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.

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 passed.

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 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?