Saturday, 24 March 2012

Don’t you point that thing at me, pal. Snapper supreme Richard Shakespeare shares some thoughts.

Music Photographers: in the pit, hanging off the balcony, vilified by tour managers. A key part of the industry. 

I posted a year or so back (interviewing Bob Marley) about how useless and in the way a DJ is when he’s backstage at a gig. The only people who really should be backstage are those people who have a job to do. The rest is glory-hunting.

Photographers, for the most part, tread a delicate line. They may be have been invited to document the gig. They may be there to further their own careers. But sometimes they just need to go where they really shouldn’t, just to get that special shot. It calls for tact, diplomacy and sometimes a lot of brass neck.

Leominster-based Richard Shakespeare runs the wonderfully named Shakeypix, and has long and generously let me grab his work for this blog. I’ve watched him at work for the last two years or so. No spring chicken, he, but a great snapper. At gigs, he's everywhere - turning himself into a pretzel in the pit, upstage, downstage, in the balcony... smiling, deep in concentration, watching everyone and everything. I talked to him about the job. 

Why photography? 
"I’ve always had a love of image and form. I tend to see everything through a frame. My parents gave me a box brownie for Christmas. I was 8. Then I had a Prinz 110 from Dixons, bought with paper round money. It was nice and compact, but the quality was rather poor. At 15 I went on a course, one afternoon a week, at the local photography college. I picked up a 35mm SLR for the first time. I loved the old darkroom developing process. It went on from there." 
George Barnett and The Ninth Wave at the Yardbird, February 2012
The last time I watched Richard working, he was cheerfully squeezing himself through the crowd at a packed Birmingham boozer as his new charge George Barnett (of which more below) played a debut gig in the area. He was all smiles – a large, uninhibited, jovial presence, firing off shots of the crowd, the band, their friends and family. 

You don't make yourself invisible. Others do. What's your approach? 
"I see no point in being invisible. My clients tend to respond well to this. With a name like mine it's very hard not to be noticed. If a client wanted it otherwise I’d adapt."
When you went full-time, what kit did you buy? 
"It was in 2007. I decided to go with Canon or Nikon digital. The final decision was based on a pro snapper who used Nikon, but told me he wished he’d gone with Canon. So I soon found myself armed with 4 pro Canon DSLR's and a large selection of L lenses. For live work I travel light, packing all I need into a small sling style bag. A full blown shoot requires a serious number of bags, lenses, lights etc. This is where assistants come in – there’s always someone willing to give me a hand." 
Mendi Singh with Alternative Dubstep Orchestra, Mostly Jazz 2011
Studio work or live in the field?
"I don't have a studio. It’s too tame. And too costly. I’ve got all the kit I need to set up a studio anywhere, and locations are so much more interesting. Many bands send me their rough ideas and backdrops. I then go out and source locations to suit. Birmingham bands like to come here (Herefordshire) as it’s so different to the usual Digbeth/urban backdrop. Plus we all enjoy a meal and great banter in my kitchen afterwards." 
You shoot lots of stuff for the love of it. How can you make it pay? 
"Good question, it's not all about the money for me. I can work my prices to fit budgets. I used to do some live work for free to find new clients. That’s how I built up long term relationships. Being trusted is everything to me – that’s how you get the money shots that others miss.
Paul Murphy, Songwriters Cafe, Summer 2011
"! always look for the real person, not someone who’s aware of a camera in their space. I’ve been known to pull faces at someone onstage or dish out the odd insult when face to face in order to get a reaction. But I always follow it with a smile and a thank you." 
It’s a crowded field. Is there a sense of community or a sense of competition?
"It’s competitive, but I try not to enter that game. Each photographer will have their own style. Most UK music photographers have a lot of respect for each other. We share space and time: we’ll all chat before entering a pit, then whoever has the best spot will get their shots and move to give others a chance. I find that just a few London based snappers let the side down and fail to understand that mentality." 
Mark Magoo Robinson, Leftfoot 10th Anniversary Special
You have long-term relationships with bands like the Destroyers, the Misers and Goodnight Lenin. How does that work?
"There are many bands I’ve built up an understanding with. I’m rather lucky to have made so many musical friends.
"Goodnight Lenin came to me about 3 years ago. I was recommended by a mutual promoter friend. They were in the planning stages. The budget was tiny. I drove to Edgbaston and did an all-day shoot for the cost that just about covered the petrol. We all got on like a house on fire. About 3 months later they had their first live show, and I was invited along. At this point I had no idea what kind of sound they had. I loved the music and the rest is history. I have now become the band archivist and been at their sides for nearly every gig."
Goodnight Lenin on tour, March 2012
 "The snapper role was then combined with that of tour manager last year, which sadly has had to go. I love those boys like the sons I never had - I have two daughters. The deal is all about budget. As a band’s kitty grows then my fee will reflect their situation. This way we can grow and reach our goals together. To be taken on tour by a band opens lots of great opportunities to get exclusive one off’s. These days I would rather do that than shoot the actual show, although I do both." 
What about big contracts? 
"I’m not sure that I want large contracts. They can end up being a chain around your neck. I worked with Florence And The Machine, shooting a number of the early shows while they were on the rise. They have always been good to me, and I love them dearly, but now for me the machine is the industry, not the band, which saddens me."
"To be honest, when you’ve got to jump through hoops to get a photo pass, I just can’t be bothered. I’d rather just move on. But I have picked up some interesting work off the back of the music work. Last Summer I did a shoot for Echo Falls the wine company, who wanted product placement at the Isle Of Wight Festival. Life is never dull!" 
Can we talk about your health? Say no and I won't. But to me it's part of the story. 
"Sure. I have always been healthy. Last summer, with 16 festivals covered and two still to go, I got a life-changing shock. My age must have kicked in and sent my body a warning message. I had a stroke, which left me on a hospital ward for a week, followed by months of recovery and reflection. Many of my industry friends like Goodnight Lenin, The Misers, Jo Hamilton with Jon Cotton and fellow photographer Wayne Fox with Sara paid me regular hospital and home visits. My dear friend Tiffy B (she's worked with Lady Gaga and CeeLo Green) even dropped in after coming off tour with Tricky. So many people sent cards and Facebook messages. But it was clear that I’d have to change my working life." 
But you’re back. Now tell me why you decided to go manage a band. At your age and all.
"As I recovered from my illness, I was weak and rusty - I’d gone a month without picking up a camera. I couldn’t drive for 6 weeks. I was not well enough to travel far from Herefordshire; Birmingham was too far. I looked around for a local artist and offered a free shoot to keep my hand in.
"The artist I found was the then 17 year old George Barnett, a former Young Drummer Of The Year. George invited me to a gig at The Bull in Ludlow, not far from my home - my first gig in ages. Yes, it was a pub gig; yes, it was not the best venue, and, yes, there were not hundreds people there, but WOW … he blew me away." 
"A big talent, right under my nose. A week or so later we arranged a photo shoot with George and his band The Ninth Wave. The first set of photos were in the bag. After a few more meetings George asked me if I would consider being his manager. A couple of days of days later, I decided to take him up on his offer. Since that time my world has moved to its next phase. I still take photographs, and recently went around the UK with Goodnight Lenin with Beth Jeans Houghton as support. My tour managing is on hold, whilst I concentrate on my new role of developing a very special talent, and I’m sure in years to come he will be a National treasure. The debut George Barnett album 17 Days (here's the bandcamp link) was released on 12th March 2012." 
What about favourite shots and subjects? 
"So many! My most well known shot is a live one of Florence taken at Shepherds Bush Empire. The London tog’s were all squashed into the pit with not even room to pass each other.
I had snapped most of the tour and had sorted out with the lighting guy to give me more light in the first song, as we were only able to shoot the first 3 songs. Lighting on Flo had been very dark. Not wanting to enter the pit scrum I decided to sit on the side of the stage, and so took my shots from a different angle to the others. It wasn’t until I got home I realised that the money shot was in the bag. So that was a bit special.
"I have a lovely one of Carl Barat (Libertines/Dirty Pretty Things) taken in the green room after a London showcase that hangs in my home. Carl said he couldn’t see it being a good shot, but after looking at the result he soon changed his mind." 
"An early Tinie Tempah taken in his Rainbow dressing room is another favourite."
"I also love an unusual snap of Robert Plant (see this at the top of this post), taken backstage at the Mostly Jazz festival last summer.
"Robert had just flown in from the USA and was very tired, but he still had enough fun left in him to pick up a jug of flowers and hold it up whilst gesturing with one finger that there is only one Plant."  
"Roisin Murphy (ex Moloko) will always have wallspace in my home, but my favourite shot of her was taken on Moloko’s final tour, by my daughter Laura with a happy snaps camera and shows Roisin jumping on my back."
George Barnett website  

See more posts on photography on Radio To Go


Sign up to the mailing list for weekly updates


Sunday, 18 March 2012

BRMB Radio. Free to go... into the history books

BRMB’s owners are re-branding the station. Does it matter? Probably not. Does the fact that it probably doesn’t matter… matter? Yes, I think it does. 

Logos courtesy of Orion Media
Things change

KSAN-FM was a legendary late 60s West Coast Rock station. They rewrote the rules.  They defined the template for rock radio worldwide, and I wouldn’t be in a position to write this now if they hadn’t. 

KSAN flipped to Country in 1980. 

In the UK, the Home Service lasted 28 years before becoming Radio 4. The Light Programme ran for 22 before morphing into Radio 2.   

So is it really worth getting all worked up because Orion Media, BRMB’s owners, are dumping the BRMB name after 38 years? Well, yes... and no. 

No, because things come and go. Think 70s stuff: Walkmen. Video Discs. Think 70s and 80s music: can you really get excited about the Rubettes, cheesy Disco or Olivia Newton-John? Or, for that matter, the Bee Gees, the Eagles, or even the Rolling Stones? If you’re under 35, almost certainly not. 

Orion are repositioning BRMB (and sister stations Mercia, Beacon and Wyvern) into one new brand, Free, with central output and limited local programming from each town – no change from what they are doing now. It’s a business decision. They’re being heavily outgunned by national brands Capital and Heart, who have huge budgets and megastar TV campaigns to pump up their stations. The Orion boys can’t fight on that front.  If I was in their shoes, under the exact same conditions, I might do the same thing.    

There is of course, a debate to be had about how things got to this position, and I’ll come back to that. First, though, take a look at this gruesome audience graph, which you can find on the fascinating and useful Media UK site: 

This charts the station’s share of the local market from Late 1999 to end 2011. Like I say, gruesome. From 17% of the market to 4.7% in 12 years. Ouch. 

But let’s dig a bit deeper. I’m going to draw a line at around July 2009, when the current owners took over. And I'll also plot the previous owners over the period. Now look at where the damage took place. 
Frankly, the new owners haven’t done all that badly, relatively speaking. All the serious damage was done by the previous owners, firstly the then Capital Radio Group... who were swallowed up by a merger into GCap... who in turn were swallowed by Global Media

As concrete evidence of savvy management skills, it lacks a certain something. As evidence of sensitivity to regional markets when viewed from a metropolitan base, it's pretty typical.

The last change of ownership came about because Global had to divest themselves of some surplus properties; at one point they owned nearly all the stations in the market. So they flogged off BRMB, Mercia, Beacon and Wyvern to the new owners, re-tooled Heart as a national brand, and morphed the old Galaxy into the newly national Capital FM brand. 

This will have been some time in the planning… plenty of time, quite conceivably, to decide that if you were going to have to lose stations to local competition, you might as well let them flounder first. 

So, that, partly, is why I think it no longer really matters that Orion Media are now reworking their old properties. It doesn’t matter now, because the old BRMB, about which a lot of sentimental guff has been spouted, has long since gone. 

Now, here’s why it does matter. 

Sentimental guff notwithstanding, BRMB was an eccentric and very local operation which had its moments. Those moments may have been accidental, infuriating to some, and pure radio gold to others, but moments there were. It was a rough-edged station with oddball mixes of programming, built out of old-school ex-BBC and British Forces thinking, with passionate specialist DJs pinballing around in off-peak hours. A lot of stations operated the same way. Weird specialist programmes at night. Lots of local content. Local music.

That oddball mixture struck a lot of chords. There's a timely reminder of just how many from a podcast published last week by The Word Magazine, and I'm very grateful to them for letting me reproduce the clip here. 

Mark Billingham is a very popular and successful crime writer. He grew up in Birmingham. In this interview with the Word's Mark Ellen, he reminisces about growing up in Birmingham, its local scene, and the role that BRMB played. The whole thing is worth a listen, but his comments about BRMB - and me - start at about 10.30" 

On a personal note, it's a hell of a thing for a DJ to be remembered after over thirty years. DJs are the very essence of ephemeral... From BRMB's perspective, that deep and warm acceptance, evidence of just one listener's trust and affection, is something stations would kill for. And stations only get it by reaching out and engaging, on all sorts of fronts.

But, to today’s sharp-eared radio executive, that sort of operation was ripe for polishing and slicking up. And there’s no question, BRMB sounds really polished and smooth compared to some of the more eccentric personality-led programming of its heyday. The music is researched to the nth degree, there’s not a nanosecond of dead air, not a single commercial opportunity is missed. There's no rough edges. 

Here’s the thing. If you get too smooth and polished, things tend to slip past you. Rough edges are there for a reason. It’s like grit in an oyster.

Once stations started the inevitable move towards becoming corporate and branded, those rough edges were systematically filed away and smoothed down. Sadly, along with that smoothing went a whole lot of relevant content. But the big problem today’s commercial operations face is that there is always something bigger, flashier, and better promoted that’s going to park its tanks on your lawns. For BRMB/Free, that’s Capital and Heart. 

Ironically, the self-indulgent, wobbly, ego-driven and inconsistent station that BRMB used to be – of which I was a part – pulled in listening figures that the current operation would kill for.

Equally ironically, the biggest station in the country, the unmoveable beast that today’s commercial networks wish to kill off (and will not be able to unless the government helps them) keeps on growing. Slowly, steadily, inexorably. That’s BBC Radio 2. They have a LOT in common with the old commercial model. They just do it all a lot better, and with bigger budgets, deploying multi-formatted specialised evening shows, big personalities, and music-driven programming. 

The past four years have seen much of commercial radio move to a new corporate, branded approach, with national brands, regional conglomerates, and an awful lot of job losses. And in that time the BBC has marginally increased its overall share of the market.

Here's another graph. This is telling. It is, again, derived from data published on the Rajar (Radio Joint Audience Research) website. The top line shows figures for All BBC Radio listening; the bottom, all Commercial Radio. The time span covers the last four years of  mergers, branding and and re-positioning, during which time all the consolidation and and consequent job losses has taken place. 
The absolute best you can say about the work of the past four years, and then only if you give Commercial Radio the benefit of the doubt by applying the usual margins of statistical error, is that all this re-branding activity has achieved... precisely nothing.  

I wish the team at Free all the success in the world. I really do. They’re going to need it, in a brutally competitive environment. At least they're broadcasting from the area they're meant to serve. I know this has been said before… but in the search for a USP to make their station stand out, I wonder, just wonder, if ticking a few old-style radio boxes might be worth a try?  

See more radio and broadcasting posts on Radio To Go

Monday, 12 March 2012

Four club DJs - Sam Redmore, Marc Reck, DJ Switch and Karl Jones - talk. Off-mic, of course.

Hang the DJ! Oops, wrong century. Then, DJs were radio beasts, sometimes supporting music they believed in. Now, with a few exceptions, that role sits with club DJs.  

Photo courtesy
What does the term DJ actually mean? I asked that in a radio workshop last week. Nobody thought it had much to do with radio; it was all about clubbing. 

The term DJ – originally, short for ‘Disk Jockey’ – has been around for nearly 80 years. It was never meant to be flattering, allegedly coined by a US Network News giant to describe a continuity announcer who happened to have an on-air records show.  My first mentor, the great Jim Santella, still on air at WBFO in Buffalo, New York after 40 years, described Radio DJing as ‘pimping on other people’s reflected glory’, and there’s a lot of truth in that. 

Now,  DJs with actual discs are pretty rare. And you could say there are few, if any, pure DJs in radio now. They’re presenters or talent. Or... pre-recorded voice links. 

Some things don't change. DJs are still overwhelmingly male, and there's a LOT of unjustified ego flying around. But today’s DJ is far more likely to work in studios or clubs, interacting directly and immediately with live audiences. Critically, Club DJs can also produce their own music and increasingly, they collaborate creatively with musicians.  I talked with four of Birmingham’s finest for this post. 

Sam Redmore has made a name for himself at Leftfoot and his Moseley Freestyle nights, and bangs out both inventive short treatments of songs, and some sterling extended mixes. Expanding Freestyle into a live music event has given the event a massive boost. He recently remixed Chris Tye's 'New York City Rain' single, which you can find below, along with links to some extraordinary other work, rooted in his respect for his original sources of inspiration.

Photo: Pit Photography
Karl Jones, aka Malicious DJ, played a critical role in bridging live music and dj work when he embarked on the discussions that led to the forming of Alternative Dubstep Orchestra. Karl remains a part of ADO, as well as the Brotherhood of Filth. Karl also does a lot of brand new work. There's several links to some of Karl's work down the post.

Phto courtesy DJ Switch website
DJ Switch is three time DMC World DJ Champion, the first DJ to play at the BBC Proms at the Albert Hall last year. He's also part of the Brotherhood of Filth, and an early member of the ADO collective. Again, there's clips and links further down the post. 
Photo: Rob Nicholas
And Marc Reck (DJ Narrative) has waaay too many projects on to describe fully… but they’re all interesting. 

This post has partly came about though lengthy chats Marc and I had about how the worlds of Radio and Club could work together, when we both worked in our different ways on Project X Presents. I'm still not sure they can, but Marc has some enterprising approaches, discussed below, as do all the DJs featured here. Check his website….  and see the links below

So give me a definition of a DJ….? 
Sam Redmore: He’s the guy who plays the music in a club! But it’s not the time you spend with the people on front of you, it’s finding the music in the first place.
Marc Reck: There's different kinds… someone who plays & manipulates recorded material to create something else - an atmosphere or collective experience - or a radio show, a mixtape, an audio journey… 
DJ Switch: It’s interesting that people resist calling DJs 'musicians', and this extends to DJs themselves. The exception is turntablism. 
Karl Jones: A DJ is there to musically educate and bridge the gap between the recording artists and the general public, whilst maintaining the desired atmosphere and feeling required for the event or show with the correct track selection and mixing techniques.
What’s more important: the creativity of the mix or the live audience? How responsible do you feel to your audience?
KJ: If the crowd is right I feel like I should be paying to see them. I feel a responsibility to share good music, to share the reaction and see what reaction it brings out. Good music is like a good joke. I build my sets up from one liners to knock knocks before dropping in some classic gems. It’s vital the DJ remembers he’s there to entertain the crowd and not just himself.
MR: I think the mix and the audience are equally important. Ultimately the audience's experience comes first. I've seen people talk about how cutting edge or uncompromising their musical taste is, and then see them clear a diverse party crowd dance floor. The great DJs are ones that can, in front of any audience, keep the whole place up and do something creative or unique.
MR: The reason I started DJing was to share music. Probably the biggest thing for me is to play a song that I love, and see people enjoying it. 
DJS: Audience, definitely. There's no sense in doing something mind-boggingly creative if the people you're doing it for can't appreciate it on some level. But don't take that to mean ruling out creativity by any stretch.
There’s some interesting developments going on with all of you: longer mixes, which ‘feel’ like conventional radio shows, except that you’re not talking… it’s interesting to follow the flow of ideas 
SR: I guess you could say that. They tend to have a beginning, a middle and end, and the different styles of music represent plot twists. I like them to feel like they're always going somewhere.
KJ: People love to hear tracks they know and love, but when they don’t see them coming they seem to love them a whole lot more. With the software now available you can now put out any sound you have, instantly. That makes for speed and flexibility of expression – it’s much easier than ever before.
MR: I love the creativity that samples, binaural recordings, fx, and technology offer; how you can juxtapose these with music. It’s what made me learn turntablism and get into midi controllers. My first creative attempts at Narrative (DJ Narrative) were probably with the Fear & Love mix cd in 2006. Adapting the idea to performances made me find new ways to organise and play my music and sample library for maximum live DJ flexibility.
DJS: I often work with Bass6, who heads up the beatbox community and is one of the most energetic hosts you'll see. And, wonderfully, when he's not there, I have his intros & outros recorded from one of our joint live sets. If I don't use his voice, it's someone else's intro which I nabbed. I make sure I can intro myself if there's an MC there or not. 
A Radio DJ hopes that his or her show is listened to, but he or she can never really know. Radio listeners may let you into their lives, but you’re gone in a flash when it’s time to feed the cat or answer the phone. A live audience, on the other hand, tells you straight if it likes you or not. So if, at its peak, the essence of DJing these days is about working with an audience, and seeing where the collective mood takes you (and everyone else), it’s no wonder that for so many DJs, the club DJ experience completely eclipses the radio DJ experience. Smaller audiences, certainly… but they’re right there, in the flesh, and they talk back.

Best Live moment?   
MR: So many for different reasons... the first Project X, playing with 3 music stages, and an unforgettable vibe… the 2nd one for the string quartet & really exploring narrative via the Heroes Journey. All the Mr Elephant events for the diversity and interactivity. Birmingham Opera for the what it opened up for me musically. Shambala in the rammed out Kamikaze tent was incredible. Oh and the custom made events! - Especially the 2nd one which led to the Night times collaborations, and their very kind awards and gig of the year review. 
KJ: Performing alongside DJ Switch at a secret venue in London. 6hrs of non stop madness! I don’t think any record played for more than 1min.
SR:Tough to choose, but one that stands out was at the Garden Festival in Croatia a couple of years ago. Just as the sun was setting I played one of my all-time favourite songs, Sebastien Tellier's "La Ritournelle". The crowd was really into it, and at the end of the track there was a round of applause - something I've never witnessed during a DJ set before (apart from at the end of a set / night).
DJS: The first year I was at Glastonbury I closed the Shangri-La stage, which was epic. It was 4-5 am and pure ram-a-jam, the sun rose over the course of the hour and the crowd heaved like a single organism. That will stay with me forever. My 3rd DMC world title is definitely up there. It was the year I was most happy with performance-wise.
Just as with last week’s post, tech has completely transformed the tools a DJ has to play with. On the rare occasions I DJ these days, I take a laptop loaded with mp3s and play them out through the freebie version of  Virtual DJ, something most pro DJs might regard as little more than a toy. But any kit can let you down…

Worst moment?   
MR: Probably when the equipment fails just before the gig. A great example of where tech crew are legendary, sorting out the issue where there seems to be no solution. I’ve had a few times with promoters saying there’s enough space to setup… then finding there's none until your set, which can make smooth changeovers pretty tricky.  
SR: My laptop gave up on me one night at the Bull's Head. I managed to get one track going, but had to dash upstairs into the office where most of my records are kept and frantically try to pick out a few others that would work before the track that was playing ran out. The records are kind of scattered all over the place, so it's impossible to know where to look. I dread to think what I ended up returning with...
DJS: I got talked into trying out black cider one night, and ended up finishing off 4 bottles just before I started playing. I remember getting onto the decks and thinking "wow, my hands are a lot further away from my head than they usually are!" I don't think the set was that bad, but it's a moment that's kept me in check ever since. The promoter told me in the morning "oh I recorded your set last night" and I replied "never EVER play it back to me!"
KJ: Honestly......I’ve loved every single minute so far!
Personally, I’m particularly interested in how the intensity of the DJ’s performance with a live crowd could ever be ported into a radio show. It's like squaring a circle - you can get closer and closer, but you'll never get perfection.  I don’t really think you can achieve that perfection, any more than a live music show can completely transfer onto an audio file. 

So: do you think club mixing can work on radio (I don't, myself... but I’m open to persuasion)
SR: Well if by club mixing you mean extended DJ mixes, then definitely yes. It all depends on the DJ in question, but I've heard some great sets on things like the Radio 1 Essential Mix. It's no longer about interacting with the crowd in the same way that playing in a club to an audience is, more of a chance to showcase some great music and put it together in an interesting and creative way.
DJS: I don't see why not. I've always enjoyed going down to London and tuning in to Rinse down there. No idea who's playing but just vibing along to the tracks. I'm normally like that when I go into clubs anyways.
In terms of explanation, seeing the poster for the gig you go to gives you the context - it attracts your audience & tells you who's on. Radio has to give that context in some form - if it's not by listings, why not by announcer? Fills the same role as the MC at the gig.  Moderation...I was stunned by a recent act of censorship. I did a mix for 1Xtra last year and put in a track called "The Hip Hop War", which basically had a chorus going 'bredrin' and 'blud'. I think the mix went out at 9, the track came on and first they censored 'bredrin' - which was a bit stupefying - and then they cut out the rest of the track which had 'blud' in it. Considering the station carries quite a strong urban ethic in it’s' image, and they still took that rather bizarre step when the mix went out after the watershed, it felt very backward.
KJ: There is a place for continuous mixes to be played on air but on the whole I would rather learn something from what I’m hearing - not just learning if I like it or not. I want to know who it’s by? what’s their story? Radio taught me that music goes much further than just what you’re hearing. As a producer it’s great having your tracks played on air but it’s always better when somebody tells the listeners who it’s by and when it’s out etc. Radio without any dialogue is kinda like looking at the pictures of a comic but not reading the story, you miss out on half the enjoyment.  
MR:  I found that hosting the Mr Elephant Radio show (on Rhubarb Radio and elsewhere) as a whole mix with hosting presented different limitations. The goals were to share and promote the best new music while trying to represent where I was as a DJ. I found that the two don’t always mix. Hosting new records and connecting with the audience can take away from the mix itself. 
So my idea is to create a Dj Narrative Podcast. It launched last week. Among other things like tutorials and free tracks, it aims to share a well crafted mix but with narrative and no hosting, but labelled as either down tempo (or "Coming Home") and up-tempo / dance floor (or "Going Out"). I think  hosting isn’t something that people would really want to hear more than once. It's not really suitable for listening with friends, say. So I’m hoping the narrative side and the labels will help address the different times that people listen. I like the idea of putting it out as a newsletter & podcast so there can be more related content… but I’ve only just started. 
And that’s one of the critical areas. How do you, as a host, explain an emotion, a gut feeling, a burst of energy and inspiration, without ripping the guts out of it? My thanks to Marc Reck, Karl Jones, Sam Redmore and DJ Switch for their considered and patient answers to my questioning. There’s a lot more we all talked about, and some of it may emerge in a future post.

Now, here’s some more work from each DJ…

DJ Switch

"Generally when I put together routines, they start with an idea which a) excites me and b) I feel I can get a lot out of it. Here’s an example: 
The idea was to scratch the original sample on top of the final track. The audience are grooving when the beat drops, and I'm grooving by making a new chorus riff on top of it. It's melodic, and even if you're not sure what I'm doing, you still recognise the remix element."
There's a lot more at the DJ Switch website, including gig details.

Sam Redmore
Here’s Chris Tye's recent single 'New York City Rain' as remixed by Sam:
And here's a link to Sam's breathtaking SoundCloud pages.
And here's the Freestyle blog which carries gig details and more.

Karl Jones
Here's the Brotherhood of Filth SoundCloud pages

Marc Reck
Marc's  website  is here, including gig details and a great blog section


Monday, 5 March 2012

Artisan and Elephant House studios

In between laptop kids and big budget operations, music studios are diversifying to survive. Two local operators,  doubling as production houses, 'fess up... 
The Elephant House main room 
Things have changed out of all recognition in recording studios ... and especially over over the past decade. Stupidly cheap kit, free audio software and web distribution offer a great deal to musicians. We’re now seeing brilliant work emerging, some of it completely (and rightly) in the hands of the people who create it. It’s not easy, of course: doing all the marketing as well as all the creative work is hard.  But that's for another post.

Our changing times have led to the near-demise of the old-school recording studio. In some ways, it’s no bad thing. The big studios were preposterously expensive. But look around your town, and you'll find some inspiring surprises.

Back in the day, big studios let you put 70 people in a room and create big stuff. Once there were several in the region.  Now there’s only a few left in the country, and they survive on specialised work.
“Of course, everything’s changing now” explains Jon Cotton of Artisan Audio, “because anyone who’s got a laptop or an iPad has a recording studio in their hand.”
 Artisan, in Moseley, has built its reputation on fine albums from Scott Matthews, and through their production company Poseidon, the breathtaking work of Jo Hamilton, of which more below. Other work includes the soundtrack to the feature film 'Nativity' and TV soundtrack work. Like many local studios, they developed from small beginnings and ultimately (and ironically from a 21st century perspective) expanded through record company financing, when Jon’s band of the time, Gramophone, signed a deal with EMI Music.

Do you find that there is pressure to always have the latest wizzbang kit? And isn’t that still very expensive at the professional level?
“Well, we started off that way. Throughout the 90s it was a big selling point – we were (I think) the first studio in the Midlands to have Soundtools, the predecessor to Protools.  Nowadays it's less about the technology, more about having fantastic mics, preamps and outboard.  We’ve got used to hi-tec everywhere, even on our phones. But there came a point where we stopped pushing that aspect, because we, and our clients, pretty much take it for granted."
For a peek into one of Artisan's main rooms, with Jo Hamilton and band, take a look at this clip: 
"It’s more important to us nowadays that we can work quickly and reliably." Jon continues. "We’ve got all the latest and greatest tools for mixing, but past a certain point of sound quality, capturing the performance reliably is more important than chasing high-technology – it doesn't make the music better and sometimes just gets in the way.”
Home studio recording has changed things, and as we’ve said, it’s made life better in lots of ways. But I think a great hole has been hacked out of the studio world by new tech. And the big studios have taken the biggest hits.
“The only way you can get enough business to sustain the massive floor area you need for a big studio is to specialise. So things like orchestral recordings become your bread and butter. That’s happened in London. There are three studios – Angel, Air and Abbey Road, who get almost all the orchestral work, and most of the TV and Film business too. If you go there and do rock'n'roll, great… but that’s almost a sideline now.”
So where does that leave you – aren’t you being squeezed from both sides?
“We’re still offering the studio commercially, and it’s still very busy, a mix of external and Poseidon work.  We have some of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project coming in on Saturday.” 
Glad to hear it. What about your own creative projects?
"Our focus is Poseidon - our production company. A collection of really good people who really know how to use our tools.  Gear was always the bottleneck. You could only afford a posh studio if you had a record deal, so you could pay 120 grand for 8 weeks week in a top studio. There’s no longer a bottleneck there. So what it boils down to is ideas and craftsmanship; it's what you do with it. Anybody can afford the gear to make an amazing-sounding record. Gotye is a classic example. He’s just got 70 million views on YouTube, and he made that record with basically no gear in a shed.”

Brian.....                           ....and Rob
Over at Elephant House in Balsall Heath, Brian Nordhoff will see your Gotye and raise you… Flux Pavilion
"A 22-year old kid from a high-rise in Birmingham. Last year he did three tracks for, and he’s done tracks for Jay-Z and Kanye WestSnoop Dogg phoned him up and he got annoyed… he’s ended up doing a track for Snoop Dogg!  It all started because Jay-Z heard his track on YouTube, and wanted to use it as a backing track. So they tracked him down, and used it. Then heard it, and got in touch…"
And did you have any connection?
“It was part of Earl Falconer’s label, Circus, so I came to know about it through that. I just find it really encouraging.” 
One of Earl Falconer’s other non-UB40 projects is Dub Specimen. Their album was largely recorded at Elephant House, and it’s a beautiful album. It’s a taste of what Brian and Rob Cimarosti have worked on. Here's a track from the CD.
Elephant House is one of two production  houses in the area (the other is Friendly Fire Music), specialising in urban, dub and dancehall, and we’ll look at this in detail in a future post. But the studio Brian Nordhoff and Rob Cimarosti work from covers all sorts of different work. The afternoon I dropped by, DC Fontana were adding the final touches to parallel vocals for a new single: one version in Spanish and the other in English. 

Their studio started in the same way as Artisan.
“The Elephant House started because we had a band called Electribe 101. We thought it was dubby electronic stuff, but we were hailed as the forefront of British House. So we were on the front pages of NME, and we got enough money to build this place. We were initially signed to Phonogram, but we walked away…  insane record company politics. We’ve been independent ever since, apart from when we were signed to a company which was taken over by Sony… and the politics began all over again.  We were told the chief exec didn’t feel the album… so they were going to kill it.”
For a revealing account of their record company struggles, go to this page on the G-Corp website. G-Corp? That’s Groove Corporation, the band Electribe 101 morphed into. 
“It was a shame because the album was beautiful. It really annoyed me. We were showcasing six or seven local artists on it. It was everyone’s lives. It was a really nice piece of work. “
I'll second that. Here's a track to savour.
Co-Operation - Showtime
Licking their wounds, production work arrived…
“We built a reputation – ended up being asked to mix or produce some of the heroes of our youth, like Dillinger, Luciano, Big Youth…even Ennio MorriconeSly and Robbie. A lot of our heroes. I mixed Labour of Love for UB40”
Since then, you’ve just been beavering away in this studio? For over 20 years?
“Yes. We’ve never been great fans of fame, to be honest. For us it’s all about the music.  If we can make the music we want to make and pay the rent, great.” 
Are you paying the rent at the moment?
“Just about. But it’s very hard work. We used to sell a lot of records independently, but nobody buys records anymore, they just download them. A recent single,… we just had a look at two torrent sites. It had had 60,000 downloads. Which, if we’d been paid for, we’d have been very happy about. So we’re having to find new ways of doing things.” 
How can you deal with that?
“I don't know that you can. If a track is out there, it can travel. There’s two groups of people. There are some that don’t think too hard. They think everything should be free. But, seriously, tell that to your plumber the next time he comes round. We're going to lose a bed of independent music, because people can’t afford to make it anymore." 
But you give your music away for free when you dish out promo copies, you do free gigs for exposure… When are you in a position to control that, and get paid for your work?
“Live music. We go out with the Overproof Sound System, we do a lot of live work. I suppose as your reputation builds up, so you can command a decent fee.”
And sell your CDs at the gigs?
“Even that’s gone. You’re better off selling an mp3 bracelet.” 
Music’s become commoditised...
“Yeah. I realised the other day…a friend’s son came to me the other day and said I’ve got 8000 tracks on my iPod. So I said ‘What have you got?’ and he said 'Oh, a bit of this, and a bit of that, you know’… But nothing jumped out to him. It totally destroys the importance of music. You’re judged by the quantity of what you have, not by the quality."   
You’ve seen changes. You were one of the first white guys to get involved in reggae production. And that’s got really big in Birmingham. It’s really open and experimental.
“We’ve got a lot going on, without a doubt. But there's always been that black/white cultural mix. Look at Alex Sadkin, who produced Bob Marley and Black Uhuru. Or UB40. Or the house bands at Stax, Motown and Muscle Shoals. I grew up bathed in Reggae!” 
Who else have you got coming in to the Elephant House right now?
"Well at the moment we've put it all on one side - for us! We've got an Overprooof Sound System album to finish, we've got a new G-Corp album that's well overdue, that's got to get done. So unless people are begging us to get in here, we're going to try and get the next few months to ourselves. That's why we built this place originally - it was to do it for ourselves. But both Fontanas are back in at the moment - we've got Fontana Instincts (Folk./Blues/Psychedelia, from Derby), and DC Fontana..." 
All of which tells me that - sometime this summer -  I'll be posting about a lot of new work, when it sees the light of day. Can't wait. 

Artisan Audio/Poseidon
Elephant House/G-Corp