Friday, 27 July 2012

Ricky Cool - he's got a harp and he knows how to use it.

45 years in the business, with a collaborator list as long as several gorilla arms, and still playing the the music he absolutely loves, ladeez and gennelmen, Mister Ricky Cool steps mike-side...

The thing about long-standing musicians who love what they do is - they simply don’t stop. They keep on coming, experimenting and working. That means they work with a lot of people over the years. While putting this blog piece together, I couldn't think of many posts where I’ve put more links up to more people than this one. Ricky Cool is just... so... connected.  

It’s even a family thing: he is uncle to two Toy Hearts. and if you played Six Degrees Of Separation with him, you'd wind up with Bob Wills, Robert Plant and Richard Nixon - one of the most catastrophically unpopular and inept presidents in US history - in the mix

This piece started as a side-bar to the March piece on Toy Hearts, given the family connection. But there's far too much to talk about to even consider boiling Ricky down to a mere paragraph....

Everyone calls you Trix….? 
It started when I left school. It was in 1968, when Richard Nixon was running against Hubert Humphrey for the US presidency. He was known as Tricky Dicky, and I’m Richard, so, I became Tricky Dicky, and then Trick. I was playing on my own then, in folk clubs. Someone misheard it… and it’s been Trix ever since.
What sort of stuff were you playing then, and where?
I was doing blues and folk. The regular haunt was the Royal Oak at Quinton. That was run by Dave Cartwright, Bill Caddick and Mike Billington. I first met Mick Howson at the Royal Oak , who became one of the Icebergs (and of course is hurdy-gurdy man for the Destroyers), and Alec Angel, who played bass in the Icebergs. They had a little trio doing Bert Jansch and John Renbourn stuff, in the folk clubs. 
Then there was the Lock at Wolverley, the Boat club in Strourport, Ian Cambells’ place in Digbeth, and another one in the centre of town, run by John Swift, Tommy Dempsey and Dave Phillips – a great guitarist and singer. Birmingham was more traditional, but at the Royal Oak, you had a lot of singer-songwriters, great ragtime guitarists… you could hear great acoustic blues, great acoustic folk…  
That’s still a stretch from there to Western Swing and the Icebergs, let alone the Hoola Boola Boys…
But it was a great grounding. Blues has always been my first love; I latched onto that as a teenager. I got into acoustic blues. 
I ended up running Sunday nights at the Fighting Cocks in Moseley. And that’s when I first met Stuart Johnson, (now playing with Toy Hearts), around 1971. I met him mainly because I’d got a National Steel guitar! Mick (Howson) had a little band by then, and asked me to come down and have a knock; I did.- I don’t think I was that impressive, but we ended up as a band called Brickhouse Brick. We did support for acts like Barclay James Harvest… 
And in 1976, we decided to get a different band together, to do Rock and Roll and things like that. We’d seen Chilli Willi and The Red Hot Peppers, and we thought they were great - the first time I saw anyone doing Louis Jordan. Another big thing: Mick and myself both loved Commander Cody (and His Lost Planet Airmen) and Asleep At The Wheel. So the band was initially called Tricky Dicky and the Wildcats. But because Marty Wilde’s band had been the Wildcats, we had to drop that…And the link was through Steve Gibbons, who had released 'Johnny Cool' (see the YouTube vid here ).
So I then became Ricky Cool, and the band became the Icebergs.
Ricky Cool and the Icebergs - Wait a Minute Baby, 'Bouncing In The Red', 1979. 

But you dropped right into a character: Ricky Cool took on a life of his own. I remember interviewing you in character.
You can’t have a name like that without a character… I had a gold lame suit, drapes, brothel creepers. One of us went down to the Barrel Organ in Digbeth – new landlord, hadn’t a clue what to put on – we bigged up the band, and got a residency: Saturday lunchtime, rehearse all afternoon, and then do Saturday night. A couple of months after starting, people were queuing around the block. The timing was impeccable. Everything we did dropped into place. A secretary at the BBC came down on a Saturday night when the place was heaving. She told her boss; he came down and loved it; and we got a half-hour show on the BBC. We hired out Birmingham Rep, rented it ourselves, and put a gig on there, and turned 200 people away. I can’t imagine how we had the brass neck to do just do it! 
So why didn’t it go further after all that first success?
The problem was: within the band, there was no songwriting going on. In the end, Mick and I stated writing songs. Lots of people really liked us – Mike Vernon wound up recording us – but people couldn’t see beyond the idea of a little rock and roll band. 
You’d have wound up being pushed into a Showaddywaddy mould…
… or Crazy Cavan, that type of thing. So it kind of plateau’d. We did get a lot of exposure – we toured supporting Darts. Jerry Dammers was quite interested in having us on the 2-tone label, but we couldn’t see it. I can see why now. 
And when you plateau…
There’s an inevitable decline; people became disillusioned. So eventually I hooked up with Jon Hickman and Kevin O’Neill (from Little Acre), and we became Ricky Cool and the Rialtos. Bob Wilson was in the band for a time, and Andy Silvester, who had been in Chicken Shack. I was living in Kidderminster then, which is how I had the Black Country connections with Little Acre… and in 1981 Robert Plant came to see us play. I was doing a screaming rock star parody at the time, and Robert really liked it – in fact gave me a pair of his platform shoes. Three sizes too big, but never mind!
It was not long after that that he put forward the idea of the Rialtos joining together with him and his guitarist, Robbie Blunt. Robert wanted to lose our guitarist, but I wasn’t happy with that – which was a bit pig-headed of me, when you think what might have been. But Robert was OK, and when we eventually did the Honeydrippers, it was with Robbie. 
But in the end, didn’t that stretch the Rialtos a bit too far?
It did. When that came to an end, I took stock… and then I set up another band to do Chicago blues, with Andy Silvester. Me on harmonica, Andy on guitar, we’d get a double bass player, a piano player, a drummer who could swing. It was 1982, but there was nothing like that around. It took a long time. Eventually, we formed the Big Town Playboys with Mike Sanchez and Ian Jennings. The goal was to form the best Rhythm and Blues band in the UK. This wasn’t Birmingham based – we were in Bewdley, Stourport and Kidderminster. So we started a residency in the cellar bar of a pub in Bewdley, and it got packed, just like at the Barrel Organ. That led to the Dublin Castle in London. The band lasted a long time – I didn’t, though. I left in 86. By then, I was teaching, raising a family, and trying to run a band…. 
Where did that leave you? 20 years of effort by now, after all…
After a couple of years, I went back to Western Swing, big time. Ricky Cool and the Texas Turkeys. Me, Stuart (again), Howard Gregory on guitar and violin, Howard Smith on drums – and a 19 year old Steve Clayton. It was a great band. We ran to the beginning of the 90s, before Stuart went off to do his own projects. So I carried on, with the goal of being the best Western Swing band there could be. I recruited BJ Cole, Maurice Chevalier on guitar, Bobby Valentino, Chris Haig – Ricky Cool and the Western Swing All-Stars. They were all London guys; in fact we only worked in London. I got them down to Birmingham, once, on a foggy evening to play the Red Lion. I was booking the gigs, setting up the rehearsals, all that, and they were all big time London session players. The logistics were impossible. After a while it was exhausting, and I rather fancied the idea of going back to being a jobbing musician. 
And the Hoola Boola Boys?
I’ve been working with one form or another of the Hoola Boys for ages. The band was an idea, a name for a band, run by Martin Price, the bass player. There was a Mike Sanchez and the Hoola Boola Boys, a Big Man Clayton and the Hoola Boola Boys… so eventually when I was asked to join to join, it became Ricky Cool and the Hoola Boola Boys. It was a ready-made band, which meant less pressure. And that’s how that started. 
In between, I played with a Soul Band, called Soul Train, and that led on to a reggae band, called Top Ranking…We went for the Studio One sound; we did ska, rock steady…we found a fantastic singer from Kingston, called George We did a gig at the Drum which blew the roof off. I’d build him up – ‘Ladies and Gentlemen – all the way from Kingston, Jamaica, Mister George Nightingale!” - and he’d come walking on with a huge smile.
I’d never come across this before, but we’d start a number off, and somebody from the audience would jump up and shout “Rewind! Rewind! Rewind!” And the drummer would do a fill and you’d start the number again. And if they really liked it you’d wind up starting the number three or four times. We had a lot of fun… but my god the arguments! It’s like dominoes – open warfare! 
So eventually, I was ready to front a band again – and when Martin called a few years back, it was an obvious thing. Two saxes, piano, rhythm and lead guitar, drums, bass. Including David, the guitarist from Top Ranking, who is terrific. 
 Where does the band play now? 
 Most of the gigs are around Shropshire, and some festivals, the Jam House, and so on… But gigs are had to come by. It’s all about connections. 
Well, judging by the gigs list on your siteit’s not all bad. Who’s managing?
Martin does that. 
Which leads me to ask this: after all this time – well over 40 years - you’ve worked as a pure front man, as a band leader, as music director, manager, agent, booking the gigs… you’ve done the lot, working both full time and part time. At some point, as a band grows – and you’ve seen this more than most – you have to make the decision to either carry on handling everything by yourself, or to delegate – especially with all the web work everyone has to do these days. What’s your take?
Well, I think Toy Hearts are a good example of how to negotiate all those areas. From the time where Stuart has been booking the gigs, driving the van, getting to the gig, setting up the PA with Hannah and Sophie… it’s all back-breaking work, with Hannah and Sophie doing the web stuff. They’ve taken that on, and the band has continued to grow and develop. Now they’ve got an agency involved, and that’s taken a lot of load off – the gigs are coming their way now. There comes a time when that is essential. But it’s different for each band.
Ricky Cool and the Hoola Boola boys website
Gigs list
Ricky's series of Harmonica YouTube clips starts here

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Songwriters Cafe 2012 season: feeding the five hundred.

Behind the scenes at Songwriters's Cafe as it readies for the final live stream of the season. The penultimate aubergines have, indeed, been deep-fried.

Thursday 26th July saw the last in the 2012 summer season of live streamed performances at Songwriters Café. This is their third season, and it's been great. You owe it to yourself to catch the last stream this Thursday - see the notes at the bottom of the post for more - if you haven't listened yet. I’ve been working there on a documentary project, and doing continuity on the online stream, playing some of the fantastic performances from previous weeks; it’s been a blast. 

We’ve heard some fabulous music, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But it’s also a lot of work, especially for hosts and organisers Paul Murphy and Valeria Rispo. And over the course of the season, Paul, especially, develops an unusual intimacy with, er, aubergines.

It starts on the day before the event, when Paul and Valeria work out some numbers. How many musicians? Are they bringing friends, family or partners? How many helpers are coming on the night? What sort of margin for error?  How’s the salad patch looking? OK for beer, wine, juice, tea and coffee? Is anyone lactose or gluten-intolerant? Then it’s off for aubergines and other supplies for Thursday night’s communal meal.

Paul on a roll
On Thursday, work starts early. Bread dough is mixed, kneaded and left to prove. It’s a 50/50 mix of wholemeal and strong white flour, and that’s Paul’s responsibility. So is the main course, Paul’s Aubergine Parmesan. Aubergines (or eggplants, or melanzana), are breaded, egged, and deep-fried – note that some purists insist on shallow-frying, but phooey to that - and layered with Valeria’s genuine home made Napoletana tomato sauce, and parmesan, ready for the oven. 

By six o’clock, Paul has knocked the dough back for the last time, and formed it into rolls, also ready to share space in the oven.

It’s always the same meal. Paul cooks, Valeria fixes the salads. It’s a key part of the evening; the bonding event around which the night pivots. It is hugely appreciated, and is becoming famous in its own right. A three month season of live shows means 13 weeks of aubergine parmigiana, salad and bread rolls. And as the season progresses, Paul’s dish just gets… better and better.

CDs and Teas
The meal is central to Songwriter’s Café evenings. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, your typical gig. When the artists arrive, they are greeted, made welcome, and in good time before the live show, fed a very decent meal. 

It’s late afternoon now. The night’s helpers start to arrive, to man the door, make tea and coffee, dispense drinks, sell artists’ merchandise, light the fires, sweep out and tidy up the performance area, fix any last minute snags in the building, and help with the artists.

From half past six, artists and friends drift in. It’s time for greetings, hugs, catch-ups and gossip, time to settle people down in the green room area, to show them around the performance space, to let them get a feel for the acoustics, to make (more) cups of tea for everyone. Paul and Valeria are working flat out. 

I’m privileged to be among the helpers. This is the point where I record interviews with the artists about their ways to write songs. We do that early, to get that part of the night’s work wrapped up before suppertime.

Now it’s 7.30. Food and drink flows out of the kitchen, ferried up to the decking area outside the Cafe. Everybody settles down around two huge tables for a communal meal. Musicians and helpers, who might never otherwise meet, talk, exchange ideas, and break bread together before the night’s concert. 

The fires are burning brightly now, and the evening gently shifts into its relaxed and magical performance mode. Around the table, ideas and thoughts flow back and forth. Paul is from Belfast, and Valeria from Naples, and neither of them has lost their accent – but that’s just the start. The whole night is a melting-pot of accents and cultures, with stories and ideas from different places and lives, to share and inspire.

Supper over, there’s one last burst of activity, clearing the tables after supper, back down to the kitchen where helpers wash up. Outside, we’re setting up the bar and lighting tealights. The Songwriters Café is ready to open its doors to its invited audience. 

Streaming and chatting online 
At 8.30, Paul is meeting and greeting, Valeria is rigging up the mixing desk, and putting the stream up. I’m hooking my kit up the mixer, ready for web continuity duties as we warm up to go live. 

It’s 8.45. The show starts at 9. We’re going online…

This is a slightly modified version of a guest post I wrote for Chris Bouton’s brilliant and witty A Dash Of Culture blog, which looks at the role of food and its place in our culture. It’s a great blog, and I heartily recommend it.

The Songwriter's Cafe 
Paul Murphy's solo work can be found here
See also Paul's work with the inimitable Destroyers

Read Chris Bouton's A Dash Of Culture blog
Other live music events which provide supportive platforms for new musicians include
   The Free Love Club,
at the Old Print Works,
   and Muso Monday at the Station, King's Heath, Birmingham

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Nightingales: sharper, stroppier, older, wiser. Tips and tricks from a survivor

36 years of philosophy, wit, sarcasm and survival: Rob Lloyd shares thoughts on longevity, learning, and sticking to your guns. 
Rob Lloyd nearly smiles. He's a pussycat really
I met Rob Lloyd again, after thirty years or so, at a meeting of the Birmingham Music Network a few years back. We circled each other with pleased fascination, as insect collectors stumbling on rare specimens: a 50 year old working punk muso, and a 20th century rock jock, both now largely seen as endangered, if not extinct, species. I don’t know about Rob, but I get that insect collector thing a lot these days. 

Rob Lloyd has been kicking up an almighty racket since the late 70s. Time has not knocked any of the rough edges off, but there is an increasing depth and wit to his writing, belying the splendid bared-teeth rattle, pulse and crash of his music, which has been a constant. 

He's played in just two bands, as well as solo: the Prefects back in the day, and the Nightingales now. That’s close on four decades of uncompromising music; lots of roadwork, and regular ecstatic reviews along the way.  He’s still hungry. Since that re-acquaintance, we’ve chatted on and off, and this conversation largely took place around the release of the latest Nightingales album, No Love Lost, on Cooking Vinyl.

If you could meet up with the young Rob Lloyd in the Prefects, your first seriously promising band incarnation, what would you say to him? And would he give you the time of day?  
In truth, the Prefects were never seriously promising. This is a hard question - although I have changed in lots of ways over the years, there are some things I still have in common with that young Robert Lloyd, for better or worse. But it is, obviously, hypothetical: that young chap was pretty unconsidered and inconsiderate, and, I think, arrogant without cause. I reckon he almost certainly wouldn't have taken any notice of - and certainly would have shown disrespect towards - a fifty year old "I've been around the block" type. But also the bloke I am today would probably not have the time off day for such a snotty nosed, big headed no-talent.
Nightingales now. Rob on the right...
Forced to say something to the young prick... I'd say: “Your group is shit, don't think you're any cop just because John Peel and Paul Morley say so. Stop posing about and work harder. Be more adventurous and don't copy other artists, and certainly don't align yourself with any 'movement'. Be serious or don't bother - but also have fun. Ignore both born again rockers (Pete Townsend et al) and modern puritans and do try out of few drugs and have lots of sex - don't be shy. 
You’ve notably done South By Southwest. Was it worth it? How can you make things like this work for you?  
SXSW is a heap of fun and with good planning, especially for new bands, can maybe open a few doors, though I do think that the hyped bands are pretty much hyped before they get there. Austin is a top town, and the SXSW organisers seem enthused and very competent - UK take note - and I would certainly say that any invitees should give it a whirl if they can.
But, and it's a big but, it is an exceedingly expensive thing to do. These days, you definitely need a visa, and to do things legally. That will set you back a couple of grand before flights, accommodation and such. Remuneration is minimal; indeed it'd non-existent if you choose to have SXSW wristbands in lieu. So unless you are super flush or have rich parents and/or a very helpful manager or label, you will need to find funding, or it will be near impossible to make it happen.
The Nightingales were invited again this year but - despite what I thought was a top notch application and proposal - we were turned down by PRS Music Abroad and a couple of other funding sources which made it impossible to carry off, much to our disappointment, and in spite of offers of other U.S shows.  Thankfully it sounds like we will be re-invited next year & we can plan for this well in advance. That means booking a whole tour, coinciding a new album, sorting some funding - but for a lot of artists I guess it would involve getting in to a mass of debt. Is it worth it? That's up to the individual act, and what they think or hope they can achieve. I have no definitive advice.  
The Nightingales - Mutton To Lamb from 'No Love Lost', issued 2012

You’ve had oodles of support from 6music over the years. Granted, in the early days when they had smaller audiences, that might not have meant all that much. Are you noticing anything now they’ve got a million plus listeners?  
I find radio play and press reviews very difficult to quantify. Obviously it means more people get to hear the music or read the group's name, and consequently learn that we are out there and doing stuff. But does it influence sales, etc? I really don't know. I think our live shows maybe do more for that - Mark Sampson's Iron Man mail order store apparently always sells Nightingales gear when we play live: we play Edinburgh one night, and he sees sales in that area the very next day. I'd guess that to some degree this happens from radio play also but there is no way of being certain of the extent. You need Jools Holland's 'Later' for absolute guaranteed sales improvement I reckon. I'm sure Seasick Steve, Joanna Newsom and others would agree. 
But obviously it's great to get radio support, because it gets the music heard by new ears and maybe gets folk interested in the records and gigs. Plus the PRS royalty payments helps keep me afloat.  It's been difficult since Peel, with ever decreasing payments until recently. And of course part of the reason to make records is for them to get played on the radio and heard around the World. 
Some people get success by moving from the dangerous edges to the blander centre. I see you as resolutely still at the dangerous edges. How do you see it?  
I just do what I want to do, whatever others think of it. The band does not have any blueprint or agenda. We certainly do not try to be left field; we would definitely like a bigger audience, and wider appreciation, and to actually earn from our music… but we obviously do not do it for the money. Unless that is your prime motivation, I cannot see the point in making art that is anything other than stuff that allows you to express yourself, and that you like yourself. So the Nightingales plough our own furrow, for better or worse, for richer or poorer. Not dangerous but definitely, er, free. 
'No Love Lost' album cover artwork
I do not seek celebrity. If I were to be acknowledged I would like it to be because of the work. The work is everything and lives on beyond a person's lifetime. So I think it should be something that you think is worthwhile, and hopefully it will bring the creator some permutation of appreciation, money & fun; if not, so be it. I do hope, though, that when I die the group has everyone pretending they always dug it and that the band members can make a few quid. It would be totally depressing to think that even in death the group remained a super minority cult thing.
Nightingales - Born Again In Birmingham, from 'Out Of True', issued 2006

You tell stories. What’s more important – the story or the song? The live music or the creating of it?  
For me the lyrics are important… but I'm in a group, and so the songs and live shows are what is most important. The creating gives vent to my ideas and will hopefully be a fun process - but ultimately this is a rock group, so rock rules apply. Maybe the volumes of poetry and such can come later. 
You don’t hesitate to recommend people – you tipped Poppy and The Jezebels – who are way more  ‘commercial’ than the Nightingales. And you’ve seen other bands do well by adjusting their marketing and style. Ever been tempted to do the same thing?  
I had a solo deal with Virgin Records for a while and had a stab at doing some pop music but generally it is not an area that interests me. I’ve already explained where I am at regarding 'changing style' or whatever you want to call it. But I'm not a snob about it - I like Little Richard as much as Beefheart, the Troggs as much as Faust, etc, and if I see or hear something 'commercial' that I think is great I will plug it, no problem. And there is no jealousy, nor any gloating, if and when my 'recommendations' are a hit. As Roy Walker would advise, "Say what you see".
 How do you feel about Spotify, who pay very little for the the music they stream, and pirate downloads and torrent sites, who offer your music to anyone for free? Is there a promotional value?  
I am a bit ignorant about Spotify, indeed the whole web, social networking area. Fliss our drummer does all the 'Gales web 'business'. I guess there is some promotional value with any outlet for your work whether you get paid or not, but obviously getting paid for your work is the accepted ideal whatever the trade.  I know some musicians go ape shit about being ripped off. I have more friends in stand up than in bands, and they are zealous about copyright and payment for jokes. I understand their point of view totally, but I have also never been majorly hung up about bootlegging and piracy myself - Maybe that is one reason why I am always borassic? 
Survival as a working band. You know a lot more now, but times are a lot tougher, is it easier or harder?  
Harder now I think, at least for 'unpopular' bands.
Nightingales website 
Nightingales myspace music page
Rob Lloyd's own record label
Big Print Records 
If you want back catalogue, Rob would love it it you bought it here

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Pushing it forward: The Musgraves and George Barnett And The Ninth Wave take different paths

Two local bands have scored terrific national airplay this year. Here's how they did it. 
The Musgraves (top) and George Barnett
A while back, after a particularly good month of action, I wrote about national airplay figures for local acts. Lots of great bands got BBC network love, including The Musgraves, favoured in daytime shows by Radio 2. More recently, another West Midlands outfit, George Barnett And The Ninth Wave, has scored significant action at Radio 1.

It set me thinking. It would be lovely to be able to draw up some sort of ‘success index’ that suits and reflects the web-based environment bands work in these days: a concrete way to show the creative and economic potential of our local music scene. Some sort of yardstick would be very useful. But, this being the web, there’s no structure, and there are tons of places to track, legal and otherwise. I’m sure something reasonably effective could be cooked up though, and if anyone’s up for developing it with me, let’s talk. 

Back on topic. In the spring, I dug into YouTube views for a while. Strange patterns: some wonderful bands, who I have all the time in the world for, have racked up relatively small numbers, while others, like George Barnett, can boast six-figure views for their material from a standing start this year. 

Clearly some people are doing something right. But what, exactly, are they doing to get these results? I got in touch with Matthew Bennett, who leads  The Musgraves, and manager Eamonn England of Redhouse Management. I also talked with Rich Shakespeare, who has managed George Barnett And The Ninth Wave for less than a year, to see what buttons they pushed. Two different approaches, both with measurable success. Of course The Musgraves are a little further down the road...

Some common threads emerged, despite the fact that both bands operate very differently. There’s evident determination and focus. There’s a sense of detachment and strategy, and an informed take on how the music industry works. And BBC Introducing has played a significant role in both bands’ progress.   

You’ve scored a lot of very gratifying national airplay action recently. How? Did you use a plugger, or just send your stuff in? Or are there any direct contacts you have?
Matthew Bennett, The MusgravesIt’s taken a long time to get to that stage. I suppose the first thing we did, after doing demos, was to get a management company on board. Our drummer sent a CD off to some industry people in London, and after a few weeks we got a call back.
Eamonn England, The Musgraves Management : The Musgraves sent us a demo CD. It was pretty raw but there were some good ideas and we felt that with development we could achieve something together.
A very early 2011 The Musgraves home-produced video
Matthew Bennett: The company got involved and helped us develop our sound and live show and we began to get gigs before going back in to the studio to start work on an album. Via our management we signed our publishing to Imagem Music on the back of the songs we recorded towards our album. Through this deal we were able to fund an EP release and get a marketing team on board. Initially it was a regional focus and we managed to step up a level before going national. Tom Robinson on 6Music gave us some BBC Introducing spot plays and we then began working with a national marketing team and released an independent single through Lookout Mountain Records. It went crazy then!
Rich Shakespeare: We didn’t use a plugger. One has, very kindly, offered to work for us for free, temporarily, but it’s us (myself and George) who spend most of our day researching people to contact, and making that contact. It’s all about linking up with people. Lots of research. I went to a BBC Introducing live night in Hereford
- they had recorded George at a festival in Worcester, and updated Andrew Marston. He put one of George’s songs forward for Radio 1. It went to a committee, and they picked it ahead of many others. We’ve also had a lot of help and advice from a major label, who seem to want to nurture us and show some early commitment.
It’s great to get that sort of reaction. Some people seem to get it effortlessly, while others plug away for years and years. 
MBWe managed to secure a great national radio plugger and Graham Norton got behind us and began playing our single on Radio 2. 
 The video of the single that went national...
We were then invited on to his BBC 1 show, the first unsigned band to do so. Then we got on the Radio 2 playlist. Really happy now it’s all happening. We’re playing bigger shows now, we have more radio play, and more TV is coming together. It’s difficult but we want music to be our full time job and we’re getting closer.  
RS. It’s all about effort. You have to be really focused. Everything you do has to push it forward.
What about novelty value? Lots of media people like to be the first to spot something – which is of course terribly unfair, but it is human nature…
MBYou’re only going to be new once. You’ve got to keep it fresh from there on, almost re-inventing yourself. It’s up to the artist to develop, to produce new stuff.
RS: Not a problem. George is pretty much a chameleon. He changes. If you look at the artists who’ve lasted a long time, they change and evolve. 
and he’s still only 18...
RS: Yes. I’m also using my experience of seeing people I’ve worked with in the past. The best survive, adapt and grow. That’s my model, I guess. 
What is fascinating to me, Rich, is that this is your first managerial role...
RS: But I’ve done tour managing, and been around the industry, so that’s given me a grounding. George asked me to be his manager. 
What about building a fanbase? What sort of tricks would you recommend?
MBTwitter, YouTube and Facebook really do work. Before, you could play a show and not be able to follow it up. Now, all the fans are there at your fingertips; you can interact with them, and it makes that relationship go further. They feel more involved; we can get information out quicker. Everyone in the band interacts with the fans online and we make a real effort to be as personal as possible, to keep it ‘real’. When a band starts out, the internet is a really good tool for promo and interaction. We make our own videos and really get the fans involved in what we do. 
RS: Difficult. So many ways. We decided we were going to build ours online, at least at first. That’s why the videos are of decent quality. The idea is to keep it fresh and keep it interesting, so that more people watch these videos.  Lone Rose was the first one – it’s only been out for months and it’s got 120,000 views on YouTube. If you compare that to other bands on the same level, we’re doing well.  
Huge viewing figures...after using Pirate Bay
Interestingly, when you go to that Youtube page and scroll down the comments, free downloads via the Pirate Bay get a mention. A strategic decision? I saw you plugged this offer on Facebook as well. 
RS: The Pirate Bay offered a great promo opportunity after liking ‘College Kids’. We had a 3 day front page promo there that went worldwide. Then we decided to allow free downloads. In return many people decided to go back and pay for the album via iTunes/Amazon or Bandcamp, which worked out perfectly for us.   The fans talk to us through all the usual social media sites. We talk right back, but with respect. It’s about perception.
Can we talk finances? Are you making any money? Did you expect to?
MBWe’re making a little money. Not too much. We’re in the middle stage, where we know things are growing. We sold 3500 copies of our debut single but that doesn’t really equate to income, what with recoupment etc. Our management and publisher have been very supportive and there is a third party financer involved too now.
How does that work? 
Eamonn England: There are lots of 'new model' deals going on within the music industry at the moment. Through our production company, which The Musgraves are signed to, we have managed to secure a marketing and distribution deal which lets us release The Musgraves debut album on our own label. This enables us to keep everything in house and provide them with a far better and fairer return from sales than a major record deal would.
RS: We’re not making any money at the moment. George has sold a little over 1000 albums in a few months. We only had 100 cds made up - we’ve ordered a thousand now. The others were online, so we haven’t had to do too much. He’s used that money to reinvest in better equipment. It’s probably costing us more than we’re getting. 
Is there a grand plan? What is your timescale to push on further?
MBAll we’re focused on is the album right now – it should be out in September along with another single and the promo campaign is starting to kick in now. We’re planning a few videos and cover videos too to keep things moving online. We’re touring the UK in October, and then another single in 2013. 
RS: 2013 is starting to be mapped out. We’re probably planning on getting another album out by March. The plan is to make sure there’s enough material to do another album six months after the last one.  George is constantly writing. We’re planning on a video every two to three months, so that keeps going. We’re also doing 30 second video adverts for major gigs…and that helps the sales.
It looks like you’ve had a charmed life…
MB: (Laughs) We’ve done gigs where there’s no-one there; 400 miles and nobody’s at the gig…Three or four years of that….
RS: I think it’s just… knowledge. As a photographer, you pick up all this knowledge. You’re studying and watching all the time, and you meet so many people. You link with more people as a photographer than you do as a musician, and you move through more genres of music.. 
Who has/have been particularly helpful?
MBArthur Tapp from The Catapult Club who promotes at the Birmingham Ballroom. It’s important to get a promoter that believes in you at the start, and he’s been there right from the beginning. When you’re just starting, mostly they (the promoters) are bothered about are how many people you’re going to bring to a show but with Arthur, it’s more about building something. Graham Norton has also made a huge difference.
RS: Too many to mention!
The Musgraves
George Barnett

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Folk Ensemble - a Birmingham talent factory.

 Scoot up a flight of stairs in one of central   Birmingham’s least appealing 70s concrete   piles, duck down a passageway, head   through reception, left, right, big space,   down more stairs, hang another left down a   long corridor with music on all sides, follow   the noise, follow the noise, follow the NOISE  as it grows, and… bang! 

 I’m in the New Lecture Hall, in the midst of an   unholy and magnificent racket. It’s absolutely   thrilling. 

There are, maybe, 45 young musicians in the room. It’s hot. In the middle, Joe Broughton of Urban Folk Quartet fame is exuberantly taking them through their paces. They rock. Hang on, there's three-quarters of UFQ in the room. And a big fat brass section, fiddles, woodwind, melodicas, cajon and percussion, proper electric bass. Way in the back, a tiny elegant harpist, dwarfed by her instrument, is dancing like a maniac while she plays. They’re all dancing, Joe included. You'll know exactly when you listen.

Damn. I wish my classes were as good as this. 

For this is a class. We’re in Birmingham Conservatoire, and I’m looking at the musical unit that has spun dozens of fantastic committed musicians out into the Birmingham music scene and beyond: Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble. Past members are now gracing The Old Dance School, the Destroyers, and TG Collective. Others closely associated include Simon Harris, Ruth Angell and Sid Peacock, and many more. Teaching staff such as Joe and Percy Pursglove are also heavily involved.

It’s rehearsal time. The Folk Ensemble were preparing for the Birmingham’s Olympic Torch shindig in Cannon Hill Park, which took place this weekend... although you won't find any sign of them - or, disgracefully, any other local performers, apart from Soweto Kinch and the CBSO, who were way down the bill - on the Birmingham 2012 page. A new number was commissioned for the event. As the choirs and other musical collaborators aren’t here today, I’m only getting a partial picture of how it will eventually sound. It’s still great. I’d hate to be the band that has to follow them on stage.

I didn’t expect to see UFQ members working with the Folk Ensemble. 
"Well, this is a different one-off show. We’ve just come off our annual spring tour, but as it’s the end of the academic year, some people have left. So Tom Chapman’s back to help – and yes, that was Paloma Trigas you saw playing there. Some people are raring to go; some are in it for the first time."
So the song for the Olympics…? 
"Birmingham City Council has commissioned it. There’s other choirs coming – who I haven’t met yet, so I don’t know how that’s going to go. I sent them the music!"
It’s a tight schedule. On Tuesday, Joe was due to meet with a group of djembe players, on Wednesday it was the turn of the choirs. This was to be followed by a dress rehearsal on Thursday, and a performance at the Adrian Boult Hall on Friday. As torch day neared, the whole troupe went out to play at several different venues across the weekend, to wrap up the year for the ensemble.
Is this going to be recorded when you do it live, after all the work you’ve put in? 
"I hope so… But I have no idea. They’ll have the facilities to do it, but that’s not my area." 

Well, one bit has been recorded, bootleg style, by me. It’s from the Ensemble’s own repertoire - and Joe has kindly allowed me to put it up in this post, as long as I make it crystal clear that this is a recording of a rehearsal. It’s not perfect, and the brass outweighs the strings. But it’s enough to give you a little taste. I think it’s a brilliant listen: it makes me want to shed forty-something years and pick up a sax or a clarinet all over again.

Fiddle Castro - CFE

A few posts back, I wrote about Mendi Singh, and his generous and deep involvement in all types of music making in the region.  I suggested, not for the first time, that there is a collaborative vibe to much of the region’s music which is enriching the city. This is driven by generosity of spirit, and a genuine musical curiosity on the part of dozens, hundreds maybe, of creative souls.

Joe’s work with the Folk Ensemble, over the past 14 years, is also key. If you wonder why there is so much adventurous jazz, folk and world music coming out of one of the UK’s most industrial cities, follow those musicians’ careers back. A staggering number of them came out of the Conservatoire.

I’ve said this before, too: this musicianship is a priceless cultural resource in our city. It’s never been better, richer, braver, more cross-cultural and more welcoming, in almost all genres. And it’s time we recognised it, at all levels, and gave it a more prominent place in the city’s creative landscape. 

We can design all the computer games we want, and that's fine, because it creates jobs and wealth...but unless they are works of towering creative genius as well as snappy pieces of tech, they won't enrich our cultural life. 

If we want to commemorate past glories, we can stick as many blue plaques up, and lay as many walk of fame stars down, as there is time and space… but all that celebrates yesterday. We also need to celebrate, right now, the vital groundwork going on, in the city and beyond.

I’d love to see the powers that be recognise this. It has been shown, time and time again, that where creativity flourishes and is cherished, jobs can follow. Check this link from the US. There's also, if you have the energy to plough through it,  a dry as dust report from 2011 from The Department of Culture. There's some local stuff too - I was going to post a link to an impressive local government study from earlier this year, 'Destination Birmingham', but it appears to have been expunged from all the websites I had hoped to find it on.  

Simply put: right now, powers that be, is the time to do something. The creative sector - according to ex-head of the Arts Council Christopher Frayling - accounts for between 8 to 9 percent of our national GDP... which, says Frayling, is a couple percentage points less that our vastly discredited financial sector. We take our creative sector for granted... and we let the financial sector walk all over our economy while trousering obscene amounts of our tax money. 

Central to our creative and media sectors, especially in the West Midlands, is the astonishing diversity and creativity of our musicians. Right now, there’s a new generation of great musicians building the region's creative and cultural reputation up all over again. And I’ve just seen some of the next batch. It's time to acknowledge this. 

Joe Broughton
Folk Ensemble