Thursday, 4 September 2014

Music Guidance. Thinking About... What You Do

This article originally appeared on the blog at Songeist.com

In this special weekly guidance series we're going to be exploring three key aspects of your band's existence and encouraging you to consider these elements of your act with as much thought and deliberation as you write your songs. Simply expecting the inertia of creativity to steer your ship into the right direction is rarely enough; your band's command of who you are, what you do and how you come across are all hugely important to consider. Across the series, Barney will use some real-world examples to illustrate how important these factors are and help you to apply these concepts to your own band.

READ PART 1: THINKING ABOUT... WHO YOU ARE HERE.

GREAT THINGS GROW UNDERGROUND

When many young bands see their idols headlining festivals it's natural to want to emulate them. Many emerging bands see, say, Foo Fighters up there and want to do the same, so they start a band that sounds like Foo Fighters. But it's vital to remember that Dave Grohl started out in a van in a cult hardcore band called Scream and built up his career from there. Queens of The Stone Age didn’t start as Reading-headlining rock titans; the seeds for the band grew from Kyuss and the stoner rock and desert music scenes. For Metallica it was the bay area thrash scene. For Green Day and Blink 182 there were scores of compilation appearances and toilet punk gigs. For every huge indie band like Foals, there are a hundred arty underground gigs played with like minded-bands put on by DIY promoters under their belt. For every 'overnight success' story like Royal Blood, there are always years of van mileage, local line-ups and band names in their wake. You can’t, and shouldn’t want to, skip this essential part of a band’s development.

For guitar bands, EDM acts, hip-hop artists and practically anyone other than the kids on Pop Idol, throwing yourself into the culture and activity of the underground scene of your chosen genre is essential. Not only does it provide a gigging circuit, an audience and that vital context for your act, it provides an opportunity to learn from a thriving culture that informs and influences the mainstream. Every successful band that I have ever seen live before they exploded, from the aforementioned Foals, to So Solid Crew, to You Me At Six, to Gallows, I saw in the context of an underground, grassroots show, showcasing similar acts as part of an underground scene. Many more of today's stars, from Dizzee Rascal and Chase and Status to Frank Turner and Enter Shikari began as big fishes in small musical ponds before making that coveted leap to the Main Stage.


Josh Homme: I Remember When All This Was Just Deserts...
GIGS

The wisdom of starting your band at the grassroots of your chosen style is not unique to one band or scene, these ideas can be extrapolated across all styles of music. Take any hugely successful rock or indie or dance act and the majority have a history within an underground gigging circuit. So your approach to gigs should be studied and specific and this is what so many emerging artists playing mixed bills, looking for A&R in their local venues, forget. The lifeblood of any underground scene is the gigs and this cannot be understated. Grassroots music scenes work through friendships, not strength of demos, and the difference between being shunned by a scene and being immersed and accepted into one is often about what you put in. Returning favours and being an active participant at live shows will reap rewards for an emerging band that your songwriting might not. Fundamentally, there is no point playing the kind of gigs where a promoter ropes together miscellaneous local bands with no thought about style or customer, just to open the bar at their venue. Ultimately, the crowds at those gigs are made up of friends and families of the bands, who leave as soon as their artists have finished their show. Even worse are the ghastly ‘pay to play’ shows put on by promoters who ‘showcase’ whomever they know will sell tickets to their circle of friends, at no financial risk to themselves. That’s not a promoter of music, that's a promoter of a bar. Those gigs are pointless and don’t attract A&R. For all the reasons I have already outlined, no matter what the promoter might promise, A&R don't randomly cruise around local shows looking for bands; they wait for bands to begin to make ripples in their own scene before they come to them. At best, local mixed bills are an opportunity to play live, but that can be done D.I.Y with just a little hard work.

When I started my band, one thing we got right due to previous bad experiences was our resolution to never, ever play a 'pay to play' show, a battle of the bands or a miscellaneous mixed-bill on a local band night. We didn’t look at Manchester any different from any other British city and we were not vaguely interested in being a ‘big’ local band. We decided we would forge the path ourselves to become part of our chosen scene and those other things would come on board as we went along. We identified the touring bands that we wanted to play with that were within our reach and then booked those that were affordable to play the venues ourselves. We then put our band and other like-minded and stylistically appropriate local bands in support. After putting on several gigs, favours were returned and we were invited to other cities to play and that lead to strong relationships with other bands. When the bands came back on tour, I let them stay at my house and we became friends and part of the circuit. Pretty soon, we were getting booked all over the country and once we had a record deal we were seasoned enough at playing live to go on tour. But we’d had to take the risk of putting on our own shows and all those steps to build relationships with our peers to make that happen. It sounds calculated, and it was, but we had great fun doing it and made some wonderful friends and I recommend that hands-on approach to gigs to all emerging acts.

Dizzee Rascal. Exploded with his debut album, but began in the grassroots pirate radio grime scene.
DEMOS

Any scene will have its own webzines, perhaps even print fanzines, and so it shouldn't be at all difficult to identify the other bands, promoters and movers and shakers and jump right in. With the blogosphere and online promotion as huge as it has become, there is an immediate networks of blogs and taste-maker sites for practically all styles that are easy to find if you just put in a little effort. I don't want to make it too easy for you, but the list of links on Andy Von Pip's excellent blog is a wonderful starting place. Hype Machine should make short work of figuring out the blogs that relate to your style and the music that's making waves right now. Exciting and thriving though this network is, remember, it's there to help your band along and support good music, not to build your career alone. Only concentrating on your online music listens isn't going to cut it if you can't play live or create a presence in your scene. I've seen bands with quarter of a million online listens that couldn't draw double-figures at gigs. Although MP3 downloads and online plays might have replaced the rigmarole of sending CDs to club nights, the concept of getting to know the people who represent your chosen style at the grassroots remains. So while it's tempting to grab that list of blogs and send your EPK to everyone on there, it's actually better to simply choose a few that you know cover, and have a history of supporting bands that sound like you, and push it to them personally.

The famous story goes that Bloc Party were signed after they gave their CD to Steve Lamacq at a Franz Ferdinand gig. That wasn't an accident, it was a result of knowing the players and playing the game correctly. For my own part, on a much smaller scale, my band's initial approach to sending out our recording was the same as it was playing live. We weren’t initially sending our demos out to the big managers, agents and major labels. We made a rough and ready three track demo before we’d even started playing live and sent that out to all the ska fanzines and nascent webzines we could find. Fortuitously, one of the tracks was chosen to appear on a compilation by the UK’s leading fanzine of our style, which got our name out there very early in our existence. At Reading Festival I was handed a flyer with the name of a club night in London which displayed a list of bands that were spun by the DJ that had a great deal of crossover with my band's music. I sent a demo over to the club, addressing it c/o the club night’s name. A few weeks later I got a phone-call from the promoter inviting us to support a US band doing their only UK show in London. The promoter went on to put us in the studio to produce a professional demo (which ultimately got us signed) and subsequently he also went on to manage us for a number of years. These things never would have happened if I hadn’t seized the opportunity to send the CD to that club with a decent covering letter, based on a list of bands and a wing and a prayer. Just like Bloc Party, I had identified where we fitted in and the places that were playing the kind of music we were playing and it all went from there.

Bloc Party. Good mates with Steve Lamacq.
THINKING ABOUT... HOW YOU LOOK
Next week, in the last blog of this series 'Thinking About... How You Look', I'll talk about another couple of things that you don't necessarily consider when you're getting your band together and those are image and interviews. For now, don't forget to let me know what you think of the blog and please share it! Thanks for reading.
Queens of the Stone Age shot courtesy NRK P3's Flickr used under Creative Commons License.
Dizzee Rascal shot courtesy michael dornbierer‘s Flickr used under Creative Commons License.
Reading Festival Bloc Party shot courtesy Mark Freeman's Flickr used under Creative Commons License.