William Morris updated

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.

 

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We don’t need no stinkin’ audience

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  Websites that look like they were put together last century, non-existent contact details, contact details that are out-of-date, arcane arrangements and little or no information for artists or potential attenders.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.

It’s not about the music, maaaan!!

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.

Festivals

I find myself going to fewer festivals these days.  Fewer than I used to and fewer than I would like.  This is because most festivals tend to fall into three categories.  There’s the “folk circuit” ones, where the expected names appear at each, which means you only need to go to one.  Then there’s the “something for everyone” ones, which means not enough for me.  And then there’s the ones which are a mixture of the desperately hip and the completely unknown, and the former have no appeal and the latter are generally unknown for good reason.  This is of course a vast generalisation but the principle is valid.

There are of course exceptions.  Cambridge Folk Festival is reliably excellent and interesting.  Others burn brightly but briefly before settling into predictability.  But most provoke no more than a sigh of disinterest in me.  I know that putting on a festival involves a huge amount of work and an even bigger amount of financial risk, so it’s not surprising that people play it safe and/or try to cover all bases.  And of course that is exactly what a lot of people want, as witness the “sold out” announcements.  But I can’t help feeling that there is a market out there for a festival that has that elusive blend of the safe and challenging, the new and the old, the predictable and the unexpected.  Some people will say “but X is just like that” but for me, and i consider myself reasonably well-informed, it won’t be.  Boo.

‘Tis the season to make a list

AKA everybody else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?  Yes, it’s time for my Top Ten Albums of 2014 which will be completely subjective, with surprising omissions, astonishing inclusions and, quite frankly, an order that defies belief. In other words, just like all the other lists. Except it’s mine. So, to business.

10. Remedy – Old Crow Medicine Show. OCMS have been around for what seems like forever so sometimes you forget what a breath of fresh air on the bluegrass scene they were when they arrived and this is their best album since their debut.

9. Best Medicine – The Stray Birds.  Their eponymous debut was one of the best of last year and the acoustic folk/bluegrass/country/roots trio deliver more of the same this time round.  Great harmonies, great playing, great songs.

8. Going Down To The River – Doug Seegers.  Seegers is the real deal. Homeless and playing for change, a genuinely heart-warming story leads to this debut album made at the age of 61. When people talk about authenticity, this is what they mean. Seegers has lived it and you can hear it in his voice and his songs. The title track is a classic and the rest of the album is snapping at its heels.

7. lullaby and… THE CEASELESS ROAR – Robert Plant. Wherein rock’s great front man and sonic experimenter, together with his best ever band, the Sensational Space Shifters, returns to the rock/folk/world fusion he’s so good at and also displays his vulnerable side. Majestic, as were the live shows.

6. Diamonds On The Water – Oysterband. Their first album since losing long-time bassist/cellist Ray Cooper, this could have a been a step back or a holding set. But it wasn’t, rather a creative rebirth with some of their best songs and playing. Thirty years down the road the fire still burns.

5. The History of New Orleans Rhythm And Blues 1955 – 1962 – Various Artists. Six CDs, over 180 tracks, exemplary packaging and booklet, some of the greatest music ever made and only £22. An object lesson in how to produce a reissue, with hours and hours of listening joy, from Sea Cruise to Lucille, Land of 1000 Dances to Sweet Sixteen. Bliss.

4. The Elizabethan Sessions – Various Artists. Set up by the EFDSS and Folk By The Oak, this collaboration between some of the finest folk artists around was an unalloyed triumph. Despite being created in less than a week, the quality of songs is astonishingly high, the playing likewise and all the potential pitfalls spectacularly avoided.

3. Centenary – Show of Hands, There have been a lot of Great War albums and songs this year but none approached Centenary. Poems read by actors Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter with traditional and original pieces by Show of Hands, it was appropriate, powerful and deeply moving. The best thing they’ve ever done, which is saying something.

2. Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour – Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker. I have proclaimed these two as future stars ever since first hearing them and, good though their previous work has been, this is not only their best yet but an album that takes folk music as a whole forward. Masterful songwriting and that voice from Clarke, great interpretations of traditional pieces, beautifully deft guitar work from Walker, this is as good as folk music gets in 2014.

1. To The Bone – Jones. Trevor Jones of Miracle Mile fame delivers his best solo album yet, which is saying something. Exquisite heartbreak, devastating insights and words that cut, yes, to the bone, allied to impossibly beautiful melodies and perfectly judged playing and singing.

Merry christmas and a Happy New Year to all.

How much is that t-shirt on the merch desk?

A few weeks ago I bought a great t-shirt online from the quirkly named bathroom wall company.  A nice t-shirt made from heavy duty cotton with a nice design cleverly referencing an iconic Bruce Springsteen song.  You can see it here.  The price of this fine piece of clothing? £13.99 (a bit more if you want big sizes), with free shipping.

I was thinking about this when I was at a gig by a pretty big band recently.  Their t-shirts were made of lower quality material and adorned with designs that one might charitably describe as “back of a fag packet”.  The price was £25.  I shan’t name the band because they are no different to many others but the point of course, is that if Bathroom Wall can make a profit selling nice, well designed t-shirts for £13.99, without the economies of scale that a big band enjoys, just how much money are the band raking in from sales of a (much) lower quality product.

With the increasing reluctance of people to pay for recorded music bands of course need to maximise their revenue streams, but that should not mean ripping off their fans.  The solution of course is for fans to stop buying the t-shirts, but fans like wearing their “colours” so that’s unlikely to happen.  So surely it’s not to much to ask bands to take the lead and produce better products for fair prices.  After all, they might even sell more that way.

How long?

Back in the days when gigs didn’t have intervals, it would be considered outrageous to play for less than 90 minutes plus however many encores you got.  When intervals starting appearing that translated nicely into 2 x 45 minutes sets plus encores.  Gradually that changed.  First it became 2 x 45 including encores, then 2 x 40, then the interval vanished and it was 1 x 75 including encore.  In the last week I’ve been to two gigs, completely different types of music, where the total stage time including an encore was 65 minutes.

Not only is this disgraceful short-changing of the audience, it’s storing up trouble for the future.  These days the vast majority of musicians make the vast majority of their corn from live shows.  Even that’s becoming more difficult as live audience firgures are tailing off.  If those that still come feel thay’re not getting their money’s worth, and it would be hard to argue that 65 minutes is any sort of value for money, then they’ll stop coming.  And who could blame them.