After many years of playing mostly acoustic music I now find myself immersed in writing a whole bunch of material on electric guitar. I have amassed a great collection over the years so there’s a lot of choice but I’m defaulting to my Warmoth hardtail strat and Ransom telecaster both equipped with terrific Tom Holmes paf pickups.
An even greater surprise to me is that I am recording totally by DI instead of by miking up amps. I’m using the excellent Acme Motown DI unit and a Zen Drive 2 pedal into the Arrow UAD interface. I’m using a Tom Holmes bridge pickup on all tracks and these of course sound great. I’m also exclusively using the Ear Trumpet Myrtle mic for all vocals.
After recording three albums of acoustic instruments, its a real surprise to be in a new sonic territory of overdriven guitar sounds. The Zen Drive 2 has been a game changer and I am about to receive a rare Black Magic Zen Drive unit, so I have a back up. The combination of the Zen Drive and the Acme is extraordinary and wonderfully simple to use.
Keeping in simple
There’s a good reason why many classic pop and rock songs are written to a formula, verse, chorus. middle eight. I’m rediscovering the joys of working simply with strong melody lines and sharp lyrics. Of course I’ve always been a fan of these two ingredients but usually I have a full band of up to another five members to work with. Now I’m doing everything myself so I’m working faster in my home studio and during the covid 19 lockdown I have more time than usual.
Many of the new songs start with a riff and develop from there. I learned some great songwriting tips from my good friend Tim Booth from James and am putting his advice to good use. This approach is certainly working and I already have a bunch of new material in the vault.
Working on 2 simultaneous projects
I’m working on two simultaneous projects during the lockdown. One of the projects is not directly linked to “Nick Cody” and is totally different to anything else I have done before. The second project is working with stripped back electric tracks with additional input from some of my trusted musical colleagues who always deliver in spades.
The covid pandamic has sparked a great deal of creativity and everything is geared around electric guitar. Last night I played a uke live on zoom for the first time and it was strange after three solid months of distorted electric guitar. I of course love both styles of instrument, but I am having a blast with this electric work.
I am fortunate to know many excellent professional musicians from around the world and all of them have been by Covid 19. This is requiring a massive rethink and live appearances have all been wiped out. Its an extraordinary situation and it is not going to change anytime soon
Local musicians affected
Many local musicians were already struggling pre pandemic and I recall one niche musician saying he was struggling to make ends meet and wondered if he could MOT his car.
With the advent of covid 19 he is one of the many that may have to rethink whether its viable to continue to reply on music as a predictable source of income. I’ve long thought that many artists live literally from one gig to another and of course there is nothing new in that, but covid 19 creates all manner of additional problems
People and venue challenges
There is a current argument raging about the acceptable distance people for people to socially distance during covid 19. At 2 metres most indoor venues are not viable. Theatres generally need 80% capacity to be viable and the 2 metre rule means they can only accommodate 20%, which is not economically viable. Regardless of whether this changes, many smaller clubs and venues will close. As one producer said
“Many artists are gonna have to drop a division when playing live”
The second issue is whether people will even return to attending live events in the same numbers. Most people are creatures of habit and a three month total change of habits is going to have a lasting effect. My guess is that it will be a long time before audiences return to live events in the same numbers.
The Online solution?
As soon as the world went into lockdown many artists immediately and understandably shifted to running online events. There are many challenges with these format including the technical challenges in maintaining good sound and visuals.
My own experience is that the quality is massively variable. Some online efforts have been like watching a car crash, while others have been really excellent.
Jack and the Vox from USA have been putting out pairs of songs on a daily basis and have been terrific entertainment. What both these examples have in common is the attention to detail and really superb performances. They remind me of Daryl’s House, always engaging and unpredictable.
Martin Simpson‘s first live show was exceptional, really terrific sound, a great set and of course a superb performance. Martin is shooting a lot of video from home and as always he is truly engaging and fascinating to watch
The online medium is a different environment, like a TV show but without the high production values. This is totally different to a live experience. I’m personally not a fan of calling pre recorded material “festivals” or “mini festivals” as they are nothing like a festival experience.
Captain of the Lost Waves has done a series of terrific shows that have delighted his growing fanbase as well as connecting to a new audeince
All these artists have a strong work ethic and crucially smart strategic thinking.
The difference that makes the difference
Many people I know feel that social media is swamped by online events and many unfortunately are not that great. I suspect the ones that are more creative and themed will survive whereas the others will disappear.
Artists with strong fan bases will in my opinion do well and as always artists will need to find new ways to capture public attention. This is perhaps not a bad thing as it means there will be more focus on quality as audiences will have less spending power. Smart artists are always moving forward and exploring how to connect to new audeinces. This means focussing on differentiation and avoiding just doing exactly the same thing as everyone else.
Snatching failure from the jaws of success?
Unfortunately having great talent is not in itself enough to generate predictable income for artists, you have to also have some business skills. I’ve known some very good musicians who spectacularly “snatch failure from the jaws of success”
Usually they are too polarised in their ways of thinking and can’t seperate social and business interactions. I set up Music for the Head and Heart and Songs of Hope as a free resource for artists to connect to new audiences. This is one of many initiatives that I fund personally to help musicians.
Smart musicians appreciate that in order to earn a good living rather than just scraping by, you need to embrace a wider audience and that means building new connections all the time. I learned from my non musical persona teaching business skills, that often you have to expand thinking and work with a wide range of people rather than a narrow niche of people who agree 100% with everything you already think!
I predict new and more innovative ways of connecting with audiences will emerge. Many artists that were just scraping by will I suspect disappear if they don’t adapt to the new dynamic. I can’t imagine a world without great music and hopefully the “new normal” will result in some real great new entertainment. Of course its 100% up to the artists what they want to do and whether that want an audience of thousands, millions or just themselves, BUT for most people time needs to be funded in some way and these thoughts are on strategies that help make that happen.
To my great surprise, I am currently playing and recording a lot of electric guitar. This is a far cry from the last four years of acoustic work that revolved around guitars, ukuleles and other instruments. This is a great chance to revisit many pedals I have including the excellent Zen Drive 2 pedal.
I have always liked this pedak that to my ears has a very Robben Ford tone. I’ve been using it with the Acme DI straight in a DAW, and it sounds fantastic. The sound is in similar territory to the Dude pedal which I have also used on the latest set of recordings. The Zen Drive 2 is great for rhythm as well as lead work I’ve used all manner of pedals over the years and settled on a few which give the very best tones and keep the character of the instrument.
Here’s a video of the Zen Drive 2 in action
Recording in a DI manner is also very ususual for me. I’m really surprised at how good the overall sound is and of course having an excellent producer and using UAD plugins is an absolute game changer. I’m loving this very stripped down way of working and the material is rockier than anything I have recorded previously.
The Covid 19 pandemic has brought massive change on the planet and of course the music industry is hugely affected. These are very uncertain times and I suspect the musical landscape post covid will never be the same again. As soon as ‘South by South West” was cancelled I realised that we had a massive problem.
All my professional artist friends had every single live performance cancelled and that meant zero income. Nobody really knows how the musical landscape will appear lost covid 19. My hope is that live music will return as such events are one of my true loves in life.An “egg in one basket” and the use technology? I have of course blogged in the past about the myth and reality in the music business and covid 19 will in my view create a massive reset for the music industry.
Use of technology during covid 19
Many artists earn a living with income from one gig to another and suddenly that income stream vanished. I have previously blogged about how tough it is for artists to generate a working wage from music and the pandemic has highlighted as one friend said “My egg was in one basket, and now that basket is no more!”
Many performers have started to use technology to stream live appearances with varying results. There are all manner of challenges with the technology and of course the number of people online is at an all time high. This affects bandwidth globally and that affects the quality of what is streamed. With the Music for the Head and Heart platform, we opted for recording artist material for this reason. That way we can ensure the picture and sound quality are at a high level.
Streaming and “festivals online?”
A number of friends have commented that social media and especially Facebook are now full of artists streaming music. The term “festivals” is now being applied to such events. The quality of what appears is variable to say the least and it will be interesting to see if this trend continues over a longer period of time as this is of course a few different form of interaction without mass human gathering. I was surprised to see one niche group of music promote a ticketed event as a “festival” when it was lot a live stream, but a series of artists having recorded in their homes! Personally I think this is a bit of a stretch in calling this “a festival” but that’s just a personal view and I appreciate that many people have to try and scratch a living in whatever way they can.
The biggest challenge for many artists in terms of generating income from online video is that the public to a large extent, expect video to be free. Youtube has a huge amount of free content, including full gigs often in high resolution with great sound. The experience of watching online is of course very different to attending an event, but with all the current uncertainty nobody knows what the future holds in terms of live events.
There’s an even bigger challenge for ukulele and many other niche music events is that in many (but not all cases) the audience are not there primarily to listen to artists but rather to play. As a longstanding ukulele player and teacher commented
“Nick, they don’t want to listen to music, they just want to jam with each other”
My experience is that this is true for some ukulele circles, but there are artists like Victoria Vox who are reaching a much wider audience. Similarly the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain also attract a mainstream audience and are great entertainers. As the uke festival audience enthusiasts are generally older, this poses additional problems for future festivals as covid 19 is more problematic for that age group.
Studio recording during Covid 19
Studio recording in the traditional sense has of course been massively affected. During lockdown artists can’t go to studios to do recording so remote and home recording methods are going to be on the increase. I’ve been blogging on using Steinberg VST Connect Performer. This is probably the most advanced technology for remote recording and we’ve had good results to date. However this is not an easy option for many artists and even a seasoned producer may find that this is a very new way of working and Steinberg would do well to update their instruction videos as many aspects of working this way are not as clear as they could be.
I’ve also been using a UAD Arrow with an Acme DI into Reaper DAW to great effect. This is a simple set up which is producing some great results. I’ll send over files to my producer and we’ll then use VST Connect Performer to add additional tracks. I’m also using the Ear Trumpet Myrtle mic for all vocals and loving the results. I’m lucky to have amassed all this gear just before the pandemic and this allows me to work up new material at an accelerated rate. Its a bit of a baptism of fire, but I suspect that the future of artist recording will involve a lot more home recording than in days gone by.
This is a great time for learning about recording as there are many great low cost resources out there. One superb example is the Reaper DAW which can be used for free during the covid period. Check out Reaper HERE I use this DAW for all recording and it took just five minutes to set up.
Future live music events?
People are mostly creatures of habit and the pandemic has meant that live events have all disappeared. Some festivals and clubs may disappear of course through financial difficulties. One scenario may be that people value music more and flock more to live events. Another scenario is that people become more cautious about group gatherings and stay away.
My instinct is that the musical landscape will be very different and there will be a substantial reduction in live opportunities as even before the pandemic many festivals and clubs were already struggling. I’m a massive fan of live music, although I favour smaller venues these days and the idea of a huge festival is not that attractive. The major festivals in 2020 were all cancelled and I suspect many will be cancelled for 2021 until there is some kind of cure for covid 19. These are very strange times and I feel like I’m in some strange alter universe.
Nobody knows what will happen post covid 19, but in my opinion the musical landscape will be very different. Adaptability will be crucial and this means thinking in very different ways. One thing is certain, artists will continue to entertain and in my view the world needs as much of that as it can find right now.
We just finished mastering a full band track called “That gal’s as cool as fuck” The song is about Scarlet Rivera who was the violinist on Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Tour. My good friend Kit Bailey on seeing the movie wonderfully commented on social media
“That gal’s as cool as fuck!” and I thought “What a great title for a song!”
I loved Dylan’s work from that period and especially the album “Desire” Scarlet’s violin work really made that album and I wrote this track about her meeting with Dylan. Here are the lyrics
That Gal’s as cool as fuck
There’s a rolling thunder, sweeping through this town, Marty’ s got his camera, to get the whole thing down A hard rain is falling, to wash this sad away, Music from the heavens playing night and day
Chorus When Bobby sings with scarlet strings, the audience’s in luck Sweetest sounds are ringing from the gal – that’s cool as fuck
She’s dancing with the twins respectful for the space, Wild, withdrawn and silent behind this painted face, Heading down to Brooklyn, for a taste of blue, This simple twist of fate reveals all that’s true.
A desire is forming down he Bitter End, Isis in the headlights, messages to send One more cup of coffee, sets aside the shy A crossing of the stars, no time to wonder why
Today is all about putting down guitar tracks for my first ever cover version. After recording 44 tracks to date, this is new territory. I’m also loving working with the Acme DI box, the Ear Trumpet Myrtle mic and the Arrow UAD unit.
I have blogged a lot about the Acme which was used extensively on Motown albums and it has a very distinctive 60s sound to my ears. I keep thinking about the third Velvet Underground album in terms of sound and that’s in my view no bad thing. This is a total departure from all my acoustic guitar and ukulele work and requires some very different thinking.
I’ve also found myself using the same guitar a Warmoth custom hardtail strat with a graphite Moses neck and a Tom Holmes bridge pickup which is giving a great great sound. I’m using Reaper DAW to put down the central tracks and tomorrow I’ll be hooking up with Agi and adding vocals before connecting with Carl Rosamond in the afternoon to explore mixing.
These as we know are very strange times globally and these recording sessions are totally different to my normal way of working. To start with I’m playing all the parts and doing all the vocals. We are also working really quickly on material and there is something to be said for such concise time effective ways of working.
One big lesson has been in investing in really excellent studio gear and not cutting any corners. This ia all the more important as there’s a run on studio gear in these times as more and more people are looking to beef up their home recording setups.
Today I laid down all the additional guitar tracks for “Your chosen one is coming” To my ears the guitar parts sound like something from Television’s classic “Marquee Moon” album from 1970s, much to my amazement. The Acme DI unit is earning its money in spades and we are recording studio to studio via Steinberg’s VST Connect performer pro version.
I am also for the first time using only electric guitar, no ukuleles or any other acoustic instruments in sight although the album title track with Ella Playford on vocals was recorded using my excellent waterloo acoustic. I’m used to having a band, so its a new experience to be playing everything and doing all the arranging. During the global pandemic lockdown i do have an unusual amount of extra time.
This process allows us to record high resolution 24 bit files and then mix and master in the Headingly studio. “Your chosen one is coming” is the first track to be recorded this way and its sounding great. We already have a terrific video for “All Kinds of Crazy” and are looking at releasing that sometime in April.
This has been a somewhat surreal experience doing the first few tracks, studio to studio. Fortunately Carl Rosamond has a brilliant grasp of how to use the technology as well as how to get the best sonic results.
I recorded the rhythm guitar track for “Your Chosen One is Coming” and then added vocals using the Ear Trumpet mic. The custom Warmoth hard tail strat with a Tom Holmes HB and single coils (info for guitar geeks) sounds absolutely terrific into the Acme DI. I am absolutely loving the simplicity of the Acme and can now appreciate why it was used to great effect on so many Motown tracks.
We then added some additional takes studio to studio using a Pro Version of VST Connect to record additional takes.
This is a really stripped back sound, but I am loving it. In a strange way it reminds me of a cross between The Velvet Underground and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. There’s a stack of songs to record, but hey, I have the time now to do it!
My terrific bass player Fergus Quill told me about the Acme Motown D.I. WB-3 which I had never heard of. Not only had I never heard of it, but my fellow tech enthusiasts had never seen or tried one. I started to investigate and immediately found that there were none second hand which is one of the signs of great gear.
I was originally going to travel to New York where I could try one out, but the global pandemic made that impossible. My wife then managed to get one for my birthday from the excellent folks at KMR in London.
I’ve been playing with it for the last 24 hours and can I can see why studios and players are so impressed with this unit. The price will put a few folks off and my producer commented “What? A DI box at that price? Then he heard a clip, and admitted that it sounded great.
I had a similar reaction to the Fire Eye Red DI’s that I have blogged on previously, but the Acme Motown D.I. WB-3 is a different beast. I’ve used it as a straight DI into a desk and it 100% gives the natural sound of the instrument. Its one of those pieces of gear that gives that elusive extra 20% for those wanting great sound.
It also sounds fantastic when plugged into a simple fender small combo. The sound is smoother and more musical. I’ll be spending more time with this simple unit that is built like a tank and sounds terrific. I can see why many studios love this box and I’m super pleased to have one.
Since my first band The Small Change Diaries in 2015, I have increasingly become aware of the importance of using great photos in music promotion. The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is so true and of course many great albums were also remembered for their classic photos. The Clash’s “London Calling” Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira” are a few of many examples.
I was lucky to come across Karen Turner five years ago and we have done a number of photo shoots with her, both in the UK and overseas. I have come across many photographers who have great gear, but the key to taking great photographs is someone who has the eye to know how to really capture the subject. Karen Turner’s photos have been a key factor in all our band promotions along with video clips.
Here are some of the superb photos she has taken to date and I’m currently waiting to see the latest photo shoot with the new Caravan of Dreams quartet.
In doing interviews for Music for The Head and Heart I’m increasingly finding that artists have a real challenge in generating predictable income and many are asked to play charity events, fundraisers and similar live gigs for no remuneration. I have absolutely no problem with charitable events, but one good friend pointed out that perhaps a charity event to support the working artists might be a good plan? This raises the whole question of the price we pay for “free music”
Here are some thoughts
The value from “trades”
With the advent of Spotify and many other music trends the performing artists are increasingly disadvantaged financially. Hobbyists as opposed to professional performers are often favoured by local pub venues and open mic type situations meaning less financial outlay for business owners. Its all sounds great doesn’t it? Free music for the masses? Well any smart person knows, there is always a cost involved in any relationship and this is no different…
” I’m not a fan of artists paying for “exposure” as often its a means for promoters to get free entertainment and in many cases the artists don’t even receive expenses for their work. Every year I have one promoter asking my 5 piece band to play for a charity gig where the artists don’t even receive the most basic of expenses. I think such expenses should always be on offer and then its up to the artists to accept or refuse on a case by case basis. When entertainment is increasingly presented as being available for no financial cost, then people start to devalue what is on offer.
I set up the Music for The Head and Heart Platform to give especially independent artists a voice and a means to connect to a wider public. Artists are invited to appear on the platform and the “trade” is that they get to be interviewed and play some songs which are then professionally edited and promoted to the wider public. The “trade” is mostly in time and for around an hour’s meet up, and with no financial outlay, many performers can have some really excellent footage produced and in some cases be part of one of the live paid showcases. Trades are not always financial trades, BUT ultimately professional performers need to earn a living and that means figuring out how to balance time and money.
Pricing and expectations
“As for the music business itself, the key things have not changed that much. It operates like any business and money still keeps things moving.” Tom Jones
I’m a big fan of collaboration and reciprocation. I have built up a business reputation over many years that allows me to fund my love of music. I literally put my money where my mouth is and always ensure that artist’s work is valued. This means funding support acts and shows irrespective of whether I receive any income. The reason for this is that if we fail to value creative work then ultimately the quality of what is on offer will diminish as performers can’t maintain a time/money balance.
I’ve previously blogged about how many performers return to paid salaried work as they can’t earn a reasonable living from music alone. This inevitably means that the quality and diversity of what is available is increasingly reduced and I have often joked that all will remain will be open mics and giant stadium gigs with nothing in between.
So what next?
In my view, the best way forward is for performers of like minds to support each other and to create exceptional entertainment for the wider public. Its down to the artists to entertain and to ensure that they don’t give away their skills without factoring in the bigger picture. This is a tricky balance but many music enthusiasts can unwittingly become complicit in devaluing musical entertainment by being to ready to give away their art. This creates an understandable expectation from the public that music “should be free” and that’s IMO a real problem. Promoters and festivals also have IMO a responsibility to ensure artists receive fair pay for their entertainment skills.
I even recall one festival asking what “contribution” an artist might “need” if they are accepted to play one of the stages. I can’t imagine a top chef being asked such a question and in my view its disrespectful to performing artists. As a lover of music, I want to see more great live music and that means artists need supporting in their creative work. Imagine people then decided that they wouldn’t pay to see films at cinemas, the cinema industry would soon start to deteriorate and ultimately disappear. Agree? Disagree? Don’t care? All feedback welcome as IMO its an important discussion
One of the biggest challenges in creating and promoting music is to be able to fund the time needed to make this happen Unless you have a wealthy patron or other financial support, it can become a real issue. Here are some thoughts and observations on this.
Predictable income challenges
In recent months I know three musicians who have returned to full time employment as they can’t earn enough predictable income fr om music alone. I’ve blogged extensively about how paid work is tougher to find for artists and its no surprise that ecomonic consideraions ultimately prevail. I remember reading that Tom Verlaine from the iconic band Television was still working part time in a book store in New York even when his classic Marquee Moon album was released.
In 1980s my friends in the band James in the early days were volunteering for drug trials in Manchester to generate income and for years lived on a shoe string. Even when signed by Sire, it was hard work and only 30+ years on are those in the band capitalising on decades of work.
Image v working reality in music
Many artists don’t in my view fully appreciate that if they want to connect to a wider audience, image is important. I’ve seen many posts on social media which to put it politely are in my opinion ill advised. Examples include begging for accomodation in a city at short notice from anyone online and other photos of being very drunk online. Yes, this is part of daily life for many folks, but as the old saying goes “You never get a 2nd chance to make a first impression”
Its not just individual artists who are unaware. I saw a festival once try and position themselves as the next Glastonbury for a niche music concern. The ad copy online was as impressive as the claims for what they said they were going to achieve. I then saw a photo of the headliner and thought it must have been during a soundcheck. The reason I thought this was that there was a small group of people huddled under umbrellas which suggested a very different image, but yes this was the final audience…
Funding Time for recording & Gigs
I just finished my third album and I have realised that in order to work up material for the studio and live tracks means a lot of rehearsal time. My policy is to pay the band for all their time and I fund this from my other work. This means working very hard to make this possible. I also pay all band members for gigs, irrespective of whether we get paid by the promoter. These costs can really accumulate, but its an effective way to get the work completed without resorting to Kickstarter style operations. Such operations work well for some people but I’ve steered clear to date.
Regarless of finance, simply being able to get a band to all meet is a challenge. I joke that “thank god, we are not a 12 piece band!” I have learned that the best model for my ensemble is to have a core trio and then hire in other musicians. I have an inner FB group for all those involved in musical projects and that allows for good communication.
Reciprocation & Shared Values
I’m a big fan of reciprocation and shared values. I’ve run music events where some artists have been brilliant in their cooperation and involvement. In contrast I’ve had artists want to bring a crazy number of people as guests, many of who disappear after their friends have performed! Neeedless to say, such folks will not get future opportunites from me. Fortunately these individuals are in a minority and are often seriously unaware of opportunities. With one artist I offered them all manner of possible commercial opportunities and they simply didn’t respond. Yes, its for each artist to determine what works for them, but to not even check out an opportunity seems seriously daft to me…
I’ve learned to pick and choose who I involve in projects and as band members. There are some really nice folks out there, but it can be a massive amount of working organizing them. This inevitably leads to a lot of frustration so now I’m super careful about who I involve in work. Another issue is that many artists can’t work in an organized manner and that is essential if you want to build and release a body of work. My advice to all band leaders is to work with people who are like minds and who have shared values.
Music for The Head and Heart Platform
I set up the Music for The Head and Heart platform to bring together artists and work in collaboration. To date we have run a terrific launch party and the second live event is Jan 25th and we still have a few tickets here. To date we have interviewed 35 artists from all over the globe and its been fascinating. This means allocating a great deal of time and some financial investment. I fund this to date from other work and by year two my plan is that at least the live events break even. The main investment is time in organising artists and planning video and audio. People who attend actual events often don’t appreciate the crazy amount of time and goodwill involved in many these showcases happen.
All this time has to be funded in some way and that means thinking smart and working with people who have shared values. In terms of the platform I have a policy of inviting people and then sending a reminder if I don’t hear anything. Many such artists simply don’t have the momentum and stamina to create a body of work and to reach a wider public. Often they are by nature too insular and inevitably never create and release a body of work.
Time to think and plan
Personally I need chunks of time to plan and to create new music. I don’t work with a regimented work schedule for writing, but I like to always have instruments to hand and free time to play around. Its also invaluable to be able to step back from projects and take a second view on how to proceed. I think its also invaluable to have a variety of interests in life which can inspire the creative process. That means using time in a particular way to not just get stuck in one medium of musical creation and to embrace working with all manner of other people. As Nick Cave would say
“A rock musician’s career is short-lived. To extend it, you need to do other things to keep yourself fresh.| Nick Cave
Collaboration and sharing skills and resources are the best way to being about any vision. Many performers can be tunnel visioned in how they work. That’s fine for them, but IMO its not smart business. A better way is genuine cooperation and collaboration to bring great music to a much wider public.
I recently fast forwarded through the new “The Masked Singer” TV programme and it reminded me how much I hate such formats. Shows like “X Factor”, “American Idol” and “Britain’s got Talent” had some appeal initially, but increasingly the hype and manufactured backstories eclipsed any real musical skills. I am mystified as to why anyone would watch “The Masked Singer” but 5.5 million people watched the show for the first time in the UK. I fast forwarded though the whole horrible experience and noted that it was the same formula for shows like “The Voice” where there’s “a reveal” which is the main hook for the show. In this instance one “performer” from The Masked Singer is revealed at the end of the show.
I’m all for promoting new talent, but the more I look into these shows, the more I discover how they are not really about promoting music, but more pushing a pre packaged product. Yes, I appreciate that in any commercial undertaking any record company or business wants a return on its investment, but in my view these dumb down music and create delusional expectations for many artists. I also reliably heard that at least one artist was approached to go on one of these shows and assured he would be in the final group BEFORE he had even had an audition. The Masked Singer is another variation on the X Factor formula that seem to have captured the public’s attention, but I for one loath such shows .
Clearly I am in a minority, but I agree with the following quote below from Bela Bartok. The problem for me is that many such competitions are focused on generating money rather than promoting artistic development and expression.
Seen and heard it all before?
Another reason I hate such shows is that almost always the artists sing cover versions. I really don’t want to hear anyone else slaughter classic songs like “Hallelujah” unless they are on a par with Jeff Buckley, which of course never happens. This endless recycling of cover versions mostly not done well, continues the trend of dumbing down music, and reducing the opportunity to hear anything new. The talent shows have become so formulated that viewing numbers have significantly dropped in recent years as the publci has mostly seen and heard it all before. The shows are predictacle in the extreme and quite frankly pretty dull. The latest X Factor incarnation recorded its lowest ever ratings at just 2.95million during the first live show of the new Celebrity series. Ratings dropped from a 3.6 million peak to an all time low for the franchise, which began in 2004.
Of course this trend is not new and again I realise I am in a minority. I’ve been at niche music festivals where an audience is whooping over a performer doing “a quirky version” of a classic Bowie song, that I thought was terrible… However popularity does not in my opinion equate to good taste and lets remember even though there are 1,249 McDonald’s in UK, that doesn’t mean they serve what I would consider (in my biased opinion) the best food.
Great income for business but what about the artist?
Some artists that win talent competitions have reasonable careers, but many disappear out of sight once the hype has died down. How many X Factor winners can you remember? There have been 15 winners of the show to date: Steve Brookstein, Shayne Ward, Leona Lewis, Leon Jackson, Alexandra Burke, Joe McElderry, Matt Cardle, Little Mix, James Arthur, Sam Bailey, Ben Haenow, Louisa Johnson, Matt Terry, Rak-Su and Dalton Harris. Winners receive a recording contract with record label Syco Music with a stated value of £1 million. This includes a cash payment to the winner, but the majority is allocated to marketing and recording costs…
Since 2011 it has been thought that the act only gets an initial advance of £150,000 for their first album. If they manage to impress the label the advance rises to £237,500 for a second, £315,000 for a third, and £400,000 for a fourth. Of course “an advance” is essentially a loan against future earnings or pre payment of royalties.
Of these Little Mix and Leona Lewis are probably best known of course.
A Guardian article on this makes for interesting reading (excerpt below)
“News leaked that The X Factor has dropped the “£1m recording contract” top prize. Apparently this happened in 2009, but contestants were sworn to secrecy, so the change has only now come to light. The contracts this year’s finalists have been asked to sign give them an advance of “just” £150,000 for their first album, according to the Sun. The advances for the follow-up albums increase by just under £100,000 with every release, which means the act would have to release four albums to earn a million pounds. No act has so far managed to reach that point before being dropped.
That people are surprised by these revelations illustrates how the myth of the pop star life is still pervasive. As record sales have plummeted by almost 50% in the past decade, the advance most new artists can hope for, even from a major label, ranges between £75,000 and £150,000. If X Factor wannabes are still under the illusion that winning will make you a millionaire, they’re in for a surprise when they realise how record deals really work.“
Its not just the pop singing competitions that have problems
An interesting excerpt from The Daily Telegraph article on classic music competitions in 2014 –
The majority of music competitions are corrupt, Julian Lloyd Webber has said, as he warned that judges often collude to ensure victory for their preferred candidates. The internationally renowned cellist, who retired from playing in April, said it was an open secret among professional musicians that talent is not the deciding factor in most single-instrument contests. He claimed that many teachers used the competitions as a way to promote their own pupils.
“Everyone knows it, but no one says it, because when you’re in the profession, you don’t,” he told The Times. “There are obvious exceptions, such as BBC Young Musician of the Year, which is not corrupt at all, but you have these competitions for violins, cello, piano and it’s all about who you studied with.” Mr Lloyd-Webber said that favouritism was endemic to Britain, but the problem was with talent contests rather than industry awards such as the Gramophone Awards or the Classical Brits, which helped propel Vanessa Mae to stardom.
Artists used as marketing machines?
One UK business now promotes talent shows where performers pay to take part and then are tasked with marketing the live appearances. That sounds like a great business model for the host of the competitions, perhaps not for the artists. One such company asks artists to pay 10 pounds to apply and/or an additional 20 pounds for “priority application” They are then additional “marketing requirements” from the company towards artists…
This particular company advertises
“This singing competition attracts over 10,000 acts every year as it travels across the country in search for the UK’s best singers, singer/songwriters, rappers and vocalists”
its not hard to see that this is a lucrative business model. Yes, the argument can be made that the artists get good experience, but personally I would be wary of such methods.
Aa google search reconfirmed some interesting feedback from one artist. Make of this what you will. I have removed the name of the business, but for those interested its easy to find out who it is.
“Dear talent show
Thank you for your email.
By legal definition you may be a legitimate ‘talent show’ but you really ought to be more honest. This is a huge money making scheme. Having read your terms and conditions it seems you ask singers to pay £5 to enter your competition, charge successful singers a £30 deposit which is only refundable if they ‘turn up, make an effort and compete as asked’, and although not obligatory, you pressure successful singers to ‘try their hardest’to sell 25 tickets each.
I would not be surprised if pressure was also placed on singers to rent a crowd aka to bring lots of friends and family to each ’round’ at their personal expense and, if audiences were also encouraged to take part in expensive text message voting.
You say you are connected and have worked with the ‘likes of Sony, Warner and Universal Music’ but aside from Birdy, I haven’t heard of a famous singer whose success is attributed to you
That you emailed me asking me to ‘work’ for you as a talent scout is actually quite funny. Yes, I am extremely well connected both in London and Kent. As an established voice coach and choir leader I access 230 singers on a weekly basis. The contract you have asked me to sign asks me to openly publicise your competition by distributing the 1000 flyers you will send me, whilst recruiting singers to audition. The final reward for this is a commission of £100 for every 10 singers who successfully audition, £150 for every 15 singers and £200 for every 20 singers. Essentially, you are asking me to work for free on a commission basis with no guarantee of fair pay for my efforts. But primarily, you are masquerading this as an ‘opportunity’ to be a ‘talent scout’. It’s absolutely ludicrous!
But moving on and back to my comment about your approaching me being ‘funny’… As you will recall, I am quite connected, yes. And as I said before, I do have access to 230 singers each week of the year. I am also legitimately ‘connected’ and two of my students have signed record deals (they did not pay a fee to do this). I am, however, grateful that you contacted me as what I will now do is inform the 230 singers I teach on a weekly basis to not enter your competition.
In summation, you have taken the X Factor concept – an already exploitative competition – and turned it into a money-making scheme, whilst asking singing teachers to work on commission rates only, and poor ones at that.
I suggest that you take your competition and shove it up your arse.
Of course this is just one view and there may well be others that have found such experiences to be of great value. Personally I’m not a fan, with heavy reliance on the performers to not only perform but also to market the event for free.
My biggest beef with talent shows and singing competitions is that they create delusional expectations for performers and does nothing to develop new creative talent. Instead “packages” artists to a specific template. Its a personal hate and of course many will disagree. That said, The Masked Singer seems in my view to be a new low in music TV shows. Such examples in my confirm that such shows really mostly benefit those running them and not the artists without whom they could not exist. I fully endorse Emily’s final comment on this matter that I couldn’t have put better myself.
I’m currently organising studio time for 2020 and took a few moments to look about at the songs I have professionally recorded to date. My first band was “The Small Change Diaries” where we recorded two albums and one EP. Since then I have recorded a debut album with “The Caravan of Dreams” which is my new ensemble.
Here are the songs I have recorded to date and a provisional listing for the second Caravan of Dreams album
I’m currently doing an annual review of my instrument collection and was reflecting on what makes for a great instrument. Over the years I have bought all manner of instruments from all over the globe. The challenge in the UK is often the lack of selection. In terms of guitars there are still a few good stores, but none compare with what I know in the USA and Japan.
“The keepers” in my collection include my Shimo collection of ukuleles. Shimo is an exceptional builder and I’ve been using his instruments on almost all my recordings to date across three albums and one ep. Here are some of the collection
I also have my two Stefan Sobell acoustics and mandola. I first heard about Sobells from Martin Simpson, who has been playing them for many years. These are custom made exceptional instruments and there is often a two year wait for any build.
Both Stefan and Shimo make instruments to order. In terms of a company, Bill Collings is still in my view the best and I have two of his concert ukuleles as well as an electric I35, and a tenor and 6 string acoustic
Collings make great electric guitars as well as acoustics. Here is the I35 in action
I’m generally not a fan of “old is best” but I do love this Martin ukulele that is almost 100 years old. Again the build quality is superb and the sound is great
These are just some of my collection. Great instruments are those that inspire creativity and are a joy to play. Often they come at a price, but not always. The problem with many production instruments is that the quality can vary massively for what should essentially be the exact same instrument. This is true for guitars and ukuleles. I take online reviews with a pinch of salt for this very reason.
Of course all of these views are subjective and the only way to find out what is a great instrument for you, is to go play a buncg of them. This means a bit of effort in exploring, but in my opinion that’s a worthwhile time investment and it pays off massively in terms of what then inspires creativity.
Once a year I do a proper review of my instrument collection and decide whether to move on some of the collection. This can be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes some instruments have served their purpose and have been superceeded by new aquisitions.
I have a checklist of four fundamental questions when deciding whether to keep or move on an instrument
1 Do I use it live? 2 Do I record with it? 3 Do I write with it? 4 Am I keeping as an investment or for sentimental reasons?
I’m lucky enough to travel across the globe each year and to know where to find the very best instruments. The biggest challenge of living in the UK is that we simply don’t have the choice that would be available in many other countries. Stores like Rudy’s Music in New York and Carters Music in Nashville simply don’t exist in the UK for guitars. For ukuleles there are numerous great stores in Japan than offer instruments I’ll never see in the UK.
Custom Built instruments that are “keepers”
I never set out to be an instrument collector, but mostly seek out instruments for live work, writing or recording purposes. With live work any instrument needs to be amplified and 100% reliable. Some instruments are better played acoustically without pickups and of course every instrument requires different amplification considerations. This is one of the reasons why questions like “Whats the best pickup or amp?” are totally meaningless!
I have increasingly sought out had made custom instruments rather than production line instruments. Yes, there is a higher financial ticket price but the attention to detail and quality is usually much higher. There are few companies who reach such quality standards and Collings guitars definately falls into that catagory. I interviewed Bill Collings many years ago and told him that I have never played any acoustic or electric Collings instrument that was anything other than excellent. Bill had the perfect ability to figure out the very best elements in brands like Martin, Gibson and Fender and then improve on what they did.
I own a number of Collings instruments including an I35 electric, a tenor guitar, a 6 string acoustic and two concert ukuleles. All are superb. In terms of custom builds my preference for ukuleles is Takahiro Shimo and I have eight of his instruments so far. I also own two Stefan Sobell acoustics and a mandola. Stefan is another great builder and like Shimo there is a wait for any instruments as they are greatly in demand. Pete Howlett is also a superb builder from Wales and Gregor Nowak from Vienna continues to amaze me with his instrument builds. Almost without exception any of these purchases are keepers and the production models are the ones that usually get moved on at some point.
Space and other considerations
Ukuleles and mandolins are small bodied instruments, so don’t take up a lot of space. Guitars however can soon take up a lot of space, especially if you have good protective cases for each instrument. Suddenly space (or lack of it) can be an issue.
I’m a big fan of instruments being played and its of course once you get to a certain volume of instruments its impossible to play them all on a regular basis. I’d rather pass on some such instruments so they get the attention they deserve, than have them just sitting in cases.
2019 was a busy year with the release of “Tales of Dark and Light” and a launch party in May. We recorded 14 tracks for the album and I have another 7 tracks ready to record already in 2020. As well as lining up new gigs, I’ll be spending some time of a side project “The Edge of Feedback” and working on an album of duets of original songs for release late 2020, early 2021.
The lineup of the Caravan will change in 2020, but the core members of myself, Fergus Quill and Rich Ferdi remain. Special thanks to everyone who has recorded with The Caravan of Dreams or played live with us in 2019, including Agi, Rich Ferdi, Fergus Quill, Dave Bowie Jnr, Laurent Zeller, Phil Doleman, John Burr, Chris Smith, Alice Higgins, Paul Conway, Adrian Knowles, Jed Bevington, Evan Davies and Ruth Nielsen. Additional thanks to everyone who came out to see us live, Nick Bloomfield for some amazing video and Carl Rosamond for superb sound engineering and keeping us on track.
As well as working on the projects mentioned I’ll be travelling to Japan, USA, Russia, Austria, India and Poland in 2020 with my other work. Finally the Music for the Head and Heart project goes from strength to strength with more showcase events planned in Jan and April.
In part one, I pointed out how many artists are not looked after by promoters and how promoters fail to pay attention to detail.
As well as these issues, another great way to kill live music interest is to try and promote live music in a space that is totally unsuitable for this purpose. I have countless examples of this, but here are some favorites.
Once example is a venue where the layout means that even though they “promote live music” only a third of the café can actually see the artist! The others can hear the playing faintly in the distance above the conversation of assembled diners. Another example was an EP launch where the light on the stage was literally a single 60 watt light bulb which gace out such poor light that my video recorder couldn’t properly get a picture and this piece of gear worked well in low light, but not that low light!
Other issue can be where the sound kills the artist performance. This can be true for even major venues where I hope against hope for decent sound and its always terrible. I’ve stopped going to such venues as I know I’ll always be disppointed. Unfortunately artists can be complicit in maintaining all these problem scenarios and the end result is that they unintentionally are killing the public’s enthusiam for live music.
This is mostly all avoidable with a little bit of joined up thinking and attention to detail. Perhaps I’m expecting too much?
We are just a few days away from the launch of the Music for the Head and Heart evening and I’ve been once again reflecting on the whole issue of music promotion. I confess to having a problem solving brain and in my non musical life I teach problem solving internationally to groups.
It occurs to me that artist/music promotion follows many of the same rules as promoting any service or product.
The first rule of any marketing or promotion is to get customer attention. “The good news” is that there have never been so many free mediums to connect with a wider public. “The bad news” is that there have never been so many free mediums to connect with a wider public! The advent of social media and YouTube are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand these new mediums mean great opportunities, but the downside is that the promotion noise level is at an all time high.
Great video and photos are essential in getting the public’s attention. Increasingly people have very short attention spans, so “good” is not enough, visual mediums need to be great! I appreciate that artists will have financial budgets but its IMO better to have a few great videos and or photos than dozens of average ones. As I have always said
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression”
The importance of continuity and diversity
In my other life I have worked with many successful longstanding musicians. One of them had severe anxiety about live performances and was about to go on a major tour. I floated the idea of taking a break and he commented
“The music industry is very unforgiving. Once you are off the radar, that’s it”
The noise level in music promotion means that its easy to be forgotten very quickly if you don’t maintain a regular stream of creative musical output. The challenge of course is to maintain both quality and quantity. Artists can get known for just one classic track which can then define your entire career. Below is a wonderful spoof from Ralph McTell illustrating this with his classic track “Streets of London” Who reading this blog could name another of his songs?
Time and money investments
The most successful artists I see, have spent years developing their craft. In the era of talent shows there can be a belief that a person can achieve a level of fame really quickly, but that is often a myth. Many artists start off with great intentions with a musical college education, but only a few earn a living as a professional artist. Like any profession success depends on many factors including luck, but always a significant investment of time and money.
The money investment would often historically come from a record company, but the music industry has changed and those opportunities are less frequent. Many artists now self fund or will use some form of crowdfunding. This can work, but again this has become so common that it doesn’t have the same unique appeal as it once had. Pledge music was one of the biggest crowdfunding platforms, which ran into serious trouble, recently putting out this statement
“PledgeMusic entered liquidation with $9.57 million in debt and assets worth just $20,000,” it reported. “With an ‘estimated deficiency’ of $7,405.502.48 and secured creditor Sword Row, LLC first in line, there is ‘little prospect’ that artists and other creditors will be paid, according to the court-appointed receiver.”
So, what’s the good news?
If all this sounds somewhat depressing, then in my view there is also a wealth of good news to report. Its entirely possible to record and promote music to a wider audience in an effective manner, if you take into account many of the points raised here. I increasingly come across many superb artists and its my firm belief that the future is through artist cooperation. This is the thinking behind Music for The Head and Heart which follows the spirit of Robert Fripp’s DGM initiative, where the artist is front and centre.
Aside from two very exciting 2 mile round trips to buy milk, I’ve been indoors now for 7 weeks. Fortunately pre lockdown I organised everything I need for the studio for recording . As I have previously blogged we’ve been using VST connect to record studio to studio as well as doing some work here using UAD Arrow interface, the Acme DI into the Reaper DAW.
This simpler stripped down set up brings challenges as well as benefits. The benefits are that less options really focusses the mind. We’ve recorded 4 tracks to date. For “Hold that Thought” and “That gal’s as cool as fuck”, we already had electric bass and percussion down from when we were all in the studio. Similarly I recorded “All kinds of crazy” in the studio with Ella Playford and played all parts on my excellent Waterloo acoustic. This is the only time to date we did didn’t use a DI approach
With “All is fine until the world goes pop” and “Your chosen one” had all parts recorded on electric guitar. I’ve been using the excellent Ear Trumpet Myrtle mic for all vocals. We now have 5 tracks recorded, mixed and mastered. Everything to date had been on guitar. On “Hold that thought” I started using the Zed Drive 2 as favoured by Eric Johnson and this has become one monster of a track which I’m really pleased with.
I currently have 5 more tracks to record, but new ideas are appearing all the time. I’m having to think differently and doing a shout out to a few musician friends for input. One of the next tracks will be “Wild hair and cocaine eyes” which is centred around a guitar riff. I have Adrian Knowles kindly send over a bass part, so next up will be vocals and additional guitar parts. I suspect it will either be great or a total train wreck. I’m also working on a stripped down version of a Caravan of Dreams song that we played live but never recorded, “Sticks and Stones” This will be just guitar and vocals with perhaps violin from my good friend Laurent Zeller. In short I have plenty to do with this project.
The results are a far cry from anything else I have released to date and the plan is to release video for each of these new tracks. I’m also further appreciating the value of having an excellent producer, without whom we’d never get such excellent final results.
I was talking to a good friend today about the concept of “albums” as opposed to projects. To date, I’ve always thought of releasing albums, but I’m now inclined to think instead of releasing tracks as part of a project. The latest project “All Kinds of Crazy” will have the title track released with accompanying video on April 20th as part of “Songs of Hope” from www.musicfortheheadandheart.buzz
This is a very stripped down track and I play all the guitar parts on the superb Waterloo acoustic with the excellent Ella Playford guesting on vocals. I’m really pleased with the end result. We just finished the secord track for the project “Your Chosen One is Coming” and Nick Bloomfield is also going to explore video options for this track. A third track “All is fine, until the world goes pop” is also in progress. I playing all parts on this material and using the superb Arrow UAD unit in a studio to studio set up. For the first time, so far everything is played on guitars, not a ukulele in sight!
I have no idea how long the pandemic lockdown will be for, but it looks like there will be no shortage of time for this project.
I have always been a massive fan of UAD plugins and during this pandemic lockdown I decided to grab an Arrow UAD interface. My initial impressions is that this is really excellent. Crucially it gives me access to my already purchased 31 UAD plugins, but also alsong with the Reaper DAW allows me to work with a seriously high end portable recording unit. The only limitation is that I can only use a few plugins at any one time, but often “less is more” in such situations and my new project is all about working in a stripped down manner.
I’ll report more of my findings in due course, but I’m seriously impressed by the Arrow and the sound is absolutely terrific.