Friday, October 17, 2014

Nerina Pallot, Bob Lefsetz, 'the Troubadour' and whether musicians actually deserve to get paid at all

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side...

Hunter S Thompson

Nerina Pallot is a talented, fascinating and highly articulate musician, and during an interview and session she did for my radio show, she revealed that she's a big fan of the streaming service Spotify, as am I.

This is very unusual for a so-called 'professional' musician, most of whom complain bitterly about how little cash they make from the service. The American  commentator Bob Lefsetz is, however, blunt: Streaming is the future, the ownership model of music is over, CDs are almost dead, vinyl is a nostalgic souvenir, and it's the selfish big-business interests clinging on within the record industry who are stopping the Netflix model of TV and movies taking over music. If you're a musician complaining, it's because you're not good enough. End of. Face the future and get on with it.

I wouldn't go that far. Nerina talked about the concept of the 'troubadour', the 12th and 13th Century travelling musicians who had no regular income and were dependent on the generosity of common people for food and hospitality, or on rich patrons for protection and sustenance. Many, however, chose to remain independent as the very concept of 'troubadour' was about being able to criticise the status quo and the powers that be. She points out that making money from recorded music is an idea barely 60 years old, that playing live and sharing your songs is a mission, a vocation; that if you're serious you would do it whether you got paid or not. And again, if you're good, people will pay to see you or buy a souvenir or two. A T shirt. A badge. A signature on a sleeve. A meal and a bed for the night. And if you have to do that only at weekends, because you've a job and a family - well. Lucky you.

Nerina has various strings to her bow. She plays live, she has had a few major record deals (all rejected by her on grounds of interference with her own vision) but a serious publishing deal has I think sustained her, with songs being recorded and performed by all kinds of people, including X Factor competitors (Diana Vickers, Joe McEldery) and major artists like Kylie Minogue. She's also married to top producer and songwriter Andy Chatterly, which can't be harmful. And she pushes at the envelope, this year (2014) recording and releasing in downloadable and 'solid' media an 'EP' every month (funny how we still use those outdated vinyl-era terms). She has tackled the year like a troubadour, she has a smallish fan base that supports her, those pop royalities come in, and yeah, she gets some cassh from Spotify and YouTube as well. She's her own little industry. But she is under no illusion that music owes her a living. Maybe you need a day job to allow you to keep playing and writing, she says.

Fact is, Spotify or YouTube - streaming - is now how most major consumers of music first listen to tunes. Either for free or on subscription. They may download albums if they're serious fans of a particular artists, or even buy specially packaged vinyl or a CD as a keepsake. But nearly all of us are listening digitally now, on phones or computers or on our Internet connected TVs. And it's a fact that much less money is being made by artists, because there is less money to be made.

The 70s, with their vast advances, ludicrous self indulgence, swimming pool Bentleys and rock star mansions, are gone. Yes, you can still be successful, yes, major pop stars can emerge and become millionaires, but the deals nowadays are '360', taking in everything from merchandise and sync to live gigs and online advertising. The idea of an industry which sustains everyone from small-scale niche artists to major pop stars is over. I've lost count of the number of 'professional' musicians whose 'full time status' is actually that of house husband/wife, with the family bills being met by a partner possessing a 'proper' job.

Bottom line, and this is where all those college courses on 'commercial music' need to be much more hard-edged and economically realistic, is that the vast majority of musicians in future, ones who in the past may have been  lower division full-timers, will be hobbyists or semi-pro. College courses, like instrument shops, feed fantasies and some of those dreamers need to be shaken awake.

Talent is not enough to put food on the table and pay a mortgage; even a small and devoted following may not be adequate. Maybe you'll have to teach, drive a taxi, clean,  keep house, be a postman or woman, a waiter or waitress, a cook, bottle washer or for that matter shop owner, or business executive. You could enter the X Factor and go from a decent, normal talented person with a dream to some hard-nosed, caked-on-make-up cartoon, putty in the hands of truly horrible svengali-figures or brutal businesses, kicked aside when your moment is up. Because in the end, showbiz sucks.

Not everyone can be a Nerina Pallot. Not everyone is that talented, that secure financially, that fiercely self assured and intellectually committed (she gave up music at one point to do an English degree). But in the degree of control she exercises over her own work, her acceptance of economic and artistic realities, she may be a useful example to younger artists.

If you love music, you'll write and play and keep on writing and playing, no matter what.  You'll stay true to your vision, compromise occasionally, make mistakes and fail. Sometimes you'll succeed, but maybe not for long. But you'll keep going. Because it's more than what you do, or what you fantasise about. It's who you really are.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

An Ayr of nostalgia: guitars, coffee, scones and the glamour of the big toon

 This is the full (expanded) version of my piece on Ayr, first published in The Scottish Review.

Ayr was the glamorous Big Town for me growing up in the late 1960s and early 70s.
I was reared in Troon, just along the coast, with its green-domed Deathstar of a school, its harbour, shipbreaking yard, Ballast Bank, beaches and strange, aerial-heavy wee ship lurking off the coast, apparently housing something called Radio Scotland (“so beat the ban/and join the clan/on Station 242”). Troon was equipped with an electrical shop which sold records (Fairbairns), and later the wild and crazy hippy hotbed called Speed Records - logo: a mushroom. There was McGuigan’s for books, a Menzies, the shell of the closed George Cinema and an unheated seawater swimming pool.
Getting out of Troon was of paramount importance.
So we would cycle to Prestwick Airport and beyond, or sometimes be driven in my mum’s Morris Minor to the sprawl of Ayr, which had a really massive Odeon picture house, site of my first exposure to the cinematic arts in the form of Gerry Anderson’s ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’. There was the Record and Card Centre, a viciously unfriendly musical instrument shop in Sandgate called Thomson’s, and the forbidden neon threat of Bobby Jones’s dancehall, its massive sign promising hell and damnation to wee gospel hall boys like me.
Ayr was the scene of so many crucial, growing-up moments: The first kiss (post- debate dance, Mainholm Academy). First guitar (bought at long-lost Cuthbertson’s). Not being allowed to attend Rory Gallagher’s Caledonian Hotel gig. Hearing that Jimi Hendrix had died. Buying Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’. My first performing gig (Victoria Hall, now Riverside Evangelical Church). First long-distance cycle (to the Heads of Ayr).
What, and where, did we eat? My mum liked The Coffee Club, which had a branch in Kilmarnock, but my favourite for family outings, anywhere, Ayr, Kilmarnock or the vast smoke-blackened megacity of Glasgow, was a Stakis steakhouse.
Two courses or three. Prawn cocktail. Mixed grill. Black Forest gateau. Coffee with cream that you poured carefully over a teaspoon so it floated.
This week, we’re back for a family wedding, and we’ve rented a flat on the seafront, where I can contentedly sit with a pair of binoculars and my laptop, watching ships and identifying them on AIS. I’ve been helping my dad clear out his loft and garage, which has meant two visits to the Heathfield Recycling Centre, where presumably the world’s supply of Soylent Green is made from the county’s rubbish. And I’ve wandered around Ayr like a hungry phantom.
Ayr Town Centre. Legendarily photographed by a press snapper on the occasion of the famous racing driver’s tragic death, when a picture editor shouted ‘get me a shot of Ayrton Senna’. It’s in a bit of state, with mouldering malls leading off the High Street, and one airy, pristine one near the station full of the usual suspects - Debenhams, H&M, Primark. Marks and Spencer is still down by the Auld Brig, but rumour is they want to move out of town - to Heathfield, in fact, where there’s a retail park, a Comet and a B&Q, full of shiny, pre-recycling electrical equipment.
That would devastate the already ravaged ancient end of High Street, which is awash with charity shops, barbers, pound emporia and the other short-term renters of long-empty property. Attempts are being made to renew and refurbish the area, which is home to some of Ayr’s oldest and loveliest buildings. Lurking in an alley near the Anchor Bar is the lovely, 16th Century and fully-restored Loudon Hall, and further down towards the river mouth you can find the dangerously teetering remains of Cromwell’s Citadel wall. What’s left of it encircles the upmarket Fort area of the town, where gracious sandstone terraces and large villas gaze not out to sea (too plebeian), but onto serene parkland. There you will find the remains of St John’s Tower, where in 1315, just after Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce arrived to check out the charity shops. Other visitors included John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots. Doubtless they were well fed and watered.
Finding somewhere to eat and drink in today’s Ayr is not a problem. There are dozens of pubs and coffee shops, of varying style and quality. Alas, bad cappuccino has become the curse of Scottish communities, often accompanied by something even more distressing, the microwaved stale scone. Over- sensitive to the risks, in unfamiliar establishments I now question thoroughly before consumption: do you grind your own beans? Who roasts them? Do your lattes come with two shots or a measly one? And crucially: when were your scones baked? This almost caused my ejection from the excellent Pandora’s in Sandgate. Eyes glinting, the uniformed waitress informed me that ALL scones were fresh THAT MORNING, and I could have a choice of treacle, cheese, plain or fruit, with butter or jam. In the panelled back room, I settled down with the Herald of Glasgow, Scotland to read about unilateral declarations of independence. Crumbs.
Later, I head for the station and on the way pop into Big Sparra Records, which combines second-hand rock and folk rarities (Amon Duul II, £70? Anne Briggs’ first LP, so sought-after it’s unpriced?) with, of all things, a Post Office branch. Vinyl delivery. Nearby is a music shop, successor to Cuthbertson’s and Thomson’s, called Ayr Guitar. I pass the Gaiety Theatre, which I performed in earlier in the year with a real guitar and is a jewel in the old town’s somewhat tarnished crown.
Train to Glasgow, a business meeting, and then back, for a late-night perambulation through virtually empty streets to the flat. I pass the thatched kitsch of the Tam O’ Shanter Inn, from which the strains of a band wrestling heavily with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ emanate. I wonder what Robert would have made of it?
At the flat, I can see Arran twinkling in the distance, and, if I look right, Troon. Time for a snack. I have one carry-out treacle scone left, slightly stale. I stick it in the microwave. Tomorrow, it’s back to the recycling centre. There are plenty of memories still to dispose of.


Subsequent to my various caffeine-fuelled manoeuvres between the Ayr and the Doon, I have discovered the delights of Su Casa, a bean-roasting and flat-white serving establishment in the Lorne Arcade. The rosewater, rhubarb and cardamom cake sounds appalling, but is magnificent.
And Su Casa is expanding, deep into the oldest part of Ayr's centre. The Artisan Lounge opened recently in an Old Bridge Road basement. A 'bistro-deli' may sound worrying, and there is a risk of acoustic crooning. But as tiny sign that bohemia may be blooming among the Semi-Chems and moneylenders, it's heartening.