The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards celebrate excellence in folk music. A panel of about 180 experts (full disclosure, I’m one of them) make nominations in the various categories, these are collated and the panel then vote on the top four and the winner gets the award. Simple.
Except it doesn’t work like that.
The panel only make nominations in six categories: Folk Singer Of The Year, Best Duo, Best Group, Best Album, Horizon Award and Musician Of The Year. Best Traditional Track and Best Traditional Track are decided by a small committee with a semi-rotating membership, as are the various Lifetime Achievement gongs. And in the second round the panel only vote in five categories as Best Album is a public vote.
You don’t have to be a genius to see the problems with this. A public vote is a popularity contest and has nothing to do with excellence. If you convene a not insignificant number of experts why do you trust them to nominate the Best Album but not the Best Tracks? And so on. It’s schizophrenic and makes no sense at all. And it matters, because getting an award, or even a nomination, raises an artist’s profile significantly and leads to better and bigger bookings and audiences which, given the breadline existence of many musicians, is a big deal. The awards and the processes have been tweaked many times, it would be nice if they were again for next year and made consistent and sensible.
And as no Folk Awards post anywhere is complete without some sort of personal axe-grinding, could we replace the defunct but much missed Folk Club of the Year Award with a more all-encompassing one – Best Venue, Best Organiser, something like that.
One of the first blogs I wrote was about musicians getting paid, oe rather not getting paid, and it’s clear that since then things have got worse not better. There appears to be an endless supply of musician turkeys voting for Christmas, accepting gigs where they don’t get paid, where they get paid a percentage of the tickets they sell and numerous other variations. The arguments for not doing this are well-known and appear blindingly obvious to all but the turkeys, who persist in offering their idiotic justifications: “we just want to play”, “we need the gigs”, “we’ll get exposure” and so on. And given that they think accepting these deals makes sense it seems unlikely that they’d understand how much damage they’re doing to the wider musical community either so that having that debate is pointless.
But, from time a wave of online outrage surges up about a venue or a promoter who’s ripping off bands (and quite right too) and to a chorus of approval they are named and shamed. Venues are boycotted, promoters promise to mend their ways, and while this may be temporary or window-dressing, in some cases at least it seems to have a positive effect. It’s a pity that we can’t do the same for the musicians who accept the deals, because if they didn’t accept them the whole practive would ceas to exist overnight. If only…
Following on from my lament for the absence of Marc Cohen I was listening to an album that prompted me to write in similar vein about one of my musical heroes, Miami Steve van Zandt. His first solo album concentrated everything he knew about music and believed in into ten tracks of coruscating power. His second album did the same but showed his growing political awareness. His third was more political again and, being honest, not quite as good. Ditto his fourth and his fifth, the last released after a gap of a decade. But the first two are among the greatest albums ever released (hyperbole I know, but listen to them and see) and I loved them then and love them now.
I saw him live four times. The first, at Hammersmith with all the Disciples of Soul in tow, remains in my Top 5 gigs and is unlikely to be shifted. A set at Reading festival was a triumph in the face of beer throwing metalhead adversity. The third with a stripped down band at the Hammersmith Odeon isn’t far behind the first. The last was at the Crystal Palace Bowl where he was in the middle of the bill but played as if his life depended on it. I bought a ticket solely to see him and left immediately afterwards so I could meet him outside. And that was it.
In time he would re-join the E Street Band, become a great DJ and an acclaimed actor. His activisim would continue, most visibly with Sun City. But there would be no more solo music and no more solo gigs.
I have no more right than any other fan (i.e. none at all) to expect an artist to take the stage or record simply because I want them to. And Miami Steve has never been one for nostalgia, so the chances of a Disciples of Soul gig are non-existent too. But wouldn’t it be something, to see the band one last time. Miami Steve stalking the stage like a caged tiger. Jean Beauvoir throwing shapes and playing like a demon. Dino Danelli laying down the beat and the Jukes horns blasting it out. And that music, oh that music.
And if you have no idea what this is about have a look at this.
No, this is not the latest subset of an increasingly fragmented genre but rather the glimmerings of behaviour previously more common in the more “commercial” pop field. In said field it’s usual for band or singer X to be hailed as the next big thing: ground-breaking, challenging, cutting edge, authentic, real, a breath of fresh air and numerous other clichés, and for writers and commentators to fall over themselves to proclaim X to be “the best I’ve heard for n years/since whatever”. Until fairly recently folk seemed pretty immune to such nonsense but in certain areas it seems to be creeping in. No naming names here, no need, its all pretty obvious.
None (or very little) of the ridiculous hype is the fault of any of the artists of course but it does seem that its perpetrators should rein themselves in a bit and take a deep breath before penning their next piece of deathless prose. I’m sure that many of them would defend their words along the lines of “But X really is that good” but are they, are they really? In the long term it doesn’t do the artists any good and surely writers are supposed to provide perspective and context, not act as an hysterical arm of the PR machine? Or is that naïve?
It’s a commonplace that there are too many festivals in the calendar, which leads to audiences being spread too thinly (apart from perhaps the mega-festivals) and every year a few going to the wall. Bad for the organisers but probably not so bad for the scene generally as whatever audience they had should be redistributed elsewhere. Except every year there are new festivals springing up so the problem perpetuates itself. And as with gigs there isn’t an inexhaustible supply of potential festival-goers out there so clearly not all festivals can be successful.
You might think this competition would lead to better festivals and it does, sort of, but only in the peripheral things. “We have the best toilets”, “we have the best food”, “park your car by your tent”, “we have the most stuff for kids to do” and so forth are just some of the “selling points” some festivals use. What they don’t say is “we have the best bill” because competition, rather than leading to an attempt to differentiate by music instead seems to lead to booking the same old same old because it’s safer. This of course assumes that people spending £100+ a ticket want to know what they’re getting and don’t want much experimentation.
I don’t think that’s entirely true, as whenever I’ve seen a “new” or different style” band play that people aren’t familar with, they frequently respond better than to an established act. The same old same old approach also perpetuates the problem, because there’s no point in going to more than one festival because half the acts are on at all of them. So perhaps a bit more boldness might pay dividends. It’s a risk, but a calculated one. We can but hope
Last month I attended my my thirtieth Cambridge Folk Festival. (To see what I thought of it go here and to see some reasonable pictures go here.) It’s the thing I’ve been doing longest in my life, longer than jobs, house, relationships so I inevitably end up feeling a bit proprietorial about it. Inevitably, but wrongly. The festival isn’t run for my benefit or that of any other individual attendee, it’s run for the benefit of the attendees as a whole and given that after a blip a few years ago it’s back to selling out the organisers must be doing something right. In point of fact they do many things right and some things brilliantly.
And yet, and yet. It’s hard not to stroll around and think “I wouldn’t do it that way” or peruse the bill and think “I’d have put X on instead” and so on. An example. The food available is, to put it charitably, poor. Compared to say WOMAD or Green Man, both of which attract similar demographics, the quality, choice, price and even service are dreadful. But it never changes and probably never will. In terms of the festival as a whole this is a relatively minor gripe as its perfectly possible to put up with food that isn’t quite what you’d want and focus on the good stuff, like the chance to see band X. But the very fact that so much of the festival is superb both highlights and magnifies the bits that aren’t. And that proprietorial sense means that I feel that something should be done, because it’s my festival and it doesn’t meet my standards. Which is ridiculous but unavoidable, at least for me. It’s similar to the affront a superfan feels when seeing their favourite musician and they don’t play a song they wanted to hear. They don’t control the musician but feel, at some level, as though they do or should.
All of the above is just musing rather than leading to a point, a description of a condition rather than a cure for it. And knowing the condition and understanding it should be the first steps in resolving it, and maybe they will be. I wouldn’t bet on it though. And it would still be good if Cambridge improved their food. And used social media better. And…
Despite the hundreds, in fact thousands, of pieces that I’ve had published, both in print and on the web, I’m under no illusion about the quality of my writing. On a good day it’s adequate. On a very good day it’s not bad. The rest of the time, well, lets say that I can hear Lester Bangs spinning in his grave and I hope never to run into Greil Marcus or Nick Kent and have them pin me up against a wall and explaing to me just how far from their glory days my work is.
But I understand grammar, I can punctuate, I try not use too many cliched or meaningless adjectives and if I do use a word I use it correctly because I know what it means. Small virtues certainly, but in these days of blogging increasingly rare ones. I can think off the top of my head of several widely quoted blogs which rarely contain a sentence that doesn’t have a word completely misused or a grammatical or punctuation error. Who cares, says the reader, so long as you get the gist does it matter? Who cares, says the musician, promoter and agent, so long as we get a good quote to put on the poster?
Communication is the purpose of the exercise of course, and in the minefield that is the current music industry who can blame people for taking their publicity where they find it. But it’s also about language and not debasing it and not continuing to hurtle down a slope to where a review consists of a tweet like “Zorg say album by X good”. And if I’m (rightly) looking over my shoulder for Greil Marcus some of these bloggers should be looking over their shoulder for me lest I pin them up against a wall and shout “FFS write in coherent English!”
William Morris famously said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. Given that the music I acquire is beautiful of itself surely a dozen downloaded files is just as good as a physical CD, particularly when you take into account the fact that they’re cheaper and don’t take up storage space?
Well no actually. I don’t discount those arguments but they carry no weight with me. Partly it’s because I’m a music nerd. I want to know who played bass on track 3, I want to read the lyrics. Hell, I even want to read the thank yous.Some of that stuff is sometimes available with downloads but not often, and even if it is a file on a screen or a printout is no substitute for a nice liner booklet.
But mostly it’s because there are an increasing numbers of artists who are putting real thought and effort into their packaging, making their albums an object of desire with great design, gatefold sleeves, high quality card or paper and beautiful illustrations. Beautiful music or beautiful music in a beautiful package. it’s no contest.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing in the folk world about the gradual demise of folk clubs. Organisers retire and there’s nobody to take their place, those starting out are more likely to go to open mic nights, audiences migrate to arts centres and so on and so forth. You would think therefore that those that still exist would be doing their utmost to attract audiences, not just for their gigs, but because from the ranks of those audiences come the organisers of the future.
But it’s not like that. Two examples.
I’m currently helping an American performer organise some dates for next year so I’m spending more time than usual seeking out venues, primarily folk clubs, online and an awful lot of them are truly dreadful. Websites that look like they were put together last century, non-existent contact details, contact details that are out-of-date, arcane arrangements and little or no information for artists or potential attenders. A better example of turkeys voting for Christmas you couldn’t find.
But even that pales into insignificance beside the approach of one club I wanted to go to as a paying audience member. The band I wanted to see did the right things. They put info on their website and Facebook page and had tour flyers printed and distributed, one of which I picked up at a related gig and decided to go to see them. The website of the club i was planning to attend (for the first time) listed the gig but had no ticket prices or online links to buy them. Strike 1. Admission was by being put on a list, and to get on it you had to complete an online form and submit it. The club met monthly though, and they didn’t start the list until after the previous month’s event, and as the gig I wanted to go to was a couple of months away the was no point in me submitting a form. Strike 2. And to put the tin hat on it the blurb on the form said that in the event of a sell-out preference would be given to regular attenders. So I could have got on the list, made arrangements to go and then been bumped at short notice because Fred and Doris from down the road had decided to come after all. Three strikes and I’m gone.
This is not incompetence, this is arrogance. Fit in with us or don’t bother. It’s undoubtedly an extreme case and there are many good clubs out there that don’t fall into the first category either. But next time you read a piece bemoaning the decline of folk clubs remember that there they are all different. Good ones that do the right things will survive. Bad ones won’t, and they don’t deserve to.
Vinyl sales are on the up. From a low base admittedly, but an awful lot of bands, particularly the more “niche” ones seem to be making their music available on (often pretty expensive) vinyl. And that’s before you get to the reissues. All on 180g, gold plated, handmade, re-this-ed and re-thatted. The suspicion is that a lot of it is being bought by men of a certain age with a certain amount of disposable income, to which the obvious question is WHY?????
Leave aside the sound quality and tone debate for the moment (though, for the record, I’m with Neil Young on this) and ask yourself, how do you listen to your music these days. On a phone? In a car? On PC speakers? While doing the ironing, hoovering or cooking? Or do you listen on high-end hi fi, in a room set-up for the purpose, with the sofa positioned in exactly the right place, in a state of hushed tranquility while doing absolutely nothing else? If you can’t answer “yes” to that last question why are you buying vinyl?
If it’s for the thrill of possession, because you collect vinyl or you’re a completist then fine, each to their own, but let’s have no more of the “it sounds better” and “I can tell the difference” nonsense.