Retirement

4th February 2015

Retirement

Planning for retirement

Some time ago I announced my ‘retirement’. It was a big mistake.  People keep asking me things like “Are you enjoying your retirement?” My usual reply is “The only thing I have retired from is retirement.”

Far from having retired, I am just as busy now as I ever have been. Don’t get me wrong:  I am not complaining about this.  I am just recognising this as a fact of life.  Retirement, I think, might have been a concept (or a procedure) that came about in history when people used to have jobs.  The work till they became of retirement age (traditionally 65 for men) and then they retired from work.

I ceased to be in paid employment many years ago. I gave up being employed by other people to run my own business – and be my own boss. That is not something you can easily retire from. If you set up your own business (becoming self-employed) then that is not something you can easily walk away from. Not if you are a sole trader. If you a member of a partnership or group, then yes you could do this and let the others carry on.  I have always been a sole trader. I can’t leave the business to others.  It’s me and only me. That’s why the only thing I have retired from is retirement.

Does any of this have any relevance for anyone else?  Well, it does if you happen to be in the same circumstances as me; or, if you have made so much money you really do not need to should the responsibilities of having the run a business any more. If that is you – well done and good luck! Me – well I carry on doing what I do for two reasons:

Firstly,  I love what I do.  I can’t live without it.  I work now mainly in the fields of music, history and journalism. Often, I do all three of these at the same time. I find I can’t easily walk away from my greatest passions. If I give all this up – what am I left with?  Not a lot.

Secondly, I don’t need the money.  I am very adept at living comfortably on my pension and making ends meet. The business helps financially in so far as it breaks even; it covers most of its costs (operational overheads) but it isn’t making me wealthy. Running magazines you do for love not money. Working in the arts and history is something that I do as a service to the public; I certainly don’t do it to make money for myself.

As one gets older, it is, I think, very important to keep the old brainbox going. Having something to do every day is important to keeping the mind in robust health and this prolongs active life. Admittedly you don’t have to work with the same level of pressure as was the case when your life depended on it. I spend a lot of my time writing.  I have several books on the go and I am running two magazines. That gives me a life.  I think the problem that many people faced when they retired is that it left them with nothing much to do, apart from the endless round of every day activities – gardening, playing with their grand-children, taking holidays, or whatever gives them pleasure. All very expensive pastimes. I enjoy the cut and thrust of having challenges, keeping up with my own deadlines, responding to the demands of the people I work for  (readers) and that keeps me in rude health.

Will I ever let go and do the retirement thing properly?  I doubt it. Retirement these days is a luxury afforded only by the rich.  Us poor people have to work till we drop.  the great thing is that I don’t have to work. I choose to work because it gives me a sense of fulfilment and keeps me active and connected.  Our society needs to update the concept of retirement for the 21st century. Or abandon it altogether (probably a more honest approach.)

Why you should plan your business

“Fail to plan = plan to fail”

Why business starts need good planning.

You have a great idea for a new business. You think it could really work. You can  see where the market is and who the customers will be.

You start the ball rolling.

Stop. You have forgotten something – planning. The failure rate for new business starts ups is really high. My guess is that the reason for this is that people launch into it without thinking. More specifically, without planning. Entrepreneurs like to following inspiration – they do not always go with the perspiration.

Once you get into the cut and thrust of day-to-day business operations you won’t have time to think and plan. You will always say “I can’t top to do a business plan. I’d too busy”. I know how you feel.

Most people who start businesses these days fail to allow time to plan the business properly. They do not see the need for this. When things get tough – as they always do – there is no plan B, there is no contingency. This is where the whole enterprise is it risk of failing.

All businesses – whether corporate or sole trader – need to have a business plan. Both the text about goals, missions and markets and also the spreadsheets that predict turnover, income, expenditure and the bottom line for at least the year ahead.

This is not an academic exercise. You will need a business plan to open a band account. You should use your plan to spot where the stress points will be in your monthly forecasts – enabling you to plan ahead and avoid financial problems.

I set up a new social enterprise company and after our first six months of trading we are solvent, we made a small profit and we are really looking forward to the next six months.

 

Business Advice for artists and entertainers

Trevor Locke can now offer qualified business advice for artists and entertainers.

Having gained an award in Social Enterprise, Trevor Locke can offer business advice to people needing to earn their living as artists or entertainers.

Artists can be from any genre or art form. Entertainers can be from any form of work: musicians, singers, comedians, magicians, dancers, actors, writers, poets … if you think that you need advice about how to earn a living from your work, I will be pleased to hear from you.

You can contact me by email, via my web site, link up with me on Facebook or call me by phone if you want to know more.

My main web site is

www.artsinleicestershire.co.uk

and on Facebook

I have achieved the SFEDI accreditation in Social Enterprise, Core Units of Compentence, 1 to 8, Social Enterprise competencies A to D.

Whether you want to operate as a social enterprise company or only as a sole trader, I can still help you.

If you are worried about your Tax Affairs, see my blog about the services offered by Irwen Mitchell

Will the 21st Century work?

10th March 2013

Retirement planning

Trevor Locke (the author of this blog) has announced that he will ‘retire’ in August 2014.

Being clear about some things,  he has begun the process of downsizing his business commitments.

He will however continue to be available to provide consultancy services up to and beyond his official retirement date.

The economics of ageing in the twenty-first century.

Over the past few months I have been following the media’s preoccupation with the “baby boomers”. Being over 60, I am facing up to the challenges of not being classed as in my ‘prime’ any more. As current policy goes, I am in fact only a few years away from retirement age. What weighs on my mind however, is that by the time I reach 65 they will have moved the goal posts. I will have to wait till I am 70 and who knows, by then, they will have probably dismantled the goal posts altogether.

I am most probably part of the work-till-you-drop generation. Retirement is just a passing phase, in the broader historic scheme of things. My grandfathers worked till they dropped and retirement was a luxury afforded to post-war generations but, as an economic concept, its looks it’s being consigned to the museum of history.

What do we do? With a labour market that is almost universally geared to people aged between 21 and 31, people in my age group are struggling to find any kind of employment. Despite the government’s blandishments about the need to employ older people, the recruitment industry just does not want to know.

This is why I am building my future around self-employment, where age does not matter. After 45 years of working life, I consider myself to have a broad range of knowledge, skills and experience. Try telling that to HR consultants. Fortunately I now include. in that work profile, over 15 years experience of running my own businesses.

Several things have got me thinking about the future of work. Notice I use the word “work”; part of my vision of the future is that “employment” is likely to follow “retirement” into the graveyard of economic history – at least for a very sizeable segment of the population. The 21st century is going to see a sea change in how people earn a living. Large sections of the population are going to have to get into self-employment and running their own businesses, for no other reason than that is the only way they can avoid destitution and poverty. We are entering the age of the “sole trader”.

We saw the rise of the Entrepreneur in the industrial revolution, the rise of the capitalist and then the rise of corporate man. All that is now waning and the age of the sole trader is upon us. Company pensions are going to be a thing of the past and indeed several people have said recently that they have given up on the idea of a pension and prefer to invest in more secure containers for their wealth.

It’s an issue that government policy analysts are wrestling with. Western capital has moored itself to the rock of the pension funds, only to find that they have secured themselves to rocks that are beginning to sink to a watery grave, where they will find themselves gathering incrustations alongside the wrecks of “banks” and “building societies”.

In the meantime, my ship of private business is sailing into the new dawn of the twenty-first century economy. Those who are 55 and over, should be thinking about their futures as working men and women. Those futures are going to be self-determining. We are exhorting our children to start paying into private pension funds as soon as they start work, planning for a life-time of saving for their retirement. Don’t. It’s basing their future on the here and now. Not a good idea. Occupational pensions will soon become a thing of the part. Whether private pensions can replace them, remains to be seen. I ask myself this question: if you are not going to retire, why do you need a pension?

I would rather see the nation’s parents exhorting their offspring to go on business courses, so that they have the basic skills to go it alone, if they find themselves bereft of “employment” (a not-unlikely scenario, in my view.)

Tax strategists will have to start thinking outside of the box. Post-war society never had it so good because the state could easily collect its revenues from bulk employers: the corporations that could maintain an army of administrators to tax the work force and send the cheques to the Treasury. Very cost-efficient for central government. It is now not where things will be in the future. PAYE’s contribution to Treasury revenues will go down. Income related taxation will increasingly be based on self-assessment tax returns.

There might well be big corporations for the rest of our life-times but they are likely to be populated with contractors rather than employees. The relationship between entrepreneurs who run businesses and their work-force is changing. The old-style PAYE employment scenario is being replaced by a hire and contract approach. This will change the way working people are recruited.

I am seriously thinking about the amount of time I spend submitting my CVs to companies. My four hours a day of laborious sifting through vacancies could be better spent raising my profile in the market place. So, if you’re the MD of a recruitment agency or a jobs web site, take my advice. Plan for the future and re-engineer what you are doing. Your business is likely to find itself resting alongside the wrecks of the pension funds and banks. Jobs are out, contract tenders are in.

The old order is waning. We just need to stand back far enough to see the bigger picture and look for enough head to see the direction in which the world is heading. Listening to a social media guru tonight, I heard her say that she stopped bothering about getting herself listed on job web sites and concentrated on making herself “be found” on the Internet. Now, people phone her up to ask her to work for them. Much better. That is where I need to be.

Recruiters now should be searching for people to hire. If you want a particular type of person, someone with a distinctive profile, you should be out there looking for them. The time when we applied for jobs that were posted on recruitment web sites is passing into the shadows of history.

Employers, in this future world, will not be advertising for staff. They will be out there searching for people who have put their offer, their CV, their profile on the Internet and are waiting to be found. Age is not important. It’s a complete red-herring (just as is, gender or race.) If you need people with the right skills for the job, go out and find them. As tonight’s speaker said: “NEVER put your real age on a profile.” I totally agree and we both understand the reasons why this principle is of prime importance.

For me, it is mainly to do with identity theft, where date of birth is the key to getting the rest (I know from my years of doing genealogy.) I have decided not to put my age on my CV and I am busily deleting information that will give a clue to my age. If they are going to judge my application using age as a factor, I don’t want their job, I will just press the next button.

Earning a living

So, what am I going to do that will earn me a living and be consistent with my knowledge, skills and experience? I am going to work (notice the lack of the work ‘job’) for companies who can make money from people like me and share the benefits with people who want to work with them rather than for them. Forget the pension, the PAYE, the office, the set hours of work, the employment contract, the annual leave package. These are already legacy . Ah! I can hear some of you whingeing already about the loss of annual leave. Well when you work for yourself you arrange your own holidays. You decide how much holiday you can afford, when you want it and where and how you want to take it.

Wave good-bye to the concept of annual leave, conditions of service, benefits (such as the company car), the corporate credit card, health plans and all the other trappings of post-industrial corporate life. If you want something, earn the money and buy it yourself.

Sole traders

I did talk about “sole traders” earlier didn’t I? Well, it’s interesting that many of the people who are on the long march into the new economy are working together. Yes, they are still sole traders but they seeing the opportunities of working alongside other sole traders, in business pods, even in project swarms. Being a sole trader can be lonely and isolating. Until you discover all the other people who are in same situation and suddenly realise that if you all work together, you can be more than the sum of your parts.

Disheartened? Frightened? Filled with foreboding? I’m not. I am excited about the possibilities and the opportunities to show what I can do with my 45 years of experience.

What makes a good band?

What makes a good band?
Since I started my career in live music, I have seen over 3,000 bands play live. Some of them have been good enough to put on the stage of a big arena, some have been worth watching again on the smaller stages and some I have ticked the box and moved on to the next. But I am left wondering, what it is that makes a band stand out from the rest?  In this article I try to pull together the elements that make a band first class.
The music
Because we are talking about bands that play their own music, we have to start with their collective ability to compose good music.  The best bands are those that can turn out musical hits on a regular basis.  Some bands have come up with one good song but have failed to equal it, even though they have produced new songs on a regular basis. What puts a band at the top of the tree, is their ability to turn out great songs, time and time again.  That is true of the really great, world class bands, as it for the unsigned, unknown bands that grace the stages of the small venues.
Having said, that what then are the elements of a good song? Melodies and lyrics. The world’s best loved songs have simple melodies that everyone can remember and sing on their way to work or in the shower or at the karaoke. Most of the great popular songs have simple lyrics that are meaningful to most people or that say something that speaks to most of us. Not that rock songs have to be simple or vapid. I prefer rock to pop because rock to my mind is more musically rich and vigorous. The lyrics of  Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is not simple; the words are full of captivating visual images and highly ambiguous phrases. One of my favourite singer-songwriters, Don Mclean, wrote lyrics that I have never been able to understand (“American Pie”) but I have been listening to with wonder for many years. The US band Staind wrote song lyrics that completely changed my attitude to rock music and were a revelation to me. “It’s been a while” was one of the most emotional and haunting lyrics I have ever come across in rock:
Its been a while
Since I could look at myself straight
and it’s been a while
since I said I’m sorry
It’s been a while
Since I’ve seen the way the candles light your face
It’s been a while
But I can still remember just the way you taste
But everything I can’t remember as fucked up as it may seem
I know it’s me I cannot blame this on my father
he did the best he could for me
The early albums of Staind had a profound affect on my attitude to and appreciate of nu-rock.
Lyrics are great if you can read them and they strike you as being poems even if you have not heard the music. They have a quality that is free standing from the music. Some great iconic songs have been based on lyrical material that was far from simple – using metaphor, imagery and iconography to great effect. So, for example,
And all the roads that lead to you were winding
And all the lights that light the way are blinding
There are many things that I would like to say to you
I don’t know how
might on the face of it seem simple but what does it really mean, if anything? People like this song because they can make of it what they will. There are a million interpretations of it.
Some bands have written totally unintelligible lyrics, following in the footsteps of Lear, but have made them work inside the context of the song (Muse, Led Zeppelin, Bowie). The regurgitating of age old clichés is a big no no for me. I hate songs which refer to persons of the female gender  as “baby” or “babe” and yet our fathers were totally happy with this.
Put together captivating lyrics with memorable melodies and you have a hit. People are going to love it. The melody has to be easy to remember. The rhythm of the song has to do something to our pulses. The lyrics have to be hearable – you have to be able to hear what is being sung about. If the song has a chorus, then it should be iconic – the audience should be singing it on the way home from the show. Sadly few rock vocalists articulate their words clearly enough for most people in a crowd to hear what they are singing. If the same applied to guitar lines, the band would be a flop.
The song should have dynamics – the rise and fall of the mood, the use of catchy phrases and breaks that amplify the flow of the song and tensions that build up to a break. It needs to attract a cross section of music lovers. A good band is one that can play or sing to a wide variety of people and capture their attention, irrespective of their age, sex or cultural background.  Contemporary music is, in my view, too tribal, too limited to one particular group or segment. Much modern music celebrates age, class, gender or race.  It’s not the genre or idiom of the music that matters.  It’s not about rock versus pop, or pop versus hip hop, or hip hop versus r’n’b. It’s about music that can reach across boundaries.
I often ask bands, what comes first:  the melody or the lyrics. I regularly get a “don’t know” answer. It is however true that both of these need to fit together. There was a time when lyrics were truly shocking, absurdly trivial and a reflection of the complete inarticulate illiteracy of the songwriters. Some of these are still being sung today and are fondly remembered by fans and music aficionados alike. But modern music lovers are much harder to please than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Today you have to be able to write lyrics that appeal to audiences who are generally well educated, articulate and intelligent.
Entertainment.
Live music is a form of entertainment. To reach out to an audience, a band has to live its music on the stage, it has to infect the audience with its passion for its music. I have seen bands who play well, from a technical point of view, who make good music, but stand on the stage like cardboard cut-outs. I have listened to bands who have potentially top class songs but for what ever reason they have not come alive. Stage craft is as important as song craft.  It’s no good being able to write a great song if you can’t perform that song. Bands playing live on stage have a strong visual element. You go to see a band as must as you go to listen to them. Some lead singers have been referred to as great entertainers, because their performance is half an hour of working a crowd. Bad vocalists don’t sing to the audience; they sing to themselves, the ceiling, the other band members but they fail to engage the people in front of them. Singing always has an element of acting. Even if you can’t see the audience (blinding stage lights in your eyes) you should still act as though you can see them and you know they are there.
Does a band have attitude?  Whether its the attitude of the lead singer or of the whole band, rock bands do sometimes portray something in their act that suggests aggression, cool, petulance and so on. Punk in some of its forms works a recognisable set of attitudes, as does death metal and nu-rock. Some young bands manufacture attitude, throwing their instruments on the stage at the end of the set and storming off the stage but this can easily look very false and contrived.
Originality
Most small bands sound like a bigger band. Bands that are not covers bands or tribute bands, need to play music that is recognisable but not a simply clone of a currently popular big band or one of the greats from the last 20 or 30 years. There are some really good bands out there that have popular appeal, but still sound too much like The Libertines, The Kings of Leon, AC/DC, Green day, Blink 182,  or some other band.  No band can write music in a vacuum. I remember being at a gig where a band played that I had not heard before. Half way through the set, I stood there scratching my head and thinking – I know they are good at what they are doing but I have never heard anything like this before. They are not like anything I have ever heard before. Then the penny dropped.  I realised that I was listening to a band that was truly original. Suddenly, it all became very exciting.  This is not something that happens very often.
If a band really does invent original music, they can find themselves struggling to find people who like it. The sound-alike bands do well because fans easily identify with what they are hearing.  Play something that no one has heard before only the musical sophisticates applaud it.
Team work
This article discusses: “what makes a good band”. There are some acts out there where a star quality front man or woman puts on a truly amazing singing experience but the rest of the people on stage are just backing musicians.  It’s all about the lead vocalist.  If the lead singer leaves the band, there is not enough left to go on to success. This is still a band, may be, but what makes a band, as a whole, a first class act?  Teamwork. Firstly let me say that I have a strong opinion about rock bands: in my view the best rock bands have at least three good vocalists. In a standard four piece band I would expect there to be a strong lead singer and at least two backing vocalists. In a trio, all of them have to vocalise.  For me, the top quality rock band is one has adds vocal depth to good instrumental arrangements. Rock bands are, with few exceptions, singing bands.
Some bands put on a really sparkling show because they all work together to make it happen. Even when not singing, a guitarist and even a bassist can be dancing on the stage. The stings section can all jump up at a break in the music. The drummer can put on his own show at the back of the stage. The guitarists can assume postures that are familiar to that style of music. There is so much that instrumentalists can do to turn a band concert into an act which entertains the crowd as much visually as it does aurally.
I have seen bands where there is an amazing front man but where he is backed up by the musicians who sing, dance, play their instruments and create a total package that  makes their set have a special magic.
Appearance
This is difficult.  I can remember when bands during the 1970s tried to out do each other in the costume department and rock became theatrically camp. Today, most rock musicians want to look like they have just walked on to the stage from their day job or their bedroom. Now and then a band wears black shirts.  A band that starts putting on a costume or uniform can be  regarded with suspicion. One or two metal bands wear costumes, a trend set by Korn.
Bands I see on the television playing at huge festivals, have, I guess, chosen their wardrobes carefully with the aim of not looking like they have dressed differently just because they are on stage. They have, I suspect, chosen their jeans and tops carefully to fit with the latest fashions. No big band member wants to look like a nerd. They want to be wearing what all their fans are wearing, or at least the best dressed of them.  Hip Hop and Rap singers seem to have gone in for uniforms big time. They have to be wearing the latest in-clothes to have any chance of getting anywhere.  No matter how badly they perform, they can be sure of getting booked because they are wearing the right stuff. This is tribalism. These artists are buying into an art form which is more about iconography
than it is about music.
Indie rock artists just need to look ordinary and everyday but even that requires taste. The majority of the bands that I have seen have literally gone on stage in the same clothes they always wear to work or college.  Indie bands do often change their shirts from what they came to the venue in, changing in to something that they imagine is more in keeping what their act.
I have come across bands that have sought the services of a professional stylist, but this rare.
Finally let me say that it is not common to find a group of band member who look the part. Pop moguls have been manufacturing boy groups (singing groups) by picking four or five young men who are all the right height, shape, age and facial cute-ness. They have been manufactured as products for pre-pubertal female consumers. It smacks of musical pornography but some labels have made a lot of money out of it.
When Liverpool four lads happened to come together in the early sixties, they were not manufactured, they just happened. They grew to be one of the greatest musical legends of all time. During the sixties, they happened to be the most iconic youth act imaginable. Yet there were not selected for their looks.
If you read the stories of how most of today’s rock bands formed, you see processes at work that are largely about friendships, mates meeting up a college or people being introduced informally because they could play a guitar, drums, bass and so on.  There is never any reference to their appearance. Looks are almost irrelevant when it comes to the formation of young rock bands. If a band happens to have members who look the part, that is likely to be the result of happy co-incidence or maybe, because this particular group of mates all look fairly alike.
Once in a while a band comes along with four people who co-incidentally look the part. They all look right for the style of band and its music. If they are good at all the other elements of a first class band, they are probably going to make it. They are the same age, wear the same style of clothes, have hair styles that match and share common musical tastes. None of this was intentional or planned by managers.
I have seen bands where three of the members look spot on but one stands out like a sore thumb. If that one is the lead vocalist then they are not likely to get very far. The exception to the rule is the drummer – the one who sits at the back and can look like anything because they are hidden away and its doesn’t mater that much.  Equally, there are bands with really good looking male drummers who sweat copiously, rip of their T’s and suddenly because a key part of the show.
Sex has always been used to sell music. It’s either sexy female vocalists who are there to lure male fans or handsome male leads who are there to appeal to anyone who has an eye for male looks. Take That climbed to fame in the gay clubs of Manchester because, at that time, they were all regarded by fans of either gender, as being really good looking guys. They had sex appeal and they they used it to sell their music. Some young bands deliberately get naked on stage because they know that their teenage audiences think them hot enough to get away with this. It’s a trap for the unwary.  At one gig a band member took off his shirt only to be greeted by a chorus of “put your shirt back on” from the crowd.
There are many bands out there that either innocently use sex to sell themselves, or, in some cases are in a band only because of their hormones.  It’s said that there are so many male bands only because the guys in them see  this as being the way to get girls.  To what extent is this realistic? I’ve been fortunate enough to know a few, good looking guys for long enough to find out about their private lives and I didn’t see them getting laid at every gig.  In fact many of them have steady girl friends to whom they are faithful, even though they could pull any one of a dozen or so girls who are standing in front of the stage wetting their knickers at them.
Talent
In a good team, all the band members need to have equal degrees of talent. Some bands have average musicians but one stands out – a star lead guitarist or an ace drummer. This makes up for the lack of ability in the rest, in some cases. But the best bands are all good at what they do to more or less equal degrees. But does a lead vocalist need  to have an x-factor voice? This is interesting. Some great singers don’t have the best voices but they have voices that have character. The only bottom line requirement is that they can sing in tune. Sadly I have seen bands with lead singers who desperately need either to have a good voice coach or who need to find something else to occupy their time. Singing out of tune is not acceptable. It’s no good blaming the stage monitors.
One of the most exciting band vocalists I know is not a good singer. He can’t sing but he can put on a stunning performance and he has has genuine star quality as a front man, but there’s no way I can see him as a singer. He shouts, growls and screams his way through his set, accompanied by three of the most technically exciting musicians I know and the band is always thrilling to see. In rock, there many flavours of vocalisation and I do not put down screamo bands because they appear to have opted out of singing in favour of screaming, which is a specialised art form that is very hard to do well and correctly.
Some bands are good at playing together, writing listen-able songs and also give their guitarists or drummers solo spots where they can demonstrate their virtuosity. Completely acceptable but not a requirement. Good singing, thrilling guitar work and drumming add up to an exciting package, that makes rock what it is.
When it comes to the voice, size doesn’t matter; it’s what you do with it that counts. Some  world-class  singers have had horrible voices but absolutely tantalising personalities; they can make bad songs into great ballads. Springsteen was noted for his rough gravelly voice.
It is said that the voice is another instrument that has to be played like a guitar. But the guitar is a standardised instrument. All guitars sound more or less the same. Guitar-heads won’t agree with me but you know what I mean. When it comes to the voice however, there are huge variations of colour, timbre, range and tone.  One band I know was generally regarded as making good popular songs, which they performed well but the front man, who sang in tune and put on an acceptable stage performance, nevertheless bored me because his voice had little character. It was too plain and didn’t suggest anything. Another band was generally ok at making music but insisted on always having one female lead vocalist whose voice was annoyingly penetrating.  High pitched and piercing, even though could sing in tune, I couldn’t bear to listen to them. Their recordings were even worse than their live shows because of this one flaw, and they just couldn’t see it.
The other thing about team work is that the band members should be able to work together effectively, particularly when off-stage, in the rehearsal room, making songs. All bands have fights now and again. Some bands fight like cats and dogs all the time but somehow manage to stay together and produce some really good music, despite the conflicts going on internally.
Young bands are particularly vulnerably to in-fighting because the band members do not have the worldly skills or experience to know how to manage differences of personality or opinion. One very young band I know well are still together and doing really well after two years, during which time huge blow ups have occurred with various members threatening  to walk out of the band because they weren’t getting their own way.
There’s a difference between team work and four people who have a chemistry. I have seen bands where the live performance is a joy to experience because the group of musicians on the stage feed off each other, giving out a vibe that even non-musicians like me can only wonder at and which takes music making on to the next level.
Too often bands stay firmly within their comfort zone and don’t want to challenge themselves. Part of talent and a desire to reach for originality involves being ready to leave the comfort zone behind and try something new. Great bands are those who want to push the boundaries of what they are doing and reach deep inside themselves to draw on their talents to produce something that is fresh and ground breaking. Such bands will make it because the industry is always on the look out for something new.
Industry
By industry I mean hard work. Talent can easily go hand in hand with laziness. Equally, there are some bands who are not that great in the talent department, but who are succeeding because they work hard, believe in themselves have know how to manage themselves to climb the ladder.
The music industry is going through a sea change.  We have moved away from the age of the record label, where a band made it only because a label signed them. The Internet has created the infrastructure for bands d.i.y their way to a reasonable of commercial success. As I have always said, behind every successful band there is a team of people who are off-stage but contribute to the band’s success.
Hundreds of bands have contacting me wanting management because they believe that a manager is going to carry them up the ladder. This is the subject of another article and I have a lot of say on this subject. Many hundreds of small bands are self-managing and actually do a good job at it. The downside of this is that while they are spending hours and hours each week booking gigs, doing publicity and artwork and coping with the huge range of things that need to happen behind the scenes, they are not concentrating on music. Some bands have at least one member who demonstrates considerable excellence at undertaking most of the duties involved in good band management. No wishing to pre-empt my future article on band management, the biggest single fault in most of the bands have I have followed, is this lack of programming. I’ll come back to that point another time.

What makes a good band?

Since I started my career in live music, I have seen over 3,000 bands play live. Some of them have been good enough to put on the stage of a big arena, some have been worth watching again on the smaller stages and some I have ticked the box and moved on to the next. But I am left wondering, what it is that makes a band stand out from the rest?  In this article I try to pull together the elements that make a band first class.

The music

Because we are talking about bands that play their own music, we have to start with their collective ability to compose good music.  The best bands are those that can turn out musical hits on a regular basis.  Some bands have come up with one good song but have failed to equal it, even though they have produced new songs on a regular basis. What puts a band at the top of the tree, is their ability to turn out great songs, time and time again.  That is true of the really great, world class bands, as it for the unsigned, unknown bands that grace the stages of the small venues.

Having said, that what then are the elements of a good song? Melodies and lyrics. The world’s best loved songs have simple melodies that everyone can remember and sing on their way to work or in the shower or at the karaoke. Most of the great popular songs have simple lyrics that are meaningful to most people or that say something that speaks to most of us. Not that rock songs have to be simple or vapid. I prefer rock to pop because rock to my mind is more musically rich and vigorous. The lyrics of  Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is not simple; the words are full of captivating visual images and highly ambiguous phrases. One of my favourite singer-songwriters, Don Mclean, wrote lyrics that I have never been able to understand (“American Pie”) but I have been listening to with wonder for many years. The US band Staind wrote song lyrics that completely changed my attitude to rock music and were a revelation to me. “It’s been a while” was one of the most emotional and haunting lyrics I have ever come across in rock:

Its been a while
Since I could look at myself straight
and it’s been a while
since I said I’m sorry
It’s been a while
Since I’ve seen the way the candles light your face
It’s been a while
But I can still remember just the way you taste
But everything I can’t remember as fucked up as it may seem
I know it’s me I cannot blame this on my father
he did the best he could for me

The early albums of Staind had a profound affect on my attitude to and appreciate of nu-rock.

Lyrics are great if you can read them and they strike you as being poems even if you have not heard the music. They have a quality that is free standing from the music. Some great iconic songs have been based on lyrical material that was far from simple – using metaphor, imagery and iconography to great effect. So, for example,

And all the roads that lead to you were winding
And all the lights that light the way are blinding
There are many things that I would like to say to you
I don’t know how

might on the face of it seem simple but what does it really mean, if anything? People like this song because they can make of it what they will. There are a million interpretations of it.

Some bands have written totally unintelligible lyrics, following in the footsteps of Lear, but have made them work inside the context of the song (Muse, Led Zeppelin, Bowie). The regurgitating of age old clichés is a big no no for me. I hate songs which refer to persons of the female gender  as “baby” or “babe” and yet our fathers were totally happy with this.

Put together captivating lyrics with memorable melodies and you have a hit. People are going to love it. The melody has to be easy to remember. The rhythm of the song has to do something to our pulses. The lyrics have to be hearable – you have to be able to hear what is being sung about. If the song has a chorus, then it should be iconic – the audience should be singing it on the way home from the show. Sadly few rock vocalists articulate their words clearly enough for most people in a crowd to hear what they are singing. If the same applied to guitar lines, the band would be a flop.

The song should have dynamics – the rise and fall of the mood, the use of catchy phrases and breaks that amplify the flow of the song and tensions that build up to a break. It needs to attract a cross section of music lovers. A good band is one that can play or sing to a wide variety of people and capture their attention, irrespective of their age, sex or cultural background.  Contemporary music is, in my view, too tribal, too limited to one particular group or segment. Much modern music celebrates age, class, gender or race.  It’s not the genre or idiom of the music that matters.  It’s not about rock versus pop, or pop versus hip hop, or hip hop versus r’n’b. It’s about music that can reach across boundaries.

I often ask bands, what comes first:  the melody or the lyrics. I regularly get a “don’t know” answer. It is however true that both of these need to fit together. There was a time when lyrics were truly shocking, absurdly trivial and a reflection of the complete inarticulate illiteracy of the songwriters. Some of these are still being sung today and are fondly remembered by fans and music aficionados alike. But modern music lovers are much harder to please than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Today you have to be able to write lyrics that appeal to audiences who are generally well educated, articulate and intelligent.

Entertainment

Live music is a form of entertainment. To reach out to an audience, a band has to live its music on the stage, it has to infect the audience with its passion for its music. I have seen bands who play well, from a technical point of view, who make good music, but stand on the stage like cardboard cut-outs. I have listened to bands who have potentially top class songs but for what ever reason they have not come alive. Stage craft is as important as song craft.  It’s no good being able to write a great song if you can’t perform that song. Bands playing live on stage have a strong visual element. You go to see a band as must as you go to listen to them. Some lead singers have been referred to as great entertainers, because their performance is half an hour of working a crowd. Bad vocalists don’t sing to the audience; they sing to themselves, the ceiling, the other band members but they fail to engage the people in front of them. Singing always has an element of acting. Even if you can’t see the audience (blinding stage lights in your eyes) you should still act as though you can see them and you know they are there.

Does a band have attitude?  Whether it’s the attitude of the lead singer or of the whole band, rock bands do sometimes portray something in their act that suggests aggression, cool, petulance and so on. Punk in some of its forms works a recognisable set of attitudes, as does death metal and nu-rock. Some young bands manufacture attitude, throwing their instruments on the stage at the end of the set and storming off the stage but this can easily look very false and contrived.

Originality

Most small bands sound like a bigger band. Bands that are not covers bands or tribute bands, need to play music that is recognisable but not a simply clone of a currently popular big band or one of the greats from the last 20 or 30 years. There are some really good bands out there that have popular appeal, but still sound too much like The Libertines, The Kings of Leon, AC/DC, Green day, Blink 182,  or some other band.  No band can write music in a vacuum.

I remember being at a gig where a band played that I had not heard before. Half way through the set, I stood there scratching my head and thinking – ‘I know they are good at what they are doing but I have never heard anything like this before. They are not like anything I have ever heard before.’

Then the penny dropped.  I realised that I was listening to a band that was truly original. Suddenly, it all became very exciting.  This is not something that happens very often.

If a band really does invent original music, they can find themselves struggling to find people who like it. The sound-alike bands do well because fans easily identify with what they are hearing.  Play something that no one has heard before and only the musical sophisticates applaud it.

Team work

This article discusses: “what makes a good band”. There are some acts out there where a star quality front man or woman puts on a truly amazing singing experience but the rest of the people on stage are just backing musicians.  It’s all about the lead vocalist.  If the lead singer leaves the band, there is not enough left to go on to success. This is still a band, maybe, but what makes a band, as a whole, a first class act?  Teamwork.

Firstly let me say that I have a strong opinion about rock bands: in my view the best rock bands have at least three good vocalists. In a standard four piece band I would expect there to be a strong lead singer and at least two backing vocalists. In a trio, all of them should vocalise.  For me, the top quality rock band is one that  adds vocal depth to good instrumental arrangements. Rock bands are, with few exceptions, singing bands, in my opinion.

Some bands put on a really sparkling show because they all work together to make it happen. Even when not singing, a guitarist and even a bassist can be dancing on the stage. The strings section can all jump up at a break in the music. The drummer can put on his own show at the back of the stage. The guitarists can assume postures that are familiar to that style of music. There is so much that instrumentalists can do to turn a band concert into an act which entertains the crowd as much visually as it does aurally.

I have seen bands where there is an amazing front man but where he is backed up by the musicians who sing, dance, play their instruments and create a total package that  makes their set have a special magic.

Appearance

This is difficult.  I can remember when bands during the 1970s tried to out do each other in the costume department and rock became theatrically camp. Today, most rock musicians want to look like they have just walked on to the stage from their day job or their bedroom. Now and then a band wears black shirts.  A band that starts putting on a costume or uniform can be  regarded with suspicion. One or two metal bands wear costumes, a trend set by Korn.

Bands I see on the television playing at huge festivals, have, I guess, chosen their wardrobes carefully with the aim of not looking like they have dressed differently just because they are on stage. They have, I suspect, chosen their jeans and tops carefully to fit with the latest fashions. No big band member wants to look like a nerd. They want to be wearing what all their fans are wearing, or at least the best dressed of them.

Hip Hop and Rap singers seem to have gone in for uniforms  – big time. They have to be wearing the latest in-clothes to have any chance of getting anywhere.  No matter how badly they perform, they can be sure of getting booked because they are wearing the right stuff. This is tribalism. These artists are buying into an art form which is more about iconography than it is about music.

Indie rock artists just need to look ordinary and everyday but even that requires taste. The majority of the bands that I have seen have literally gone on stage in the same clothes they always wear to work or college.  Indie bands do often change their shirts from what they came to the venue in, changing in to something that they imagine is more in keeping what their act.

I have come across bands that have sought the services of a professional stylist, but this rare.

Finally let me say that it is not common to find a group of band members who look the part. Pop moguls have been manufacturing boy groups (singing groups) by picking four or five young men who are all the right height, shape, age and facial cute-ness. They have been manufactured as products for pre-pubertal female consumers. It smacks of musical pornography but some labels have made a lot of money out of it.

When four Liverpool  lads happened to come together in the early sixties, they were not manufactured, they just happened. They grew to be one of the greatest musical legends of all time. During the sixties, they happened to be the most iconic youth act imaginable. Yet they were not selected for their looks (they selected themselves.)

If you read the stories of how most of today’s rock bands formed, you see processes at work that are largely about friendships, mates meeting up a college or people being introduced informally because they could play a guitar, drums, bass and so on.  There is never any reference to their appearance. Looks are almost irrelevant when it comes to the formation of young rock bands. If a band happens to have members who look the part, that is likely to be the result of happy co-incidence or maybe, because this particular group of mates all look fairly alike.

Once in a while a band comes along with four people who co-incidentally look the part. They all look right for the style of band and its music. If they are good at all the other elements of a first class band, they are probably going to make it. They are the same age, wear the same style of clothes, have hair styles that match and share common musical tastes. They can all sing. None of this was intentional or planned by managers.

I have seen bands where three of the members look spot on but one stands out like a sore thumb. If that one is the lead vocalist then they are not likely to get very far. The exception to the rule is the drummer – the one who sits at the back and can look like anything because they are hidden away and its doesn’t mater that much.  Equally, there are bands with really good looking male drummers who sweat copiously, rip of their T’s and suddenly because a key part of the show.

Sex has always been used to sell music. It’s either sexy female vocalists who are there to lure male fans or handsome male leads who are there to appeal to anyone who has an eye for male looks. Take That climbed to fame in the gay clubs of Manchester because, at that time, they were all regarded by fans of either gender, as being really good looking guys. They had sex appeal and they they used it to sell their music. Some young bands deliberately get naked on stage because they know that their teenage audiences think them hot enough to get away with this. It’s a trap for the unwary.  At one gig a band member took off his shirt only to be greeted by a chorus of “put your shirt back on” from the crowd.

There are many bands out there that either innocently use sex to sell themselves, or, in some cases are in a band only because of their hormones.  It’s said that there are so many male bands only because the guys in them see  this as being the way to get girls.  To what extent is this realistic? I’ve been fortunate enough to know a few, good looking guys for long enough to find out about their private lives and I didn’t see them getting laid at every gig.  In fact many of them have steady girl friends to whom they are faithful, even though they could pull any one of a dozen or so girls who are standing in front of the stage wetting their knickers at them. I have also seen bands where the female  lead singer ticks all the boxes when it comes to being hot. She plays up to her sex appeal and everyone in the room is looking at her.

Talent

In a good team, all the band members need to have equal degrees of talent. Some bands have average musicians but one stands out – a star lead guitarist or an ace drummer. This makes up for the lack of ability in the rest, in some cases. But the best bands are all good at what they do – to more or less equal degrees. But does a lead vocalist need  to have an x-factor voice? This is interesting. Some great singers don’t have the best voices but they have voices that have character. The only bottom line requirement is that they can sing in tune. Sadly I have seen bands with lead singers who desperately need either to have a good voice coach or who need to find something else to occupy their time. Singing out of tune is not acceptable. It’s no good blaming the stage monitors.

One of the most exciting band vocalists I know is not a good singer. He can’t sing but he can put on a stunning performance and he has has genuine star quality as a front man, but there’s no way I can see him as a singer. He shouts, growls and screams his way through his set, accompanied by three of the most technically exciting musicians I know and the band is always thrilling to see. In rock, there are many ‘flavours ‘ of vocalisation and I do not put down screamo bands because they appear to have opted out of singing in favour of screaming, which is a specialised art form that is very hard to do well and correctly.

Some bands are good at playing together, writing listen-able songs and also give their guitarists or drummers solo spots where they can demonstrate their virtuosity. Completely acceptable but not a requirement. Good singing, thrilling guitar work and drumming add up to an exciting package, that makes rock what it is.

When it comes to the voice, size doesn’t matter; it’s what you do with it that counts. Some  world-class  singers have had horrible voices but absolutely tantalising personalities; they can make bad songs into great ballads. Springsteen was noted for his rough gravelly voice and some, in the 80s, for the ability to reach eye-wateringly high notes.

It is said that the voice is another instrument that has to be played like a guitar. But the guitar is a standardised instrument. All guitars sound more or less the same. ‘Guitar-heads ‘won’t agree with me but you know what I mean. When it comes to the voice however, there are huge variations of colour, timbre, range and tone.

One band I know was generally regarded as making good popular songs, which they performed well but the front man, who sang in tune and put on an acceptable stage performance, nevertheless bored me because his voice had little character. It was too plain and didn’t suggest anything. Another band was generally ok at making music but insisted on always having one female lead vocalist whose voice was annoyingly penetrating.  High pitched and piercing, even though she could sing in tune, I couldn’t bear to listen to them. Their recordings were even worse than their live shows because of this one flaw, and they just couldn’t see it.

The other thing about team work is that the band members should be able to work together effectively, particularly when off-stage, in the rehearsal room, making songs. All bands have fights now and again. Some bands fight like cats and dogs all the time but somehow manage to stay together and produce some really good music, despite the conflicts going on internally.

Young bands are particularly vulnerably to in-fighting because the band members do not have the worldly skills or experience to know how to manage differences of personality or opinion. One very young band I know well are still together and doing really well after two years, during which time huge blow ups have occurred with various members threatening  to walk out of the band because they weren’t getting their own way.

There’s a difference between team work and four people who have a chemistry. I have seen bands where the live performance is a joy to experience because the group of musicians on the stage feed off each other, giving out a vibe that even non-musicians like me can only wonder at and which takes music making on to the next level.

Too often bands stay firmly within their comfort zone and don’t want to challenge themselves. Part of talent and a desire to reach for originality involves being ready to leave the comfort zone behind and try something new. Great bands are those who want to push the boundaries of what they are doing and reach deep inside themselves to draw on their talents to produce something that is fresh and ground breaking. Such bands will make it because the industry is always on the look out for something new.

Industry

By industry I mean hard work. Talent can easily go hand in hand with laziness. Equally, there are some bands who are not that great in the talent department, but who are succeeding because they work hard, believe in themselves have know how to manage themselves , to climb the ladder.

The music industry is going through a sea change.  We have moved away from the age of the record label, where a band made it only because a label signed them. The Internet has created the infrastructure for bands to  d.i.y their way to a reasonable of commercial success. As I have always said, behind every successful band there is a team of people who are off-stage but contribute to the band’s success.

Hundreds of bands have contacting me wanting management because they believe that a manager is going to carry them up the ladder. This is the subject of another article and I have a lot of say on this subject. Many hundreds of small bands are self-managing and actually do a good job at it.

The downside of this is that while they are spending hours and hours each week booking gigs, doing publicity and artwork and coping with the huge range of things that need to happen behind the scenes, but they are not concentrating on music. Some bands have at least one member who demonstrates considerable excellence at undertaking most of the duties involved in good band management. Not wishing to pre-empt my future article on band management, the biggest single fault in most of the bands have I have followed, is this lack of programming. I’ll come back to that point another time.

Venues: friends or foes?

Venues: Friends or foes

There are many hundreds of places where bands can play. Every city, town and even small villages have venues of one sort or another. Some are permanent live music venues, with stages, sound systems and lighting.  Some are pubs that play bands maybe once a week. Some are part of big national chains and others are just owned and run by one person.

In this article we discuss some of the issues that bands have raised about the way in which they are treated by venues. We would like to hear your comments. This draft work in progress will eventually become a permanent article in the GYBO magazine (no longer available)

Why do some venues make us pay to play there?

It has long been the practice on the part of some venues to make bands play for the ‘privilege’ of performing. This is often in the form of making a band pay a deposit, which they will lose if they fail to sell enough tickets for that show.

It is often the case that a live music venue will send a band that it has booked, a batch of tickets to sell.  They might ask the band to pay for these tickets in advance. The band might be able to sell the tickets at less than their face value and pocket the difference. If the band sells above a quota of tickets the venue might give them a bonus. If it all works well and 30 to 40 people buy tickets to see that band play, both the venue and the band make money.

In cases where the show is free entry and there are no tickets to sell, the costs of putting on bands and any money paid to the band has to come from somewhere. That money might come from drinks sales. Pubs have tills and if live music brings people into the pub, they spend money at the bar. At the end of the night the pub landlord takes money out of the till to put for the PA, sound engineer, any publicity he might have done and some cash to pay the bands.  If it has worked and enough people have come in to see the band, the venue owner has achieved his objects. If not, then there is a loss. Not all venues have sufficiently good profit margins on their wet side sales to be able to afford to pay bands.

There are a few pubs where there is always an established crowd wanting to be entertained. So the pub landlord knows that on a Friday or Saturday night his pub is going to be full of customers and he can make enough money to put on a band or two to entertainment.

A more common situation is a pub that has hardly any customers on mid-week evenings and, so get people in, hires bands to play who will bring in a crowd with them. If the landlord does not want to charge on the door, he or she has to be certain that the band with come with its own crowd. The fans buy drinks and enough money is made to give something back to the band.

Even in permanent live music venues, bands have to bring people with them. It’s not common for music lovers to go out to a venue and have a night out listening to what ever band happens to be playing that night.

I have seen serious live music venues go bust and close down because bands were accepting bookings to play there and have done nothing to get fans to come with them.  Do this often enough and the venue goes broke.

I have also come across bands who can’t be bothered with all this fan stuff and expect to be provided with a stage, a cash payment and a large audience who wants to listen to the music they have composed.  Which planet do you think they are from?

There is no following in this country for unknown music. If your band is not known and is playing its own music, you have to  sell that music to people like it.

The bands that get hired and paid serious money but who are not signed and not known outside their home towns are nearly always covers or tribute bands who play stuff that people are willing to buy into because they know it.

There are plenty of Pink Floyd tribute or covers band who people pay to see. But for the Job Blogs Band, playing their own original songs, they will only get paid if they have a fan base that likes what they do.

See the broader picture on this issue:  there are probably over 75,000 bands in this country writing and playing their own music.  That is way, way over the number of live music gigs per year.

A large percentage of those bands often play for nothing, simply to get a chance to play live with some kind of audience.