Here is an exceptional resource, if you just started gigging and perform solo. Recently Tom Robinson ran this workshop for BBC Introducing and now he’s written up a full-length guide, in which he really digs deep into first steps of developing solo stagecraft.
Obviously any guide like this is a template not a rule book. But I’ve simply never seen such a brilliant piece, that covers this much ground and includes so much good gigging sense.
I had four additional thoughts (read Tom first though):
1) When you’ve got your friends in…
If you have a room full of strangers but there’s a group of your mates somewhere down the front, it’s very tempting to aim your set at them, or even more riskily, get involved with in-jokes or banter, especially because they’ve come to support you. Resist this as much as possible: the first thing that happens when a performer focuses on friends is that the rest of us, not being part of that, feel left out. Think of it like this: your mates should be the last people you need to win over.
2) Refer to the audience in the singular as much as possible…
This ties in to what Tom says about saying “you” instead of “I” and in fact it’s a trick I learnt as a kid from Phillip Schofield back when he presented Children’s BBC in the broom cupboard with Gordon the Gopher: talk to your audience as if they’re one person. So: “It’s good to see you, thank you for coming,” is better than “It’s good to see so many of you, thank you all for coming,” as subconsciously each person feels directly addressed. You can’t always do it but it’s worth getting into the habit.
3) Have a few ‘stand-up’-style put downs in your pocket…
You will get heckled at some point. It may be cool, it may be nasty. The easiest solution is always to laugh and be nice in response but with a funny line, remembering you’re up onstage with the power of the microphone (and you can say you’re the one “getting paid” to be there, even if you’re not!). However you might want/need to get nastier and remind them what you did to their Mum or Dad last night. But again, be careful not to get caught up in banter. If you focus on one group or person too much, you leave out everyone else.
4) If the gig is very small, don’t be afraid to ditch the stage altogether…
If you’re playing acoustic guitar, in a tiny room holding, say, fewer than 40 people and you’ve got their attention, you may make more impact performing unplugged. People enjoy that extra closeness and somehow think of you as rebellious for eschewing the gear. It’s also still seen as a special talent (or ‘braver’) to play unplugged, where in truth it sounds a lot closer to your rehearsals at home and you can hear yourself better. Only works if the room’s quiet though.
Finally, the one part of Tom’s guide I find myself (mildly) disagreeing with, is when he discusses onstage monitoring. I’d argue that Tom’s own vocal power and experience means he doesn’t rely on monitoring as some singers do (me included). I personally would never ditch the monitors and rely on the PA, or ask for the FOH mix to be in the monitors. I also think it’s not so important to bring a sound engineer to small pub/club shows and can sometimes be detrimental: the house engineer who works at the venue is likely to do as good a job, since s/he already knows the room. And, especially if you’re a support act, it can piss off the house crew, if your engineer starts messing with the desk. Yes, you’ll occasionally find duff / moronic house engineers but gigging on a budget, how good really is the friend you’re bringing? I find it of more value to have someone smart with you for soundcheck, who simply knows how you should sound – but doesn’t want to play with the desk. Your friend can listen from the floor and give suggestions.
Anyway, that’s my 2p for now; even having done almost 2,000 shows myself over 15+ years, I found reading Tom’s piece useful and cringed at a couple of basic errors I still make. So I hugely recommend it.
Before I kick off this entry, a quick plug: if you’re going to Brighton’s Great Escape 2012 as a delegate, I’m pleased to say I’ll be a panellist again this year; contributing to the Focus On DIY panel. It’s on Thurs 10 May at 11.15am. Come down and say hello.
Two contrasting descriptions of songwriting / recording processes are doing the rounds this week (in very different musical circles), so I thought I’d post them both:
First, the New Yorker has John Seabrook’s fascinating profile of top-line hit songwriter Ester Dean, as she works with production duo Stargate to put together smash hits for pop superstars. Dean wrote Rude Girl and S&M for Rihanna and Turn Me On for David Guetta, so you can get a feel of her style; filth. Funnily enough, I’ve long thought of my friend Tim Victor (who wrote Ass To Ass and Juicing Down for Skins) as an undiscovered UK Ester Dean. Anyway, the piece really prises open the top-line process (adding melody and lyric to a beats track in the studio, sorting the arrangement at the same time), if you aren’t already aware of it. For example there’s a great story about how both Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson got the same basic track written by Ryan Tedder and each one added top line melodies/lyrics, resulting in Halo and Already Gone. Clarkson realised the error when she heard Beyonce’s Halo and tried to pull her own single, thinking people would accuse her of copying. Luckily fans didn’t notice, or didn’t care – well worth a back-to-back of those two tracks:
(clearly, one’s ‘just’ a hit, the other’s a smash…)
Some comments found the New Yorker piece disheartening, because it shows vividly how ‘box ticking’ (and carefully constructed) this kind of songwriting is, prioritising craft and arrangement over art. But I found it reassuring: you still can’t write a smash ‘to order’. You know instantly, as a feeling rather than a thought process, when you have one. And I especially liked how fragile these guys’ world is; that they end the piece nervous about Adele’s global success, fearful that it may usher in a whole new style to replace their multi-hooked R&B sex pop.
And funnily enough, on the latest episode of US musical series Smash (*spoiler alert!*), the Broadway director (Jack Davenport) proposes adding some of this Rihanna-ish songwriting style into the show’s Marilyn musical. It’s a disaster. Coincidentally Ryan Tedder plays himself in this episode (and I bet he wrote the song they use).
Secondly, Ron Aniello, producer of Springsteen’s new LP Wrecking Ball, did a US radio interview that unpicks the fresh production and cunning new sonic ideas that he brought to the project:
One gem from this interview is that Aniello added Clarence Clemons’ (final) sax solo to Land Of Hope And Dreams without actually telling Bruce, by transposing and subtly editing the solo from a previous recorded version. They reached the mixdown before Springsteen heard it. Must’ve been an intense moment.
He also addresses the key torture of being a Springsteen producer: working hard on a record, being very proud of it, then having to witness the E Street Band knock the songs into a different dimension live.
I’m very proud to say I have an essay in the first New Public Thinkers book, available now. Edited by Dougald Hine and Keith Kahn-Harris, the book is called Despatches From The Invisible Revolution and includes some breathtaking writing from the likes of Pat Kane, Keri Facer, Noah Raford, Vinay Gupta, Smári McCarthy and many others.
We were asked to write about 2011 as a fulcrum year. My contribution The Year Punk Broke seeks a connection between last year’s accelerated global changes and our personal ability to grow and change.
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” – John Lydon
“They’re just a band.” – Scroobius Pip
If you’re remotely interested in live music (or just fucked off when you can’t get tickets for a show without paying double face value) then last night’s Dispatches programme was essential viewing (watch it on 4OD). It exposed the reality of ‘fan-to-fan’ ticket reselling websites like Viagogo and Seatwave; that they’re actually just online touting; regardless of any stated business model, they primarily cater to professional touts and promoters of major shows, such as SJM, LiveNation and Metropolis, who collude by allocating them batches of prime tickets, to make more money than face value.
Grim stuff, yet it was nothing one couldn’t expect or predict if one thinks about it for more than a few seconds.
However the investigation left out three points that I think could’ve been covered with equal vigour:
First, because Dispatches approached the issue solely from a consumer point of view, they failed to follow the money and investigate bands and their agents’ relationships with those promoters who’ve bumped up profits by re-selling. A fascinating (and potentially explosive) question is: do bands and their agents get a share of that extra profit, or not? Promoters and artists split profits of a sold out show, based (presumably) on number of seats times ticket price equals overall gross income. How is that calculated? Are the big artists being diddled, or are they complicit?
I ask because it will be terrific fun to watch, if it turns out promoters have ripped off some of the biggest names in music by reselling their tickets above the agreed sums, without passing on any of the profit. Unlike us humble punters, these bands have the resources and wherewithal to fight back, if they so choose. Or, if they’re complicit, they would make a much more effective target for consumer groups to attack, by publicly shaming the likes of Coldplay or Rihanna or Will Young, rather than the comparatively anonymous promoters.
Secondly, Dispatches should’ve investigated the perfectly legal and now almost universal, yet immensely damaging, exclusive closed pre-sales to owners of certain mobile phones or users of other services that have a relationship with the venue but no connection to the artist. By giving a specific group of people priority access to tickets, regardless of whether they’re a fan, surely the secondary market is being massively further nourished, while real fans are locked out in the cold. Arguably these pre-sales are actually worse for fans than plain touting, since they normalise the reselling process and turn otherwise normal ticket buyers into touts, for the bands they didn’t want to see but felt obliged to ‘take advantage of an offer’ on.
(I don’t mean pre-sales to artists’ own mailing lists or fan clubs, by the way, that would seem to me to be a perfectly logical and reasonable process.)
Finally, I would’ve loved to see Dispatches widen the investigation to look at the whole process of brand sponsorship of elements of the entertainment industry. If you’re an artist playing to 2,000+ people in the UK right now, it’s almost impossible to do that without becoming a tacit advertiser of O2. It’s not the Brixton Academy anymore, it’s the O2 Academy Brixton. Even smaller venues are increasingly branded. Yet did you know that if you purchase a t-shirt at a gig, the band aren’t getting all the money – the venues take as much as 25% of all income from merchandise, despite being supposedly ‘supported’ by a brand sponsor? Almost no bands are able to fight this – even the ‘guaranteed sellout’ bands who know they’ll fill a venue, make a venue and promoter a heap of money in drink sales as well as their share of ticket revenue, still are unable to work out individual deals to keep all the money from their merch sales. So one solution you increasingly find happening is artists and their management quietly supporting and supplying the ‘bootleg’ merch sellers outside the venue, to claw back some of that revenue…
and da-dah! …the system gets even more fucked and corrupted.
I have mixed feelings about this Dispatches. Although touting is fucking irritating and further snags up an already messy business, if punters weren’t so obsessed by certain hyped huge shows that they pay ridiculous amounts over the odds, it simply wouldn’t happen. Moaners seem to be calling for some kind of legislation to regulate an industry over and above other industries, simply on the basis of an annoyance factor. I hate it when otherwise-happy Capitalists do that, it’s one of the worst, nimby-est bits of liberalism. Last night on Twitter I called it a #sheeptax but nobody reacted (probably for the best!).
Anyway, there’s an economic case for saying it is proof that these shows are under-priced (ha! This isn’t something I actually believe, by the way) – a secondary market only exists while fans are willing to pay. So Madonna took a shit-load of heat recently (including from me) for saying her tickets should be £180, yet once you average the touted price with the official £60 face value Coldplay tickets, they actually came out at roughly the same figure. Many, many people paid £200+ to see Coldplay at the O2. Well, ultimately, do they really want my sympathy? Who’s the bigger fool?
So yes, it’s an appalling practice. But if people resolved tomorrow that they wouldn’t pay above face value, even if that means sometimes missing a show they wanted to see, pouf! the trade vanishes in a cloud of smoke.
I just had a killer idea for selling advance tickets to concerts online – a way of migrating ‘pay what you want’ across to the live music world, without having to do loads of gigs for £1.50. I think someone needs to build this app (or Eventbrite and other online sellers need to add it as an option). By the way, if this is already happening somewhere and I just missed it, I’ll happily stand corrected.
The ‘pay what you want’ model (popularised by Radiohead I guess) is now widely used by artists to sell downloads. It’s available as an option on Bandcamp for example; I tried it myself for 2010’s Christmas download and it worked beautifully. But to my knowledge nobody has set it up for gigging in a way that works: Eventbrite does have a ‘donation’ based ticketing option but it has two deal-breaking flaws: 1) they still charge a booking fee on the donation (!) and 2) if you reach capacity mainly from people who donated nothing, you can’t then prioritise those people who donated more. You get a room full of people who valued the experience at zero and turned away some folks who were willing to donate a chunk. So here’s a simple twist on the system that would make it beautiful:
Pay-what-you-like but the promoter can keep offering tickets after capacity has been reached. At close of sale (based either on a fixed point in time, or on a total amount of money donated), the highest offers (bids/donations) are the people who get the tickets and have their money taken.
The promoter can even set a cut-off point, so they want to earn a fixed amount and (once capacity has been reached) the system keeps prioritising higher offers (bids) until that amount is reached, then cuts off – which will still allow some lower bids access to the show. Meanwhile punters can keep checking back on a gig’s popularity and raise their bid / donation if they start worrying they won’t get it. It needs to be open to be fair, I guess.
*EDIT* and I guess it needs a reserve amount too, below which the gig doesn’t happen!? Hadn’t thought of that…
I bet this would be a relatively simple add-on for an advanced system like Eventbrite or The Big Cartel. (Not to even mention good old WeGotTickets, because they’ve got some catching up to do)
*EDIT* Luke Beesley (@LukeTotD) has found a catch: it makes life tricky for people who travel to gigs via public transport, since there’s an element of risk involved, yet you get much cheaper public transport bought in advance. And you’re more likely to want to donate *less* if you have to travel, because of the total cost involved. Yes, this is a problem.
I wonder if you could include in the model an option for a ‘secure it now’ price, for people who don’t like the risk. This would have the added bonus of encouraging gig prices upwards (from my point of view that’s a bonus since I fundamentally believe most non-‘heritage genre’ or ‘tribute’ small live music events are currently underpriced), while taking the risk out for those willing to pay a little more. It’d also be fun and perhaps, with a forum-style comment space under the ticket thing, create more of a community out of gig goers?
Am I now over-thinking it all? Comments welcome below, as always…
*BIG EDIT* Rhodri Marsden made a strong critique of the idea on ideological grounds on Facebook, and he’s agreed I can add our conversation in below:
I thought “Wow! that’s a good idea!”. And then I thought, no, it’s not. The reason it works for music is that there isn’t a finite number of products. If people want to pay more, then they can. That’s fine. But excluding people from gigs because people with more disposable income pushed ahead of them in the queue just seems a bit crap.
Gigs shouldn’t be about exclusivity. Certainly not in our world. Part of the reason it’s nice is cos everyone has paid a tenner to be there. Except the freeloaders, but I don’t believe in freeloading either and always pay even if I’m on the guest list. (I’m rambling now. I also appear to have become more left-wing in the last 3 minutes than I thought I was.)
my starting position (which you may disagree with) is that most small gigs (discounting ‘heritage genre’, ‘tribute bands’ and ‘lineup of local hopefuls’) are currently underpriced. Secondly, surely this system is no more exclusive than setting a fixed price in the first place? I believe a key to the gig industry is the disconnect between what promoters and artists believe people will / can pay for live music and reality. The myth is: people won’t pay £10 for a evening of live music but they’ll pay £8.50 for the cinema. To counter your ‘exclusivity’ issue, you can still run the ‘auction’ but stick in a ‘buy it now’ price.
Oh right. Yes. For some reason in my head we were talking about a room full of people who’d paid £20 squeezing out those who could only afford a fiver. If it’s a roomful of people paying a tenner squeezing out those who are only paying a measly quid, somehow it becomes more palatable.
In many places in the country a glass of wine in a bar costs almost £5. I’m not feeling bad about people only prepared (able) to pay that, perhaps (sometimes) getting edged out. But fundamentally, folks would set their own levels.
But doesn’t supply & demand economics set gig pricing levels in any case? Popular gigs cost more money, less popular gigs don’t. I don’t think there’s going to be a rush of people (say) desperate to pay £15 to watch something at the Buffalo Bar.
MY FAVOURITE ALBUMS OF 2011
I think it’s been a fantastic year for LPs. Even if fewer punters want to listen to whole records, still the classiest talents want to make them. How did Decemberists, Sam Duckworth, She Makes War, The Horrors, MJ Hibbett, Standard Fare, EMA, Grace Petrie, tUnE-yArDs, Metronomy and Matt Creer not even make it into my Top 10? All made superb records in 2011. But oh no they di’in’t, my 10 favourites are…
1 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
2 Scroobius Pip – Distraction Pieces
3 Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
4 The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient
5 Nicola Roberts – Cinderella’s Eyes
6 British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
7 Something Beginning With L – Beautiful Ground
8 Fucked Up – David Comes To Life
9 Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
10 Tom Williams & The Boat – Too Slow
The Muppets – ‘Am I A Man Or Am I A Muppet?’
Standard Fare – ‘Darth Vadar’
Joanna Neary – ‘Youth Club’ closing song
Franz Nicolay – ‘Do The Stuggle’
Jim Bob – ‘Mr Blue Sky’
James Blake – ‘A Case Of You’
This Is The Kit – ‘Easy Pickings’
tUnE-yArDs – ‘Bizzness’
The Singing Adams – ‘The Old Days’
Hugh Laurie – ‘Swanee River’
Second annual honourable mention for Jon Boden’s Folk Song A Day project, which in June successfully completed a new recording of a traditional tune every day for a year. Inspiring and brilliant. Also excellent was Darren Hayman’s January Songs, where he wrote and shared a new song each day for a month. Insightful into process.
FAVOURITE GIGS OF THE YEAR (AUDIENCE)
Carter USM, Tim Ten Yen at Edenfest, Mr Spoons’ garden, south-east London
Clowns at The Hydrant, Brighton
ONSIND and others at Book Yer Ane Fest 5, Dexter’s, Dundee
Robyn at The Roundhouse, London
Jim Jones Revue at Blissfields 2011
Midwinter Picnic 3 at West Hill Hall, Brighton
Tom Williams & The Boat, My First Tooth, She Makes War, The Borderline
The Singing Adams at The Basement, Brighton
Frank Turner, Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo, Franz Nicolay at Newport Centre
Dive Dive at The Frog & Fiddle, Cheltenham
FAVOURITE GIGS OF THE YEAR (PLAYED)
In 2011 I did 112 shows (solo, Hoodrats, Milne, activist stuff, short spots and a few public talks). This top 10 is just based on how much I enjoyed the time onstage – doesn’t mean much about the whole night, or audience quality, or even how well I played. It’s just that magic (hard to explain) ‘thing’ onstage:
1 Laurence, Jølle and Kenneth’s basement party, Copenhagen
2 The Hoodrats in Cheltenham, Swindon & Art Uncut gig, London
3 Falmouth University on their new Yamaha CF6 grand piano
4 Carter USM, me and Tim Ten Yen in Neil’s garden
5 Cambridge Portland, supported by MJ Hibbett and Anna Madeleine
6 The Church stage at Indietracks Festival
7 frantic Pecha Kucha talk about Twitter and post-Capitalism at Brighton Digital Festival
8 Edinburgh Fringe – pretty much the whole thing, especially the final two weeks
9 York, maybe Edinburgh and/or Reading on Franz Nicolay’s tour
10 Robin Ince’s late night show, Comedy Stage, End Of The Road Festival
Honorable mention to Matt Creer’s brilliant gig in a church in Douglas on the Isle Of Man, which was magic but for the absence of some Manxie friends. Also honourable mention to the Aberdeen Lost & Found show where (entirely coincidentally) the stage set was toilets, because they’d had a play on set in a public loo.
FAVOURITE TV OF THE YEAR
Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle
Game Of Thrones
The Shadow Line
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Bruce Parry’s Arctic
The 10 O’Clock Show
(I’m sure The Killing and The Slap would be in here but I haven’t watched them yet)
*EDIT* just realised (watching Adam Curtis on the Screenswipe review of 2011) that I forgot the magnificent series All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. Stick that in at number #1 and drop the 10 O’Clock Show off the list. 🙂
FAVOURITE OTHER CULTURAL THINGS
1. Isy Suttie ‘Pearl & Dave’ at Edinburgh Fringe
2. Adam Curtis’ BBC archive blogs
3. collection of English and Scottish ballads Franz Nicolay found me in Buxton, published in 1868
4. Private Eye, a vintage year for Hislop & co.
5. Joanna Neary ‘Youth Club’ at Edinburgh Fringe and the Three And Ten, Brighton
6. Jason Burke – The 9/11 Wars (book)
7. Louis CK’s Beacon Theatre $5 special
8. debate about protest songs at Interrogate! Festival in Dartington Hall
9. Caitlin Moran – How To Be A Woman (book)
10. Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast, thanks to Franz Nicolay
11. Margaret Cho at Edinburgh Fringe and Brighton Comedy Festival
12. Boring 2011 (even though I only saw 2 hours)
13. Tom Price ‘Say When’ at Edinburgh Fringe
14. MJ Hibbett & Steve’s ‘Moon Horse’ at Edinburgh Fringe
15. Charlotte Young and Mark Dean Quinn’s Darwin show
16. Josie Long in various places
17. revisiting Chomsky vs Foucault
18. Crunch Festival in Hay-on-Wye
honorable mention: Jim Bob’s second novel is extraordinary and brilliant but I’ll list it when it’s published (2012 I believe).
HERO OF THE YEAR
Time Magazine named ‘the protester’ and I agree. Specifically, my heroes of the year are: UK Uncut, Anonymous, Art Uncut, @BendyGirl and The Hardest Hit, Josie Long and Neil Griffiths’ Arts Emergency campaign and the global Occupiers.
VILLAIN OF THE YEAR
Of course: government, bankers, corrupt media and the tax dodging corporates are ugly villains but I’ve got a personal one this year: celebrity conductor Charles Hazlewood. He briefly got involved with a project developing an orchestra for musicians with disabilities, which UK charity Drake Music had been working on for years. But when his participation didn’t work out and he walked away, suddenly he was developing his own near identical project with TV production company What Larks. I wrote about it in the Morning Star and Private Eye picked up the story – but mainstream press steered clear, with the Evening Standard even publishing a puff piece for his plans. I can’t imagine much worse than stealing ideas from a charity.