Some thoughts on live music in the UK…

Recently, The Mean Fiddler, one of the largest groups of music venues in the UK, were
bought out by Clear Channel – the american media giant, who have begun to take over the US airwaves and gig scene. There’s been a pretty vocal backlash to their activities in the US, but the complicity of a lot of big name bands and labels has lead to them getting a serious stranglehold on the american live music scene.

The ramifications in the US are pretty scary – Clear Channel sign exclusive deals with acts to handle all their live work, so only book them into their venues. They promote them on their own radio stations, and no doubt work with other ‘media partners’ for greater exposure. It’s the live equivalent of a major record label deal. They also only book support acts signed to them, and so become the only apparent option for a lot of bands trying to ‘make it’ (a misnomer if ever I heard one, but still…)

In the UK, The Mean Fiddler already have a pretty dreadful reputation for not treating bands too well. They are a big player in the London live music scene, owning The Mean Fiddler, The Astoria, The Jazz Cafe, The Forum, The Borderline and a handful of other venues. They also have a fairly large stake in the Glastonbury Festival, as well as the Reading and Leeds festivals. All that is now in the hands of Clear Channel.

The situation here doesn’t look quite as grim as the US in that there’s some competition. The biggest competitor to the Mean Fiddler Group is probably Carling – the brewery that now have a series of ‘Carling Academy’ venues around the country. However, the problem for musicians is that Carling are, not surprisingly, primarily interested in selling beer. So, they’ll book music based on its beer sales potential, and set venues out to maximise traffic to the bar, not to make the listening situation ideal. I saw Nick Harper at the Bar Academy in Islington. Now, Nick’s a pretty high energy performer for one bloke and an acoustic guitar, but he’s still just a bloke and an acoustic guitar. The venue was standing only. No seats, except stools at the bar. It didn’t look like seating was an option. Why? Cos people sat in rows in seats don’t get up to go to the bar mid-gig. They wait til the break. That’s no good when you’re not concerned with the music, just selling beer.

This is not good news for people who play quieter music. Particularly those that are signed to labels who do deals with certain venue chains. You turn up to the gig, thinking it’s a gig, and realise you’re playing in a bar, with a low stage, the room isn’t really set out to focus on you, rather to filter people towards the bar. You play louder to try and keep people’s attention (a standing, drinking audience is never going to be as quiet or attentive as a seated one), and all of a sudden you’re thinking ‘maybe next album I need to put some more uptempo songs in there for situations like this.

It doesn’t affect me all that much, given that there are loads of really cool little venues in the UK, most of them provincial theatres and dedicated music clubs that lap up interesting original music, and still manage to make money over the bar. But I fear for my musician friends who end up getting sucked into the circuit of these venues – it’s pretty demoralising when your audience are getting steadily more hammered, and corespondingly loud…

Have a look at clearchannelsucks.org for more on what Clear Channel have done in the US.

Soundtrack – The Bears, ‘Live’; Maxwell, ‘Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite’; A Mighty Wind, ‘OST’; Roseanne Cash, ‘ Rules Of Travel’.

Like a Rolling Stone… With a Rolling Stone

So I’m sat listening through the lastest set of tiny tweaks on the new album, and the phone rings. It’s Harry Cellist offering me a ticket to see Bob Dylan at the Fleadh in Finsbury Park in 25 minutes! Quick chat to the small person to postpone prearranged domestic chores to a later hour, and I’m on the tube on my way to Finsbury Park to see his Bobness.

Bob has been on my list of ‘artists I really need to see before the drop dead’ for a long time, so I’ve very glad I saw him. There’s something very bizarre about Dylan – no-one else on earth would get away with singing simple blues tunes in the style of a punch drunk tramp impersonating Marge Simpson, and yet there’s something utterly compelling about his performance. Add to that the presence of the mighty Ron Wood on Stage (you can say what you want about jumped up rock stars, Ron Wood is one hell of a guitarist…) and it made for a pretty fine gig.

However, it was a gig in front of about 30,000 people, in a damp field in North London with the sound changing whenever the wind changed direction, not being able to see much and being bumped into by drunk people every couple of minutes.

Contrast that with Friday night’s entertainment, sat in a beautiful old church building in Reading listening to Brian Houston and Sarah Masen sing and play. Both exquisite singer-songwriters, Brian sounding not unlike Bob Dylan in his younger days at times, but with a Van Morrison accent. There were probably 35-40 people there, it was warm, dry, no drunks that I spotted, the sound was close to perfect, the drinks were cheap and the music of an arguably higher quality than most of what goes on on big stages round the country at all the festivals over the summer.

And you missed it.

The good news is that Brian and Sarah are playing in London tomorrow night at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush, along with two other fantastic singer/songwriters, Cathy Burton and Duke Special. Shit, that’s four really really really great acts on one bill. In a lovely venue. In-doors. for about