Flash Says…

Archive for December 2013

As a keen and regular gig-goer, I’ve seen a range of artists at all stages in their career – from their first gig at a local social club, to world famous stadium-fillers. However, I think there are some dos and don’ts that all musicians would benefit from remembering, so I present:

A gig-goer’s top ten requests:

1. Tell us who you are.
Ideally, tell us when you come on stage, remind us about halfway through, and remind us again at the end who you’ve “been”. Ok, if you’re the headline act at a gig on their own tour, chances are that you won’t need to remind us, but if you’re anyone else – a support act, or ANYONE at a festival – please do. Apart from anything else, if I’ve enjoyed your music, I want to know who I should be looking out for on twitter and soundcloud.

A good example: at a recent Leisure Society gig, there were two support acts. The first, Alessi’s Ark, didn’t announce themselves at all (I only knew their name because my husband got his phone out and went online). The second act, Paper Aeroplanes, told us who they were at the start, middle and end – and that was great, because I thoroughly enjoyed their music and wanted to look them up as soon as I got home.

2. Don’t change instruments between every single song.
Ah, this is another one for Alessi’s Ark. The flow and the mood was completely spoilt by Alessi leaving the front of the stage, swapping guitars, then telling the sound man “can you turn on the acoustic lead please?” all the time. I understand that you think some songs sound better on one instrument, others on another. Perhaps one is tuned down a semitone, or there’s some other reason for wanting to use it. The thing is, I didn’t care about the tone of the instrument, I cared about the gist of the song. Save specific instruments for recordings – just get out there, get some momentum going, and blow us away.

(I’d have some sympathy for bands that perform several songs on one guitar, then swap for the rest of the set. Especially if they have a roadie (or a mate) ready to help them exchange as quickly as possible, and some good patter to kill the time while they plug in and, if necessary, check tuning. But don’t waste your performance time – and ours – by traipsing to collect a different instrument every 3 minutes. It really kills the mood.)

3. Give us something to remember you by – a momento.
Perhaps that’s a free CD or USB stick, perhaps it’s a flyer with a link to a free download. I’ve seen all of these at gigs (or even handed out in the queue beforehand) and appreciated them all. Well, except for the bloke who stepped on my hand to steal my freebie CD at a Pitchshifter gig. But that was hardly the band’s fault.

4. Know where your marks are, where the lights will be, and work within that area.
It is really frustrating when someone steps out of the light – or steps off the stage altogether. Yes, it might bring you closer to the front row of your fans, but unless you’ve got an on-the-ball lighting engineer, and you’re being followed by a cameraman whose feed is being projected to a screen on stage, you’ve now alienated the thousands of people NOT in the front row. Scroobius Pip, Wembley Arena, April 2012 – I’m talking to you.

5. Spontaniety? Plan it.
Another note for Scroobius Pip. If you are going to be “spontaneous” – whether genuinely spur of the moment, or something you actually planned – think it through. Yes, I know that is the antithesis of spontaneity. But let’s be fair, Scroob – when you left the stage and didn’t know how to get back on, the situation went from amusing to a shambles very quickly. Poor Dan le Sac had to keep the beats going, not knowing how long before you’d join him again, or whether you’d got lost.

At the same gig, Beans On Toast announced that he’d always wanted to crowdsurf, and asked the audience to ferry him. The moment was only slightly lost while he emptied his pockets first, then made arrangements for a friend to rescue his phone from the stage before he departed…

6. Know what the hell you’re singing.
Sounds obvious, right? Now, I understand that sometimes in the heat of the moment, words are forgotten or the wrong note is struck. And some gigs are deliberately intended to try out new songs. That’s all fine. But again I’m reminded of Beans On Toast, who began a song he’d “just written that morning”… and after a couple of shaky restarts, stopped after the chorus because that was all he had. The song was unfinished! Sure, bring new music to test out on the audience, but make sure you’ve completed it first. And ideally you should know how it goes. We want you to sell it to us!

7. Talk to us – but don’t bore us.
I enjoy a bit of interaction between the artist and the audience. Whether I’ve never heard of you, or I’m a die-hard fan, I like to hear “this song is special to us because…” or “I wrote this song about…” so long as it adds something or gives me a feeling of empathy for the writer. It gets a bit wearing if you get on your soapbox or drone on for too long, though (naming no Pete Townshends) – just introduce the song, give us a reason to connect with it, then get on with letting us appreciate the music.

If the situation can handle it, a little humour can be fun too. I saw Tom Williams & The Boat at an Olympics themed festival, and was cackling as every song was “written with Jessica Ennis” or “inspired by Tom Daley”. It took a reference to Claire Balding before the drunk Brazilians next to me started to question whether Tom was serious! And this showed me that beneath the sombre lyrics, Tom has a playful side.

8. If you’re not going to have an encore, tell us.
I might have been waiting for the final song to swig the last of my beer, put my camera down, and stand up and boogie. (Or perhaps I would like to escape before the hoards trample me…) So if you’re about to play your last song, please announce it. The vibe of the finale is usually fantastic, and it’s a shame to spoil that with crowds expectantly calling for an encore, holding something in reserve, only to find the house lights come up. We want to say thank you and goodnight to you in style!

9. Have a good, clearly defined, camera policy.
Obviously the policy itself will depend on the situation. For some bands (like Nine Inch Nails) it’s great that they liaise with venues so we can be admitted with whatever kit we like, as long as we don’t use tripods or obstruct anyone else’s view. The fan-made DVDs (check out “This one is on us”) are fantastic, and really authentic reminders of amazing live shows. Other bands might be playing a more intimate gig and not mind snaps but just don’t want flash going off in their faces, nor being confronted with DSLRs. Whatever the situation, please think about it, and then convey it to the venues and the fans, so that the audience know what they are permitted to do and can decide whether to add to their enjoyment in this way, or leave their camera at home.

(It goes without saying that if you’re in the audience, don’t be a dick and block someone else’s view. Ever.)

10. Don’t be late!
It doesn’t matter whether you’re the support act or the main attraction, please don’t be late to start or finish. If you’re the support, and your slot starts late, that’s unfortunate. But the majority of the audience aren’t here to see you, and nobody will appreciate being made to wait for the main act. If you ARE the main act, that doesn’t give you the right to act like a queen. Did you see the outcry when Justin Bieber was 90 minutes late onstage? The thing is, I’m sure you’ll play your full set anyway (even if you’re at a festival that incurs fines from the council for overrunning) – you’ve planned and rehearsed it, everyone’s there for you, so why not?

Well, some of us have trains to catch, or work in the morning… Live music is a passion, but unfortunately for most people it’s a hobby and not everyone can afford to stay late. Those who can? You’ll find them by the stage door, let them in afterwards for a chat and an autograph if you want. But for everyone who has to get back to reality, PLEASE run to time!

I realise some of these points may be controversial, but others are just common sense, yet bands often ignore them. What else should artists be aware of?

A week or so ago, I went to hear a musical icon – and my favourite DJ – talk to a group of students from Goldsmiths’ College. Tom Robinson (he of 2-4-6-8 Motorway fame, also Glad To Be Gay and War Baby) explained how there was no better time to make music. His talk was scintillating and took us from when our grandparents first discovered music, on through his 30 years in music, and to the present day.

One of his messages was that if you are going to write music, you need to do two things; lower your standards, and raise your standards. By this, Tom meant that you should make sure you churn out lots of completed songs – get into the habit of finishing them (even if you feel, half way through, that it is rubbish) as skills come with practise. Every nth piece of work will be worth hearing, but you need to go through producing the others in order to get to the good one, and be ready to make it.

In terms of raising your standards, it is so easy to make music at home and/or on a budget that our ears are swamped. Don’t push everything you write – wait for that one amazing track (as Tom put it, an OMFG song) and then that is the time to promote yourself.

It was a fascinating talk which touched on many other points, and I was privileged to grab a word with Tom afterwards (he shares my views on making cover versions – they should add something new – but also opened my eyes to how a good cover could be used to win over an unfamiliar audience in a live set).

His words also got me thinking. Any skill needs practise. This is evidenced by the way that I am (re)learning French on my phone via the DuoLingo app – if I leave it for a few days, my scores have slowly ebbed backwards, forcing me to recap. And similarly, I haven’t been writing articles nearly as much as I intended.

Back in June, my life changed. I adopted a wonderful, super-intelligent, labradoodle puppy called Commodore. I thought that I would spend a few weeks getting him housetrained and sorted out with basic commands, then he would lie next to me during the day while I typed away… just as my greyhound used to do. Ah – no such luck. For the first few weeks I resembled my friends with new babies – puppy cradled in one arm (holding a toy or treat for him in front if his face) while I tried to write or type with my free hand. A few weeks later and this tiny puppy was a hulking dog that can easily take over a three seater sofa. Yet he still needs my attention. “Hey mum, I’ve DONE that, what’s next?” He’s so quick. I’m teaching him loads of skills, in the hope that he can become some kind of assistance dog, or at least save my energy by opening and shutting doors by himself! Thus I spend my day training him, or walking him, or playing with him, or grooming his gorgeous but significant poodly coat, or just holding a bone for him to chew while I check email with my other hand. I get a few hours at my desk every week if I’m lucky – before, it was a few hours every day. So that’s why what used to be a weekly – oh ok, fortnightly – blog has become one that is rarely updated.

I was also guilty of the problem which Tom highlighted. As with my songwriting, I’d been saying to myself “That isn’t of a high enough standard, so I will bin it, or start it again when I have more time and inspiration.” The result? Nothing was produced.

Tom’s words hit home. So now I intend to blog whenever I get the chance. I already have a few dozen subjects drafted, but many of them went out of date before I got around to giving them life. Lesson learned.

So, future articles might not get quite the attention to detail that I would like to give them, nor the multiple careful reviews before I hit the button to publish – but… my blog is back!

Thank you, Tom. If the standard is lower than before, at least it is better than never writing at all. I shall hold out for the nth article to be a success.