Sunday, 14 June 2015

Of Musician Pride

I am very proud of my musical friends.  For the small part of the world we inhabit there is some prodigious talent.  Yesterday I went to see some of them perform locally in a small annual festival.

JPTB rioting for austerity
I had every reason to be proud.  They have been, by far so far, the most interesting, challenging and original act at the festival.  I don't think anything today will change that.  Barring a few technical issues with a keyboard they were also on top of the game musically and played as well as I have ever seen them play.  They were met with some support, some dancing, some heckling, some incomprehension and a lot of indifference.  I have several friends playing today too and I suspect that the quality of today's musicianship will better anything that will have been played at the festival.  I suspect that today's jazz set will be treated as background by most members of the audience as has been the case in previous years.

Last weekend I went to Norwich to see another friend play a set, one of three acts that evening, in a bar.  Neil Cousin is an excellent songwriter and has a singing voice that makes me melt.  His performing style is to invite people in through the stillness of his presence and on those occasions when the audience gets it, he can conjure real magic.  Everything at this bar happens in one room, including the preparation of exotic cocktails.  The décor is unlike anywhere else I've been that wasn't 
Whilst Neil searches for CDs, Marshlander 
peers out of a biscuit tin and Björk looks on
a bric a brac warehouse, someone's house in Monmouth to which I was invited once as a teenager ... or Thora's house in France (remind me to tell you about Thora's house - edit okay done, see next blog entry, above, "In Thora's House").  The seating is a ramshackle disarrangement of retrieved, recycled, mostly battered, soft or leather sofas and armchairs with further tiered seating in the form of benches and beds built from wooden boxes around the sides of the room.  Part of the uppermost tier is used as the stage.  Everywhere one looks there is something odd.  Incongruity is set against themed junk.   Attached to the wall above the tiny stage is the huge, white, plastic head of a dinosaur displayed like a hunter's trophy.  A high shelf runs round the walls of the room whereon are displayed  arrangements of toys, photographs and other miscellanea.  One part of this shelf is devoted to figures from the television cartoon show, South Park, another to The Muppet Show.  Star Wars models march along the shelf on the wall above the dinosaur trophy overlooking the stage.  I set myself down on a high bench by a wall most of which was devoted to shelving displaying rows of old cake tins, toys and a monochrome photograph of Björk.  The wall was lined with mirrors, which added further to the weirdness in the subdued lighting.  Where the shelves and mirrors ended rather abruptly this wall was lined with black and white tiles featuring designs that reminded me of characters from Lewis Carroll.  I am sure I have seen these designs before, but I couldn't recall the when or where.  Maybe it was in a dream ... or a nightmare ... or it could have been some time in the 1970s.  Whatever impression of laisser tomber this bar had tried to create it was clear that someone had worked very hard to design a bohemian ambience.  It could have been a perfect setting for poets and songwriters to cast their magic.  Sadly it wasn't to be.

Perhaps the bar's design had done its job too well and people were attracted because it was a place to go, to be and to be seen.  On the night I went it was certainly not viewed by anyone other than other performers, as a place  to see and listen to live acoustic music.  As the room filled up the punters came in with their friends, their lives and their plans for weekend oblivion.  The starting pistol for the discourtesy was fired about halfway through the first act.  I'd seen this accomplished young female singer, songwriter, guitarist before.  She is very good and has a way of engaging the audience that I certainly don't match, but even she couldn't compete with the shrieking that broke out at the far end of the bar.  After yesterday's band performance at the festival I heard a use of the term "necking" I had not come across before, neither as a term nor even as a concept.  Apparently it means  filling up on cheaper alcohol before arriving at a drinking establishment.  After the show we had gone for a meal at an excellent Indian restaurant recommended by the festival organiser.  Sitting by the window the guitarist pointed out a girl across the street glugging from a bottle.  Had I not seen it taking place, nor experienced the comments made by an eavesdropper at the next table I would never have thought it was something people did, still less that it could be a common way of beginning an evening out.  I think the shrieker had been necking.  She was clearly experiencing a personal reality unrelated to anything happening around her.  Performances taking place on the stage were at best irrelevant and at worst an annoyance to be shouted over.  This attitude began to infect others in the audience.  A group of two older women and two young lads came through the door.  The singer asked from the stage, exercising her customary friendly banter, where they were from.  Apparently they were from Cumbria.  Perhaps they were mothers visiting sons studying at the UEA.  They bought their drinks and took seats at a small, round, four-seater table near the stage.  My feeling and experience has long been that younger audiences are inclined to be less courteous than those of my generation, so I was pleased to have this stereotype challenged except that the women began to converse with the boys at a volume and timbre that could etch glass.  It was astonishing.  Next to take up residence adjacent to the stage were a couple of hipsters.  The beard on one was an ongoing labour of love.  That clearly was the only love in the air (until the Cumbrian matriarchs eventually left and the two lads began making out with an abandon and fervour that gave me hope that the world may be changing after all - at least they had been brought up not to talk with their mouths full) because he had come to the bar to unload his relationship problems on his friend whose job was obviously to listen, sympathise and buy the next round.  My own preference for discussing deep problems is an ambience conducive to privacy and quietness, but once again I realised how out of step I am.  The bearded one's voice might have been heard in parts of Yarmouth had the wind been in the right quarter.   By this time my friend had taken his place on stage and was sharing delicate songs in his gentle baritone, an achievement not to be underestimated given the distracting wreckage of a relationship being laid bare not two metres from the headstock of his guitar.  I cast my best teacher's frowns at the hipster laundering his metaphorical smalls so publicly.  These were met with the same indifference they get in school.  Next in were three lads looking and smelling as fresh as the minute they left the bathroom after their hard day's labour on a building site, who took up residence on the bed to my other side.  I think there may have been a cultural difference.  Clearly, wherever they were from they hadn't before experienced a performance of gentle acoustic music or the songwriter's art.  They joshed, jibed and guffawed their way through my friend's set and I think what made it even worse was that I had no idea what they were talking about because I didn't  recognise the language in which they were shouting at each other.  The ambient background noise in the room rose accordingly, so that everyone could make themselves heard above the music and the shouting of everyone else.  It was hell.  I had to admire the resilience of my friend who completed his contractual forty minutes with dignity and fortitude.  How he achieved such an act of heroism given the level of opposition I do not know.  I would have lost the words, the chords, the rhythm and probably my dignity and my temper had I been in his trainers.  I knew he was struggling though.  He slows down and gets quieter when faced with an ignorant audience.  He was singing really slowly and really quietly.  We had both travelled sixty miles to get here and he wasn't getting paid.  The offer of free beer for performers was a further mockery of his good services since he was driving and unable to take advantage of the offer.  Had he not been driving free beer might have provided a welcome anaesthetic to this awful experience.

Sadly this is not the first time I have seen this happen to him, or to others for that matter.  Once after an acoustic night in a pub much closer to our home bases I took his box of CDs and went round the otherwise empty bar offering them for sale to members of what seemed to be two or three groups of women on nights out, many of whom seemed to be wives and/or girlfriends of the acoustic trio that had opened the evening.  I suggested they might want to buy a CD to be able to listen to the excellent music they had just missed.  They told me I was rude.  I thought that may be evidence for truth in the saying that it takes one to know one.  I decided that night that such interventions were probably counter-productive and haven't interfered since.  He wasn't paid for his forty-five minute set that night either.  We are really on a hiding to nothing under these circumstances.  If we carry on we risk a sub-par performance, because it can be so hard to concentrate.  If we stop playing we can walk off or challenge the source of the disruption.  The outcomes of either are unpredictable.    Would I rather be seen as a prima donna or a prima donna?  I'm unlikely to be seen as a gritty hero standing up for the abused mass of musicians.

Situations like these raise a number of issues.  I explained in my previous post how much time goes into making original music.  I haven't started to record my songs yet, because I know how time-consuming that is going to be once I get started.  Getting a decent repertoire together in the first place takes years of work.  What are these issues?

Firstly I think there is a huge mismatch of expectations.  There are also different kinds of venues and performances.  Sometimes we know we are going out to play as background or simply as a noise to be shouted over.  I don't think I am referring to those occasions or the kinds of music that can be so easily dismissed.  Some people go out for the night for a laugh with their mates.  They may go to a pub or bar where they are used to doing just that.  If a landlord decides to provide entertainment on an occasional basis it is not always altruism or a dedication to the arts that provides the motive.  It is often an attempt to draw in extra custom.  The entertainment is the bait, but the entertainers' expectations (which in truth can realistically be little more than hopes) of being heard and of being valued appropriately are often not met.  Entertainment may be free at the point of delivery, but someone always ends up paying.  The honest venue owner pays the band or artist, even something is better than nothing.  The thoughtless or less scrupulous ones don't see the need to pay.  Do they honestly believe and try to convince others they do it as a service to the artist?  If so, what arrogance!  I struggle to see how  "exposure", the opportunity for the performer to "get some experience" or free beer is fair compensation for the work done or the advantages to be had by the venue.  In that case the performer pays.  He or she pays in all the ways listed previously in addition to the time, the petrol, the wear and tear on and risks to precious equipment, instruments 
One promotor's solution - cards left on the tables
insurances and nerves.  They buy new strings or drum heads for the gig, for recording and burning any CDs they might bring and for any other merchandise they might be able to put together.  And don't get me started on venues where performers are required to pay to play.  The very least a venue owner could do is to encourage an ambience where the performer could be experienced fairly - not, as a carpenter I used to work with once colourfully expressed to me, given a job to do by someone who then "defies you to do it".  Perhaps the best thing a venue owner could do is provide a separate function room for those who wish to enjoy the entertainment.  If there is no specific function room, there may be more than one bar, one of which could be for the enjoyment of performers and audience.  If , however, there is only one room on the premises the landlord then surely has a moral obligation to think the situation through.  It is not acceptable to exploit artists for the bar's own ends.  If the best the venue is able to offer is "exposure" the landlord or promoter should be willing to ensure there is an audience trained in the expectations of listening.  A compère can remind people that they are there for the music.  Some promoters post notices around the room reminding people to
be courteous to the performers.  If I am doing a performance with my ceilidh band and the audience decides it has priorities that aren't connected with the dancing I have, at least, the satisfaction of knowing that I am getting paid for the job.  It may be a hard grind, but at least I shall get something for my efforts.  If I play in a venue where money will not change hands there has to be some recognition for my work.  We performers often have quite simple requirements.  Show us that you appreciate what we are doing and we will sometimes be able to put up with almost any other form of exploitation you decide to heap upon us.

Last weekend I was phoned at two days' notice by a promotor who still had some time slots to fill for the music stage he was running at a local country fair and agricultural show.  It was not a large event.  However, a small appreciative audience that demanded three encores made it a worthwhile outing for the songs.  That the promotor was able to offer twenty quid towards petrol expenses was a gesture that was very much appreciated.  I wouldn't be able to make such earnings into a living, but it made the cake easier to swallow.  Had I been faced, as was my friend, with a room full of discourteous, noisy people and no fair trade agreement for my efforts I have no incentive to perform ... apart from that inner drive and arrogance that forces me into situations where I can be exploited.

So yes, I am VERY proud of my musical friends.  I certainly don't think we are "owed" anything for our music as a right until someone wants to take something from us - whether that be a recording or a public performance.  Sometimes I don't think it would do much harm if we had a touch more pride in ourselves.

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