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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

After The Big Chill...

Pete Lawrence and his ex-wife Katrina founded The Big Chill in 1995, now a festival at Eastnor castle near Bristol and part of our cultural fabric. Three years ago he sold his remaining 25 per cent stake in the business, which has come to include several bars, to Cantaloupe Group, who then sold it to Festival Republic, which also runs the Reading, Leeds, Latitude and Berlin festivals. 

I met him at the BBC folk awards back in February, for which he'd been invited to take part in the nomination process because of his industry connections. "But the invitation landed in my spam tray and I didn't find it until too late to take part," he says. "Shame."

He has pictures on his phone of his beautiful home in the Northamptonshire village of Braunston, a new business venture to throw himself into, in the form of a social networking platform called Pic-Nic Village, and the satisfaction of knowing that he's created something that means a great deal to a great many people. "I know at least ten marriages that have happened as a result of people meeting at the Big Chill," he says.

But ask him about the business of running a festival and tension doesn't so much creep into the atmosphere as land on the middle of the table we're sitting at and dance around in hobnail boots.

"There is undoubtedly money to be made on festivals. But if I'm asked, my advice is not to do it. The money I eventually made on the deal reflected 15 years of very hard work. But it nearly cost me my home and did cost me my marriage.

"It started out as Katrina and I putting stuff on at Union Chapel in Islington: indoor, all-day festivals. This was right after the birth of the internet, and I believe we were the first club to have our own web forum. Then the reasoning was that if we could make a success of it indoors, we could do the same thing outdoors.

"But it took some years to get to the point where any money was being made and we were, frankly, completely unprepared for what it would cost to put on an event. It was the fact that it became a community that kept us going.

"There are huge fixed costs and what we found was that there were also rising costs attached to anything health and safety related - every year the bill got bigger - as well as for policing. And each year there were more and more festivals, so it got harder to get hold of the things you need: loos, fencing.

"Now there are so many festivals that it's really an artists' market. When we started out artists were approaching us but these days the artists are in demand and as a result their billing is going up and up."

His face clouds as he remembers the Big Chill's second year, in which the festival took place in Norfolk at a time when media stories about the terrifying "rave" phenomenon were all the rage. "There was a huge headline on the front of the local paper asking 'Is this festival a rave?' And they kept referring to us as a 'hippy rave', which was supposed to be two bad things rolled into one.

"There was huge local hostility and at the end of it Katrina and I had to borrow money for petrol to leave the site. We couldn't afford to buy nappies for the baby, so had to wrap it in a towel. Then when we got home it was to a winter during which we had no income whatsoever and to top it all there were some prosecutions arising from conditions attached to the licence. It had been issued by South Norfolk district council at the 11th hour, so we'd had no chance to appeal.

"These were the pressures on Katrina and I. We were living in a tiny flat in north London and The Big Chill just took over our lives. It was like the third baby. After Norfolk there was just so much pressure..." He shakes his head. On the day I see him he's just come from visiting Katrina, so I guess time and events have healed many of the old wounds. But it's the gap between the original ideal and what unfolded that seems to have taken the greatest toll.

"I believe massively in the power of festivals to unite people," he explains. "I realised that that people could come to them in so many different ways and find a relevance for them in their lives. They have a terrific potential to unite people."

And his view has been vindicated to the point where the same media outlets that once ran the stories about the terrifying scourge of rave culture now send correspondents to Glastonbury, which has become so embedded in the culture that it's hard to imagine British summertime without it.

Whereas the free festival movement during the 80s was associated with travellers, Thatcherite criminal justice bills and illegal campsites, its legacy is something that has become absolutely mainstream. Festivals are, for most people, just brilliant fun in an environment where its possible to forget bourgeoise reality for a few days. Pete and the others who started these festivals were really peddling a dream.

"The Big Chill was never a free festival, though," he says. "The first year it was £25 a ticket, but no one working there got paid. The maxim is that it takes three years to get a festival to a point where it breaks even. I guess these days you'd expect to break even on ticket sales and then make your profit from the bar. Some festivals choose to franchise out the bar to generate themselves a guaranteed income. But we were always keen to keep it under our own auspices. Running a bar has its own complications."
In addition to his social networking project, Lawrence is also working on his autobiography, which will include the story of the record label he founded, Cooking Vinyl. He tells me a tale about discovering Michelle Shocked around a campfire at a festival in Texas while ligging around the festival scene. (Ligging. There's a word you don't hear much any more... Like "hitching".) 

He professes a fondness for folk, roots and acoustic music, which he says he always mixed in with the electronica that was more tribally acceptable at festivals in the late 80s and early 90s. "But Festival Republic aren't involved in folk festivals at the moment. I get the impression that they're only interested in very large events. It's all about the potential return. If a folk festival started growing fast to 30,000 plus I'm sure they would take interest."

But would this be a good thing? By his own admission, Lawrence wasn't interested in attracting sponsorship for The Big Chill until other festival directors came on board and forced the issue. His equivocal experiences haven't put him off completely though, and he mentioned several small events he's intending to enjoy this summer without the hassle of thinking of them as businesses. "I'm really looking forward to something called Chilled Cider at The Square and Compass in Worth Matravers, Dorset, overlooking the English channel. It's the best pub in the world," he says. "Just a hatch in the wall really."

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley  

Friday, 22 April 2011

Jackie Oates on your skin and musicians as third world countries, part two

"Not only are you going to be very well paid for this but you'll spend the next three years being massaged by beautiful women," entrepreneur Mark Constantine told Simon Emmerson, of The Imagined Village and the Afro Celt Sound System, in an attempt to enthuse him about something that sounded, frankly, a bit implausible (see previous blog for fuller details).

They were discussing a project to record some folk music for a chain of spas that Constantine was opening, using products from his cosmetics and bathtime brand, Lush. "But the therapists weren't all beautiful women," mused Emmerson (pic below). "There was Gavin. He wasn't beautiful..."

There will be a gig on May 5 at Cecil Sharp House showcasing the end result, which is called Fresh Handmade Sound and there are four CDs, each for use during a different spa treatment. But, in addition to increasing the amount of seratonin in the world - Lush's owner, Mark Constantine, loves folk music - the project has had several other curious knock-on effects.

First of all, Jackie Oates, who became involved later on as part of a duo with Belinda O'Hooley, has had a face cream (below) named after her. I'm not joking - although I've already been accused of making this whole tale up by the good people at Folkcast. It's a kind of make-up foundation for English rose complexions and it's for sale in branches of Lush all over the country.
The second is that Simon Emmerson managed to get his good friend Chris Wood - this year's folk singer of the year - to have a massage for possibly the first time in his life. "Do you know him? He's a kind of new puritan," said Emmerson.

"And musicians - particularly folk musicians - don't go in for things like that. We're a pretty ascetic bunch and it's not part of the culture, though I really think it should be. Your English, blokey folk musician doesn't go to spas, he goes to the pub and drinks ale.

"So during the development of all this I dragged Chris along to the spa in Leeds - he was very reluctant - but when he re-emerged an hour later he came out with this huge grin on his face, looking totally blissed out and wearing this sort of loungey dressing gown that had been hanging on the back of the door. He's had lots of problems with his back and neck, as many of us do, and said it helped.

"On a more serious note, though, this whole project was a revelation for me - it couldn't have come at a better time in my life. When Mark phoned I'd been about to give up. I couldn't support myself. The industry had collapsed, The Imagined Village album hadn't recouped and I felt totally defeated. I couldn't continue as a record producer or musician: there just didn't seem to be the money there.

"But it wasn't just the fact that it was paid work. It gave me a chance to sit back and assess what I am and who I am as a musician. The quality of your working environment makes a huge difference: if you're having a good time it's extraordinary how creative you can become. It's a myth that you have to be starving in a garrett to write good music.

"It's really difficult being a musician at the moment, especially on the fringes, where folk is." But Emmerson says that the last couple of years have changed his view of how to exist there financially.

"Chris Wood's business model is the best one. He owns everything: from songs to the label, to his music, to the band. Total ownership of your own creativity is the way forwards. It was Chris who said: 'You need to think about setting up your own label and setting up the band as a partnership.'

"What you need to know about me is that I'd signed to Virgin in 1983 and stayed signed to a major label until four years ago. I'd been in some very successful bands: the Afro Celts sold over a million and a half albums. But for the whole period I was living on £16k to £20k a year. That's how musicians live. They generally have a partner who supports them or a private income, if they're lucky. But Chris Woods and Steve Knightley (of Show of Hands) have found a different way of doing things.

"During this period, Mark Constantine became involved with the band. He went away and looked at the industry and said he couldn't believe how stupid musicians have been for all these years. He said he was only going to support us if we got our act together and cut out all the parasites and the middle men who have been feeding off our backs.

"He invested some money in the label, which we called ECC records. It's short for Emmerson, Corncrake and Constantine." Who's Corncrake, I asked? "Well, Corncrake started out as a bit of a joke. We thought it sounded like one of those slightly pompous prog rock bands from the 1970s: Emmerson, Lake and Palmer. Er. Corncrake's just a bird that lives somewhere a long way away.

"The label's got a book-keeper and an accountant, but no label bosses and the profit is split 50/50 between band and label, so that everyone can get paid as quickly and easily as possible. I think this is the only way you can survive.

"I guess that if you're starting out, the idea of running a label is scary and you don't really want to do that: you want to party and have a  good time. But the principle is really just a fair trade principle. If you look at musicians as third world countries and major labels as exploitative, first world countries, how do you set up a fair trade agreement? You cut out all the middle men and strip away everything unnecessary."

* Walking with Ghosts will be playing From Source to Sea, supported by the slightly mysterious FLK band at Cecil Sharp House on May 5. FLK will be performing something called I Know Where the Time Goes. Tickets £5. 7.30pm

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley  

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Captain Pugwash on your back, part one.

On May 5 there'll be a concert at Cecil Sharp House called Fresh Handmade Sound, advertised as including work by the "internationally renowned folk musicians Simon Emmerson and Jackie Oates". My antennae twitched when this dropped into my email inbox because the word "spa" was also on the ad and I *like like like* spas.

So I looked into it and it's this: there are four CDs of folky music that have been produced by Lush, in collaboration with Simon Emmerson and a collective called Walking with Ghosts, for use in their four spas (London, Leeds, Poole and Kingston). Lush, if you recall, are the makers of bath products and cosmetics that look and smell like food, which is very confusing for those of us who never grew past the stage of discerning something's essential nature by putting it in our mouths.

So what we're talking about here, basically, is a massage with folk music, a conceptual break with the whale song and waves crashing on the shore that usually accompany the experience.

Upon closer examination I also discovered that the massage itself is supposed to be themed around Englishness, having indigenous birdsong included on the CDs and a cup of tea made for you afterwards by your masseuse. This, I was told by Lush's PR, was very big in Japan. Of course.

The teasing question, then, is how niche is this product? After all, nearly everyone of sound mind likes spas and therefore even if you're not a huge folk fan I'd think that the music would have to be fairly objectionable to muck the experience up? And if you like folk music and spas, well, a little of what you fancy does you good but a lot of it is obviously preferable...

So I hotfooted it to the King's Road yesterday, met Jen, the comely French therapist, and was led down to a beautiful spa underneath the shop decked out, in keeping with Lush's food/cosmetics confusion, like a kitchen. It was one of those kitchens that's very fashionable at the moment: kind of minimalist, Quaker-Shakerish, painted white with ewers and urns all over the place, as well as a selection of old-fashioned bottles with labels around their necks, Alice in Wonderland-style ("Don't Eat Me"), and wild flowers in a glass jar. "Everything in this kitchen was bought on eBay," Jen said.

I was having a treatment called The Good Hour, which is intended as a deep tissue massage, themed around sea shanties. There was a wonderful moment when Jen did something involving a blue bath bomb, hot water and liquid nitrogen which made the whole floor of the candle-lit treatment room disappear under a layer of smokey, crisp-smelling "water". This was a lovely start.

The massage itself was also great, Jen was charming and the music appealed to me. But looking back on it there was something vaguely amiss, which I struggled for a while to put my finger on. I was never able to drift away completely and here's why.

I like sailing, I like weather and I like sea shanties. But, in my experience, there is something about the kind of people who want to be in charge of their own boats to the point where they are prepared to spend tens of thousands of pounds on it, that can be pretty unsensual. My search for a lovely crew of people to sail with goes on (all offers seriously considered).

Now I realise that sea shanties are mainly about working boats, not pleasure craft. But every time I thought I was on the point of losing myself completely in the massage there was some beardy sounding bloke on the sound track hauling away, dragging me back to reality and reminding me of the last time I sailed with someone "difficult". For me, the soundtrack would have worked better if it were instrumental or only had female voices on it (mermaids?)  I realise this is quite a personal take on the matter, but there you go. If you're intrigued, I guess you'll try the massage for yourself. It costs £75.

Simon Emmerson, of The Imagined Village, said that he thought part of the intention had been to create a spa treatment that would appeal to men as well as women. "The project started at an Imagined Village gig in Poole, where I met Mark Constantine, who owns Lush. I'd invited a load of people from my birdwatching club along and he turned out to be one of them.

"He rang me up afterwards, said how much he'd enjoyed the gig and asked if I'd be interested in writing some music for a chain of spas he was opening, which was intended to have an English aesthetic. Now, I didn't know anything much about spas at the time and assumed he was talking about supermarkets.

"So I was on the phone to Eliza Carthy later and asked her whether we really wanted to do a load of supermarket music for a chain of spas and she went very quiet for a minute and then said 'No, Simon. Wrong kind of spa.' So I googled Mark and the penny dropped.

"When we next spoke he kind of twinkled at me down the telephone and said 'Not only are you going to be very well paid for this but you'll spend the next three years being massaged by beautiful women..." To be continued...

* There will be a second part to this blog, to be posted within five days, in which you will discover what happens when you take Chris Wood to a spa and Simon Emmerson's thoughts on recent changes in the music industry.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley  

Friday, 8 April 2011

Nu-folk and wtf is folk?

Here's some folk-related chaos that trekked across my radar this week. Bear with me, there is a point to this...

A lovely young band called Yngve & The Innocent got in touch, describing themselves as "a cross over between folk and Americana and a little bit into Indie - but not much". Being a sucker for a nice bit of punctuation in a band name - hence my enduring admiration for Mawkin:Causley - I fell for the ampersand first, had a bit of a listen and am looking forward to hearing them live when they next get to London.

Then there was this interview in a Welsh newspaper with Adrian McNally, manager of The Unthanks, in which he said: "Folk music is not a genre, it’s a history, a people history that’s been charted with song. In terms of how that sounds, it’s always followed function, so any notion of what it should or shouldn’t sound like is spurious."

I''ve also spent some time this week listening to Folk Radio and exploring a website called For Folk's Sake a bit. By doing these two things I've discovered that there is a  whole raft of musicians out there who are thought of by someone as falling into the "folk" category despite not sounding much like folk to me: more like wispy young things with acoustic guitars from the United States, whose bands have names alluding to the natural world.

Hence there are: Blue Roses, Caitlin Rose, The Eels, Diane Cluck, Emily and the Woods, Curran and the Wolf, Midlake, Mountain Man, Noah and the Whale (OK, I know they're not from the US), Sea of Bees, The Mountain Goats, The Wave Pictures, Tiny Birds, Treetop Flyers, Wild Beasts and Woodpigeons. My research continues but I'm really starting to think that it can only be a question of time before the Natural History Museum takes delivery of a Hairy Mumford for display.

Also, after logging into Twitter last night to find that Mumford & Sons were trending, it emerges that there's a new album on the way. So that's good. It's that punctuation again.

But it made me wonder why I've got no problem with thinking of Mumford & Sons as a folky band, whereas my subconscious is telling me that most of the acoustic guitar-wielding wisps are not. And this is what I've come up with.

I grew up listening to Steeleye Span and for me that was the *best* music, which I also found was defined as "folk". I liked other stuff too - Randy Newman, Queen, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov, Big Country - but whenever something a little bit similar turned up I'd compare it to Steeleye and usually find it wanting.

As a result, there are three things my subconscious seems to like in varying proportions in order happily to categorise something as folk: a traditional instrument or two, at least a nod to the song-writing tradition and a strong sense of place.

(1) The traditional instrument thing accounts for the Mumford phenomenon. A banjo qualifies - although my friend Joe Buirski says that the banjo player in the Mumfords doesn't play it properly and I nodded when he said it, not having a clue what he was on about and liking Joe's banjo playing with Kidnap Alice.

(2) By the song-writing tradition I mean new versions of old songs. Bellowhead's version of New York Girls sent a proper shiver down my spine when they started up at the beginning of the folk awards. And another delight this week was the latest plank of that band's increasingly deliberate assault on the mainstream, in the form of a new version of The Archers' theme tune (which has got to be work garnered as a result of their residency at the South Bank Centre and the fact that it's where BBC producers veg out with their children at the weekend. Serious intellectual pretensions, my arse :-).) Bellowhead's continued rise is a real pleasure to behold and they shouldn't worry about the iffy reaction of a few Radio 4 listeners. One of the mainstays of national newspaper news sections is baiting listeners of The Archers and for every one who complained there will be four or five at least who quite liked the arrangement but didn't bother mentioning it to anyone.

But someone can write their own songs and still be folky, in my book. Richard Shindell breaks my heart every time I listen to his album Courier. He sometimes writes songs from the points of view of historical figures, in the case of the link there, from the point of view of a Confederate child soldier in the civil war, and the emotional impact can be devastating. The scouts are fanning out like whippoorwills, he sings. And the sense of time and place is unshiftable. Incidentally, Fairport Convention have just covered one of his songs, Reunion Hill, on Festival Bell.

(3) The sense of place doesn't have to be my place, which is England, north and south. But it's not enough to have a guitar, long hair and sing about relationships. I really think that to qualify as folk a new song has to be about something that ties it to guts-and-grease reality: a time and place with which it will always be identified. A song can become a folk song by enduring, I guess. But I never really thought of Simon and Garfunkel as folk, in large part because they sing with American accents and Scarborough Fair seemed to be an aberration in their reportoire. Great version of a song, but not their song.

On the other side of the coin The Dropkick Murphys might qualify with this one, which was in the Scorsese movie The Departed and conjurs Boston, past and present. I wouldn't listen to that one if you don't like loud music.

A critic at one of the nationals once told me that Mumford & Sons don't move him because they only remind him of St Paul's school in Barnes, which might not have mattered much except he'd gone there himself and didn't seem very happy about it. So now I can't avoid associating them with that school either, but because I don't have any strong feelings about it one way or another, it just means that they've got a sense of place for me now as well as a banjo. And what's not to like about that?

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Friday, 1 April 2011

Folk, money and professionalism

Wednesday's announcement about arts funding nationally had its winners and losers in the folk world. EFDSS - the English Folk Dance and Song Society, based at Cecil Sharp House in London - was one of the winners, in the sense that it's getting more money: £300,000 in 2012-13, which is a 37 per cent rise. And Wren, which runs folk orchestras in Devon (though its website makes it hard to discover where it is based in that large county) had its Arts Council grant of £49,000 cut completely.

The criteria used to distribute the cash were, according to the Arts Council of England, partly to do with the quality of the output, which is the main difficulty in writing about this, since the outcome of the funding round is an implied judgment.  

Kevin Buckland, Wren's marketing manager, said that this was not the end for Wren, since the arts council's money is only 12 per cent of its overall budget. Devon county council and the lottery fund are also involved, plus Wren is a "record company" and music publisher.

"What we're concentrating on right now is a national tour, which starts tomorrow in Exeter and will be in London at Cecil Sharp House next Thursday, among other dates. It's about the founding of Canada as Britain's first colony," he said, checking rather pointedly that I'd heard of Cecil Sharp House and the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

He claimed for Wren part of the credit for the folky education of Jim CausleyJackie Oates and Sam Lee, adding that Wren has recently digitised the Baring-Gould folk archive and that several of Wren's administrators have been invited on a trip to Canada later this year, which will be paid for by someone over there. Wren also keeps a collection of traditional instruments, which it tours to schools, allowing the students to try them out and get a feel for whether they'd be interested in buying their own melodian or mandolin, for instance. With any luck this is just a bump in the road for Wren.

Quality is important. Although there is a lot of subjectivity in the kinds of things - especially in the arts - that people like, there are certain kinds of professionalism that are universally recognisable. After all, the Arts Council has to make decisions based on something. So having an up-to-date, well-organised website with functioning links, presenting the work of one's organisation to its best advantage more generally and knowing that pressing records is less important in music these days than making one's content available for download may be details, but they are details that grow in importance when you're trying to imagine what, practically, might separate EFDSS from Wren.

Egalitarianism is an important human instinct as it is the basis of many of the things that make people good. But part of being a functioning adult is knowing that one is judged incessantly and for many things, and that one's own view that this may be unfair is usually irrelevant. Come to think of it, it's the basis of humility. Moreover, if one wishes to promote something - because, for instance, one loves it -  putting all of one's skills and ingenuity to the service of that project gives it the best chance of being successful. Professionalism is not something that is always financially well rewarded - or indeed rewarded at all - but someone who is good at what they do may find that their reward is less tangible, if no less important. It is often hard to put a price on pleasure.

I've been dwelling on the link between professionalism and money. I recently had an unpleasant experience with a folky web forum, some of whose members decided that I and my blogs don't "fit in" there and told me so. The most solid reason given was that they thought that since I've been a journalist by trade I was getting paid for my blogging, which has never been the case, and also that, were this the case, there would be something disreputable in it. 

I think of these people as Roundheads, which I shouldn't imagine would displease them, and comfort myself with the thought of what happened when Oliver Cromwell died.

But my point is this. Funding comes and funding goes. The things that we love will last precisely because we love them and support them and although presentation is important, where it is less than fully powered it can also be fixed. I, for one, will certainly be buying a ticket to see Wren's Shore to Shore project at Cecil Sharp House next week, since I live in London, and hope that the event is a sell-out. I urge you to support it too - there are dates as far north as Birmingham and Hartlepool. 

If I ever hear back from the Arts Council about my request for a fuller roundup of what's happening to folk projects nationally - I first asked two days ago - I'll add an update. And, um, is there any chance of modernising the plumbing in Cecil Sharp House?

* The arts council pointed to two other major organisations in its "national portfolio" that do folk. Firstly, Continental Drifts, which is based in London and sends bands from world music genres including British folk to play at major festivals like Glastonbury and Bestival. Sophie Cammack, its marketing manager, tells me that it had a ten per cent cut in its funding last week, to £90,000 in 2012-13, although the money will increase again slightly over the following two years.

The second is The Sage in Gateshead, which runs Folkworks. Emily Taylor, its communications manager, said that there will be a slight uplift in The Sage's £3.5 million allocation, starting in the 2012 financial year to £3.516 million and similar incremental increases in the following two years taking it to £3.687 million in the 2014-15 financial year. "What we're really excited about, though, is that we were also included as recipients of a separate pot of money allocated for music for children and young people called Bridge Delivery Organisations," she said, adding that the amount The Sage would receive from that pot was't clear yet.

Paul Leather, from the arts council, also pointed to a series of arts-council-supported venues that show folk on a regular basis. These include Colchester Arts Centre, The Junction in Cambridge, the Southbank Centre, The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, Farnham Malting, Inner City Music (Band on the Wall), Brewery Arts Centre, The Met, The Stables, Turner Sims, Brighton Dome and Festival, Beaford Arts, Bath Festival and the National Centre for Early Music. Apologies for not knowing exactly where all of these are, but I guess if they're near you, you'll be able to fill in the blanks.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

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