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…
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.
Most magazines and internet outlets that review albums assign them a star rating. Most of these star ratings are far too high. Flick through the pages or screens of any of them and they will be littered with four and five star reviews and 9/10s. Common sense will tell you that the chances of say twenty five star singer-songwriter albums being released in a month, let alone every month, is vanishingly small. But there the reviews are.
Much as PRs and artists might like this, as it gives them great publicity material, it’s a disaster for the music fan. When a genuinely great album is released how will they know when all the stars and superlatives have been used up on lesser works? It’s not great for the honest writer either. Give an album three stars and it slips beneath the radar, mark it up to get it noticed and you’re part of the problem.
A lot of these reviews are written by amateurs, hard core music fans, frequently for no payment. That’s all very admirable and they are an essential part of the system. But quite a few of them should take a long hard look at what they write and ask themselves “is this really a five star album?” Most of the time it won’t be.
Increasingly, on forums, op-ed pieces, Facebook and in conversations, male music fans of a certain age (and they are always male) bemoan the mountain of music stuff that they’ve accumulated and filled every available wall, cupboard, book and cranny with. LPs, CDs, limited editions, books, programmes, it’s a pile that just keeps on growing.
Ian Anderson of fRoots wrote a piece on it recently, the gist of which was that, even though he’d got rid of all his vinyl, masses of books and loads of CDs, he still had too much. He was undoubtedly right, and I’m in the same boat.
Part of the problem is breaking the chain. I just might want to listen to that album I haven’t listened to for twenty years. I just might want to know who played bass on track three of the album I’ve never listened to. I won’t of course, but I might.
The other, larger, part is overcoming the fear. If we are the sum of our experiences then every gig programme, every album, every book is a small part of me and if I get rid of it then I lose part of me too. Objectively of course it’s the experience of seeing, hearing and reading that’s part of me so the physical reminders aren’t necessary. But I’m not ready to embrace that yet.