I recently had to figure out a new name for a music project and it occurred to me that there are several music branding considerations always worth checking before you decide to action any project.
What is “Branding” and how is it useful?
Effective branding sending a message about your music, making it memorable for the public. It communicates to the wider public about who you are as an artist. It maintains consistent message about your own creative voice. It helps develop and maintain a connection with your chosen audience. It helps audience members connect with each other and celebrate your music.
What image/impression do you want to create? Does the name of the band or musical project reflect the intention you have in mind? A golden rule of marketing is if you must explain the term you have chosen, then its probably not the best fit for what you want to do. Is somebody already using the same term? With bands and musical projects, its easy to come up with what you think is a great name, start building the musical image and then find somebody got there first. I used to know the original bass player for the UK band “Embrace” who were going to call themselves “Curious Orange” until The Fall used it in a title for an album.
Is the domain name available?
I am amazed that some artists go to the trouble of selecting a musical identity without checking that they can obtain the domain name. I always check I can get the .com and well as the.co.uk for brand protection. Amazingly some artists just grab the.co.uk or worse still don’t check at all. There is nothing worse than going to all the trouble to choose a musical identity to then find it’s a domain for a strip joint in Vegas or another venture that is not helpful to your own efforts. I’m surprised that many artists don’t both to create their own websites and instead reply totally on social media. All social media platforms are 3rd party businesses, and most people are users and not customers. These platforms exist to generate income for their shareholders not to give free marketing for artists. As the old saying goes “You get what you pay for”. Yes, social media can be useful, but its smart to have a web presence you control 100% that is your interface to the wider world. Is the artist/project term you use memorable for the public? In one of my consultancy sessions for business I could not (despite being told many times) remember the company name. One of my recommendations was to change and simplify the brand name and once they did their marketing went from strength to strength. Invest in a good visual image and/or logo and use professional photographs. There is an old saying – “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” I continue to be amazed that many artists do not invest in good visual images.
One of the challenges in being an independent artist is to get your music to a wider audience beyond colleagues and friends and many music PR companies advertise services to help make this possible.
I come from a business background and in 1980s and 1990s set up and ran a number of successful companies, which meant having to pay attention to marketing and advertising. Of course, there was no internet during this period, and most of the promotional work was done through newspapers. Back then I would spend at least 40,000 pounds on old school newspaper advertising alone, (that would be 80K plus now) so I am well versed in the whole concept of “risk v reward” when it comes to advertising and marketing. I do not however regard myself as a “Professional marketing expert” In 2000 – 2006 I wrote and recorded a series of spoken word and ambient CDs. I did all the marketing myself, but did have a distributer. This was pre streaming and I was earning between 600% and 160% net margin per CD, so tens of thousands of pounds. I also had one clip use on a film short played on national TV. In exploring music PR in 2021 I was interested to see how I could get my music to a wider audience and if any of these previous strategies would still work.
Since 2015 I have written and recorded 70 songs, released three albums and an EP and currently have three albums of very different material “in the vault” for future release. I’m very happy with the creative content to date, and especially happy with the three new projects. The challenge has always been to reach a wider audience. This article is about my experiences to date of music PR companies, including using paid services, as well as numerous discussions with industry professionals. My instinct is that the music industry is changing at some rate, and the old model of music promotion will need a radical update, but that’s just my gut instinct for now, I’m still trying to figure it out!
Music PR Company experienceswith my first band
I have previously blogged about the excessive use of superlatives in ad copy, and how in my view this is lazy writing. One of the first companies I used for music PR back in 2015 with The Small Change Diaries offered a 50% discount on their services, so the usual campaign fee of £750 was significantly less. For this they promised at least two online/magazine reviews and to write and send a press release to “music insiders”
The ad copy was
“Ready to take your music career to the next level?
Our ultimate promo package has been specifically designed to help grow your fanbase worldwide. Our industry experts will work with you to optimise your online presence, land essential press coverage and make sure your music reaches new fans.”
I am realistic to know that in business you get what you pay for and with new artists with very little actual track record, there is not a great deal to market as they are just starting out. This means “convincers” (what people say about you) are essential and one of the aims of music PR companies is to get the artist more convincers in the form of blogs and articles that will then create more perceived credibility to a wider audience. The first campaign resulted in a couple of respectable online reviews but didn’t really make a noticeable difference to our popularity. With the following album I used the same company again who continued to offer half price options and this time the service was significantly worse. It became clear to me very early on that the contact I had for the PR was clueless about writing even a basic press release.
I gave her two great music industry quotes which she didn’t even include in the first press release. Ultimately I rewrote the release myself and vowed to not use them in the future. Yes it’s great to be referenced in online articles and blogs, but to date none of this publicity has brought any direct creative or financial benefits. That said, all publicity is welcome and its a case of figuring out if its cost effective.
PR music company promises of “articles”
One of the promises from PR music companies is to give artists “published articles” online. This sounds great of course and when most people think in terms of “articles” they usually think of this in the context of magazines. On the two instances I used a PR service I wrote what was extensively a press release on the band, with photos, and this was essentially packaged as “an article” Nothing wrong with that of course, but in every instance the copy is favourable and I’ve personally never previously come across any of these extensive blog sites for such online copy. Some of those who mentioned the band included Indie Buddie and Essentially pop magazine. Online research suggests that many Music PR companies deliver these “articles” which are always positive and rarely probing in terms of any actual interview. This seems to be one of the main promises from some PR companies to get artists to sign up for packages. That said with some digging any artist can directly get such articles published without paying the PR company. You may ask yourself “Do the music PR companies have a budget to essentially pay for such appearances?” That’s not to say these are not useful in creating a positive image, but rather to look at the true value of investing in this medium. One way to measure the success is to track if there is a direct increase in social media subscribers once these articles appear. As a Nashville producer once commented to me a few years back
“Its all about reach and engagement”
Here are a list of online publications where from $125 I can get “an article” published without buying a “music PR package”
Article Spotlight On 99.9 Jamz Tampa (www.99JAMZFM.com) Spotlight On HOT 98.7 Detroit (www.HOT987FM.com) Article Spotlight On WiLD 103.5 (WiLD103FM.com) Article Spotlight On HOT 99.3 WQIS (www.HOT99FM.com) Article Spotlight On POWER 103.1 (POWER103ATL.com) Article Spotlight On 107.5 The Beat (107TheBeat.com) Article Spotlight On HITS 102.5 Phoenix (HITS1025FM.com) Article Spotlight On Awkward (www.AwkwardMagazine.com) Article Spotlight On Vault (www.VaultWeekly.com) Article Spotlight On Authentic (www.KnowAuthentic.com) Article Spotlight On POWER 107.9 LA (POWER1079.com) Article Spotlight On Revolver (www.Revolver-Mag.com) Article Spotlight On GRIND Magazine (GRINDWEEKLY.com)
You may notice that all these music/lifestyle/fashion sites look very similar.
There is an argument to say that “all publicity is good” but I’ve never had anybody reference any of these online magazine/blog pages other than Music PR companies looking to sell publicity packages. It’s flattering to see the band copy and photos online, but the best press and radio plays have to date always come from my own efforts. I also recently found a company that for a fee (as suggested above) will let you choose which magazine you feature in. All you need to do is to write 600 words of copy, add photos and they will get the magazine to publish it.
Essentially you are paying for your own advert. I’d be interested in any feedback on this issue from anyone who has found such positioning useful in generating any new kinds of music opportunities.
The video that was too controversial to promote
The strangest reply I had in recent times was having a video refused “on faith grounds” by a music promotion company. Here is the video brilliantly put together by Nick Bloomfield and the reply refusing to action any promotion.
Thanks for sending your song in. We appreciate you choosing us for your promotion needs; however, we would not be able to promote this song/video due to our faith-based views.
We would still love to promote a different song from you in order to fulfill the promotion credit if you’d like.
Please respond with your song link to this email and we will review promptly.”
I was surprised by the reply, but appreciate that at least they have some filtering process for accepting clients!
Alwaysdo your research
In recent times I’ve started to look at this issue of promotion again and adopted a two-fold strategy. One is to contact established PR companies and quiz them on what they offer and the second is to pay established industry professionals for their time and ask targeted questions. More than ever it’s essential for artists to do your research in such matters and appreciate that its useful to have realistic expectations of what any company can do.
I contacted a UK company and we scheduled a call. Before taking the exploratory call, I checked out their record with companies house online and also did a full online search to see what others were saying about them. The companies house info showed a very low turnover figure, and I couldn’t help but notice that despite a very glossy website over a period of months online and on social media, they always had the following positions available;
Director of Operations
Head of Services
Marketing & Events Intern
I come from a recruitment background, so I know all about what is required to fill positions and this seemed like a lot of open positions which never seemed to be filled.
I checked out my initial contact with the company on LinkedIn and found she had only been with the company for 6 month, which in itself is not an issue, but in our discussion, she constantly tried to impress me by stating that they were soon to have an office in New York. Of course “an office in New York” can mean just about anything and I thought it strange that they would be expanding to the USA when they couldn’t fill the UK positions.
My key question for any music PR promotion company is
“What can you do, that I can’t?
So far, from my own experience I have been unconvinced that any low cost PR music company can do anything that I can’t do myself, but I am open to persuasion, hence the current research in talking to such concerns. I have a background in business which helps a great deal as well as a number of good friends who are longstanding professional artists. These are usually the best source of down to earth useful information and such advice is a very long way from what is presented in a great deal of Music PR ad copy. I’m also 100% happy to invest in good advice, but many such companies, in my view, hugely hype what they are promising and I’ve yet to find a single artist who wholly endorses any company.
What’s the PR strategy and the best fit for your music?
In the introductory call with one advertising agent from a UK PR company, I asked her what her company’s strategy would be in promoting my forthcoming album. To my amazement she responded that they only focus on promoting via Spotify and by contacting “magazines” which brings us back to the whole “articles” sell, which I’ve already mentioned in this article.
I passed on this company as there were too many alarm bells ringing and I was wholly unconvinced that they could offer me any useful assistance. Their starting package was around a thousand pounds for a campaign. Interestingly I recently saw an artist place a 2 star review on Google, complaining that they received very minimal results and the communication was not great as she had to deal with many different people.
Two days later the review had vanished and 6 other glowing five-star reviews appeared in its place. Make of that what you will… I fully appreciate that marketers and record companies are looking at “packaging artists” to get fans and developing an image is a big part of that. However, in my view the emphasis on image is so great that often the music is a secondary factor. A lot of artist promotions increasingly look like fashion shoot as point reinforced by a friend of mine in the USA who tours stadiums internationally signing off one e-mail with the wonderful comment
“Nick I’ve got to go now to the dreaded photo shoot”
Anelephant in the room?
In one of my conversations recently with an experienced music industry head she mentioned
“We need to talk about the elephant in the room” I said “Ok, what does that mean?” She replied “Its more than a bit odd for a sixty year old guy to be playing with musicians in their 20s” (Rich Ferdi, I’m sure you will feel flattered to be classed as a 20 year old)
“Yes great isn’t it?’
There was a subsequent silence as we both concluded that we’d not be a great fit when it came to any music promotion, especially as I didn’t have the enthusiasm to play 100 gigs a year to “pay my dues”. As someone who runs eight websites, including two music platforms, I respectfully think there is a far better way in 2021 to reach an audience without driving up and down the M1 in the UK, with or without COVID lockdown restrictions.
The general exchange was very frank and I thanked her for some useful observations.
My next meeting with a PR specialist is this week. Here is part of the recent communication before the phone meeting
“Everybody’s situation IS different… but you’re still smart enough and ambitious enough to put new ideas into practice and jump into things you’re not 100% sure about.
That’s the REAL secret to progress – listening to the experts and implementing their advice, even if it’s something different or scary.
You got this – so let’s make beautiful music together. [Insert fist bump here]
We look forward to speaking with you soon!”
So far the style of the communications have been framed in a stereotypical USA motivation speak which sets my alarm bells ringing.
Following the previous e-mail, the day came for my break through session.
I’m not a fan of the term “break through” as it’s massively overused in my other non music profession and my usual experience is that those using this term tend to work in a very generalized manner. In the 7 days before the call I received five reminders of the appointment and I politely pointed out that I didn’t need 5 reminders. I also wondered why they didn’t use Skype or Zoom as with these mediums you have the chance to see a person’s responses rather than talking on the phone. I started with my question “What can you do for me, that I can’t do myself?” Immediately the caller started talking about saving money by teaching me to do my own production. I pointed out that I had already confirmed that that was not what I was interested in. After 27 minutes he admitted there was nothing he could do to help me and was perfectly polite and respectful.
What this reconfirms to me is that many such companies are working to a very strict template that may work for some people, but in my opinion they are not problem solvers and the general level of communication skills are pretty poor. They don’t ask targetted questions, so they fail to really determine what possible opportunities might be worth exploring. I’m surprised at how basic a lot of the advice is. I’ll continue to explore and keep an open mind but I am reminded by a comment from one of my producers who said
“Nick, they have no idea what they are doing especially since covid 19”
I would love to prove him wrong, by so far he’s bang on the money.
Music PR companies site errors and payment issues
I’m increasingly finding that many Music PR companies and promotional music services have major problems with their sites and online payment systems. I alerted one company that half their website links to their artist pages didn’t work at all. Yes, they fixed it, but it took almost 3 days to sort out what should be done in an hour by any reputable business. Another promotional service that was recommended looked like a good bet, so I decided to buy one of their services and test their claims. I press the “add funds” button and I get the following error message
Got Http response code 401 when accessing https://api.paypal.com/v1/oauth2/token.
Yes, when I raised a support message, they did offer to process payment manually, but 5 days on I have no replies on how to make this happen. It’s not a great advert for a business that claims to be in the world of communication/marketing is it?
The more I look into such concerns, I am finding a pattern of a lack of attention to basic business practice. Of course there will be exceptions to the rule, but this is my experience to date… Of course there must be many PR companies that do an excellent job for artists, but as I say “caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware.
Some tips I have found useful
If you are still reading and not descended into total despair by reading this, then there is some good news…
There has never been a better time to use existing mediums to get your work to a wider audience (when I say “wider” I mean beyond friends, family and colleagues. The caveat is that you need to be prepared to put in the time and also you will need to invest money into marketing. Below are some tips that have worked well for creating musical opportunities for my bands to date. They may not work for everybody of course as there is no magic wand despite what companies promise online. I always remind myself of the old saying in marketing
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression”
Any marketing strategy means careful consideration of what you present to the wider public and crucially the timing of how you present it. Effective marketing campaigns are all about well paced promotions and ensuring that the message fits with the product or service. An effective campaign, means paying absolute attention to how the message is delivered to create maximum impact. If there is a target date for a release, everything needs to come into play on that target date, or the message gets diluted. Also another big mistake is for an artist to release promo material before their material is actually finished, This often happens when there is a lack of realistic planning.
“The music industry” is no exception and of course many record companies like to style artists, to reach a very specific audience. I confess to not being a massive fan of this style of cookie cutter packaging because the packaging often becomes more important than the actual music. As with all business, its about finding the right partnership for success. This is exactly the same with music production. There are scores of people selling solutions, its finding the right person for you.
1. Have your own website that you own and can shape to communicate your own creative voice. There has never been an easier time to do this and companies like Bandzoogle where you can set up a bespoke site really easily. Developing a professional site landed my first band an opportunity to play at an international music festival in Europe.
2. Set up and more importantly maintain your own social media platforms, including FB, YouTube and Instagram, remembering that these are all companies in their own right and exist to generate income for shareholders, hence the need to drive traffic to a site you own, YouTube is especially crucial as it really helps with search engines finding you online. It’s also very helpful to get good viewing stats. Ideally it shouldn’t make any difference what the stats are, BUT if people see 30 views, it creates a very different impression than 1000+ views. It shouldn’t matter, but perception is everything.
3. Remember to use the power of the word of mouth to spread the news about your work. Often this gets forgotten as people search for “the magic wand solution”
4. Pay attention to making your presence to the wider world as professional as possible, using good photos and paying attention to online copy. Many artists don’t invest in good photos and forget the internet is a visual medium. Well constructed video is also essential. Enthusiastic hand held footage can be off putting. You don’t need to be the next James Cameraon, but I’ve seen footage where the sound is so bad the footage is unlistenable
This is a platform from music lovers, for music lovers and to date all the live events have been sold out.
6. Do your research – talk to others about music promotion including companies that offer services, but ask the question “What can you do for me and who can I talk to who you have worked with to date?” Some companies will send written testimonials, but its far better to talk to artists to form a view of what to do next. Books like “Don’t make me think” by Steve Krug offer great advice on how to present online. YouTube channels like Rick Beato can be a great source of information from people who have experience in the music business. Yes Rick is opinionated, but I’ve learned a lot from listening to his experiences in the industry and he seems very grounded.
7. Be prepared to put in the time and keep all online presences up to date. I’ve lost track of the number of artists who start off in a blaze of enthusiasm and then abandon updating their social media. Any form of marketing requires constant attention and focus and the music industry is no exception to this rule.
8. Beware people wanting “to manage you” who may have more enthusiasm than much needed skills to properly do the work needed. I’ve known artists who have well meaning colleagues with no actual business/marketing experience essential to professionally manage artists. Just because you may be a fan of the music, doesn’t mean you have the objectivity and business skills to help promote the artist in an effective manner. I don’t consider myself as a marketing professional, but I’ve advised many artists on what I consider to be basic marketing elements. A key question for any promotion and or ad copy is to ask the question “What’s its purpose?” If you are not clear on that, then its best to think again. Also get feedback from others who fit your audience demographic. This is why smart companies use focus groups, before running full campaigns.
9. Make good connections with radio stations and all other music delivery mediums that resonate with your creative work. This is more of part of a long term strategy in my experience. Years ago I was delighted when BBC Introducing played 7 of The Small Change Diaries tracks, but it made zero difference to our public standing and I later realised few listen to that show. Far better is to get plays on radio stations where you are in a mix of similar music or even better fully established artists which are known to the public. That is in my view much better positioning
10. Enjoy the ride. I would never want to rely on an income from music and certainly never sign a record contract and be beholden to a record company. That said I’m keen to reach a wider audience regardless of what then follows. In my view this is all about “playing the long game” and not hoping for instant results.
Firstly I have a massive respect for any artist creating their own music and wanting to share it to a wider audience.
My observations to date are that it’s possible to spend a huge amount of time and money with music promotion companies with no real benefits, hence the term caveat emptor. That said, of course it would be foolish to dismiss all music promotion and music promotion companies, but rather do your own proper research. All forms of promotion requires good strategic thinking and focus. Many “music promotion companies” from what I see talk about “magic wand solutions” which don’t translate into any real benefits for artists.
I appreciate not every artist has the inclination, time or skills to do this marketing work themselves as it’s a lot of work. As someone who teaches communication skills globally and advises on branding, I have yet to figure an effective strategy for all the music I have “in the vault” at present, hence this exploration. Ultimately it’s about seeing the actual results that ensue and these can be measured in many ways including increased social media interest online, music sales and of course bookings for gigs. As an artist its a real buzz to see yourself in print online and to see social media applause, BUT what next? Once the whooping has died down, the question is how does all this attention translate into any real verifiable benefits? That’s the million dollar question and to date I have yet to be convinced by any such promotional platforms. I’d love to be proved wrong and welcome any evidence showing this to be true.
My instinct is that the best way forward is with artist collaboration and building a new artist led platform rather than rely totally on many historical delivery mechanisms. What is clear to me is that all such promotions take time, planning and this all reminds me of the classic music business saying
“It takes ten years to become an overnight success”
“These are my thoughts and opinions, if you don’t like them, I have others” (apologies to Groucho)
I just had a 90 min conversation with the head of a distribution company that made total sense, so rare these days. I will report findings…
This is a short rant about one of my pet hates which I started to notice during the invasion of music talent shows, is where music and artists are described as “awesome” “amazing” and in other superlative terms. I appreciate that many promoters, PR agencies and artists want to write copy to get attention, but the overuse of superlatives in my view is self defeating as it ultimately kills any sensible critical evaluation. Terms like “awesome” “genius” brilliant” “ground breaking” should in my view be reserved for the very best of the best and not trotted out without any real consideration.
One of the main culprits are “talent shows” Talent show judges often would feedback to aspiring artists after a 90 second performance comments like “you are a real star” and “that was awesome” Yes, its probably well meaning and encouraging, but I would respectfully suggest that these are well meaning optimistic statements at best. Such shows are mostly about packaging an artist to a specific image and sonic template and unfortunately in my opinion this makes for never endling bland production line music that all sounds very similar to my ears.
I should at this point declare that in my non musical persona I teach communication skills internationally in Asia, USA and Europe so that background will make me far more aware of these patterns than the average person. One of the problems I have with the excessive overuse of superlatives is that they make everything very black and white or as we say in the communication world create “digital thinking” where we are left with adjectives that only express thinking in extreme terms.
Superlatives on social media and ad copy
Social media is full of superlatives where posters get carried away in their praise and lose any kind of objectivity in how they are describing what they hear and see. Lazy advertising copy also tends to default to the overuse of superlatives and ultimately this is in my view not a great strategy if you want to engage and maintain customer interest.
At this point you may respond “Don’t be so negative, you miserable git!’ but my central point is that the over use of superlatives means that all descriptions become essentially meaningless and lazy writing when everything is “awesome” and “brilliant”
Its like describing all food as Michelin star level cuisine, and makes any critical evaluation totally meaningless.
I totally admit that this is a personal view and the trend is likely to continue and probably get much worse in future times as more people scrabble to become stars, especially with the absence of live opportunities in the last 12 months.
Downturn in music sales = more hyped marketing copy?
I have been aware for a while that the music industry is in decline, but even I was surprised by this recent news
This week’s No1 album is set to be one of the lowest-selling ever, with Mogwai’s As The Love Continues expected to top the chart with sales of just 7,379.
Two decades ago, sales would often top 100,000.
Meanwhile last week’s No1, Slow-Thai’s Tyron, has tumbled to No22, behind greatest hits records from Sir Elton John and Fleetwood Mac.
Chart figures are based on sales from physical formats including vinyl and CD, plus downloads and streams.
This week’s Top 40 albums combined have sold just 11 per cent of what Adele’s last album, 25, managed during just its first week in 2015.
Even new artists like Celeste — winner of the Rising Star award at last year’s Brits, who had millions put behind her debut album Not Your Muse — have achieved underwhelming sales.
In my view this trend is part of the reason for more hyped ad copy which inevitably means the increased use of superlatives in marketing. Another set of culprit are many music colleges also are complicit in selling “the musical dream” where artists don’t get the best advice and are given quite delusional expectations about what is possible in “the music business” Yes, its useful to encourage artists, but the over use of superlatives actually kills creative aspirations as once you start to believe you are “brilliant” or “a genius” there really is nowhere else to go.
Some music examples (in my biased opinion) that actually are “brilliant”
I would decribe the following artists and albums as “awesome” but then what do I know, I’m a ranting old blogger and music lover that laments the lack of great songrwiting where songs were usually written by one or two people, not a team of writers seeking to fulfill the record company’s sonic brief for Spotify positioning
Albums that I would describe as “brilliant”
Tapestry by Carol King – a superb pop album brilliantly written
Sign of the times by Prince – hugely diverse album bursting with creativity
Remain in Light by The Talking Heads – great work by the band with Eno, terrific african grooves
Hoodoo man blues by Junior Wells – 60s album brilliantly played and recorded, stripped down superb songs
Miss America by Mary Margaret O Hara – great album of unpredictable provocative songs, one album and she disappeared
Blood on the tracks by Bob Dylan – superb well written songs after a break up
Of course these are just my opinion, everyone will have their own preferences
Many people will think ‘So what, its all subjective anyway!” but when we engage in the excessive use of superlatives, we run the risk of dumbing down how we evaluate music. I’ve know promoters who endlessley use the term “awesome” in almost every conversational exchange. In my world few artists, songs or experiences “fill me with awe” and I think that’s only a good thing. Many will of course disagree and I leave it up to you as to whether you find this article “awesome” “life changing” or just plain “old guy ranting” All such views are fine by me as we all collectively learn and develop skills through critical evaluation and discussion.
“These are my thoughts, if you don’t like them, I have others” (apologies to Groucho)
I have been doing a ton of recording over the last 10 months, for three different projects, the code-e1 electronic project with Black Star Liner, material for “Nick Cody and the Heartache” which is all electric guitar based music and a collaborations/duet album with some amazing musicians from all over the globe. I’m working with my long time producer Carl Rosamond and Black Star Liner for remixes on the Code E1 project.
The Recording process
The recording process has been very different from what I have previously been used to in laying down tracks from my first three albums. Firstly I am doing all the recording in my home studio in the UK and unusually using DI’s into the excellent UAD Arrow and then into the Reaper DAW. Seeing as I have a stack of terrific amps and preamps from Soldano, Two Rock, Fender and Mashall, this may seem to be a strange way to go, but its working brilliantly. The UAD is superb sonically and crucially allows me to use their unique unison preamp options.
The other difference with the recording process is that I’m using all electric guitars, the Collings I25 Deluxe, Moses necked/ Warmoth strat and the Ranson Tom Holmes equipped Telecaster. This allows for a terrific range of guitar tones. I’m also using a number of different pedals including the Zen Drive 2 as favoured by Eric Johnson and in recent times a number of Supro pedals.
Once I get basic guitar parts down, Carl will lock these into a template and then I can start on doing vocal takes with my good friend Agi, who also does BVs on tracks. Agi and I have worked on over 34 tracks to date including most of the new songs across these three projects. She is an outstanding singer and the best harmony singer I have ever come across. Carl will send the projects we record in Reaper to her as Logic files and she will add BVs. The versions that come back then go to Black Star Liner for the Code E1 project as well as being kept for the other two projects.
I’m super pleased with the results to date and its become clear to me that one of the keys to creating great music is to have a really good team of people involved in the project, who all bring something special to the table. We are fast approaching 30 finished tracks for Code E1 and a similar number for the other two projects. This material will be released throughout 2021 and 2022
I am increasingly convinced that the best hope for the future of great music is through artist collaboration. With setting up Music for the Head and Heart I have been fortunate to meet and interview many extraordinary artists from all over the globe. I’ve previously blobbed about how streaming has essentially killed online earning opportunities for many artists and of course covid 19 has also killed live gigs.
On a brighter note its given me the opportunity to focus on music creation at a whole new level and 2021 and 2022 will see the release of at least three new albums, very different in style, with some crossover material. One of the albums will centre around collaborations with some really extraordinary artists from USA and Europe as well as the UK. These will be revealed in due course and I am honoured and flattered with their enthusiasm for being involved in what will be titled the “All kinds of crazy” album.
The process of artist involvement
Since March 2020, I have written 30 new songs and 27 of these have already been recorded for one of the three projects. There will be alternative versions of some of these songs and I have approached a number of artists to take vocal parts and/or to add new musical contributions. To date the best results have come from simply giving the artists total free reign in their contributions instead of micro managing them. I’m blown away by the material we have received that is going to make for some excellent album releases. Special thanks to all those who have made contributions to date and the two producers who have done a brilliant job in mastering and remixing the material.
I’m a big fan of physical products and long ago abandoned ITunes when Apple started telling me which devices I could listen to purchased tunes on and it became clear that their position was that you are essentially ‘borrowing the music” like a lending library and you don’t own it. The Bruce Willis case highlighted this difference. I’ve been aware of Spotify for some time and recently see a lot of social media buzz about Spotify for artists, with artists complaining about the lack of financial return from the platform. Tunecore describes Spotify in this way
“Spotify has over 40 million users worldwide with 10 million of those users paying a monthly subscription fee. Over 3 million of those paying subscribers are in the U.S. alone. Spotify launched in Sweden and Norway in October of 2008, but didn’t launch in the U.S. in July 2011. The population in Sweden is about 10 million people, Norway is 5.1 million, and in the U.S. about 319 million people! Just imagine the amount of money Spotify and other streaming services will generate for artists and labels once streaming becomes the norm in the U.S. and other highly populated countries around the world. We are talking billions of dollars folks! And Spotify is still a relatively small service when compared to YouTube who have 1B users and iTunes who now have about 800 million accounts. As Spotify and other streaming services continue to grow so will its artist payouts.”
Call me naive, but Spotify can only function and prosper with artist support, without content, nobody is going to visit the platform. Artists who sign up for the platform and then complain about the poor financial return, remind me of those people complaining that Facebook ‘should support their music” not appreciating that FB is a business and most artists are “users” and not customers as they are not paying for the service in the first place. Both platforms give the artist “reach” in terms of a potentially bigger audience, but from what I see no real direct financial benefit.
Artists who left or refuse to be on spotify
There are a number of very sucessful artists who refuse to be on Spotify. In 2014, Taylor Swift pulled all of her music off Spotify. “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for,” In 2015 Prince removed all his music from Spotify and Neil Young pulled his music off Spotify and other streaming services because he found the sound quality to be sub-standard.
“I don’t need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution,”
I don’t feel right allowing this to be sold to my fans. It’s bad for my music.”
Neil has championed high resolution audio and is steadily releasing his back catalogue in this way. Personally I’m a fan of high resolution audio that is superior to the quality found on CDs and vastly better than mp3 quality.
Pete Townshend didn’t hold back on his thoughts regarding Spotify for artists
In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Pete Townshend said, “I’m a user of Spotify, so I feel like a complete hypocrite when I say: I think the guy that runs it is probably a f*cking crook.“
In a Guardian article David Byrne commented
“In future, if artists have to rely almost exclusively on the income from these services, they’ll be out of work within a year. Some of us have other sources of income, such as live concerts, and some of us have reached the point where we can play to decent numbers of people because a record label believed in us at some point in the past. I can’t deny that label-support gave me a leg up – though not every successful artist needs it. So, yes, I could conceivably survive, as I don’t rely on the pittance that comes my way from music streaming, as could Yorke and some of the others. But up-and-coming artists don’t have that advantage – some haven’t got to the point where they can make a living on live performances and licensing, so what do they think of these services?“
In researching this article I’m increasingly discovering that many of my favourate artists are not fans of Spotify including Jason Isbell
who in 2014 commented that “streaming services don’t add to my income in any way.”
Since writing this, it seems that Taylor Swift , Pete Townesend and Prince are now on Spotify! I’m note sure why they changed their minds but its 1 for big tech 0 for creative artists, in my humble opinion of course
Backlash against Spotify for artists?
I recently read an interesting article in Wired magazine about this very subject, citing Tom Gray
“During lockdown Tom Gray started tweeting with the hashtag #BrokenRecord. A lot. As a working musician (and 1998 Mercury Prize winner with his band, Gomez) and a director at music royalties collection society PRS, he found himself uniquely placed to advocate for change.
The subject of Gray’s ire was the apparent discrepancy between major labels banking upwards of $1 million every hour from streaming, and middle-tier or smaller artists who receive tiny amounts in comparison for their millions of streams. Concert violinist Tasmin Little was paid £12.34 for millions of streams over six months, for example, and anonymous tipsters report similarly meagre payouts. Now, Gray is part of a growing number in the industry advocating for a change to the way payouts from streaming platforms are handled.“
The Wired article points out
T”he biggest beneficiaries of the pro rata model are the major labels, who own the vast majority of recorded music in existence via deals favourable to them. Currently, if you sign with a major label, taking home 30 per cent of the streaming royalties earned by your music is considered about as good as it gets. And streaming, by narrowing how music is consumed, essentially exaggerates and exacerbates the age-old imbalance between the majors and the rest of the industry. For these reasons, Gray’s campaign is ultimately aimed at root-and-branch reform of how the music industry serves musicians – streaming is simply the most visible way into the issue.“
Other non financial benefits for artists on Spotify or head to pastures new?
The argument for non financial benefits for appearing on Spotify remind me of the “pay to play” argument and “playing for exposure” arguments presented to artists. It reminds me of some niche music festivals that promote the idea of ” Remuneration for playing” rather than a fee for playing. This in my view can be the slippery slope where the artist is always disadvantaged in favour of the business owner. Yes, there is a case for artists starting out to seek new opportunities and seek out new opportunities, but the danger is that there is an increasing perception that music/entertainment has not value and/or should be free.
My own thoughts are that the platform works well for the company, but devalues the artist’s creative content. One artist did have one solution which rather amused me (see below)
Another view on spotify for artists
Here is another view from a professional artist. He also makes some very valid observations about how tough it is for musicians to make music professionally. Two take aways from this excellent clip are that the artist needed to stream 7 miliion streams to make $25,000 and that Spotify is a tech business.
During Covid 19, I’ve been writing and recording at a furious rate across four projects. I started out with working on material for ‘The Caravan of Dreams” and then handed of some tracks which started the Code-E1 remix project. I also began to experiment in the studio with material that didn’t really fit either of these projects. One writing “wait until the pain is gone” I had the idea to ask Emily Mercer to add some vocals. I’ve known Emily for a while and invited her to be part of Music for the Head and Heart after she agreed to do some support slots for The Caravan of Dreams. I’ve always been impressed by her musicality and songwriting, but had no idea if a collaboration would pan out.
After we received the first track, it became obvious that there was some real potential here to create some great material and I’ve now had 4 tracks back, all of which sound terrific. This is a departure from what I have done to date and most tracks are really stripped back mostly to just piano and vocals. What I really like about Emily Mercer’s work is that she has a great musical instinct. I also forget that as well as being a superb vocalist, she is one excellent keyboard player. I’m going to continue to sent over tracks as what we have already recorded sounds fantastic to my ears.
My producer and I spent 2 hours yesterday on creating a spread sheet to track progress of the work on 25 different songs currently in play in addition to 19 songs that have already been mixed. We currently have 13 different musicians involved in this work which will result in three very different sounding albums. This project requires a great deal of organisation and coordination as there are many moving parts. We are delighted to have a number of great vocalists and musicians involved in creating some really unique material. Some songs are going to appear in very different styles. “All is fine, until the world goes pop” has already been recorded and mastered in three very different styles.
During covid 19 I see little point in releasing entire albums, but we will put out a few tracks for radio play and on my sites. Special thanks to Andy Coote at Source FM for the latest in a series of radio plays here
The recording process
All work starts in my home studio in the UK. Unusually for me, I’m doing everything on electric guitar with my Henriksen amps, Motown Acme DI box, Zen Drive 2 and other pedals, with all vocals through the superb Ear Trumpet Myrtle mic. All tracks are recorded via a UAD Arrow into the Reaper DAW. Its a very stripped down setup that works brilliantly. Once I have worked up basic ideas, they can go out to other musicians and producers working with the material. Its a fascinating process to bring together so much excellent talent and I’m grateful to all those who are involved.
Release dates and video
Full albums are planned for mid 2021, depending on the covid 19 situation. In the meantime Nick Bloomfield is doing a great job creating video for existing and future releases.
I’m currently working on 40 tracks across two very different projects. There are 2 totally different arrangements of songs written since covid lockdown, so they can legitimately be classed as totally different in all respects.
One of these projects is under a total different identity and a brand new genre of music for me with a world class producer. The second one is either solo or with my usual band with a whole bunch of amazing guests, many of whom I will be recording with for the very first time. Unusually the remixes appear first and the original tracks will come later. I can get some parts done remotely, but covid 19 has slowed down what I can do with the band. This means I’m working solo mostly on vocals and guitar parts and creating core ingredients for what follows. This stripped down way of working has been surprisingly productive and I am super pleased with the results to date
Its a massive amount of work and I am grateful to all those who have been involved to date. The ones with timings have already been recorded and the remixes have already had numerous radio plays
Here is the list of all the tracks to date
All is fine till the world goes pop 4.19
Gather round 6.57
Nothing here sounds good 3.21
All Kinds of Crazy 5.24
Your chosen one is coming 4.12
Please take this time 4.24
321 Lockdown 3.41
Hold that thought 3.30
Sticks and stones 3.40
The world is burning 3.39
That gals as cool as fuck 3.25
All about her lies 3.29
Come on down 3.51
Let it flow 5.17
Bring this strength 5.56
Wait until the pain is gone
Slow time (Find what you love and let it kill you)
This has been a very surreal five months, during covid 19. Like all musicians I had to cancel all live gigs for myself and for music events I host with Music for The Head and Heart. With the lockdown, the whole world was suddently on pause and we have and continue to be in uncharted territory. I’ve driven 45 miles in 5 months, so am totally doing my bit for the carbon footprint as I also cancelled 8 overseas trips for my non musical work.
Music creation and recording
To my great surprise this has been an amazing period for writing and recording new material. Just as lockdown appeared I grabbed a number of new items for my home studio that have been used to great effect. I’ve already blogged on the Acme DI and the Ear Trumpet Myrtle mic and I’ve also been using Fulltone trem units and my Henriksen Buds for recording via the excellent UAD Arrow unit. I’m actually working on two totally different music projects at the same time with two different producers.
For the first time everything is on electric guitar, which is a first. Usually I’ll put down some sketch ideas, then work them up into a demo before starting to adlib and figure lyrics. I’ve been using my weekly meetings with Agi to do live takes of vocal tracks and I now have 14 tracks mixed and “in the vault” for one of the albums, and there will be very different versions of these tracks for a second album.
Gathering like musical minds
One of the few benefits of covid 19 is that there are many artists sitting at home neding work. I suspect that live work won’t appear until 2022 and in the meantime streaming will only increase, but that’s a very different experience. Social media has been great for locating session musicians to add to a core group that are generally my ‘go too folks” for any projects. I’m lucky to be working with two brilliant producers who have never been so busy. Its clear to me that that the role of any producer is essential in creating the very best music. Often music may be mixed but not actually mastered
Tracks “in the vault”
These tracks are already mixed and in the vault, with four more tracks in the pipeline
All is fine till the world goes pop 4.19 Gather round 6.57 Nothing here sounds good 3.21 All Kinds of Crazy 5.24 Your chosen one is coming 4.12 Please take this time 4.24 321 Lockdown 3.41 Hold that thought 3.30 Sticks and stones 3.40 The world is burning 3.39 That gals as cool as fuck 3.25 All about her lies 3.29 Maybe 5.04 Come on down 3.51
Special thanks to everyone who has helped with creating these tracks to date
Today sees the welcome funding for the arts finally from the government, but covid 19 has created a major problem for both theatres and music venues. I’m hearing that one of the key issues is that most venues need 80% capacity to maintain predictable viable income, but with even a reduce 1m social distancing rule, that will be more than halved.
Mark Davyd of the music venue trust commented
“When we eventually emerge from lockdown, Grassroots Music Venues, the absolute bedrock, the foundations, the cornerstone on which our world beating £5.2 billion per year industry has been built, are going to be essential to live music bouncing back. It is therefore economically short sighted and frankly ridiculous to put a £5 billion a year industry at long term risk for lack of a short term £50 million investment.
The generosity shown towards our #saveourvenues campaign since we launched it in April has been staggering. The £2m we have raised to date has saved literally hundreds of venues in the short term, but the situation is still dire and relying on donations simply isn’t sustainable as we move into a recovery phase. With that in mind let’s act now and protect what we have, because what we have is incredible and it is ridiculous to put ourselves in the position where we might permanently lose it for less than 1% of the income it generates for us every single year. £50 million in financial support and a temporary tax cut, that’s all we are asking.
Who loses if this doesn’t happen? Not just the venues, not just the artists, not just the audiences, not just our communities. The government is the biggest loser of all here; billions of pounds of future tax revenues is on the line. Every other serious cultural country in the world is acting to protect its future talent pipeline…. and they don’t even have the incredible talent and the vibrant pipeline we have in the UK. We need our government to step up we need them to do it now.”
I’m not sure how much, if any of the government package will reach grassroots venues, but my own observations are that many were already struggling pre covid 19. I’m fairly sure that the big venues will survive, but my concern is for all those 100 – 250 capacity venues which IMO offer the best environment for seeing artists.
My heart goes out to all those artists who reply upon such venues in maintaining an income as its a hammer blow to maintaining any kind of regular income. I also feel sorry for all those music students graduating from university, who suddenly discover that the world will be very different from now on.
Some venues like The Vanguard in NYC have moved to streaming concerts and this maintains an audience connection. It is of course a very different experience, but one that we may have to accept as a substitute for attending live events. The irony is that for years I have lamented the apathy of people attending live events and the classic Joni Mitchell line comes to mind
“Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone”
The challenge with streaming as I have previously blogged is to maintain good quality sound. For this reason when we run the Music for the Head and Heart shows with artists from all around the globe, we pre record the material. Social media is currently flooded with online performances and I’m not convinced that there is an audience for this volume of material. The danger is that people literally start to switch off from watching and listening.
Promoting new music?
I know of a number of artists who planned to release music in 2020 and who now are having to rethink how to promote their music. Traditional PR companies are IMO similarly stumped as the whole world has changed. One PR company’s strategy was to only focus on promoting artists via Spotify and personally I am unsure that such a narrow approach is commercially viable.
Live music has traditionally been a key ingredient in music promotion and of course this is how artists develop musically. I was reflecting on all the gigs I did with The Caravan of Dreams and treasure those moments and who knows when such opportunities will return? Last year I was lucky enough to see the last Martin Simpson gig of 2019 at Firth Hall in Sheffield that was one of those magical evenings of entertainment, which is never the same when watched on video.
Even if a vaccine appears in the near future (the best guess is around 12 months) I suspect the world of entertainment has fundamentally changed. Major concerts like Glastonbury have indicated that they will not be viable if they cancel in 2021.
Personally I’d like to see a return to smaller venues where people come to watch and listen to artists, but who knows when that may be possible? One thing is for sure, I massively value all those great gigs I have both attended and played at in days gone by.
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.
I’m in the middle of a project which involves 15 other artists from across the globe and it’s been quite enlightening. When we send over files we deliberately allow the artists to use their best judgement and avoid any kind of micro management. This is producing some terrific and often unexpected results and I am absolutely loving working in this way.
I recently had a track where I continued to think “its just not quite right” for some reason, and then I finally figured that my original vocal take was far “too polite” in reflecting the subject matter. I’m super pleased with the lyrics, but it needed something new, if the track was to really work in the way I originally intended.
I sent it over to an excellent songwriter who is part of this project who rather politely made the same observation, which was quite gratifying and perfectly illustrates the power and usefulness of working in a collaborative manner. “Fantastic”, I said, “I 100% agree. Just go for it and add what feels right.”
I’ve blogged before about the unhelpful excessive use of superlatives in describing work and how a lack of critical thinking is not helpful to the creative process. When everything is described as “awesome” there’s no need to reflect on how to improve existing work. The most talented artists are always pushing forward, seeking out new sonic territory and further developing their own unique creative voice. The material from “All kinds of crazy” is more musically diverse and different to anything I have been involved with to date. Its an absolute joy to bring together some exceptional talent across the globe. I am grateful to everyone involved in this project either as an artist, or in sound or video production. This material will start to appear later in 2021 both in audio and video formats.
One of the joys of working with so many talented musicians is that the results are quite fascinating and nothing I might have originally envisaged. There is also a parallel remix project Code-E1 which is also turning out to be excellent and I suspect will surprise many folks.
I have always been a fan of high end recording gear in terms of amps and have to date been a big fan of Ear Trumpet mics, so I was interested to hear what all the fuss was about in the recording sector about this Austrian audio OC818 mic
For those interested in the technical aspects, check the link above.
I’ve used a number of microphones in studios and never really paid a great amount of attention to makes in the same way that I have done to audio interfaces, guitars and amps. Within the first hour of using the Austrian audio OC818, its crystal clear to me that this unit is very different to anything else to date. The responsiveness is quite extraordinary and the initial recordings sound so good that I’m going to re do some parts I had already recorded. To my ears everything sounds like a perfect representation of the vocal take. Many reviewers had made this exact same point and commented on the lack of a need for any post production. I’ve yet to try it out on instruments, but I suspect it will also impress in the same way.
Work on the “All kinds of crazy” collaborations album is going really well. In total twelve tracks are planned with guest artists across the globe, including Towse from the USA, Emily Mercer from the UK, Laurent Zeller from France and Captain of the Lost Waves, Sharon Cannings and Ella Playford from the UK. There will be black and white videos for each track created by Nick Bloomfield, with four videos already “in the vault”
This a very different album, very stripped back and unlike anything else I have done to date. Its a very reflective piece of work and I’m extremely pleased with how its turning out. The instrumentation is also very different with a lot more piano than has appeared in the other albums to date.
The combination of artists is quite fascinating and I am truly grateful to be working with so many talented artists across the globe. Each of them bring something really special to this project. Carl Rosamond is doing sound production and the release date is planned for the end of the year.
The second album “All kinds of crazy” with be an album of collaborations with guest artists across the globe and will be very different to anything I have done to date. The third album with be under the name “Nick Cody and the heartache” and will be an all electric album. The band will include Rich Ferdi and Fergus Quill who have played in previous ensembles.