The music industry seems to be all about change at the moment. Or maybe it always has been - reinventing itself, finding new ways to reach people, experimenting with form. Out with the old, in with the new. If it’s too loud, you’re too old. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
But this time it seems different. To many people under the age of thirty music is something you get for free. There are many other distractions nowadays and music is not the all-consuming passion it was when I was a kid; you were a record collector, a hifi buff, and went out to lots of gigs at affordable prices. For an artist or band releasing music meant somehow getting a record deal, studios were complex and expensive and there were plenty of managers, A&R executives, agents etc ready to take their 10% of a very large pie from the lucky few who made it big. Those who failed were saddled with a massive debt (an advance against sales) that they could never hope to repay.
The internet, and in particular audio streaming, is the big driver of change now. If you are a pop artist it is all about YouTube and streaming and the minuscule payments for streaming plays might add up to a sizeable sum, but for most musicians their earnings are now mostly from live performance rather than record sales. The disappearance of the record shop from our town centres over the last five to ten years is testament to this sea change in the music industry.
For the independent roots artist it’s a different struggle. In a way, the last thing you need is a record deal as you can record your own music and press your own CDs if you want, organise global online distribution through iTunes, CDBaby, Bandcamp and the like. How do you pay for all this - hopefully from gig fees and crowdfunding. All this takes a lot of time and commitment and you need to be artist, manager, agent, recording engineer, publicist all in one. But it is possible to be the truly independent artist and make some sort of living at being a musician. In the UK at least, the blues audience still likes to buy a CD rather than download or stream, bucking the trend. The fans seem to invest in artists they like and the time spent talking at the CD/merchandise stall at the end of the night is invaluable to audiences and musicians alike. Close contact with your audience means that you will not get anywhere by hype alone. The Internet, FaceBook, Twitter and the like are of course important tools nowadays, but nothing beats the slow build of word of mouth, matched by actual talent, in not only getting noticed but building some sort of sustainable career in the music industry. Or at least in the corner of it in which I operate - which has blues at its heart, ever evolving - adding new influences and feels, but with an emotional depth at the core.
This spirit of independence and diversity is also apparent on the airwaves as many internet, community stations and networks now carry highly focussed programmes to blues, folk and jazz audiences. This is not ‘broadcasting’ in the traditional sense, but networks targeting a specific audience that may not yet be as high in numbers as the BBC or CNBC, yet each listener has a deep interest in and a dedication to the genre of music being played. You can be an independent broadcaster for very little outlay - but equally the perennial question is how to make money at it and the vast majority of these shows are done by volunteers in their spare time, relying on artists, record pluggers and PR reps to supply new material for their programmes. These shows and stations are becoming an important player in how the independent artist can have their music heard all over the world, by an audience eager to listen.
My radio programme features music by established artists alongside new and independent music, in a broad church of blues and roots music. The number of musicians and artists following the independent route will, I believe, expand hugely in the coming years as bands and singers run small family business-style operations with low overheads, experimenting with new technologies to record and release music, and heavily grounded in live performance. Indie music is now not just a guitar band genre, but a way of life for countless musicians across genres - all trying to figure out Music Industry v.2.0.
Producer, musician and broadcaster Paul Long presents Blues And Roots Connections on Blues And Roots Radio, plays with the band Catfish and was voted Independent Blues Broadcaster Of The Year in the 2016 British Blues Awards.
When I heard that Blues & Roots Radio..well, Stevie ( I’ll blame Stevie ) came up with the idea of having blogs I replied ‘Great idea! - an opportunity for listeners to hear more from their favourite show hosts as well as hearing from the hosts of shows in different time zones that we might not be able to catch.’
‘So you’ll write a blog then ?’ came the reply. I instantly went into a sub-standard Robert De Niro impersonation asking ‘You talkin’ to me ?’ that led me here, tapping away at the keyboard wondering what to say.
Whenever I think about writing a blog, I immediately think about my good friend Ted Lehmann who writes Ted Lehmann's Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms as well as writing for No Depression. Meeting up with Ted is always a pleasure; his boundless enthusiasm and astute observations on Bluegrass music have resulted in him being an IBMA nominee on several occasions - so when I think about writing a blog, I think of the standard that Ted maintains…and wonder why (once again) I didn’t keep my big mouth shut!
Let’s start with the name of the show - Hillbilly Boogie.
I am a big fan of The Delmore Brothers and when I was thinking of a name for my multi-genre show (a fancy name for ‘I play all sorts of things’) I was looking at the CDs on my shelves and then Alton and Rabon came out of the speakers and the name Hillbilly Boogie seemed appropriate for a show centred on Bluegrass, Old Time, Americana and occasionally something ‘rough & rowdy’.
Before I go any further, let me make a confession… I did not study radio production and college, I did not ‘serve my time’ in a study working my way up from making tea, running backwards and forwards to the music library and so forth… I am just a music fan who spends a lot of time listening to music, who enjoys sharing good music with others via my radio shows.
A frequent question is ‘How do you choose the tracks?’
The simple answer is that I listen to a lot of music! However, I am sent links and CDs (for which I am always grateful) but sometimes…well…
Disclaimer: if you have listened to Hillbilly Boogie you will know that, from time to time, I drag out my soapbox and have a little grumble about things. Here is a little blog-grumble that is meant as sincere advice for any artist or band wanting some grey-haired old codger to play their tracks.
…sometimes a band will send a message via Facebook that is inviting me to give them a ‘Like’ with view (presumably) to playing a track on the show but here’s the thing… if you are a singer/duo/band, what I care about most is your music. It probably sounds silly to have to say that but, so often, I see Facebook music pages where there is neither a link to an uploaded track nor a video. Having a bunch of photographs that show how good looking you are and how the sunlight glints in your hair at sunset is irrelevant to me - what do you sound like?
While a website can be fairly inexpensive to produce and maintain it still costs money; as does uploading tracks to Soundcloud or Spotify but nearly everyone has a phone which will take a video of decent quality to demonstrate the beautiful sounds that you make! Wherever it is recorded, an informal practice, or a bit of ‘live’ footage from a friend, if you have a band/artist page then let us listen to you.
Here’s an example; a simple setting and a song:
… (puts soapbox away)
There is some good music being made & played at a grassroots level and I imagine that the days of the A&R men are long gone so make social media work for you and make sure that this grey-haired old codger gets to hear about it!
Anyway….what am I looking forward to next?
I am writing this blog in mid-June and next week I am looking forward to the musical bonanza that is known as the Northampton Music Festival.
This event is now in its ninth year and is free to attend. That Northampton (or Shoe Town) should give over the town centre to a day of music is the stuff of dreams; better still there are five - sorry FIVE - stages.
The Main stage in the Market Square has a schedule including rock, a gospel choir and jazz. Just three minutes walk away in the Guildhall Courtyard there will be a stage dedicated to jazz including Tad Newton’s Jazz Friends who have been entertaining Northampton (and elsewhere) for at least 30 years. The Umbrella Stage includes poetry from the Bard of Northampton, Flamenco and African dance. The historic All Saints Church will be the place to enjoy classical music in the most beautiful building in town. The ‘Y Factor’ Stage is currently a mystery to me so I shall hope that the artists’ respective Facebook pages give me a clue and entice me up Abington Street to listen!
Photographs will also be taken and shared in my next blog.
As I say as Hillbilly Boogie concludes…Be good & bye-bye.
Why not join our club
Increasingly, radio presenters are using social media to collect and involve listeners in their programmes. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provide a great opportunity for LIVE exchange of thoughts and greetings even though the show is not necessarily live itself. The activity also provides artists with the opportunity to gain real time feedback on their music and maybe a chance to market to a sympathetic audience.
A few of us have now been trying this approach for some time (Almost two years) and that has given an insight into the way the initiative is developing.
Through this approach listeners gain an opportunity to meet and socialize in a virtual world against the backdrop of a common musical interest.
Those with an enthusiasm to hear something new can do so and get the additional info they need directly from the presenter who put the show together and often the artist themselves.
For the presenters having a loyal audience offering feedback on the music played is a major advantage and contributes positively to programme planning activities.
So what is the impact? Well to draw a parallel we must look at regular live music in folk or music clubs, people gathering with similar interests, listening to something new and socializing against the musical backdrop. But, this is different, here the environment is virtual and available in the listeners own home.
It is actually developing a role for the niche music programme where the presenter will play to audience needs that are very clear and focussed.
Although listener numbers may be quite small, their loyalty and feedback provide invaluable guidance.
It is also developing the role of internet and community radio where individual or small collections of shows can become the focus for bringing artist and audience together in an interactive virtual world. In itself quite small, but with a very wide international reach.
I look forward to further development with interest and in the meantime thank all who are helping us gain more from our musical interests in this way.
Introduction – what is Roots & Fusion..?
As this is my first (ever) blog, I guess an introduction is in order.
For the past eight years I have presented Roots & Fusion out of Stockport, England, a show built up around the links between genres – basically, “if you like that, you’ll like this…”. I haven’t studied music, or spent much time reading about international music connections, but I did spend almost ten years working in a specialist music shop throughout the 90’s…
Listed about midway in the Independent’s top 50 UK best independent record shops, Decoy Records was cited as the shop most closely resembling the one in Nick Hornsby’s Hi Fidelity. To this day I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing.
But, what was most definitely a good thing was the huge amount of music from all over the world I listened to during those years. Jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass, Cajun, zydeco, country, reggae, soul, funk, traditional and fusion music from every continent. It was during this time that I realized that the Appalachian banjo sounded similar to the West African Kora, for instance, and they’re both linked to the blues.
Now, there is no easy way to say this, but I believe that a rather large amount of the record buying public can be quite unthinkingly blinkered in their attitudes towards music. For some this is fine, there are people who do actually know and like what they like and that’s it. But there are those who say they like blues and only blues for instance, but would enjoy Bela Fleck’s banjo playing if they heard it in context. And this is the trick. If you played any self respecting John Lee Hooker fan a track off Bela Fleck’s Drive album, you would probably get one of those sideways glances that says, thanks, but have you got any Muddy Waters..?
But, if you played JLH and then followed it with something a little older, maybe Skip James or Mississippi John Hurt, then further back – Gus Cannon maybe – you could then move over into Hank Williams Jr and before you know it Flatt & Scruggs and up to date with Bela Fleck…
And that’s mostly what Roots & Fusion is about. www.rootsandfusion.com
Personal gigs (or Roots & Fusion sessions)
Over the course of the show, many musicians have come to record sessions. The sessions feature not only local artists, but international too. One of my favourite stories is about Ruth Roshan, a tango influenced singer & mandolin player from Australia.
I’d come across Ruth’s music thanks to a Leonard Cohen cover hidden away on a blues compilation and we’d started talking via email. I remember she said she had a concert in St Petersburg booked and that, as she was in the neighbourhood (it’s all about perspective), she would drop in and see some friends in London, which is just down the road from Stockport (about 200 miles… ), so would it be okay if she came to see me and have a chat in the studio? This was marvellous – I had fallen in love with her voice & playing and so we arranged a date.
The morning of the session dawned. I turned up early with my sound engineer ready to record this incredible artist. Bang on 11am she arrived, all smiles and happy. Just her. No mandolin. “Oh”, she said, “I didn’t realize you wanted me to play…” So we recorded a chat instead…
Credit to her though, she has come back twice more since then, with her mandolin, and recorded alongside a guitarist who she had never met before. The first was with Ben Walker, a multi-instrumentalist living in Darwin, Lancs and the second time was with Mike Rolland, singer-songwriter from the Fylde coast.
Each time, the duo met a couple of hours before the session, and then recorded some lovely music together.
I am always humbled by the attitude of these artists who give their time, effort & music at their own cost to give me a personal gig. Sorry, Roots & Fusion session…
One to watch – the voice of Anne Sumner
I am always happy to receive recommendations from listeners – especially as I already know they have good taste…
Last year I got a message from Mark Flanagan, a friend of the show, who had been at an open mic night and heard a couple of songs from a singer / guitarist by the name of Anne Sumner. Seems she had played numerous small gigs over a few years around Surrey way, but never had her music played on the radio. This was in part because she had never actually sent any off, for fear of rejection.
Now let’s get one thing straight right here – Anne Sumner has an incredible voice. I was stunned. So I told Mark I would play some of Anne’s music in the next show. What happened then was one of those moments that make this whole thing worthwhile. Turns out Mark hadn’t actually told Anne that he’d sent me her music. They were in a wine bar in Surrey where she plays regularly on the night of the show – Mark had managed to get the show played through the PA system and Anne had burst into tears when she heard her song. I was told she was actually crying into her pint…
Since then, I have played more of her music on the show, and she has also come up and recorded a session. When she first started singing, I remember my sound engineer and I just looked at each other with stunned open mouths… To experience this incredible musician singing her heart out not six feet from me was something I will cherish.
Well, that’s me done for now. I’ll be back in six weeks with another set of R&F ramblings. Next up in this series of blogs from UK presenters on Blues & Roots Radio will be the host of The Acoustic Café himself, Mr Brian Player.