What it means to be an ‘unsuccessful’ band in the 21st Century

 

Morning all

 

I’ve been meaning to write a blog like this for some time but a few things have stopped me in the past.

 

Firstly, I don’t want this to come across as ‘moany-musician-moans-about-no-one-liking-his-moany-band-with-moany-songs’ It’s a horrible tone and something that I wouldn’t want to read myself. I’m extremely proud of everything we’ve achieved in The B of the Bang – the gigs we’ve played, the material we’ve released, the days/nights/laughs/tears we’ve all shared have been, and will continue to be, some of the greatest times of my life. The band has already achieved more than we ever intended….

 

Secondly, these views are entirely my own. Often they are only half formed too. Everything I say/think/do is open to debate and I’m constantly surprising myself to find that I disagree with my own opinions quite often. How does that work? I’m not sure. The highs of playing a great gig on a decent stage to a responsive audience are counteracted with playing the Cock and Balls in Durham after a 5 hour drive to precisely no-one and I’m quite certain that this ying-yang lifestyle affects the brain. Who said bi-polar? Quiet you….

 

Sooooooooo……

 

Why am I writing this? Well – recently I’ve been thinking about our wee band and the context in which it nestles an awful lot. What it means? What’s it for? Does it matter anymore…(just a little rhyme there for you…you can have that for free…)

 

Anyway, I’ve come to the following conclusions….

 

1)    Honesty is all that matters.

 

Many people moan about ‘music not being as good as it used to be’. Those people have no ears. I can safely say that most of my favourite bands have only formed in the last 5 years or so.

 

Of course there will be artists from your formative musical experiences and teenage years of youthful reckless abandonment that will always hold a very special place in your heart – I’m looking at you Idlewild – BUT there is such an extraordinary wealth of innovative, inspiring and groundbreaking artists around at the mo that unless you only listen to the seemingly-aimed-at 6-year-olds Radio 1 of late then you’d be mental to ignore. I’m thinking of Nils Frahm & Olafur Arnalds, of Efterklang, of Wild Beasts, of No Age, of I Break Horses, Bat for Lashes, Bon Iver, Beirut and Borko…and with all of them I get the impression that they are making the music they want to make. Whether they are making it poppier for a wider appeal or more avant-garde for beard-rubbing tosspots like me it still sounds entirely honest. Entirely like the artist themselves.

 

Some bands, however, my silly addled mind doesn’t seem to let get away with it quite so easily and I’m not sure why….at this juncture I’m thinking of now globe-straddling bands such as Kings of Leon, Muse, The Killers et al. Great early albums (and I’m sure they don’t give a toss about my opinion…) but all have become sort of irrelevant to me. Not disliked, just not interested. That’s not to say I don’t still enjoy humming along on the radio, I just wouldn’t go buy their latest records. Whereas someone like Biffy Clyro, for some reason I think, fair play lads…go for it, make your chorus’ bigger. WHY BRAIN? WHY? I’m as unaware as you but…just being honest.

 

2) I love music. I do not love all the bullshit that goes with it.

 

When you read those generally terrible (though there are a few good’uns) ‘HOW TO MAKE IT IN MUSIC’ type books – we’ve all had a look – I disagree with so much of what is said. Most of it is the stuff that says to be SUCCESSFUL you have to treat your music like a BUSINESS and think about who it is MARKETED at, think about how you are MARKETED, think about…..and I can barely bring myself to say this word….NETWORKING…..urghhhh…

 

I guess it comes down to your interpretation of the word ‘success.’ I’ll generalise and say ‘success’ to most bands would be playing gigs to 1000s of loving fans who part with their hard earned cash to lap up all your merch then…yes…in a ideal world we’d love to be there. We would snap it up in a heartbeat. But, having spoken to a few musicians who are in those kind of slightly dodgy indie-pop bands that we sneer at, they are generally decent, nice folks who have good music taste but they know what works and what ‘the mass public’ want to hear. It’s a fine and easily fuck-uppable line to walk. No-one has ever said to us ‘you should make that catchier’ or ‘put in a few more chorus and take out the weird time signatures’ which I know a few bands who have had that and, as a result, I feel we’ve earned our own level of success. When we play live, hopefully a few folk will come along and a few folk will maybe feel they’d like to hear us again so grab an album or come to our next gig. Can’t really grumble with that.

 

I guess the schmoozing/emailing/PRing are all valid and necessary avenues if you want to climb the ladder but they do sometimes feel dangerously close to being the equivalent of the office goody goody impressing the boss by staying late for unpaid overtime. Bands at our level will often put things in their press release saying ‘unaminous critical acclaim’ and ‘eagerly awaited’. We do it. But it’s not like the critical acclaim came from Pitchfork, Drowned in Sound and NME. It was the drummers nan and the old man at the bar with 2 hearing aids. I’m lucky in that I work in a music studio and get paid already to do something I love and I tell you right now. I’d rather be tinkering around with the modular synthesisers we have than analyzing our Soundcloud statistics. Maybe that’s where we’re going wrong….which leads me to my next point…

 

3)    Music is entertainment, not ‘entertainment’

 

This is possibly the hardest point to make myself clear on. Probably because I’m not really sure of my own feelings on the subject anymore. It was easy growing up – you knew Radiohead wouldn’t sell their songs to adverts cos that was ‘wrong maaaaan’. But they were happy to take EMI’s dosh for a long long time and play the O2 this year for 70 sheets a ticket (I’m not bitter cos I couldn’t afford to go….much). I can’t think of anything that rises the bile so much as that terrible car advert at the mo with that annoying looking bunch absolutely massacring ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ by The Buzzcocks (one of our greatest ever pop songs). Or that awful hair-care one with that lass singing in her bedroom whilst explaining how to get rid of unwanted frizz. I can’t write about it anymore. It’s making my eye twitch.

 

So what do I mean then? Well, yes, music is entertainment. I go to gigs to be entertained, I hope when we play that we entertain people. But the important thing to remember here is that it is really a by-product of the witnessing of the music creation itself. To quote that horrible old music-hack classic: A band makes music for itself and if anyone else likes it…I can’t even bring myself to finish the sentence but you know what I’m saying. Lots of folks say it. Only some mean it.

 

I don’t think (in the words of Thom Yorke…I might be wrong…) that Nick Drake would have been sending out Facebook updates asking for ‘likes’ or that John Coltrane would have stayed up late formulating his next move in the blogosphere. He’d’ve been too off his tits. Saying that, Bob Dylan’s even doing status updates now so what do I know? I’m not particularly a fan of social media (I don’t care what you’re having for lunch unless I’m actually out with you…) but I realise that they are powerful tools and we’d be foolish to ignore them as a band. Just don’t expect ridiculously banal tweets. I’m having a ham sandwich with garlic Philadelphia for lunch by the way….

 

Recently, at Iceland Airwaves festival, I noticed just how many people had their camera phones on them all the time. Not just once or twice, but for a whole gig. Photographers snapping away without a care for anyone else, right in the middle of quietest passage during a beautiful bit of hushed piano. It made me want to place their cameras in a place that might need a good flash to get a picture. Don’t get me wrong – I might take one or two pics during a bands set, usually betwixt songs because….and get this…..I WANT TO ACTUALLY WATCH THE GIG. Be there in the moment. Enjoy the band. Listen to the music. Remember when that used to happen? I don’t care that you’re putting it up on Youtube in 5 minutes. Wait for the DVD to come out, film that, then put that up. Fools.

 

4)    Integrity is key

 

I guess this ties in with the honesty thing. The B of the Bang has been chuntering on (is that a word?) in various guises for about 5 years now. The first year was just myself messing about with a couple of crappy guitars and dodgy samplers. Then it changed into the ever-evolving collective with many different super talented members every gig for a couple of years. That was great fun but very hard to maintain. Finally, during the last 2 years it has become what you might call, a ‘proper’ band. One that, I might add, has been an unresrved joy to be a part of (mostly). To look back at what we have achieved and, more importantly, looking forward to what we can still achieve is a source of great pride to me. All of these manifestations have felt completely natural; none of it has been forced. Our second album (if it ever comes out – it’s been finished for ruddy ages…) is a collection of songs that I’m extremely proud of and I can confidently say are the best thing we’ve ever committed to tape/hard-drive. I listen back to our first album now and there’s some good stuff and not so good stuff on there – but that’s how it should be. A snapshot of that period of time in our lives. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

 

Folks (generally acquaintances or older family members) will sometimes casually say such horrors as ‘why don’t you go on X Factor?’ or ‘you should do some covers that everyone knows?’ I think most people in bands get asked this from time to time. Personally, I don’t have anything against those kind of shows. At least they’re pretty honest in their exploitation. It’s not about music in the slightest. Pure entertainment. Although when it involves often extremely naïve or unstable young people, that’s not on. So I guess I do have something against them. That and they’re shit.

 

And the covers thing? I did it once for about 2 weeks. I really admire people who can switch off their cringe-factor (idea for a new talent show…Cringe Factor…) as mine seems to be tuned extremely high. Someone mentioned we do ‘Mercy’ by Duffy and I almost threw myself into the Solent. Obviously I have a very low gag reflex. But as I am reliably informed, even Robert Johnson covered popular ditties of the time in front of the local market. However, he irresponsibly sold his soul to the Devil so what does he know eh?

 

There you go. My thoughts on a few things. Some may not be right. Some may be hazily explained. But that’s tough titties. I love playing live. I love creating sounds in the recording studio. I love discovering new music. I love listening to old music. I don’t like having to deal with unprofessional, un-courteous, impolite people or close-minded fools. I think right now our band is hitting a rich vein of form and I’m writing the best music of my life. I guess I have to be happy with that as most of it will never see the light of day. Is that enough for me?

 

In the slightly bastardized words from Goodnight Mr Tom when the excellent John Thaw is asked ‘is love enough?’ (and for ‘love’ here, replace with ‘music’. They’re the same thing to my mind.) He staunchly replies:

 

‘I guess it’ll have to be, in this day and age’.

 

Wit

Xxx

 

 

Ps I’ve never even been to Durham. Let alone played ‘The Cock and Balls’ public house. I apologise. You get the drift….

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. …where to start with this… good songs and skill are only ever going to get you so far, and unfortunately the main way to the top is KISS ASS, network, get the right people onside and work hard. That’s.. well, that’s how it’s always been but the main difference is the mediums we use to do it, oh, and there’s about a millions times more people vying for the attention of those in control. Success is something you measure yourself, we’ve been fortunate enough to have been played on 6Music a few times and had some good reviews, any time someone takes time out to support us makes me feel like, I dunno, Bono for a minute! This band’s been going for nearly a decade and I have no preconceptions of “making it” or changing our stance to be more commercial or pop-orientated because that wouldn’t be fun, I have my day job for hard slog for little gratification thank you. That makes any success we have more genuine because we’ve done it purely on our own terms and continue to do so, but most importantly we’ve never kissed ass to do so.

    • Hi Amy – many thanks for your comments. I agree.

      I think what i’m saying here is more just the realisation that the gratification of playing and writing interesting music, being completely honest with yourself and maintaining a pure vision of integrity is far more nourishing and rewarding than chasing whatever old fashioned dreams we might have had of ‘making it’ (whatever that means – I gave up on that long ago…)

      Yes it’s nice to have BBC6 plays and good blog reviews…we’ve had both and they make what you’re doing feel worthwhile, validating your ‘success’ to some extent. But it dawned on me recently that i’m seeing more and more obvious cases of bands with great PR (read: lots of money) who are actually awful, or bands who have friends in high places/relatives in the industry already….I fully understand that this is how it’s always been and probably always will. Just wanted to get off my chest how there are tons and tons of great, undiscovered bands out there far more worthy of praise than whoever is flavour of the month and they are always the ones that I fall in love with….just very rare that they are the ones who progress to the ‘next level’ and when they do, it is something to cherish…

      Those asses will remain firmly unkissed….

      W
      x

  2. You’re musings have crossed a line of thought that I’ve been carrying with me since about a year after forming a band…

    Success. Making it. No-one can make/release/perform music without people assuming they are trying to be the next Coldplay. Its ingrained in people. Partly because of X-Factor et al. Not just the family relative of the lead singer who after seeing a show says “yeah, I really liked it, I really think you could make it. You should be on the radio”. But it’s everyone, even the DJs on the decent stations. “I really think they have the sound to make them the next big thing” is said by every DJ from the ‘Introducing’ lot on Radio 1, to 6Music, XFM and even the niche internet stations focussed on new music.

    My point?

    No-one can make music any more just for people to listen to, just for it to exist, without the weight of expectation that you’re trying to make a career out of it. When you go see your mate’s art exhibition, you don’t say “Wow, that’s awesome, I really think you could be the next Andy Warhol.”They don’t have to have a prepared press release to hype up their potential to be the next Turner Prize winner. You just appreciate it for what it is. You’re affected by it, and you carry it with you, whatever it means to you.

    Maybe this is rose-tinted John Peel God syndrome, but wasn’t that the beauty of Peel? I wasn’t an avid listener, and some nights he bored me senseless, but when he played songs he just played them. He said “Here’s an interesting song. Have a listen.”

    It’s not just the listeners, its the bands themselves that buy into it. It’s easy to think while you’re playing a back-room bar, that this is just one step on the ladder, one day we’ll be playing to large adoring crowds and we’ll be on MTV. After I’ve complemented bands on their sets, some have replied “Yeah, whatever, its just a practice session for the real thing when we ‘make it'”. Seriously, that’s been their attitude.

    I realised after a while, that all I ever wanted to do was write songs that people can enjoy. That can become part of people’s lives, in whatever little way. I wanted to perform them and get that buzz, that feedback from the audience that they’re into it. They’re enjoying something I created. Playing a few small shows, getting my songs onto people’s iPods, for me that was ‘making it’.

    Yeah, of course it would’ve been awesome to play the O2, but if that’s all I was craving for, then I’d never enjoy the little gigs. And if you’re never satisfied with the level you’re at, always wanting to play to bigger crowds, you’ll never enjoy yourself.

    I might sound corny as hell, but I loved The Dawn Chorus more because they weren’t in the mainstream. They were my most favourite band in the world. Sure, they could pull a crowd in Southsea, but on the whole, people I met didn’t know them. And that made the music more precious. It’s like when you’re a kid, and you find that amazing stone on the beach. You’ve stumbled upon this colourful rock, that somehow is more captivating than all of the other millions of rocks on the beach. You put it in your pocket because its yours now. Grown-ups can have their diamonds and other precious stones, but this is the pebble that you think is cool.

    So yeah, I appreciate that Coldplay diamond is sure as hell worth a lot, but that’s obvious, everyone likes diamonds. It’s a bit boring. But look at this Dawn Chorus stone I’ve stumbled upon, with it’s jagged edges and smooth bits, and colours brighter than I thought possible to find in a naturally formed rock.

    Make music. Put it out there. Let people find it and savour it. If you can break even, happy days, you’re doing it for free, living the dream.

    • Hi Steve

      You’ve put it beautifully there sir. I tried to write a little bit about art myself but found I couldn’t quite express what I was thinking without sounding like a pretentious arsehole so I left it out. You’ve hit the nail on the head with the ‘mate’s art exhibition’ analogy though…

      The Dawn Chorus, in my mind, should have been far more widely known and it’s a shame that a band like that will never be heard beyond our small community here in Southsea and a few other little pockets…too late now but it makes what they did record even more precious.

      None of us down here have any kind of pretence that we’re going to burst out into the stratosphere a la Mumford and Sons. It does often feel like there are only a certain number of times you can play the same pub back-rooms though. You then find yourself in a bit of a predicament. if you don’t play them as you want somewhere a bit bigger that can actually fit your band and gear in, somewhere where you might be able to have all your instruments mic’d up, or p’raps a small light show/projection…you cut off your nose to spite your face and end up doing no gigs at all.

      Of course, this is all part of the DIY asthetic and deep down I expect we all love it really As I said to our guitarist the other night at a shitty London gig, what else would we be doing on a rainy Monday night? Sitting in watching Eastenders or something….

      Actually, how is Billy Mitchell doing?

      x

  3. First word typo, classic.

  4. Thanks for sharing these thoughts Wit, it made for an interesting read.
    I have to disagree with you on one point – your first album is all good stuff 😉
    I first saw the Bang play when you guys supported Mark Morriss at the Cellar in Eastney for a Christmas gig. I often wonder how Mark feels about ‘success’. As part of the Bluetones, he achieved some top 10 UK chart singles and a level of popularity where everyone knew and could sing some of his songs. I’ve remained a big fan and it was frustrating for me that their last album release, before they split up in 2010, was just as good, musically, as their 90’s releases, yet some friends I spoke to didn’t even realise they were still going.
    Now Mark gets people at his gigs shouting out for those popular Bluetones hits and I wonder if the fleeting ‘success’ was something he cherishes or if it would’ve been better to have remained a little below the radar. When he now plays his solo stuff to just a handful of people, is it worse because he used to play to much bigger crowds?
    I don’t think having a UK hit single is a good measure of success and I think if I were a musician I would, like you, prefer to count the number of people who were *really* touched by my music rather than the number of records I’d sold.
    It’s a great point made by Steve as well that some bands aren’t meant for mainstream success and that makes them all the more special, because mass success=mass appeal, and what appeals to the masses is generally less unique.
    As long as you have enough success to keep making your music, I’ll be happy!

    • Cheers Rich – your comments are much appreciated.

      Yeah speaking to Mark about his former glories was a funny thing. He’s a lovely guy and very honest and down to earth. I was never particularly a fan of The Bluetones but he told a story about turning down a million quid for one of their songs to be used in a car advert because they didn’t think it was ‘cool’ and how he really regrets that now!

      I think the main thing is – if you feel the way we do about music…it’s impossible to stop. It’s not something that can be turned on and off. I have days where it seems like the most tedious, unimportant, unnecessary thing in the world. I also have days where nothing else is important and I have to finish writing a song or recording some silly instrument or it seems like the world will end. Nothing comes close to those days.

      We’ve never tried to do anything like achieve some kind of final goal or have a ’5 year plan’ like a few bands I know. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but to us it would be dishonest. When people ask me what I do I say I am a musician. I play music. I write songs. That’s it. People saying they enjoy our work makes me happy. People say they hate us and it makes me sad. But then I carry on writing the next bit of music and it’s all gone again anyway….

  5. PS On the covers thing – I definitely understand your reaction to being asked to play a Duffy song, but I think if you did a cover of a song you really like, with your own stamp on it, you could drop that into your set and it can get the audience really invested in your performance. Incest Fest for instance was really good fun (It’s a shame I submitted the REM request too late for you to learn it!). I saw a band at the IOW festival this year called the Real D’Coy. They were pretty good anyway, but what stuck in my head was a really great cover of Fake Plastic Trees. That’s what made me remember to check out their stuff after the festival, above all the other good bands we’d also seen over the weekend.

    • …and yes you’re right. We’ve played covers before and really enjoyed them. I think they have to be the right song though and one that you’re either putting your own slant on, or doing it as a kind of homage because you’re a fan of the band. Covers that artists put up of whatever pop hit is currently selling well on Youtube to get more hits are the ones that rankle a tad…

      I won’t forget Kyle from The RSP doing the press-up solo to our banjo led version of ‘Gay Bar’ for a long time, mind….

  6. Talking of Duffy and ‘success’ here’s something I wrote a few years back which still holds true.

    http://breakingmorewaves.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/perceptions-of-success-in-music.html

    Artistic personal ‘success’ and commericlal ‘success’ are very different things – it all depends what your goals are and those goals come from your values. My experience is not enough bands are clear about what they really want to achieve with their music.

    “Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value.” Einstein said. Wise words indeed.

    • Interesting article. Einstein knew his onions eh? Poor old Duffy…

      I think what gets to me a little bit, and seems to be more prevalent now than in past years perhaps, is how conservative many so-called ‘alternative’ bands are. You can smell it a mile off. Where are the genuine freaks and rejects with something to say? Bands that spend far more time thinking about where their ‘career’ is headed, what kind of image is considered trendy at the moment and what genre of music might be popular in a month rather than actually writing something worthy or genuinely interesting to the ear…

      Again – it’s a fine line to walk and i’m not saying that you shouldn’t consider things like a strong image, making use of the latest technology and staying ‘relevant’ (whatever that means…) but the main point of my inane ramblings is that those things are, in my opinion, a by product when in the hands of genuinely talented and exceptional artists.

      When you look back at the history of popular music, it’s littered with stand out bands and singers, who are then followed by a wave of watered down, second-class imitators. I can think of lots of bands at the mo who it wouldn’t really matter what genre was popular currently, they’d still be peddling out sub-standard tosh without the bleeps and gurgles that make it ‘zeitgeist’. Then you get the next wave of bands copying that lot and you end up with a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of what once was a beautiful artwork…

      …..instead, some folks should perhaps focus on painting something wonderful in the first place?


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