Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The way we do the things we do – allright!

I came back up to Birmingham on Tuesday night, fresh from two days on the South Coast working with the admirable and very listenable Coast 106, about whom I will post in detail soon. This was so I could catch the UB40 show at the Rainbow. This, in case you’re not from Birmingham, has been the talk of the town for weeks, reaching fever pitch last night, and flowing through to a front page feature in the Birmingham Post today, reviews on BBC WM, live streaming on Rhubarb and elsewhere, and other coverage, which I’ll come to.

Oh, it was good.
Remember, UB40 have been doing this stuff for 30 years. They are road-hardened, professional, and very tight. So...they hit the stage, and steamed into One In Ten.

500 people lock into sync and rock with the band for 90 cheerful raucous all-hometown minutes. A great night. And all because the UBs, led by Brian Travers, lent their support to a grass-roots campaign. I am so impressed with the gesture. It makes you proud.

There are several stories here.

First: how often do you get the chance to see a band this big, this good, play a 500 capacity hometown venue, when they can just as easily fill the NIA? Only when the band themselves choose to play such a gig. Rare and precious. And the band knew it.

Second: there was - and is - a vital point to this gig: we need our local music venues. We need places for our fantastic local musicians to hone their stagecraft. We can’t allow one of the most vibrant music scenes in the country, one which generates vast amounts of money for the local economy, to be stifled by planning regulations. Take a look at the Rainbow's own page for more details. If you agree, do something. Join a Facebook group - try Keep Digbeth Vibrant for starters. Let your local councillor know how you feel..

Third: UB40 are undeniably rooted in Birmingham. There is a bond between band and audience I have only very rarely seen. I suppose if I got to see Bruce Springsteen play a bar in New Jersey, I might get a similar vibe. But I’m not from Jersey. This is where I live, and a gig like last night makes me feel proud for our local scene on so many levels. And whatever you do, you must take a look at the UB40: Music As Culture site for more background. It’s a revelation. You'll never get closer to a band and their fans.

Fourth: full personal disclosure here: When I was a local radio DJ in this town, I gave UB40 their first session, and that was in the days when radio paid bands to do sessions - just imagine that. So… and I’ve seriously only just realised this… that makes me the first DJ anywhere in the world to have played UB40 on the radio. Blimey.

The tapes were early mixes of tracks that went on to be released as the first single and tracks from the first album, produced by Bob Lamb. They were lovely. The songs had huge impact. I felt I'd hit the motherlode when I realised just how important they were to my audience. That's why I have a personal and very direct sense of involvement with the band - but that’s only my angle. Others, thousands of others, who supported the band through their early gigs, feel the same kinship for their own valid reasons.

Last but not least: I don’t know how many times I’ve made this point, and in how many ways I’ve said it. But I’ll say it again now. Stuff like this is pure gold; you can’t bottle it. It is a USP, in business terms. And yet most mainstream radio stations in our town, and elsewhere, continue to ignore this kind of thing. Last night’s gig was, yet again, a powerful demonstration of local identity, expressed though music, and in UB40’s case, as a unique and confident statement of local culture. It’s there: part of the fabric of our town. And t
his makes it an absolute gift to local media. All you need, if you’re in the media, is the humility to see that this sort of thing is probably more powerful and enduring than your particular outlet. Then you really need to measure it against juggernaut machine-tooled stuff like X Factor TV exposed product. And lastly, you need to make a decision on whether you want to get on board this thing, and how.

Up to you, media mavens.
For me, it’s a no-brainer.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Who's listening to what?

I spent some time yesterday at Absolute Radio's studios in London. My main purpose was to take a closer look at one of their new online products, comparemyradio. This is a very cute piece of software, and it has caused no end of fuss in the very closed hothouse world of UK Radio. Basically, this software tracks plays of songs on a number of major stations – most of the big ones, in fact – and lets you compare who plays what, how often, and where the overlaps are. It’s open to anyone to play with, and it throws up some very interesting perspectives.

Full disclosure: I author help for a heavyweight professional media analysis software package called Media Monitors, a sister company to RCS, the Selector people, for whom I also write help packages. So I had more than a pure radio interest: I wanted to see what the One Golden Square Labs boys were up to, what their analysis kit could do… and, above all, exactly why they chose to share all this with you and me.

Absolute were the soul of hospitality, in keeping with their mission statement of openness and accountability, which I applaud. I’m all for exchanging ideas and comparing notes. Personally, I'm not threatened by the idea of sharing what I know. Those that do feel this way, in my opinion, lose out, and wind up hobbling their own creativity. That said, I didn’t quite get all the answers I was looking for, but I’ll come back to that.

Comparemyradio went public last week and instantly kicked up a fuss. Bauer Media’s Kiss-fm promptly disabled their 'now playing' site feed, which is where the comparemyradio software scrapes its data from, arguing that their daytime output does not reflect the full range of output from their specialist shows, which presumably do not feed their data out in such detail. When I looked this morning, BRMB had also lifted up its skirts and (note this page may have changed again if you check it) removed its output from Absolute’s grasp. Other industry operators have publicly expressed their irritation.

This is being just a trifle precious. A station’s output is public. Once broadcast, it’s published, it’s out there. Anybody who wants to take the time and trouble can study the output, analyse it, and draw their own conclusions. What comparemyradio has done is simply make this a lot easier. However, some stations don’t exactly look that great under this new bright light. So it’s fair to say that Absolute are being a mite provocative. The most provocative tool of all is something they call the variety index. This charts the ratio of lightly played material as a proportion of overall output. Clearly, the greater number of songs which get unique plays over a given period, the more genuine variety the station can claim to be offering. To put it another way: if you play 300 songs a day, and 150 of those are unique plays, you’ve got a lot of variety. But if you play ten songs six times a day, another 30 songs three times a day, and 60 more twice a day, there’s only 30 single play slots left in your day, so you’ve got less room to mix it up.

I really wanted to do a comparison on all West Midlands stations, as this blog focusses on this area. I’ve have loved to have BRMB’s figures, but, as mentioned, they’ve blocked this now (boo! hiss! shame!). But Heart West Midlands has a variety index of 11%, not entirely encouraging in a station that claims to offer more music variety. Smooth London, whose output is uncannily close that that at Smooth Birmingham, can offer a respectable 26%. But scooting over to Radio 2, the big beast in the radio jungle, we see a huge variety index of 60%, which must reflect their detailed and admirable specialist show output, as well as their large (by today’s standards) active daytime library. It presents them in a frankly golden light, but then, look at their listening figures. And what about Absolute themselves, purveyors of this provocative package? Well, their flagship service offers a (not at all bad, but could do better in my view) figure of 20%.

So what are we to make of all this data? Well, for people like me, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s a useful new rough and ready tool to get a feel for certain areas. So I’m quite pleased it’s there. It’s certainly stirred up a hornet’s nest of resentment in the industry, which I can happily live with. There are questions as to the validity of the data and the accuracy of the source material that is scraped to analyse in the first place, but Absolute do acknowledge this. I also heard dark mutterings yesterday about the use of other public streaming sites’ software to do some of the heavy lifting in the analysis area, and that worries me – the more third party involvement, the less trustworthy the data tends to be. But I have no way of verifying this.

The primary beneficiary of all this has to be, of course, Absolute Radio. They have offered their users something new, which might just be a novelty. Or it might be something to raise the company’s profile – chalk up a success there – and keep users on site to explore some of their other products. So in terms of building relationships with listeners while dissing the opposition, it’s pretty cute and Imaginative.

A closing note: Anthony Abott, the courteous and affable Absolute Radio webmaster who spent time with me, and to whom I extend my thanks, checked this blog out before I arrived. He in turn was interested in my championing of local bands and my mantra that local radio benefits from exposing the best of its local talent. Now, this is something that makes no sense whatsoever from a London or a national perspective, so I can see why he was curious. I’m sure there are millions of interesting music scenes in London that aren’t getting the exposure they deserve – that’s the problem with radio in big cities: it's too damn conservative because it's too damn competitive. New York is the same, which is even more tragic.

But this really does give operators outside of the smoke a big advantage, where cities and regions have much stronger senses of local identity. And how does this tie in with what I’ve been discussing? Simple. Forget about variety indexes just for a moment. Forget that hugely depressing overlap between stations. Look instead at the USP for your market. This is something the big boys can’t ever do. If nothing else, comparemyradio has shone a dirty great light into this area. It’s up to local stations to exploit what they can learn from it. If that includes bumping up a variety index by championing bands that you know for certain matter to your audience, then it’s all good.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

UB40 play a boozer in downtown Brum shock

The very excellent Rainbow in Digbeth (one of Birmingham's best boho/creative quarters) needs to raise cash. Fast. The goal is to pay for a roof over the outside gig area, so cutting noise levels, and placating the Council worthies who have visited noise abatement orders on them. It's VERY important that the Rainbow survives as a live venue. It's been looking worse and worse for Kent Davis and his team; see the links at the bottom of this post if you want to read up on it all. But now... step forward UB40.

UB40, bless them, have decided to play a benefit for the Rainbow Roof fund. What a bunch of absolute princes. This is a fantastic gesture. The date for this special gig is November 3rd. And the venue is not that big, so (if there are any tickets left: there's a link posted below) you can look forward to seeing UB40 in a sweaty crowded stand-up venue, the way it used to be back in the early 80s before they broke big. I can't wait.

There's are no freebies or backstage passes on this one; the tickets are for a good cause: preserving one of the city's best and most adventurous live music venues. We need the Rainbow. In fact, to reverse the grim trend of this past decade, we need several Rainbows. If you can, you should help. This is a great way to do it.

Buy tickets - if there are any left -
and donate to the fund here
Read up on the background: it's a sad but fascinating saga of urban redevelopment here

Thursday, 8 October 2009

John Russell - an appreciation

Gatekeepers don't have an easy time of it.. They’re the ones standing in between you and your next goal, and it's their job to decide when it’s right to let you through. The more you bang on the gate, the more they have to hold it shut until they think you’re ready. Whether they are right or wrong is not really the issue. They’re always, ALWAYS, there. And, as a result, they take a lot of heat.

We all have gatekeepers, who let us through, who sometimes encourage us, and who set us on our way. Often, we don’t appreciate what they do, let alone why. John Russell, who died a few days ago, was one of my most important gatekeepers. He was the first Programme Controller at BRMB, and I had no idea how his opening the gate for me would affect my life. 

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

You never know who's listening...

I visited the Brussels Museum of Musical Instruments last month. It's brilliant. They give you wireless headphones which spring to life when you approach the display cases: you get a blast of a Mozart wind quintet on period instruments, or some stonking Hurdy Gurdy dance music, or a bit of steaming Hammond B3. It just brings those wonderful old instruments to life. And, of course - this is a state museum in the capital of Eurobureau - it is very fully documented, with discographies and notes. But: did they ever miss a trick... a big one too...

That Mozart piece blew me away. I love Mozart, and this, played on warm and subtly toned period instruments, was just gorgeous. I had to have it. So I visited the museum shop, where a deeply cool and painfully crucial guy with a wicked 'do cooly and politely informed me that, no, there were no CDs available with any of the museum's music samples - just what they had on the shelves... there might be a bit of Mozart wind stuff over there....

I was tempted to ask him if he had trained in retail in the UK, but I passed. He wouldn't have understood.

In all seriousness, this represents a completely wasted opportunity. Here is a museum which attracts music lovers. During their visits, these music lovers are exposed to a tantalising range of fantastic music - hundreds and hundreds of samples, effortlessly brought to life in a charming and accessible way. I would probably have come away with several CDs had they been available for purchase. Of course, there are bound to be copyright issues, but I don't see that these couldn't have been overcome. If I ran a record company, I would happily have made appropriate samples available to the museum, in exchange for their shop stocking the source CDs. It just makes simple business sense, and, provided
the curatorial goals of the museum drive the process, there is no reason that the profit motive should override things.

However, since this is a Radio and Local Music booster blog, you may well be asking by now why I am spending so much time banging on about wasted business opportunities in Brussels.

Well, I've got two reasons, the most important of which is this: every time you go on the air, or play a gig, or get your song on the radio, you get a chance to sell yourself. And you never know who might be listening.
Don't ever be content to put something lovely together, like the fabulous Brussels MIM, and then skip a chance to press home your advantage. It may just be a dumb tourist, like me in the Museum, asking the questions. But it could be a listener. Or someone who wants to buy your stuff.

This all connects up. Really, it does. There's been much talk lately - see my previous post, and a new post up today on the Infinite Dial blog - about the creative areas, where new radio practitioners are bypassing the old-school network operators, to go straight to their audiences. New ideas and new approaches are being born every minute, and I welcome them. Podcast and community radio audiences might be tiny right now, but you can bet that in among these audiences, there are movers and shakers, future bosses and future decision makers. They're listening right now, because they too are looking to find new inspiration.

Second reason - I just got friended on Facebook by a local muso, Mick Howson... who plays the Hurdy Gurdy... which reminded me about the Brussels MIM. See? It all does connect up.

Friday, 25 September 2009

The Tools are Free; Pay The People!

I follow a lot of radio blogs. Lots of savvy thinking going on out there. I'm posting a link to one of the most impressive among them, a US based blog from Tom Webster, called the Infinite Dial - there's a link at the end of this post.

Tom's talking about about staffing, resources, creativity and Radio's approach to digital tools, coming off the back of a session on just this area at the US NAB convention in Philadelphia (in passing, note that the European NAB convention in Athens has, er, been cancelled this year).

Tom talks a LOT of sense. Here's the pay off line:
We cannot continue to say, over and over, that content is king--and then continue to invest in tools. Tools don't make content, people do. The tools are free. Pay the people.
Couldn't agree more, Tom. Here's the
whole post

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Buddy, can you spare half a million?

There was an interesting if depressing article on Community Radio Monday 24th in the Guardian, from Steve Buckley, one of the stalwarts of the movement. It got me thinking, and sparked some vigorous debate in the online comments. I'm posting - belatedly - because there's so much to say, not all of it cheering.

The case for governmental Community Radio funding is so clear so and simple. And yet, and yet...

I've posted several times on this blog about visiting Community stations as an interview guest. I'm a thoroughly interested observer: the vibe of a buzzing station is something I really enjoy, and I've found that exact same vibe at all levels of the industry, including at Community level. I am both genuinely impressed with some of the efforts put in at hyper-local level, and genuinely depressed at some of the output I've listened to.

I suppose the most engaging thing about Community Radio is that it truly depends on the efforts of a few people at each station putting in ridiculous amounts of time and effort to stack up a wobbly broadcast edifice against all the odds. I admire that enormously. Leaving that hard work aside, you don't set up a station for free, and a key point in Steve Buckley's article is that promised support funding has been both sparse and unevenly distributed.

But once you open up that funding discussion, things start to get hazy. As I see it, the distinction between small-scale Commercial Radio and Community Radio is getting more and more blurred. The line between the two becomes harder still to draw once Community stations are allowed to sell advertising, raise sponsorship funds, and the like. It's understandable that Commercial Radio is not about to support funding initiatives that would encourage competition from the Community sector, while at the same time seeing some of the commercial revenue they would expect to receive drifting away to the Community boys. And there is also the awkward fact that some Community operations might well be accused of being more interested in getting the funding than serving their audiences.

That said, the good side of that line-blurring is that it should remind us that Radio, like Football, does have a pyramid structure. In Radio, the current legislative structure is criticised at each level of that pyramid. Worse, it offers no defined paths for practitioners to move around. But it is a pyramid structure nonetheless, and we should acknowledge this.

I don't see a perfect solution, probably because there isn't one. Funding is needed to up-skill community stations, give a better experience to the listener, better training to station volunteers, and, vitally, ensure the stations' survival; no argument there. But I can see why the Commercial boys don't want the Community stations firing on all cylinders, and start nipping at their heels - and cash flow. But possibly, despite all the horrible compromises that external funding can bring, that's exactly how it should be.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Decline and fall?

I read a book review last week of a work covering the spectacular, ego-driven, cocaine-fuelled, decline and fall of the record industry. As I was prepping this post, I checked on Amazon on to be sure I had the title right, looking for books on the Record Industry, decline and fall of. Blimey, there's dozens of them. Talk about Hollywood Babylon revisited.

Record industry depravity aside, the review sparked a notion for this post. Some years back, a very savvy and smooth operator, Tim Blackmore, was in charge of the Radio Academy. This is a UK industry talking shop, and I was, and still am, a member. If you care about broadcasting in the UK, you should be a member too. Tim set up a meeting which brought together music radio types and some senior music producers - respected players in the then ego-driven, cocaine-fuelled, etc, etc, record industry - to discuss common ground. You know, all music lovers together, that sort of thing.

Only trouble was... there really wasn't any common ground. Early on, I wittered on worthily about radio's need to relate to its audiences first and foremost, and if that meant radio could support record industry priorities, that was fine and dandy; but that we could not honestly be expected to place their priorities above our own. Blissfully unaware of their reactions, I ploughed on about it was now difficult to trust the chart as a barometer of public taste, and how it made sense to do some research into local sales patterns.

Well, that went down like a lead balloon with the producers. And when the producers in turn talked approvingly about hyping sales to put records into the charts so that radio would be forced to play their product, that went down like a lead balloon with me and not a few others.

Of course, that was in the days of serious audience figures for Top Of The Pops, when Radio 1 was the biggest station in the UK, and Radio 2 was definitely... not. Since that time, record sales have largely tanked, the chart has lost all credibility as a programming tool, and a lot of radio has programmed increasingly conservatively using in-house research. What we didn't expect then was the web: This punched a dirty great hole through all our cosy assumptions. I'm not unhappy at the changes: I'm hearing so much great music from the web - stuff that doesn't fit the financial model the record industry grew fat on. And, as I have already said, I'm not at all unhappy that thousands of new players are experimenting with radio, also on the web.

What I would like to see is some way that the new cream can rise to the top. We're not there yet. But I'm happy to wait. In the meantime, I would love to see a companion Radio Babylon-style book or two about the ego-driven cocaine-fuelled big beasts... of radio... back in the day.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Fantastic: Jo Hamilton and Urban Folk Quartet debut

Only slightly put off by a snotty post in today's Guardian about the decline of blogs, I'm happily resuming blogging here after managing to revive/retrieve my logins so I can post again. Lovely (and free) though this service is, you wind up going round in circles when Google sends retrieval information to your gmail address... which shares the same login as your blogger page.
No matter - I'm happy to be behind the tech curve. This month, I caught the full debut gig of the jaw-droppingly skilled Urban Folk Quartet at the Crown in Moseley. They don't sing; they play, and how. Birmingham has a wealth of fantastic bands, and this is just the latest development in the folk/world/jazz field. These bands swap musicians with wanton promiscuity - I could have sworn I'd seen the cajón player before. Two fiddles, bursts of mandolin and breathtaking guitar work, percussion and rhythm, and a crowd that went berserk. Lovely. See them soon.
UFQ supported the fantastic Jo Hamilton at her album launch gig a few weeks back. I've seen her twice since then, and she has blown me away each time. Watch out for a video podcast, which I'll post details on soon. On it, I had the extraordinary good fortune to interview her as she sang live in the studio, with a small band. it was thrilling to see her perfom live at close quarters, and to be able to talk to her, immediately, off the back of the peformances. Jo is super-smart, witty and sensitive; she has terrific songs; for me, the interviewing of an artist doesn't get much better than this.