Friday, 30 October 2015

Our local music ecosystem is brutal. That can actually be a good thing.

Studies in PR: deals and favours over there; music supported right here. 

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread. Honest.
This past month, several pretty great music releases came out, all from local acts. Hannah Brown premiered her new single two days ago at Birmingham's Ort cafe. Chris Cleverley plays there there next week to launch his new album. Boat To Row are now dishing vinyl copies of their first album, with a celebratory hometown gig show soon, and Victories at Sea, fresh from an All Year's Leaving dj set, have come up with a gorgeously packaged first album, also marked with a gig. Last week's post covered Kim Lowings and the Greenwood's new album. 

All are local to the West Midlands; all are self-releasing, fiercely proud of their work, and all are engagingly modest. For all them, it's about the work and the creativity. They've all run through brick walls to get to this point. 

I'm sure that an awful lot of established artists feel the same.  But there's a critical difference. Once a national promotion machine kicks in, they're just... product. 

A poor thing, but mine own? You've got to be joking.

A brilliant T-shirt. It's at
Modesty and realism doesn't compute when there's stuff to sell, preferably by elbowing everything else out of the way. Very few mainstream signed musicians can control how they're pitched.

It's PR and awareness. Nothing is left to chance. Not even the awkward fact that possible buyers, fans or interested listeners - you and me - might have an opinion on the matter. Sod your opinion; buy the damn record. 

That's why big releases are saved up for right now, exactly at the point when people scratch around for Christmas presents. Now is when there's money floating around ready to go into downloads, iTunes gift vouchers and hard copy CD and vinyl. It's going to get spent... on something. 

And once the money's in, it's job done. Who cares if it's any good at that point? Only the person who's paid for it. The artistic merit of a musical work and its commercial impact are two different things, forever separate. In fact, they live in parallel universes.

Staring at the big boys

Just for comparison, let's put another record release alongside the ones mentioned above...Adele's single 'Hello'. In its first week on release, it predictably soared straight to the top spot in the UK chart. Now, Adele is a remarkable and talented person. She has great pipes and an admirable approach to her work that clearly keeps her sane. She can really nail a song when she wants to, and she does without the help of hit-makers, on hire to the highest bidder. On that front, a better example, certainly a far easier target, would be anything off the X Factor production line. 

That said, the PR for Adele's new song has been thunderously unavoidable. Perhaps it stood out because she keeps a low profile, Maybe that was the story. Lord knows, journos these days have little enough time to dig out fresh stories while they're chasing those click counts.  

The PR people did their job. Last week, the song was received with reverential awe at press and radio. She scored gurgling primetime breakfast meet-and-fawns at both Radios 1 and 2. This was reported breathlessly in mainstream press and then, tweeted, instagrammed, YouTubed and facebooked to death. All this seems out of proportion to the actual song: the pitch bore no relation to the vital artist-audience relationship. I'll come back to that. 

Sup with the devil? Get that long spoon out

Jump? How high, exactly?
It was quite easy for the PR machine to get Adele her coverage. They have the whip hand. Offend a powerful record company by not playing ball, and you risk being frozen out. Those vital first plays might go to a rival. Those exclusive interviews might be denied you; look at how Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson threw a massive sulk, and refused to be interviewed by the BBC, because he didn't like the tone of their questions.

It's how media PR operates, and it works. We get a never-ending stream of uncritical praise for the latest media sensation.  

But that's a weakness too. If a promise is not fulfilled, the end-result is dispassionate audiences who don't engage. Selling a one-off is a start point; long term loyalty and sales depend on engagement. Just ask yourself how many times have you come away unimpressed from a heavily hyped movie. 

There's only so far you can hard-sell something that doesn't ultimately deliver. This matters with music more than almost anything else: music arouses passion and commitment. Just ask a 40-something Oasis fan, or a 60-something Sabs fan.

I'm pretty sure Adele's PR people worried that Sam Smith's Bond song would get too much attention. So they went in with all guns blazing. I don't think they needed to: Adele already has a loyal audience. And that brings me back to... 

The vital relationship

This matters: Artist, Performance, Audience
There's a critical part of the creative relationship that mainstream PR ignores in its haste to grab market share. 

The artist talks to the audience; they respond. 

It's not about the medium, it's about what's carried on that medium. Mainstream media has forgotten all about that.  

Maybe that's why I find the local music scene so refreshing. The relationship between artist and audience is there for all to see. The energy and the creativity is there; the quality is certainly there. The technical ability to make brilliant music is there, now more than ever. We have venues that are run by people who actually care about their local scene. And bands can now pitch themselves directly on social media. In those pitches, I absolutely do not see the kind of bragging and bombast that is deployed by big gun PR machines for their major clients.  

Our local music ecosystem? It's a killer. That's a good thing.

Why? Local music scenes have a direct and brutal way of sorting the wheat from the chaff. If you make the effort, if your passion carries you forward, if you can stand the grind of setting up your own gigs and playing to half-interested audiences at open mic nights or in support of a better-known outfit, if you can drag yourself to work the day after a gig on two hours sleep and lousy food at 1am, and if your stuff is good... you've got a chance.

That's why we see very few over the top press releases from local bands and artists. They would simply look ridiculous. Our acts have to focus on survival and creativity in equal measure. All the while, they're in the wars, getting slammed. They certainly don't have the resources to hire witless hype merchants who might actually damage their prospects. 

And we, the local audience, benefit from that unavoidably enforced honesty.  

More music business posts on Radio To Go


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