Tales of Dark and Light update

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. 

tales of dark and light

Your ideal set length at a music festival?

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.

  1. A performer set of 20 or less
  2. A set of 30 minutes or more
  3. 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.

Personal Experience

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.

 Final Thoughts

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.

The Psychology of Pricing Musical Events

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.

Personal Preferences

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

 

 

 

2018 has arrived and its gonna be great!

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.

The Original Ukulele Songs Platform aka OUS will continue to grow and we’ll be adding more artists to the main site www.originalukulelesongs.com  

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!

Social media groups, the good, bad and plain crazy

Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay and is a major medium for how many of us communicate with each other.

I have been running the OUS FB group for 2 years now and it continues to be a fascinating experience. Fortunately I also have two excellent moderators to help with this and we are now well over 3000 members with 108 artists now with their own pages at www.originalukulelesongs.com. 

The OUS FB page was not my only experience of running such a group of course, and the behaviors of people online can be quite fascinating in all manner of ways. I also am a member of a few select FB groups which can allow connections to some really terrific folks

First, the good news

Lets start with some good news…

There is a certain joy to setting up and running a successful social media group and seeing it develop. On the OUS platform I have been amazed at the diversity and quality of what has been posted. We have a wide range of different artists from all over the globe with a common interest in creating original music. One of the reasons the group works so well is that it has very specific parameters for posting. this means there’s good focus with what appears online and its a very respectful supportive space for artists.

Running such a group can be a fair amount of work and of course I run the main site as well which requires some investment of time and money. Advances in technology mean that social media platforms like FB allow people to connect in ways that were never previously possible. Similarly with WordPress its very easy to create websites that look great and be updated easily. 

With the OUS platform, there’s no commercial benefit for me personally, I do it for the love of music. When people talk about it being “my group” I remind them that its “our group” and a collaborative project. Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay and its a brilliant way to connect instantly with people all over the world with similar interests. Of course we are all individuals so there will be differences as well and its always worth remembering that. As an old Japanese proverb states “No one of us is smarter than ALL of us”

Ok, stop reading now if you only want good news…

The “bad news”

The bad news is that whenever you set up or often visit a forum, you will inevitably discover a wide range of differing views, which in itself is no bad thing. Inevitably you will get some people who want to shout loudest and insist that “they are right” and everyone else should agree with them. This insistence creates a tendency towards attention seeking and this can create all kinds of problems. I don’t doubt that the shouter feels that they have a valid view, but it would be IMO useful if they considered that its just one point of view among many. As well as individual shouters there are what I call “shouter followers” (usually 6 – 10) who then automatically “like” everything the shouter posts. Let me be clear, everyone is welcome to say what they think, but often this group activity is in my 100% biased view done without a great deal of real consideration and is often an emotional reaction. Often “shouter posts” get withdrawn quickly when the shouter themselves realizes that the emotionally fueled post is not the best communication and may in extreme cases result in some legal action if it falls into the defamation category.  

There have been lots of studies on people who have imagined superiority and in the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is.

(see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect)

Fortunately with OUS this doesn’t happen much as such folks are usually not creative types and seem to be more preoccupied with telling other folks “how they should behave” even though of course it’s not their group! 

Humor is always welcome and I’m perfectly serious about that

One of the challenges in running a FB group is that people will inevitably have different views and sometimes individuals can forget to be respectful of others. In extreme situations people can start to insist how others “should behave” failing to appreciate the value of discussion and debate. I have always found a good sense of humor is helpful in encouraging dynamic and interesting discussions.

A lack of humor is often a sign that somebody has a very polarized opinion. Its not that they are “right” or “wrong” rather that they have a very narrow perspective and “feel they are right” despite any evidence to the contrary! When we take ourselves too seriously people become very polarized and this creates unhelpful unproductive arguments where people are more concerned with “being right” than actual genuine discussion and debate.

The Plain Crazy

You really couldn’t make up some things that are posted online. Some individuals blast out the same post to countless groups with zero consideration. They usually never contribute to the group discussion. Other crazy examples are where people post content that has no connection to what the group is actually about. 

Some people spend literally hours and hours online living in “a virtual world” I have met others who insist that everybody is constantly talking about them on a daily basis! Unless you are the president of the USA in 2017, I suspect that’s a bit of a reach…

Think before you post

In running any site its smart  to be very mindful of the difference between “fair comment” and libel.

Sometimes posters can get really fired up and not appreciate what they are posting. If someone makes blanket defamatory statements this can cause all kinds of problems for the poster and potentially the owner of the FB group.  The law has changed in recent years and the penalties can be quite severe. Essentially “Think, BEFORE you post online” In my other life I took out a harassment order against one individual who posted defamatory comments online.

If you are on the receiving end its wise to take screenshots. You can also back up your entire FB page quite easily which can be a useful exercise. Most groups that have niche interests will attract enthusiasts and sometimes theses will form groups and attempt to direct everything that happens on the group. This is why its smart to have moderators and set out the basic guidelines for posting on the page.

Voltaire and Napoleon’s had something to say

Voltaire was quoted as saying

“I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It”

I think discussion and debate are how we all learn and FB along with other social media platforms offer a terrific opportunity for this. Of course the downsize as already mentioned is that people can start shouting about how in their view everyone else “should behave”

Napoleon said

“Imagination rules the world”

“Imagination can be a brilliant creative tool, BUT the downside is that sometimes because somebody imagines something, they believe it to be 100% factually true.

 

I have lost count of the numbers of examples for this and usually when imagination is in full flow, the person makes massive generalizations and exaggerations.

Here are some examples of exchanges from 2017

Person A 

“A lot of people are very unhappy about what you posted on your social media page”

Myself

“Wow, that’s interesting, who exactly is concerned? When you say “a lot” do you mean like 50 or more?”

Person A

“No not that many?”

Myself

“Ok, so 10 or more?”

Person A

“No, not that many”

Myself

“Ok, so less that ten, possibly way less than 10. Who exactly is unhappy? They are welcome to contact me directly with any concerns and I’m happy to discuss as in my view discussion is useful”

Person A

“They don’t want to discuss, I just thought “you should know”

Myself

“Thanks for the feedback”

My point is that online and especially on FB, people often post in haste and can be prone to massive exaggeration. Of course speaking without thinking and exaggeration have not come into being with the advent of social media, these traits have always existed. When one person insists how EVERYONE else SHOULD BE, then we are in my 100% subjective biased opinion on a slippery slope and in what I term “the plain crazy” category. Others may disagree and if so once again I am happy to side with Voltaire in your perfect right to do so! 

Lets end on some more good news

Lets end on a positive. FB groups can be fascinating places to connect up to people you would never otherwise meet in daily life. When I was in an Austin guitar store a guy shouted out “Hey Nick Cody, I know you from FB!”

My band’s first overseas festival invite came from being spotted on social media and I’m playing in NYC in 2018 again from an invite on social media. I have also made some great friends who I now meet up with in real life. Despite some of the tantrum outbursts online, overall running a FB group is a rewarding experience and offers terrific opportunities to discuss and debate, which of course is how we all learn, isn’t it?

 

What’s the best ukulele?

Almost on a daily basis I see the question “What’s the best ukulele?” posted on social media and especially on many ukulele based FB groups.

I appreciate the enthusiasm for wanting information and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the question of course, BUT of course without any qualifying information its a bit like asking

“What’s the best meal?”

Everyone will have an opinion according to THEIR OWN EXPERIENCE and that experience will vary massively from one person to another.

When this question appears usually  hordes of people start offering well intentioned opinions from their own experience. The threads go on and on…

 Again, nothing wrong with the sentiment, BUT every enthusiastic response can only be subjective and although well intentioned, ultimately may not actually be of any practical use for the person asking the question.

Musical instruments of course come in all shapes and sizes and the ukulele is no exception. There’s a massive range of options in how a ukulele plays and sounds. If we expand the question to

“What in your opinion is the best ukulele for playing jazz style music?”, the question becomes more focused and easier to usefully answer. You will note I added “in your opinion” as its useful yo remember these are ALL OPINIONS, something that can be forgotten. 

A Few considerations worth pondering before buying

The size of the ukulele makes a big difference to the feel and the sound. A soprano uke is very different to a tenor or baritone. Secondly the construction of the instrument will make all the difference to the sound. Different woods respond differently. There are no “best woods” just different sounding woods. Thirdly the string choice matched to the wood choice makes a big difference. I have done a lot of experimentation with different strings and just as pickups on electric guitars and amp combinations create all manner of sonic possibilities, string and wood choices do the same. 

Another consideration is how the instrument is constructed, There are some very respectable production line ukulele models, BUT there can be a big variation in quality. Even a model that is in theory identical, can often be quite different. I have been in stores with an extensive range of ukuleles and tried many exact same models to discover big variations. There’s nothing wrong with general advice, but any person can only really say what they personally like and LIKES WILL BE DIFFERENT FOR EACH PERSON.

Another element  is how the instrument is set up. Some ukuleles straight out of a factory can have all manner of issues including fret buzz through low action or unhelpfully high action that makes the instrument hard to play

As I have already suggested another factor to think about  is

“What kind of sound do you want to create?” 

People can have very different preferences and playing solo can be different to playing in a band. The price is usually another factor in any selection process. I know people online who insist that anything over X price is unacceptable and a waste of money. Of course any response  is often based on limited awareness of what’s actually available in the marketplace.

Price does not always signify (to my ears and fingers) a great sounding and playing ukulele. I have seen some videos of ukuleles for thousands of pounds with terrific inlay work, but don’t sound anything special to my ears. Similarly I have come across some really excellent instruments that to my ears and fingers are really superb. I’m fortunate to be able to travel a great deal and know that many great ukuleles never reach UK stores. Similarly there are some great UK custom build ukes that are very affordable that are not known in Asia and the USA.

As the happy owner of 24 ukuleles, I can vouch for the fact that they all play and sound different. When I am playing live or recording in the studio, I’ll pick the instrument according to the sound I want. This is all before we get to discussing the options of amplification and whether to go down the pickup route or using a microphone, where again there are lots of possibilities. The term “best ukulele” becomes confused with favorite uke…

One of the great joys of exploring the ukulele is to find out what suits your fingers and your ears.

The Fun is often in the exploration so you find what you love

This means TRYING OUT INSTRUMENTS. Yes, it really is that simple and of course the sound you hear as the player will be different to that when someone plays your potential purchase as you are hearing it from a different physical location. I always make a point of finding a store where I can hear the instruments in the same physical space as this will affect what you hear when comparing instruments. Of course if the sound and play ability are not important to you then there are countless uke shaped objects that are easy to purchase online.

I appreciate that not everyone can have access to a great store, so in my view second best option can be to look at video of instruments being played. My personal totally biased advice is to focus as much as possible on play ability and sound, although I appreciate some people love the quirky designs that make ukes look like classic guitars and of course manufacturers realize that many people see the gimmick appeal of the uke and market accordingly. Also be mindful that some online may be endorsers for certain brands so are not exactly neutral in their recommended suggestions…

Conclusion

So, “What’s the best ukulele for you?”

The stark truth is ultimately (drum roll!)

“I have no idea. Go find out for yourself and really enjoy this process of exploration” 

I can offer only general advise from my own experience, but your tastes in terms of what your ears and fingers tell you may be totally different! Personal tastes also inevitably change over time of course so THERE IS NO BEST UKE

That said, here are some of my ukulele family and you can see and hear how different they sound. I love them all for very different reasons.

 

Back in the studio working on “Tales of Dark & Light”

I now have 4 fully mastered and mixed tracks for “Tales of Dark and Light” and I’m really happy with the recordings to date.

The tracks are

  1. Dunning Kruger Blues
  2. Here in the silence
  3. No more street parties
  4. He’s shooting blanks

I’ll be back in the studio mid January to record a fifth track “When the pain begins”

This is a very different project to the Small Change Diaries material, although Adrian Knowles and Rich Ferdi feature on some tracks. The extraordinary Laurent Zeller plays on the above tracks, but the final track is only going to be piano and vocal. 

The material is a lot darker than SCD material, and although I use the ukulele as a writing tool, the ukulele doesn’t really feature in the final recordings. The sound is much more piano, double bass and violin based. Carl Rosamond is once again the producer. I’m working with a number of other new musicians for the first time and each one adds a different dynamic to the material. 

The opening track “Dunning Kruger Blues” was written after some exchanges on social media and reminds me greatly of Becker/Fagen Steely Dan material

 

Dunning Kruger Blues (Nick Cody)

King of the tiny island, no bigger than a hill,
Centre of attention, is how he gets his thrills
Two fake Rolex, one on each arm
Listened to Elvis, but never got the charm

David and Justin got a Nobel prize,
Some understood, others rolled their eyes,
A New pecking order is now coming through
Bet your wondering if this songs ‘bout you….

Chorus
Ladies, gentlemen, it’s not the best news,
Welcome to the Dunning Kruger blues,
Ladies, gentlemen, it’s not the best news….
Welcome to the Dunning Kruger blues…

Bridge

Waspie women and the yummy mums,
Got the king’s number, done the sums,
But nothings really adding up so far,
He’s convinced he’s some kind of star…

Teenage kids just as bad,
All the smiling, covers up the true sad,
This dam of tears is about to break,
A parental vice, she just can’t shake

Chorus
Ladies, gentlemen, it’s not the best news
Welcome to the Dunning Kruger blues,
Ladies, gentlemen, it’s not the best news,
Welcome to the Dunning Kruger blues…

Ladies, gentlemen, it’s not the best news,
Welcome to the Dunning Kruger blues…

 

I’ll be playing some of this material live in the USA and the UK, before releasing the EP as a physical product as well as in digital format

tales of dark and light

Effective artist promotions in the music industry?

I’m currently engaged in doing a lot of research about effective artist promotions and this is resulting in some really interesting feedback. I’m lucky to have access to a number of professional artists who I can talk to about this as well as having the means to gather really good information on how the market is changing.

Its clear to me that with musicians, the actual music itself is only one of many ingredients needed to generate any kind of useful profile. I have seen and heard some fantastic artists who have only ever reached a very small audience. It may be that this is 100% their choice of course. In this fast changing world its important to have a multi layered delivery system to connect with a wider audience. These are my personal opinions and of course everyone will have their own views about what works for them!

Focus on quality and detail – sound and vision

When my band “The Small Change Diaries” were due to record our first album, a now departed member from the first lineup suggested we get a bunch of microphones and do all the recording and mastering ourselves! My background in successfully creating spoken word and ambient music from 2000 – 2006 told me that this was at best optimistic and to be frank, totally delusional. Yes, we might record some tracks, BUT the art of “music production” is about capturing the best sound and then ensuring that the mastering and mixing is to the highest standards. Working with a producer with decades of experience ensures that there is a good chance for this happening.

Of course this route means an investment of time and money, but that’s always going to be needed at some level if you want to produce something of a very high standard. When promoting your music its always a good idea to have the best possible representation of your sound. This  means paying proper attention to the recording process. Fortunately there are all manner of inexpensive options alongside getting an actual producer. Programs like Reaper will do everything you could possibly want in terms of recording.

Just as the sound needs to be of a high quality, the visual element needs also to be really good. I’m amazed at how many artists pay almost no attention to this and forget the old saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” Good professional make all the difference, especially when used online. I’m amazed at how poor some photos are on artist websites. With my own band we have always made a point of using great photos and this has really helped promote the band to a wider audience.

Video is also a great example of a medium to connect to a wider audience, BUT my advice is again to ensure its of the best possible quality. In the era of the mobile phone often audience members can enthusiastically film artists. The problem can be that this usually looks and sounds terrible and not create the best impression. One launch party in particular showed a huge venue with a very small group of people. Nothing wrong with that of course, it looked like a fun event, BUT I suspect the promoters would have preferred not to have this aspect highlighted on social media. 

Sony MV1 units or similar units are highly recommended and in my view its better to have a less video of a higher quality rather than a mass of poorly recorded material posted online. The challenge with video recordings is to get both great sound and vision . This is why the MV1’s are so excellent. They do just one job brilliantly. At the time of writing I hear Sony have stopped making these, but Zoom have similar options worth looking at.  

Online presence – social media and web presence

Every festival application for artists I have seen asks for the band’s social media and website details. In my view if you have a few hundred likes on FB, the chances are you are not going to get the same attention as if you have ten times this amount. Whether we like it or not, social media and online presence is crucial for artist promotion. This means a lot of work behind the scenes and keeping everything current.  Often “band news” on sites is out of date and again attention to detail is everything. I blogged in the past about one artist who had an entire page almost begging for financial contributions to “help her art” This again does not send out a very good professional message to the wider world. The internet has been a game changer for musicians, BUT it can result in over saturation if you are not careful and the habit of enthusiastically taking live poor quality video with mobile phones does little to present a great image.

In terms of web presence I highly recommend Steve Krug’s book “Don’t make me think” Its a goldmine of useful information. With my own band we have been invited to a number of overseas opportunities to play, mostly based on our web presence and social media presence. A longtime USA music producer paid us this compliment on seeing our site “You look very established and like you have been around for a very long time. 

Balancing time and money

There’s a saying in show business – “It takes ten years to become an overnight success” This means playing the long game when it comes to promotions. The challenge for most artists is to balance time and money.  Artist promotion requires time and money in order to be effective, Its also essential to know what to do with your time and money. You can have all the time and money in the world and never achieve anything. Good information is invaluable. 60 second music marketing is another invaluable resource for artists.

Take a look at https://www.facebook.com/60secondmusicmarketing for some really invaluable concise practical advice.  Many musicians can be great creatively but lack essential basic business skills. This can result in all kinds of problems including a real downturn in reasonably paid work. The professional musicians I know work really hard to earn a living from their craft. 

Getting played on the radio

BBC Introducing is a great platform for independent artists. When they played over 50% of our first SCD album I fully expected a big jump in public attention. Guess what? It made no difference whatsoever in terms of sales, web traffic and live requests. Similarly I have seen other artists get similar exposure and this factor alone not make a significant difference. My point is that radio play is simply one of many ingredients in effective artist promotion, BUT no single ingredient alone will make the difference. My own experience is that its best to have a coordinated approach across many platforms. This takes time and patience and in this X Factor era where instant fame is the new mantra, many artists don’t have the stamina for this.  

Festival Opportunities? 

The term “festival” describes a multitude of experiences that are so varied that its almost impossible to define the term these days. Most artists I speak to lament the lack of playing opportunities at such events and experiences can vary massively. There are of course many excellent established festivals that have great reputations. There are also many events described as “festivals” that are not such great opportunities for effective artist promotions. The festival application process can at times be quite bewildering and some artists seem desperate to have any playing opportunity even if its for a few minutes and they pay to be there. In short it can be a great deal of work for little gain, so its really work doing your research ahead of time.

My own experience is that “appreciative audiences” vary massively and a lot of the festival organisation can be at times chaotic which is one of the reasons why many events fail to succeed. Niche music festivals may attract a few hundred customers at best and in recent times there is a noticeable downward trend in numbers attending such events. Some of the communication from festival promoters to the wider world of artists may also be well intentioned but in my view often not well thought through. One of many examples of this is the message below 

 

Working with like minds

The “music business” is like any other business and a great deal of success depends on connecting with the right people. When I was in Nashville this year I spent an afternoon with Van Fletcher who is Jake Shimabukuro’s manager. My friend asked him about the relevance of record companies in this day and age and he pointed out that such companies can be invaluable in generating audience reach. Ditto Music is a good resource for getting global digital distribution which is essential for “reach” to a wider audience.

One of my golden rules these days is to work with like minds and people who have shared values. This includes promoters, musicians and create teams. The best relationships are where both parties benefit. Those who know me appreciate that I will happily give my time and energy to help others who do the same. I like straight talking folks who have a point of view, even if its different to my own.

My advice is stay away from people who can’t separate social interactions and business transactions.  I had a conversation recently with a very established artist about this exact same subject and his advice mirrored totally my own thoughts. I am hugely grateful for all those people who had engaged in conversations around this subject. There’s no substitute for personal experience and its clear to me that the music market is changing at some rate. This means paying careful attention to how as an artist you connect to the wider world. 

Final Thoughts

Effective artist promotion requires a great deal of dedication and investments in time and money. In my other life I set up and ran two major business concerns and have realized that the principles in making any project successful are very similar. As artists we are all in a process of learning and of course if you want to get audience attention you need to spot and seize opportunities. In recent times its clear to me that niche musical genres can be a lot of fun, but there is a massive limitation on audience reach and often these musical trends will ebb and flow. Similarly its smart to think about international artist reach and that requires some strategic thinking. 

The UK in particular is in my view going to see some very tough times as the public increasingly have less disposable income. That factor alone will affect artist promotion as well as the whole Brexit situation and how this affects subsequent European artist opportunities. In 2018/2019 I’ll be unveiling a new musical initiative and continue to work with some really great folks who give me hope that its still possible to get great music to a wider public. The OUS platform has done well to date in the first two years. The next project is much more ambitious and more expansive…

2017 Looking back at some great times!

 

This year has been a fascinating year full of many terrific memories. I have been overseas on nine separate occasions and had the opportunity to play music in the USA and Japan as well as the UK. In Jan 2017 I had a terrific week in New York meeting up with old friends. I also bought an amazing 1920s Martin soprano ukulele from Zeke who was working at Matt Umanov Guitars. This is a truly wonderful instrument and the first Martin I have bought.

I was back in New York in March and caught some amazing shows by Bill Frissell at The Vanguard. Bill is a constant inspiration and quite brilliant player. 

In April I was in the studio with the band finalizing tracks for our second album “Lullabies for Cynics” I was delighted to have some really brilliant musicians guest on this release including Laurent Zeller, Phill Doleman and Kev Bishop. 

Alan and Terri Thornton came to stay for a week and we talked a great deal about the OUS platform. I also ran an open house for all OUS artists and had the brilliant Victoria Vox and Jack Maher play in my kitchen. They are a shining example of how to really deliver a performance and did a brilliant job. I named them OUS artists of the year.

I also had the chance to see the wonderful Percy Copley in action and we co wrote this track

I continue to meet up with Martin Simpson for 1 – 1 tuition and he has become a big influence on my own work. 

In early June I traveled to Vienna and met up with Gregor Nowak and fell in love with one of his instruments that is featured on my forthcoming 2018 EP. Gregor is a superb builder and I’ll be sure to check in with him when I am back in Austria.

 

In July I headed once again to Japan and met up with my good friend an brilliant builder Shimo. Unsurprisingly I bought another one of his instruments a concert pineapple ukulele, that is quite wonderful.

I also had the chance to visit The Ohana uke store and pick up a wonderful soprano 

On the same trip I played a duo set in Nagoya with my good friend Brian Cullen. This was my first opportunity to play in Japan and I loved it. We played some of the SCD material and some old classics

 

In September I traveled to Austin, Nashville and back to NYC. This was a terrific trip and I ended up buying a great Waterloo acoustic from Hill Country Guitars.

Nashville was fantastic and myself, my wife and my good friends Michael and Liz Ross spent a mindblowing afternoon with Van Fketcher, Jake Shimabokuro’s manager.  We heard some unreleased material and let me just say “World watch out, you’ve hear

In October I played my first solo gig at the “We will Overcome” day at The Grove in Leeds. This was the first time I played material from my forthcoming solo project and it was a great evening.

The rest of October was spent preparing for the album launch in November. We decided to make this a “pay as you feel event” so it was affordable for everyone. This was a terrific evening with over 200 tickets grabbed a few weeks before the actual event and more walk ins on the day.

Terrific support from Sleepy Kev, Phil Doleman, Laurent Zeller and Astraluna. 

During this week I spent two more days in the studio working on solo material and with Adrian Knowles being unwell, Dave Bowie from UOGB stood in and did a brilliant job. Laurent Zeller continues to maze me with his playing, just extraordinary. His work on my solo project alongside Rich Ferdi and Dave is amazing.

During 2017 the OUS platform grew to over 3000 members on FB and 100+ artists with their own pages on the main site. Despite this I have come to realise that the uke world is far too niche to attract a wider audience and interest in the UK has peaked. After some somewhat bizarre exchanges on social media earlier in the year I decided it was time to focus on a more diverse and expanded project which will be unveiled in 2018.  

Plans are already in place for some really exciting events in 2018 and the focus will be on quality of music and great entertainment. I am lucky to have a number of like minds who will be central to this project. Most of December will be working on this as I hibernate for a while with a wonderful new log burning stove at my Leeds home with Bill the cat and my wife.

 

As well as working to keep Bill in the life he is used to, I also continue to feed what seems like the entire bird population of the UK and those “peckers” get through 20k of sunflower seeds each month

I feel blessed to know so many great folks and to be able to travel around the world sharing a love of music and meeting so many amazing folks.

 

Studio update on Tales of Dark and Light EP

We have been very busy in the studio recording tracks for “Tales of Dark and Light”, a solo project that I have been working on for some time as a side project to The Small Change Diaries.

At the time of writing we have now completed all four tracks for “Tales of Dark and Light”

These are

  1. Dunning Kruger Blues
  2. He’s shooting blanks
  3. No more street parties
  4. Hear in the silence

The musicians on this project are Adrian Knowles/Dave Bowie Double bass, Laurent Zeller violin, Rich Ferdi percussion, Alice Higgins, Paul Conway piano, myself on vocals and stringed instruments. Carl Rosamond is producing the material.

The music is different to what I have recorded with The Small Change Diaries and as suggested in the title some of the lyrics are pretty dark. This is proving to be a fascinating project and an opportunity to stretch out sonically into some very different territory.

On “He’s shooting blanks” I don’t play any instruments, rather focusing on singing. This is a true murder ballad and one of my favorite tracks to date.  “Dunning Kruger Blues” reminds me of Steely Dan, which “Hear in the silence” has a  more Indian feel with some extraordinary playing from Laurent Zeller who is key to the main sound on this project. “No more street parties” is possibly the saddest song ever written, a commentary on Brexit.

“No more street parties on this little rock,

Pack away the bunting, brace for the shock”

 Many songs were written on the ukulele, but the final recordings to date contain very little uke, rather focusing on other instruments.

I am grateful to have the support of so many superb musicians and remain fascinated by the whole creative process. This material has “more bite” than what I have written and recorded to date and I plan to play this new material live in the UK and USA in 2018. I am also looking at a second EP for the back end of 2018 with different musicians and a different feel to this EP

Nick Cody