Sunday, 25 November 2012

Don Fardon: whatever you do, read the contract first

Despite selling well over ten million records, Don Fardon never received a single penny in royalties: the classic story of poor contracts, lousy royalties and little or no advice. Then, things changed.
Pop is the preserve of the young. It's sold aggressively to successive target generations. The guys who sell it need a steady supply of fresh compliant talent to sell to each new crop of consumers. Implicit is this is the idea that the musicians who benefit from this process should play nice, and move over to make way for the latest newcomers. Don't make a fuss once the money's been made... just, er, go away, there's a good boy. 

Fine for the business, but I have yet to meet any performer who thinks even remotely along those lines. People may have long or short music careers, for all sorts of reasons. But, without exception, the creative motivation is to make and perform music to fire imaginations, to touch audiences... to do good. Age has nothing to do with that. And being casually written off by music industry suits isn’t on the radar either.    

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Videos: get the concept right, then worry about the budget

When radio stations check out new acts, they often use YouTube to see what sort of numbers a song is scoring. It’s a very rough guide to interest in an act – useful, but tricky. 

Here’s why. Firstly, with much-loved bands, fans can and will post hand-held clips, and this can dilute the impact of a key video. It’s not all bad though, if you see it as evidence of a band’s following. Bands also post multiple mixes – if you search on  YouTube  for Poppy and The Jezebels 'Sign In Dream On Drop Out', you'll find 6 clips, including this one, breezily shot in Spring 2012 on the streets of Birmingham:
But in addition there are five other videos of the same song: three are inventive and nicely produced variations on a theme. But the other two are live, and one does the band no favours at all. 

Secondly, YouTube (and Vimeo) numbers can be just as easily manipulated as the charts were back in the day. Then, having a chart return shop that contributed to sales totals for the weekly charts was the key to a never-ending flow of ‘favours’ from record companies tying to fiddle the chart numbers. Now, there are companies who will hype your YouTube numbers - for a price. 

And different genres get different responses. So - not perfect. But that's just one side of it. The video makers I talked to said something completely different again. 

Just as new tools have empowered musicians, so their equivalents have done so for video makers. Affordable digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) can double as surprisingly cheap and effective video cameras, for example. 

Click around to check out local vids; you’ll find a dizzying range. But what interested me most in researching this piece was the question of cost. I talked to lots of local video makers and bands… but at no point could I extract precise fee information paid by the band to the video maker. From anyone. I did get the impression that everyone worked themselves into the ground to deliver for their clients. But - people are really rather cagey. It’s understandable. 

Here’s Matt Watkins of Beat 13, who has done some great work for Evil Alien.
"Evil Alien came to me as I'm in the same studio as them and I had previously done a video for a mutual friend.  I was offered a small budget and attempted to produce something in as little time as possible. In the end the budget didn't reflect anywhere near the effort that went into the production! Of course, the Youtube/DSLR combo is great for new bands - the quality of work achievable is way beyond what was expected 10 years ago. However, I have been doing this sort of thing professionally for a long time now and I still struggle to complete something 'cheaply'. 
 It’s a continual challenge. If the bands are cash-strapped – and of course they are, it’s a given – then how do they scrape together a video for a budget?  Caroline Bottomley at Radar Music Videos, where bands can look for video makers, sets a basement entry-level price of £500, and posts this note of instruction 
"Some people are unsure why the minimum budget that can be posted on Radar is set at £500 / c$750 / c€600. We think it is important Radar helps labels and artists (to) generate good and great music videos. We encourage labels and artists to post briefs with higher budgets, as in our experience budgets below the minimum amount don't tend to attract many talented and experienced directors. If your video budget is below the minimum allowed on Radar, you need to find another place to commission your video.
"Some ideas:ask friends or fans via Twitter, Facebook, your mailing list, google film student websites and headhunt directors, make a slideshow from stills (where you own copyright), make live or rehearsal room videos. Good luck and we hope you'll use Radar when you've got more funds.
How many videos were commissioned, say in the last six months, in each price bracket? 
"Ooh, difficult to be precise on that as there are some videos commissioned a long time ago which still aren't released. And some we just don't know about. But if it helps, there were about 130 briefs posted in the last 6 months. About 2/3rds generally go to commission. About 4/5ths are for minimum budget, ie £500. The biggest budget in the last 6 months was for £10k. 
How realistic do you think video makers are on cost, and does this change as you go from the £500 mark up to the premium market? 
"Hmm, also a bit difficult as I'm involved at the introduction end and only get to hear about whether directors are unrealistic about costs if things have gone wrong. I have to say this is not very often. Some bands/labels are very unrealistic on cost. They're disappointed when they don't get a world class video for a £500 budget. The irony is that for not much more - say £4k, they're very much in with a chance of getting a world class video. 
Am I right in thinking that the main promotional area for band videos right now is YouTube, and does this have a bearing on production values? 
"Yes, and will continue to be for a long time I think, as long as bands can make money from having their videos there. YouTube are extremely keen to encourage more bands to use YouTube for monetisation. Does it have a bearing on production values? Simple and clever videos trump expensive production values on the whole, so yes I guess so. But only in so far as small screen/internet videos are shareable, so shareable is the holy grail now, rather than being playlisted by TV schedulers. 
How would you feel about the assertion – frequently made in an area I work in (voiceovers) - that web sites that offer work can lead to a downward pressure on price? I personally don’t think it’s a major factor at the top end, and that cheaper and more accessible tools can be a significant factor across the board? 
"Yes. I think there is a downward pressure on price. In fact we introduced minimum budgets to stop the worst examples. Some bands really can't afford much, and they have great music, and there's no doubt directors who'd love to make the video anyway. But if you allow one person to post a brief with a budget of £100, then another person with maybe £1000 to spend, thinks 'Oh, I could get a video for £100'. A big challenge for us is making a clear connection between budget and quality. The main issue is not production values so much, as directors have pride. Under £10k, directors are going to be pulling in favours anyway. But it's easier to pull in favours on a £2k video than it is on a £500 video. 
 Back in Brum, David Cawley produced this fantastic video for ADO…. 
...and he's got some thoughts
"The current landscape is: there’s still the big budget projects, but they are few and far between. I think where a lot of video makers get scared is (because) there’s a lot of video material out there, and it’s often bands with me and friends – a bit like me and the ADO.You do things for people – but that undercuts where you used to make your money. There are also vanity projects, which can be quite lucrative. A friend of mine runs a Grime YouTube Channel…
 …where just conceivably there’s might be quite a lot of ego floating about….? 
"You said it… but there are people monetising that. People paying just to get their face on YouTube. But that has led to bigger deals in some cases, where people have built a channel around a brand, with videos and content, and record companies getting involved. If, say, thirty thousand 16 to 20 years olds who all like Grime music, are logging in every day, with a stream on twitter, people who see themselves as wanting music careers try to fast-track that process by buying into that particular channel. 
Which, of course means work comes back to you. But they are buying a reach – but that doesn’t mean they’re any good. 
"Yes, but that doesn’t matter to them! It’s ego. 
Most bands feel they have to have a video 
"But they don’t know why, though. 
And some of the numbers just don’t match the quality. How does that work, what is the payoff? 
Let’s say a cheaply done vid that still costs a substantial sum – say £1500 - but only scores 1500 views over a year, for example, is that cost-effective? Might they be better off shooting themselves on a smartphone and calling people up…? 
"Maybe they should have spent their time making better music, or promoting themselves first. When I work with a band – ADO were a great example – the main thing that I look for is that they have a plan. I believe in their project, and I get exposure. So it was a no-brainer. 
So sometimes it’s a co-operative thing 
"Yes. But with compensations. I got to go to (shoot at) Shambhala for free, which was nice. I don’t like to undercut the profession, but with things like ADO, there were payoffs. And my email’s on the video, and it’s now been seen by 6000 people. 
The bar is being raised all time. What would you suggest? 
"The most common mistake people make is to put the camera first. If an idea is a good idea, if a story is a good story, then it can be shot on anything. If the concept is strong, it will succeed. A video only builds on what you’ve already got. I had a friendly altercation with someone on Facebook who posted a great video, but then mentioned that they did this for £500. Over the conversation they did mention that the person who made the video put hundreds of hours in. 
So, no facts, except that nobody's getting rich here.  Here's the last video clip for this blog,  just out and shot at Highbury Studio in King's Heath, South Birmingham, featuring Hannah and The Gentlemen. Fresh, clever, fun, directed by Merlyn Rice and produced by John Mostyn. 
And when I talked to Hannah, on the night of ADO's 2nd birthday gig, guess what? She wasn't giving any fiscal secrets away either.

Radar Music Videos

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Ten weeks on from Mittwoch

A chat with Jean Nicholson at Birmingham Opera Company

I don’t usually do reviews on this blog; lots people do reviews; that's fine, and I’m grateful for their perspectives. So this isn’t a review piece. I’m just picking through the memories of a past event, because this event, like so many of the other activities I try to cover in Radio To Go, is marked by the people who pour themselves into making it happen. 

Now we’re deep into gloomy Autumn, it’s good to look back at Birmingham Opera Company’s stupendous summer production of Stockhausen’s impossible to sing / play / stage Mittwoch Aus Licht. It got a ton of coverage, of course, and there are bits of it to be found here and there on websites; links are below. 

I loved it. I remember the extraordinary womb-like feeling of sitting down in the dark at the start, and entrusting myself to the company. And when the lights came up again, the number of people wandering around smiling, open-mouthed. And just how many local musicians of all stripes were there. And being amazed and engaged. 

Oh, didn’t they just amaze and engage… 

In the middle of all this is the affable and formidable Jean Nicholson, BOC's general manager. Jean was kind enough – after a barrage of emails - to find time to chat late last month. Up until that point she had been wading through post-event administration.  

The Elysian Quarter and their transport
The string quartet in the sky – The Elysian Quartet in four helicopters, hovering over the Argyle Works, a stones throw from Digbeth on one side and Millenium point on the other– went out to a lot more people than those in the venue itself. 
"It was included in The Space – an initiative from the Arts Council and the BBC – which was planned for the Olympics and now extended. An online platform was created; our contribution to that was twofold. One of which was a trail to Stockhausen, with a dedicated website with lots of information, lots of blogs from people involved. There was also a film project: Eleven young film-makers made films in response to Mittwoch, and that was included on the Space. Three other  films were up there too: films which were edited highlights from the BBC's archive of Stockhausen. 
 A series of performances which were attended by…? 
"It was attended by two thousand, two hundred and forty seven people. In total - the live performances. 
I’m interested in the ripples which went out to a lot more people, one way and another… It flowed out. 
"The helicopter String Quartet was streamed live, on the Space… and two of the big screen sites, one in Birmingham and one in Coventry, also carried the stream, live. Quite late in the day, it also became possible for us to stream the whole performance live, from our website. The whole opera. One performance only. 
And that reached how many people? 
"About four thousand. But the complexity of rights for these is fairly tortuous. As a relatively small organisation, achieving full buy-out is fairly tricky to do. We did get an across the board agreement that one, free, streaming became possible. 
Would this have been easier if you were working with something that was long out of copyright?   
"No. It’s complex. The added complexity of a lot of classical music is that the rights are not merely in the composer – there is then the edition of the music. Rights are payable for the use of a learned edition of a work. If you want to do a Mozart opera, you might think no rights have to be paid. Sadly that’s not the case, unless you’re willing to go to the original source and copy it all out yourself. There is a right in the engraving – the person who inputs in to one of the music notation programmesSibelius or finale - and a right in the edition – two subsidiary rights beyond the intellectual property. 
Given the absolute truckload of admin and management work which all this entails… how rapidly does the company shrink back down after a performance like this? 
"Three days. But there is, around the core of us three, a further core of regular associates. We have a shorthand available, because so many of the people who come in and work with us on these projects, we know very well. That level of familiarity gives you speed and efficiency.
But there is a long extended half-life to your performance. You had the big bang – the week of performances – but there is a resonance afterwards, and that is still going on. 

Lots of camels were featured. Some drank champagne; not these two though
"It was a weirdly bewitching piece. …"
and the echoes and the extra dimensions… 
"It’s a challenge for what is possible. It wasn’t surprising to us that this was a piece that a major opera house couldn’t do. They do a different job. It’s a physical thing: it required two performance spaces. In a weird way, the piece comes to us – because that’s what we do. The skills you need to do it are… probably Graham Vick… but we know a lot of people, we have a lot of friends. There was a building that the Stockhausen estate felt would suit well; they liked the company. At that point, the skill was to put together a very fine, detailed rehearsal process. That why a standard opera house probably couldn’t do it – because you have to put all your resources into it. 
Stupid question: what happened to the stepladders? What about the cushions and foam mattresses? 
"The stepladders went back to scrap metal. The mats were recycled into the music train project that the Cultural Olympiad did. All of the mats went to the floor of the train. 
Picture from Birmingham Aviation Enthusiasts blog 
I noted a huge surge of pride and engagement with the event, even among people who didn’t attend. There were flurries of tweets and Facebook chatter around the helicopters parked up outside Millennium point. When you took the train into New Street, it started a buzz in the train itself. 

To me, people seemed quite proprietorial about the whole thing. And the post-event buzz was fascinating to follow. When you have an event that is so engrossing, and so engaged, that engenders such a sense of passionate involvement…what happens when it comes to an end? 
"Well, that’s not the end of the event for me. I’m not in that headspace. I’m approaching that now. That’s post-production. Richard (Willacy,  Associate Artistic Director) has only just been able to go on holiday now. 
What’s next? 
"We’ve been working on several ideas. The next really big event is a production of Mussorgsky’s Kovanschinaor The Kovansky Conspiracy, as I think we’re going to call it. It’s a really fabulous, big, Russian opera with a most fabulous story. A great, great piece to do. 
"In the run up to that we’re doing a series of much smaller pieces of the project; the first phase of that is going to be in March next year. We’re working on four Mussorgsky songs called the Songs and Dances of Death. They’re a bit macabre, but rather brilliant. So we’re doing some research and experimental work on the translation of those with Alastair Beaton
picture from Uzan Artists
"It’s just for a baritone and pianist, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Eric Greene, who sang ‘Life Is a Dream', will be able to come back and do that. It’s forty minutes, and we’re going to put more resources into distributing it and the whole digital project around it. So the idea is that over a four to five week period – actually the piece is made in the first week – and thereafter it will appear in various pop-up performances. So you could book it for your living room, if you’ve got a piano and you don’t mind somebody filming it. Or workplaces, or shops, or… 
"The idea is to do lots of lots of performances. The live experience in different places, different contexts. But you still get the top guy singing, which is rather fabulous. So that could happen in the Town Hall, it could happen in your living room. It will be both. Attached to that is the notion of participation: local people having the tools and the skill to develop online content. A lot of that emphasis is going into film. We did the first phase of this on Mittwoch, with the resources that came in on to the Space. 
"The Space is continuing past its first phase – there is a commitment from the BBC and the Arts Council to continue for at least the next six months. We will be working on that, people will be filming. We will working with editors… Graham Vick’s going to have a go with that, because he’s never made a film. We’re going to so some sound stuff – more podcasts – just to see what we can generate out of this one small unit of art. It’s challenging stuff. 
"There will be quite a lot of singing to do – so we will be doing some core Birmingham Opera Company vocal work. And we need men. We’ve been doing very well on the men front, but it is notoriously difficult to get men singing. Our rehearsals are open… but it is important that we get out there and encourage people to have a go and get singing….

Birmingham Opera Company would love for you to get involved
The Space
The Elysian Quartet and their video on The Space
Ex Cathedra

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Talking bout my generations: Khaliq

It's taken two or more generations, but British music is now flowing all ways between communities. 
Last month, tickets for the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary gigs sold out in record time; you can still get em for upwards of £400 on Seatwave. Hey, bargain! But just head over to Spotify and dig into those 50 year-old Stones’ R and B covers. Time is NOT on their side. 'Little Red Rooster'? Please - let me suggest Howling Wolf

Mick’n’Keef had a sincere go at Chicago blues back in the day, but looking back today, it all sounds a bit wonky and self-conscious. That wasn’t their fault – they certainly weren’t in control in the studio, and for all the good intentions, it was a big jump, geographically and culturally, from 60s Swinging London... to Chicago or Mississippi. 

But when those 60s English musos dabbled with stuff from way beyond their culture, they really did break new ground. Quite understandably, they didn’t hit the spot to start with. But only six years later, Zeppelin showed up with technique and showbiz chops that left Mick and co in the dust; the ball was rolling. After that, imperfectly, but slowly and surely, things opened up. Which - some time later - brings us to musicians like Khaliq.

Nowadays it’s not a one-way flow, the way it was two generations back. In fact, for the latest generation, some of whom I admire enormously, identity and ethnicity really doesn’t matter; it’s simply not relevant. And that’s a fine thing. Khaliq - the name comes from their lead singer and main writer - have just released an album, recorded at Magic Garden. Now, these boys are not spring chickens; they’ve got over thirty years’ listening shining out of their music. I wondered where Khaliq started off…. 
“When I was a kid? Led Zeppelin. My brother got me the Stairway to Heaven t-shirt. And he played me the album. I’d never heard anything like it. But I listened to everything. Sabbath… massively into Stevie WonderVan Morrison. Then, when I heard Bob Dylan, I didn’t listen to Zeppelin for about six months … Springsteen, WellerTom Petty. Genres didn’t matter. If it did something to me, that’s how I judged it. 
 “So when I started writing songs as a kid, I used to think the only songs I can ever put out have got to do the same thing to others as these songs have done to me. 
Khaliq - World Alone 
How can you judge your own songs? That’s the hardest thing in the world… 
“Not for me. I’ve got a comparison in my head. You know when you go into a studio, and you want to… reference it…to see if it’s got it going on? I’ve got that mad reference in my head. I wish I could get rid of it sometimes.
From listening to what I did, it set a certain standard, a certain level. And I can tell straight away if it’s ‘up’ there. And then we play, it and work it with the band, and see how people react… 
 How do the songs come? 
"Whole songs come. The verse, the second verse, the chorus, the last verse, the story from start to finish. It all rhymes, it all makes sense, and it comes out in five minutes. But some of them, I’ll get the first verse at 13, and the second when I’m 27. It just happens. 
Khaliq - Everybody's Talking 
That was then. Bring me up to now? 
"First band was ‘As We Are’ – heavily into U2. When I first started I started on an acoustic guitar. My brother helped a lot. He was going to gigs; no other Asian lads were going anywhere, but my brother was allowed to go because he had three A levels and eleven O levels. He was top of the school, so the community couldn’t say anything. The community couldn’t slag him off and say he was wasting time with his hair and that. He was like the impeccable Asian kid, but with hair out there, and singing Phil Lynott songs! 
Same old, same old… sounds a lot like my grandparents leaning on my dad to take a respectable career - they were German Jews. So how much pressure did you get from Mum and Dad?
“At first, people weren’t happy. I was supposed to be an accountant or a lawyer. My dad thought it was going to be a phase. After a bit they realised this was everything for me. But there were conflicts. Am I English or am I Asian? Do I go to the mosque, or do I chill out with my mates and have a quick beer? Am I even supposed to have a beer? All this mad stuff going on. But the guitar was the best thing – you can sit in your room on your own, and once you’ve hit the tune – not even a tune a couple of notes… that was it That feeling, it made me like I’ve just done something. And then the words started coming out. 
Khaliq - England 
What about the album, gigs to promote, all that?
“We’re releasing the album (Astral Projections) on iTunes and all the other online places. But we’re doing a big local release, and a big campaign in March. We’re supporting Reverend and the Makers, maybe a support slot with Simon and Oscar from Ocean Colour Scene; I’m writing with Steve Craddock for an acoustic album. He called me a week ago, before flying out to tour with Paul Weller. I’m a massive fan… and he took the album with him to give to Weller. And we’re doing a living-room tour. … 
Khaliq - and the guys in the band are great. Nice guys with passion and interesting perspectives to explore. We could have talked for hours. But as I touched on at the start, what is striking about Khaliq’s situation was how, in two generations, the flow of ideas, and our ability to knowledgeably and respectfully embrace new musics across multiple cultures, and in many cases interpret and re-interpret it with skill and passion, has so completely changed. 

A while back, I did a documentary - Handsworth Evolution - on the post-war generations of Caribbean musicians who came to the UK and saw their music flow into the creative pool. 

There’s another gig coming up soon that highlights this very clearly, when two fine sets of musicians, already featured on this blog – The Beat and Xova, second and third generations respectively - play Birmingham Town Hall on December 15th. Hey, a lot cheaper that the Stones, and it's my guess there'll be a lot more heart to the gig as well. 

It was relatively easy to trace the musical generations for my Handsworth documentary, and slightly harder to try to pinpoint the musical and creative flows out from and back into Asian musicians. I'm pretty sure that this will become clearer in time.