Walt Disney talked about his creative process when making films and the importance of ensuring that the creative process didn’t have premature editing. Too much editing or definition too soon in the process often stopped the creative flow really taking place. Many other artists have noticed that often many of the best creative ideas come from just trying stuff out whether this is musically or lyrically.
The Brian Eno influence
My good friend Tim Booth who is the longstanding singer with the band James, often talked about how the band would jam for hours and see what emerged. Both he and Brian Eno often used this approach in creating music when there was a deliberate absence of definition/editing in the first part of the creative process. They used this extensively on creating the Laid album which their first collaboration with Eno. The improvised sessions that created the laid tracks also produced a second album Wah Wah.
Brian also liked to throw curveballs when producing and created a set of cards called Oblique Strategies. Each card would randomly give a suggestion of what to do in the session. Each card contains a phrase or cryptic remark which can be used to break a deadlock or dilemma situation. Some are specific to music composition; others are more general.
Use an old idea.
State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
Only one element of each kind.
What would your closest friend do?
What to increase? What to reduce?
Are there sections? Consider transitions.
Try faking it!
Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
Work at a different speed.
The Provocative Change Works cards – provoke creative change
Interestingly in my own work when working with clients I developed a set of cards in my own provocative changes work. Each card will provoke a new response which takes the session from becoming too “digital, logical, sequential” and cerebral.
In my own musical projects there’s a fascinating overlap in my coaching and musical work. I’m fully convinced that adding this random element “provokes” and/or stimulates all manner of new possibilities that make for a far more creative and accelerated outcome.
When definition is essential
In producing creative work and in general life, there’s an absolute need for definition unless you are lucky enough to have a very wealthy benefactor! There’s an old joke in the music industry
Q ‘How do you make a million pounds in the music industry?”
A ‘Start off with two million!”
In strategic thinking its important to be able to prioritize and plan time to best effect. One of the ways of doing this is to consider the following
What do I need to do?
What do I want to do?
What would I like to do?
Each of these questions produces the hierarchy of importance in the situation. “Needs’ usually non-negotiable, wants and likes usually are negotiable. For a guitarist in order to play, they need a guitar. They may want or like the idea of a 1959 Les Paul, but they don’t need one of those in order to play music
In situations where there seem to be too many options, the following question is usually very helpful
What is the SINGLE SMALLEST STEP that is most useful to take in the situation?
Of course with The Advertising Standards Authority advertisers can be held to account for deliberately misleading the public with claims. CAP advice in relating to ASA is
“Superlative claims may be either fully superlative, for example, “Superior Cleaning Compared To An Ordinary Toothbrush” (Colgate-Palmolive, 18 July 2001) and “Greater cleaning efficiency” (Argos Ltd, 21 April 2004) or top-parity claims, for example, “Nothing washes whiter than X”. Either way, marketers will be expected to substantiate the truthfulness and accuracy of a superlative claim and will need to hold documentary evidence”
Of course some misleading claims are easy to spot when people makes claims about “size”. The most recent USA presidential inauguration claim is a great example of this and the USA president continues to use exaggerations and superlatives on an almost daily basis on Twitter. As The Washington Times noted
“Nothing is ever merely “good,” or “fortunate.” No appointment is merely “outstanding.” Everything is “fantastic,” or “terrific,” and every man or woman he appoints to a government position, even if just two shades above mediocre, is “tremendous.” The Donald never met a superlative he didn’t like, himself as the ultimate superlative most of all”
On social media in particular there seems an increasing tendency to use terms like “awesome” and “unique” There’s of course nothing wrong with such terms and some experiences can indeed be awesome and unique, BUT when almost everything is described in this way the effect is to dilute l impact for the reader. This dilution effect is even more when the terms are used repeatedly in the same paragraph of copy. In my experience this can happen for a number of reasons.
Sometimes the person writing copy or posting has a limited favorite vocabulary and doesn’t fully appreciate the effect of repeatedly posting the same terms. In other instances the individual is so excited in what they are describing they forget to think about how its being perceived by a third party.
The changing face of marketing and less is often more
The world of marketing is changing at some rate. Traditional exaggerated claims are increasingly viewed with caution by customers and of course social media feedback has led to a new form of scrutiny. Similarly claims that suggest massive priced drops like “Normal price is X, but now the price is Y (huge discount) and “Last few items available!” often don’t have the same impact as in days gone by. My own view is that businesses need to be more transparent in their dealings and increasingly focus on what they have to offer is genuinely unique. Some businesses adopt a scatter gun approach to marketing, so customers become overwhelmed with choice. This is also not especially wise as it also dilutes effect. Often the person writing copy is far too hyperactive and tries to be all things to all people. More often than not they lose customer confidence by this approach and would do far better by pacing how they market and focus more specifically on USPs.
The recording process for “Tales of Dark and Light” is very different to how I have worked before. Most of the tracks are initially worked up on the ukulele, but the difference with these recordings is that the vocal melodies are then worked up to piano. The piano is extremely unforgiving and I continue to be surprised and impressed by how well this works.
Today I was working on a new track “Grey Skies” and this is an excellent example of figuring out exactly what works in terms of the right rhythm and getting the best lyrical expression. I’m reminded that the piano is a percussive instrument and as my producer comments “There’s nowhere to hide!” We are back in the studio in two weeks to add additional vocals and harmonies to the six tracks already recorded. Carl Rosamond continues to do a superb job recording, mixing and mastering this material.
Some of the tracks are stripped back to a single instrument and vocals and others with be quite multi layered with some really superb musicians. Although material is written on ukes, the finished tracks have a variety of instruments including double bass, piano, violin, percussion. I’m looking at adding banjo and lap steel to further tracks. This is proving to be a wonderfully creative period and I have absolutely no idea how it will turn out, but for now it’s one hell of a ride!
After I get back from playing in New York, I’ll be back in the studio with guest musicians Phil Doleman and Laurent Zeller. Both are absolutely top draw musicians and its fascinating to hear these tracks take shape. Agi’s vocals and harmony vocals also add a different dimension to these recordings and although there is a big variety of material, its very recognizable as having a definite theme.
I just received a mix of “When the pain begins” with the violin part from Laurent who is based in France. His sound has become a key part of this album and sits perfectly with the vocals and other instruments. This is proving to be a very different album in many ways and a lot of the material is very stripped back to just piano and vocals and/or ukulele vocals and violin. Carl Rosamond producing this material and is doing a superb job as usual. I’m playing a variety of instruments including a Pete Howlett Tenor ukulele and my old go to uke, the Shimo Comet 3 that features on so many recordings.
We are back in the studio later this month to record a new track “The Other Me” and then back with Laurent flying in from France and other guest musicians for mid April to record more tracks including an instrumental. My plan is to release this alongside the announcement of the big musical project, which will be back end of 2018 or early 2019. Its an absolute joy to be writing and recording original material with such superb musicians.
Let me start by saying that social media platforms, blogs and forums are in my view here to stay and are a terrific way to connect on a global basis. There’s a great deal of positives in various online and social media behaviours, but like any medium of communication it can be used and abused in all manner of ways. In my other life I work with resolving problematic client behaviours, so whether I like it or not I generally have a radar for such matters and here are a few thoughts. Some of the stuff online is so crazy that you really couldn’t make it up!
The amplification & distortion factor
Social media platforms and online forums often create a very distorted world for many people. Individuals can behave in very odd and ill advised ways which they would never do in real life situations. These platforms create a global reach for individuals and businesses in a way nobody could have dreamed of in past times, BUT this comes at a price. This year Facebook officially hit 2 billion users, almost a 17% increase from 2016 and making it the world’s most popular social networking site. Many people are literally addicted to FB and live in the FB world with endless posting. Its also increasingly acknowledged that many people get their “news” via social media and other online forums which also often creates a very distorted picture of what is going on in the world.
The disassociated nature of social media platforms means people can often blast out unfiltered thoughts that can result in all manner of negative personal and business implications . In extreme cases individuals can find themselves in libelous situations and often its possible to even destroy a business brand simply by not thinking before posting online.
Social Media Backlash
Business owners, promoters and artists can engage in using social media to create all manner of distorted impressions often suggesting “big is best” and a level of exclusivity that is mostly manufactured by careful online manipulations. Sometimes companies can spent substantial amounts of money on adverts that can receive a massive backlash on social media.
Social media and other online discussion platforms create instant feedback opportunities and these can result in a domino effect that just escalates and escalates, especially if there is a lot of negative feedback. A recent example is a new travel company advert which was a big budget production, but generated a huge amount of negative press on social media, blogs and on forums. I feel sorry for the singer who now is forever negatively described on Google This is a bit unfair as I know that singer has done far better work and this very short clip is not a true representation of her skills. Even worse many attributed the actress in the clip as being the singer, so her reputation similarly received a lot of negativity. This is another example of online perceptual distortions, which are increasingly common these days.
The acclaimed restaurant that didn’t exist
Increasingly people look to review sites in making purchasing choices. Once again this can be used to great effect BUT also can create a very distorted picture of reality and often people believe 100% of what they read online…
Recently a freelance writer created a restaurant in London which became one of the most highly rated restaurants in London with stunning reviews in TripAdvisor. It was talked about endlessly on social media. There was one small problem – IT DIDN’T EXIST IN REAL LIFE
According to The Washington Post
“He listed its location as the street he lived on with no address, calling it an “appointment-only restaurant,” to make himself less vulnerable to fact-checkers and would-be customers.
And then, Butler writes, the first miraculous thing happened: It was approved by TripAdvisor to be listed in May. The restaurant started out as the 18,149th ranked restaurant in the city: dead last.
So he began having family and friends flood the site with fake but real-seeming reviews.
“Spent a weekend in London and heard through the grapevine that this place is a must-visit,” one chimed in. “After a few mildly frustrating phone calls I was in.”
Some reviewers included some vaguely unsavory details seemingly meant to enhance their credibility: one wrote about being offered a blanket with a stain, but still gave the restaurant five stars. Out of the 104 reviews left on the site by early December, more than 100 were for five stars, its top rating. The remainder? Four stars.”
Grand announcements for imminent departures
Many people who spend significant times on social media can begin to attribute a quite ludicrous sense of importance to such platforms. FB in particular ban become their whole world and this again creates all manner of status and attention seeking.
One of the funniest comments I have seen in recent times online was when someone suggsted
“This is not like an airport, you don’t need to announce any departures…”
This usually results in grand announcements of imminent departures, often I suspect hoping for mass calls of “PLEASE STAY!” This kind of behaviour of course assumes an extraordinary level of self importance. This is classic attention/status seeking behavior and in many cases such individuals can’t stay away for long as their sense of importance comes from their online participation usually on a daily basis. There seems to be a compulsion to announce all thinking without any kinds of filters.
Examples of this social media behaviour include
“I’m thinking of withdrawing from posting on this thread” (while posting this comment and adding to the thread content)
“I’m sickened by reading some of the posts here each day” (while continuing to read EVERY SINGLE post and pm others about them)
Of course simply not commenting or announcing one’s “thoughts” means that you don’t remain the center of attention…
Often even if such individuals they don’t have any actual “news”, they will post comments like
“I’m thinking positive thoughts”
This maintain ongoing commentary and ensures that the poster remains in the spotlight for discussions. Its another sign of social media hyperactivity.
Blocking on social media?
Sometimes to preserve your own sanity with the craziness online its a very good idea to firewall or block those characters that endless contribute to the noise level. I am a fan of fire walling or blocking against such characters which makes social media a far more pleasant experience. Let me be clear I’m happy to debate with others with strong and different experience, but some people can’t manage basic good manners. I have absolutely no problem with people expressing opinions (although the above statement makes no sense on any level) but I don’t really have the inclination or disposable time to engage with such folks.
The strangest and funniest comment was from one character in recent times was –
“NICK CODY – CHILL YOUR FUCKING BOOTS”
I’ve commented on this before as its more than a bit odd to say the least, especially as he is described as “a social media manager” It will however appear as a lyric in a song at some point, so at least the exchange had some use!
Keep your sense of humor and sanity
Social media is here to stay. The good news is that you can now literally connect with people all across the world. The bad news is that you can now connect with people all across the world. Personally I always welcome good debate and respect people who stick to their views even if I disagree. I have always found that a good sense of humor demonstrates good emotional intelligence and people who take themselves way too seriously tend to be too full of their own sense of self importance.
I have met some terrific people online who are now friends in real life. Ultimately of course social media is simply a medium for communication. It can be used to great effect as well as being totally crazy and quite destructive. There’s no requirement to reply to questions online or feel “driven to comment” on other’s views.
Social media platforms can be massively inspirational and useful. With the OUS platform we have over 3000 members and on the main OUS page (www.originalukulelesongs.com) there are 115 artists with their own individual pages. All those artists came from social media. In my view the key to useful interactions is ensuring there are respectful discussions and good manners. Also its useful to define the purpose of any group, so conversations are on topic. We can agree to disagree but nobody is trying to dictate to everyone else about how they should think and behave!
Finally to paraphrase Groucho Marx –
“These are my opinions. If you don’t like them, I have others”
“I recommend my students not to be professional unless they really have to be. I tell them, ‘If you love music, sell Hoovers or be a plumber. Do something useful with your life.’
Let me firstly clarify what I mean by “professional musicians” and “hobbyists”
A professional of any sort supports themselves financially from their craft. A hobbyist is someone who may play music, but their primary income is derived from other means, even though they may generate some income from musical activities.
The Oxford dictionary definition is
“Engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as an amateur”
I would not class myself as a professional musician in this respect and have absolutely no intentions of ever being one either. I am however a professional trainer and consultant with global reach which also allows me to fund musical activities and create musical platforms I believe in. I know many seasoned professionals with decades of experience and I know how hard they work. I also know how there’s usually a massive commercial pressure to deliver on the record company’s investment. I’d never personally wish to be in that situation, but I am grateful that others go down that path.
The Playing for exposure issue and other constraints
Recently there have once again been numerous conversations online about artists playing “for exposure” also known as play for free. Many of these are hobbyists and I am increasingly hearing that this presents all manner of problems for professional musicians. Of course, this is all about balance and there is IMO a place for both, but from what I hear this trend can lead to professionals being edged out by hobbyists as promoters see this as a cheaper financial option. This all depends on context and promoters need to attract customers, so artists with a following will always be an attractive proposition.
The problem is often that the professional artists are the ones that suffer as promoters reduce fees. This is certainly the case with niche music festivals where promoters have application forms asking what performers want for a fee which although can be seen to be reasonable on one level, has been seen by many as reducing earnings as many hobbyists will play for free and even pay their own expenses to try to “get exposure”.
Another problem is that for the hobbyist their day job which pays the bills will need to take priority over other pursuits. This can mean that if their professional work beckons they may have to cancel a gig at the last moment, so both promoter and the audience is left hanging. Similarly, a hobbyist will often struggle to play more than 20 miles away from home, whereas professionals will be used to travelling hundreds of miles as that’s the work that pays the mortgage! The result can then be that locally the audiences only see the exact same artists month in month out…
The Trades in Business
Its useful to remember that in any good business relationship there is a trade that is equally beneficial to both parties involved. The “trade” is not always measured in financial terms. Some new artists genuinely benefit from getting audience exposure and in their early days are not usually going to be in a position to demand a good fee.
As someone with a background in business, a lot of what I see in “the music business” makes little sense to me and both performers and promoters can find themselves in an endless cycle where the benefits are increasingly diminished, and the quality of the music suffers. Social media is extremely important in promoting artist interest, BUT can also create a really distorted view as well. Many artists who post an event on FB where X number of “friends” commit online to attending, often find that the real-life figure is significantly less. Understandably many individuals are also looking at new models to promote music and I applaud such initiatives, BUT any new label that makes statements such as “the directors do not take any salary from this business” should IMO be viewed with some caution. The sentiment is admirable but any long-term business success means balancing time and money.
The Importance of multiple income streams
Professionals appreciate the importance of predictable income and all the professional artists I know have multiple income streams that often include teaching 1 – 1, running workshops, selling merchandise, playing gigs and festivals as well as selling digital and physical products. Even though there is a reassurance in vinyl sales any artist would be extremely foolish to avoid digital distribution for their music in this day and age. Of course its always a balancing act and for many artists merchandise sales are more profitable that musical products. I remember in 1990’s talking to my good friend Tim Booth lead singer from James about this exact issue. The band made sizable income from their T Shirts, far more than from their record deal. Tim’s been in “the music business” for over three decades and I massively admire his dedication to making music as well as being in awe of his work rate.
Balancing Time and Money – music promotions
In niche music circles I see all manner of fundamental mistakes made in marketing and promotions and I have stopped giving well intentioned advice from my own business background! The key mistakes are lack of proper pacing in advertising and ill-considered pricing. This has resulted in many festivals closing because the key ingredients of balancing time and money have not been properly addressed. This is understandable as in niche circles many promoters are running events as a hobby and it’s not a full time professional job. This is in no way intended as a negative comment but simply an observation. I pointed this out in an article earlier in the year, which provoked fury from many hardcore enthusiasts and then exactly as predicted a longstanding festival suddenly threw in the towel commenting in the press
“We’ve never been in this to make money – it’s not a business, it’s a club”
I totally admire the sentiment, BUT unless you balance time and money, most ventures will fail unless you have a wealthy benefactor. Any event where the promoter has a budget of tens of thousands of pounds, in my view would be wise to consider running an event as being a business venture with careful attention to balancing time and money. This is my personal opinion which comes from having to deliver in a business context. I also have no problems with folks who treat such promotions as a part time hobby, but there can be quite severe consequences if you can’t balance the books.
So, before I receive another mass firing of arrows in my direction, let me be clear that I 100% applaud anyone who seeks to promote the arts, but a few tweaks would IMO make for a much better end result. Another niche festival due to go live early 2018 had not done any updates to their main website which in my view is missing a trick, especially as there is clear interest on social media for more up to date news on the event. This is all basic business sense and of course often business success is about paying attention to such crucial details. All of this is 100% my opinion of course and I welcome other different viewpoints. There’s no right or wrong, just different outcomes. My own view is that events and festivals have a better chance of success if there’s good attention to balancing the books. Similarly with artists balancing time and money will make for a greater chance of audience reach, although this is increasingly a tough task and I admire anyone going this route.
In my view professionals and hobbyists are equally important, but serve different functions and its useful to think of them in this respect.
Tales of Dark and Light started off as an EP, but now is going to be a full blown album as the creative ideas just keep coming. This is very different to the material I have written for The Small Change Diaries and although the tracks were written on ukuleles, many of the tracks don’t feature ukes and on “He’s shooting blanks” I simply do vocals, with Adrian Knowles on double bass and Alice Higgins on piano. Dave Bowie plays double bass on other full ensemble tracks and Rich Ferdi provides superb percussion on “Dunning Kruger Blues” and “No more street parties” Paul Conway also plays piano on “Here in the silence” The superb Laurent Zeller plays violin on the first four tracks recorded for this project.
Last Monday was a marathon session in the studio from 10 am – 8.30 pm without a break. This was the first time recording with vocalist and keyboard player Agi who is a seriously talented individual. The two latest tracks are really stripped back and very different to anything else I have done. “When the pain begins” is simply piano with myself on vocals and Agi on harmony vocals. “Say what you mean” is another stripped back song with me playing by Pete Howlett Makore tenor and the two of us doing vocals. What I like about both these tracks is that although each is just one instrument and vocals, its a really big sound.
Carl Rosamond continues to weave his magic with mixing and mastering. This Friday I’ll be back in the studio with him working on the mixing and mastering of these two new tracks. I’m delighted with how this project is going and I’m working with a much larger collection of musicians than I would usually work with. In April I’ll be bringing in more guest musicians to record an instrumental “Lagoa” and “I’m praying for some misery” That will give us eight tracks with more currently being written.
I’m grateful to know and work with so many talented musicians, all true professionals who love creating original music.
I have been doing some research into audience expectations for attending music festivals and live events.
Let me start by saying that I have a personal preference for 30 min+ set lengths as I think this gives the best opportunity for artists to express themselves and audiences to experience the artist’s performance. That said that’s just my opinion and of course others may well disagree insisting in far less time or advocating more performance time. I wrote this article after some polling as I was interested to see what others thought and to look at different options, while keeping an open mind. Every possible option will have pros and cons and of course the audience members, the artists and the hosts all have different expectations that include commercial considerations.
Too short? Too Long? You’ll never please EVERYBODY!
One of the challenges in running a successful event is to meet and hopefully exceed audience and sponsor expectations. Unless you have a wealthy benefactor you will need a viable income stream to be able to run such an event. Sometimes hosts can fail to do proper research on audience expectations and decide ahead of time what they believe the audience wants.
They may of course be 100% right, or they may I suspect actually unintentionally be quite myopic in their thinking. Set list lengths are one key factor in providing great entertainment and attracting a viable audience. Of course its not the only factor!
EVERYBODY has an opinion and some can be very vocal and even quite defensive in discussing such matters rather than looking at the BIGGER picture, which includes canvassing for feedback as expectations can change.
Online some people can be very vocal and passionate about insisting what “should be” Its a bit like football clubs, everybody has a favorite and somethings people can get pretty worked up talking about such matters
I was amused when I read a post online where the person insisted
“Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise… festival X is the best festival”
He completely missed the wonderful irony in making this statement where he was telling people what they “should do” so he might have been better saying
“Don’t let anyone, except MYSELF tell you otherwise, festival X is the best festival”
I appreciate the enthusiasm but its another example of polarized thinking and not keeping an open mind. Of course “best” is entirely subjective and one person’s “best” may be another’s nightmare of an experience. You’ll never please everybody.
Online poll results on this subject
I ran a series of online polls on FB on my own FB page as well as on a number of ukulele and niche music groups. The poll offered three simple options asking what people as audience members would find most attractive in deciding to attend a festival.
A performer set of 20 or less
A set of 30 minutes or more
A set of 40 – 45 minutes or more
The results were as follow
30 minutes minimum or more – 61%
40 – 45 minutes – 28%
20 minutes or less – 11%
The feedback from everyone is almost universally for 30 minutes or more and it was not even close as a contest. I had expected a much closer margin.
My own 100% biased personal preference is that 30 minutes is a good minimum set length and 20 min or even less is too limiting, assuming the artist is gig experienced.
Set list times of 20 min or less, this doesn’t allow much time for the audience to interact with the audience and there’s little time to play more than just a few tracks. Also for the sound technician, changing artists every 20 minutes can be a nightmare! Of course I have experienced 20 min sets that felt like hours and 40 min sets that felt like minutes. Ultimately people will vote with their feet about what they like best.
Extremely short sets create all manner of challenges. On one niche festival when running a stage, I had to sequence 7 different acts each playing strict 20 minute set lists, all with different equipment. With just five minute turn around’s there’s very little margin for error and in my opinion the whole format was far too hyperactive. Its even more complicated when there are bands with multiple performers and/or performers with different technical set ups that involve multiple pedal options!
With my band The Small Change Diaries, the longest set we have played is two 45 minutes at The Wetherby Arts Festival. At the Lagoa Guitar Festival in Portugal, we played a 45 minute set which was very well received. We have also played 20 minute sets at niche festivals which were a very different experience and not one that we would now choose to repeat. Don’t get me wrong, we appreciated the opportunity, BUT both band and audience feedback suggested it would have been better if it had allowed for at least a couple more songs.
I’ve had to adjust my own thinking based on personal experiences both in terms of playing and running events. I’ve in the past seen benefits of short set times, but now remain convinced that that 33% difference between a token 20 minutes and a half hour is a great investment in time if you want the best outcomes.
My own view is that if an event becomes too hyperactive in the amount of performances, the audience never really settles in to listen to the performers. The other extreme is where people lose interest in what’s on stage, BUT in my view any artist that is being paid to play, would be able to manage keeping audience attention for half an hour, even factoring in personal tastes in music. The argument for limiting artist sets to 20 minutes has been that this allows “all killer, no filler” but surely an artist who the public are paying to see, should be able to manage a 30 min set and if they have to pad out the last ten minutes with filler, they may be best advised working on their material?
Excerpt from a recent major newspaper
During some of my research, I came across an interesting article on this subject that suggests that there is a definate current seed change in thinking from artists on this subject. Here’s an excerpt –
“Tom Paine, who directs Love Saves The Day in Bristol, and works on Glastonbury, Love International and Simple Things, said artists are already beginning to reject offers. “The pressure is on to have the biggest and best lineups, and to fit as many acts in as possible. With the artists we tend to book, if you offer them a short slot they will just turn it down,” he says.
Some think this more-bands-less-time approach is letting down the crowd. One artist who did not wish to be named says that shorter sets are increasingly unpopular with musicians because they do not let them showcase their work. “You get paid the same, yeah sure, but you just have to play the most simplified version of whatever it is you do. There’s no time for progression and you can’t give a more nuanced performance. In 20 minutes all you have time for is the hits.””
Festivals, the artist added, just book as many acts as possible to sell tickets, then have problems scheduling them all: “It’s a stack ’em high philosophy. Punters would probably rather buy a ticket to a festival where there are five acts that they like rather than to see two acts playing for three times as long. It’s hard to find festivals that will give artists the right setting to perform how they want.”
My own soundings suggest that the main advocates of shorter set times are those promoting the events as it means presenting what looks like a substantial line up in terms of numbers. This of course may be attractive to a certain audience demographic, but my own research suggests that the above article is representative of a majority view. Ultimately of course the proof is in repeated long term attendance by artists and audience who invest time and money in making such events viable, so time will tell which events survive and and are best supported.
Queen at Live Aid, the best ever short set?
Of course there are pros and cons to any set length and its useful to remind ourselves that even a greatest hits based performance can be spectacular. Queen at Live Aid is perhaps the best example of this.
My friend Dave Bell who was sound engineer for Live Aid pointed out that often the most rehearsed band tend to give the best performance. On the day of the event, Queen rehearsed more than any other act and it showed on the night! For those interested the set was 24.36 minutes. Live Aid was not a festival in the traditional sense, but is an example of how to wow an audience. Of course this is many years ago and the Guardian article quoted earlier many indicate that public opinion has changed towards artists playing a greatest hits format.
The Queen set was a master class in entertainment, but even at one of the most famous gigs ever with a crammed agenda even Queen allocated over 20 min. Would it have been better if they had cut 20% of the time? Personally I doubt it, but who knows?
I watched the whole of Live Aid without a break and the Queen set was just magical.
Regardless of the set time, any performance is in my opinion all about entertainment. My most enjoyable festival experiences include Womad where I saw Jah Wobble and Pinkpop in Holland where I saw Morphine, Crowded House, Rage Against the Machine, Bjork and the Orb all in one day. Each artist played for a minimum of thirty minutes and that to me seems to be the magic figure as a starting point.
My experience of reducing that slot by 33% is that everything is usually a bit rushed and fragmented. I have reviewed my thoughts on this a number of times but I have yet to meet any seasoned professional artists who prefer less than thirty minutes and very few audience members who would insist on less that this time period.
Set lengths of less than 20 minutes in my view work great with open mic type situations or other environments which are for music enthusiasts as opposed to musicians playing. There’s less pressure for the artist and regardless of how the performance goes, its all over quickly. For some niche festivals this is certainly an option, especially to allow beginners some stage time. Its a tricky balance to avoid becoming like “Britain’s Got Talent” at one end of the spectrum and at the other end becoming too exclusive so newer acts never get a chance to play. I’m currently working on a big project to assist with new and established original artists being able to reach a wider public.
That said, the paying public may vote with their feet if the performance is not to their liking and a bit below par. Of course we are now very much in the area of personal opinion which is by its very nature totally subjective. I’ve been at events where the artists on the smallest stage were in my opinion really superb musicians delivering a great performance, whereas on the main stage the performance was awkward to put it mildly.
Ultimately in my opinion its really about providing great entertainment and everyone will have a view on that. Discussion and debate allow us to constantly strive to improve what is on offer rather than simply repeat previous formats. We can agree to disagree, but discussion is how we learn and evolve. I reconfirm my own preference to a minimum set time of 30 minutes for all the reasons I have outlined. All the polls I have run and all the conversations I have had, overwhelmingly suggest that this is the popular view from both audience members and artists.
I’m currently doing a fair bit of research about pricing for music events, including festivals, gigs, concerts and other formats. There’s a massive range of pricing and in my view its a very interesting area of discussion. This article offers some thoughts on the matter based on my own observations and conversations with others.
The Difference Between Price v Cost
When we talk about “pricing” one of the first things to consider is “price v cost” These are often thought to be the same thing but they are quite different. The price is what you pay financially. The cost is what you pay in all respects- i.e. time to get to the event, accommodation, food options, everything that is involved in the situation.
The financial price may seem extremely attractive but you may then find other factors mitigate against this being such a good deal. Of course the value of anything is often very subjective. That said, any promoter running an event should IMO we mindful of added value if they want to attract a good number of people and maintain any kind of brand longevity.
Over the course of a year I will attend a wide range of musical events across the globe. In 2017 these included an arena gig and a number of small concerts. When I say “small” I mean a capacity of 200 or less. My favorite gigs by far were two concerts in New York at the Vanguard where I saw Bill Frissell. The venue has a total capacity of 125 and its $35 plus paying for one drink for usually a 90 min set. If you arrive early you can literally be a few feet away from the artists. This is one of the best musical experiences anyone can have and there are two sets per night with the venue mostly sold out. Great music lovers appreciate The Vanguard and know that’s its truly a place for music lovers. Similarly I just booked to see The Secret Sisters at a great local folk club and the price is 15 pounds for the evening. I saw Martin Simpson there last November (15 pounds for 2 sets) and it was a brilliant evening, again with a total capacity of 125 attendees.
Another favorite venue of mine is The Beacon Theatre in New York. The capacity is 2894 and I have seen The Allman Brothers there numerous times over the years. These were always sold out events and the playing time was always around three full hours. Back in 1990’s Eric Clapton joined them for the whole 2nd set. This is not an inexpensive night out and I may pay anything form 75 – 140 pounds for the evening, but it was 100% worthwhile as these were world class musicians and of course that window of opportunity has now gone. The Allmans were masters of added value and merchandising. You could get the whole concert you just saw on CD at the end of the show and a huge number of people bought these CDs. The sound was always amazing and they were known for always having a different set each night with surprise guests.
Price is always a filter and remember to add value…
The price for anything is always a filter for people’s purchasing choices. Some people regard 200 pounds as being expensive for a musical instrument. Others would pay thousands and not think twice. Of course affordability is also a factor and the higher the price does not always guarantee satisfaction for the customer. I ran a number of polls online to see what people would pay for a musical evening assuming this was not for an A-list artist or the reformation of Led Zeppelin. The general opinion was that 15 pounds was good value price wise. If you charge more you will still get people, but in my experience the numbers start to drop.
In December last year I was talking to an artist about a local event that was significantly more than 15 pounds for a few hours entertainment. On the night the numbers were pretty small for the size of the venue and it was obvious that even though at the last minute they kept trying to add value with all manner of incentives, most people on first impressions thought it to be too expensive. Few locals attended and many commented that it was far too expensive for their pockets. It was also quite close to Xmas which is traditionally a financial stretch for people. In contrast on Dec 23rd there was an evening of entertainment at a local venue that held 400 people. The event was sold out, food was available, there was a full bar and close to four hours music. What was the ticket price? Fifteen pounds…
Interestingly at the other end of the spectrum is you advertise an event as “free” that suggest to many that its not of any great value as there’s no money required to attend! The “pay as you feel” model is different and this allows affordability for all, but is a big risk for any promoter. However it does put the onus on the entertainers to do a great job and the hosts to provide an excellent environment for the entertainment that IMO should include a full bar, seated accommodation and great varied food options.
Making the numbers balance
If you are a promoter, the “risk v reward” factor can be a tricky balance. In the UK there are lots of niche events described as “festivals” These can vary massively in nature with budgets of anything for 10-50k. If we assume we are looking for a capacity of 400-500 people (this would be in my experience quite common) a venue cost is probably going to be between 5-6k. If the ticket price is 40 pounds (again reasonable for a weekend niche event) then at the lower 5k figure the promoter needs to shift 125 tickets at full price just to pay for venue hire alone without any other costs. Then there’s the cost of paying artists. Local artists may play for a token sum and/or “for exposure” BUT more established artists who travel will demand a fee which could be anything from 300-1000 pounds in my experience. If the artists come from overseas, there are also flight costs and accommodation costs. This means the overall costs seriously start to crank.
Audience Expectations and interesting poll feedback
Music festivals vary massively in nature. I blogged about this previously here
In that article I talk about what makes for a great music festival and those festivals that have stood the test of time. A key factor in achieving that is making the numbers work and meeting and/or preferably exceeding audience expectations. There’s no point in offering an experience that is not what the audience want. Some promoters can be a touch myopic in making commercial choices and this can really come to bite them. Typical mistakes are to choose artists who are personal favorites regardless of commercial appeal. Another mistake is fail to attract sponsors who are invaluable allies in supporting an event financially and through third party recommendations.
When I was doing some research for a colleague about ukulele based niche events, a friend alerted me to some very interesting events from an online poll where people were asked about buying preferences. Some of the most interesting results were as follows. Only 22.8% of those polled would consider a major artist as a reason for attending, compared to 52.9% who would prefer to jam with others. Options to buy stuff attracted 55.5% and meeting friends accounted for 37% of interest. This reconfirms my research that audiences for many niche events don’t really come to hear music, its more a social meet up/purchasing an opportunity. Nothing wrong with that of course, but that’s what attracts paying customers to many (not all) of these niche events.
Time for a New Model?
I have spent a big part of 2017 looking at this issue and 2018 will be more of the same. I’m interested in creating better opportunities for original musicians playing live. My own band “The Small Change Diaries” probably won’t be playing any more ukulele festivals, but rather looking at more music based festivals. To date The Lagoa Guitar Festival, some of the arts festivals, and our own album launch have been clearly the better options to reach appreciative listening audiences for our music.
The Pay as you feel model interests me greatly. Its a bold initiative but it needs to be framed properly and that means a lot of great attention to detail and providing exceptional value for customers. Of course its a risk for promoters but in a world where people are bombarded with choices, its a refreshing new way of thinking. I’m currently working on a big project that ties together many of the themes discussed here. Ultimately the value of anything is what people will actually pay for it of course
Wow, its already 2018! After a seriously busy 2017 which involved 9 overseas trips, recording an album, playing in Japan and running an album launch with some amazing guests, there’s lots planned for the forthcoming year!
I’m continuing to work on “Tales of Dark and Light” which initially was going to be an EP, but now is looking to be a much bigger project. Four tracks are already mastered and mixed and I have two more ready to record, the first being in a few weeks time.
This March I’ll be doing two gigs in NYC with friends and this will be an opportunity to play some of the new material as well as old favorites from the Small Change Diaries catalog. As luck would have it during my stay in NYC Bill Frissell will be playing The Vanguard again and I’ll be sure to attend at least two gigs. I saw him twice there in 2017 and once in the UK. He remains a great musical influence and superb live.
I’ll also be travelling to Europe during 2018 and will be in the USA and Japan during September.
As well as recording in the studio I’ll be doing a series of gigs already in the diary for The Small Change Diaries, starting March 2nd in Leeds where we headline a local venue.
During 2018 I’ll be doing a lot of work on a bigger musical project that will be unveiled in due course. This is intended for a wider musical audience and I already have a team of people assisting with this and the website is already under construction for the project.
That site already has 108 artist pages and the FB page is also growing at some rate.
There are also some major musical surprises planned for 2018 which will focus on artist collaborations an performances. I’ve been look at musical promotions and doing a fair bit of research to see what works in attracting appreciative listening audiences. The feedback has been fascinating to say the least and its IMO a clear sign that the market is changing at some rate.
In short 2018 promises to be a great year musically and creatively always with an eye on the bigger picture for such happenings. Special thanks to all those people who are involved in these activities, you know who you are!