Sunday, 20 November 2011

'So What Sort Of Music Do You Play?'

As you can imagine, this is a question that comes up quite regularly in any musician's day-to-day existence… and it's getting harder and harder to answer. The reason, I think, is that we have become so fond of categorisation in music – and, worse still, many of these convenient little compartments are subject to further division into subcategories.

I play what I think is termed as being 'acoustic fingerstyle' guitar. That's what I and various other practitioners call it anyway; trouble is, no one seems to understand what it actually is. I've had some people say to me, 'Oh, you mean country music?' or 'What, like jazz?' and neither is right, as far as I'm concerned.

It's the same in record shops. If you play within the remit of this particular musical niche and are lucky enough to have attracted record company support, you're quite likely to find your CDs stored under 'World', 'New Age' or 'Jazz'. Furthermore, in the digital domains like iTunes, eMusic and their like (where you yourself have little or no control regarding which category your music ends up under) there's no provision for acoustic fingerstyle. My CDs have been placed under 'Relaxation' or 'New Age' or 'Music For Meditation' and, as far as I'm concerned, it's not anything like. Certainly, if I was going shopping for CDs by Michael Hedges or Pierre Bensusan, looking under 'new age' or 'world' wouldn't be my first port of call.

Things used to be a lot more simple. Once, I'm told, your music was either classical, commercial or folk. Take it or leave it. The definitions were easy to understand: classical was anything involving orchestras or ensembles playing Bach, Berlioz or Beethoven, commercial was pop and rock and folk was... well, everything else.

Under this form of categorisation I'm a folk musician in that I don't consider myself a part of music's commercial landscape. Seriously; ask my accountant.

It's easy to think that this is really a trivial problem and unlikely to have too much of an impact on a career; after all, does it really matter where your music is filed in the public consciousness? Well, yes it does. The problem reveals itself when you try to get gigs, for instance.

If you play in a blues or a covers band, it's likely that you'll be able to make a promoter or club/pub owner understand what it is you play much easier than I would. Blues? What? Like Muddy Waters, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton – that kind of thing? Covers band? What? Rock covers? Queen, Bad Company, bit of Supergrass, Elbow thrown in for the students? Deal done. But 'acoustic fingerstyle'? What's that?

You see my problem. I guess it's a matter of time before we acoustic minstrels find a home under one roof or other. It may be that a champion will reveal himself; someone will have a hit with a film theme or something and immediately afterwards everything reboots and we can say, 'You know, like so-and-so...' when asked the inevitable question.

But until then, it's a no man's land of misunderstanding.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Wonders Of The Internet

Just trying to set up a selling account for my website and it's driving me mad!

Thought I'd share that with everyone...

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Hard Shoulder

As around .0000001% of the world knows, last September I released my second album of acoustic fingerstyle guitar tomfoolery on the public at large. Obviously, in such circumstances, the thing to do is to get oneself onto the touring/gigging circuit and make people aware of its existence. After all, success in the music biz is only around 10% having a good product out there, the other 90% is down to letting people know about it.

All well and good, then. But, as everyone knows, the best laid plans of mice, men and acoustic guitarists oft go awry and in January of this year I began getting pain in my left shoulder. Worse still, it all felt very familiar and I knew what was coming…

Anyone heard of a condition known as 'frozen shoulder'? The medical name for it is 'adhesive capsulitis' and it works its evil magic by gradually paralysing the shoulder joint and rewarding you with a bolt of very serious pain every time you try to move your arm. Not good for playing guitar, then.

To make matters worse and to illustrate the bitter irony of the situation still further (I'm not after sympathy here, honest) I'd had it before in the other shoulder back in 2003 and so I knew that it's effectively a very long slog in terms of recovery time as the condition can last between eight to 18 months.

There's nothing doctors can do except offer sympathy and any painkillers you choose. I chose Tramadol, because they worked last time, but despite the fact that they numb the pain quite effectively and allow you to drift off into sleep, they also have nasty side effects – even more so when you stop taking them.

It's now July and I'm only just getting most of the movement back in my arm (it never fully returns) and experiencing little or no pain and so it's time to get back out there. Taking seven months off sick when you've got new tunes to play people is nothing short of a disaster, which is why I've chosen to re-release 'Arboretum' on my own label and kinda start all over again.

So, as I type, the album is being pressed onto those silver shiny discs that some of you might remember and at the same time being delivered in digital form to all the usual outlets on the internet. There are even dates in the diary, starting with a gig at this year's London Acoustic Guitar Show at Olympia. Sunday 11th September on the Acoustic Café stage at 2.30pm, to be precise.

Now, with a seven month lay-off behind me, the only thing I have to do is get back to practising like a maniac to restore the strength in my left hand and arm – and trying to remember all the pieces!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

O.K. So We're Not Exactly Radiohead...

Depending on who you happen to be talking to at the time, the current state of the music industry is either

a) A right bloody mess


b) A fertile landscape ripe for entrepreneurial derring-do

The followers of answer 'a' will quote you statistics about the slow and painful demise of the CD as a platform for music and how piracy has spoiled things for everybody, whilst the 'b' camp is the exclusive domain of the web gurus and sundry other optimists.

So who is likely to be right?

Well, one thing's for certain; the world would be a poorer place without music – either live or recorded – and so it's definitely going to survive all of this. The question is how?

There are folk out there who believe that the future of live music is a thing which is not under their control, but I think it is. You'll have guessed that I tend to follow the 'b' thinkers and so I'm going to set out one way – and I'm sure there are many more – whereby music lovers all around the country (and most likely the world) can shape the future by taking back some of the control.

I currently work as part of an acoustic instrumental duo with another guitarist called Ben Powell. At present, we're trying to put together some gigs for later on in the year when we can get on the road and come out to play for people. My idea as to how this might come about is to ask people who enjoy our kind of music (and you'll be able to sample some at the end of this sermon) to get in touch with us and tell us about venues in their particular area who put on this type of music.

I understand that there are loads of places across the UK where a room above a pub, a cellar, village hall, arts centre or community area is set aside on a regular basis to host live music. They're not necessarily known on the national circuit because they're small, off the beaten track, run on a tight budget and generally don't get a look in when more renowned artists go on tour. But as far as we're concerned, all it takes is a contact, either in the form of a phone number or email address and we'll make the arrangements to turn up and play.

We're not Radiohead. We don't have legions of fans. We don't insist on four figure fees and five star accommodation. But we put on a good show, people enjoy themselves, the venue sells some beer (and a fruit-based drink for the ladies), the promoter earns a bit, we earn a bit and so everybody wins.

We'll even give a pair of our CDs and free entry to people who give us contacts that turn into gigs. How about that?

So here's the commercial. First of all, here's a video of me playing a track from my album 'Arboretum'. It was recorded live in the studio and so what you see is what you get:

And here's Ben, playing a track from his album at this year's Celtic Connections in Glasgow:

If you think that you might be able to put us in touch with a venue in your area, please drop us a line by clicking here.

Hopefully, we'll see you on the road!

Friday, 4 March 2011

Highway To Hello?

As a part-time scribbler for magazines, I get sent press releases via email on a daily basis. Recently, I've been noticing that many of them are worded very similarly. So allow me to give you a glimpse into the inbox of a calloused, highly cynical hack for just a few moments. A typically worded email goes something like this:

Introducing [insert name here; always someone you've never heard of, commonly female and usually coyly misspelt like 'Kandi' or 'Syndii'] an amazing new voice on the R&B scene! Her latest single [insert almost literally anything] was voted 'Most Exciting New Thing' by radio station [i.e. an internet-based radio station with around 17 listeners]. 'Kandi' [or whoever] will be performing [i.e.'miming'] her new single at [insert name of tiny backstreet, London-based clubette] on [probably next week]. RSVP to reserve a press pass [or not, we're not exactly expecting a stampede]. Free bar [this is the clincher – journalists are inveterate alcoholics].

Now I'm all for new talent breaking through, but I wonder where all these young divas are coming from; and, more importantly, who is fronting the money for a professional PR company to distract us merry inksters away from on-line gaming and internet porn for long enough to give a damn? Anyone who has ever tried to release something into the vast emptiness of hyperspace (where no one can hear you scream, let alone play anything nice) will know that it takes a small fortune to launch an artist these days. The figure was recently put at $1M by some overpaid researcher at the BBC and that money has to come from somewhere.

One thing for sure, these would-be pop princesses (not forgetting the occasional prince) are coming from somewhere and I'm pretty sure that it's no longer the club scene like it used to be in the perceived 'good old days'. Their press pictures don't reveal them to be road-weary chanteuses; more like fresh-faced debutantes that you wouldn't think twice about introducing to mother. So is there an academy, an agency or whatever who try the well-worn principal of 'some of this sh*t has to stick' knowing that they only need one hit on their hands to pay for their rabid entrepreneurialism across the board?

It's beyond me...

Thursday, 13 January 2011

HMV And A Dying Breed...

I'm sure that many will have seen the forecast of store closures from record retail giant HMV in the press recently. I believe the first estimate was that 60 outlets were due for closure but recent updates have put this figure nearer 40. Of course, we can see this as just another nail in the coffin for our friend the CD as downloads, legal or otherwise, begin to dominate the music consumer consciousness. But is that the whole story?

OK, stores close every day and it could be said that it's all part of a kind of natural selection out there in the retail jungle, but a casual comment made in today's press made me wonder if HMV have fallen victim to their own ambitions.

If, as I suspect, HMV's strategy was to dominate the high street by elbowing out the smaller independent record shops then they really shot themselves in the foot when they began realising it. The past 12 months or so has seen stock reduced across HMV stores to the effect that you don't have to wander too far away from the beaten track to find that the album you want on the day isn't any longer available on site but subject to a 'sorry, but we can order it for you' initiative. And if you think I'm talking about wanting an album by some obscure 1960s folk artist, I'm not; my local HMV didn't have any of the 60 plus albums by Frank Zappa in stock last time I looked!

This can't be helping, surely? Up until now, artist back catalogue was big business and there's no reason to believe that this trend has changed. Consumers with mammoth vinyl collections are probably still replacing treasured albums on CD to this day and it's quite likely that a lot of these purchases are on spec impulse buys. I've been in the situation myself when I've seen an album from my past for sale at £3 in a shop and a combination of pure nostalgia and the sense that I'm getting a good deal has witnessed me walk out with it in a bag.

I know that downloading music is probably the future, but I personally mourn the demise of the old curiosity record shops and their hoard of treasure.