Sunday, 23 June 2013

Tom Martin: letting music breathe at the Tower of Song

A tiny venue in a south Birmingham suburb that does right by its musicians.

Last week’s post on crowd etiquette and the need to keep schtum and give some space for performers kicked up a nice ruckus - you can follow some of what happened in the comments section for that post; Facebook and Twitter also saw action. 

Understandably, most people agreed with me. But some said musicians need to be able to command the stage, and if they do, the audience will play along and make nice. And that’s not a bad point either. However, that only works if you’re that kind of battle-hardened musician. The big question then is: how do you get to that stage in you career? And do you even want to? Some people are all about the song and the music. And everyone has to start somewhere. 

One of the musicians I cited last week holds passionately that musicians need the chance to develop their craft on a live stage, and that the audience absolutely must play its part too.

Tom Martin, a grizzled veteran with a fabulous guitar style, who I first interviewed maybe 35 years ago, has just completed shooting a further TV programme at his venue, the Tower Of SongThis video is now going to edit stage, and will join several other video presentations shot at and about the venue. 

This is a small venue - squeeze 70 people in and it gets steamy - with a level performance area for a stage, and a startlingly good, clean PA system which is there to make the musicians sound good, and not to deafen you. The walls are decorated with portraits of musicians. Not posters or pictures: these are paintings, directly on the venue walls. It's a very active, live commercial venue, offering a wide selection of live music, but with a very specific creative and idealogical thrust. Tom set the venue up nearly seven years ago. 
"Mainly I started this because I’ve been a musician all my life, and I could see a lot of gigs turning into Karaoke. So I thought I’d like to have a go at running a venue just for music, to see what happens. This was a derelict building; I think it was a tool hiring place, but it had been derelict for about twelve years. You can see a documentary about it on the website."
So there’s a huge, much larger than life, picture of Robert Johnson on the outside wall – which is more than a little incongruous in a place like Cotteridge, a sleepy south Birmingham suburb. How did that come about?
There’s a friend of mine, Mike Browning, a local artist. He did that. He has a key to the place. And he comes in and paints. I don’t know what he’s going to do. I don’t tell him what to do, I don’t like telling another artist what they should do, so it’s a surprise to come in and see who he’s added. 
What about the Tower of Song Virtual TV series that’s now going up on your website?
It’s just using the technology that’s there. Kenny and Sue, who run Qwoonsweird productions – they wanted to do some videos with me. I used them to send to venues in the states, which helped to set up a little tour. 
Very much self-help promotion?
It’s the way it’s gone. Lots of great musicians are just playing for tips in the jar. That’s the reality of it. The music business, like so much else, is damaged because it’s so corporate, soulless and sterile.  But the music itself is not damaged. We have a wave of young players who come here, and it’s a bit like the music of my youth. 
I’ve always felt that music – the stuff that changes our lives, that validates us – is there almost as a by-product of a money-making process, generally the record industry, but now the web as well. But that leads me on to ask you how this place - run with very idealistic principles – works. Does it pay its way? 
Yes, it pays its way. It’s my son’s livelihood now. He runs the place, which frees me up to gig a lot more now. So now I’m more involved in the creative side and technological side of things. 
That includes that rather nice clean PA, which you seem to know inside out? I really enjoyed watching you make tweaking and adjusting as CafĂ© Culture sound checked.  
It’s a great PA, and people are starting to trust it more. Some people like to bring their own, of course. But generally, people are using it, and the recordings we can get from it are of CD quality.
Most nights are free, and other nights there’s a nominal charge. How does that work for the performers you book?. 
It varies. The night you came here last, it was free entry, and we passed the hat around. 
The weekly Rea River Roots Folk nights on Wednesdays has the first half set aside and open to aspiring players. They sign up for 2 songs, before the booked artist or group of the night. The booked artist plays for whatever is collected in the hat. That’s usually £50 to £60 or thereabouts, topped up as required. Whatever’s collected all goes to the booked artist. I often open up the night with a couple of songs so there’s less pressure on a new artist to warm up the crowd.
It’s the same on Thursdays with Crossroads Blues, though the collection on this night is much more along the ethos of ‘support the scene and the scene supports you’. On Friday and Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays, there’s a door charge unless the artist prefers to pass the hat. 
You offer that option? 
Yes. There are regular bands who can fill the place with 60 or 70 people who will pay £5 each. This goes to them. It works for occasional higher profile artists who charge whatever they feel their audience finds acceptable. Nick Harper asks for £12, and Steve Philips of the Notting Hillbillies the same.  
That’s an interesting approach – asking the Artist to specify how much they are worth.
I tell bands/artists to only take a Friday or Saturday slot if they feel strong enough to draw enough paying people to make the gig work.
And what’s next, when you’re not touring?
We’ll continue to develop the video and tv programmes -  and we’ll have a mini Tower Of Song festival in August.

Tower Of Song
Tom Martin's website

See also
June 2013 You! You there in the crowd! Shut up!

By the way, don’t forget the free offer that came with this post: 
If you want a copy of the artwork (ahem) that I cooked up for the post, it’s yours for the asking. Message me through this blog.

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Phil said...

I have only been to the venue a few times (I live in Bewdley)but I enjoyed the music and the venue and the atmosphere and the decor every time ~ and wished it was in walking distance from home!I love what you are doing and hope it will develop and prosper. Local radio never enters my mind, even though I work from home and could listen to it a lot.I would play online video like your pilot though!

Sarah Birks said...

The Tower Of Song is a brilliant venue and I have played there a number of times as it is my nearest music club. I live on the banks of the River Rea and so wanted to play at the Rea River Roots Club..a bit symbolic for me.
Sarah www.cinderprincess.webs