

Articles I have written about music

This list brings together in one page the articles I have written about music.  Not included in this list (as yet) are the articles I wrote for the old Arts in Leicestershire magazine. I plan to re-publish some of these in the archival collection on this blog.

An X-factor for bands?

Band promotion

Bands and singers

Classic rock is dead

The Economics of local live music

Editorial bias in music

Flash gigs

History of music in Leicester

Local music – does it matter?

Major new festival showcase for Leicester

Music history

New bands starting up

Standards for live music venues

Thoughts on singing

Venues: friends or foes?

What makes a good band?

What makes a good gig?

What makes a good live music scene?

When should gigs start

Where is live music now?, in Arts in Leicester magazine, 2014

Writing about music

See also:

A list of all my published work

BandsAndSingers

23rd October 2014

10 Essays on Bands and Singers

Bands and Singers:  Ten essays on rock bands and singers.

By Trevor Locke.

Over the years, music journalist Trevor Locke has seen and listened to thousands of bands. Not just bands but singers, rappers and acoustic artists.

In these ten essays he looks at some of the fundamental elements of being a successful music act and what is needed to be a good band or singer.

He also looks at the business of live music; however good an act is at performing music, they have to make it in the real world of venues where music provided.

Some of the essays are published in this document for the first time;  others have been re-edited from articles he has previously published on his blog. These have been updated for this publication.

Ten Essays on Bands and Singers is published by Arts in Leicester, in a digital format.

2014, 30 pages, provided in a PDF format, sent by email, price £2.50

To order a copy, go to  our page on Arts in Leicester

Contents

1. An X Factor for Bands? (revised and updated)

2. Band Promotion. (New)

3. Promoting Artists. (New)

4. What do we learn from the obsUnplugged?  (revised and updated)

5. The Economics of Live Music in Leicester.  (revised and updated)

6. What Makes a Good Band?  (revised and updated)

7. Entertainment. Should Bands be Entertaining? (New)

8. Teamwork (New)

9. Talent. Is Talent the Key to Everything? (New)

10. Why do some venues make us pay to play there?  (revised and updated)

Local music: does it matter?

Trevor Locke asks if local music really matters

If you watch the television you might choose to watch a programme about rock music in the 70s or 80s. If music is your thing, there is no shortage of programmes in which famous musicians are interviewed and clips of bands and singers playing songs of the time are shown. These programmes are very interesting and informative but they are all about the big bands that made it into the charts.

What is largely neglected by both the media and by historians is music at the local level. It is assumed, most probably, that anything about live music in one town or city will be of interest only those who live there. Unless of course it is about Liverpool and the Beatles or possibly even Sheffield and the Arctic Monkeys or Manchester during the days of the Hacienda. These are subjects worthy of programmes or books because, in the opinion of their producers and authors, they have had an impact and influence on the national music scene.

I want to argue that music at the local level is both fascinating and important, in its own right. I would say that, wouldn’t I? After all, I have spent over ten years of my life writing about the music of Leicester for the magazine I created and now am compiling all that work into one enormous book on the subject.

Given that I am engaged in writing about local history, why is it that historians largely ignore music when they analyse and discuss the life of local communities? Local history has established itself as being an area of study that is credible and interesting, as much as the history of the nation as a whole. Local history of any kind is not just of interest to people who live in the area; those who research and write about local history like to consult works by others who are engaged in similar projects. Local history is a legitimate branch of learning in its own right. The life of any nation is not just about kings, politicians and battles. No understanding of a nation is possible without an awareness of the culture and life of people whose daily lives creates that nation. We cannot understand England without understanding the ordinary common folk who comprise it.

People who write about local history often focus on the areas of human activity that have been established in the accounts of the nation as a whole: commerce, industry and economics, politics, transport (trains and roads), women, race, battles and armies, etc. You do sometimes get studies of art or culture at the local level and that, by and large, concerns itself with pictorial art and sculpture. That stance on local history is often bolstered by the view that something at local level is of national importance. That take on history pivots around the assumption that something must have that magical national significance to justify it and give it credibility. Who arbitrates what is of national significance?

My interest is in music; my two great passions in life are music and history. So, writing about the history of music would be completely natural for me. The shelves of libraries are well stocked with books about periods of musical history, accounts of specific bands, studies of specific genres and so on. If, like me, you want to read about music in a town or city, you will have to search extensively to find anything. The shibboleth about local needing to be national haunts music and art history as much as anything other aspect of life at the level of street and town.

This situation needs to change. Historians and musicologists alike need to recognise that music has always been an important part of the life of any local community. If you want to understand what daily life was like in the past, as now, you have to look at the music that the people in a community were listening to. Art is about painting and statues, but it is also about music – and not just classical music. There are endless books about the great classical composers but almost nothing about the work of the countless men and women who have made music, composed and invented it throughout the ages at the local level. History is organised around notoriety. It is the legacy of how academia has been organised since Greek and Roman times that only the great artists and composers are worthy of study because they have defined the cultural landscape of The West, Europe, England … well of course that is true but I want to see credibility given to the study of the art and culture of common people, everyday country folk, the people, the masses, what ever you want to call them – the people whose lives come and go but leave little behind them. Historians tend to work with what is stored on library shelves. What gets on to library shelves is arbitrated by the shibboleth of national significance.

Archaeologists however are much more likely to unearth the remains of everyday life. Modern approaches to history are becoming increasingly concerned to reveal what life was like in the streets of a village, town or city. We can have a fairly detailed view of what happened in the streets of a Roman town, how food was produced and distributed, how people were housed, the tools they worked with, what people ate, how they dressed and cooked, how they were entertained and, to my mind, what music they listened to.

Delving into the history of music can be very difficult; the further back we go the harder it becomes to find remains because music just happens and unless people at the time wrote about it, nothing survives from music-making, apart from a few instruments or fragments of them that happened to be preserved in the earth. Such investigations become easier in recorded history when we can find manuscripts, writings, music scores, accounts of concerts or festivals to give us an idea of what people listened to. With the advent of film, recordings and the Internet, there is now a huge amount of material to work with if we want to write accounts of the musical culture of today or recent times.

At the local level however material about music is ephemeral and volatile. Vast quantities of videos, tracks and gig flyers flood through the pages of social media but few people see all this as being grist to the mill of historical research. Like many with an interest in music, I spend many hours of every day on Facebook, Twitter or websites watching what is going on, mainly in my own locality but also at national level. As a music journalist, my task is to watch, record and annotate musical culture in my local area.

The present is what is happening now. What happened yesterday is history.

Music, in my view, is an integral part of local history, just as much as food, buildings, clothing, work, politics, trade or anything else that forms an understanding of the life and experience of a community. This is not a perspective that I see in the output of the majority of local historians. Local history, I would argue, is the poorer for its lack of recognition of the significance of music to accounts of what happened at the local level in the lives of everyday people.

Anthropologists, who went out to study and research the life of tribes, cultures and peoples in foreign countries often recorded and noted the music that they made. They, like archaeologists, got down to the nitty gritty of everyday life and they found music in every social group they visited. Anywhere in the world. Whether it was part of religion or ritual, part of social gatherings or the transmission of culture and collective memory, or the expression of collective identity, musical activity was found everywhere that anthropologists went. From the Trobriand Islands to the high mountains of the Incas, anthropologists went to see people living their ordinary everyday lives and to record what they saw, whatever it was, and they all saw music being made.

Academically, local history shares many interests and sources with anthropology and archaeology. It is therefore somewhat odd that local historians have neglected music as much as they have in their understandings of the life of local peoples. Researching the history of music in an area can be challenging and difficult because of the dearth of source material with which to work. The further back in time that one wishes to go the less there is to work with and the harder it is to unearth. Yet, the more fascinating and informative it becomes. Music is an activity that tells us a lot about the people who make it and those that listened to it or took part in it, through religion, ritual, dance, social gatherings or just plain old entertainment. Music is a key definer of social identity; what music you like marks you out as a person. The gigs you go to are part of your social identity. The kind of music that is found in a community defines much about its culture, belief systems and cohesive tissues. The lyrics of songs are capsules of what people believe, celebrate and remember. The status given to music makers tell us something about the way a community is organised. This is as true at the local level as it is at that of the nation state.

Even when not focussing specifically on music, local history is incomplete unless it has tried to account for the everyday life of a community and that must, I argue, include how people were entertained, fed, clothed, educated and how they socialised. Music should be a topic that is always included in accounts of life at the local level. Without an account of a people’s music, the picture is inherently incomplete.

Trevor Locke

9th August 2014.

 

About this article

It might appear that I have assumed that no one has ever written about local music. I know that not to be the case because I have found studies in my own area of Leicester and have searched for and read material relating to other towns and cities in the UK, both in the form of books and articles on the Internet. The present article forms a précis for a more substantial article that I have planned. I offer it at this stage to see if I can evoke some comments or even make contact with like-minded individuals who share both my agenda and my interest in this topic.

When should gigs start?

At what time should venue start their shows?

Last night, at the meeting of the Leicester Music Forum, someone talked about the time at which gigs start, here in Leicester  7:30 pm is the standard time for nearly all venues to open their doors, for the majority of gigs. They all start at the same time, bar a few events that begin at 9 pm and some that take place on Sunday afternoons.  Is this good?

One contributor thought not.  I also agree.  Venues should network and collaborate to give the ticket-buying public more choice as to when they can go to a gig, if they want to be there for the start. By staggering the start-time of their shows, venues might see an overall increase in the total audience going out to ‘see a band’ on any given night of the week. Well that is what was being suggested.

Will this work?  As someone who goes to a lot of gigs in many venues across Leicester, I frequently notice that at 7:30 – 8 pm there are not many people in the house. The room fills up by 9 pm and a raft of fans turn up for the headline set at 10 pm.  This suggests that a lot of people make up their own minds when they can get there and certainly don’t go to see support bands.

On another point, it was also said (last night) that it is common for a large group of fans to go to a gig to see their favourite  band and – when that band has played – they leave. Various comments were made about this well-known phenomenon, including “it is very disrespectful to other bands playing.”  This might be due to public transport and parking issues but I suspect the truth is that those fans came to see their band and were not interested in enjoying the music of other bands, that they did not know. It remains an vexed issue for bands and promoters alike.

Well, you might take the view that if they have paid to get in then they can make up their own minds what they want to see and how long they want to stay for. Some of the more street-wise promoters play the card of putting the band – likely to bring the most fans – on last. In contrast, I have also been to gigs where the crowd has arrived on time, stayed for the whole night and enjoyed all the music. It does happen.

Do promoters put on too many bands in a line-up?  It is not uncommon around this city, for there to be 4, 5 or even 7 to 8 bands playing on a line-up.  Most music fans find this too much to take in on one night. Gone are the days when you go out to “see a band”, that is, one band that is going to provide the music for a whole night. Such events are limited to covers or tribute bands that play pubs. The typical venue gig these days is made up of a series of bands tat play 30 minute sets, one after another.

Let me indulge myself in an opinion – the best gig is one played by 3 bands and no more. Two support slots and one headliner. Gigs that follow this formula are likely to draw the biggest crowds and to be the most enjoyable. Generally speaking – because there are exceptions, such as metal or punk nights or acoustic evenings.

So why do we get these huge line-ups?  In some cases it is because promoters want to maximise their ticket sales for the night. If each band brings 10 people then 7 bands might equate to 70 ticket sales. I can see the logic of that argument, even if I believe it to be flawed.

Three well-chosen bands – including a well-chosen headliner – should be able to fill a venue. Let’s look at gigs and see if a three band show starting at 8:30 pm works as well as a 7 band line-up starting at 7 p.m. What would aid this investigation is collecting data:  look at a sample of gigs, note their start-time and record how many tickets were sold.  Speculation on the basis of personal experience is fair enough to give us a clue about what might be happening; but it is only when we get data that we can begin to analyse what actually works and what doesn’t.

If our local music Forum achieves anything, it would be to challenge music providers to think about the way they do things and to objectively analyse what works best for the music-going community in our local area.

Classic rock is dead

Classic rock is dead

Published in 2013

The death of Margaret Thatcher has brought about an unprecedented feeding frenzy of analysis and reflection on the state of current British politics. Politicians and journalists have this week been frenetically picking over the life and times of 1980s.

Will we witness anything similar when we inevitably celebrate the death of Ozzy Osbourne or Mick Jagger or David Bowie?

Well nothing to the same extent, of course, in the mainstream news media. Yes, we will see the expected obituaries for a day but media like the BBC will not recognise music or entertainment as having anything like the significance of the passing of a politician. What changes the soul of a country more – its politics or its music? This is a challenging question but one for another day.

Also last week we saw reports that scientists have ‘discovered’ that listening to new music is good for your health. Notice that the use of the word ‘new’ in the headlines. Can we follow through the logic of that analysis by concluding that listening to classic rock is bad for you?

http://www.nme.com/news/various-artists/69706

I would like to argue that it is. Classic rock was, like Margaret Thatcher’s period in Downing Street, an era of contemporary British history. The era, in which huge crowds of people avidly followed AC/DC, The Clash, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Deep Purple, was a great golden age of the twentieth century. Many people have moved on from the 1980s, both in politics and in the world of modern music.

The mid twenty-first century is an exciting time for popular music. Music lovers now have a much wider choice of genres, styles and tendencies than their parents or grand parents had in the middle of the last decade. Young people are now listening as much to dub-step and hip-hop as they are to rock and musicians have begun to merge and cross-over these musical styles, much more so now than ever before.

Just as jazz and blues had a fundamentally formative influence on the emergence of classic rock, so now contemporary musicians are bending their ears to the world of hip-hop and urban music for inspiration.

The music which excites me is that which moves the boundaries of popular music tastes. The music which bores me is that which harks back to the bygone age of rock and emulates the musical styles of bands that have passed into history.

Classic rock is dead but like the current celebration of deceased political leaders, it is a death that had brought fresh energy and enthusiasm to those who look back to the great golden ages of the past rather than to the bright horizons of the future.

Bands that are recycling classic rock do not rate highly in my lexicon of contemporary notoriety. There is no shortage of people who want to go to festivals that celebrate and tribute the old school of rock. I look at the crowds standing in front of stages joyfully celebrating a band that is recreating the musical traditions of the past. I see a group of men and women who are largely the same age as the musicians whose outpourings they continue to admire.

Yes you will see some fans whose ‘discovery’ of classic rock’s musical offering pre-dates their own birth dates by a decade or more. We can acknowledge the timeless appeal of classic rock and no, I am not arguing that it’s completely over, so let it go. What excites me far more are bands that have their fingers very firmly on the pulse of contemporary music, those who are doing today what the great bands did nearly half a century ago.

I know that some bands who are devoted to the revival of bygone musical traditions are contributing something valuable to musical heritage. My boat is floated far more by musicians who are trying to forge the music of the current time rather than looking back to a great golden age that has passed into history.

New music is about struggling to define where we are now. Heritage rock is about looking back to where we have been. We know where we have been. The generation that applauded AC/DC, Led-Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Motorhead, The Rolling Stones, Iron Maiden, did so because the music they heard then reflected something about their contemporary culture and life style. Bands making new music now are doing exactly the same thing – reacting to and being part of the world around them, reflecting the joys, tribulations, passions and anxieties of the youth of today, just as the rock legends of the past did when they were the headline acts of their era.

One other recent comment sticks in my mind. The lead singer of a contemporary rock band complained that old bands, like the Rolling Stones, are keeping new bands off the main headline slots at major festivals.

At the time he came out with his comment, my immediate reaction was to congratulate him for his point of view. Would I want to pay some ridiculous amount of money to go and see The Rolling Stones play their last ever live gig? No. I know what they are like; these old bands have been recorded in films and audio in a may which their precursors were not. The musicians of the 1930s, 40s and 50s had nothing like the extent of archival footage accorded to the generation that grew up in the glare of the then newly emerging mass media.

Even the rise of the Beatles in the 1960s is extensively filmed, photographed and archived in a way not matched in previous decades.

Men and women who are now in their 50s and 60s and even older, long to relive the experiences they had when when they were 20 somethings. This older generation of rock-goers seems intent on spending what ever amount of money it takes to relive the past, going to tribute and fake festivals to see bands that attempt to re-create these by-gone legends or pay even more to see the very last vestiges of the live performances of these really old bands.

It is perfectly possible of course that in 20 or 30 years time we will see grey-haired music fans queuing up to see the final performances by the new bands of today reliving the glories of their past and indulgently re-living the heights of their achievement in the mid-twenthieth century.

Popular music and rock in particular is for me one of life’s great voyages of discovery. The reason you won’t see me in the front rows of this year’s festivals, rocking out to these heritage bands, is that I came into rock music long after their time had passed.

My youth was not about rock music. I was well on the other side of my fifties before I began going to rock music gigs. I trace my passion for rock music back to the first festival I ever went to – Reading 2001 – well past my fiftieth birthday.

My youth missed out on the live experiences of the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Guns n’ Roses, Queen, Megadeth … my life-style was taking place in another country. I was going to see live symphony orchestras, opera and ballet but not rock bands. The only live music I ever saw in the Albert Hall was The Promenade Concerts.

What got me into rock music was Linkin Park, Marylin Manson, Green Day, Manic Street Preachers, Papa Roach, Queens of the Stone Age, Eels, Ash, System of a Down, Slipknot, … so after a life-time of classical music, I discovered rock when I went to the Reading Festival in 2001.

Over a decade later would I want to go and see all these bands again, to relive the wonderful experiences of those now far-off days in 2001? No. Music continues to be a journey marked more by discovery of the new than an indulgence in nostalgia.

Yes I might well blow the dust-off my CDs of Hybrid Theory, Meteora, Dysfunction, Volume three of the Subliminal Verses, Mesmerise and listen again to the sounds that excited me so much well over a decade ago.

That would be a rare event for me. I spend much more time listening to the latest CDs of bands that are playing now. I celebrate the music that today’s bands are making now and not that of bands that have had their innings and whose music is dead – even if it won’t lie down.

In a world where there is so much wonderful and inspiring new music, do we really need to re-live the heritage of the past? Yes, we need to understand where new music has come from but the sources of that historical perspective are all out there on the YouTubes, CDs that are still being traded, the TV documentaries that bring it all together so well. If I am going to spend time standing in front of stages listening to live music, then for me that is time well spent if it brings me the music of today.

Trevor Locke is writing here in a personal capacity and views expressed here are not those of Arts in Leicester magazine

Postscript
Ah ha! It looks like I am not the only one – read Jim Fusilli’s article about Rolling Stone Magazine

Thoughts on singing

Trevor Locke reflects on what he (as a member of the audience) learnt about singing when he attended the obsUnplugged programme of Acoustic shows in Leicester in 2013.

Performing covers

There are three kinds of covers

(a) Karaoke

(b) Just singing the song as it is in the original version – what pub singers do

(c) Taking a song and putting the artist’s own, original stamp on it, giving it a unique interpretation that has not been heard before.

When I listen to a well known cover (performed as part of a singing competition or vocal showcase), I would be looking for interpretation – what the performance of that song tells me about the artist in front of me and whether their unique take on that song shows me something about the singer. The better known the original song or artist, the more important this is. For example, Wonderwall by Oasis is a very well known song and I would prefer to not hear it sung karaoke-style, or as  just a faithful rendition of the original recording.  I would rather want  to hear what the artist in front me can do with it, to bring out aspects of the song that might never had heard before. I have listened to some very remarkable interpretations of well known popular songs, where the singer has taken the song and made it their own, producing a version that is markedly different to the original and given me a whole new insight into that song, using exactly the same lyrics and most if not all of the original melody.

Putting together a set list

If an artist is  given an allotted period of time in which to perform, he or she  can probably do about five or six songs.  In a showcase event, the  goal for,  a  performer, is to illustrate the range of their repertoire, demonstrate  vocal and instrumental skills and entertain the  audience.  A good performance is not one in which the artist sticks to safe, comfortable songs, any more than going for the really hard, challenging stuff,  throughout the set. The singer should open with a song which they know they can perform well, which is likely to capture the attention of the room, engage the audience and prevent people from going for a smoking break, the toilet or to
the bar from a drink.

Keeping them and holding their attention is the tasks of the opening song. The last song should be a vibrant, robust number that rounds off the set with something that will cap the set’s achievement and illicit sustained applause.  In between, the singer  has to show those in the room  what the artist is  capable of.  Things to avoid: too many songs which sound the same in tempo, style and content – most listeners appreciate variety – and too many covers that every one else is doing (yet another Ed Sheering song, oh no not Lady
Gaga’s Dirty Ice Cream again!)

Performing the songs

What engages audiences is feeling – the singer’s ability to get inside a song, believe in what the lyrics are saying, understanding what the song is about and then living the song,  while  on stage.  Inexperienced artists learn the words, the melody and the instrumentals and think that is job done.  It’s not.  Excellent artists spend some time trying to get into the role – just as actors have to get into the role of a character and live the part, so too singers should be thinking long and hard about the lyrics, the meaning of the song, what they are singing about and how best to portray the whole piece on stage. That might even mean deciding when and where to make gestures and facial expressions, the requirements of piano, forte and pianissimo passages and the internal dynamics of the piece. Whether
it’s their  own original song or their own original interpretation of a well-known cover, it’s about singers putting yourself  into the songs and acting it out on the stage.  An excellent singer will get this just right; one who is less good will over act.

Telling people who you are

It is unlikely that the audience will be sitting there with a programme.  They might or might not have read the running order (if there is one) on the way in.  Most of them will have no idea who the singer is. The job is make them aware of you – your name and where you come from.  Either announce yourself to the room before you start singing or after you have finished the first song. It’s no good telling them your Facebook address – they will not remember it – but if you have cards or flyers with it on, leave them around the room.

Between songs,  you can tell them the title of song and something (briefly) about what’s in it and(if it is your song)  when you wrote it or, if it is a cover, why you like it and who originally performed it. Don’t just say “I am now going to do a cover by Ed Sheeran” and leave it at that.  Interesting though that might be, it still tells people nothing about why you are singing a song by Ed Sheeran and what’s significant about it.

People do not want to hear long speeches, anecdotes or stories between songs (in a six song set) but a little bit of personal chat helps people to relate to you as a person. You are not a singing robot. You are a person trying to make a room full of people like you and remember who you are (and, hopefully, will then want to  see you again at your next appearance.)

Solo singers with guitars

Should you sit down or stand up? This is a vexed issue and there are strong opinions for both options.  Singing coaches say stand up because that is the best position for breath control.  Others say sit down,  if that is how you feel most comfortable and relaxed.  Singing at your best is not a comfortable experience,  even for professionals.  When I see an artist sitting down to sing, I tend to think they are newly starting out amateurs (that might not be true but there is always a tendency to assume this if you have not seen this artist before.)

If you are  going to play guitar to accompany your singing, tune the instrument BEFORE you go on stage.  If you put in a new set of strings, do that several days before the performance and allow time for the strings to settle in.  We have seen artists break strings on stage and then ruin a good act while they restring  or waste time borrowing an instrument from someone else.

Make sure the audience knows you have finished

Some songs can have abrupt endings and if so, it is better to say “thank you” into the mic,  so that people know that the song has  finished.  At the end of your set, there is nothing wrong in thanking the artists that have been on before you and how much you enjoyed their songs.  It is a courtesy that is noted by judges and by members of the audience.

Flash gigs

We have just come up with the idea of putting on a flash-gig as a way of getting people to come to our show.

I don’t know what it is like in other cities, but in Leicester it is really, really difficult to get people to come to gigs.  There are over 8 live music venues in this city putting on gigs nearly every night of the week.  There are over 300 local rock bands all of whom want to play as many times as they can in Leicester venues.

This means that competition for the limited number of fans who are prepared to go out and see live bands is fierce. Most of the publicity for gigs is done on the Internet – through social networking outlets and the websites where shows can be posted. Printing vast quantities of flyers and posters is not just expensive – it’s almost non-productive.  If you go into our live music venues the walls are plastered from floor to ceiling with posters and there are always piles of flyers everywhere you look.

You can book a line-up of bands several weeks ahead only to find that by the time your own gig comes round, several other venues have started to publicise gigs that are in competition with your own. This is partly why we came up with the idea of a flash gig – an event date where we spot a date where not much else is happening and then we jump in, book a venue, some bands and then flog the publicity like mad.

It might work.  We shall see.  If everybody starts doing it might loose its edge.  As an idea it had its wow-factor. Every time we have put on a gig we have planned it carefully months in advance.  We have done all the things that promoters are supposed to do. Worked steadily and consistently with the on-line publicity. Printed posters and flyers and trudged round trying to get people to take them.

The big night arrives. We think our bands are really great. We think we have got all the elements right for a top night of live music. We wait for the queues to form at the door.

Then disappointment. Fewer people turn up than we had expected and we begin to wallow in self-doubt, wondering where we went wrong.  This pattern is repeated for touring bands – those who want to come to play in Leicester because they have heard its a place with good venues and lots of popular support bands. They have played up and down the UK but they fail to pull as many gig-goers as the little newbie band that went on first.  It can be a hard life for both promoters and bands.

After several years of putting on gigs I can’t just give up.  There are just so many bands that I really like and want to book for gigs. I want to big them up because I think their music is just so great. I try to think outside of the box, try out new ideas to see if they work any better than the conventional wisdom of how to market shows.

So, we try the ‘flash-gig’.  We will let you know if it works.

Postscript

If you want to see what happened to our ‘flash-gig’ you can read the report on our page

Arts In Leicester’s Flash Gig

What makes a good live music scene?

13th December 2010

Having just got back from a really good meeting of the Leicester Music Collective, I thought I would commit a few words to paper. Well the digital version of paper maybe.

The nub of the meeting was talking about how we put more bums on seats.  Leicester has seen a massive increase in the number of live music venues and consequently in the number of gigs happening, week in and week out.

Promoters, venue owners and other industry movers and shakers are scratching their heads about how we should try to get more people to come out to support live music events.

We are all passionate about live music. We want to see more people attending gigs because we believe it is a really great way to spend an evening. But how do we do it?

One solution that is being delivered, is to print a monthly listing of gigs across all venues and distribute it as widely as possible. I support this. Even though I spend a lot of my working day pushing out information about gigs –  on the Internet – I realise that there is still a proportion of the population who do not go on the ‘Net every day. Even if they do, they tend to use it just for e-mail and don’t spend time surfing the web sites and social media outlets where they could come across info about live music.

If you do want to know about gigs or bands or music, you don’t have a problem finding it on the ‘Net.  If you might possibly want to go out and ‘see a band’, incredibly it can be difficult to find out what is going in this city. If Leicester has a problem getting the word out about gigs, it’s also likely to be the case that other cities have the same set of issues.

Distributing flyers that list gigs is one part of the solution and a lot of people said a lot of things about the practicalities of making this happen. Happily, someone has made a start on it and a listing is being produced.

Leicester has a profusion of live music venues; it has a huge supply of bands and artists playing every kind of music you can imagine. Live music has been a feature of Leicester life for decades.

There was some really interesting analysis about the impact of the BIG music society on tours, venues, ticket sales and festivals. Interesting though that is, my focus now is on amplifying the crowd for the small venues and the unknown, unsigned bands.

Someone pointed out that people will pay £20 to £40 to see a band they really want to see. Getting people to pay £5 to see bands they haven’t heard of, is much more difficult. But this is precisely where I operate and that for me is the major challenge.

Everyone agreed that it’s about getting the information out there; whether we use high-tech fixes or plain paper solutions, we need to make sure people know about what is happening, where and when.

On top of that there is a harder task of ‘selling’ unsigned, live music.  Why would anyone want to pay £5 to see a line-up of bands they have never heard of  before? Well, after two years of going to gigs, seeing hundreds of new bands and writing about many of them, I really feel passionate about live music. In a world increasingly dominated by recorded music, the difference between the two is immense. For me, live is the best. Live is what brings music to life. I don’t just want to  hear it. I want to see it.

But can I sell that idea to people who just want to plug themselves into their iPod and think that is what music is about, full stop?

I want to shout about the live music experience. I want to convince the public that live is an unbeatable form of entertainment. I want to convince people that going out to a gig and seeing bands playing is much better than watching it on TV or listening to music through ear plugs.

This wonderful group of people which has come together in Leicester has started to take that whole issue on board. The discussion however has focused too much on the supply side and not enough on the demand side of the market.

They did come up with the idea of doing a survey; asking people who go to live gigs what they think about things like: the venue, the ticket price, the transport there and back, what they like best and dislike most about shows and so on and so on.  That is good; we need to know much more about the punters, we need to keep asking questions that might help us to figure out the quality issues posed by live shows.

The other side of the equation is the bands.  This needs to be on the agenda. In live music, everything is driven by the bands, at the end of the day.  They are the people who make the music. But how do they contribute to making a local live music scene a success?

I am really looking forward to that debate. I already know some of the things that will get said:  what bands thinks of venues and promoters and vice versa. In Leicester, there is an almost endless supply of young men who want to play guitars on a stage. Sorry girls, but the ratio is about 20:1. I have lost count of the numbers of male musicians but I can count the female players of guitars, bass and drums on my fingers. Same is true of vocalists.

I have asked many questions about how bands write music. Who writes the songs, who makes the melodies, how do they choose what style of music they will play, what influences move them, do they ever think about what they look like on stage … and the answers are all invariably the same.

Musicians follow their own musical instincts. When four guys get together, assuming they gel together on the music, they will produce for their band, what they have had as a musical career, what they have grown up with, it’s all about their tastes, their musical passions, their sense of what works.

Ok, I hear you say, but that is also true of every other art form. It’s so obvious it’s hardly worth thinking about. But I also hear musicians talking about wanting to be successful, of making it in the music business.  Having talked with band members (for a few years) about this very subject, I know how difficult it is to get them to think outside of the box.

If a band has real talent and makes music that is good enough for people to pay to hear, what else do they need to do?  Sadly it is not all about the music. Of the 250+ rock bands in Leicester that write their own music, only a tiny few will ever stand any chance of making  it in the world outside. Are they the ones that have their fingers on the pulse of modern music and happen to be writing the best songs?  Not necessarily. There’s a lot more to it than that.

I’ve written about the ‘bands with no fans‘ thing before. I’ve talked about how bands can promote themselves. I’ve gone on about putting fans on floors. It’s still amazing to hear unsigned bands complaining that promoters are not providing them with big enough crowds.

It’s amazing because there is still a lack of ‘mojo’ about what makes live music work. Even if all promoters and venues did a perfect job of promoting shows, it’s still obvious that it is the bands who have the fans. It’s the band who has to put feet on floors. They are the ones who know who their fans are.

It’s incredibly difficult for promoters to sell tickets to the fans of a band. Even though MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are the most immediate conduits to the fans of a band, it’s not easy for promoters to message those people. Bands are not going to hand over their log in details to a promoter and say – ‘ok here are all our fans, you talk to them.’

Promoters can fire out marketing messages to the general body of people who might like  live music. We can put stacks of flyers into what we think are the right places. But the ones who are most likely to turn up at the door, are the people who already know that band. Access to those people is restricted to the bands themselves.

I don’t want to get started on the issue of ‘pay to play’ but the reason that hoary old chestnut won’t go away, is that for many venues and promoters it’s a solution that can work.

In a nutshell:  the promoter sells tickets to the bands. The band members then sell them to their fans. It can and does work but there are many band members out there who do not like it.

Some festival tickets can cost between £20 to £30. If you have to sell, say, 50, that’s £1,000 to £1,500.  For most small bands that’s a load of money to worry about.

Even so, I have heard bands say that they would be willing to pay that kind of money to get on to certain festival stages.

I’m not condoning this; I am just recognising that it happens. If it’s not part of the solution, it’s certainly part of the problem.

If bands want to be successful, they have to play music that people want to hear. They have to put on a performance that people want to see.

They might well have to compromise on their own personal tastes and accept that there is more to being a successful band than self-indulgence.

Moreover, they also have to bear the burden of winning, keeping and organising their fan base, promoting themselves, getting their name known and constantly tapping music industry people on the shoulder.

It’s great to hear stories like “oh, we had this box of 400 CDs and we had to sit down and listen to them all and decide which ones we wanted to sign up.”

As a music writer I sit in the middle of all this and hear both sides of the story. If we want more feet on floors in Leicester then both the promoters and the bands have to work together to achieve that.  No one has the exclusive power to win ticket sales.

We all agree that live music is the best music and we all want more people to join in and enjoy it.  We are only going to succeed if we all work together.

That ‘s what these meetings are about. Not why, but only how and to a lesser extend who.

What makes a good gig?

In Leicester, it’s not about playing at a particular venue, that bookings are about, but finding the right line-up to play in.

All the main venues have their good nights and their bad nights. A good night is when a reasonable number of people attend (40+). That can happen at any venue on any day of the week, but only when the line-up is right. A bad night is where a set of bands fails to draw a crowd and they end up playing to each other. That happens a lot and the sad thing is that it keeps on happening.

Someone is making the same mistake over again. It could be the promoter, the venue or the bands or all of them together. But when it does happen everyone looses.  So why don’t they get it sorted and stop putting on nights that are bound to fail?

It would be better if there were less gigs but more good gigs. Music producers fail to co-ordinate their shows with each other.  They all work in isolation.  They do what they want to do – when they want to do it. In my view, everybody looses in this scenario.

At the root of this problem is the fact that there are just not enough ticket-buying fans to go round. We live in hard times. People do not have enough disposable income to allow them to go out to live music events that often.  Too many shows chasing too few people. It’s a problem that everyone recognises but which there is an in-built reluctance to do anything about.

Many people around here have commented that some kind of live music coordinating forum just might help the local scene to plan its programmes more effectively. What would help to move this forward is a few music producers getting it and giving some thought to how to make it happen.

One last word:  if you must put on a live gig, choose the right line up!  Don’t book bands willy-nilly just because they say they are available. Well constructed line ups will attract a better crowd than a random selection of bands playing a hotchpotch of musical styles. It seems so obvious. Why then does this still happen?

Why the Digital Economy Bill won’t work

The Digital Economy Bill attempts to outlaw music file sharing; it threatens to take away people’s right to use the Internet if they consistently download music and/or movie files without paying for them. Is this right? Does it protect the rights of musicians and actors whose income is being jeopardised by pirate file sharing on the Internet? The industry is divided on the matter.

Some think it is necessary to protect the creative rights of copyright holders who depend on sales of their work to make a living. There are those who argue that draconian measures are called for to protect the “creative industries” from this large-scale theft and loss of income.

So, is this knee-jerk reaction ‘fair dos?’ Research by the think tank Demos found that people who download music from file sharing sources spend more on average on legitimately purchasing music than those who obtain music only from legitimate sources. The Internet is awash with new music: it has to be. Musicians need to build up a following and get their recordings heard.

Eventually bands and artists get to a point where they want to go full time and to spend their time being creative, making music, writing songs, without the impediment of having to go out and do a job to pay the rent. This is where it becomes difficult. The record labels used to take on new artists and give them a living by signing them up to a contract. This rarely happens these days. Sales of CDs have plummeted; plastic music has been substantially replaced by digital music.

The other thing to note is that the total value of live music sales has now overtaken the total value of sales of recorded music. You can’t download the live experience. Seeing a band and being in an audience with like minded fans is one of the most exciting and satisfying experiences of modern life and far outweighs the value of listening to tracks on an i-Pod. Of course, it’s the pre-recorded music that in all probability has created the demand for the gig tickets and this precisely why the record labels should take the pain of the £200m loss on file sharing, simply because there is a bigger prize to be won from the music loving public.

Bands making new and original music have to give away their music in order to create a following for it. There comes a point however when a band has become established when selling songs becomes a realistic proposition. Many bands these days would say they do not need record labels; they can be their own label and sell their music directly via i-Tunes – they don’t need record labels to do this for them.

Controlling the Internet might not be the solution. The freedom of the Internet has both its winners and its losers. It might well be true that the record industry is loosing £200 million a year from illegal downloads. As Billy Bragg said: “It’s the record labels that are dying on their feet”. They are not dying because of file downloads; they are dying because they do not want to change the way they operate. They are run by old-style conservatives who do not want to change or keep up with the times. Louis Walsh believes that talented musicians need “The Big Machine” to get them on to the mass media. He would say that wouldn’t he – being one of the owners of the x-factor brand. It’s easy to understand the rage there is against that machine.

A lot of these problems will go away when the big corporate machines stop trying to own artists. There are too many corporate suits who want to get rich at the expense of the people they control. Ok this has been the reality of popular music for the past 70 years. Labels have made big money out of artists. The Internet offers a way out of that maze of vested interests. The more you try to control the Internet, the harder people will try to get round the controls. Control solves one problem but immediately creates another.

Surely the better approach is to concentrate on the technology of locking music recordings into highly encrypted packages that only a payment can unlock. Technology exists that is capable of creating an un-copyable CD and an un-hackable digital distribution source. If the government want to help the creative industries to get their money back from their work, let the Government fund the research and technology development that will make digital copyright protection a reality. A reality in which any kind of creative effort can be securely locked into a format which is un-copyable. The Government have got it wrong – it’s not the “creative industries” that are losing money – it’s only the record industry moguls that are having their power taken away. File locking is one thing but there is another way.

The government has never had a problem funding the BBC via a licence fee. Millions have to pay for the BBC to be creative whether they want to watch it or not. Presumably they could fund the creative industries by a tax on Broadband usage, so that those who use the greater bandwidth pay more for it and the money goes to fund the artists they want to listen to. Sounds a much more beneficial approach to me than trying to police the un-policable.

When it comes to the Internet, people should be given what they want. A basic service should be free to those needing only a basis amount of use. Those who want more, should pay. A generation has grown up which places no monetary value on music; all music is free. Kids cannot see that it costs anything to make recorded music. Even 99p is too much to pay to hear a tune. They want to hear the music but they do not want to pay for it. If they are downloading songs from the back catalogue of great bands because they want a musical education, then that is a good thing. We all want to listen to the songs that represent the roots of modern music. But let’s get the file sharing companies to pay for that education. Let’s engage the bit torrenters in educating their users about the economic realities of music and why it is not produced free of charge.

In the old days people would happily put a 10p into a juke-box in a bar and listen to a track being played. People would often spend a pound or two playing their favourite songs. All we need now is the digital equivalent of the juke-box and a micro payments system that will work on the Internet or the mobile phone. That however needs to be backed up with some educational work to help people to understand why it costs money to record music.

On balance I think I side with the musicians like Billy Bragg who reject the government’s solution as being misguided and failing to see the bigger picture. What we need to change is not how people use the Internet but the way that the music industry is organised.