Saturday, 23 July 2016

Something is Happening Here - But You Don't Know What It Is - Do You?

Revenue is down yet profit is up...
The Music Industry is in trouble. Global revenue fell to below $15bn in 2014. Surf the Internet and you can find story after story, page after page, and blog after blog telling the woeful story of revenue loss for the record industry. Around 25% of revenue is spent on A&R and so the message is that there is less and less investment in new artists each year as revenue falls. The narrative is presented of the brave knights of the record companies fighting the illegal download dragons.

Only 15% of us go to gigs regularly. Teenagers are not buying music CD’s anymore, accounting for only 7% of the CD buying population (although apparently for us oldies the habit dies hard, as over 50’s make up 61% of the CD buying population!)

Headline News: Music Industry in Crisis. 

Bottom line: No investment in new music because of fall in revenue.

But here is a slightly different look at the data from Jonathan Band and Jonathan Gerafi, at policybandwidth in their report ‘Still Profitable After All These Years…’ Taking Sony as an example (and the basic trend is the same with Universal and Warner), they point out that the Record Label Operating Profit in the 10 years from 2004 rose from $186 million to $361 million, their Record Label Operating Profit Margins from 3.90% to 8.43%.

The Average Industry Operating Profit Margin for record companies in 2013 was 7.26% (up from 4.04% in 2004). Brand and Gerafi offer a comparison, in the construction industry it was 3.25% (up from 2.67% in 2004), in Mining it was -1.20% (down from 10.20% in 2004) and in Transport 4.89% (down from 7.44% in 2004).

Band and Gerafi conclude by asking, if revenue is down yet profit is up where are the record companies saving money? It seems to me that even though CD sales are down and revenue is down the labels are still making a decent profit  - this rather implies that the squeeze on investment in new talent is purely to increase profits!

For the love of music and not the love of money...
Personally I hate the idea that of my hard-earned cash spent on a CD, about one third goes to the record company and less than half of that goes to the artist. Imagine another world. A world where the artist was paid and all involved in the music were paid and there was no massive profit! Imagine a world where my hard-earned cash invested not in the record company but in new artists and encouraging established artists to push the boundaries!

Welcome to Malt’n’Music and in particular to a gig by Blair Dunlop. The organisers have asked me to step into the shoes of MC and I as introduce the evening I proudly proclaim that we are a not-for-profit organisation who plough everything back into the next gig. Well the next gig has a starting float of (wait for it… drum roll please…) £9.32!

If you have read other blogs about Malt’n’Music gigs you will know that I wax lyrical about community, troubadours and the meaning of real music. All this is true about this gig. Peter Aldridge, the support act, plays a consummate set of laid-back thought provoking original material proving that there are superb songwriters who write for the love of music and not the love of money. 

Blair Dunlop is the professional performer who sidles up alongside the audience. He tells us that he has a little bit of local knowledge gleamed from an ex from these parts and then proceeds to beat us over our heads with stunning tune after stunning tune. By the end of the evening everyone is his best friend, as he performs with such warmth, depth and feeling, and we start to ask ourselves if we have found a long lost brother! And then there is the fine ‘Blair Dunhop’ beer to enjoy back at The Lion!

Once again the community has come together to hear a sublime evening of music and we make no profit! Does the artist get paid? Yes.  Does the venue get paid? Yes. Do the PA guys get paid? Yes!  This is music without a fat profit. Music without a massive cut taken by the industry. Music with soul, because it is owned by the artist and not by faceless, tone deaf, industry grey suits.

The deep movement of music...
People ask me why I make a 400 mile round trip just to go to a gig when I could see the very same artist in London? The answer? Well, truth be told it is partly to meet up with friends – life is too short not to take the opportunity to be with people you care about. But it is also because as one of the people who started Malt’n’Music it is in my bones. It is because I love being part of a group who are promoting great music.  

But most of all I make the journey because I love the moment when the main act is playing and I stand at the back with the Malt’n’Music guys and we survey the scene. We see the delight on people’s faces, the joy of their feet tapping, the careless clapping along, and we know that the music is bringing the community together, that it is deepening people’s experience of life and making people realise they are glad to be alive. The depth of experience that comes from a community, gathering together to receive a traveling minstrel far surpasses that of a gathering of disparate people at an anonymous venue, massaging the ego of someone else’s manufactured superstar.

And when you experience that feeling and know you have played your part in making it happen, you don’t need payment, you don’t need thanks. You know that what has been created has an eternal quality, and no developer digging up the field around your village, no broken relationship, no crass Government Policy, no stupid dispute with the neighbour, no speeding ticket, no overdraft, no grievance at work, no question about life, the universe and everything is going to change the truth of what has happened, as the deep movement of music within the soul transforms the heart.

Don't ask about the crow - its a very small village.... 

Gig: 46 of 50
Date of Gig: Fri. 5th February 2016

Village Hall, Moulton

Blair Dunlop

Peter Aldridge

Running total of artists seen 94

Monday, 4 July 2016

One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer – One Music?

A plummy voice shouts...
"…these tunes were never made to go with scotch, whisky or beer!" complained Ali Farka Touré judging his American Blues Brothers! There is a theory that West Africa, and Mali in particular, gave the world the blues that some of us know and love today! There certainly seems to be a strong link between the traditional music of Mali and Mississippi Delta Blues and later American variants. Perhaps Ali Farka Touré is less judgmental and closer to the truth when he declared, "They,” (the Americans) “have got the branches and the leaves, but we’ve got the trunk and the roots."

Tonight as Ali’s son Vieux Farka Touré takes to the stage at Kings Place, the songs, the atmosphere and the way they are played seem a million miles away from the standard blues image of a smoke filled American bar with a jilted lover hunched over one bourbon, one scotch and one beer. 

At the risk of stereotyping the Blues, what we have tonight is a celebration of music, not the lament of lost love. It is played with a wide smile on the face, not with mournful despair. It is performed in the slightly sterile surrounds of Kings Place, to a respectable, predominately white middle class audience! As we are treated to the brilliance of his ‘trunk and roots’ music we become aware that this is significantly different to the blues, and primarily reflects the traditional music of his home country. The differences are not missed by many in the audience, and in a particular show of English eccentricity (for a gig that is!), as Vieux introduces the next song, a plummy voice shouts from the otherwise silent audience,

Err excuse me!"

Vieux looks bewildered and finds the face of the voice in the crowd; he stands in expectation to hear the question from the politest heckler in the west…

What tuning are you in?

A smile sweeps across his face.

Ah!” he intones, shaking his head and wagging his finger as if this is the biggest and most important secret in the world of music. His gestures imply that if he let slip his tuning his magical guitar playing powers would desert him!

But he can’t keep the pretense up for long, and slowly he strums the open strings, E-A-D-G-B-E, explaining to those in the audience who haven’t the foggiest what is happening that it is standard tuning!

Not the tuning,” he says, directing his comments back to the heckler. “Its the way you play….

It is often said that a sign of greatness is not what you play but what you don’t play! This couldn’t be said of Vieux Farka Touré or the tradition of the music he plays, as he effortlessly fills the bars with notes. Why play one when 12 will fit?! He is accompanied simply, by bass and drums. Part way through the evening he apologises that he hasn’t got a full band with him! I’m not sure any of us have even noticed so full is the sound and so high the energy. 

I called it Tajik Folk... 
I’m sat on the front row and I’m not sure what is more disturbing - the eye contact with the artist, that for some reason I find so difficult to hold, or the way my seat is moving due to the enthusiastic seat dancing of my neighbour!

The interval comes too soon, and as I go in search of my ‘One Bourbon’ I am struck again by the cultural homogeity of the audience and a sign that advertises more ‘World Music’ at King’s Place! What is it about ‘World Music’ that seems to primarily attract the white middle classes? And why do we call it ‘World Music’? I start to become just a little embarrassed. To call this ‘World Music’ is to buy into the belief that mainstream music is what we in the North have given the world and anything else we patronizingly lump together as ‘World’. As I sat a few years ago, on a very cold January day, in the Gurminj Museum in Dushanbe in Tajikistan surrounded by musical instruments, some of which were hundreds of years old, listening to Samo play, I didn’t call it ‘World Music.’ I called it Tajik Folk. A few years before that as I sat under the warm July Palestinian evening sky listening to a local musician I did not think to myself I’m listening to ‘World Music.’ I just knew I was enjoying a great evening of Palestinian Music. What I am listening to this evening is not ‘World Music’ but music from Mali. 

However, the embarrassment caused by the realization that antiquated colonial attitudes are still alive and well in lefty middle-class London is nothing to what I encounter in the second half of Vieux’s set. The conversation during the interval with a fellow gig-goer who found their mislaid one scotch next to my one bourbon was short and sweet but along the lines that we weren’t sure how many gigs he had played with an audience sat in such respectful statuesque silence! Surely people dance at his gigs we reflected!

As the second half continues, the artist encourages us to our feet and to dance – well, I say dance!! Even more embarrassing than our crass title of ‘World Music’ is the sight of white people trying to move to African music. Why did he encourage it? Quite possibly to have a good laugh at us!

Despite the embarrassing dancing the gig ends far too soon. It has been a wonderful night of ‘trunk and roots’ Malian music! 

Gig: 45 of 50
Date of Gig: Wed. 27th January 2016

The Kings Centre

Vieux Farka Toure

Running total of artists seen 92

Friday, 1 July 2016

Beyond Compere!

A kind of live human jukebox...
There are many things that come together to make a gig. Obviously you need musicians and a venue, and a crowd normally helps! I would also argue that a sound engineer is pretty essential – just ask Concrete Mountain (see last blog ‘Bellows, Books, Lamps and Dolls’)! The atmosphere of the venue, the craft of the musicians and the interaction with the audience all have a bearing on a gig. There is however one oft-forgotten element that can make a real difference and that is the MC…..

At so many gigs I go to, the artists wander on stage and start unannounced almost apologetic in their opening bars, catching the audience unaware, forcing them to leave conversations hanging in the air! Why can’t a venue see that having an MC is not a luxury but a real part of staging a gig. This is especially true in smaller venues where the stage is not necessarily the focal point, and there are none of the usual triggers that inform the audience that a gig is about to start! Often at smaller gigs people are sat around tables talking, and it can be much more of a social occasion, unlike standing in front of a stage with one aim in mind, to wait for the act to come on…

A good MC will draw the crowd together from their disparate conversations, bring the solo gig goers into the fold and focus the audience on what is about to happen. Once focused, the MC then has the task to energise those who have gathered, so that once the band is introduced to the crowd, they are already cheering and up for the gig. It is not right to assume that just because people have bought a ticket or have bothered to turn up to a gig that they will be focused on the music. Too often the gig becomes the background for a night out, a kind of live human jukebox; it becomes the sideshow, rather than the main event. A good MC will ensure that doesn’t happen. Where the musicians take it after that is up to them!

Too many venues fail to realise the importance of an MC, but there are also those that fail to realise the importance of a good MC! A monotone voice delivering hesitating sentences does not communicate with the audience, and although it might announce the arrival of the band on stage it does not set the tone for the gig. When I go round to a friend’s house I want to be greeted with warm tones and excitement otherwise I will fear I am not welcome! So it is with a gig. 

The Jaywalkers are introduced by a monotone MC and, as a result, half-hearted applause. As they begin their set it is obvious to them and to us that the sound is not right. The fiddle is so low in the mix that it is in danger of becoming lost. It is not a good beginning to the gig and it appears to be threatening to unsettle the band. Various different solutions to the problem are tried as the band continue through the first half of their set. The fiddle should be cutting through the sound and demanding our attention but it is mainly heard in the audience through the foldback monitors and so much is lost.

In the applause the band relax... 
As the mandolin player announces that a few weeks ago he broke a finger and that he wasn’t even sure that he was going to be able to play this gig you sense this is a make or break song! The lack of a decent introduction, poor sound, and now a mandolin instrumental that might prove too much for the finger of its player! Luckily, it proves to be the making of the gig. The instrumental is wonderful and the crowd erupts. In the applause the band relax into the rest of the gig. How much easier it is for artists when they feel the crowd is on their side. Every sound difficulty can be faced. This is why a good MC, building up the crowd, is so important because it makes the band believe that the audience is with them, and that, of course, has a direct effect on their performance.

As the first half continues the band really begin to shine. The interval offers a more concentrated opportunity to solve the fiddle problem, and as the second half starts the band and audience pick up from where we left off at the end of the first half. 

The Jaywalkers are a great young UK band who effortlessly combine British folk with Bluegrass! Traditional Lancashire folktales are set to the evocative mix of mandolin, bass and fiddle and are brilliantly performed by masters of their instruments. The result is endearing and engaging and the crowd respond enthusiastically after each song. 

The importance of staging a gig properly... 
At the end of the set the MC reappears and informs us in the same monotonous voice that, “they were really great and we will try to get them back, meanwhile we have some more wonderful performances coming up!” Oh please! Sound as if you think they really were great, thank us for coming, and encourage us to come again with energy in your voice!

In spite of the MC and in spite of the sound problems, The Jaywalkers triumphed today and I look forward to seeing them when they have neither of these problems.

As for MCs and venues, I urge promoters to recognize the importance of staging a gig properly. Please, find an MC who understands the role and can be part of lifting the concert from being just another musical happening to being the special event that every gig should be. Find not just a Compere but a master of the art, in other words a Master of Ceremonies!

Gig: 44 of 50
Date of Gig: Fri. 22nd January 2016

Southbank Centre

The Jaywalkers

Running total of artists seen 91