Monday, March 19, 2007

The Fate of the Good Ship Plentydough ... Part the First ... Whats A Songwriting Workshop Between Mates Anyway?

It was in the year of our lord 2007 on the 2nd day of March that my feet (actually the wheels on my vee-dub) brought me to the fair City of Bristol. At the command of the Musicians Union and the British Academy of Songwriters and Composers the Good Ship Plentydough had put into port for to instruct us landlubbers in the mysterious machinations of the music business. A faceless ruffian, I took my place amongst the throng gathered in the Colston Hall. Sweet innocent that I was, never in my wildest dreams could I have foretold the lessons I was to learn that fateful day.

As it happens my wildest dreams don't leave a lot of room for the scurrilous antics of music biz sorts. Any more than my even slightly wild ones do. I'm just setting the scene. OK? Anyway, back to the plot.

Cap’n of this barque was a very well spoken bloke called Dave who occupied pole position on the bridge. Dave was accompanied by First Mate, a sleek sea-lawyer, and the Bosun, a posh-and-hyphenated geezer from Bath-Spa-University amongst whose claims to song writing fame was once having been 50% of a duo that weren’t quite as good as the Eurhythmics. 'Hm, wild,' I thought. 'We're really going to rock this morning.'

My underwhelmedness remained undiluted as Dave, anxious to establish his own CV quietly referred to his own seminal works. Their titles rang no bells, nautical or otherwise, in my consciousness but t'was still a bright and breezy morn and I was not to be deterred. 'The fact that I haven’t heard of them or their work signifies nothing,' I told myself. 'I am nought but a scurvy wretch when all is said and done and have come to be taught the wisdom of the world by my betters.'

And my betters certainly knew a trick or two. Well they knew enough tricks to get their feet well under the music biz table thats for sure, as they were to demonstrate during the the days first 'Business of Music' session . A choir of angels could not have sung from a more focussed song sheet as they explained their arcane mysteries to us humble folks a-gathered afore them.

As you would expect from pros, their performance hit several Cs square on. They were considered, concerned and courteous. They stressed the difference between reputable and the other sort of music publishers. Then they pointed out that new songwriters really need to do their own legwork to find one of the latter who might want to listen to their sort of stuff. They also revealed the secret path to success, ie hang out on the big city scene and create a buzz about the songs. Which I translated as 'have some talent and be young and beautiful in London.' Not only true for songwriters I thought, and probably not 'news' in the usual sense of the word.

They went on to talk about moral rights, and the advantages or otherwise of waiving them, especially in the context of the USA market which apparently doesn't recognise them anyway. Copyright and the importance of retaining ownership of one's work were discussed. As was the recent court case over Matthew Fisher’s successful bid for a piece of the Whiter Shade of Pale action.

Sessioneer Raphael Ravenscroft’s sax solo on Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street also came under scrutiny. The excitement here for me being that now I knew the name of the guy whose introductory six notes still echo round my memory as they do around the world a good thirty years on. The boys were a little more pragmatic. Their eyes lit up as they indulged in some in-crowd banter along the lines of would he, wouldn't he, had he, hadn't he gone for a slice of the booty himself. Depends which bridge you're looking from I suppose.

On we sailed. Feigning a street wisdom that they hadn't had to scrape off their shoes since they'd scuttled up the gangplank themselves all those years ago Dave and the boys championed the vibrancy of the acoustic scene. They agreed that folk music was really rather jolly good stuff after all (even shanties probably) and referred to obscure uilleann pipers to prove they had done their research.

Suddenly we seemed to have run out of wind. Becalmed amongst artistic considerations the bridge didn't quite know what to do. They perked up on entering financial waters once more however, and got quite excited about how to charge YouTube for the use of Snow Patrol material in the myriad of teeny mimers’ posted video clips. (That'll teach the little bastards. Who do they think they are anyway?)

They were nothing if not comprehensive. But in their exposition of the intricate channels and bountiful lagoons of a music biz establishment they seemed to know like the backs of their hands, was there maybe one C missing? Were they actually convincing?

Not to everybody it seemed. ‘This is all old school,’ came a broadside from the woolly hatted mutineer in the front row. Sure enough there he was, five foot and a gust, and enough attitude to sort out a colossal cephalopod (thats giant squid to you) with one hand while packing the fathomles memory of his iPod with the other. ‘This is the internet age,’ he said, ‘I’m going to put my stuff on my website and make money from selling the advertising space.’

From a bridge who had already publically doubted the existence of an effective way of digitally tagging a song and had admitted that the music industry’s own system of digital rights collection was failing fast, there was a fair degree of cautionary huffing. Not a little puffing. And the unavoidable sense of nautical types pulling the deckchairs closer together as it got a bit cooler on the Titanic.

That young buccaneer definitely got up their Richter scale. It was just tricky to tell how far. Those intent on wriggling aboard didn't seem to want hear that their salvation might actually start leaking like a sieve at any moment. By contrast those who had already kicked, bitten and gouged their way up the gangplank, and who one might expect could read the wind better than most, looked mighty worried. Worried in the way that an opulent blancmange might look worried on hearing that there is a particularly malevolent tsunami heading right here, right now.

On the basis that the best thing to do when faced with something thats just too hard to handle is stuff your face, the morning's ‘Business of Music’ session hove to for lunch. Seeking shelter from the storm perhaps? But was there any? In the internet age things move fast. By the time the crew had started tucking into their tack (or tackling their tuck or whatever it is that matelots do when the rest of us are eating) the question blowing in the rigging had morphed into ‘Is There Going To Be Any Kind Of Music Business Left Anyway?’

..... continued below, shipmates.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Fate of The Good Ship Plentydough ... Part The Other ... A Bloody Massacre Thats What!

Yes. Well there was enough music business left to get us through the afternoon at least. Having replenished resources on the sumptuous raft of MU sandwiches (no crisps, gastronomes please note) the post meridian skirmish kicked off. Entitled ‘The Craft of Songwriting’ those below decks had been urged to bring along a CD of their work to contribute to the mele. Lucky for me I didn’t have anything that I wanted to expose in public. (My songs are actually fantastic as it happens. My performance even better. But bizarrely enough whenever I record them they sound shit and my voice reminds even me of a slightly out of tune angle grinder.) Boy was I glad I had kept my precious little fingers out of that particular fire. Thankyou, humility, thankyou, thankyou.

The line up on the bridge had changed. Cap'n and his faithful Midshipman had survived but were now augmented by the Purser and Cliff the Cabin Boy. Purser was MD for a real music company. He brought along a bit of gravitas and not a little bottle. But who had ears for it? When he actually admitted that 'CD sales in the market are collapsing,' was it only me that sensed the Plentydough suddenly list alarmingly to starboard. Was it only me who could hear the straining timbers popping off their pegs below the water line? Guess so. Selective deafness had descended and on we sailed.

In contrast to the grizzled veterans abreast of him, Cliff projected an 'acceptable face' of the business. In Ramones T-shirt and geeky specs he had nailed his cred firmly to the mast. Youngish and innocent looking he was introduced as the notorious ex-guitarist of cutting edge minstrel brotherhood ‘My Sister’s Lesbian Tortoise Rocks.’ Huh?

Perhaps I’m wrong. I'll look at my notes. No maybe it was ‘My Fathers a Bit Dodgy - But Don't Say Nuffin About Him- He's Still My Old Man, OK’? Or some similar amalgam of high school angst and gender re-alignment signifiers? Come to think of it, it could have been 'My Sister's Lesbian Rocks Tortoise.' Or was that a headline in the Sun?

Whatever. No sooner had the crew handed over their tiny treasures than the Cap'n and his men (they were all men by the way - but thats another post, ladies) ripped into them like vultures on a new born babe. In some sort of counterfeit X Factor pastiche each on the bridge sought desperately to prove that he, should someone on a real TV show unexpectedly kick the bucket, could best pick up the role at short notice. Oh, and the salary check please.

As my mind takes me back to the cut and thrust of that gory afternoon I find myself lost for words. But not for long. I had thought, and I was not alone as I found out afterwards, that this session was to be about the craft of writing songs. ‘Behold,’ I had expected to be told, ‘this is how Ray Charles did it, or Coldplay did it, or Gram Parsons did it, or Amy Whinehouse did it, or The Arctic Monkeys did it, or Hoagy Carmichael, or REM, or Irving Berlin, or Kaiser Chiefs, or Christy Moore did it. And the people you should be checking out because they can’t half put a song together are her and him and him and her. And he or she is hot with the words and the other one will melt your soul with the tune.’ Well guess what, gentle reader, we didn’t get any of that poncy, artsy bollox.

Oh no. The cat o’ nine tails came out big time. And a lot of the below decks scum, ie us, were subjected to severe emotional laceration. While the few egos facing us, and who had actually imposed this punishment agenda, preened and strutted in as ugly a spectacle of tough boys beating up little kids as I have seen since junior school. I think its called bullying these days. Those who were quite good, and kow towed, got patted on the head. Those who needed most help were given a kicking. Justified as being for their own good. 'If you can't stand the heat etc etc.'

Mr Midshipman, a bloke called Roger who no doubt to his great relief had avoided the role of Cabin Boy himself, managed to keep a shine on his karma. He was getting on a bit. Perhaps age had dimmed his appetite for other people's flayed spines? Having made the point that ‘I don’t have to be here,’ (as if any of us did, matey boy!) he softened up a bit. ‘The only person who really needs to believe in the song is the writer,' he said. 'It took me four years trying to find a publisher before I got my first break.’ Generosity of spirit roared for an infinite moment like a candle flame in a hurricane. And went out.

Fair as fair Roger had tried to talk about the songs in a creative sense. He even asked to 'hear a bit more' of one or two. But his fellow officers would have none of it and we were subjected to what was probably an excellent preparation for pitching a song in the real world.

But ‘Pitching A Song in the Real World' wasn’t the title of the session. I know, I’ve still got the paperwork, and it don’t say that. Whoever put the day together would do well to practise their communication skills and think a bit more creatively about what the membership were expecting and what would be productive. Maybe they could also put their speakers under a bit more pressure to deliver something that was constructive and had been thought through more intelligently.

Yes sure it might be a rough old whirlpool in the real world. But the real world also offers real prizes, ie a contract or deal or at least an expression of interest. I don't know what happened after the event in Bristol but I didn't hear any of that sort of connection going on. Maybe it did. I certainly hope someone got something tangible back for sitting through, if not their own then others', humiliation.

Amongst the carnage there was some good advice. There was unanimous emphasis on the importance of presentation. All experts agreed that submitting the best quality demo was essential and that front (or was it top?) loading the CD with the best song was a really good idea. As was front loading a song, with the chorus for example, so that when the record company earholes gave it the customary thirty seconds listening there was at least the vague chance it would impress.

But what about the broader picture? There was a little dissent on the bridge about what was an acceptable song. But not much. And the songs were judged in terms of what? Their artistic content? Their political impact? Their marketability?

I'll leave the answer open. But I would suggest that those parading about the poop deck should take a brief break from preening to check their course. There are some dark shapes eyeing their succulent hams hungrily from the foam below. Maybe the Plentydough is set to run aground and the days of tricking the natives with comodified garbage are numbered. Maybe Cap'n Dave and his not-very-merry men are about to find, as they cling to the timbers of the quaking hulk, that those looking for an authentic listening experience are legging it for Port Download as fast as their mouses (mice ?) will carry them. And could it be that they will choose to while away the final slow minutes wondering what sort of deal John Williams cut on the Jaws theme? Oh and by the way, does anyone know if the internet has a triangular dorsal fin?

Hang on tight boys.

Peace and love.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Women and the Plentydough

While I'm on a roll: as you might have deduced from the names, although women were well represented amongst the rank and file at the musicians union songriting event in Bristol on 2nd March 2007 (see main Plentydough blog 13 March), the officer class was all boys. Not that I've got anything against boys mind you. I've been a boy all my life. And boys ain't all bad. Unless you ask them really nicely.

But where was the crumpet? A bit of eye candy on the bridge would have improved matters no end. At least I could have tried to look up their frocks when I got bored.

Thats irony by the way. Point being: where were you ladies? Apparently at one time it was thought to be unlucky to allow girls onto a boat such as the Plentydough. Despite this the female principal is often invoked in matters maritime. Ships are referred to as 'she' and historically representations of ample lasses, Brittania for example, were often to be found breasting the billows on the sharp end in the same way that substantially proportioned damsells such as Britney, Madonna, possibly not Amy Whinehouse, but certainly my fave Dolly, can be seen to be fronting up the music industry.

But surely women don't stop there? Y'know, up under the lights shaking their thang. There must be some in the business side of the business too, no? Steering a course for the open horizon and leavening all that yang with their yin. Someone needs to be.

Or perhaps girls who can't sing are only allowed to make the tea? And the few who rise above this humble station become so testosterone packed that you can't tell 'em from the boys?

peace and love from the bunker

Monday, March 05, 2007

the magic

The first time I heard that chord on the radio I knew what magic was. It wasn’t rock and roll actually. Although it probably was an e chord. In a piece of classical guitar music that hit me right in the heart. I must have been six or seven years old. And a hopeless case from then on in.