Writing about music

9th September 2015

Writing about music:

Choices and consequences.

This is not the first time that I have written about the perils of music journalism. Writing about bands and the performances they give can be a dangerous thing.  If you get it wrong, it backfires on your reputation as a writer. On more than one occasion I have been criticised for writing only about the bands I like. Such criticisms have come from people whose opinions are respected.  My stock reply is along the lines of ‘well if I think a band is not very good, then there is no pointing writing about them.’ Bear in mind, that (at Music in Leicester magazine) we are not paid to do this work; it is a voluntary commitment – we do it because we are passionate about music.

It has been suggested that this magazine should write honestly about all bands, whether they are good, bad or indifferent.  Sorry. But no. We just don’t have the time to provide a service of that kind; we are not a Wikipedia-type website for general knowledge about everything musical (even within the confines of Leicester.) I write about bands that I like, whose music I think I understand and whose performances tick the various boxes that I use to describe what I think is good in terms of live music. [What makes a good band?]

All those who write about gigs and bands choose which ones they want to devote their free time to.  I cannot direct people to attend certain events; if I am asked which events I would suggest, I do so, but this is not a paid job with a chain of command. Volunteer reviewers are more likely to go to a gig and write about it, if it is one they like. Apart from me, all the other writers have full-time jobs and have to fit their music interests around these.

Doing justice to a band

Having thought about it, I am of the opinion that,  if I see a band and their music fails to excite me (either because I do not understand it or because I am just not in the right frame of mind for it) then I should not write anything. It is a disservice both to the readers and to the bands if I write something half-hearted, just to give them a mention. In other words, it would be better to say nothing than write a review that fails to justice to act or set. I have a habit of turning up at a gig without having researched the bands beforehand; life is very busy and time is short, so it is easy to skip the pre-gig stuff and hope you can wing it.

How long does it take to write a review?  Well, very roughly speaking, it takes

Prep – up to 30 minutes for pre-gig research
Attend – Two to three hours to get there, see the bands and get back
Write – varies a lot but say 30 minutes on average, per band
Photos – allow 30 minutes to process photos and upload them

So, we are talking about a time commitment of between 3½ and 4½ hours. That’s just single gigs; and then are festivals… Writing time can be extended if you want to listen to a band again after you have seen them or watch any YouTube videos they have of their performances (often helps to check if you got it right.)

This calls into question what music journalism is about. I have sometimes Googled ‘gig reviews’ and gone through some of the stuff that has come up. This can be a useful exercise because any editor should want to compare the standards of his own work with that of others. One thing that stands out for me is that the best reviews (that I have read) are those that have clearly been written by people who know and understand the acts they are writing about. They have seen these acts before; they have listened to their music; they have taken some time to become thoroughly acquainted with the artists they are writing about. This makes them able to provide a justifiable and credible account of the work of that artist or band. Keith Jobey said:  “I know of a band who had a bad review (unjustified and not from MIL) about an early gig they’d played. They changed their name partly because it was being used against them. Happily they are now getting decent slots after positive MIL mentions.”

Standards are important

Looking back over my own experience of going to gigs and writing about them, one thing stands out – I have often not researched a band before seeing it for the first time. This results, in some cases, in a review of a poor standard.

Now, none of this would matter much, except that (a) Music in Leicester is one of the few places where people can read about bands and artists from our local area. We no longer have publications like The Monograph or From Dusk to Dawn and most of the websites that used to publish stuff about the local music scene have vanished. (b) I know for a fact that many promoters, venue managers and festival organisers check what we write here to get a feel for which bands are worth booking.

If there was a website that was a ‘wiki’ for all things musical in Leicester, then probably people would prefer to use that. All that music organisers have is Facebook as a source of intelligence about bands and artists – and that provides information but rarely allows for a more critical appraisal, and if they want to listen to a sample of tracks then Soundcloud and YouTube is also there. Good thought such sources can be, they provide only a partial picture. In most reviews we also try to describe how the audience reacted to what they were hearing; that is often a very important element of our reports.

There is also the issue of genre.  Some bands play music that I call ‘niche’; to do it justice, you have to understand what that music is about and that can be difficult for generalist writers.  I often see hardcore ‘screamo’ bands; I like some of them and others I do not. I have a general appreciation of this style of music but I do not specialise in it. A review of a post-hardcore gig would be much better done by someone who is really into that kind of music and knows the scene well (such as one of the musicians that play in bands of this kind.)

Responsible publishing

Publishing a magazine about music in Leicester is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. This website is not a fanzine; it might appear to be but it is not our intention to publish something that only promotes the acts we happen to like.  My fear is, however, that it appears to be just that. If this is the case, then I have not been doing my job properly. One solution to this problem is to get more people to write about more acts – to spread the net more widely. We have gone to some lengths to encourage contributions from people but the results have been less than good. Photographers are two a penny these days; but what is the point in seeing photos if there is nothing that puts them in context? Writing is not something that a lot of people go in for these days; either because of a lack of self-confidence or just a consequence of the post-literate society.

As an editor, I am delighted with the contributions made by our regular writers, Keith Jobey for example, to name but one and previously Kevin Gaughan. The problem I have is that there are just not enough people willing to go out to gigs and write them up; and in Leicester there are just so many gigs, that we can hope only to scratch the surface. As I have often said “so many bands, so little time.”

Where do we go from here?

What does this mean for the future of our editorial policy?  Well, I think it means that we have to raise our standards, make what we publish more credible and do a better job of writing about live music. The consequence will be that less will be published. Unless we can recruit more writers, that will be the result, given our current resources. Perhaps it is better to publish good quality reviews, even if they are fewer in number, than to make a half-baked attempt to cover a broad field. Bear in mind that anything that gets published on this website (magazine) stays there for all time; it is not ephemeral, it does not evaporate, it is a permanent record that stays on the Internet for as long as the site exists.

My conclusion is that we should write about a band or artist only when we have take some time and trouble to understand and appreciate their work. Given the pressures I am under, that means I will write much less – especially about the acts I have not seen before or do not know well. If a band is on tour and plays in Leicester (and the chances are they have not been here before) then they might have left behind them comments or write-ups about their previous performances. That gives an indication of what people think about them. Rather than watch a band cold (without any previous knowledge or experience) it is better to spend some time trying to get one’s head round what they do and then (when you do see them) you are more likely to write with credibility about their set.

The end of gig reviews?

As of today, I have cleared all the notes in my work book.  I have more or less finished my review of Simon Says… festival. I have cleared the decks.  It is time to make a fresh start. That fresh start should, I think, include doing the right amount of research before going to a gig. It might also include writing about ‘bands’ rather than ‘gigs.’  If you go to a show and see four bands but like only two of them, it would be better to write about those bands and say nothing about the others. (Notice I am talking to myself now.) That is not a gig review.

Recently I have been to certain gigs only because there were one or two bands that I wanted to see. I sat through the rest of the night and wrote about the others because I thought that justified my presence (on a free ticket.) I should stop doing this. The bands I do not write about may well be good bands and worthy of a positive review but that can be a hit-and-miss thing. I might not be the best person to write about them.

I think it would be better if we concentrated more on writing about bands and their music and took a more imaginative approach, including asking for comments from musicians and their fans, adding links to on-line sources so readers can make up their own minds and profiling bands to give the reader a better idea about what they do and have done.

Changing tastes

Like many people my musical tastes are changing. I know what I like. I know what fails to excite me. The range of live music that I feel impresses me is narrowing. Personally, I tend to like rock music that is popular and melodic. I do not dislike metal, punk, hardcore, etc. but I do not feel the same way about it and know less what makes some bands better than others within this context.  I should defer to others who are impressed by that other kind of music. I should not write about performances that are less than exciting (for me.) Others can do that job far better. The problem is getting other to write or even to comment.

This magazine was launched in June 2013; two years on, it is time to weigh-up its results. So, as of now, my gut feeling is that there will not be ‘gig reviews’ in any number and that what will get published are more articles about bands and singers and about the nature of our local music scene. If this provides readers with a more solid and credible coverage of music, then I might be doing my job properly.

Trevor Locke

Technical note

When reporters are sent to a gig, we ask the promoter of the show to give us free ‘tickets.’ This assumes that we are writing about the gig as a whole. If, however, to go to see one or two bands in a line-up, then we should ask the bands to provide us with tickets. If they want us to review their performances then they should provide us with the access to get in to see them. Having said that, some of our reviewers prefer to pay to get into gigs; that is their choice.

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

An X Factor for Bands?

Originally published as a post in the Artsin Blog 13th December 2009

Each week I have been watching “The X factor” and in some way have learned a bit more about
musical entertainment. At the core of this competition is the idea that an act can have an
identifiable set of characteristics that marks it out from the rest. It’s called the “X Factor” because
the “stand out” characteristic is hard to define. The TV show is a singing competition. It does not feature acts that play music instruments, as well as singing.  There are however tens of thousands of unsigned, original bands in the UK and a TV show featuring these bands would attract a large audience.

If you are someone who works in the music industry and have the right experience (record label scout, top recording artist, band manager, show promoter, etc.) you will know it when you see it. So, are we any closer to defining this mysterious “X factor”? If we pull together what the four judges (from the TV show) have said about the acts that have made it through to the finals, there are clues as to their thinking about what characterises this elusive factor. Any act that has what it takes to become a
top star:

  • must be able to project his or her personality into the songs and must be able to make a song come alive by living the mood and meaning of what the song is about, fully expressing its emotion; simply being able to sing the song in time and in tune is just karaoke. There are singers that have good voices, who can sing in tune, remember all the words and who can deliver an acceptable standard of performance but who have been labeled “club singers”, “wedding singers”, etc. Whilst such acts are capable of making a living from singing and can entertain the average crowd they will not get signed to serious record labels and rise to celebrity stardom. These artists do not have the “X factor”, however technically competent they may be.
  • Be reasonably good looking. We can all debate what this might mean and point to top singing stars who (in our personal opinions) are not (all that) good to look at. But the judges have frequently referred to the looks of an artist as being part of the package they are seeking. This is far from simple or easy because eye-candy is very variable (i.e. as us – the public); it’s all very subjective but it seems to be a factor.  We can point to successful and famous singers who are not (or were not) particularly good looking but who made it to the top because of their personality and artistic ability.
  • Must be able to conduct themselves between shows in an orderly and professional manner. Ok, let’s examine some top music celebrities: Pete Docherty, Amy Winehouse, George Michael, The Gallaghers, etc. What we are seeing here is that newbie, wannabe acts that aspire to stardom must be able to work with their backers, agents and promoters in order to get to the top. Once they are established and are selling thousands of albums and have a huge fan base, they might then behave differently, but on the way up, you have to be compliant with the people who are backing you. Contestants approaching the final stages of the competition are being coached, dressed, made up, choreographed, mentored and comprehensively groomed by an army of experts. They are a product that is being groomed for what the experts understand as the expectations of the mass market audience. What we have been seeing on the stage is a product of entertainment expertise. None of them could have achieved this on their own. They have ceased to be the “person in the street” and look, act and sing nothing like when they started. Compare Susan Boyle as she appears now with what she looked like when she first appeared on the television.
  • Must be genuine. Those that have talent but who are weighed down with an agenda have not got into the final stages (this year). However emotionally compelling their agenda might be, the public vote does not always get caught by the hard luck story or the mission of the cause. The public vote can easily evaporate, as we know from political elections. The hard-nosed judging moguls have not been swayed by tear-jerking stories, any more than the majority of the music industry would be.
  • Must be able to cope with the huge pressures that this kind of experience places on them. They really have to want it badly to bear the stress and emotional storm and the intense pressure of having to perform at their peak each week.

Does the X factor really tell us anything about how the music industry operates? Does it reveal how the ladder to stardom operates? The TV programme is a machine; it involves massive amounts of money and huge numbers of people. Even if an act fails to make it through to the semi-finals or the final, they can still achieve a huge leap forward in their careers. Agencies are booking up runners-up for shows and appearances, to peform on the club circuits. If these prime time TV competitions had not been invented, some of these artists would have had to have spent years to get anywhere near what the TV show has brought them.

For every successful contestant, there are dozens of others who will have to haul themselves up the ladder of success by their own strenuous efforts, over years and years. The show has discovered a dozen genuinely talented singers out of 10,000 or so applicants, and projected them into the prime-time lime-light and clearly some of them would never have been discovered by any other route.

So, does all this tell us anything about the multitude of talented musical acts that have never even had a chance to get an initial audition: the singer/songwriters, acoustic acts, bands who make their own original music and would rather be dead than attempt to karaoke someone else’s songs.

Well I think the TV show confirms what we already knew. The music industry (in the UK) knows what the public wants and is able to select and package it into saleable entertainment products for the mass market.

National band competitions have been attempted but without any great success. They have not attracted much air-time (Orange Act Unsigned appeared on Channel 4 for a short while but has not been repeated). Bands do not seem to hold the attraction of solo singers and groups that sing and dance, such as JLS. Bands have to haul themselves up the ladder by their own boot straps. Some might get discovered at random by talent scouts but this is rare and you cannot depend on it happening.

 

In my dreams I would like to see a prime-time national competition for original, unsigned bands, screened nationally. This would provide a quick track into a successful musical career.  I have seen many bands that, in my opinion, deserve to be at the top, simply because they are good at making music and performing it.  I have discovered bands simply by going to gigs in Leicester. If I could wave a magic wand and transform them into chart topping bands, I would.

Equally, when I see some of the bands that have been placed at “the top of the tree” by record labels, I think, well I have seen better talent at my local live music venue. Why are they there? They are not that wonderful. Success in the UK’s music industry seems a rather randomised process where rock bands are concerned.