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16 Dec 2009

Improving live music - production

Leicester has produced some very fine bands. Leicester's young bands are a great musical asset. Many bands are writing good songs and fine music. The standard is high. But the one area where standards are low – as far as our best bands are concerned – is presentation and stage craft.

Comparing our local bands with the best of those I have seen from the rest of the UK, our local musicians are not doing enough to make their bands into a stage act. More could be done.

Stage performance. Rock music is outstanding because of it's beats, rhythms and compelling melodies. A live gig should be just that “live”. The visual show should have the same degree of life and vitality as the music. If the music reaches out and grabs the audience, then the band members should perform it as if they really mean it; they should live the music. It is after all their music – they wrote it and if they think their music is good enough for an audience to listen to, they should perform the music and bring it alive on stage and this is what the best bands do.

Musicians who stand on the stage like mannequins and play their instruments robotically are not doing their music justice. If the songs have life then they have to be portrayed as having life.

It always great fun to see a young band who can all jump in the air together but this is not a requirement and for some songs this would be out of place. Not all bands need to leap about on stage to make their music work. There has to be an appropriate and realistic sense of stage craft where both singers and musicians project their engagement in the music by the way they move.

The standard of lighting in Leicester's venues varies from disgraceful to banal. The venues have not thought about stage lighting and production, have invested no money on it and have not bothered to keep up with the times. One of two bands have invested in their own stage lighting: laser shows, strobes, projected backing images or movies. But it's rare for a band to turn up with its own set of stage lights. Some covers bands take their own lighting out on show, particularly when they play in non-venues (pubs, church halls). If a band isn't out to be seen there no point in lighting it. It should be the venue's responsibility to light a stage appropriately but in the absence of that happening in a lot of venues, bands might consider investing in a bit of lighting they can take out with them.

Very few bands even think about costume. Musicians wear the same clothes on stage that they wear to work or college; there is no sense of occasion, no sense of performance or showmanship that would lead them to think about what they might wear on the stage to give their act as little bit more visual impact. I am not suggesting that bands suddenly start to invest in exotic costumery. A few bands have, for example, all worn black shirts on stage and in one case black shirts and sparkly ties. I was impressed by Beauty Killed the Beast when they played at the shed and all wore matching outfits – nothing exotic just white shirts, black ties and trousers and black waistcoats. They had honored a musical tradition in this respect about which most bands seem to know nothing and care even less.

People care about the music and its all about the music. But hold on, what is live music about? Why is it that comparatively few people turn out to shows featuring bands playing original music? Could it be perhaps that a lot of people find the whole thing a bit stale and boring? If we were to put some entertainment value into our gigs, would that help to sell more tickets?

It's not necessary to go over the top with this and turn a gig into a pantomime. But with a little more thought about image and styling and stage craft, a band playing on the stage can become something more than just another set of songs being played by just another set of musicians. There is nothing wrong with taking the view that a gig is a form of entertainment.

If people pay money to see a band, surely they (as consumers) have a right to get some value for their £5. They expect a band to (a) sing and play in tune (b) keep in time and (c) perform with a sense of occasion. Too many bands seen to regard a live performance as being just another band practice.

I would like some of our local bands to raise the bar when it comes to entertaining their fans and giving ticket-buyers better value for money. One way to achieve this is to spend a little bit of time thinking about what the band looks like when they play live and what the audience will see on the stage that will enhance their experience of the music and help them to remember a song on the way home. If they can remember a song, their in an increased chance that they might buy it (if its available for sale) or go home and listen to a recording of it (if its free on myspace.)

Psychologists tell us that something becomes remembered if it involves all of our senses working together: our ears, our eyes and even our sense of smell (not something I am advocating other than to say there is something quite distinctive about the smell of a heavy metal gig!!) But if we can combine hearing and seeing into one experiential package then we might be more likely to remember it. Too many gigs are instantly forgettable!

Bands that really want to go somewhere might follow the lead of one or two established bands and begin to at least experiment with these ideas to see if they can make it work in practice.

Of the many people who have seen most of Leicester's bands play live, I for one have been impressed by the wealth of musical talent and ability that we have in this city (and county). I have been able to compare our bands with those in other parts of the UK and I can see that our bands stand comparison to the best that is out there on the UK scene. But I would like to see bands begin to think about “production” - how the music and the experience of LIVE music can be amplified and underscored by production. That is what happens at really big events – festivals and stadiums – but there is no reason why it should not have its (scaled down) equivalent at the other end of the market.

That involves spending some time looking at image, presentation, attitude and stage craft. This is what is lacking in the majority of local bands. They seem not to know anything about it and do not know where to start or what to do. It simply doesn't feature in what we see on our local the stages. I think live music has a strong visual element – people talk about going out to “see a band” and not just to listen to a band. I would like to see bands working on the visual projection of their live act, adding some wow into their performance and making their appearances at shows, memorable and engaging for the audience.

I would like to see bands moving away from just doing yet another gig like all the rest and having more of a sense of occasion when they play. This involves adding an appropriate and reasonable level of theater into the live show. This would backfire if they turned it into a pantomime when it's not the kind of band or music for which that would be appropriate. But approached sensibly I think there is a lot that can be done to improve the presentation of bands in live music.

Production does not need vast amounts of money. It does however require recognition as being a legitimate factor in live music and some time and thought going into how a band can build up the audience's engagement in a gig.

13 Dec 2009

X factor for bands

Each week I have been watching “The X factor” and in some way have learned a bit more about musical entertainment. At the core of this competition is the idea that an act can have an identifiable set of characteristics that marks it out from the rest. It's called the “X Factor” because the “stand out” characteristic is hard to define. If you are someone who works in the music industry and have the right experience (record label scout, top recording artist, band manager, show promoter, etc) you will know it when you see it.

So, are we any closer to defining this mysterious “X factor”? If we pull together what the four judges have said about the acts that have made it through to the finals, there are clues as to their thinking about what characterises this elusive factor. Any act that has what it takes to become a top singing star:

* must be able to project his or her personality into the songs must be able to make a song come alive by living the mood and meaning of what the song is about, fully expressing its emotion; simply being able to sing the song in time and in tune is just karaoke. There are singers that have good voices, who can sing in tune, remember all the words and who can deliver a professional standard of performance but who have been labeled “club singers”, “wedding singers”, etc. Whilst such acts are capable of making a living from singing and can entertain the average crowd they will not get signed to serious record labels and rise to celebrity stardom. These artists do not have the “X factor”, however technical competent they may be.

* Be reasonably good looking. We can all debate what this might mean and point to top singing stars who (in our personal opinions) are not (all that) good to look at. But the judges have frequently referred to the looks of an artist as being part of the package they are seeking. This is far from simple or easy because eye-candy is very variable; it's all very subjective but it seems to be a factor.

* Must be able to conduct themselves between shows in an orderly and professional manner. Ok, let's examine some top music celebrities: Pete Docherty, Amy Winehouse, George Michael, The Gallaghers, etc. What we are seeing here is that newbie, wannabe acts that aspire to stardom must be able to work with their backers, agents and promoters in order to get to the top. Once they are established and are selling thousands of albums and have a huge fan base, they might then behave differently, but on the way up, you have to be compliant. Contestants approaching the final stages of the competition are being coached, dressed, made up, choreographed, mentored and comprehensively groomed by an army of experts. What we have been seeing on the stage is a product of entertainment expertise. None of them could have achieved this on their own. They have ceased to be the “person in the street” and look, act and sing nothing like when they started.

* Must be genuine. Those that have talent but who are weighed down with an agenda have not got into the final stages (this year). However emotionally compelling their agenda might be, the public vote does not always get caught by the hard luck story or the mission of the cause. The public vote can easily evaporate, as we know from political elections. The hard-nosed judging moguls have not been swayed by tear-jerking stories, any more than the majority of the music industry would be.

* Must be able to cope with the huge pressures that this kind of experience places on them. They really have to want it badly to bear the stress and emotional storm and the intense pressure of having to perform at their peak each week.

Does the X factor really tell us anything about how the music industry operates? Does it reveal how the ladder to stardom operates? The TV programme is a machine; it involves massive amounts of money and huge numbers of people. Even if an act fails to make it through to the semi-finals or the final, they can still achieve a huge leap forward in their careers. Agencies are booking up runners-up for shows and appearances, to peform on the club circuits. If these prime time TV competitions had not been invented, some of these artists would have had to have spent years to get anywhere near what the TV show has brought them.

For every successful contestant, there are dozens of others who will have to haul themselves up the ladder of success by their own strenuous efforts, over years and years. The show has discovered a dozen genuinely talented singers out of 10,000 or so applicants, and projected them into the prime-time lime-light and clearly some of them would never have been discovered by any other route.

So, does all this tell us anything about the multitude of talented musical acts that have never even had a chance to get an initial audition: the singer/songwriters, acoustic acts, bands who make their own original music and would rather be dead than attempt to karaoke someone else's songs.

Well I think the TV show confirms what we already knew. The music industry (in the UK) knows what the public wants and is able to select and package it into saleable entertainment products for the mass market.

National band competitions have been attempted but without any great success. They have not attracted much air-time (Orange Act Unsigned appeared on Channel 4). Bands do not seem to hold the attraction of solo singers and groups. Bands have to haul themselves up the ladder by their own boot straps. Some might get discovered at random by talent scouts but this is rare and you cannot depend on it happening.

Good Gigs Rant

In Leicester, it's not about playing at a particular venue, that bookings are about, but finding the right line-up to play in. All the main venues have their good nights and their bad nights. A good night is when a reasonable number of people attend (40+). That can happen at any venue on any day of the week, but only when the line-up is right.

A bad night is where a set of bands fails to draw a crowd and they end up playing to each other. That happens a lot and the sad thing is that it keeps on happening. Someone is making the same mistake over again. It could be the promoter, the venue or the bands or all of them together. But when it does happen everyone looses. So why don't they get it sorted and stop putting on nights that are bound to fail. It would be better if there were less gigs but more good gigs.