Character profiling

Writing a character profile for a film

18th May 2017

My character profile for Riffkid in The Trench†

Physical appearance of the protagonist

Riffkid is 18. He is somewhat short in stature. He has a mop of black hair and very bright blue eyes. His face is pretty. He dresses how he thinks rock musicians should dress. His choice of clothes portrays his identity. He is an unemployed teenager living with his parents on a deprived housing estate. He is a dreamer; he has passions and associates with the outcasts who don’t want to be like the other working class kids who have their lives mapped out for them by their parents and community. He sees punk music as his ideal and in it he sees his values. Riffkid’s strengths are his good looks and his passion for music; his weaknesses are his lack of knowledge and skills in guitar playing and his dreams that are out of kilter with reality.

Background note: Riffkid joins the music scene at a time when punk is the predominant style of rock; but rock changes rapidly and soon fans start to prefer the edgier sounds of post-punk. All this is thrown in the air by the generation of the new romantics who come in with their new sounds – the indie bands. Musical tastes are fickle and change rapidly. All the bands play at the venue called The Trench, a dismal, damp basement that traps young musicians and exploits them mercilessly. The bands are trapped in the Trench and only the best manage to escape from it.

The story

Actions taken by Riffkid (include wants and needs) [How he thinks] {affect – consequences}

Act 1.

Riffkid goes to The Trench music venue to ask if he can join The Howlers – a big and successful punk band. His mates have told him that this is the best punk band in Portsmouth. The lead singer likes him and invites him to come for an audition. (Riffkid wants to be in the band he idolises) [He thinks he has to skills to hack it.] {Riffkid goes to the audition but he fails to prepare himself for it. He fails to study the songs of the band.}

Riffkid attends the audition with The Howlers but he is torn to shreds by the musicians. He realises that the invitation was a fake. He’s been strung along. [He thought he had enough skills to do the job but they prove to him how little he knows.] {Riffkid is rejected by the band. He is devastated. His dreams have failed.}

His best mate tells Riffkid not to give up but to go back to The Trench and try to find another band to join. Riffkid is driven by his dreams; his best mate is more practical and realistic. Riffkid goes back to the venue and, by chance, meets Sean, the bassist from the post-punk band Distorted. Sean just happens to be looking for a new guitarist. [Sean thinks that Riffkid would fit in; realises he is not that good as a musician but his personality would fit and make up for his weaknesses as a guitarist.] {Sean does not bother with an audition; he takes Riffkid on and hopes for the best.}

Riffkid joins Distorted. He decides he needs to get a better guitar and people help him to do this. (He is desperate to be in a band.) [He thinks that trying to get into the much bigger band was a bad mistake) {He gladly accepts the offer to be in Distorted as the rhythm guitarist. He buys the new guitar he needs.}

Act 2

Riffkid’s new band is a great success. Everybody loves them. They enjoy considerable popularity in their home town of Portsmouth. (They want to be popular and in demand for their music.) [They think their music will attract people in large numbers.] {They get booked at all the major venues and play to big audiences.}

Two years pass. Riffkid and Distorted become a successful post-punk band. But the scene is changing and fans are beginning to like the new wave of music coming from the new romantics.

Riffkid has an argument about musical style in the band and quits. (He wants to be a success.) [He sees the band failing because it clings to outmoded post-punk songs when the fans are moving over to indie. He thinks that the world of rock is changing and the band must change with it.] {He sticks to his beliefs and leaves the band.]

Riffkid and Jennifer enrol on the music course. (They need to learn about music.) [They think that having skills and knowledge will get them where they want to be] {They are exposed to a lot of new ideas and experiences they never had before.}

Riffkid makes new friends on the music course. He also goes back to his old friends – the ones who supported him when he needed them. (He wants people around him that can help him; people he can depend on.) [He begins to realise the importance of comradeship.] {He visits his old mates from the band he was in.}

Act 3

Riffkid and Jennifer complete the music course. He now has the skills and the knowledge to become a professional musician. (He wants to make a success of himself) [He realises that music is more than just image and passion.] {They both realise that they will get nowhere if they stay in Portsmouth.}

Riffkid leaves Portsmouth with Jennifer; they go to London to start a new career in music and a new life together. They are free of The Trench at last. (Wants a new life) [Thinks about the future] {Chooses to be with Jennifer.}

Explanation

This character profile was written because I am doing a course about screen-writing for films. The course is led by Michael Lengsfield of the University of East Anglia, whose article ‘Thoughts on character’ set out how to compose the profile. I chose to write about my novel The Trench. The protagonist, main character is Riffkid. This provides my choice of story for the exercises to do with script-writing.

New bands starting up

17th August 2014

New bands.

How do bands cope with the pressure of starting up?

Watching a new band playing on stage for the first time, I asked myself ‘how do they cope with playing at their first gig?’

When you watch a band playing on a stage, you are looking to see how they appear – are they relaxed and confident or are they nervous? Are they enjoying being in front of people, playing their own music? Some new bands look like rabbits caught in the headlights. As a writer my task is to observe musicians intently and try to feel what they are feeling. In a way, this is about trying to empathise with them. I watch for the signs: what do I see on their faces? Do I see excitement or fear? Or both? Do I see a bunch of guys who are confident, relaxed, exited? Or, do I see a group of people who are nervous, fearful, worried? Being under pressure does not mean that they will make mistakes or play badly. When they get on a stage and lights go up the adrenaline kicks in. They probably can’t see the audience in the glare of the stage lighting. Their hearts start to beat twice as fast; their minds start to work at a furious pace. They have a lot to concentrate on, whether it’s singing, remembering the lyrics, remembering the tunes they have composed, watching the strings of their instruments to see where their fingers should go. Determination sets in. It might not be until the last couple of songs, of their half-hour set,  that they really get into the swing of the music.

You can tell when a band really wants it. Their faces and the way they perform on stage show how their ambition is burning. They want to be successful. They want their fans to love them, they want to win over people who have not seen them before, they want to leave the room with adulation and their reputation secured. They want to play a set which is going to mark them out and make a name for their music on the scene. If they are to win over audiences, they have to really want it. They have to win over the sceptical and the curious. People who might be hard to convince. People that are not there to see them. These are people who are watching closely to see what this new band is made of.so when they start to play they all have to say to themselves ‘let’s ‘av it.’

How do young, inexperienced musicians cope with that kind of pressure, at the start of a music career as a performing band? Can they get to that level of stage craft where they can portray themselves as a strong, confident, determined group of people who believe in themselves and their music? How do they do that? Maybe that is not what they are actually feeling on the inside, but what do we see on their faces? As a group of people, do they all share the same level of commitment? Do they want it, individually and collectively? Are they really ready to make the sacrifices needed to become a serious band?

When you watch a band performing on stage, it is not always easy to tell what is going on their minds. Some musicians have a knack of smiling and looking happy, whatever they are really like on the inside. Do they look like they are just playing another gig or is this a special event for them? Are they feeling the crowd and are they getting that buzz, that reaction,  that is flowing on to the stage? The older a band gets in its musical career, the more difficult it is to see what they are feeling. Mature musicians tend to get used to live performances (just another gig) and have a professional manner that hides anything going on inside. If something goes wrong,  they joke about it and carry on. It’s just what happens to bands. It comes with the job. They appear as polished professionals, doing a job, well rehearsed, steadily working away at their chosen craft. Some young bands can also look like this.

You can never really tell what’s happening on a stage. You might be able to watch carefully and write about it in such a way as to convey (to readers) what it was like to be there. But all gigs have layers of experience, seams of reality, and you can never really report everything. Fifty people might go and see a band; they will take home with them fifty different reactions and experiences.

(Written at a festival in July between gig slots)

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 past.

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 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

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?

The economics of local live music

The economics of local live music

Published: 2010

It’s very difficult to run a live music venue and since the start of the credit crunch, hundreds have closed.

Making a profit from live music is, at the small scale end of the market very difficult. At the top end  of the market, companies are making huge profits from live music. In fact, the overall value of ticket sales for live music has overtaken that for the sale of recorded music (for the first time ever.)

It is the ticket buying public that funds live music venues. It is what fans pay at the door that keeps these small venues open. Its is often thought that small venues make their money from bar sales. This is not the case. In most venues, the bar sales budget is kept separate from the operation of the music side.

The music side of the venue has to pay for sound engineers wages, entertainment licensing, performing rights fees, publicity and promotion, cleaning, repairs, electricity, business rates, insurance, door staff and all the work of booking in bands to play at the venue.

In the bar side of things, they have to pay for drinks stocks (often in too small quantities to be able to offer good prices), licensing, health and safety, bar staff wages and cellerage costs.

If the venue makes a profit at all, it has to plough some of this back into the business to fund surpluses at the bank.  Venues go through good times and bad times and its in the bad times that good operating reserves are needed, particularly in these times when overdrafts are available than they used to be.

Demand for live music tickets can be very variable; it can for example be affected by the weather. A long spell or wet or very cold weather can affect ticket sales. The public can be very volatile in their consumption of leisure; people that used to enjoy going out to see a band might now decide to buy a video or CD to watch or listen to at home. In the local area, attendance will depend on the supply of bands that people want to go and see. If the local area has a constant supply of new bands, this will fuel ticket demand. Once a crowd has heard all the bands in its local area, their interest in seeing them regularly might wane. We might also argue that the musical and artistic quality of local bands and artists is a factor driving demand. Where there are high quality bands and acts, people will feel motivated to go out and pay to see them. Even if the venues are not of a high standard, people will put up with this, to see they bands they want to support. However, poor standard venues will see people coming down for one or two gigs but no wanting to get back there regularly over a period of time, if they facilities are dismal.

The public is getting used to increasing standards in the leisure industry, in bars, restaurants, cinemas, shops, cafes, theatres and clubs. Big companies have invested a great deal of money in making these venues attractive. They want to give customers a really good experience when they go out to spend their income on leisure. Sadly the small live music venues can compete with this. the public are getting used to clean, well lit, well decorated venues that are fitted out attractively and staffed by people who are properly trained.

Perhaps this is why they feel so let down when they go to small live venues that are grubby, dimly lit, staffed by untrained students who have to work for a pittance and offer poor value for money. Our small live venues are well below the standards we are used to in the rest of the leisure industry.

Why is this?  Other leisure venues tend to be run by large national chains, big companies that have money to invest in their outlets.  Pubs and bars tend to change hands quite frequently and at eash change of owner, they tend to get revamped and modernised. By comparison, small live music venues tend to be privately owned and do not change hands that often. Most of them operate on a shoe-string and have insufficient turnover to be able to invest in refits and upgrades to their facilities.

One other factor can affect ticket sales at the permanent live music venues.  This is the supply of free music gigs in the local area. Pubs that have falling takings, particularly mid-week, often start to put on bands, knowing that this will bring people into the pub. Bands can fill an empty pub, if only on one mid week date. they don’t charge on the door because this would put off the small number of regulars who do venue out on that night. But the down side of all this free music is that the bands don’t get paid either. The more bands that go and play for free in pubs, just to get a performance opportunity, the less ticket revenue goes into the live music venues. Why pay £5 to see a band at a venue when you can see them for free at a pub the week after?

Free gigs offer some bands the chance to play in a new venue, perhaps to some new people who otherwise would not hear them and in some circumstances they might think this worth the odd free gig now and again.  But if there is a systematic programme of free gigs, going on regularly, with bands who also play in ticketed venues, everyone looses. There is nothing wrong with a few bands putting on a charity funding raising event where they all play for free. But if they are out playing free entry gigs week after week, that serves to lessen the demand for tickets at the venues. It undermines the venues and the bands that could otherwise make a little money out of ticket sales.

Its all about seeing the bigger picture. Permanent live music venues play a key role in live music; they are hard to keep going and they depend on tick sales.  If a live music venue were to say “we will stop hiring bands to play here that play free gigs in our local pubs”, it would be harsh but it would also be realistic. If the permanent live music venues were all to close down, then bands would have no where else to play other than free gigs in local pubs. I think that would be a great loss to the quality of live music in a town.

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.