Harry’s Soapbox – Dead Art and Bedroom Revolutions

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What better way to start a Monday than with a new column that really gets under the skin of a topic? E.g. have a right bloody moan!

In the first of a regular column, Harry Paterson, tells it how he sees it. Love it or loathe it? Give it to him straight.

 

Dead Art and Bedroom Revolutions

By Harry Paterson

You know what’s worse than bad art? Dead art, that’s what. You know well that of which I write; pristine, homogenised gloop. Glossy, perfectly-produced and auto-tuned to within an inch of its, and your, life. Picture postcard-perfect front man backed by slick, professional no-marks. Sure, they can play the living shit out of those instruments and mums all over the land would roll out the red carpet and, no doubt, themselves, if one of these Stepford popsters came a-calling for their daughters, but for those of us who like to feel real music? Times are grim.

And listen, right; this isn’t going to one of those predictable reverse-snobbery rants where musical proficiency is viewed as something at which to be sneered. Christ, no. Ineptitude is nothing to be proud of. Fortunately, that BS died with punk. Sadly, though, that isn’t all that died with punk and that’s what we need to address, here, people.  Y’see, we’re at a point where we’ve stagnated and it’s all too easy to wrap yourself up in your cosy genre comfort-blanket, sneering at Simon Cowell and thinking, believing, that this doesn’t apply to you; wrong, my friend. So very wrong.

This isn’t the time, or the place, to chronicle every great thing that happened since punk cleared out the nation’s musical closet. A few, though, do need a mention; thrash and most of the foetid dark corners of Scandinavia, where some genuinely avant-garde developments went down, especially in the 90s, couldn’t, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, be classed as dead art. Rock and metal diversified and cross-pollinated and some very cool stuff indeed emerged, not least on the industrial scene, but that was then. Here, in 2012, we’re drowning in a stagnant pond, a sea of recycled mediocrity and second and third-hand rehashes in which only a few, genuinely innovative, artists are struggling to stay afloat.

Extreme metal from unsigned bands bombards me every month and it’s overwhelmingly turgid, unoriginal and third-rate. The so-called classic rock revival has thrown up a wave of déjà vu time machines. For every Voodoo Johnson or Voodoo Six there are a dozen generic imitators. As for so-called female-fronted metal, Jesus, that’s even worse; bland, insipid, Evanescence sound-alikes, bustling stridently in their corsets and New Rocks, vainly striving to cover the yawning chasm where a spark of originality, a hint of something new should exist.

Frankly, the real deal isn’t often to be found on the major labels. Just look at Iron Maiden. A band so bereft of steam and ideas that they should, long ago, have been reduced to playing to a thousand or so punters at Rock City. Yet they continue to pack out stadiums when bands like Opeth, innovative, questing, restless and vital as they are, struggle to fill an O2 Academy-sized venue.

What’s even more bizarre is that it’s happening (well, not happening, actually) now. Computers, the internet and home recording should’ve ushered in the cultural revolution long before now. That shit was supposed to democratise music. The DIY ethos of punk married to standards of musical and technological excellence. The Man ought to be quaking in his boardroom by now but guess what? The Man did what every conservative, hidebound and reactionary established power has always done when threatened. The Man simply absorbed and assimilated the enemy. Artic Monkeys and fecking Bieber being just two of the most obvious examples. The result? The homogenised gloop of which we earlier spoke.

Just look at the money expended by the majors in an endless cycle of rereleases and reissues. Floyd’s Immersion box set, Iron Maiden with another shiny DVD package seemingly every week and let’s not even start on Metallica, and so on and tediously on. They won’t spend that kind of cash on breaking a new band, though. No chance. Risk-averse and dominated by spread-sheets, forecasts and profit-and-loss projections, the days of the six-figure-three-album-development-deal are dead and gone, probably forever. Nope, the real deal is off the radar, underground and unheard by far too many potential fans.

So what’s the answer? Well, for a start, the aforementioned technological opportunities need to be fully grasped and utilised by our unsigned talent. A laptop and decent software and audio excellence is within reach of any bedroom musician but that’s only the start of it. Promotion and decent management is key here.

Take Captain Horizon; a band of such unquestionably gargantuan talent it beggars belief that not only are they not signed but, in terms of crowds and venues, are barely one step forward from where they were last year.

Or what about Dakesis? If ever a band was born to play Bloodstock it’s these guys and gals. They’re simply perfect for the UK’s premier independent metal fest.

So why are both these bands playing the same grotty toilet circuit they always have? The same amateur charity ‘festivals’? Where are the prestigious support slots with big names? Where are the noticeable steps forward when, at the same time, A Thousand Enemies, within barely two minutes of their formation, played Hammerfest and have just been invited to play Bloodstock? And that’s invited, by the way, not via the Metal-to-the-Masses-take-pot-luck-dog-and-pony-show, either.

In my humble opinion, if anything about me could ever be described as humble, the difference is management and savvy promotion. That’s the essential component. If any band believes they’ve got what it takes, if that’s a genuine assessment, supported by the feedback from fans and critics yet it’s not happening for them, chances are the reason is crappy or non-existent management and/or promotion.

Sort it out, guys. You owe it to music lovers who are reduced to revisiting former glories because the new generation hasn’t broken through yet. It could, and should, be you. Being amazing in your garages and lock-ups and leading the revolution in your bedrooms is not good enough; you need to be out there, leading the charge against dead art.

Get some decent management, get some decent promotion and get to it.

 

 

50 COMMENTS

  1. Absolutely agree with everything here – that last paragraph and sentence should be used as a call to all young aspiring bands everywhere.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree on punk ;)

  2. Read with interest and largely agreement, and I would be very interested in what you believe is effective management and promotion

  3. Lots of interesting points here, H.

    The comparison of Iron Maiden and Opeth is interesting. I know Iron Maiden aren’t your cup of tea for various reasons but I guess a large part of the popularity is that people love the back catalogue, which you’ll always get to hear at a Maiden gig. Opeth on the other hand do actually do reasonably well, even if UK gigs are not really growing much, but partly this is because most of the fans are a bit unimpressed at the last two albums. I guess time will tell what happens next.

    But there is certainly a big market for old bands, like Maiden, Metallica, Black Sabbath, etc. I was at Donington in ’95 and we got Metallica, who were playing in support of their most successful album that came out a few years previously. If you were at Donington Park this year… you’d have seen Metallica headlining again, despite not really having done much of musical note since the early 90s. Alongside them were The Prodigy (whose landmark album is a decade and a half old) and Black Sabbath, now promoting a line-up that split before I was born.

    Why do festival promoters focus on the old bands? I think that’s really because the public doesn’t care so much about the smaller ones any more. The smaller ones aren’t breaking through like they used to, so you can’t expect them to bring many people in. I won’t criticise festivals for being risk averse when we’re in an age of trying to stop the people with money splashing it around without due thought and attention, but we do need to look at what’s going wrong with the smaller acts.

    Part of it is the effect of the internet and technology. Yes, computers make it cheaper to throw together a demo, so more bands have recorded material available. But I think that is more than cancelled out by the effect the internet has on listeners. Going to a local gig used to be how you found out about new rock music. Now you have YouTube (or Spotify, or Last.fm, etc), where the sound quality is better, the drinks are cheaper (courtesy of Tesco), and the selection is wider. It’s almost foolish to go to a gig unless you know for sure that you’ll like the bands, and that the venue serves decent drinks, and has a professional sound person to ensure you can actually hear what’s being played.

    What can bands do about this? You suggested promotion and management but that’s easier said than done when you’re at the early stages. Most managers of bands on the unsigned circuit I’ve met are the wife or girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend) of someone in the band – great, if one of you is with such a person who has the right skills, but it’s pot luck really. Some big management companies will consider unsigned bands, but usually with the stipulation that you have to be willing to tour widely – but that’s not practical for most bands at the early stages. Bills still have to be paid, after all.

    As for promotion, it’s rather hit and miss. I know people who’ve paid for PR and it can just sink into a black hole, whereas a lucky encounter with one or two influential people does ten times more good. It doesn’t inspire a band to invest in that way. Less formal types of promotion exist, but again the rate of returns is very disheartening. I contacted so many places about the new Twilight’s Embrace EP, created a digital press pack and got many pledges of reviews for it, but only two places have actually posted said reviews – both places where we have personal contacts. The rest of the world doesn’t want to know, probably because they have a thousand guys like us saying “please listen to our EP, we did it all ourselves, it’s awesome, really”. So they just stick to reviewing big bands and their mates’ bands.

    What else can you do? You can play carefully-chosen gigs, which I believe we are doing – not helped by the fact that most promoters ignore our attempts to contact them, of course, but you can’t force people to like your band, obviously. To be fair they are probably having trouble getting a crowd in on most occasions, so why would they take on some unknowns from half-way across the country? Chicken-and-egg. You can contact the music media but again the usual routine is to completely ignore you – until, of course, they have a cover disc which needs filling, at which point they’ll offer a space to you for a mere £400 or so. They won’t write about you, but you can buy a place on their free coaster. (Although to be fair we didn’t have to pay Metal Hammer. They still won’t give us any coverage though, despite asking to have us on their cd.) I’m not too bitter about the big magazines ignoring us because I know they get literally thousands of unsolicited requests – but even the smaller and local sites and magazines do it too.

    So… yeah, we’re trying. I know there are some ways we could have done better but often it comes down to how much money you want to throw at it and how long you spend flogging apparently-dead horses.

    • You always seem to have such a balanced and objective take on things, Ben, and most of what you’ve written above is beyond dispute.
      I think you’ve perfectly articulated that no matter which path a band takes, these days, there are no easy ones :-/

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