That’s Entertainment

During The Grand Northern Ukulele Festival aka GNUF I had a brief chat to Andy Eastwood. I suggested to him that with respect he reminded me of “an old fashioned entertainer” and he replied “Yes, how come there’s not a lot more of that around these days?”

I confess to never being a fan of George Formby, but I was totally blown away by Andy’s workshops and his stage performance. Here was a genuine entertainer who wonderfully engaged the audience and clearly had perfected his craft. Yes he was technically brilliant on ukulele, banjo and violin, BUT crucially he was able to interact with the audience and give them a magical experience. This is the hallmark of a true entertainer and give me one of those above anyone who is technically brilliant, but lacks this aspect.

I have frequently blogged about the need for musical events to evolve and continue to attract/engage audiences. The same principals apply and in this internet era people are easily bored. On social media one individual was questioning the stage times at GNUF of being 20 – 25 minutes, suggesting it in his view might be a great deal longer. I pointed out that this exact formula made GNUF different to the standard festivals, GNUF had been successfully running for 5 years, they have over 50 artists in one weekend (many times anyone else) and over 100 artists were declined due to performer demand. This is a winning formula and “That’s entertainment” Over the week I met some amazing performers who have also become good friends including Alan and Terri Thornton, Katy Vernon and Matt Hicks. All these folks are genuine entertainers and gave great performances at GNUF.

In these uncertain times, IMO we all need the best entertainment we can find and I applaud any artists striving to entertain the public regardless of whether this is to my own personal taste. I also hear that this year will be the very last for the Cheltenham Ukulele Festival. Anyone who runs an event for eight years reserves recognition, but as Bob Dylan would say “The Times they are a Changing” and inevitably new events will appear and existing festivals will evolve. Let me also be clear without doubt that festival has provided many with excellent entertainment for many years and kicked off a festival uke trend in the UK

On planet earth in many ways and my hope is that platforms like The Original Ukulele Songs initiative will support and encourage original artists that seek to entertain the public. 

 

Earn a living from music? No Thanks!

A number of people have asked me recently about the possibility of earning a living from ukulele music. I can’t imagine anything I would like to do less for a multitude of reasons, some of which I’ll detail in this blog.

For the sake of 100% clarity let me remind folks “THIS IS A PERSONAL VIEW ONLY” It would bonkers to suggest that nobody should earn a living from music as there would be no seasoned artists! Ok, now that’s cleared up, read on…

I am lucky enough to know a number of professional musicians and there’s a good reason why they call it “the music business” Any profession requires investments of both time and money. Often people have a romantic and quite delusional idea of what its like to be a professional artist. Its a similar situation with authors.

Years ago I had lunch with a friend who had written a biography on George Harrison. He had previously written one on Carlos Santana but was especially pleased with this new piece of work. I said “If its not too impolite, does being an author pay well?” “Yes he replied this one generated a full 9k, but it did take almost a year to write” I said “Is that an annual anticipated earning” “Nope he said, that’s what I expect in total…”

My point is that few writers earn a reasonable living from simply writing and its the same with other artists including musicians. Of course its important to clarify that independent musicians work in a very different manner to signed artists and performers, but either way there’s a lot more work involved than many might imagine! Shows like X Factor and American Idol  do little to dampen the illusion of instant fame without developing a craft…

Two good friends of mine have been earning a living from music  for 30+ years. The first one I have known since the early 1980s when after being played on the John Peel Show got signed to Sire Records. The band was on an 8% royalty rate which is similar to a book royalty. This was the deal and the band were delighted to be signed. This delight soon subsided when the record company lost interest in promoting the band. Of course every “album advance” was simply a loan against future sales. the record company holds the rights to the master recordings and is keen to protest their business investment. 

In recent years I have been quite shocked at the amount of record company advances and how small these can be. I appreciate that “the record company” wants to protect its investment and to have input into what is released and when it is released. They can also in fact refuse to release any material at all. Bruce Springsteen’s excellent autobiography “Born to Run” is a brilliant insight into a lot of what happens in the “music business” and an essential read for any artist.

Robert Fripp released an excellent audio book on his experiences in “the music business” and commented “Every time I hear a band is signed, I think oh dear…” His observations are quite fascinating, especially around record deals. 

“I recommend my students not to be professional unless they really have to be. I tell them, ‘If you love music, sell Hoovers or be a plumber. Do something useful with your life.’

“Being a professional musician doesn’t mean you spend 12 hours a day playing music. It means you spend up to 12 hours a day taking care of business, dealing with litigation, with the various characters who’ve stolen your interests, or fending off hostile lawsuits from former members of the band”

Robert Fripp

Of course this isn’t every artists experience, BUT often from the outside people don’t see how hard it is to maintain consistent regular predictable income in being “a professional musician”

There’s an old saying in show business – “It takes ten years to become an overnight success”

nick codyIn my other life as “the other Nick” it’s taken that time to develop a unique skill set that means I’m in demand across the globe, BUT it’s taken a massive amount of time and energy. In 2001 I released a spoken word CD called “The Adventures of Well Being Now” I did all the writing, production, artwork and recording myself. The unit cost of a proper glass mastered CD as a pound a unit and I pressed a thousand. I sold them via distributors for between 6.25 and directly to the public for eighteen pounds in CD format. In total I sold over two thousand which I am told was pretty good, my first foray into music. 

In niche musical circles including ukulele music, often people can imagine a wonderful life playing gigs and receiving wonderful applause. The reality for most (not all) is of course somewhat different. In recent times I saw a jazz musician selling beloved bass with regret and I have known many artists part with treasured instruments to make ends meet. Those who earn a reasonable living have to mostly tour endlessly and that can be a big strain on relationships. 

Many artists have posted on social media requests for couches, advise on whether anyone knows of available part time jobs and many other factors that suggest it’s tough to earn a living in this way. Don’t get me wrong I APPLAUD any performer that decides to go this route, BUT I’ll never do it, even though I have already had a good taste of some financial success from music alone. This is 100% a personal choice NOT a suggestion for all creative artists on planet earth of course.

I am lucky to be able to fund all band recording and rehearsals from my other life. This means we can record how we want and when we want. We can play as much or as little as we want and are not beholding to anybody. Its a wonderful freedom, but it requires an immense amount of unpaid time and energy. I reckon on at least a full day and a half each week dedicated to the band or my own musical education. Its a wonderful life and I have met and continue to meet many extraordinary people. 

There’s nothing so fulfilling as being asked on a number of occasions to play overseas and to date to have played a major guitar festival. The invite came form the work done on the band’s online presence. There’s nothing so great to hear your own material played on the radio and to have respected musicians applaud your work. Personally I find it impossible to really take a view on my own work and there always the thought that it all might in fact be a bit shit! For that reason external appreciation and positive feedback is always welcome! 

 I would never want to solely reply on music for income, sign to a label or “be managed” All of those factors would eat into the absolute joy of doing what I love. 

 

Frogs, Scorpions and Reality Tunnels

There’s a great fable by Aesop that is as true today as when it was written

The Scorpion and the Frog

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”

The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”

Replies the scorpion: “Its my nature…”

 

In my other job as “the other Nick” for over many decades I have worked with exploring and teaching aspects of human behaviour. Inevitably after thousands of hours of seeing clients and running trainings in the UK, USA, Europe and Asia, it’s amazing how certain patterns appear time and time again across all demographics and areas of life.  The Aesop fable highlights that some people can’t help themselves when it comes to behaviour. Of course on planet earth we all have our own individual subjective views or what Robert Anton Wilson would call “reality tunnels” 

Here are some examples of different types of behavior that form very specific reality tunnels and subsequent behaviors 

The Attention/status seekers

These individuals tend to endlessly seek to be the centre of attention and tend to be obsessed with personal imagined status. In the world of music there is of course a pecking order, which is to an extent understandable,  However often this attention seeking becomes so self serving that it often results in poor manners and ultimately such individuals tend to be quite isolated as people become increasingly alienated by this kind of behavior. The attention seeker will endlessly seek reassurance and free advice, without much if any consideration for others. 

The Bully/victim folks

These individuals tend to try and strong arm everyone to their own point of view. The bullying behavior can be overt or covert. If they don’t succeed with the head to head approach, they usually back down and “play the victim” often with verbose explanations and apologies about how its not their fault! Those who work in management will recognize this kind of behavior whereas others may not spot what is going on.

The Connectors

The connectors tend to be the polar opposite of the attention seekers. These individuals are always working in the service of others and by nature “connect with others” The danger they have personally is that they can be greatly affected by others ill considered actions. The connectors think the best of people and tend to be selfless in their actions and can if they are not careful be manipulated by others. they are classically the folks “who can’t say no” and often suffer for this

These are just three examples of behavior, but are surprisingly common in both the music world and other areas of life. Ultimately of course everyone has their own “reality tunnel” and as one of my lyrics states

“No one of us is smarter than all of us”

 

Taking a leap, learning new instruments

One of the many things I learned from spending a lot of time with Martin Simpson is to learn new instruments. This trend started with a National dobro, a mandola,  a walking bass dulcimer and now an entirely non fret board instrument that I will reveal in due course.

There is usually a learning curve with new learning and once I can past the “I hate this” phase, some semblance of acceptable sound begins to emerge. One of secrets is to keep practicing and to ensure that each instrument is used in creating new material. On The Small Change Diaries “Protest Songs” EP, I used the mandola on “Commons Sense” and on the next album “Lullabies for Cynics” I use the walking bass dulcimer on a new track “Lullaby” With the dobro, it took me six months to get any kind of reasonable sound, but once that started to appear, it was an absolute joy. Of course within the whole ukulele family there is a massive range of sonic possibilities. I currently have 23 ukuleles, ranging from a 1920s Martin to a 5 string baritone, an 8 string baritone, a 5 string tenor and a range of sopranos, concerts and tenors, all very different.

There is something wonderfully liberating about a new instrument when you have little or no idea about how to play it. Of course in time its essential to know what you are doing, BUT a lack of any initial musical awareness can produce all manner of fascinating possibilities. These days I am listening for new sounds which then inspire new compositions. Each instrument provokes a new way of playing and new sonic territory and its fascinating to start to combine instruments in new ways, always of course creating ORIGINAL songs.

 

Practice, practice, practice…

Since forming The Small Change Diaries I have increasingly become more aware about the importance of practice. Yes, I always understood this intellectually, but from playing in a band its blindingly obvious that if you want to improve as a musician, singer or songwriter, you need to dedicate ongoing time to skill development. I make a point of having instruments to hand on stands so I can pick them up at any time. I’m far more likely to pick up and play an instrument if its to hand rather than if its in a case. Sometimes just a few minutes playing can inspire a new melody or a riff, so I always like to have an instrument at arm’s length.

As well as individual practice it’s really useful to play with other artists if you want to really develop skills. With The Small Change Diaries Jessica Bowie and I meet every week for a couple of hours to work on and practice material. This is out longstanding formalized work time and we’ve been doing this for two and a half years. This investment in time has helped us really develop The Small Change Diaries sound. The full band meet every few weeks usually for 2 – 3 hours to work on arrangements. If we have upcoming gigs and especially overseas festivals like The Lagoa Guitar Festival in Portugal, we’ll meet more often. 

As well as these practice sessions I have had specific vocal lessons as well as meeting up with other music teachers including Martin Simpson and Phil Doleman. All of this a significant investment of time and money, but 100% worth it. I’m fortunate in that my other work allows me to fund band activities and not have to sweat about generating income solely from music.

Ongoing and regular practice also means being prepared to step out of comfort zones and that’s usually when IMO we all really develop skills. There can be moments of both immense frustration as well as great inspiration. The key is to keep at it and always hang around artists with great skills maintaining a consistent and regular routine, come rain or shine. 

the small change diaries

the small change diaries

Singer inspirations

I was asked recently by a fellow musician, who my inspirations are as singers. I have talked a lot in the past about songwriter inspirations, but singers are slightly different.

Here are some examples that have been a big influence on my own work

As you can see and hear, these are very different artists, but they all have a unique style and write great lyrics. I’m a massive fan of original music and all four artists have in my view done a great deal to push the boundaries in a world that’s too full of “cookie cutter” music.

Aside from Tom Waits I have seen the other artists live and they have never failed to disappoint. The smartest and best music is usually ahead of the curve in terms of popular opinion. Other singer songwriters I love include Stevie Wonder, John Hiatt, Ani Difranco, Daryl Hall, Joni Mitchell, Steve Earle, Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan among others. All have a definite point of view and regularly inspire as well as frustrate me with their output!

If you are going to do cover versions as well as original songs, then it doesn’t get much better than Daryl Hall and “Daryl’s House” is essential viewing/listening for any singer

 

The Magic of Stefan Sobell

Below is a quick workout with a Stefan Sobell African Blackwood New World guitar. I first came across Stefan’s instruments at a Martin Simpson workshop a number of years ago. I have always enjoyed Martin’s sound and for many years he exclusively used Sobells. My first Sobell was a model 0 which I bought second hand and then after hearing Martin’s African Blackwood New World. Stefan made three of these, Jackson Browne has the other one.

I commissioned one myself and have never heard any other guitar that sounds anything like this. After playing mostly ukes, it seems HUGE.

Since then I have also bought a mandola from Stefan which is also terrific. Stefans instruments are custom hand builds and quite unlike anything else except Takahiro Shimos instruments, although Stefan doesn’t build ukuleles.

Guadalupe Custom Strings for Ukuleles

I heard about Guadalupe ukulele strings from my good friend Dafydd in Wales. I had never come across them before and part of the reason is that they only sell directly to the public. If you are one of those who insists that all strings sound the same and its best to go to the local fishing store, then best not to read on! If you are someone who is interested in musical exploration and sonic possibilities, then this is worth a read.

These strings are handmade, and there is a fair wait to receive sets. As well as being patient, be aware that customs and postal delays mean that this is not an easy or cheap option to try out. It can take as long as two month to even get a set, especially when parcelforce take a full month to ship from Coventry to Leeds!

This is how they describe themselves on their site

“A HandMade Tradition

Since 1991, Guadalupe Custom Strings has been making traditional strings for traditional music, by hand. We have worked with luthiers and musicians internationally to develop the highest quality strings available for mariachi instruments, bajo quinto, ukulele, son jarocho and much more.

Our team of 3, work out of the corner of a warehouse in East L.A, we do not have regular hours, and although we sell directly to the public, it is always best to call ahead and make sure we will be there.”

See http://thegcs.co/

My own experience is that these are very different to everything else I have tried to date. They don’t have the feel or sound of fluorocarbons and they certainly don’t sound or respond like gut strings. I have them currently on a James Triggs tenor ukulele as well as a Bill Collings UC1 concert ukulele. The Collings is a better reference for me as I own three Collings concert ukuleles, so I can compare this Guadalupe addition to the other ukes which have Worth Browns and Aquilla Red strings. The Collings concert is an all mahogany ukulele, and some strings can IMO make it sound really muddy and not bring out the best sonic potential from the instrument.

Another consideration with string choice is how the selection affects the ukulele when its amplified especially with a pickup. The Collings UC1 had a McIntyre feather pickup which is my usual pickup, but previously didn’t sound as dynamic as I would like. It was “ok” but nothing like as resonant as when played acoustically. The change to Guadalupe’s made a big difference, so now all the sonic potential of the ukulele could be heard.  These strings will be a personal choice as they are tough to locate and not inexpensive, unless you live in the USA. That said, they can sound really great of certain ukuleles. Of course its ultimately always a question of choice and IMO the wider the choice the more possibilities…

More ukulele string talk

I’m discovering that in the ukulele world there are lots of opinions about ukulele strings and which ones to select. At one extreme some folks insist that “brand X” is “the best string choice”, while others insist on simply going down to the local fishing store and getting some fishing line! Let me be clear in my view there are no “best strings” just different. Some folks seem to relish the idea of never changing strings and feel quite confronted by the every idea that maybe, just maybe the string choice might me one of the elements that determines who the instrument sounds, just a thought… As someone who is interested in this area, to date I have tested over 12 different string types across two dozen instruments with many surprising results…

Call me picky, BUT I would respectfully suggest that some of the following elements are worthy of some consideration BEFORE making any definitive statement about this matter. 

  • What type of ukulele is being played – yes size matters – an 8 string bari is different to a soprano
  • What’s the ukulele made of? Different woods can make for very different sounds
  • How does the instrument sound acoustically and’or with a pickup? 
  • What sound do you want? This can of course be very subjective…
  • Is the ukulele being played as a solo instrument, duo setting or in a band? Different sonic considerations here
  • Different people hear differently and 80 quid uke also is often going to respond differently to an 800 quid uke
  • Only by exploring and comparing (if that is an interest) can anyone really talk about this from actual experience 

Some people are interest in the sonic possibilities of what the ukulele can do and others are not that bothered. I respect both views. That said its in my totally biased opinion to make proclamations on any matter without any actual information or exploration. It would be like trying a local pizza takeaway and then using this snapshot experience to pronounce on Italian cuisine!

My own experience in trying out a dozen or more strings types across two dozen ukuleles is that the string choice can make a big difference in how an instrument sounds and feels. I have a collection of ukuleles which are very wide ranging from my recent 1920’s Martin acquisition, to some great custom made Shimo instruments to everything in between. Wound strings (often G and C) make for a radically different sound and I have yet to find any wound fishing line…lol Its about personal choice as there are no best strings, just different…

I have been conducting some testing with a Cocobolo super soprano ukulele in what I call “The Kitchen string test” Here I test the exact same ukulele in the same acoustic space, recorded with the same gear, playing the same piece of music. Its blinding obvious to me that there’s a huge difference when changing the strings, both in how the instrument responds, how it sounds from the artist perspective and how it sounds from the audience’s perspective which of course is different.

Of course many seasoned professional musicians have long realised that this is a factor in the final sound. Stevie Ray Vaughan experimented a great deal and dazzled audiences with his music. His spirit of exploration was not only in the gear he used, but in his whole approach to musical performance, see  https://www.stringjoy.com/stevie-ray-vaughans-guitar-string-gauges/ My good friend Martin Simpson similarly has an attitude of exploration and experimentation. I’m seeing him next week and will take the new Martin uke to show him. Martin is also a terrific example of somebody always questions what else is possible, never settling just for a common view. When I interviewed Bill Collings in Austin Texas and Takahiro Shimo in Tokyo, both brilliant instrument builders had the same attitude of exploration and experimentation. This also goes for many of my favorite musical artists. They are always seeking out new possibilities and I applaud such thinking.

Ultimately its all about personal choice and attitude. Personally as you may have figured by now, I am a fan of exploration and that’s one of the reasons I set up the OUS platform, which is about creating something new. I have the same view in terms of exploring how different instrument combinations, including string options can provide some really interesting results. I also respect that such exploration and experimentation is not for everyone and that’s fine too of course.

 

Martin 1920s Soprano Ukulele from New York

I just returned from New York and met up with my good friend Zeke Schein from Matt Umanov Guitars. Zeke sold me my first ever uke, a Collings pre production concert. This one purchase was a trigger for everything that followed and without it there would be no “Small Change Diaries” no 40+ songs written, no live gigs in the UK and overseas!

On this trip Zeke mentioned a rare Martin 1920s soprano ukulele that was for sale, described below

1920s Martin Style 2 Uke
 An extremely early Martin ukulele and one of their higher-grade and rarer models, from 1921 or possibly even earlier. According to correspondence from Tom Walsh, co-author of the fabulous and most authoritative book on the subject The Martin Ukulele, “The lighter colored nut and saddle suggest it is early 20s or earlier, but the real giveaway is the position marks at the 5-7-9th frets. Martin switched to inlays at frets 5-7-10 by 1921 at the latest. Another sign of age is the fact that it never had patent pegs. The style 2 ukuleles got patent pegs in 1922″. In absolutely beautiful condition with no cracks or repairs anywhere and none of the usual signs of overly enthusiastic playing. The bar frets are original with virtually no wear. It has white celluloid tuning pegs, which are most likely much older very professional replacements, to match the white celluloid body bindings.

I have always wanted to own a Martin instrument, but to date have never been totally convinced. There are two notable exceptions, the first being a guitar Martin Simpson showed me and now this 1920s Martin soprano. I’m not an advocate of “old = great” but this particular ukulele which is in excellent condition sounds very unlike anything else I have played to date. It has a great tone and plays really well. Its also almost 100 years old and will be used in the studio for future recordings. It also comes with an original case which is like a violin case. I have never seen a 1920s Martin soprano before and certainly not one in such great condition. Its a wonderful sounding instrument and a joy to play.

 

Zeke is also the author of a soon to be released book “Portrait of a Phantom”