Sunday, 30 December 2012

Looking back over 2012

Well, it's been quite a year. 

Old Father Time (at Lords) catching up
It's taking stock at the end of the seasonal break time. 

A week back, I was thinking about coming up with some sort of awards list, but I've dropped that in favour of simply noting  what I’d really enjoyed or noted this past year, both in music - live, recorded or on video - and a radio. So that’s the guts of this post. 

Lots of brilliant stuff to talk about, though. And sadly, some disappointments. But, this being our shiny and creative local scene, I'm not short of decent topics. The biggest problem was keeping it concise. And I know I've missed some people out. 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Five things I learned this year

The Radio To Go 2012 review part 1: You can learn a lot from your blog's figures. 

Clicker is a freebie app in the Apple store
The total pageview count at Radio To Go clicked past 40,000 this week: mainly people checking out the 1EYE / Del Camino post.

I'm pleased. I launched the blog in 2007 to plug my radio consult business. A regular topic was how local radio and local music can do good things for each other. But as radio shrank - four years of systematic merging of local radio into national 'brands' - I found myself writing more and about my other great passion: music. Preferably fresh,  honest and local.

Up to Christmas 2011, blog page views were tiny: less than 9000 in four years. But this time last year, at the Destroyers’ Brum Christmas party, it struck me that the radio posts were now almost irrelevant. On the other hand, here I was, watching a band that people care about; much more interesting, and very different. And that's what put me on a new path. Thank you, Louis, Paul, and company. 

So this past year, I've focussed much more on music, and things have changed - a lot. Now it's the end of the year, so here's a two-part 2012 review, starting with how people have used this blog. I’ve learned a lot.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Mr Bailiff! Del Camino and 1EYE. 2 bands, one set of musos.

This post is about two bands with the same core personnel. They’re absolute killer musicians, by the way. On the one hand they operate as Del Camino, who bang out top notch Salsa; and on the other, they’re reggaemeisters 1EYE. And they’ve got an interesting take on where reggae is going. 

1EYE. Excellent moody attitude at the Custard Factory car park, guys
There are those who hold that Reggae is done and dusted. That it was all over and done with by the end of the 80s. But they’re quite wrong. Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that Reggae is now global. It's not just made in Jamaica. And Birmingham is, more than ever, a powerhouse for reggae, with a string of fine third and fourth generation bands flying the flag. 

For example, Xova, who are going from strength to strength. Or the fluid and infinite permutations of Robin Giorno’s Friendly Fire Band. Or brilliant ska groovers such as 360 and Tempting Rosie. And the fine work coming out of Elephant House. There are others too.

Now there’s a brand new video from 1EYE, after the jump, which is absolutely delicious… You owe it to yourself to watch.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Hare and Hounds: Keep On Running!

Towards the end of 2012, the Hare and Hounds came under threat, again. The problem was, once again, property developers planning to run up flats right next to a cherished music venue. 

People rallied round. Gaffer Adam Regan was interviewed, petitions signed, and on Thursday 21st December BCC Planning Committee voted to OPPOSE the planning application. But this post, written while the venue was under threat, is well worth re-visiting.

The Hare and Hounds is a great little music venue in boho King’s Heath. Two upstairs rooms, good PA, decent staging, staff who know what they’re doing, a great booking policy with a strong local bias, and drinks at pub prices. It’s been around as a music venue longer than most of us have been on this planet. When I was a baby rock DJ on BRMB, in the 70s (gulp), the Hare was a fixture on the gig guides I read out at the time; it was going long before then. I have been to more gigs at the Hare than any other venue in Birmingham. 

Now it could be compromised. It is essential that the Hare keeps on running. We need our venues, especially those that take a sympathetic view of new talent. Especially those that aren't part of some soul-less corporate chain. A music scene as good as ours needs the right platforms, and the Hare is definitely one of those. Whether you live in King's Heath, or indeed anywhere this blog reaches, you can help. 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Don Fardon: whatever you do, read the contract first

Despite selling well over ten million records, Don Fardon never received a single penny in royalties: the classic story of poor contracts, lousy royalties and little or no advice. Then, things changed.
Pop is the preserve of the young. It's sold aggressively to successive target generations. The guys who sell it need a steady supply of fresh compliant talent to sell to each new crop of consumers. Implicit is this is the idea that the musicians who benefit from this process should play nice, and move over to make way for the latest newcomers. Don't make a fuss once the money's been made... just, er, go away, there's a good boy. 

Fine for the business, but I have yet to meet any performer who thinks even remotely along those lines. People may have long or short music careers, for all sorts of reasons. But, without exception, the creative motivation is to make and perform music to fire imaginations, to touch audiences... to do good. Age has nothing to do with that. And being casually written off by music industry suits isn’t on the radar either.    

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Videos: get the concept right, then worry about the budget

When radio stations check out new acts, they often use YouTube to see what sort of numbers a song is scoring. It’s a very rough guide to interest in an act – useful, but tricky. 

Here’s why. Firstly, with much-loved bands, fans can and will post hand-held clips, and this can dilute the impact of a key video. It’s not all bad though, if you see it as evidence of a band’s following. Bands also post multiple mixes – if you search on  YouTube  for Poppy and The Jezebels 'Sign In Dream On Drop Out', you'll find 6 clips, including this one, breezily shot in Spring 2012 on the streets of Birmingham:
But in addition there are five other videos of the same song: three are inventive and nicely produced variations on a theme. But the other two are live, and one does the band no favours at all. 

Secondly, YouTube (and Vimeo) numbers can be just as easily manipulated as the charts were back in the day. Then, having a chart return shop that contributed to sales totals for the weekly charts was the key to a never-ending flow of ‘favours’ from record companies tying to fiddle the chart numbers. Now, there are companies who will hype your YouTube numbers - for a price. 

And different genres get different responses. So - not perfect. But that's just one side of it. The video makers I talked to said something completely different again. 

Just as new tools have empowered musicians, so their equivalents have done so for video makers. Affordable digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) can double as surprisingly cheap and effective video cameras, for example. 

Click around to check out local vids; you’ll find a dizzying range. But what interested me most in researching this piece was the question of cost. I talked to lots of local video makers and bands… but at no point could I extract precise fee information paid by the band to the video maker. From anyone. I did get the impression that everyone worked themselves into the ground to deliver for their clients. But - people are really rather cagey. It’s understandable. 

Here’s Matt Watkins of Beat 13, who has done some great work for Evil Alien.
"Evil Alien came to me as I'm in the same studio as them and I had previously done a video for a mutual friend.  I was offered a small budget and attempted to produce something in as little time as possible. In the end the budget didn't reflect anywhere near the effort that went into the production! Of course, the Youtube/DSLR combo is great for new bands - the quality of work achievable is way beyond what was expected 10 years ago. However, I have been doing this sort of thing professionally for a long time now and I still struggle to complete something 'cheaply'. 
 It’s a continual challenge. If the bands are cash-strapped – and of course they are, it’s a given – then how do they scrape together a video for a budget?  Caroline Bottomley at Radar Music Videos, where bands can look for video makers, sets a basement entry-level price of £500, and posts this note of instruction 
"Some people are unsure why the minimum budget that can be posted on Radar is set at £500 / c$750 / c€600. We think it is important Radar helps labels and artists (to) generate good and great music videos. We encourage labels and artists to post briefs with higher budgets, as in our experience budgets below the minimum amount don't tend to attract many talented and experienced directors. If your video budget is below the minimum allowed on Radar, you need to find another place to commission your video.
"Some ideas:ask friends or fans via Twitter, Facebook, your mailing list, google film student websites and headhunt directors, make a slideshow from stills (where you own copyright), make live or rehearsal room videos. Good luck and we hope you'll use Radar when you've got more funds.
How many videos were commissioned, say in the last six months, in each price bracket? 
"Ooh, difficult to be precise on that as there are some videos commissioned a long time ago which still aren't released. And some we just don't know about. But if it helps, there were about 130 briefs posted in the last 6 months. About 2/3rds generally go to commission. About 4/5ths are for minimum budget, ie £500. The biggest budget in the last 6 months was for £10k. 
How realistic do you think video makers are on cost, and does this change as you go from the £500 mark up to the premium market? 
"Hmm, also a bit difficult as I'm involved at the introduction end and only get to hear about whether directors are unrealistic about costs if things have gone wrong. I have to say this is not very often. Some bands/labels are very unrealistic on cost. They're disappointed when they don't get a world class video for a £500 budget. The irony is that for not much more - say £4k, they're very much in with a chance of getting a world class video. 
Am I right in thinking that the main promotional area for band videos right now is YouTube, and does this have a bearing on production values? 
"Yes, and will continue to be for a long time I think, as long as bands can make money from having their videos there. YouTube are extremely keen to encourage more bands to use YouTube for monetisation. Does it have a bearing on production values? Simple and clever videos trump expensive production values on the whole, so yes I guess so. But only in so far as small screen/internet videos are shareable, so shareable is the holy grail now, rather than being playlisted by TV schedulers. 
How would you feel about the assertion – frequently made in an area I work in (voiceovers) - that web sites that offer work can lead to a downward pressure on price? I personally don’t think it’s a major factor at the top end, and that cheaper and more accessible tools can be a significant factor across the board? 
"Yes. I think there is a downward pressure on price. In fact we introduced minimum budgets to stop the worst examples. Some bands really can't afford much, and they have great music, and there's no doubt directors who'd love to make the video anyway. But if you allow one person to post a brief with a budget of £100, then another person with maybe £1000 to spend, thinks 'Oh, I could get a video for £100'. A big challenge for us is making a clear connection between budget and quality. The main issue is not production values so much, as directors have pride. Under £10k, directors are going to be pulling in favours anyway. But it's easier to pull in favours on a £2k video than it is on a £500 video. 
 Back in Brum, David Cawley produced this fantastic video for ADO…. 
...and he's got some thoughts
"The current landscape is: there’s still the big budget projects, but they are few and far between. I think where a lot of video makers get scared is (because) there’s a lot of video material out there, and it’s often bands with me and friends – a bit like me and the ADO.You do things for people – but that undercuts where you used to make your money. There are also vanity projects, which can be quite lucrative. A friend of mine runs a Grime YouTube Channel…
 …where just conceivably there’s might be quite a lot of ego floating about….? 
"You said it… but there are people monetising that. People paying just to get their face on YouTube. But that has led to bigger deals in some cases, where people have built a channel around a brand, with videos and content, and record companies getting involved. If, say, thirty thousand 16 to 20 years olds who all like Grime music, are logging in every day, with a stream on twitter, people who see themselves as wanting music careers try to fast-track that process by buying into that particular channel. 
Which, of course means work comes back to you. But they are buying a reach – but that doesn’t mean they’re any good. 
"Yes, but that doesn’t matter to them! It’s ego. 
Most bands feel they have to have a video 
"But they don’t know why, though. 
And some of the numbers just don’t match the quality. How does that work, what is the payoff? 
Let’s say a cheaply done vid that still costs a substantial sum – say £1500 - but only scores 1500 views over a year, for example, is that cost-effective? Might they be better off shooting themselves on a smartphone and calling people up…? 
"Maybe they should have spent their time making better music, or promoting themselves first. When I work with a band – ADO were a great example – the main thing that I look for is that they have a plan. I believe in their project, and I get exposure. So it was a no-brainer. 
So sometimes it’s a co-operative thing 
"Yes. But with compensations. I got to go to (shoot at) Shambhala for free, which was nice. I don’t like to undercut the profession, but with things like ADO, there were payoffs. And my email’s on the video, and it’s now been seen by 6000 people. 
The bar is being raised all time. What would you suggest? 
"The most common mistake people make is to put the camera first. If an idea is a good idea, if a story is a good story, then it can be shot on anything. If the concept is strong, it will succeed. A video only builds on what you’ve already got. I had a friendly altercation with someone on Facebook who posted a great video, but then mentioned that they did this for £500. Over the conversation they did mention that the person who made the video put hundreds of hours in. 
So, no facts, except that nobody's getting rich here.  Here's the last video clip for this blog,  just out and shot at Highbury Studio in King's Heath, South Birmingham, featuring Hannah and The Gentlemen. Fresh, clever, fun, directed by Merlyn Rice and produced by John Mostyn. 
And when I talked to Hannah, on the night of ADO's 2nd birthday gig, guess what? She wasn't giving any fiscal secrets away either.

Radar Music Videos

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Ten weeks on from Mittwoch

A chat with Jean Nicholson at Birmingham Opera Company

I don’t usually do reviews on this blog; lots people do reviews; that's fine, and I’m grateful for their perspectives. So this isn’t a review piece. I’m just picking through the memories of a past event, because this event, like so many of the other activities I try to cover in Radio To Go, is marked by the people who pour themselves into making it happen. 

Now we’re deep into gloomy Autumn, it’s good to look back at Birmingham Opera Company’s stupendous summer production of Stockhausen’s impossible to sing / play / stage Mittwoch Aus Licht. It got a ton of coverage, of course, and there are bits of it to be found here and there on websites; links are below. 

I loved it. I remember the extraordinary womb-like feeling of sitting down in the dark at the start, and entrusting myself to the company. And when the lights came up again, the number of people wandering around smiling, open-mouthed. And just how many local musicians of all stripes were there. And being amazed and engaged. 

Oh, didn’t they just amaze and engage… 

In the middle of all this is the affable and formidable Jean Nicholson, BOC's general manager. Jean was kind enough – after a barrage of emails - to find time to chat late last month. Up until that point she had been wading through post-event administration.  

The Elysian Quarter and their transport
The string quartet in the sky – The Elysian Quartet in four helicopters, hovering over the Argyle Works, a stones throw from Digbeth on one side and Millenium point on the other– went out to a lot more people than those in the venue itself. 
"It was included in The Space – an initiative from the Arts Council and the BBC – which was planned for the Olympics and now extended. An online platform was created; our contribution to that was twofold. One of which was a trail to Stockhausen, with a dedicated website with lots of information, lots of blogs from people involved. There was also a film project: Eleven young film-makers made films in response to Mittwoch, and that was included on the Space. Three other  films were up there too: films which were edited highlights from the BBC's archive of Stockhausen. 
 A series of performances which were attended by…? 
"It was attended by two thousand, two hundred and forty seven people. In total - the live performances. 
I’m interested in the ripples which went out to a lot more people, one way and another… It flowed out. 
"The helicopter String Quartet was streamed live, on the Space… and two of the big screen sites, one in Birmingham and one in Coventry, also carried the stream, live. Quite late in the day, it also became possible for us to stream the whole performance live, from our website. The whole opera. One performance only. 
And that reached how many people? 
"About four thousand. But the complexity of rights for these is fairly tortuous. As a relatively small organisation, achieving full buy-out is fairly tricky to do. We did get an across the board agreement that one, free, streaming became possible. 
Would this have been easier if you were working with something that was long out of copyright?   
"No. It’s complex. The added complexity of a lot of classical music is that the rights are not merely in the composer – there is then the edition of the music. Rights are payable for the use of a learned edition of a work. If you want to do a Mozart opera, you might think no rights have to be paid. Sadly that’s not the case, unless you’re willing to go to the original source and copy it all out yourself. There is a right in the engraving – the person who inputs in to one of the music notation programmesSibelius or finale - and a right in the edition – two subsidiary rights beyond the intellectual property. 
Given the absolute truckload of admin and management work which all this entails… how rapidly does the company shrink back down after a performance like this? 
"Three days. But there is, around the core of us three, a further core of regular associates. We have a shorthand available, because so many of the people who come in and work with us on these projects, we know very well. That level of familiarity gives you speed and efficiency.
But there is a long extended half-life to your performance. You had the big bang – the week of performances – but there is a resonance afterwards, and that is still going on. 

Lots of camels were featured. Some drank champagne; not these two though
"It was a weirdly bewitching piece. …"
and the echoes and the extra dimensions… 
"It’s a challenge for what is possible. It wasn’t surprising to us that this was a piece that a major opera house couldn’t do. They do a different job. It’s a physical thing: it required two performance spaces. In a weird way, the piece comes to us – because that’s what we do. The skills you need to do it are… probably Graham Vick… but we know a lot of people, we have a lot of friends. There was a building that the Stockhausen estate felt would suit well; they liked the company. At that point, the skill was to put together a very fine, detailed rehearsal process. That why a standard opera house probably couldn’t do it – because you have to put all your resources into it. 
Stupid question: what happened to the stepladders? What about the cushions and foam mattresses? 
"The stepladders went back to scrap metal. The mats were recycled into the music train project that the Cultural Olympiad did. All of the mats went to the floor of the train. 
Picture from Birmingham Aviation Enthusiasts blog 
I noted a huge surge of pride and engagement with the event, even among people who didn’t attend. There were flurries of tweets and Facebook chatter around the helicopters parked up outside Millennium point. When you took the train into New Street, it started a buzz in the train itself. 

To me, people seemed quite proprietorial about the whole thing. And the post-event buzz was fascinating to follow. When you have an event that is so engrossing, and so engaged, that engenders such a sense of passionate involvement…what happens when it comes to an end? 
"Well, that’s not the end of the event for me. I’m not in that headspace. I’m approaching that now. That’s post-production. Richard (Willacy,  Associate Artistic Director) has only just been able to go on holiday now. 
What’s next? 
"We’ve been working on several ideas. The next really big event is a production of Mussorgsky’s Kovanschinaor The Kovansky Conspiracy, as I think we’re going to call it. It’s a really fabulous, big, Russian opera with a most fabulous story. A great, great piece to do. 
"In the run up to that we’re doing a series of much smaller pieces of the project; the first phase of that is going to be in March next year. We’re working on four Mussorgsky songs called the Songs and Dances of Death. They’re a bit macabre, but rather brilliant. So we’re doing some research and experimental work on the translation of those with Alastair Beaton
picture from Uzan Artists
"It’s just for a baritone and pianist, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Eric Greene, who sang ‘Life Is a Dream', will be able to come back and do that. It’s forty minutes, and we’re going to put more resources into distributing it and the whole digital project around it. So the idea is that over a four to five week period – actually the piece is made in the first week – and thereafter it will appear in various pop-up performances. So you could book it for your living room, if you’ve got a piano and you don’t mind somebody filming it. Or workplaces, or shops, or… 
"The idea is to do lots of lots of performances. The live experience in different places, different contexts. But you still get the top guy singing, which is rather fabulous. So that could happen in the Town Hall, it could happen in your living room. It will be both. Attached to that is the notion of participation: local people having the tools and the skill to develop online content. A lot of that emphasis is going into film. We did the first phase of this on Mittwoch, with the resources that came in on to the Space. 
"The Space is continuing past its first phase – there is a commitment from the BBC and the Arts Council to continue for at least the next six months. We will be working on that, people will be filming. We will working with editors… Graham Vick’s going to have a go with that, because he’s never made a film. We’re going to so some sound stuff – more podcasts – just to see what we can generate out of this one small unit of art. It’s challenging stuff. 
"There will be quite a lot of singing to do – so we will be doing some core Birmingham Opera Company vocal work. And we need men. We’ve been doing very well on the men front, but it is notoriously difficult to get men singing. Our rehearsals are open… but it is important that we get out there and encourage people to have a go and get singing….

Birmingham Opera Company would love for you to get involved
The Space
The Elysian Quartet and their video on The Space
Ex Cathedra

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Talking bout my generations: Khaliq

It's taken two or more generations, but British music is now flowing all ways between communities. 
Last month, tickets for the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary gigs sold out in record time; you can still get em for upwards of £400 on Seatwave. Hey, bargain! But just head over to Spotify and dig into those 50 year-old Stones’ R and B covers. Time is NOT on their side. 'Little Red Rooster'? Please - let me suggest Howling Wolf

Mick’n’Keef had a sincere go at Chicago blues back in the day, but looking back today, it all sounds a bit wonky and self-conscious. That wasn’t their fault – they certainly weren’t in control in the studio, and for all the good intentions, it was a big jump, geographically and culturally, from 60s Swinging London... to Chicago or Mississippi. 

But when those 60s English musos dabbled with stuff from way beyond their culture, they really did break new ground. Quite understandably, they didn’t hit the spot to start with. But only six years later, Zeppelin showed up with technique and showbiz chops that left Mick and co in the dust; the ball was rolling. After that, imperfectly, but slowly and surely, things opened up. Which - some time later - brings us to musicians like Khaliq.

Nowadays it’s not a one-way flow, the way it was two generations back. In fact, for the latest generation, some of whom I admire enormously, identity and ethnicity really doesn’t matter; it’s simply not relevant. And that’s a fine thing. Khaliq - the name comes from their lead singer and main writer - have just released an album, recorded at Magic Garden. Now, these boys are not spring chickens; they’ve got over thirty years’ listening shining out of their music. I wondered where Khaliq started off…. 
“When I was a kid? Led Zeppelin. My brother got me the Stairway to Heaven t-shirt. And he played me the album. I’d never heard anything like it. But I listened to everything. Sabbath… massively into Stevie WonderVan Morrison. Then, when I heard Bob Dylan, I didn’t listen to Zeppelin for about six months … Springsteen, WellerTom Petty. Genres didn’t matter. If it did something to me, that’s how I judged it. 
 “So when I started writing songs as a kid, I used to think the only songs I can ever put out have got to do the same thing to others as these songs have done to me. 
Khaliq - World Alone 
How can you judge your own songs? That’s the hardest thing in the world… 
“Not for me. I’ve got a comparison in my head. You know when you go into a studio, and you want to… reference it…to see if it’s got it going on? I’ve got that mad reference in my head. I wish I could get rid of it sometimes.
From listening to what I did, it set a certain standard, a certain level. And I can tell straight away if it’s ‘up’ there. And then we play, it and work it with the band, and see how people react… 
 How do the songs come? 
"Whole songs come. The verse, the second verse, the chorus, the last verse, the story from start to finish. It all rhymes, it all makes sense, and it comes out in five minutes. But some of them, I’ll get the first verse at 13, and the second when I’m 27. It just happens. 
Khaliq - Everybody's Talking 
That was then. Bring me up to now? 
"First band was ‘As We Are’ – heavily into U2. When I first started I started on an acoustic guitar. My brother helped a lot. He was going to gigs; no other Asian lads were going anywhere, but my brother was allowed to go because he had three A levels and eleven O levels. He was top of the school, so the community couldn’t say anything. The community couldn’t slag him off and say he was wasting time with his hair and that. He was like the impeccable Asian kid, but with hair out there, and singing Phil Lynott songs! 
Same old, same old… sounds a lot like my grandparents leaning on my dad to take a respectable career - they were German Jews. So how much pressure did you get from Mum and Dad?
“At first, people weren’t happy. I was supposed to be an accountant or a lawyer. My dad thought it was going to be a phase. After a bit they realised this was everything for me. But there were conflicts. Am I English or am I Asian? Do I go to the mosque, or do I chill out with my mates and have a quick beer? Am I even supposed to have a beer? All this mad stuff going on. But the guitar was the best thing – you can sit in your room on your own, and once you’ve hit the tune – not even a tune a couple of notes… that was it That feeling, it made me like I’ve just done something. And then the words started coming out. 
Khaliq - England 
What about the album, gigs to promote, all that?
“We’re releasing the album (Astral Projections) on iTunes and all the other online places. But we’re doing a big local release, and a big campaign in March. We’re supporting Reverend and the Makers, maybe a support slot with Simon and Oscar from Ocean Colour Scene; I’m writing with Steve Craddock for an acoustic album. He called me a week ago, before flying out to tour with Paul Weller. I’m a massive fan… and he took the album with him to give to Weller. And we’re doing a living-room tour. … 
Khaliq - and the guys in the band are great. Nice guys with passion and interesting perspectives to explore. We could have talked for hours. But as I touched on at the start, what is striking about Khaliq’s situation was how, in two generations, the flow of ideas, and our ability to knowledgeably and respectfully embrace new musics across multiple cultures, and in many cases interpret and re-interpret it with skill and passion, has so completely changed. 

A while back, I did a documentary - Handsworth Evolution - on the post-war generations of Caribbean musicians who came to the UK and saw their music flow into the creative pool. 

There’s another gig coming up soon that highlights this very clearly, when two fine sets of musicians, already featured on this blog – The Beat and Xova, second and third generations respectively - play Birmingham Town Hall on December 15th. Hey, a lot cheaper that the Stones, and it's my guess there'll be a lot more heart to the gig as well. 

It was relatively easy to trace the musical generations for my Handsworth documentary, and slightly harder to try to pinpoint the musical and creative flows out from and back into Asian musicians. I'm pretty sure that this will become clearer in time. 

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Re-Thinking Regional Media? Judging by the latest radio and circulation figures, that might just be a very good idea.

Old regional media: deckchairs, Titanic. New regional media: Um - we'll get back to you.

Oops. Anyone got any ideas?
Thursday 25th October was interesting. Three things happened, all of which should be - but aren’t - connected.  

The first was the monthly gathering for the Birmingham Music Network, which I couldn’t attend, because I was at the second event. This was Re-thinking Regional Media, a debate on futures for, er, Regional Media

It was a good and informative day: a variety of opinions, but not a lot of cold hard facts, were laid out and chewed over. I was there as a discussion facilitator: to steer discussions with a break-out group, in the hope of pulling out some definitive and positive conclusions. I’m afraid we didn’t get too far; nor did any of the other groups.  

Thursday also saw the release of the latest clutch of audience research figures for radio, which you can dig into at the excellent Media UK site. Taken together, these are shockingly bad for local radio in the region, pretty much across the board. I’ll go into details later.

These three things just don’t connect up. They should. And that’s the tragedy.

The background 
Partly, the terrible fact that local media – newspapers, tv and radio in the West Midlands – is now a burnt-out wasteland. Again and again, talk was of lost impact, falling circulation, and declining revenues. Truth be told, I met more people who used to be in radio, who used to be journalists or in local telly, than people who are still employed in these industries.  

Bright spots? not a whole lot. There is the will to see things improve, which is good, but not surprising, given the make up of the conference. There was the acknowledgement of new tech tools and analytics, especially from the estimable Matt Locke of Storythings; I lapped that up. Several inventive bloggers attended, and lots of independent video types were there, with brave and complex ideas, representing the remnants of the once vibrant television industry in the region.   

How did we get here?  
I'll cite three factors.
First: institutionally, Birmingham and the West Midlands have been outflanked and outmanoeuvred by the competition. To be blunt, Manchester has played a blinder, for well over a decade; Birmingham has done exactly the opposite. So now we have Media City in Manchester, and the BBC preparing to exit the Mailbox. For a number of reasons, the civic and business infrastructure and the decision makers that could and should have kept jobs and work in Brum simply didn't step up to the plate, most noticeably and wastefully at the BBC. Job losses across the sector must be in excess of 1000 since 2000.

Secondly: the web has simply led people away from existing media; no big surprise there. We don't use radio to find hot new music anymore (apart from, maybe, some users of 6music), and that's a tragedy. Radio especially, but Television and Print too have increasingly retreated from any form of real engagement with their markets, obsessing with 'brands' and ‘efficiencies’, with programming avoiding risk and offering an increasingly depressing uniformity

Thirdly, 'local' has simply become a dirty word, especially from a metropolitan perspective. Given the default thinking in London about creativity north of Watford, that's hardly a surprise. Ironically, production technology has helped radio cut costs; but it has  helped bands and video makers much more. It has ushered in a wonderful explosion in local music and video production, which has been almost completely ignored.

Many speakers at the debate reminded me of how much people at contemporary media industries, especially radio, are in denial. It was ironically amusing to hear an ex-employee of Global Radio claim that its local stations (Capital Birmingham and Heart West Midlands) were at an all-time high in the region, when a quick look at Media UK’s figures for those stations (here and here), released that same day, shows that they are both at all-time lows. 

It was galling to hear from Stuart Taylor, the very impressive ex-chairman of Guardian Media Group Radio (owners of Smooth, who have in turn sold out to Global), that he expects even more consolidation at radio to allow it to to survive. And it was very frustrating to note that Orion Media, owners of Free, have again recorded disappointing figures, at a time when I and many others had been hoping for some sign of a local media fightback against national brands. The fact is that no local or quasi-local radio service has shown an increase this quarter. The best that can be said is that some stations are holding their own… and none of these are market leaders.

The decline of 20th century media
Marc Reeves from RJF public affairs, an ex-editor or the Birmingham Post, gave a sad but  perceptive overview of the decline at traditional media. He was particularly interesting on the abilities of old-school local media to reach out and relate to its audiences. And that, quite possibly, is the key.
Any media organisation lives or dies by its ability to build trust and credibility, and hopefully be liked by its audience. As social media gurus constantly tell us, it’s the way you connect to your audience that matters. It’s particularly interesting to see that the most traditional forms of radio continue to prosper at network level at the BBC. I put this down to exactly those key factors: trust and credibility - the ability to acknowledge, reach out and touch an audience.

That leads me back to Marc’s point. I feel, and I eventually said this towards the end of the debate, that the relentless retreat from localism, driven and justified by business priorities, has left Brand Radio increasingly unable to connect to its audiences. Listeners in turn continue to leave in favour of things they can relate to. If the programming strategy of Brand Radio was to compete effectively with the BBC channels, it has comprehensively failed. As Matt Deegan points out, Xfm is now trounced by 6 music. Elsewhere, Radio 2 continues blithely on its way as the 800lb gorilla in the radio room that nothing will dislodge… until, this being the BBC, it shoots itself in the foot, of its own volition.

A way forward?
So let’s come back to local media. Media needs content. It feeds on it. Local media might do well to stop obsessing about heavily researched and safely acceptable content to the exclusion of all else. Local relevance, played right, gives a competitive usp. If – on whatever platform emerges in the next few years – local media succeeds in reinventing itself with attractive, credible multi-stranded content, it won’t be by relying on playing, or talking about, the exact same stuff everyone else plays and talks about. 

The big 21st century difference, in my view, is that the new platforms might well be local, but now they have a global reach. That’s what could make new and creative services, local, specialised or otherwise, stand out, and more significantly, pay their way. Brilliant thinking comes for free. Brilliant individual content that could be exclusive to a station, that reflects and is of the market the station serves, is out there for the taking. You just need a bit of editorial judgment, which is becoming an elusive commodity in our industries. 

Last week I wrote about Magic Garden studios, where Gavin Monaghan had recorded a session with local band Jaws. It was done for Radio 1 - no local take-up here. Take note, local boys: Radio 1 is out there, looking for exciting stuff in your own back yard. That said, there is absolutely no reason why Radios 1, 1xtra, 2 and 6 could not be beaten to the punch, every single time, by local stations. That would be a start… but only the the start of a five year or longer battle to claw back market share for local media.   

This probably won’t happen. What’s far more likely is that yet more new operations will emerge, probably online, probably very tech-savvy in new and creative ways, to nibble away at the traditional audience, crumb by crumb. I wouldn’t mind seeing that happen one little bit. In fact I’d be happy to help.

I mentioned the Birmingham Music Network at the start of this post. It’s ironic that this gathering of musicians and music business boosters also took place on the same day as the regional media debate. These are two worlds that need each other. They could be very good for each other. But they ignore each other. If they, somehow, found a way to work with each other, we might see some interesting changes. 

Media UK; see also James Cridland's and Matt Deegan's blogs
Re-thinking Regional Media
Campaign for Regional Broadcasting Midlands 
is an online petition to try to save those local jobs that are left at the BBC

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Cultivating precious talent in Gavin's Garden

Gavin Monaghan's Magic Garden recording studio has quietly grown into a powerhouse production centre, simply by concentrating on doing things well. Really well. 

When you visit a recording studio for the first time, more often than not finding the place is a bit of an adventure. Studios are tucked away in basements, shoehorned into warehouses, carved out of unlikely spaces in industrial estates, squeezed into odd bits of residential homes… It’s all very hidden and exceptions are rare. It’s only in colleges and, sadly, now rarely at radio - like the old Pebble Mill BBC studios - that you’ll walk into something open, airy, shinily well maintained, and above all, obvious for all to see.

So it was with Gavin Monaghan’s Magic Garden, arguably the most consistently successful outfit in the West Midlands. It took me half an hour of driving around odd bits of industrial north Wolverhampton, and even then Gavin had to come out and find me – he’s not on anywhere you’ll find on Google maps or your satnav, and that’s the way he likes it. 

Gavin presides over an operation which has turned out some magnificent work in his 21 years as studio manager and producer: The Twang, Scott Matthews, Editors, Robert Plant, Ocean Colour Scene, Carina Round, Nizlopi, and a host of local names including Khaliq, The Destroyers, Guile, Paul Murphy, and Ben Drummond – who was recording when I dropped by, and who will be the subject of a later post on this blog when everything is mixed.  

Vintage tech lust object
There’s not a whole lot of of room in Gavin’s place, and that’s partly because he collects kit - rather a lot of it - and lovingly refurbishes it. His pride and joy is a 1938 Neumann microphone, which he dug up on eBay; but there are classic pieces of kit everywhere you look. 

Vintage kit fetishists can get their kicks reading the kit list on his Myspace blog. 

Notwithstanding all the appeal of gorgeous old equipment, the heart of Gavin's system is a Protools rig. Above and beyond the love of kit, there’s a love of the creative process. And in the teeth of a howling recession, things are looking good

First question, Gavin: How’s business?
Booming. It’s very busy. There’s always been a steady flow of really talented people coming thought here, I’m pleased to say.
And this comes to you how? Word of mouth?
Yes. I don’t advertise. I’m also quite selective of who I work with. It’s hard to put your finger on what makes that happen, but I’m glad it has. It’s nice that current artists come in as well – we’ve still got stuff on and off the radio all the time - I see that as a continuation, and I try to embrace change as it comes along. But… a good song’s a good song. 
I talked with Jon Cotton at Artisan about six months ago, and he pointed out that the tiny studios have now simply disappeared, because people can work with multi-track software on their laptops, and the big studios are scrapping for movie business. So that kind of means that reputation counts for an awful lot.
Yes. You’re only as good as the people you work with. If I get a great band to work with, I’m at my best. If I get somebody… not so great … they there’s not a lot you can do with that. I do a lot of research. I listen to a lot of brand new music. I try to uncover gems. I’m always all over the internet. I approach bands that I hear and like. If I hear something than inspires me, I get in touch. And I try and put as much effort into a job like that as I would with a major album.
That can’t be cost-effective, Gavin…
I don’t care. I’m not doing this for the money. Never have been. 
On the other hand, we’re sitting here, surrounded by squaziliions' worth of vintage kit, which doesn’t come cheap… 
Gavin (chortles)
… but you’ve got Protools up there as your main system.
I like classic sounds, but you’ve got to embrace what’s going on now. So we’ve got all the modern stuff that you’d want. But it’s a good combination. In an ideal world, everybody would still be recording to tape, and perfecting their craft to the point where you wouldn’t need to endlessly edit your stuff to get it on the radio. Having said that, I’m more than happy.
But I think new cheap kit has made a big difference for a lot of bands. They can get their ideas sorted at home, working on their laptops, and recording acoustically where possible…
Sometimes we’ll work with what they’ve already started in their home studio. We end up keeping some of it – I love that. It brings interesting textures into the recordings.
Capacity is a problem here, isn’t it?
Well, we’ve had all 18 of the Destroyers in…
The chat moved on through technology, music quality and sound quality.
I work with music fidelity for a living. My job is to capture the best possible signal. But if it’s going to be reduced to mp3, and that’s how people are going to hear it, then I’ve got to make the best possible mp3 I can possibly make. 
I had a very interesting conversation a while back about distortion in mastering. Most people want to capture the maximum possible volume, with the minimum possibly dynamic range. So part of that process is to distort it, to clip it, so it’s as loud as it can be on radio.
But radio compresses everything anyway…
They use Optimod, yes. A lot of bands and record companies, if you give them something with dynamic range, will say ‘It’s not as loud as the Arctic Monkeys’ – it’s part of the culture. It’s part of the trend, Music is a fashion-based industry. So if that’s the trend, I’ve got to make my masters the best distorted masters I can!
So once Ben Drummond’s mixed and finished up, who’s next?
We’ve got a band called Arrows – a brilliant band. We’ve just done a Radio 1 exclusive with a Birmingham band called Jaws. I’m doing an album with Johnathan Day, a brilliant singer-songwriter. Paul Murphy’s coming in to do his next album. We’re slated to be working with – don’t want to jinx it, but I’m hopeful – with Dry The River. Hope so. My management’s talking to them and various other people.
Management? How does that work?
I have a manager for my production work. I’m a studio owner, but my job is music producer. There are agencies similar to artist management, who manage producers, My manager’s Sandy Robertson from World’s End in Los Angeles. He’s got about 40 producers and engineers on his books. 
How did that relationship come about?
He liked some of the albums that I’ve worked on. The first Twang album – he loved it. He wanted the Twang for another one of his producers, but they wanted to work with me. And after he heard it, it went from there – he’d been listening to my stuff for a while.
But does he understand you and your range of production chops and styles?
I think he works with such a variety of producers… so, yes. I just want to be working all the time. For me it’s important to work with new bands, just as important as working with major label acts who can line your pockets. If I was in it for the money, I’d be a hell of a lot better off!
Gavin's Magic Garden Myspace page

Sunday, 14 October 2012

We do it because we love it. All you have to do is find it

Great, unusual music, there to be explored and enjoyed. Free. Bring your curiosity and a sense of adventure.
Zirak Hamad plays the Daff hand-drum. Amazingly.
I first met Zirak Hamad at one of Paul Murphy’s Songwriters Café sessions. Zirak is a lovely guy, irrepressibly enthusiastic, and a terrific musician. He has a hair-raising background, which makes his current situation all the more remarkable. Zirak is largely responsible for a fascinating new musical development in Balsall Heath, an inner city part of Birmingham: Musikstan, which, every other Thursday, gathers musicians to play together from, literally, around the world. It runs on love and goodwill. 

Entry is free, but you really should make a contribution when they pass the hat around; there are musicians' expenses to pay and the event has running costs to cover. Zirak’s music is great – there’s a Musikstan clip or two to enjoy after the jump. And while it’s a worldwide music thing, chances are you’ll catch some delicious local musical collaborations, as some of Birmingham's finest have started to drop by.

Zirak’s Musikstan gigs are by no means the only music gatherings in town that run on similar lines. Once a month on Sunday afternoons on Moseley, you can catch stunning musicianship, organised by the magnificent percussionist Joelle Barker at the Dance Workshop. On top of that, the City centre Island Bar hosts the Free Love Club, an all-dayer of a folk-ish bent, for free, on Sundays; Sue Fear’s Moseley’s Muso Monday, also (logically) on Monday nights, works on the same principle, there are regular gatherings of different music stripes at the Tower Of Song; and of course there are many more such events.  If I've missed yours out, I apologise - but please do let me know for future reference. 

Here's Zirak, at Musikstan, tearing it up on the Daff hand-drum. I recorded this in September.

Zirak kicked off Musikstan in March of this year. It’s got a clear and simple goal.
Zirak Hamad: Musikstan is about sharing and bringing people together. The business side of music is important, but having music just for music’s sake is important too.  A friend of mine, Andrew Bland, invited us to play at the Old Print Works, and accompanied us on piano.  And it gave me an idea to do something regular. So that’s how it started. Musikstan is based on bringing different musicians together, from different backgrounds and different styles. People are able to ask questions about the music, about the backgrounds and the styles of each type of music. 
In the six months since you started, how has the network of musicians developed, with different people coming in to play?
To start, because I’m a musician, I can bring in many musicians that I know. But then word got out – word of mouth – about Musikstan. Session by session, it developed; musicians contacted me to come and play. We keep it very informal. Musicians are invited to join us, and we leave time for the audience to ask them questions at the end of their set.  We aim to have one musician from Birmingham, and one from outside of the area, because we want musicians to meet and exchange ideas and music, and play together. 
What about your own music?
I have a Kurdish band, and I also have a band called Village Well, which has an Indian tabla player, and a Caribbean steel pan player. I also play in a gypsy band with an Albanian and a Romanian musician…. 
Tell me about your band Village Well….? 
We got the idea in 2010, with a Khora player, me on violin, and Indian Tabla from Pritham Singh. Unfortunately, the Khora player, who lives in London, could not stay with the band, so we added Norman Stewart on Steel Pan instead. This brings all kinds of people together.  Some Kurdish people might come to see me, and Indian people because of Pritham… and Caribbean people because of Norman. So we really are bringing people together through music. 
If you went back to the old country now, after your years in the UK, what would happen? How would people react to you?
Kurdistan has changed a lot since Saddam Hussein’s regime. Kurdish people are more open-minded now. When I went back, I was made very welcome. When I left Kurdistan, I had 24 hours. I found out that a friend of mine – who was working with the Intelligence services under cover – that the next day, they were coming to arrest me, and god knows what would have happened to me afterwards.
So it was: don’t go to work tomorrow, and sort yourself out to get away, because everything was going to end for me. I left Kurdistan straight away. After ten o’clock, they went to my house, and my family said they didn’t know where I was. And that was the truth – they didn’t know where I was, or how I had left. I went to Iran, and then to Turkey, and then  in the end I came to England.
Are your family …OK?
They weren’t. They arrested them and tried to force them to tell where I was. But they didn’t know, because I didn’t tell them what I was doing. So the secret police accepted this - in the end. Now, after Saddam ‘s regime, they’re all right. We have our own government; people are more liberal, and more free…
Did you come to the UK and claim asylum? 
Yes, they gave me asylum. I had to pay a smuggler to get me to the UK. My family supported me, though friends, not directly. We couldn’t use the phone or anything like that….  
So this must have cost your family a fortune in the end.
About 8000 dollars. That’s a lot of money in Kurdistan. 
It’s an extraordinary story, but Zirak might well say that everyone is extraordinary. Now settled in Birmingham, Zirak runs school workshops in middle eastern dance and  music. In 2003, he organised a Kurdish band: Daholl Kurdish Ensemble, as Birmingham didn't have any Kurdish musicians at the time. And his dream is to see Muzikstan become a world music festival in the UK. 

So now he’s  back doing what he loves, which is making music, and working with other musicians. And, as always, this being a Birmingham thing, there’s a lot of collaboration. Paul Murphy has played at Musikstan, as has Joelle Barker, and there’s some mighty collaborations planned for the future. Live, experimental cross-cultural collaborations in an intimate acoustic environment: it’s not something you can bottle. You have to experience it. . Long may it continue


Muso Mondays at the Station, King's Heath, Birmingham

Tower Of Song -

Songwriters Café