What Jessie Did Next...

...being the inane ramblings of a mundane Yorkshire bird.

Category: Music (page 2 of 2)

IMG_1690Yesterday was Record Store Day 2014. Here’s an article I wrote for the Jumbo Records fanzine which was given out in Leeds – wonderfully put together by the gorgeous and talented Antonia Lines. It’s loosely based on an article I wrote in January last year entitled Changing The Record, in case you think you’ve got déja-vu….

I love physical media. There just isn’t enough of it nowadays, what with downloads and The Cloud and playlists an’ ting.

I’m an old bird really: my first single was a 7” copy of Heart Of Glass by Blondie which I persuaded my grandmother to buy for me. It came from our local WHSmith, back when they stocked music and weren’t taken over by cheap chocolate at the checkout. The sheer joy of the record, the artwork on the front and the notes on the back, the enigmatic shine of the grooves in the black platter which (if you were really clever) you could use to work out what song was what.

Then came the sheer talent of being able to get a needle in a track-break on the first go. You could totally skip tracks with that.

In the 1980s I’d listen to music on the radio and then go and find the record – I’ve got a fond memory of attempting to sing ‘The King Of Rock’n’Roll’ by Prefab Sprout in Woolworths while they tried to work out what it was (they did guess, but it took a few minutes of caterwauling by the pic’n’mix). I saved and saved so I could by a 12” copy of New Order’s classic Blue Monday – and if my schoolfriends had any records to sell, I was there with whatever readies I’d scraped together.

I loved physical records in the early 90s when I’d dig around on Thursday in Leeds Market, just after I’d got my pay-packet from my little weekend bar job. I’d buy albums purely because of the artwork on the cover and discovered some fantastic artists that way – both mainstream and people you’ve never heard of. Musicians like Duncan Mackay, bands like Can and Kraftwerk, early Genesis, Joan Armatrading – all remnants of someone’s old record collection being replaced by CDs.

Then there were the mid-90s: I’d make a pilgrimage to Jumbo to see ‘interesting stuff the staff found’ complete with a small sticker telling you what it was like – comments like ‘big farty bass and a synth line your mum will hate‘. That was brilliant – it’s how I discovered artists such as A Tribe Called Quest and labels such as FFRR. The local independents made a fortune out of me in my Uni days.

By the turn of the millennium I was living in London, but I’d still go up to the vast record stores of the West End such as Tower which was open until midnight every night. I’d come out of the pub absolutely plastered, go to the shop and buy a pile of CDs from the sale pile. The following morning was always a voyage of discovery, not least when the bank statement arrived. My partner at the time would roll her eyes at the carrier bags, and the one single obscure classical music CD bought to placate her.

Then came Record Store Day. Hooray! My favourite RSD acquisition from last year was the Dutch Uncles cover of Slave To The Rhythm, a great reinvention. Interesting remixes, fantastic covers, strange collaborations – it’s all there. But the thing is – it’s all there even when it’s not Record Store Day. Go find your independent store, dig around. Buy stuff! Listen! What’s the worst that could happen?

I now live back in Wakefield and we’ve got some great shops. I still accumulate CDs and vinyl, much to the amusement of my children. I sit in the conservatory, hold the gatefold, read the sleeve notes, look at the artwork and listen to the music – you just can’t do all that with a download.

There came a flurry of news just before bedtime last night that high-street chain HMV was going into administration. It’s been on the cards since at least 2007 and while it’s extremely unfortunate that mismanagement of the administration led to staff finding out via the media (accompanied by scuttlebutt and faux-sadness on Twitter) I can’t say I’m surprised in the slightest.

This morning there’s a lot of punditry flying around regarding HMV’s business model, competitors, the inevitable comparisons with online vendors (and HMV’s own failed foray into online sales some years ago), the links to piracy, MP3s, iTunes, and tons more. Yet however you look at it HMV’s business model is completely and utterly flawed: the chart CDs stocked are sold cheaper in bulk to Asda so margins are nonexistent, racks are full of ‘classic’ albums you can find chucked out in Oxfam, there’s very little (if any) stock of local music, and when you want something out-of-the-ordinary you’re bang out of luck unless you want to order it in and wait a week. Just like Jessops before them, they’re box-shifters with stock even Del Boy would find hard to pass on.

It hasn’t always been so. Contrast it with the mid-90s when HMV stocked dance vinyl and had entire racks of ‘interesting stuff the staff found’ complete with a small sticker telling you what it was like – comments like ‘big farty bass and a synth line your mum will hate‘. That was brilliant – it’s how I discovered artists such as A Tribe Called Quest and labels such as FFRR, but that disappeared at the turn of the century and I found other outlets.

(Exception to the rule: the last CD I bought from HMV was This Sporting Life by Skint & Demoralised. I bought it there because I knew one of the lads worked at the Wakefield shop and if anywhere would have a copy, they would…)

I’ll admit I’m a marginal case: I like physical media. I browse CDs, I play vinyl, I buy from small shops such as Crash and Jumbo, I order from independent online stores such as HTFR or Norman Records where possible, and I pester local record labels for CDs rather than downloads. I love exploring liner notes and artwork just as much as listening to the music. The local independent record shop in Cottingham made a fortune out of me in my Uni days, and when we lived in London my wife used to curse because I’d go to Tower Records (RIP), browse the bargain bins and return at 11:30pm with two carrier bags full of stuff I quite liked the look of. Controversially nowadays I also use Amazon – most commonly at music festivals and gigs where I’ll 1-click order a load of the support act’s CDs (well, when they’re not on the merch stand anyway) – but it’s still physical media. I guess I’m in a minority now; not ‘down with the kids’.

The folks who have the bargain-bin physical media philosophy bang-on are That’s Entertainment, which is where your Music Magpie CDs end up (it tickles me that they spotted an opportunity to have a pop at HMV in Manchester). There’s one in the Ridings Centre in Wakefield where I can spend a happy (but costly) hour digging and finding CDs I didn’t even know I wanted, sometimes at five for a fiver. They participated in a small way in Record Store Day last year and it’s somewhere even my kids with their limited pocket money can buy a computer game or a bit of music. Winner.

Will I miss HMV if it does completely disappear? Nah, I can’t even think of a company who might want to pick the chain up other than for the HMV.com domain name. Perhaps it’ll leave a void which can be filled once again by the small shops it killed in the late 80s and early 90s, and although I doubt Wakefield would provide enough business to support it it’d be nice to see a JAT or EGS return to Wakefield’s streets. While browsing Twitter I came across @charlottegore who hit the nail on the head in one sentence: “HMV are a company that wasted lots of money paying rent to keep unsold CDs and DVDs on public display in prime locations.”

No flowers.

Edit: There’s another perspective from Banquet Records which is well worth a read (thanks Martin for pointing me to that).

I’ve started podcasting the local music scene again for Wakefield Music Collective. This is Podcast #6 (I suppose it’s a season-2 opener but I don’t know when it’ll end up on hiatus again) and is probably worth a listen although I’m using a new vocal mic (a Yeti Blue) which is a bit harsh. You can subscribe using iTunes as well as grabbing the MP3 directly from themusiccollective.co.uk.

I’m also involved in Clarence Music Festival again this year and applications are open for bands to put themselves forward to play. Anything goes so it’s worth a shot and this is the first year you can apply online (as opposed to the past 21 years where you had to put in a promo pack by post). Find out more here.

“So, I’m in Wakefield. Where do you recommend I should go?” “Leeds.”

Back in September the Wakefield music ‘scene’ (such as it is) exploded a bit, triggered by a contentious blog article on Wakefield Music Collective written by Dean Freeman of Rhubarb Bomb. A week or two later Wakefield Express published an op-ed piece by the same author, bemoaning the fact that pub-goers preferred seeing a cover band to heading upstairs and seeing an ‘originals’ band. A more recent edition of the Express gave over a whole page to three well thought-out responses from a local musician, the part-owner of the sort of venue Dean was laying into, and a punter. This is not about that fight.

My first memory of a Wakefield gig was seeing Frank White down at the Post Haste (now the Snooty Fox) in the early 80s when I can’t have been more than 9 years old and I was a Wakefield Jazz regular until 1993ish. My experience of the more recent ‘scene’ has therefore been principally rooted in the years since Nicky and I moved back up North: roughly 10 years during which I’ve photographed a lot of bands (signed and unsigned), performed with a few, promoted some gigs, been balls-deep in organising festivals and danced at more gigs than I care to count. I’ve yet to come across any area which is like Wakefield. Why?

The Wakefield music scene is unique maybe because Wakefield music fans (and most of its musicians) like to think “big”: after all we’re deemed to be a city if only for the looming presence of Wakefield Cathedral. We’re a town really though – quite small in the grand scheme of things: there are a couple of venues but nothing you’d call sizable. Geographically we’re a satellite, little more than a dormitory of Leeds in terms of the inhabitants and just a few junctions down the M1. Heck, even the inhabitants (me included) refer to it as ‘town’. We don’t have a University from which students thirst for big acts, and although Westgate is frequently full of partygoers from outside town few of them seem to make it further than the nightclubs.

A common complaint from the musos is the absence of a decent-size venue to attract “big” acts: the closest we have to a ‘national-class’ venue is The Hop with an upstairs cap of about 200 people, competent sound guys and good management. Unless you count the club venues (of which Balne Lane WMC has been the usual venue for big acts such as The Fall or Glasvegas albeit more out of necessity) or Mustang Sally (which has been talked into hosting large gigs on occasion) then I suppose the next size up is Wakefield Theatre Royal. Black Flag Warehouse on Smyth Street showed promise but soon after opening it nosedived, cancelling gigs due to horrendous ticket sales and went spectacularly bust several times over. We might have Unity Hall in a couple of years and although I made a small investment to bootstrap it I’m not optimistic about the ability to sell tickets to keep it going while it builds up a reputation.

Why is this? Well, I think partially the bands. Wakefield’s “think big” attitude doesn’t help the acts themselves – it’s all too easy to just play gig after gig in the city on a support slot and convince yourself you’re brill. Those sorts of nights attract the ‘friends and family’ audience for sure, but if I had a penny for every time I’d been asked to go support a band who are playing at one venue tonight, a venue nearby little more than a week later, and another Wakefield City Centre venue in two weeks time I’d be a rich man; I’m not going to go to all those gigs and I certainly won’t shell out for the same set time after time. Last year’s Long Division Festival 2012 had some terrific acts on but I’ve heard from more than a few people the complaint that save for a couple of really good headliners it had been filled out with every single Wakefield band signed to one of our local record labels (I discovered the extent of this when I was involved in organising Clarence Park Music Festival and trying to find a local indie act which hadn’t played Long Division – it was extremely difficult).

If you’re looking for a success story then look no further than the group who had the good sense to get out of the city as quickly as they could instead of getting trapped in the whirlpool: The Cribs. Regardless of what you think of their music, you have to admit the following in Wakefield is one of near-religious fanaticism: a sighting of a Jarman brother at a gig or a festival quickly leads to rumours that there might be a secret gig in town. Other bands could easily get to this stage, but it’s a matter of getting out of the comfort zone of perpetual support slots at the local venues. Bands want their fans to come to them in Wakefield, maybe because it’s a bit more effort to get a gig elsewhere, or maybe they just don’t want to risk playing to empty rooms.

T’was ever thus though: if you read I’ll Go to T’foot of Our Stage: The Story of Yorkshire Pop Music written by Craig Ferguson, Wakefield is rarely mentioned save for Be Bop Deluxe. Players Club in the 90s played the same acts over and over again (I remember a poster for a band called The Mad Egyptians stating “bollocks, it’s just cos they’re sick of playing at Players”).

So what’s the answer? Well in my humble opinion it needs to start with the bands. Get the bands playing outside Wakefield, and the city becomes more known for its acts. As it becomes more known for its acts, people are more likely to travel in to see someone they’ve never heard of. Although we have a hell of a lot of talent in the area promoters need to stop putting on the same local acts all the time: there’s tons of bands in Leeds, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Manchester and all over the place who’d like a gig elsewhere. Hell, while I was doing stuff with Wakefield Music Collective our incoming mailbox was chock full of requests-to-play, so it’s definitely not that difficult. Apply a simple rule: if the act’s played locally within the last 3 months, don’t put them on unless you’re really desperate, or even better do an act-swap with another venue in another city.

That quote at the top by the way is a genuine response from an audience member at The Hop’s monthly Kill For A Seat comedy night. As tongue in cheek as it was, I fear they may have a point.

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