Friday, 24 February 2012

The Game of Fame

I've been following the usual post Brit Award naval gazing exercise in the media with some wry amusement. As ever, TV and newspaper editors use the opportunity to fill their empty slots with endless waffle about how it does or does not reflect the state of the modern music industry - like that really matters or even interests most of us.

This year, of course, it's turned into an Adele vs Blur shouting match and I must say I have rarely seen such strong sentiments expressed on both sides in the forums! Depending on your point of view (or more probably your age, if we're honest about it) either Adele is an undeserving flash in the pan and Blur are true musicians, or Adele is a hard working and shining talent of the modern age and Blur are a bunch of ageing has-beens.

Well far be it for me to comment. In fact I really don't care. Blur have done a few numbers in the past that I really like, and Adele undoubtedly is a remarkable singing talent. But equally I could easily be very disparaging about both as well. Because we all have our own preferences. What they have in common, and what we all have to acknowledge, is that they have both managed to achieve sufficient fame to be mentioned in a blog post by an aspiring artist such as my good self, who has not managed that level of recognition. YET, of course.

But how did they get that recognition, fame, celebrity, whatever you want to call it? Is Adele more deserving of that award than, say, a friend of mine who has, I would argue, a superior singing voice (gasp! sacrilege!). Are she and all the other winners really more talented than every one of the the thousands of unknown musicians, bands and singers out there? One tends to assume that they must be. But the truth is, they are not. In pure talent terms, every "star" has a large number of equals/betters out there who are not stars.

Now before their lawyers start charging the famous great chunks of their royalties for writing threatening letters to me, let me point out that I do not in any way resent their awards nor, (in most cases) deny their talents. I pat them collectively on the pack and say "Well Done!". You cannot win awards without some sort of ability, that is for sure. You can get the fame easily enough (just hang around with footballers in bars and pay Max Clifford your life savings) but in general the Brit awards and other similar events do fortunately maintain some degree of integrity with respect to talent.

But these people did not get there without some serious corporate assistance. In fact, that is a point spat at the whole event with vitriol from a number of quarters. Um, yes. Of course that's the case. If you don't like it, don't watch it then, and don't buy the records. As I have discussed in a previous post, if that was not the case, there would be no "stars", and no-one would be trying to become one. I also suspect that the corporate bashing is often the politics of envy rather than idealism. The bottom line is that there is no other way of having a top tier of artists for the rest of us to aspire to.

So why are these people singled out over the rest of us for promotion? Good question. Assuming you have some reasonable talent and you are not a clone of an existing established star, its as much about who you know and being in the right place at the right time. It seems to be that what happens is that there is some kind of covert agreement between top record companies, broadcasters and promoters that a particular act is the "next big thing". The resulting overwhelming exposure that we all get to that act results in us believing the same, and buying the product. Pretty much all of the famous acts that have emerged from nowhere in the last few years have achieved their status this way - I shall not name names for fear of reprisals but I am sure you can identify a few with a minimum of effort.

The proof of this phenomenon is the existence of what I call the "doomed middle layer" of fame. These are the musicians that have a long history, many albums, a loyal "cult" fan base, and that the average music fan may have just about heard of but probably can't name or bring to mind any of their music. These poor guys will never be "discovered" by the corporate music industry, but if they are lucky, may be "discovered" every now and then by a new fan who then buys up everything they've ever produced. But they will probably never be accepting awards on national TV. Occasionally there's an exception to the rule (I am thinking specifically of the recent award for P.J.Harvey's latest album - nice one, Polly) but otherwise this is the top layer to which most of us can realistically aspire. Because when you get to this point, the corporate machine does not want you because you are probably too old and set in your ways to be of any use to them.

To be honest, that is all fine by me, because in this day and age of web networking and relatively cheap music production technology, there are far too many people out there for them all to "make it" in the traditional sense. This "middle ground" status give us all the space we need to do what we love doing, and we are far more likely to still be doing it in a few years time than. But that's not to say I, like all others in my position, don't secretly fantasise about accepting awards on national TV for my music. It's an ego thing. So if anyone knows who it is that maintains that secret list of "next big things" and how to get on to it, let me know and I'll make them an offer they can't refuse.

They can cut my acceptance speech short if they like, I don't mind, in my case it'll probably be a good thing. As you'll probably agree if you've managed to read this far.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Three Out of Four Ain't So Bad

I should warn you that this post delves into musical theory a bit, but I'll do my best to explain it to the non-musicians. And not to be so patronising again.

Whilst I was putting together my last single, "Dance of the May", I was reminded of something well known to most musicians but, to my mind, not adequately explained.

The single is in triple time, 3/4 to be precise. This is not something you come across very often in modern music. Old English folk music, by which "Dance of the May" was inspired, is almost entirely in triple time, and it is far more prevalent in many other folk genres, and of course many classical works - the great Strauss waltzes being the best known examples. But scour the vast array of modern, or should I say, "popular" compositions and examples are few and far between. Now before you shower me with examples, yes I know there are many and I shall be quoting a few, but it has to be said that they are the exceptions to the overwhelming use of 4/4 across the board.

The science bit, for those of you who do not know what I am talking about: most modern music breaks down easily into groups of four beats with emphasis on the first, I always quote the Bee Gees here as an example: "ha | ha | ha | ha |" (there's four beats) "stayin'a | live | stayin'a | live |" and there's another four. Triple time is where it breaks down into groups of three. By definition, a popular example if hard to pin down, but maybe the best known would be the verse section of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" -"pic |ture | your |" (three) "self| on | a|" (three) and so on.

So why this seeming prejudice against triple time? Well there are many theories on that, one of the more popular being that to dance to music in 3/4 time actually requires some degree of practice since the beat is not divisible by the number of feet that most of us have. I think there probably is something in that. But anyone can sway, and what is more, and this is my personal opinion, a well executed 3/4 waltz is possibly the most beautiful and intoxicating form of dance that there is.

My argument is positive, however. I think that triple time, be it 3/4, 6/8 or any of the other esoteric variations that exist can and should be used to produce more modern music alongside the more usual "common" time. (The practical difference between 3/4 and 6/8 is still subject to debate by many - check out this video by a rather impressive young musician attempting to explain it, with limited success. I've done a music theory diploma and I still don't quite get it.) A triple time piece has a feel all of its own and opens up a universe of new possibilities of melody and rhythm. It undoubtedly is better suited to ballads or slower numbers (although check out Hendrix's "Manic Depression" for an extreme exception to this rule) and on the rare occasions where you do hear it in music from the modern era you probably don't even realise it. But you know there is something very special about the feel of the piece. Check out David Gray's sublime "This Year's Love" as an excellent example, where the triple time adds a wistful swaying element that would simply not be there in 4/4. Another famous one is "Nights in White Satin" by The Moody Blues. Supposedly in 12/8 time, but get real guys, it is as 3/4 as the Blue Danube. But it sounds somehow "different" to most other music of the day. That's the triple time.

I love triple time and use it far more often than is probably healthy for a "modern" composer. So far there are three tracks from my limited catalogue that use it, namely "Dance of the May", "Île de la Cité" (from Soundscapes) and "Reprieve" (from Finest Hour) and there will probably be many more to come. I didn't plan this, I just came up with what I thought was a great melody and then realised I had strayed into the world of three.

So this is my call for composers in all genres to stop ignoring triple time and embrace its possibilities. I know this call will fall on deaf ears in the more dance oriented genres, which is fair enough, but otherwise there is no reason not to try it once in a while. You never know, you might like it. And so may your listeners.

But they probably won't know why.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Curse of the New Age

Every time I try to engage in conversation with someone new about my music, the first question that inevitably crops up is "What type of music do you make then?" and I'm always at a loss as to how to sum it up in one word or phrase. The usual answer I stammer out is something like "Well, it's mainly instrumental." But this doesn't really help much and so I give them my website details and hope they can figure it out for themselves.

This basically sums up my problem. There are a number of defined musical categories in this world and I find it hard to fit exactly into any one of them. To use established labels, I do a bit of "rock", "electronic", "folk", "world", "ambient", "soundtrack", "classical" and probably a few more.  It is an issue I share with my all time musical hero, Mike Oldfield, who like myself has always produced music that he felt like doing and to hell with the genre. Hasn't stopped him having a huge and intensely loyal army of fans, however.

So when navigating the menus of music stores and review sites, I tend to share with him that most unfortunate of categories, "New Age". This epithet was invented, as far as I can make out, to describe the otherwise indescribable and as a result does not do the musicians concerned much justice. It also has connotations of appealing to people who like to hang out at Stonehenge on midsummers day, worry about their energy lines  and use the word "karma" a lot. Now I have absolutely nothing against such individuals, I admire their selfless philosophy, but that is not me, nor Mike. I suspect that even the great all powerful god of "New Age" music, Yanni, would make some attempt to avoid being stuffed into that pigeon-hole as well. You are more likely to find this particular "New Age" artist at the pub downing some real ale and engaged in bawdy conversation on midsummers day, and the only energy lines I worry about are powering this computer and need to be paid for somehow. I am a pretty average guy in most respects.

I make the kind of music that I do, not because I wish to promote a lifestyle or any political ideas, but because I love the way it sounds. It pleases my ear, and I hope it does yours as well. There are many other kinds of music that please my ear as well. I am a massive fan of AC/DC and Claude Debussy amongst many others. Go figure.

I really love making music that evokes images and atmospheres. That is why so many of my pieces are unashamedly themed, and indeed why I called my last album "Soundscapes". But unlike the more restrained traditional "New Age" artists, I am not afraid to throw in a raucous guitar solo or a thumping dance beat either. But that is the beauty of making music, there really are no boundaries, unless you choose to create them.

Therefore I am calling for a new category to be internationally recognised, and I have absolutely no idea what to call it, and I can't promise I shall be able to fit into it either. But it may help me in my conversations.

Suggestions on a postcard, please....