Posts By: Nick Cody

USA Travels and Stories

I just returned from an amazing USA set of travels from Austin, Nashville and New York. These are three very different, but equally amazing cities. It also gave me and my wife a great chance to meet up with great friends and to see a whole world of great music. This was the first time I’ve seen Nashville and I can understand why Nashville is so renowned for music. The sheer concentration of musicians and the quality of the performance is quite amazing.

In Austin I picked up an amazing Waterloo guitar made by Collings Guitars. I had no intention of buying an acoustic, but this is one of the very best I have ever seen. Its already sparked some interesting comments. On the flight from Austin to Nashville one stewardess commented

“This guys got a HUGE guitar”

On the trip from NYC to UK for some reason I can’t fathom, I was called from the back of the line to board first on the plane. Maybe I was mistaken for a famous country star, I don’t know. Either way, this Waterloo seems to provoke all manner of curious interactions.

In NYC we saw Barry Harris at The Vanguard for a quite extraordinary gig. We also met up with an old friend and author of “Portrait of a Phantom” Zeke Schein. Zeke sold me my first uke and has become a great friend. He introduced me to the first ever 3D printed ukulele, which you see in this photo. His book is quite brilliant and highly recommended. This world is better for such amazing folks.

Music teachers, the good, band and plain crazy…

I’m a big fan of ongoing musical development and over the years have employed the services of many music teachers for ukulele, guitar, vocals and other instruments. To say that I have had extremes of service is an understatement and this particular blog tells some of my experiences.

Firstly I have a massive respect for anyone who decides to offer teaching services and without doubt in my opinion music is a truly wonderful exploration with all kinds of benefits. I live in Leeds which has a music college, so many folks would expect to find a wide rage of accomplished individuals as clearly there’s a big potential market, especially as there’s a thriving music scene. 

Great skills, but…

One of my first experience of hiring a music teacher was back in 1990s when I found John, a local blues musician. As with many teachers he ran lessons from how house. He was extremely knowledgeable, but also a chain smoker and his house was a good reflection f his own chaotic thinking. To say that he was unpredictable would be an understatement. In terms of playing local gigs he would often cancel at short notice due to anxiety issues and this drove his band mates crazy. In terms of lessons one of my most memorable recollections was after arriving for a one hour lesson one day he commented

“Shit, I’m out of fags. Wait here and I’ll be back in a while”

He then proceeded to leave me in the house by myself, drive off and return sometime later with a packet of twenty cigs. Like many music teachers he had good music skills, but terrible customer care skills and failed to appreciate how many opportunities slipped through his fingers as often he simply wasn’t paying attention to his clients most basic needs. 

In recent years I have looked for good vocal teachers as most of my musical explorations these days involve writing and singing. Again I find a similar pattern where some tutors have great skills but are completely unreliable in terms of any ongoing assistance. Yes I get that being a music teacher is probably not going to generate a substantial income stream, but reliable teachers will generate much needed predictable income, which is especially helpful in these touch economic times.  I had one vocal teacher who also had anxiety issues and often would not turn up for lessons. In the end she stopped doing lessons “to attend to other life issues” Another one in Headingley had extensive online advertising for his services. I rang him up, spoke to him and arranged a lesson. The first thing he tried to do was to reduce the hourly rate to make it more affordable for me as an intro lesson. I insisted on paying the full rate up front and said I could guarantee 4 hours a month each and every month on an ongoing basis. One day before the first lesson which had been booked for a month he decided he was going to focus on his music and would no longer be teaching.! I respect anyone making such a choice, but it shows poor regard to customers and can create a terrible reputation. As someone who trains people in customer service, here’s what he could have communicated that would have helped both our interests and left his reputation in tact

“Hi Nick, I’m sorry that due to changes in circumstance I can’t offer ongoing help. However what I can do is offer some limited time on an agreed basis if that works until I can hand you over to somebody suitable. Then at least you won’t be left high and dry as I know you have a number of recording dates coming up which you talked about. Does that work for you? Once again apologies for the change of plan”

Not complicated is it? However as my old communication mentor would remark in my other work

“Lower your expectations…”

Some good news…

OK, if you are not totally depressed at this point lets talk about some great examples of music teaching. Three years ago I employed the employed the services of Jessica Bowie to learn about the uke. She is the person who first encouraged me to start singing and I am forever in her debt. Over the years our initial teaching has now morphed into a songwriting partnership and I am delighted to pay for her time on a weekly basis. She has excellent skills and I regularly recommend people to her. She is also a founder member of The Small Change Diaries and has become a really good friend as well.  She also teaches my wife who adores their weekly lessons and Jessica has both the manner and skills to really help people. The world is better for such individuals.

Two other superb teachers are Martin Simpson and Phil Doleman. I have been seeing Martin for a number of years now and have over 100 hours of recordings from our sessions. He is a genuine professional and brilliant musician. He has also become a good friend and its great to know him. His new album Trails and Tribulations is just out and its fantastic. Phil is also a 100% reliable professional with tremendous musical knowledge and wonderful skills. He teaches 1 – 1 and by Skype. He has also been invaluable in my musical development.

I recently had a percussion lesson with a very well respected London musician, Sam Gardner. I approached this with some trepidation has I have zero experience of this. In one hour he managed to take me from a total novice to actually being able to play along to a track. Again he has the excellent and most welcome combination of great skills and great manner to teach students. Pete Wraith my dobro teacher also deserves a mention. This was another new instrument and Pete coaxed me into being able to get some really great sounds out of the National I bought off Martin Simpson. Pete is also a superb musician and great guy to know.

Conclusion

These are some personal observations from over the years. Many teachers can be highly skilled but lack good personal skills. Even more teachers lack good organisational skills and miss the importance of the big picture in building a professional reputation. The music business is somewhat mercurial and its smart for any performers to have many sources of income for purely practical reasons. Not every teacher will be a great match for every student, but some basic common sense communication will ensure that all parties remain satisfied. I suspect that there is a big gap in the market where I live in providing such services in these times. 

 

 

 

Hill Country Guitars Austin USA

I just got back from one of the best music stores on planet earth, Hill Country Guitars in Austin Texas. They are a premier Collings dealer and I have done great business with them over the years, buying a walking bass dulcimer and a Collings tenor guitar. The family is now joined by a superb Collings Waterloo guitar.

Hill Country Guitars has an amazing selection of terrific instruments which include some of the best Collings instruments I have ever seen. Its important that such stores are supported by musicians as they are increasingly rare these days.

The Waterloo guitar is really exceptional and it sounds and feels like an old acoustic. I don’t know how Bill Collings managed it, but he has really captured the essence of these classic instruments. This one is definitely going to be used in recordings in the future.

I travel around the world a lot and see all types of stores and I can say that this is definitely one of the very best as they only stock great instruments and the staff are really knowledgeable about what is in the store. Austin is of course an amazing place for music and I love to come and visit here.

New models for music promotion?

I have spent the last six months talking to many seasoned artists and music industry professionals about music promotion  for live events and for music products. I’ve been thinking about this subject for a few years as some of what I see and hear makes no sense to me. In my other life I work internationally as a consultant, so my brain is naturally geared towards problem solving. I make no claims to have any magical insight into a perfect formula for music promotion, but it does occur to me from everyone I talk to that there is lots of scope to rethink many strategies that are not that effective.

In one of my discussions one producer who had previously worked for a major record company commented that in days gone by the company would have A list artists, medium level artists up and coming talent. These days he observed that with the same global company the focus was solely on established acts and there was zero interest in investing in any acts that would require some level of “business risk”.  My discussions led me to the conclusion that traditional models of charging for events and products and now increasingly ineffective and there’s a genuine need for new thinking. The established artists from days gone by still seem to have some useful momentum for success in music and event sales, but its far tougher for newer artists.

Many of the most popular artists are not especially my taste, but I have a healthy respect for anyone who can create music that reaches a large audience as clearly they are doing something that resonates with a large part of society. Clearly they are doing something that is working in terms of musical delivery. Inevitably there will then be people who have issues with such folks and even try to make a buck out of negative attacks. This n my opinion does little to promote musical creativity and credibility. I read recently about an attempt to raise money for a book entitled “Ed Sheeran is shit, and other musical malfunctions”  Interesting that the writer still leverages the popularity of Sheeran’s name in trying to  promote his own artistic aspirations. Some may think of this as a touch hypocritical of course, while others will no doubt consider it a worthwhile cause to support.

Music delivery system trends

In these tougher economic times, people are understandably more cautious about how and where they spend their money. This caution is reflected in changes for how people are listening to music. 

Digital Music news noted

“Audio streams have also reached a new high this year, landing at 179.8 billion, up 58.5% over last year. People have also jumped behind paid subscriptions on services like Spotify and Apple Music. Paid subscription streams grew 69.3% and accounted for 78.6% of total audio streams in 2017. This number went up 73.6% over last year.

Spotify now has 50 million paid subscriptions. Apple Music has “well over” 27 million paid subscribers since its launch two years ago”

Interesting observations about formats and the fact that vinyl and CDs are not going to disappear anytime soon

“Confirming multiple media reports, vinyl album sales have seen a huge increase, up 20.4% over last year. Also proving the medium won’t die, CD album sales went down a paltry 3.9%.

So what’s going on? For starters, Record Store Day had a huge hand in helping push up CD and vinyl sales. On April 22, combined CD and vinyl sales went up 6% compared to last year’s Record Store Day on April 16. That same day, vinyl album sales went up 14% at independent music stores.

Actually, Record Store Day scored the single largest vinyl sales day for the entire year. On April 22, 224,000 more albums were sold over last year.

On the cassette side, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 became the biggest selling cassette album with 3,934 sales. That’s 3 thousand, not million, but hey: it’s a cassette.”

Charlotte Gunn from NME Digital editor commented

“There are so many ways musicians can interact with their fans now and I think we’ll see a lot more creative, engaging musical releases in 2017.”

One of the boldest examples of music promotion in recent years was by Prince who decided to totally buck the trend and give away a CD in a UK national newspaper. Inevitably this created a massive amount of publicity for him and some concerns for music executives.

Time magazine reported 

“When Prince’s new album Planet Earth was released in the U.K. on July 15, almost 3 million people picked up a copy. Normally, that kind of news conjures up images of record industry execs high-fiving each other and fans streaming into record stores to empty the shelves of their hero’s latest offering. But in this case, the record industry execs are livid. And it’s true there isn’t a single copy of Planet Earth in any store in the country — but only because they were never there in the first place. In fact, Prince didn’t sell any copies of his album in the U.K. He gave them all away.

In an unprecedented deal, Prince granted British tabloid the Mail on Sunday exclusive rights to distribute his new album as a freebie. Cutting out record stores, online sellers, and even his U.K. label, Sony BMG, he decided to take Planet Earth straight to the people, and all it cost them was the paper’s $3 cover price. “It’s direct marketing,” the pint-sized popster said when the deal was announced three weeks ago. “And I don’t have to be in the speculation business of the record industry, which is going through a lot of tumultuous times right now.”

Live events, festivals etc

Discussions strongly suggest that people are becoming more selective about booking for festivals and live events. Many festivals have had big problems in recent years and some have folded for financial and other reasons. In my discussions I was interested in what people looked for when booking to attend events.

Key considerations include

  • Ticket price and booking fees (booking fees are usually not seen as an attractive additional cost) Options like “Pay as you feel” are increasingly attractive and popular for customers
  • Accommodation/travel costs – depending on the location of the event these additional costs can really make a difference
  • Food and drink options – increasingly customers expect to be able to have these options. Its also smart to look after these needs if you want to maintain a captive and happy audience
  • Entertainment value and quality of performances – these need to be of a high standard and people need to feel they have value for money in terms of set times.
  • Developing a niche audience – artists increasingly need to have a multi dimensional delivery platform for music that includes social media, video and other mediums

Pricing for events is always a filter for attracting different kinds of people. I did some research recently asking what they would expect to pay for an evening of acoustic entertainment (not an A list artist) and the overwhelming favorite option was the fifteen pound mark and/or pay as you feel. 

Its useful to remember that for some niche musical genres, music is not the primary focus of the festival, its a social meet up. This is not my personal preference, but there’s a place for such activity, although it tends to be for relatively small groups of a few hundred customers rather than thousands. 

Added value is one of the keys to success

Smart businesses appreciate the need for added value. In the cinema world Everyman Cinemas are expanding in the UK. Everyman are masters of added value in offering more comfortable bookable seats, better screens and far better food options. All this makes it a better overall experience for the customer. Musical artists appreciate the value of adding value to what they offer to customers. One of the successful strategies is to offer a more personalized service so the fans are able to feel really connected to the artist and the music.

Final Thoughts

I’m currently beta testing some of these considerations this year and in 2018. The proof will of course be in the  results, but already the evidence suggests that many of these and other considerations not mentioned here cumulatively create a far more substantial and viable model. I was alerted today that a very well known musician from Leeds was running a strategy for a new project that was amazingly similar to something I am running at present. I find this somewhat reassuring in that I’m not the only person who realizes that its time for substantial change.some rethinking. 

 

Musical practice regime by Nick Cody

Since starting The Small Change Diaries back in 2014 I have increasingly appreciated the importance of regular vocal and instrument practice. I have learned to develop a  regime that without doubt has hugely helped in writing, recording and performing music. 

Every week I have a two hour songwriting slot with Jessica Bowie and we’ve been doing this for almost three years now. Its funny to listen back to early sketches of tracks like “5 string man” and “Perfect Place” and to hear how these developed to be finally recorded and often played on BBC Radio. In each case these tracks benefitted massively from being worked up and such work ups require a great deal of time. The writing partnership with Jessica and other members of the band mean that we get something quite unique with four very different views. It continues to be a fascinating process watching songs unfold.

When we were asked to play the 2016 Lagoa Guitar Festival we rehearsed every week before heading to Portugal. Without doubt this helped with the final performance. When Adrian Knowles joined the band and became musical director, we moved up a level in terms of our musical development and playing with Adrian and Rich Ferdinando is like having Sly and Robbie as your rhythm section, just terrific.

On an individual basis I always make sure that I have instruments at hand where I live are often on stands rather than tucked away in cases. Sometimes I might pick up a uke, mandolin or guitar and discover a musical phrase that’s really interesting. These sketches are always recorded for future development. Sometimes an entire song can reveal itself in a very short period of time and sometimes such sketches might remain dormant for many months. The same applies with writing lyrics. Often a real life event might inspire a phrase or chorus for a future song. The secret in all instances is to record these sketches for future development.

In working on my solo material for an anticipated 2018 release, I am deliverately working in a different way. Some of the tracks are written on ukulele but I’m working out the vocal parts to piano, focussing 100% on the vocal delivery. I’m lucky to have an excellent vocal coach in Alice Higgins and her input has become invaluable in developing my own vocal delivery. It also means that I have a totally different sounding board for this seperate project and the music is quite different to the band material. Working only with a piano in rehearsal sessions is a fascinating experience, On the first track “He’s shooting blanks” I sing and for once don’t play any instruments. With this track I have Alice on piano, Adrian Knowles on double bass and Laurent Zeller on violin. 

Regular practice and interaction with other musicians continues to spark all kinds of create ideas. Many who know me, know I’m a big fan of creating original music rather than covering existing material. Playing an all original set live is certainly not the safe option, but its a real joy to hear a song you have created receive great feedback. At the heart of this creative process is regular practice which means songs have the chance to mature and develop. Another key consideration is to have lessons with really excellent teachers. I’m lucky to have both Martin Simpson and Phil Doleman on hand. Martin remains a big inspiration on my playing and writing and I generally spend a few hours at his house talking about musical development. Phil is a wonderful tutor and “reality checker” especially when it comes to all manner of good advice when playing live. I’m lucky to be surrounded by such terrifc folks which help deveop my own musical pursuits. 

 

 

Instrument explorations and inspirations by Nick Cody

Many will associate me with the ukulele as an instrument with my band The Small Change Diaries and in Nick Cody music, but the uke is  only one of many instruments I play and love. Others include acoustic & electric guitar, mandola, mandolin, dobro, walking bass dulcimer and of course concert, tenor, soprano, baritone ukuleles. Each instrument inspires different ideas, playing styles and different end results. My many years learning from Martin Simpson taught me the value of playing a variety of instruments and the importance of having an attitude of sonic exploration. This is a key ingredient to becoming a more creative and skilled musician.

For the last three years I have been writing and recording with my band The Small Change Diaries. To date we have recorded two albums (2nd album released Nov 3rd this year) and an EP. Its been an amazing journey and in 2018 we will continue to focus on live work and return to the studio in 2019. In the meantime I’m working on a solo project with the first track “He’s shooting blanks” already recorded, as well as a duo project with longtime bandmate Jessica Bowie and an instrumental project. The main band goes from strength to strength and we are delighted to be invited to play at some really wonderful events including Lagoa Guitar Festival, Ilkley Literature Festival and Wetherby Arts Festival. As a solo artist I also recently played in Japan and am soon to do the same in Austin Texas.

As Nick Cody the solo artist I am delibeately exploring sonic territory outside the ukulele and instruments like the Collings 4 string tenor guitar, mandola and mandolin mean thinking in a new way musically. When I first started with the uke I had no idea what I was doing and that naivity is actually quite useful in musical exploration. Of course when playing with a band some basic musical awareness and education is essential as well. I have always loved music and have a diverse set of interests. Instrument exploration and creating original material is a fascinating journey that means opening up your mind to all kinds of new possibilities. 

Yes the ukulele has potential beyond just playing chords….

Let me start by saying I have no problem with people strumming chords on the ukulele, BUT there’s so much more potential with this brilliant instrument. I totally fell in love with the uke three years ago and to date have written and recorded 25 tracks using the ukulele with many more in the pipeline. Prior to picking up the uke I had the stereotypical idea of the uke as a bit of a gimmick and not really “a proper musical instrument” Now I realise how wrong I was. If I had only watched YouTube clips and attended a few uke festivals I would probably have never explored the potential for this instrument. A lot of what I see and hear is at best pretty average. Fortunately there are some conter examples to this and when I set up Original Ukulele Songs (OUS) almost two years ago, players like Victoria Vox, Alan Thornton, Paul Cameron, Phil Doleman and others gave me some hope that the mighty uke can be used infar more creative ways.

My good friend and longstanding brilliant international musician Martin Simpson makes some really useful and insightful comments 8.20 minutes into this clip

Martin is the most extraordinary player and this is a rare clip of him playing the uke. Last year I saw him play live with the uke leaving the audience amazed at a quite extraordinary performance. Of course Martin plays a wide range of instruments and over the years we have talked about how this develops new ways of musical exploration.

I appreciate that there is a place for people learning the ukulele and starting out with simple chords, everyone has to start somewhere. The tragedy in my view is that often that’s where exploration stops when there are so many more possibilities. Such explorations are of course not for everyone, but if players and event hosts want to capture the public imagination in a far bigger way then its important to showcase the uke in a much more expanded way. A crucial part of this exploration is creating new music and not just recycling previous material and the OUS platform is a small but mighty group of artists who are helping with this task. 

Busking in 1977 – Nick Cody

My first experience of playing live to an audience was busking in Guildford underpass in 1977. Those days I played acoustic guitar and on average would earn around three quid an hour which was a pretty good rate back then. An album (this was way before CDs appeared) would be around two pounds forty pence, and I was delighted to fund my first copy of John Martyn’s Solid Air from this work.

Most of the songs I played solo or with my girlfriend at the time were CSNY or Neil Young tracks. I was back then and decades on remain a great fan of these artists. Dylan was also in one of his golden periods and Blood on the Tracks was back then and to this day remains my favorite album. I was just seventeen at the time and playing was pretty basic but extremely enthusiastic. I had an old Kay acoustic that really wasn’t that great and yearned for a Yamaha, but couldn’t afford one. A year earlier I had seen Neil Young play his Zuma set at Hammersmith Odeon in London two nights in a row. He did an acoustic set initially and then an electric set which included Hurricane which wasn’t then released until years later on American Stars and Bars.

This was a fun time and in my view a golden age for singer songwriters. Its funny looking back at this period and how many decades later I have returned to acoustic music with great joy. Its also interesting for me that most of the music I love most was created 1971 – 1975 and when travelling in Europe, USA and Asia most of my listening is from that period.

What is an expensive ukulele?

When people think about ukuleles, the stereotypical idea is often that a ukulele is a cheap instrument that is not really a musical instrument. On online forums, often people can insist that nobody should pay more than “X” for a ukulele, and the “X” will of course depend on each person. One person’s idea of expensive is another person’s idea of what is entirely reasonable. Price does not always determine quality, but of course a hand built instrument made to order will mostly have less cost considerations than a ukulele that is mass produced. 

My first ukulele was a Collings pre-production concert ukulele which cost around 600 quid. Some may consider that to be excessive, but it’s a beautiful instrument and Bill Collings always makes sure that all his instruments are of the highest quality. Such instruments usually hold their value and can be really great investments. Collings no longer currently make ukuleles, so these are going to be hard to find. Of course, if we were talking about violins or brass instruments 600 sterling would be small change. 

It’s all a matter of personal choice and I have learned to have a real appreciation for luthiers who put heart and soul into creating bespoke instruments. The attention to detail and the quality is mostly excellent and of course this excellence is reflected in the playability and the sound. I recently unsubscribed from many ukulele FB forums where people had a habit of spouting opinions about instruments they had never played or heard. It just made for truly depressing and somewhat daft reading.

To date I have favoured ukuleles built by Takahiro Shimo, Bill Collins and a few other builders mostly outside the UK. There are plenty of production models that are “ok” but don’t sound anything like as good to my ears. I no longer get into discussions with people who insist on ukuleles over 250 sterling being expensive as we are clearly looking for very different things in a playing and recording instrument. In the recording studio the sonic differences becomes totally obvious and I thank all those builders who dedicate time and energy to creating such wonderful instruments. So in answer to “What is an expensive ukulele?” its totally subjective and it depends what you can afford and how much you value the investment. Personally for me its all about sound and playability and I’m totally happy to make such investments, both financially and in the time spent in seeking out the really good ones that suit my ears and fingers