Restoke – Man Up

Last night I watched ‘Man Up’ from the wonderful ‘Restoke’, a group of artists and collaborators who work with the local community to craft music, dance and spoken word performances in various unusual locations around Stoke on Trent.

This was the first year I was able to watch a performance purely as an audience member, having previously helped out with the technical crew behind the scenes, and regrettably missing last year’s performance due to baby duties!

What a year I chose to come and watch.

‘Man Up’ was pitched as “A gritty, humorous & revealing performance from the frontlines of masculinity & mental health.” (https://www.restoke.org.uk/man-up/), a strapline that is entirely accurate, but could not possibly convey the emotional heft and punch that we felt in the audience.

Almost radiating from the stage, there was a palpable energy in that room as the cast shared interpretations of their struggles with the concept of masculinity, identity and mental health.

And for what reason? Well, that was made clear early in the night: Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50. The prison and homeless population is predominantly male. These facts are the surface reality of deep, social questions that we need productions like this to ask.

The received image of masculinity is that men are not great at talking, at sharing their feelings, at ‘connecting’ with their emotions. At worse, it is almost as if we should purposefully avoid doing so. Yet I just watched a group of men from all walks of life, who started this process as strangers, literally perform their anxieties, their stories, their hopes and fears, together, to yet more strangers.

If that’s not talking about your feelings, I don’t know what is.

This was exceptional in many senses. It was an exceptional production, but it was also an exceptional opportunity for those few who chose to share and see the process through. The hope, I would think, is that focussing on these issues will help conversations happen more regularly in ‘real’ life, whatever that means to each of us.

I certainly heard a lot of stories of audience members inspired to check in with friends, family, or even colleagues who might be needing an opportunity of their own to share, to reach out, to be heard, to be helped. And although these stories came from men who had experienced the extreme edges of mental health, there are none of us immune to the possibility of finding ourselves in those same places.

Mental health, like physical health, is a scale that we can all move up and down, and if society’s preconceived notions of gender identity are causing men to not seek the help they need, then we need to challenge and change society, in whatever way we can, even if that is simply telling someone that it is okay to talk about it.

Find out more about Restoke and their work here: https://www.restoke.org.uk/

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Explore The Beatles – My pick of lesser known album tracks.

beatles

If you didn’t catch Part 1 of this blog (https://garryabbott.com/2014/05/13/access-the-beatles-part-1/) – here is part two of my attempt to share some of the lesser known album tracks by The Beatles that I think will enrich and enhance people’s appreciation for what they did for western music.

My full introduction can be found on part 1 – but just to reiterate a little: for those of you who have a good understanding of the Beatles catalogue, this blog may not be so revelatory, but hey, if you think these songs are cool already, then here’s a good excuse to revisit them!

For those of you (I guess quite a lot) who are aware of The Beatles number one records and most popular tunes, I think you may find that some of these songs will surprise you.

When I listen to these songs, I hear modern music. I hear the inspirations and experimentations that have shaped generations of artists. I hope you will too.

Note – I’m working chronologically following on from the last blog, hence numbers start at ‘6’.

 

6. I’m A Loser (Beatles for Sale – 1964)

I think this is the only song from ‘Beatles for Sale’ I’m going to include here. The album is great, and every song hints at the flexing of musical muscles they were building up at the time, but as a stand-out example, ‘I’m a Loser’ demonstrates the self-awareness that Lennon would go on to use (exploit?) to give his song’s meaning.

Meaning is sadly lost from a lot of modern popular music. The Beatles in part started this with a lot of songs that centred around pretty two dimensional love scenarios (She loves you, I want to hold your hand, from me to you etc…). The difference however, is that they were aware of this, and wanted to find better ways to express themselves. In this song, Lennon turns the lens on himself. It stills centre’s around a pretty banal situation (unrequited love), but shifting the focus and giving us hints of the ‘man behind the mask’ begins to introduce a depth of meaning (“although I laugh and I act like a clown, under this mask I am wearing a frown”).

Musically the song is, once again, nicely juxtaposed with the theme of the lyrics. There is obvious Bob Dylan influence here, and I fancy you can even hear Lennon trying his best to sound like him (especially in the harmonica section!). Using influences and making them your own is a huge part of a healthy creative process, as evidenced here.

 

7. I’ve Just Seen a Face (Help! 1965)

This is the only song I will offer from ‘Help!’ – mainly because the film and the album combined make many of them already so well known (Ticket to Ride, Hide Your Love Away, Help, Another Girl…)

‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ is another foray into folk/country music, keeping us in theme with the last. It’s more jaunty, goes at a great pace, and goes to show that when they wanted to, The Beatles could do this style just as well as any band who were dedicated to the genre. This is another aspect that I think marked them out – they could cross genre’s with ease, almost like they were playing with them for fun. That shows understanding and talent, but more importantly, leads to catchy little numbers like this one!

Musically, I can imagine this song done as a slow ballad, a mid-tempo rock song, or even a fast thrash punk song! I reckon that’s a good clue to knowing when the foundations of your compositions are solid: when you can ‘hear it’ in different modes. Also – check out the introduction!

 

8. Think For Yourself (Rubber Soul, 1965)

George Harrison’s ‘Think For Yourself’ is a song of firsts. It was his fist none love song, and also the first song to feature a fuzz bass (possibly ever, but don’t quote me on that).

Here we see George Harrison start to look inwards and outwards, urging his listeners to make their own mind’s up about the lies and promises of the world, a theme that I guess took him on his spiritual journey and the study of Eastern thinking and spirituality.

The vocals are gorgeous. I can’t find a video of the harmonies isolated (though I’m sure that exists somewhere) – but just listen to the precise yet hauntingly slurring slide down the harmonic range accompanying each second line (also check out ‘If I needed someone’ on the same album for another example of this). It conveys a message, and it sounds cool. What’s not to like?

 

9. In My Life (Rubber Soul, 1965)

Okay, so many people may already know this song, but it’s worth putting it here even if it only reaches one person who hasn’t.

I haven’t much to say about Lennon’s melancholic masterpiece that can’t be understood just by listening to it. It’s the kind of song that brings tears to your eyes if you’ve ever lost anything that was dear to you. Lennon had his fair share of that, and even though this could be construed as a love song, I think it is primarily a lament for anything lost.

The use of the harpsichord for the solo is inspired, and shows a generosity by The Beatles in orchestration and allowing George Martin (the producer) to contribute. Without this, they couldn’t have developed like they did as their compositions transcended the need for strict format guitar solos and arrangements.

 

10. She Said She Said (Revolver, 1966)

As someone who grew up in the nineties and had my modern musical faith restored with the indie/Britpop resurgence that took us into the 21st Century, it is songs like ‘She Said She Said’ by the Beatles that made me wonder why it took so long to come back around. They had done it already. It was like everybody had forgotten and thought they were doing it for the first time. There is a line between rock, rock and roll, pop, and what we might recognise as ‘indie’ music today. The Beatles walked across all of them.

Musically – I think Ringo silence’s his critics in this song. As a former skiffle drummer, you can hear him ride the toms off the snare after nearly every phrase in a fusion of old and new that brings the song together. Interestingly, this is the only song not to feature McCartney: Harrison is playing bass! (I never knew that – the wonders of Wikipedia eh?)

 

Thanks for dropping by. More to follow at a date yet unspecified! Next week I am on holiday, so probably no blog – see you again soon!

Access The Beatles. Part 1.

Image

Something I haven’t talked about much on here is my love of the Beatles. I am a big Beatles fan. It’s not something I externalise much: I don’t buy Beatles duvet’s or plaster my walls with pictures, but I do, and have always, loved their music. They are a big influence on me.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is point out a few tracks that aren’t so well known by none-Beatles fans. Obviously their catalogue is HUGE, but many people (I suspect) are more aware of the major singles and songs that have been covered and popularised by other bands (especially following the ‘1’ album that captured the imagination of a whole new generation some years ago featuring all the re-mastered number 1 singles).

So today’s post is going to be a few links to Youtube videos of less well know songs, and why I like them. If people like this post I will do another. I’m not particularly ranking these in any order of preference  – just picking some out that I think will surprise and delight newbie and die hard Beatles fans alike. (something for everybody, see?)

Let’s get started then with the first five (I’ll do more if you like it!). I’m working chronologically due to me referring back to album lists! By the way, unless stated otherwise, presume Lennon/McCartney for writing credits.

 

1. Ask Me Why (Please Please Me) 1963

First up, I’m only picking one from the debut album ‘Please Please Me’ – mainly because only half of the album was written by The Beatles, and most of the others are so well known now it would defeat the point of this post!

WHY GARRY, WHY?!

Because it demonstrates (even this early on) the Beatles use of close harmony, and deviation from standard Rock ‘n’ Roll, which leads to the kind of progressive song writing that I will be featuring!

 

2. It Won’t Be Long (With The Beatles) 1963

Next up, the opening track of ‘With The Beatles’ (second album), and definitely not the only one from this Album to feature here!

BUT MY GOD GARRY, WHY?!

The opening! The call and response of the chorus vocals which belts straight in, bouncing across the stereo, and then smoothing out into story-verses (all underpinned by the simple yet distinctive descending guitar riff at each section break).

 

3. Don’t Bother Me (Harrison) (With The Beatles) 1963

From the same album, George Harrison’s first writing credit.

EXPLAIN! I DEMAND YOU EXPLAIN!

Well, George Harrison must have had a hell of a time getting heard in these early days (even in later years this same problem led to him temporarily leaving the band). But this early outing is  a belter, and much opposed to the mop-top ‘whoooo!’ image of the time. It is gritty and angry, almost uncomfortably so, and this is expertly reflected in the arrangement and performance. Don’t you think?

 

4. Any Time At All (A Hard Day’s Night) 1964

Okay, things get a bit confusing with Album release if you’re trying to follow them through Wikipedia – so I’m sticking with UK releases, making this album #3 (feel free to correct me).

SO WHADDA YOU GO PICKED THIS ONE FOR EH?

A bit like ‘It Won’t Be Long’ – this just kicks straight in with a hook that drags you (or me, or all of us) into the song without a second to realise it. Just imagine this really heavy. There is still a skiffle/folk feel to the interlinking verses, but they just serve to lull you into the screaming chorus (and a brilliantly composed solo, hinting at the clever instrumentation that would come to define later studio work).

 

5.And I Love Her (A Hard Day’s Night) 1964

The next one from A Hard Day’s Night.

EXPLAIN YOURSELF YOUNG MAN!

Well, McCartney is getting into his stride writing the kind of songs here that seem to squeeze you like an emotional sponge. All the while he is singing, “I know this love of mine, will never die, and I love her” – the music is saying something else, something along the lines of “this love thing makes me want to despair for my very existence in anguished contradiction”. Which is brilliant. And then there is the arpeggio classical guitar backing and solo from Harrison, and yet another brilliant run down defining section changes. It’s a sad beauty.

 

Conclusion:

I could do this all day – but the blog would be very long, and I already write blogs that are too long which don’t involve 15 minutes or so of music! I’m sure plenty of people will be familiar with these songs, but still, some won’t, and it’s nice to give the less well-known tracks an airing, even if it is on my modest little blog.

If people like this, I shall do more, five at a time, over the coming weeks. Let me know by liking, commenting or just reading the page! (which, if you’re at this point, you already have done, so well done and thank you!)

 

About me:

I am a writer and musician from Staffordshire UK, currently touting my first published eBook ‘The Dimension Scales and Other Stories’ which can be found in these places. Please have a little look!

http://www.amazon.com/The-Dimension-Scales-Other-Stories-ebook/dp/B00JW1KMUG

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Dimension-Scales-Other-Stories-ebook/dp/B00JW1KMUG

https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/dimension-scales-other-stories/id862470105?mt=11

… and KOBO, NOOK and Barnes & Noble too! (just search for the title!).

Mosaic.

Today my band ‘Gravity Dave’ have made available an early mix of one of our original songs, ‘Mosaic’.

Now, I can sit here and tell you why you should listen to it, that it ‘rocks’ and suchlike (it does), but that’s not really what I’ve got this blog for.

So instead, I’m going to use this particular chunk of cyber space to look at the lyrics, do a bit of a self-critique and explanation of the process by which I get lyrics together. Of course this changes from song to song, but some elements remain constant throughout the process.

This may seem a little self-indulgent, but we all listen to and absorb song lyrics every day without giving them too much thought (unless they are particularly strong or controversial) and I would wager that a whole host of music lovers wouldn’t give much heed to poetry while still being able to recite the words to hundreds of their favourite songs. So today is an exploration of the lyric. And to top it all, you can listen to the song afterwards, if you like.

Ever remember school assemblies where the teacher would take the Lord’s Prayer line by line, examining the nuance and meaning of each word? Well, we did, every term. It was interesting (the first time around) and stopped it being a drone of syllables we all strung together in a lazy drawl every morning. Whatever your beliefs, whatever text you are studying are hearing, conscious awareness of the moment, the content and the context is much better than an apathetic wave of indistinct noises passing through you, passing by you.

Funnily enough, that scene, sitting cross-legged in a cold school hall, listening and learning, putting your hand up to be spoken to, taking it all in, forms the basis of ‘Mosaic’, as you can see in the first verse:

Dusty floors, cross legged and cold. Rusted doors, criss-cross windows. You clap and fall down.

                The ‘criss-cross’ windows are those safety glass door windows you get in public places, schools, hospitals and such like, where within the glass pane there is a black metal grid. Clapping and falling down, well, as I remember, there used to be several games like that.

Raise your hand, and comply. Understand, we’re all trying to not let you down my friends.

                Here we start to get the theme of the piece. This song started as an idea about conformity, the lack of critical thinking, the architects of our personalities from cradle to grave, concentrating on the most malleable time of our lives, school. In this case, primary school. Now I’m not saying I had a bad time at primary school, I didn’t, but I want to contrast the very ‘English’ Methodist school upbringing I had against the anxiety I often feel now, the world being as it is. It may have been okay for me, but education was very rigid, very set-in-its-ways, very, well English, I’ll say again.

On a technical note, when you hear the song, you’ll hear that the word ‘trying’ both forms the end of the line and the start of the next, split in half by the syllable’s. I like doing this, it’s fun.

So that’s the first verse. I’ve built on the theme I have in mind with the imagery of my school days. Onto the chorus.

We’d never say it but you are Mosaic, please stand far way and you’ll get the full picture.

                Now we get the first mention of the title, Mosaic. If memory serves me well, this was a natural progression from the preceding ‘we’d never say it’. It’s cool when you can get one word to rhyme with two or more others. Of course ‘say-it’ and ‘Mosaic’ are not true rhymes, rhyming as they do on the vowel sounds of the ‘a’ and ‘i’, but  it’s not tenuous and passes by the ear well I think.

Once I found the word ‘Mosaic’ (a great word, don’t you think?), the rest of the chorus can start to be constructed around it. Obviously, standing away to get the full picture is a feature of mosaic’s – close up they are just a senseless amalgam of shapes and colours.

We’d never risk it a broken statistic, we’ll stick to the past and the pain and the scripture.

You may have noticed that the voice changes in this section too. I’m now speaking as ‘the man’, as it were (such a hippy). This is not to blame anyone specifically, but our education system was provided to us at the whim and prudence of the wealthy and utilitarian. Although there are some great people doing great things to recognise and nurture individuality and critical reasoning, it is hardly the main aim of the system. No, let’s face it, the main aim of the system is to compartmentalise us into an economic unit and classification to enable statistics to be drawn and activities planned on a global scale. That’s just the truth of it, not even hidden. Now more than ever our kids are being ear-marked for their future demographic from the moment they walk into school. That’s why ‘we’d never say’ that you are a complex picture of many aspects, and not ‘risk’ producing a broken statistic (one that breaks out of the prescribed parameters), and we will stick to traditional teaching. The use of the word scripture here is just to reflect the lack of choice we had in our spiritual/religious teachings at school (or exploration of the alternatives). The ‘pain’ is a lyrical liberty, but can mean the net-effect of all these considerations.

We’re trying to reach you, to reach you, to reach you… etc..

This is the hook line of the chorus that I ‘ramp up’ from a chant to a high-scream! It is a mantra of education I think, I hear it a lot in interviews with various ministers. Simultaneously trying to ‘reach’ through and connect with the individual while trying to fit them into a starched curriculum. Onto verse two.

                Afternoon’s, bruised knees and fights, silver spoons, stay out of sight from playground kings.

Break-time! Everyone loved break-time right? Unless you were being bullied or what-not, and then it was shit. I went through patches of this. It’s not nice. When I moved to Stoke with my family aged 9, my accent was different. I was sometimes accused of being ‘posh’, which was funny seeing as I had moved further South from Scarborough, my parents were originally from Middleborough and Essex and from a ‘proper’ working class background. But kids are kids. This is just a hark back to the ‘rule of the playground’ where the kids who liked to taunt and bully roamed free, and the rest of us just tried to get on with it. Thankfully, the vast majority of us.

Broken bones, shattered by words, sticks & stones, don’t even hurt, don’t even sting, here comes the break…

Having said all that about ‘kids will be kids’, I’m sure some of you experienced the old ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ line when trying to tell an adult about some nasty piece of work giving you a hard time? I always thought it was a cop-out, I think I still do. Words are one of, if not the, most powerful weapon in our arsenal. They may not have the immediacy of weapons, but without them, there would be no weapons. I can hardly see us grunting our way to the discovery of combustion and ballistics. Language, words, as has been well described before by much greater minds than mine, just chip, chip away, constantly being  rearranged, altered, strung together and stored. Surges of meaning and revelation build over centuries, generations, and sometimes can spark in a moment and change everything. If you think that words can’t hurt, you are not giving them the reverence and respect they deserve. As for the ending line, that’s a little joke, it is both the ‘break’ of bones, and literally signalling the ‘break’ before the chorus.

Which brings us back to the chorus that in true rock/pop style, is a repeat of the first without deviation. This leads nicely into a musical outro that strips back the themes from the song and then builds them back up again into a climactic progression, underpinned by our drummers excellent tribal tom-tom backing.

Well, I enjoyed delving into that. Of course, when I wrote these words, I didn’t sit here and think of all this for each line. Generally, I start with either the theme or an interesting combination of words and then build it up from a mixture of ad-libbing at practice and good old graft with the pen and paper. My words are almost always led by rhyme, set within a context. That’s the challenge. Trying to find a word that fits without distorting the theme. On other occasions the song may be totally led by the sound of the words, purely for aural-aesthetic purposes. This leads to lyrics akin to Lennon’s ‘I am the Walrus’ and ‘Come together’. They are celebrations of words, loosely held together, but more for their own sake. I like this but you can’t do it all the time, not if you want to convey any coherent association of ideas at least occasionally in your art-form. It would be like only ever writing stream-of-conscious monologues forever, which although fun, lack poignancy and depth.

If you read this and enjoyed it, please, please take a listen to the track which all being well, should be posted below here. I am lucky to have such a talented group of guys working on these songs to set my words to. Musically I love this piece but am only responsible for the melody, my guitar parts and maybe the chords of the chorus… (can’t remember right now!) I could write a whole other blog on the musical construct of this song, but maybe I’ll save that for another piece, another time. Also, if you like it, give us a ‘like’ on Facebook (linked below) & reverbnation, there are plenty more songs coming and we gig regularly. Thank you.

Listen here:

http://www.reverbnation.com/gravitydave/song/18135122-mosaic-studio-demo

Like us here:

www.facebook.com/gravitydave

Of the Benefits of Crisis

There is an important question that should cross the mind of anyone who makes a departure from a particular career after a significant amount of your life has been given to it: Have I just avoided a mid-life crisis, or am I heading towards one? I had this thought last night, a bit drunk, while smoking and looking at the stars as usual. I should request here that those who say that 31 is hardly ‘mid-life’ to put semantics aside for the purposes of this article… you get my meaning.

A few months ago I finally left employment at the bank I had worked at for about ten years. It was a job that I had originally taken as an agency worker in my very early twenties after dramatically leaving my job at a pub due to differences in opinion (I thought the landlady was a nosy drunk, she didn’t). Before working at the pub I had been placed in several factory/warehouse jobs by agencies, so this time I wanted to try something that a) required greater use of my brain, and b) had somewhere to sit. So I decided to try and get a job in an office. At the time I had no inkling that I could turn my skills as a musician into a paying enterprise, and writing was still just an occasional hobby. I just wanted some money so that I could live for a bit and see what happened. The agency took some persuading, usually when I asked for office work they would nod, stare blankly, tell me that they would have a look, and then send me to a factory in the meantime. But eventually I got in at Britannia Building Society in Leek and was able to don my old school black trousers and shoes (literally, that’s not a fashion comment), pull on an ill-fitting work shirt (having fluctuated in weight by two stones since I had last bought any) and head to my new office job where they had computers and everything.

For the first two months I was put in a documents store room and spent all day on my feet filing miscellaneous paperwork into mortgage deeds. We had one chair between three of us, no windows and no supervision. It was just like being at a factory again, but eventually, after what seemed to be some kind of sadistic trial period, they let me upstairs to hit keys on computers and move paper around. They soon found, as did I, that I’m quite good at hitting keys on computers and moving bits of paper around. I was also quite good at telling other people what keys to hit and where the paper needed to be moved to, so I moved relatively quickly into a job where I helped to figure out what keys needed pressing, and even designed some of the bits of paper that got moved around.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, in fact, I pretty much hated it. I even grew to miss the honesty of putting cups in boxes, because it was a clear and distinct task that had some merit and needed doing. Most of the work at the bank, especially when I got involved in projects, was reactionary and unnecessary. It could have been done by the computers if they would just spend the time and money. But apart from that, it was just so damn false and I quickly learned how much emphasis was put on advertising and internal propaganda. They wanted us to whistle while we worked (not literally), to be ‘on-board’ and ‘with the programme’ – we were quite often told that if we didn’t agree with the bank’s ‘values’ we should leave (all very well and good coming from an exec who pockets over a million pounds each year… it’s easy to hold values with that kind of incentive). But I persevered, I panicked but did nothing, I threw my efforts outside of work into a relationship which eventually broke down, and then I had my first quarter life crisis.

I say a quarter life crisis because I must have been 25 at the time, so although it’s unlikely I will see 100, again, you get the meaning. As I found myself moving back home, a shadow of a possible life left behind me, I laid a lot of blame at the feet of my job. I had thrown myself into work, going for interviews, moving up the ladder slightly, bringing home the pay and bonuses. I had convinced myself that was what was required when I moved in with my girlfriend. I had a household to support etc… all that protestant work ethic crap which was somehow engrained in me (and still is to an extent – it’s that feeling of guilt you get when not being productive). But it made me unhappy, creatively starved and frustrated. That probably wasn’t the reason the relationship ended, but my retrospection found it the easiest thing to target as something I could do something about. I couldn’t do anything about the failed relationship, that was over, and I was determined not to slide into self-pity and destruction (I had done that before and it wasn’t pretty for a while). So I took the big, bold step of… going part-time. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was determined to carve out some space to figure out what I wanted to do. As quite often happens when you come out of a situation, I rediscovered a lot of my friends were still there, waiting to be supportive (I’m very lucky in that respect), and things started to happen. I moved to Leek with a friend and we set up a music production business, I got involved in organising events, I restarted my education with the open university and started to write, I lived by myself for a year (everyone should try it), I got engaged, I joined a band, I moved in with my fiancé, and then, last of all, after ten years of waiting for the right moment, I gave up the day job.

That was three months ago now. February 2013. Throughout all the changes I had continued to work for the bank, partly because I still didn’t have the confidence to give it up, but mainly because for the last three years there was the possibility of redundancy and walking away with a reasonable sum of money (due to the take-over by wool-clad wolf, the Co-op – see https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/ethical-alternative-my-guide-to-the-coop/). Eventually that possibility, though still hanging in the air as a remote distant chance, was denied to me. While others around me were losing jobs they wanted to keep, I couldn’t get rid of mine. I tried my best to argue the senselessness of this to the powers that be, even ending up face to face with my ‘big boss’ and telling him what I thought of the way they did things, but it didn’t make a difference. Perhaps I had showed my cards too often, threatened to leave just one too many times, because they wouldn’t cut me loose. Why would you give me money to go when I quite obviously wanted to leave anyway? That’s the corporate way. Despite all the work and energy I had given them for ten years, despite the moving of the ground from beneath our feet as one lot of corporate clowns took over the running of our lives from another bunch, that path was not open.

And so, after a few sleepless nights and the flaring up of every ailment in my mind and bodies repertoire of stress-induced warning signs, I gave it up. It was not very dramatic in the end. I told them I was going to leave, they did the paperwork, and within a couple of weeks (thanks to stored up holidays), I walked out of the building for the last time, with the sun and the chatter of open-office politics behind me. I was overwhelmed for a minute or two as I drove away, laughing tears, and then I was back to normal. I waited a few weeks for the reality to kick in, but it already had. All I had now was what I made of it, all I have now is what I make of it.

So the point of this blog is, have I just gone avoided a mid-life crisis or am I walking straight into one? And I hope to make this appraisal global enough for this blog to be of value to anyone else reading who has or might be thinking the same thing, otherwise I’d just be sharing with you chapters from my life, which is not my intention.

One of my nightmares as a teenager was ending up like ‘Ernold Same’, the eponymous character from the Blur song over which Ken Livingstone drones this monologue:

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed at the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
And felt the same way he did every day,
Then Ernold Same caught the same train
At the same station, sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to him the same old what’s his name
On his way to the same place to do the same thing
Again and again, poor old Ernold Same.

– ‘Ernold Same’, Blur.(The Great Escape, 1995)

                So if turning away from a day job at a bank, in which I sat in the same chair, next to the same people, doing the same things, again and again, the same drive to work, the same canteen, the same coffee machine, the same pot plants, the same meetings, the same screens, the same problems and the same solutions, the same frustrations, the same politics, the same building, has made me a little less like Ernold Same, and a crisis that is, then a crisis is certainly a good thing and I would urge anyone considering having one to go for it.

If on the other hand, the crisis is forthcoming, and this is a temporary stop-gap where everyday my work is what I make it, be it writing music for high-street companies, writing stories, writing scripts, writing scores for original films, writing blogs, or whatever else I choose to do, then what a crisis the next one will be! Is it possible that one crisis will cancel out another and I could end up back at a desk in an office? Not if I have anything to do with it, not unless the work that takes place in that office is  creative and/or for the benefit of those who need it (the moral-void of bank work is a strong motivator to express yourself and help others). So now, as a fledgling self-employed person, with all the uncertainty that brings, not knowing if the last paid job was literally my last paid job, having to try and pick my opportunities from everything I am capable of and convince others of that capability, a crisis would surely be a good development. I mean, the last two crises I’ve had started my desire to educate myself further and produce original work, and have given me the opportunity to do so. What will be next? So far, I’ve had only net gain from crises, the only thing that was ever holding me back was not instigating one in the first place.

I say, if you are heading towards a crisis, at whatever stage in your life, bring it on! It is a creative act and we are creative creatures. It is decision and action, and those are attributes we are blessed with. Aristotle said that our capacity for reason was the objective of human-life, and that only aiming for mere survival like plants and beasts is to not fulfil our humanity. So let’s not be plants, not just now, maybe another life-time if you believe in that kind of thing, but not now. Let’s greet crisis with open arms, because it means something is about to change, and change is the only way we can create (there was only ever one truly creative act in this Universe, and no one really knows how that came about, we just work with what we’ve got).

So in answer to my own question, I think I have both gone through a crisis, and am heading towards my next one, and I hope that is always the case.  For others, and I do not mean to undermine the choices people make, some people genuinely do want to work for a bank or other such industries and that’s fine (though I wager most people don’t), but if you are becoming a bit ‘samey’ and you wonder where that feeling of wasted time and senselessness is coming from and what, if anything, you can do about it, instigate a crisis of your own. So far, the evidence tells me, they can be very good things, if you have control (which of course we all do, though it may not seem that way). There is a fundamental truth in here somewhere, even if the crisis comes to you and seems negative, there is nothing you can do about the past, there is only how we choose to appraise and move on from it to the future by choosing the present moment by moment. That is not a wishy-washy, motivational sound-bite, it is just a statement of fact. I certainly don’t feel that I have ‘made it’ yet, and the anxiety of self-employment is a formidable foe (this article is just one round in the fight against it), but I’m definitely on the right ladder now, which is a start.

We have such faith in you that we want your money.

Last week my band ‘Gravity Dave’ was approached by yet another ‘Artist Development’ company through our Facebook page. Up popped a message from ‘Sweet Home’* music in our inbox telling us that:

“I listened to your tunes and I really like them! What are your plans this year? – Bob.*”

At last! Thought we. This seems like a music company taking interest in what we do after all the hard work we put into writing, rehearsing and performing our original songs, at our own expense, regardless of the overwhelming odds against us. So with excited fingers, we thank the mysterious yet tantalising admirer, and tell them that naturally (being a band and all) our plan is to record and have more gigs, you know that kind of thing, the thing that bands do. He replies (ever so quickly and efficiently):

“We might be able to help you with that guys, you should come up for a chat.”

A chat! A chat! With a real life music company! A chat? Us? Why, dreams really do come true. We knew it was only a matter of time, and faithfully, time has delivered to us the prize we sought.

But hang on, we say, steadying ourselves and desperately trying to suppress the bubbling excitement that has us wide eyed and gripped with anticipation; maybe we should just check, and be sure, as we don’t really know who these guys are yet. It’s just a precaution of course, sure it won’t make a difference. They’ve already told us how much they like our tunes and that they want to ‘chat’, but just in case…

“Can you let us know what you can offer us?” we ask cautiously, not wanting to put our heads so far down this gift horse’s mouth that they may be bitten off. But it was ok (phew!), Bob was obviously keen not to let us wander down the path of uncertainty, and obligingly and quickly answered our query:

“We can help you match up to industry expectations! Every band wants better gigs and more exposure, but there is a way of doing it…”

He’s right you know! This guy must know his stuff. Every band does want better gigs and a wider audience. Damn those industry expectations, even though he thinks we are good, we obviously mustn’t be the right kind of ‘good’ for the industry. Thank the God of Rock that these people got to us in time to tell us this. Only one more little question to ask and then we can start down the path to enlightenment, leaving fear and uncertainty behind.

“Will it cost us anything?” we ask, almost jokingly, because by this point we’ve checked out the website, and the ‘artist development’ spiel doesn’t mention costs or services, it is a selective process that only the acts they want to work with are offered. They solicit acts to ‘send in’ mp3s for consideration. But in our case (cos we’re special) – they’ve come to us. A Brucey bonus of epic scale. We eagerly await Bob’s reply, a mere formality of prudence we are sure, but still. And then he tells us, with dream shattering clarity:

“Ha ha ha! Lol. We’re not a charity for musicians! But we make bands what they need to be at an affordable rate.”

At this point, I will drop the sarcastic appraisal of this conversation. We never really expected anything different, having had our time wasted by a similar company in the past who ‘liked our tunes’ and ‘wanted to chat about being on their exclusive development label’. We wasted a whole afternoon travelling to their studio and being told that they could produce our music, from the bottom up, reworking our songs, adding production, making them ‘fit’ the industry and then promoting them to all the ‘right’ people and radio stations (BBC Nottingham no less! How could we refuse?). They paid us vague compliments which didn’t specify any particular tune they liked or anything about it. They looked and sounded like they were making this speech for the hundredth time that week. In short, they finished their pitch, and at the end, when they asked us if we had any questions, we asked the same thing… “Will it cost us anything?”.

Guess what? It would have. I can’t quite remember now, but it was around £1000. That included the recording of three songs (with massively intrusive production methods to re-work them and add ‘strings’ and ‘horns’) and then some vague talk of promotion, of which only BBC Nottingham Radio was actually mentioned. As we drove back, having thanked them for their time and promising to let them know what we thought of the ‘deal’, it dawned on us that they weren’t really a well-known promotion/recording company. That they didn’t really like (or probably even listen) to our tunes… they were just after our money! The charlatans! They were basically just a recording studio trying to find ways of getting clients!

You might find this hard to believe, but we found that day, as we did again last week, that there are people in the music-business who will basically lie and deceive to get your money from you! Who would have thought it? In such a happy and creative industry! So when Bob from ‘Sweet Home’ music was giving us the same pitch and tried to laugh off our genuine question regarding costs… Something inside me flipped. (this is my response verbatim…)

                “Why does your website not make it clear when asking acts to contact you with their tunes for consideration that they will end up paying? It’s not really ‘consideration’ when you are charging bands… It is just basically a recording studio under a different name trying to make out that they are offering an ‘exclusive’ service, rather than presenting costs up front. We’ve had this before from other such studios that tried to convince us they heard something ‘special’ in our music and then wanted £500-£1000 to develop it. It’s a shame that this sector of the industry is turning in on itself for revenue, rather than looking to audiences. We are okay thanks. If you really felt we were worth it, you would take some risk with the costs and negotiate a share of the resulting revenue. If you want to not seem like you are fleecing people, maybe mention the costs in the first approach rather than wasting time calling meetings and making it out like the acts has been chosen, when really it is just another potential customer. Good luck, but I don’t think your business model will be the one that cuts it in the new digital age.”

He didn’t like that. This is an interpretation of his response:

“Thanks but your attitude is wrong. Everyone needs to put food on the table.”

Food on the table? Food on the table?! He wants to dupe us into using his companies recording studio under the guise of some vague promotional activities, as if it was exclusive, and he thinks that putting ‘food on the table’ is a valid excuse? These guys own a recording studio. We know that if we want to record in such a facility it will costs us money. That is a service. A service is a service, end of. It is not an exclusive offer or opportunity. It is money changing hands for an agreed itemised service. Why all the cloak and dagger, vague compliments, offer of chats, no mention of money on the website?!! I retort:

“Just be up front with the fact that you charge people and it wouldn’t be an issue. It’s like someone saying ‘You’re a really good guitarist and I’m a talent scout – all you need to do is pay me £500 and I’ll make you even better!” – it doesn’t make sense. It’s a pitch. And as a pitch, I think it’s a bit of a sneaky one. – I’m a self-employed composer and writer outside of this band, so I know about ‘having to eat’ but I still have to go after genuine projects and am constantly dodging people who want money from you to achieve ‘success’ so I believe my attitude is one of logical self-preservation and I will be advising everyone I can not to get wound up in these dubious schemes. Golden rule – if someone is asking you for money while promising success, it is they who have the wrong attitude. Been the same for time immemorial. You’re not the first to make almost exactly the same pitch to us so we’ve already been burned by the ‘come along for a chat – we think you’re good and we want you on our label’ – and then finding out they also want £1000 for it! Appalling. Watchdog beckons, say hello to Anne Robinson for me.”

He liked this even less. His response, again interpreted, was:

How dare you accuse us of not running a legitimate business? We are selective with our clients but we earn enough to live on and are very good at what we do.”

That alas was where I terminated the conversation for the sake of my own sanity and constraint (the next things I said would not have been the prettiest of words). Apparently the people who ‘need to put food on the table’ were actually earning a good living. They are, they say, selective with their clients. But why would you be? If you believe that you know what the industry wants, why wouldn’t you produce the hell out of anything that comes your way if you are getting paid for it?

My regret is that I did not calm my rage and string Bob along for a while, but I was overcome by the same feeling you get when a cold-caller rings you up and starts asking you questions about your life before telling you who they are, what they are selling, and how much it costs. To summarise the thorny:

  • If you liked our tunes so much, why do you think we need ‘re-shaping’ into something the industry wants?
  • Why would we want to be ‘re-shaped’ into something the industry wants? The industry is in flux. We are the industry if we choose to be. There’s this thing called the internet, look it up.
  • Even as a pitch it is lazy. Just adding the name of one of our songs to the opening gambit may have helped. Let alone some qualification as to why they ‘liked our tunes’.
  • The website of said company is sparse, makes no mention of costs and gives a strong impression of exclusive deals being brokered if you are chosen. This is just plain misleading, if not criminally so. (I’ve emailed the OFT about the general status of these companies – if they reply, no doubt that will be another blog).
  • It’s  just a really, really shitty way to do business. They may not have known that the average age of my band is around 38, but for young bands, they really would have felt that surge of excitement and joy with an approach such as this. They would have gone to the meeting and been easy targets. Their parents would have picked up the bill and at the end of it, they would be just another band, with a handful of recordings and songs that have been ripped apart and rebuilt by some meddling middle men who think they know what the world wants to hear. The only difference is that they (or their parents) would be several hundred, if not thousands, pounds lighter and tensions would be high.

I researched this phenomenon a little and found that as the music industry has contracted over the last decade or so (due to the internet), the first to go were often the ‘A&R’ men. A lot of these A&R men set up recording studios with the added dimension of an attached ‘promotions company’ that could draw on their experience of the industry. The general warning is to avoid at all costs. These are the people who were first out when the traditional industry collapsed… why would you pay them to try and shape you into something that they are no longer part of? These were the bull-shitters, and they now reside in small recording studios up and down the land, ready to exploit as many musicians as possible. They’re not after success for their acts, why would they when they have no incentive? They are paid upfront for their services that are limited and temporary. They aren’t willing to risk anything on anyone, they just want your money, our money, the money from the musicians who don’t have any to start with.

And I’m sure that there are those companies out there (this may have been one) that if you pay them enough, will accordingly promote you as much as they can and may even help you to move a notch or two up the ladder of notoriety. But this is a service, and one that other companies legitimately advertise as so. If the opening message had been something along the lines of:

“Hey guys! I am from a music promotion company. We can offer you a competitive package to record and promote your music. We have listened to some of your music (I especially like the driving hooks of ‘Here we are’ and ‘Clearly Wrong’ by the way!) and think that what we offer is something that can really help just polish it up to the standard that some parts of the industry want to hear. For a full list of our services and basic costs, please visit our website or feel free to ask me anything you want. Good luck with the band, we hope you would like to work with us as we would like to work with you.”

… then at least we could have had the courtesy of saying ‘no thanks’ with full knowledge of just what the hell they were talking about. And even so, this kind of practice is attempting to re-align a failing industry to one that makes its money primarily from the artists, rather than the audience. It is negative practice, and I am aware of bands out there who have ‘paid their way’ to success of sorts, literally having hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on them to get onto TV and radio, and still aren’t that well known. It is the death throes of a dying practice that needs to disappear. So I would urge you if you are in a band yourself, or know others who are, and come across this kind of offer, to walk away with two fingers held firmly and defiantly aloft. If you must spend money, spend it on yourselves or use those companies that don’t present as one thing when they are really another. If you want to spend money on promotion, there are plenty of people lined up to take your money without pretending that you are ‘special’ and that it is ‘exclusive’ – they will simply take your money and do what they do, without the confidence tricks to get your business.

Anyway, there is surprisingly little out there on the net about such companies, and obviously I’m not going to cite the one’s mentioned, so here is a little to go on (below). Thanks for reading and please share your experiences of this with me (if you have them) in the comments below!

A good blog on some red-flags to look out for:

http://campbeit.com/blog/how-to-avoid-music-business-scams/

Another blog, read the ‘Artist Development’ section. It also does a lot to define what is and isn’t a ‘scam’, which legally, can be quite important! (I’m not saying that these companies are scammers – they are just unethical and treading a blurry line between scam and legit)

http://www.idnmusic.com/education/indie_alert_are_these_people_really_scammers.html

Of course, my band was mentioned so…

www.facebook.com/gravitydave

* The company name and contact have been changed. If there is a real company called this with a ‘Bob’ working for them, that is a coincidence and quite accidental!