Posts By: Nick Cody

Laurent Zeller

In 2016 my band The Small Change Diaries were invited to play at The Lagoa Guitar Festival in Portugal. This was the first full band outing overseas and it was a wonderful experience for us all.

We were supporting a french trio Les Kostards and met up with the musicians the night before as we were both staying in the same hotel. Little did I know that this would spark a great friendship and some wonderful musical collaborations!

This is when I first met violinist Laurent Zeller. At this time I had not heard Laurent play, but we got on well and both shared an obvious enthusiasm for photography. Our host took both bands on a wonderful tour of Lagoa prior to the gig and were able to see some wonderful scenery.

On the day of the gig I was blown away by his playing. Below is an example of this 

The Les Kostards set at the festival was extraordinary and the guys rocked the house. Prior to the gig we met up to see if we could do a group jam on the night and I am delighted that Laurent agreed. We decided to play “Slow News Day” as an encore and as you can see from the clip below his solo during this track is extraordinary. Fast forward to 3 min to see him in action

The following day I asked him if he would contribute to some tracks for our next album. These tracks included a version of “Birdman” and his wonderful violin part can be heard on the movie short of this track seen below

Laurent then contributed to some additional tracks on “Lullabies for Cynics” “Not one of us” as well as “Draw you out” His playing is just extraordinary and I am delighted that he is going to be joining us for the album launch on November 3rd in Leeds – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/music-for-the-head-and-heart-tickets-37057548124

He is also featured on my next solo project and we will be recording more tracks in two week’s time in our Leeds studio.

Instruments investments and joyous purchases

Over the years I have become a genuine instrument collector and have spent many hours chatting to my good friend Martin Simpson about the joys of purchasing and playing great instruments. Many people will know me for my love of different types of ukuleles, but I have a really diverse collection of many stringed instruments, not just ukes.

I’m lucky in my other work to be able to travel around the world and Japan and the USA are wonderful places for seeking out new creative tools. My favorite stores across the globe include Ukulele Mania in Tokyo, The Ohana store outside Osaka, Poe Poe in Tokyo, Matt Umanov Guitars in NYC, Mandolin Brothers in NYC (no longer in existence) , Hill Country Guitars in Austin and Carters Guitars in Nashville. All these stores have a fantastic range of instruments and great customer service.

I also have a number of instruments that can’t be bought through retail stores including guitars and a mandola by Stefan Sobell. The Sobells came as recommendations from Martin Simpson and there’s usually a two year wait for these instruments. Similarly Takahiro Shimos instruments are also custom builds and of the highest quality and there’s a waiting list for them. In terms of instrument brands I’m a big fan of Collings and when I met Bill before he passed I mentioned that I had never played a Collings that was not excellent. The recent Waterloo guitars are more examples of the highest standards in building and an absolute joy to play.

I’m a big fan of instruments where the main focus is in using the best woods and the investment is in the woods rather than ornate decoration. I recently saw a ukulele advertised for thousands of pounds where the store commented that huge amounts of time had been spent on the inlay, so it looked really nice but I prefer a more simple well constructed instrument. Every instrument will spark different creative ideas and the best ones are always those that I may pick up in a store and find I’m still playing 30 – 40 minutes later. There are thousands of “ok” instruments, but few which really are keepers. 

In terms of electric guitars I have some great instruments including two Parkers, a George Benson Ibanez, some custom Ransom strats and Telecasters from San Francisco and some Warmoth guitars as well as a brilliant Collings I35 Deluxe. This is a growing family that continue to provide countless hours of musical joy as well as being great investments. I always advise people to try out instruments for themselves rather than rely on online advice as production models which in theory should be the same often vary wildly. There are no “best instruments” only different ones. If you want to create great music, its a lot easier if you are playing an instrument you truly love.

shimo ukulele shimo ukulele

 

Unplugged at The Grove Inn for Charity Event

This Saturday I played a stripped down unplugged set at The Grove Inn with a couple of dear friends. This was an opportunity to try out new material as well as playing some old favorites.

The set list was

There’s only one of you

What you gonna do (new song)

Perfect Place

Here in the Silence (new song)

Not one of us

Encore

Draw you out

 

This was a great crowd and very unusual for me to not have any of the band playing with me

 

A short polite rant on audience etiquette…

I have been going to musical performances for 45 years and remain amazed at the differences in audiences. Perhaps I am in a minority, but when I go to a musical performance, I am there to hear the music and watch the artists. 

For me the best audiences are those who come to pay attention to the performers with respectful attention to their craft. More than ever I carefully choose who I go to see and avoid some venues where I know its probably not going to be a great experience for me. These days I prefer smaller venues like The Vanguard in New York which has a 125 capacity. True jazz fans know that if you get to The Vanguard for 7 pm, with the doors opening at 7.30 pm you are guaranteed being in the first two rows in the venue. There is a strict policy of no phones or recording during the set. This makes for a terrific music experience that is respectful of the performers. Its no surprise that The Vanguard has hosted the best jazz musicians for decades. This etiquette is unusual and if I had my way (which I admit I won’t) I’d extend this way of working to all live creative performances.

In stark contrast to such small gigs there are arena experiences. Of course many major artists will view these as better commercial opportunities, BUT often the audience experience is horrendous. Many attendees seen incapable of sitting still for a 90 min gig without either texting, talking and/or endlessly going to the bar. God only knows whey they buy what are often expensive tickets. The sound is also often not great as its a bit like being in an aircraft hanger with aircraft hanger acoustics. Equally bad are open air concerts where sound can also be an issue. I tend to avoid these as its in my view not the best listening experience. That said I did see The Rolling Stones play Manchester arena and they were terrific, but of course the lads have had a few decades to perfect their craft.

With some niche music genres (like the ukulele world), many attending are not that interested in watching and listening to seasoned performers, they just want to strum with friends! I get the enjoyment of social meet ups but remain totally mystified as to why anyone would pay for a festival weekend ticket plus accommodation and then avoid seeing professional performers. I’m even more mystified as these sets are often very brief so its not even a big time commitment, but that’s a personal view. One of the reason why you probably won’t see my band play any more uke festivals is that the focus is not really on the music, so its not to my personal taste. Yes a “Chas and Dave” style sing along may be great for many folks, but for me personally its like the eighth level of hell!

 In “How Music Works” David Byrne talks about different acoustic spaces for different types of music and this book is an essential read for any creative artist. I fully admit that I’m in a minority in terms of personal musical taste and have a definite preference for hearing original music. The audience is of  course an essential part of the whole musical experience.  I have learned that you never quite know what to expect. My band The Small Change Diaries recently played a gig where I introduced on of our tracks “Adam Blames Eve” as “a song of biblical proportions” and three elderly attendees ran for the door! Whats clear t me is that as a performer its best to adopt “an Ernest Shackelton approach” who famously commented

“By endurance, we conquer”

Its a privilege to play music to any audience and I am mindful that playing only original music is not a safe bet as it challenges audience expectations. That said personally I love this aspect of musical exploration and wouldn’t have it any other way 

 

Busy Times – 3 gigs in forthcoming weeks

Now I am back from the USA, I am getting ready for a series of gigs. First up is The Ilkley Literature Festival which has been in existence since 1973. This is a great opportunity to play to a terrific appreciative listening audience. The festival is hugely popular  and attracts a genuine cross section of people. This is a full band outing.

Next Saturday I’m doing a solo with friends gig at The Grove for charity. The theme is “We shall overcome” and I’ll be playing some protest songs as well as other originals. This is all unplugged and its unusual for me to be playing in this capacity, but I’m looking forward to it. I have support from my good friend Doug O Brien who is usually a keyboard player and my wife Sue. Its a bit of a jump into the unknown.

Four weeks later the full band and special guests play the album launch. Tickets are cranking for this evening and its almost fully sold out. Support is from Phil Doleman, Astraluna and Sleepy Kev Bishop. This promises to be a terrific night with food for all tastes and a full bar. This is also a beta tester for a bigger project. 

Its great to have the opportunity to play to so many different diverse audiences and we already have gigs lined up for March and April, with a big festival gig in May

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.