Sunday, 6 May 2012

Micro-festivals and New Folk. The Old Dance School and Goodnight Lenin: lots on their plates

Goodnight Lenin on a jetty; Old Dance School on the run
The web has rewritten the way we hunt out new music, not always for the better. For a start, there's no road-map. Of course, that could be a good thing.

Old-school record shops have been crushed and swept away; their online replacements throw 'priority' acts at you. You have to step past that, and that is where I particularly miss the old way of doing things. 

But instead we now have the power to endorse and recommend, and this works in a lot of different ways. It’s changed things. Online momentum can build worldwide for any act that is able to reach an audience. Ironically, one of the music genres that have gained most from this is one of the oldest: folk music. There’s been a huge resurgence in folk and folk-associated forms in the past ten years. Singer-songwriters are coming to the fore again; new bands are enjoying success to rival the 70s veterans.

And this is, I think, down to three factors.

Bands build great, direct, online relationships with their followers through the web. It’s powerful and personal, and especially suits music people can get passionate about.

Equipment has never been cheaper, and, especially with acoustic instruments, musicians have far more scope to record and distribute their own music in their own way. So, creatively, that frees musicians to do what they feel is right, rather than what a record company exec thinks is right.

The electronic oral tradition: 
Folk and world music has always spread by the passing on of songs from person to person, down the generations and across borders. That process used to take years; now it happens in a heartbeat.

Robin Beatty and Laura Carter are founder members of the Old Dance School, who mix things up with a vengeance. The new album, their third, 'Chasing the Light', is just out. The first album worked in some distinctly non-trade grooves in with the guitars, fiddles, recorders and percussion. 
Laura: "The first album ('Based on a True Story', 2008) had one piece we called the drum and bass section. We’ve moved away from that. Now we’re focussing on all the instruments, rather than the rhythm section. "

From The Air by The Old Dance School

You seem to be using textures a lot more 
Robin: "All folk music is very modal – it’s all open positions of the fiddle, whistles in D. But we’ve got a trumpet in B flat, and a bagful of whistles and recorders. We’ve had loads of fun moving through different keys in different sections of a song. It’s been really interesting."  
Three albums in, where you find yourselves? Is it progressing the way you think it should be progressing? 
Laura: "In some ways it’s been a lot harder for us, because we’ve come from nothing. You start off doing gigs for not much money, and then you have to work on your own profile. Maybe it’s gone a bit slower than I anticipated. We’ve been together for five years now. But in the last two years we’ve been pushing ahead. "
One of the reasons we’re talking is to follow up on a post from the beginning of April, which noted how much radio play West Midlands bands were getting, especially on Radio 2. 
Laura: "We’re doing really well with radio plays on the new album. We’ve gotten a lot more interest from festivals… "
Robin: "We seem to have a good loyal fan base now, which is nice. But we may even have missed out on one or two things this year because we’ve been so – focussed – on our music and the album."
Ras al-Maa by The Old Dance School

Discussion shifts to the web, the power of the Facebook share, and on Spotify and Last-FM, the user playlists and the prompts from the programmes themselves. 
Robin:" Having all this stuff recommended to you… the discoveries that are fed to you on the internet… You do come across some great things. I just hope that it doesn’t extinguish that hunger for exploration that you have for music. That is one of the biggest joys on music. Being oversaturated and overfed with all these recommendations – I wonder if it extinguishes your desire to explore.  "
 That’s more than fair, and something I hope to dig in to in a later post. But back in the present, Old Dance School have further fish to fry. Now, they’re also doing a festival. Robin Beatty comes from high in the peak district, where the Edale Festival will take place. Delivering this has meant years of discussions with the council, clearance for campsites, staging, power and more, wrangling for support funding and so on. But, weather permitting – Robin admits to being a bit ‘gripped’ by all this – Edale gets underway halfway through the month (18th to 20th May), with a very strong West Midlands presence, including the Destroyers, Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk EnsembleAbie's Miracle Tonicand of course the Old Dance School.

Across town, Moseley Folk are also lining up their first Camping weekend festival too. This one’s called the Lunar Festival, and it takes place in Tanworth in Arden, two weeks later, over the first weekend in June. Old Dance School are also on this bill, along with Scott Matthews, Boat To Row, Ben Calvert, the Young Runways, James Summerfield, Friends of the Stars (recently blogged about here), Bonfire Radicals, ChrisTye… all of whom are local to the West Midlands.

Setting this up is the indefatigable John Fell from Goodnight Lenin, who also play.

Why is Moseley Folk doing this, given that the organisation already has two very successful but labour-intensive operations going in the city already? 
John Fell: The only thing that Moseley Folk doesn’t have is camping! Obviously we don’t want to make it exactly the same as Moseley Folk, but we do want to keep the same sort of friendly vibe, but to bring that camping element in as well, so it becomes a little bit more of a holiday, than just a day-by day set of shows. 
But it’s tiny this first year, right? 
"It would be interesting to find out if it is the smallest festival in the UK! It’s got a capacity of 500 each day. So yes, it is minute. We wanted to start in a small way, and grow from there." 
But you’ve got room to expand? 
"Oh yes. The fields round the site are vast… "
If I wanted to run a festival, I think I’d be declared insane. You’re already in the business, so that doesn’t apply. But how, exactly, do you go about it? Where do find a friendly farmer, for a start? 
"You need the right venue. That’s key. You need a reason to do it. You can’t just say ‘I’m going to run a festival to make money’… "
Because several festivals have cancelled this year already… 
"You can understand it. There are so many festivals that are the same, that offer the same, on the same weekends. "
And prices aren’t going down. 
"No, they’re not. That’s one of the issues we want to address. With Moseley, we try to keep it at around £79 for three days, which is fair. Tanworth is going to cost £65 for four days music – you can camp for five days if you want! "
But with only 500 paying customers a day, you’ll be very lucky to break even… 
"We’ve worked it to break even. This is to try running a new event. We got offered a nice venue, which was perfect for our interests, where we could try something new. "
For our interests…? 
"It’s where Nick Drake spent most of his life, and where he is buried, two minutes down the road from the festival site. This is what I mean about not doing a festival for money, but doing it for an idea. A beautiful plot of land, and the associations with Nick Drake – and it all clicked. Over the last twenty years or so, he’s become more and more iconic." 
Now that’s interesting. Back in the day, Nick Drake was not exactly a huge commercial success. Island Records certainly believed in him. Old hippies like me have memories of rootling around in the bins in record shops – remember them? – and coming across Bryter Later and Five Leaves Left. But, to me, the buzz wasn’t – really - there at the time. Now, it certainly is. And I think that credit has to go to the Moseley Folk organisers for riskily putting their money where their personal interests lie.  The bill is pretty impressive too, and most of the acts will be performing at least one Nick Drake song.
So give me a quick update on Goodnight Lenin? 
"We’re still recording, at Highbury Studio, where we were always meant to be. It’s great. To record analogue tape live is fantastic. I’m a song writer – I’m not technical. I write the song, bang it out, it’s done. So the delicate intricacies of digital – it’s very unreal for me. To just walk in the room, crank up the amp and play the song… it’s the way I want to record.  We’re never going to go back (to digital). You lose a lot of warmth. You lose a performance." 
Hmm. Now there’s an idea for a future blog piece…. But that sort of brings me, full circle, back to the start of this post. It’s ironic that folk, the most basic and direct form of music has flourished because of digital and web technologies. The Goodnight Lenin video above has jumped into people’s awareness… and that could not have happened ten years ago. But they still want to record their music the old way.

Band Links
Old Dance School
Goodnight Lenin

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