BandsAndSingers

23rd October 2014

10 Essays on Bands and Singers

Bands and Singers:  Ten essays on rock bands and singers.

By Trevor Locke.

Over the years, music journalist Trevor Locke has seen and listened to thousands of bands. Not just bands but singers, rappers and acoustic artists.

In these ten essays he looks at some of the fundamental elements of being a successful music act and what is needed to be a good band or singer.

He also looks at the business of live music; however good an act is at performing music, they have to make it in the real world of venues where music provided.

Some of the essays are published in this document for the first time;  others have been re-edited from articles he has previously published on his blog. These have been updated for this publication.

Ten Essays on Bands and Singers is published by Arts in Leicester, in a digital format.

2014, 30 pages, provided in a PDF format, sent by email, price £2.50

To order a copy, go to  our page on Arts in Leicester

Contents

  1. An X Factor for Bands? (revised and updated)

  2. Band Promotion. (New)

  3. Promoting Artists. (New)

  4. What do we learn from the obsUnplugged?  (revised and updated)

  5. The Economics of Live Music in Leicester.  (revised and updated)

  6. What Makes a Good Band?  (revised and updated)

  7. Entertainment. Should Bands be Entertaining? (New)

  8. Teamwork (New)

  9. Talent. Is Talent the Key to Everything? (New)

  10. Why do some venues make us pay to play there?  (revised and updated)

Originally published on 23rd October 2014 on Trevor’s Music Blog.

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)

Origininally published in Trevor’s Music Blog, 2014.

Where should we go from here?

13th April 2013

What we planned

This post is part of an exercise to engage with our readers, friends, fans, customers … in order to find out what they value in the work that we do.  As an organisation (ArtsIn Productions) we do a lot of different things – run an arts magazine, put on training courses, represent bands, singers and rappers, provide a publicity service … the scope of our work is wide. The resources we have available however is not.

This consultation is to ask the public to share their thoughts and comments with us about what we do best.  If we should be focusing in,  then what should we concentrate on?

My concern is that we are spreading our resources too thinly across the field of our activities.  If we narrowed down we might achieve more impact.  The problem that I have, as the head honcho around here, is what?   I can see all the things that need doing.   I am well aware of all the things that I like doing. But, it’s not all about me.

What is difficult for me is letting go of some of my pet projects, my passions, my skill-areas; but that is what needs to happen.  ArtsIn Productions involves a number of people – all of them volunteers.    I am the only one that does things on a daily basis. Clearly, far too much lands on my desk and I cannot cope with all of it.

I can delegate some things,  to some people,  some of the time. The more volunteers we get, the more time it takes to train, brief and organise them all. As we say on our web site “Volunteers lie at the heart of all we do.”  Ours is a social enterprise and a constant stream of people apply to join us. That increases our capacity but only to the extent that we can train, en-skill, supervise and motivate them.

I am particularly concerned to get feedback and comment from those in the music community;  music represents the biggest part of our work. After about ten years of working with music, we feel we have made a contribution and we want to continue to do that.

Of all the things that we do for music,   what things are most valuable?   If we had to focus on one or two things that would be of real benefit to bands, singers and rappers, what should they be?

What happened

ArtsIn Productions Limited was closed down.  Having failed to achieve its goals, the company was costing me money to keep going, so I decided to close it.

Having announced that I was going to ‘retire’ in 2014, I have postponed that because I am too busy and have too much work to do. [ In fact I officially retired in 2017.]

I am keeping both web sites running Arts in Leicester and Music in Leicester.  I have taken both sites over from the company and am now the sole publisher of them both.

Narrowing down would be nice but, as with many of these things, there are inter-linkages and cross-benefits that make it impossible to remove one card from the house without the whole thing being in danger of falling down.

 

Thoughts on singing

Trevor Locke reflects on what he (as a member of the audience) learnt about singing when he attended the obsUnplugged programme of Acoustic shows in Leicester in 2013.

Performing covers

There are three kinds of covers

(a) Karaoke

(b) Just singing the song as it is in the original version – what pub singers do

(c) Taking a song and putting the artist’s own, original stamp on it, giving it a unique interpretation that has not been heard before.

When I listen to a well known cover (performed as part of a singing competition or vocal showcase), I would be looking for interpretation – what the performance of that song tells me about the artist in front of me and whether their unique take on that song shows me something about the singer. The better known the original song or artist, the more important this is. For example, Wonderwall by Oasis is a very well known song and I would prefer to not hear it sung karaoke-style, or as  just a faithful rendition of the original recording.  I would rather want  to hear what the artist in front me can do with it, to bring out aspects of the song that might never had heard before. I have listened to some very remarkable interpretations of well known popular songs, where the singer has taken the song and made it their own, producing a version that is markedly different to the original and given me a whole new insight into that song, using exactly the same lyrics and most if not all of the original melody.

Putting together a set list

If an artist is  given an allotted period of time in which to perform, he or she  can probably do about five or six songs.  In a showcase event, the  goal for,  a  performer, is to illustrate the range of their repertoire, demonstrate  vocal and instrumental skills and entertain the  audience.  A good performance is not one in which the artist sticks to safe, comfortable songs, any more than going for the really hard, challenging stuff,  throughout the set. The singer should open with a song which they know they can perform well, which is likely to capture the attention of the room, engage the audience and prevent people from going for a smoking break, the toilet or to
the bar from a drink.

Keeping them and holding their attention is the tasks of the opening song. The last song should be a vibrant, robust number that rounds off the set with something that will cap the set’s achievement and illicit sustained applause.  In between, the singer  has to show those in the room  what the artist is  capable of.  Things to avoid: too many songs which sound the same in tempo, style and content – most listeners appreciate variety – and too many covers that every one else is doing (yet another Ed Sheering song, oh no not Lady
Gaga’s Dirty Ice Cream again!)

Performing the songs

What engages audiences is feeling – the singer’s ability to get inside a song, believe in what the lyrics are saying, understanding what the song is about and then living the song,  while  on stage.  Inexperienced artists learn the words, the melody and the instrumentals and think that is job done.  It’s not.  Excellent artists spend some time trying to get into the role – just as actors have to get into the role of a character and live the part, so too singers should be thinking long and hard about the lyrics, the meaning of the song, what they are singing about and how best to portray the whole piece on stage. That might even mean deciding when and where to make gestures and facial expressions, the requirements of piano, forte and pianissimo passages and the internal dynamics of the piece. Whether
it’s their  own original song or their own original interpretation of a well-known cover, it’s about singers putting yourself  into the songs and acting it out on the stage.  An excellent singer will get this just right; one who is less good will over act.

Telling people who you are

It is unlikely that the audience will be sitting there with a programme.  They might or might not have read the running order (if there is one) on the way in.  Most of them will have no idea who the singer is. The job is make them aware of you – your name and where you come from.  Either announce yourself to the room before you start singing or after you have finished the first song. It’s no good telling them your Facebook address – they will not remember it – but if you have cards or flyers with it on, leave them around the room.

Between songs,  you can tell them the title of song and something (briefly) about what’s in it and(if it is your song)  when you wrote it or, if it is a cover, why you like it and who originally performed it. Don’t just say “I am now going to do a cover by Ed Sheeran” and leave it at that.  Interesting though that might be, it still tells people nothing about why you are singing a song by Ed Sheeran and what’s significant about it.

People do not want to hear long speeches, anecdotes or stories between songs (in a six song set) but a little bit of personal chat helps people to relate to you as a person. You are not a singing robot. You are a person trying to make a room full of people like you and remember who you are (and, hopefully, will then want to  see you again at your next appearance.)

Solo singers with guitars

Should you sit down or stand up? This is a vexed issue and there are strong opinions for both options.  Singing coaches say stand up because that is the best position for breath control.  Others say sit down,  if that is how you feel most comfortable and relaxed.  Singing at your best is not a comfortable experience,  even for professionals.  When I see an artist sitting down to sing, I tend to think they are newly starting out amateurs (that might not be true but there is always a tendency to assume this if you have not seen this artist before.)

If you are  going to play guitar to accompany your singing, tune the instrument BEFORE you go on stage.  If you put in a new set of strings, do that several days before the performance and allow time for the strings to settle in.  We have seen artists break strings on stage and then ruin a good act while they restring  or waste time borrowing an instrument from someone else.

Make sure the audience knows you have finished

Some songs can have abrupt endings and if so, it is better to say “thank you” into the mic,  so that people know that the song has  finished.  At the end of your set, there is nothing wrong in thanking the artists that have been on before you and how much you enjoyed their songs.  It is a courtesy that is noted by judges and by members of the audience.

Flash gigs

We have just come up with the idea of putting on a flash-gig as a way of getting people to come to our show.

I don’t know what it is like in other cities, but in Leicester it is really, really difficult to get people to come to gigs.  There are over 8 live music venues in this city putting on gigs nearly every night of the week.  There are over 300 local rock bands all of whom want to play as many times as they can in Leicester venues.

This means that competition for the limited number of fans who are prepared to go out and see live bands is fierce. Most of the publicity for gigs is done on the Internet – through social networking outlets and the websites where shows can be posted. Printing vast quantities of flyers and posters is not just expensive – it’s almost non-productive.  If you go into our live music venues the walls are plastered from floor to ceiling with posters and there are always piles of flyers everywhere you look.

You can book a line-up of bands several weeks ahead only to find that by the time your own gig comes round, several other venues have started to publicise gigs that are in competition with your own. This is partly why we came up with the idea of a flash gig – an event date where we spot a date where not much else is happening and then we jump in, book a venue, some bands and then flog the publicity like mad.

It might work.  We shall see.  If everybody starts doing it might loose its edge.  As an idea it had its wow-factor. Every time we have put on a gig we have planned it carefully months in advance.  We have done all the things that promoters are supposed to do. Worked steadily and consistently with the on-line publicity. Printed posters and flyers and trudged round trying to get people to take them.

The big night arrives. We think our bands are really great. We think we have got all the elements right for a top night of live music. We wait for the queues to form at the door.

Then disappointment. Fewer people turn up than we had expected and we begin to wallow in self-doubt, wondering where we went wrong.  This pattern is repeated for touring bands – those who want to come to play in Leicester because they have heard its a place with good venues and lots of popular support bands. They have played up and down the UK but they fail to pull as many gig-goers as the little newbie band that went on first.  It can be a hard life for both promoters and bands.

After several years of putting on gigs I can’t just give up.  There are just so many bands that I really like and want to book for gigs. I want to big them up because I think their music is just so great. I try to think outside of the box, try out new ideas to see if they work any better than the conventional wisdom of how to market shows.

So, we try the ‘flash-gig’.  We will let you know if it works. [In fact it worked really well and was a grat success.]

Postscript

If you want to see what happened to our ‘flash-gig’ you can read the report on our page

Arts In Leicester’s Flash Gig

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?

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.