News at Zen

Music In Small Towns

Analogue 2 Digital is a music business and tech conference in Exeter. In its sixth year, A2D gathers together a bunch of gear manufacturers, musicians and music business people to look at and discuss what’s new and what’s important. This weekend was my second visit as a panelist.

Maria and Jim Peters, who curate A2D, are the sort of people whose initiatives contribute so much to local music scenes. Musicians in small communities should – and many do – stick together to create vibrant stuff in their hoods. Art, music, creativity – these are things worth doing for their own sakes.

The trouble, however, is that too many people have unrealistic business expectations for their music far too early in their careers. These make people jealous, fearful and adversarial. That isn’t good for the soul. People: get together and love one another!

Are You Hungry Enough To Eat Paint?

On the panel we discussed “pay to play”. While it’s deplorable that it happens, the more stupid thing is that musicians agree to do it. In London, for instance, the well known pay to play promoters do their nights in fancy venues with cool histories. Bands flock to play at them the because they think it looks cool to say so on their Facebook. It’s an ego thing. Why else would you play a venue that’s far out of your league? There are plenty of smaller gigs around. Do those.

Bands complain that they’re not getting paid for their gigs. There’s a picture doing the rounds where someone compares the rate of pay of a plumber to that of what a band asks to be paid. The difference, of course, is that I really need that plumber quite badly and whatever he chooses to charge I have to pay. Whereas, unless I’m desperate to see your band because I love the record you made so much that I cannot live unless I see you live… you won’t get any of my time.

The way art works is that you have to do something that other people want to experience so bad that they want to pay you for it. If they don’t, you don’t get paid. Van Gogh, in his poverty and hunger, ate paint and went even more nuts.

Do This – Right Now

If there are no music nights in your small town, start one. You can bet your ass that it will be popular very soon.

Stick together. Support one another. Don’t leave the provision of culture up to national pub chains. They don’t care about culture. They care about selling alcohol.

When the time comes to look for expert help, you may need to travel to find it. The music business, like any other business, has its own tricks. People who work in it know them. Most of us live in London.

I can relate to musicians in small places far away from any big centres of music. I grew up in Helsinki, Finland, a place hardly known for being a cosmopolitan hotbed of new music. Someone in the audience asked what she should do to gain access to the business, being from a small town in North Devon. I couldn’t help thinking that hopping on a bus is not a huge cultural jump or economic risk.

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Shortcuts To Success

My favourite and only hobby, squash, brings to London next week the world’s top professional players to compete in the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, an annual pilgrimage for the capital’s squash nuts. Incidentally, The Animal Farm sponsors the teams at Blackheath Squash Club where I play. My squad just won promotion to Division One in Kent. It’s the highest level of squash available in our county. Cool, huh?

Squash is the new rock’nroll. Fact.

“Backstage” at a big professional squash tournament, a keen junior was “trying out” in front of the main managers and coaches in UK squash. The kid got advice on what he should work on to get to the next level in his chosen field. I listened carefully and took notes.

In my day gig young musicians ask me how to get to the next level in their field. I can’t but feel that far too often advice isn’t really on their mind. Instead, in their erroneous belief that the music business is a walled garden into which access via a secret door is controlled by “people with contacts”, they are looking for shortcuts to success.

I would have thought that it’s easy to understand how in sport it’s clear that a manager or coach can’t give a young player a shortcut to success. All they can do is to tell him what he needs to do differently and better to affect change in the way he plays the game, so he can start beating guys who are better than him.

Yeah? Just knowing Arsene Wenger isn’t going to get a Sunday league player picked for the Gunners next weekend. My mates in pro squash won’t ask me to chip in. I know and they know that at their level I’d be useless.

Explain to me like I’m a five year old why it’s so hard to transfer that same thought process to pertain to the careers of budding musicians.

Time after time it’s a very similar story: a band has taken it as far as it will go. The numbers are low, they’re not getting anywhere. They’re desperate for help. From the point of view of the person who might be able to help, the problems also are all too similar time after time.

Lack of great songs

If a band’s songs aren’t getting the people closest to them excited, people in the business will be even less impressed and punters far away won’t give a toss. The solution: write better songs. They are hard to come by and the only way to come up with any is to write lots. It’s arguable that talented writers are born, but in developing any skill improvement is incremental and takes time.

Lack of great recordings

If the band’s demos have been recorded by a mate as a project for his music production diploma, they will never ever compete with records made by professional people using professional equipment and years of professional experience. The solution: make better records with someone who knows how to make them.

Lack of a great live show

If friends and family attending the band’s pub gigs don’t go apeshit with excitement and spread the word about the next one, gigs in bigger venues won’t be “better gigs”. They will just highlight the band’s inexperience and lack of ability in front of an audience whose starting position is one of indifference. Solution: do lots of pub gigs to get great. The time to switch to a bigger venue is when the small ones sell out.

Lack of a great image and story

If nobody is reacting to a band and its product locally, more promotion and exposure will only further expose their shortcomings, highlighting them to more people. It’s the equivalent of shouting louder to get the message across. Solution: work, evolve, change, create, build, develop.

The two hurdles

There are two mistakes a band can make. One, they don’t start doing the above properly, with the help and guidance of people who know what they’re doing and care about how they do it. Bizarrely, most fall at this hurdle. Maybe they don’t believe in their own artistry enough to really commit to it, so that they people who are able to help would want to get involved. It’s far easier to play at being in a band than to actually work for it.

Those who make it over the first hurdle have in front of them a long and arduous ride. Many quit too soon. That’s the second mistake a band can make.

Over the eight or so years that I’ve been fanatically obsessed with squash, I have won our club tournament, reached finals in wider tournaments and got to represent my county. I’ve taken coaching, attended clinics and sweated buckets. I’ve spent loads of money in the process.

You might say that it’s not much of a result for eight years of playing and training 4-5 times a week. I wouldn’t disagree! ;-)

However, it’s taught me, a music man way past his prime sporting years, a lot about learning and dedication and the “cost” of doing something you really love. Much more so than when I was a young musician trying to make it in music. I didn’t think there was anything odd about my exclusively obsessive interest in music. To me it was normal to want to live and breathe it. Often, it was the only nourishment available to a broke ass musician, anyway.

To the aspiring musician reading this blog and wondering how the hell to break through to the next level, I would say that nothing should be too much, too expensive or too difficult. If you want it bad enough you’ll find a way to do it.

Kurt Vonnegut has some fine words about the path.

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Hog Roast – 100% Quality

We have a cool selection of singers and songstresses on the bill at our next club night. Scroll down the player to check them out. Join the event on Facebook.

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Paco De Lucia – No Spontaneous Genius

Paco De Lucia 1947 – 2014

“My father encouraged me to practice for hours, I don’t believe in spontaneous genius”

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Your Taste vs Your Ability

This is a must see video for anyone who wants a career in something creative.

The Gap by Ira Glass

In our line of work we rarely come across people who, like in the film, know that their taste in what they do is better than their ability to do it. It’s rare for someone to say, like in the film, “I know this isn’t quite it yet”. Most of the time no matter how abhorrent the music coming out of the speakers is, the people who made it are convinced they’re the next hot thing.

It’s funny when you see the fat parents of the fat kid on X-Factor shout at Simon Cowell because he said that their child just cannot bloody sing.

It’s less funny when you get called a wanker for saying to a band that being the third best copy of what Foals were four years ago is just not good enough, ambitious enough, REAL enough.

It’s downright disheartening when you realise that the same band could change it all by just sticking at it and developing their artistry, but they won’t.

Why?

Ain’t nobody knows….

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How Bands Earn Their Stripes

I’ve been reading Jazz Summers’ autobiography. For those who don’t know, Jazz is an artist manager with a long history that dates back to the 60s. In his book, he writes of Old Kent Road, just across the tracks from our studios, where in the 60s and 70s there were pubs on every corner and a live band playing in each one.

Musicians learned their trade playing Top 40 in pubs. People went to pubs to be entertained by bands playing familiar songs. If the band were really good, they could throw in the occasional original. Even The Beatles did it when they started out.

This entertainment scene was popular because little else existed. You certainly couldn’t while away the hours at home watching funny stuff on YouTube. Seeing a band play live was a relatively new and exciting thing back then.

My brother showed me this clip of Chickenfoot, the American supergroup featuring Chad Smith of RHCP, Sammy Hagar, Mike Anthony of Van Halen and Joe Satriani, the guitar virtuoso, covering Deep Purple’s song Highway Star.

It’s unfair to compare young dudes playing their first gigs in Camden to musicians of the highest calibre, like Chickenfoot, let alone The Beatles, but the point is that if you’re into rock music you will appreciate a performance like Chickenfoot’s. If you like a good song, you’ll like what The Beatles do.

What do you have to be into to appreciate the cacophony of bollocks happening across Camden on most nights? It’s out of time and out of tune, badly written and poorly played. The audience, a gathering of workmates, friends and family, dutifully whoop and holler in the right places, offering the worst advice ever: “You should be playing bigger and better venues.”

Read this, for good advice on getting out there.

Or this, about the state of the toilet circuit from the point of view of a venue owner and artist manager.

The Manic Shine have been building it, in countless small venues across the land. Next they’re off to Germany. It really does work, this artist development thing, you know?

Paying your dues. Earning your stripes. Such old fashioned values, are they? Answers on postcards, please, unless you’re busy watching funny stuff on YouTube.

This one is actually worth watching.

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The Manic Shine in Germany

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Stand Out

The fact that there are no barriers between artists and music lovers anymore doesn’t make it any easier to forge a career in music. Making recordings and putting them into stores is dead easy, granted, but that’s not where the bar is anymore, if it ever was there.

The hardest and most important thing has always been to stand out. Doubly so in this day and age when everyone has nearly every form of entertainment ever created available to them at any given time of day for free on their mobile device.

Listen to this BBC R4 programme about the music business.

Check out the guy from the label saying that it takes a lot to be noticed; for people to want to get to know you is even harder; for them to be engaged enough to want to buy something from you takes even longer and is even harder than that and so on.

You won’t stand a chance with ok songs recorded passably. Everyone has seen that photo of the band against a brick wall. Or that video in an industrial type building.

I refer you to this video about asking yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen.

Stand out. What’s the worst that could happen? You might get somewhere.

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