I went to a gig last night, at The Cellar. It was incredible.

My friend Humphrey was debuting his new band ‘Huck’. Humphrey is in a long-established Oxford band called Sextodecimo who I openly hate, don’t get me wrong, a nicer line-up of lads you couldn’t hope to meet and all of them are actually fantastic musicians but their choice of music is I believe called ‘Sludgecore’ and attending a Sextodecimo gig is kind of like having every orifice of your body assaulted by huge grimey tendrils of noise. Thankfully, this is what they aim for and they do it very well. Indeed, if you’re up for a bit of grimey-tendril-assault, I heartily reccommend them.

Where was I? Yes, Huck. Humphrey has been working for a while on his solo stuff, playing in pubs and open mic spots around the city for the last year or so. It’s a bit Nick Cavey, a bit Tom Waits’y but with a cheeky grin and a confidence that belies his tiny little stature. You certainly wouldn’t expect the timbre, depth and quality of voice that thunders out, let alone the incredibly sophisticated mix of influences. As  impressed as I’ve been with his solo stuff, I wasn’t expecting just how much richer it would all become with a band. Tommy from Sextodecimo is on drums and Matt and Joe from Borderville (another band well worth a look) play bass and guitar respectively. So you ened up with a selection of dirty blues-folk songs played with a lounge-style rhythm section and a wailing rock-n-roll lush guitar sound. These are four musicians who have spent so many years learning their craft that after, I’m told, three rehearsals, they can take to the stage for the first time and not just play effortlessly tightly but entertain the audience and clearly enjoy themselves. It’s the first time in a long time I’ve seen a lead singer introduce his band one-by-one to a wholly appreciative and whooping audience.

It was a great show and they were one of the support acts! I left before the headlining band came on as I didn’t want the experience diluted. So, I’m driving home and I’m thinking how that was incredible. If they were playing as a headline act somewhere tomorrow, I’d gladly shell out like twenty quid for a musical experience so vibrant and joyful and I started thinking about the guys in the band. I only really know Humphrey and Joe all that well but I’ve known them for a few years and know what’s going on there.

Humphrey I knew vaguely for a while through the music scene, then he was a student in my screenwriting class and at the moment he works in my store on Cowley Road. He works really hard (not in the store, he’s actually kind of useless) but he publishes his own poetry (I think  it’s good and I’m no poetry fan), writes, studies, plays in bands, plays solo, and fanatically seems to have endless books, films and cds on the go. What I saw last night felt like kind of a grand culmination of all of his hard work and diverse cultural dalliances.

Joe I first met as the lead singer of an Oxford band called Sexy Breakfast, who were pretty popular but kind of shitty, from their mediocre ashes rose Borderville who were one of the most impressive bands in concept and execution I’d ever seen. They were a novel creation – a kind of living breathing concept album. Joe has a background in acting and musical theatre and decided to bring this into inde rock. He created a story and a clutch of songs which made up a to-be-recorded album telling the story of a place called Borderville. The band dressed as glam-canal-ragamuffins and you were never sure if you were seeing a gig or a production. I saw them a bunch of times, only once did they play the whole album’s worth of songs in order and that is up there in the top few gigs I’ve had the pleasure to have seen in my life.

So between these two guys, you have years of researching, exploring and absorbing  influences, you have the commitment and work it takes to not just learn an instrument but master it, you have them both having spent years in various bands trying to break through, you have them both experimenting with other forms of artistic expression and then you have them reach this incredible stage where they can take to a luke-warm room (the support band on before them were dire)  and end up getting strangers cheering, whooping and being transfixed bytheir set.

Yet, come this morning, Joe has to get up to go to his work as a teacher and Humphrey has to get up (probably not in the morning) to either work at my shop or whatever other ghastly minimum wage crap he has to do to scrape the rent together. I find that horribly wrong and unfair. Of course, every musician has to go through their struggling phase. It’s important and has pretty much always been the case, it’s formative, it gives them experience which wil inevitably filter down into their work, making it all the better. My issue is that the way the music industry is going, these guys will probably never really get rewarded for their efforts. This is not a slight on them, it’s a slight on us. There is little money left in the industry.

Up until a few years ago, if you wanted to listen to music, you went to a shop and you paid thirteen quid and got yourself an album. That seems abhorrent now, doesn’t it? Imagine that – getting on the bus into town, going to HMV and having to pay thirteen fucking quid for one cd. Why would you pay that? The supermarkets are selling the new albums for maybe seven quid. Leave it a few months and you’ll find it on for four or five. That’s if you really want to own it – why bother? There isn’t an album you can’t download for free somewhere or – hey – listen to it free and legally on spotify!

Us music fans have never had it so good. Radiohead’s albums are selling in Fopp for three quid each! Classic albums which have never sold for less than thirteen odd quid on whatever formats they’ve been released on can now be snapped up for the price of a pint. Hooray! We win! And fuck the stars and the record companies, they’ve been making millions out of us for years. The internet has levelled the playing field! But since we’re spending less and less, there is less and less money floating around and since we now feel entitled to our music for free, the industry can only wither. Which means far less new stuff coming through. It means that you’ll probably never have the pleasure of discovering Huck because the effort it takes to get a band to anywhere near the point that it’s actually generating money is difficult when its members are struggling to pay the rent/get some security/raise a family. For the amount of work these guys have put in and the quality of work they put out, that seems unbelievably unfair.

But life is unfair, right? I guess what I’m trying to say with this particular blog – and to a degree, I’m sure I’m preaching to the converted – but we must re-examine our view of the value of music. Do I care if people download The Beatles or The Stones or Metallica? I couldn’t give a shit. They have their money, they have their security. Do I care if you download an indie release or a debut album? Yes I do. I run the risk of sounding like that awful ‘you wouldn’t steal a handbag…’ anti-download message they put at the beginning of dvds, but I’d amend my message. Theft is theft, it’s wrong however you look at it but there’s a world of difference between stealing a mars bar from Tesco and stealing a couple of sixty quid graphic novels from my shop (yes it happened, yes it had a huge impact on our ability to pay the rent and stay open).

There’s a lot writen about sustainability and carbon footprints and freight miles to do with commerce and the environment that could be applied to the arts. For instance, why spend all that money freighting in manufactured foreign music which actually isn’t all that good when there is top quality lovingly-prepared organic music being produced in your town? Music that is BETTER than what is in the charts and on the radio. I paid six quid for my revelatory experience last night, down the M40 people were paying hundreds of pounds to stand at the back of a fucking stadium to see U2 in their fifties trudging through songs we’ve all been hearing incessantly for the last thirty-odd years. That’s kind of vulgar.

A few years ago, The Young Knives were a mainstay of the Oxford music scene. They were great – far better than they are now. The song Working Hands which was on their first locally-released mini-album eclipses everything they’ve done since for originality, wit and raw beauty. I’d see them supporting various bands and headlining their own gigs , inevitably at a half-full upstairs pub room or the smaller downstairs room at the Zodiac. They were always pretty fantastic. At the very worst, they were always fun. They were always worth it. They got signed, got fairly big – NME covers, world tours, Mercury Music Award nominations. When the Carling Academy opened in Oxford, they staged two consecutive completely sold out Young Knives gig – this was their glorious homecoming. Both shows sold out – thousands of people attended. It made me livid. These people could have seen this band only months earlier for a couple of quid in a more intimate setting – they could have approached them after the gig, chatted with them, hung out with them. But no, they needed the radio and the tv and the press and the media to approve an act from their own hometown. And in doing so, they missed the TRULY exciting shows and how dare they share in the ‘homecoming’ celebration – they had done nothing to support this band so had no claim on the pride they were exhibiting.

Do you know how many incredible bands you will NEVER GET TO SEE because you didn’t support them at the most important time?

If you consider yourself a music fan, you should really take some responsibility and stewardship over it. You have to till the land a bit at first – which means going to some gigs, taking a punt on some bands. Here in Oxford, we’re incredibly fortunate to have Nightshift magazine which each month guides you around what you might like. If you see a band you like, let them know. Buy their cds, go and tell them how much you enjoyed what they did – it makes a real difference. It could even be the difference between them carrying on or throwing in the towel. George Harrison apparently once said “never pass up the opportunity to tell someone how fantastic you think they are” Wise words – and this is from a guy who must have been absoutely sick of people endlessly fawning over him.

So, yeah, last night there were two gigs. One in the Cellar in Oxford – six quid at the door (and drinks promos), the other at Wembley stadium with tickets costing at least ten times as much. The crowd at the first got the better deal, shame the same can’t be said for the musicians.

Oh, for the record…  – the full band have yet to record but these are Humphrey’s solo recordings.

If you like them, fucking tell them.

Published in: on August 21, 2009 at 4:14 pm  Comments (5)  

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  1. Yes. Abolutely.

    As someone who works with upcoming artists as a manager and label, I could not agree more. But what was startling (in the best way!) was your comment that we have to “till the soil a bit”. Because what you are talking about is engaging in what I call “Slow Music”. Taking a page from the Slow Food movement, I believe can rebuild a viable music business in which artists can have life-long careers, but we need to do it locally. We need to nurture the artists that live down the street, go to their shows, buy their t-shirts, hire them for our house parties. We need to create local music economies that hinge on a direct relationship between music and fan, with minimal middlemen. And of course we’ve got to stop supporting the mega-corporate music business, which invests tons of money and energy into growing shiny, genetically perfect but tasteless Frankenbands that then get shipped round the world at enormous cost and to the detriment of really good local music and the people who want to hear it.

    So, yeah. Slow Music. I’ll soon be publishing a manifesto but can I count on you to wave the flag for Oxford?


    • The great thing about Oxford is that you don’t need me to wave the flag.
      The music scene here works very well as its own kind of micro-industry.Considering that micro-industry has produced Radiohead, Ride, Supergrass, Swervedriver, The Candyskins, The Young Knives and Foals, it’d be hard to argue that it doesn’t work. And those are just the bands that got famous. The quality threshold here is set incredibly high. Jesus, someone should make a documentary about it….

      Sadly, I feel it has taken a hit in the opening of a big corporate venue in town. We were told this would be a good thing because bigger bands would come to town but I feel it’s taken away a whole group of punters who can only afford one or two gigs a week and are opting for the touring bands rather than the local ones. When that venue was independent, we still had great touring bands but local bands got to support them. When local bands can headline the best venue in town, it gives them a real sense of pride and confidence. That is no longer possible and I can feel the effect of that.


  2. I agree that Humphrey is a legend. I played with him briefly in Rouge Morte (another, even slower, Sextedecimo spin-off), and he’s a talented and thoughtful guy. I never saw Borderville, but they sound great. And I’m gutted I didn’t see the Cellar gig.

    I also agree that we should support local bands, nurture the local scene, egg the bandwagon-jumpers and mourn the Zodiac.

    But I’m not so sure about your take on the music industry: “the way the music industry is going, these guys will probably never really get rewarded for their efforts.” When in the past would they have been rewarded for their efforts? Only when they got signed, and that’s just as possible now. Humphrey’s music was never going to be major label fodder (thankfully), and it’s only the majors who have shut down their recruiting.

    Also, getting signed isn’t a reward (it’s a complicated loan, more like a mortgage than a lottery win), so maybe that doesn’t count either. Artists don’t get rewarded for being good. It’s their choice whether to make a living out of their art or not, and it’s certainly much more difficult if you’re not good.

    The myth that if you’re good enough you’ll get snapped up by some label and never have to work again has always been a very useful one for the majors (and indeed for the shadier local promoters, who rely on a constant stream of starry-eyed young bands to work for free). Now that everybody is aware of the record industry’s imminent demise the myth is starting to fall apart, and musicians are either getting on with their plan for making a living from their music, or realising that they never had a plan.

    I’m sure this must make sense to you somehow – it’s exactly how you’ve made your documentary. You create stuff, and you make a living. If you’re clever and work hard you can enjoy both.

    I’m not saying Humphrey needs to start a video shop, but there’s no reason why he can’t make a brilliant Huck album. If I were him I would record 3 tracks, put them on the internet for free, make a couple of dozen hand-crafted CD copies and a wicked t-shirt, and start gigging in Oxford. If the gig was as good as you say, it sounds like people would be happy to give him some money for making their night so special.

    Again, thanks for the links. Good weekend listening. 😉

  3. Humphrey should never start a video shop.
    Till jockeying at my one, even several months down the line, still seems to be a voyage of confusing discovery for him.

    I wasn’t arguing that getting signed was the be-all and end-all. and it actually worries me a bit that you add a ‘thankfully’ after saying that our Humph’s music was never going to be major label fodder. I genuinely thought the Huck show was so good that it could absolutely connect with a more mainstream audience. I’m sure we both know plenty of bands who are willfully painful to unsympathetic ears (ummmm Sextodecimo, maybe?) but the problem with the Coldplay/Keane hegemony that currently exists is it patronises its audience and keeps them away from quality work of actual substance – this is happening in all areas of culture.

    You ask when in the past would they have been rewarded for their efforts? My answer is, right up until fairly modern times. The influences I noted – Nick Cave and Tom Waits – could they expect to be signed in this day and age? What about The Fall or The Pogues or Kraftwerk? Bands whose quality alone made them worth releasing and promoting despite the un-mainstream genres they were revelling in.

    As record companies make less money (not just the majors – the indies of all sizes too) they’re going to take safer bets. That’s just basic business. The days when a band were signed to a multi-album deal and actually given a chance to grow and flourish are long gone now. The debut release seems to be do or die.

    My point is that unless you get an Arctic Monkeys style freak lucky break, the systems isn’t there in the industry for the cream to rise. And with download/piracy at an all-time high even the Ani Di-Franco model is untenable. Throw into the mix the swamped market and the unbelievably insidious and exploitative promoters and I truly believe that many of those people who have made an effort, honed their skills and are producing amazing work which could very well translate to a global audience really don’t have a fair chance anymore.

    Good gig on tonight, by the way – Alphabet Backwards, 9 Stone Cowboy and Joe Allen Band at The Wheatsheaf. I’ll be there!

  4. Another top post.

    And yes, ALWAYS tell someone if you like their stuff. It’s one thing to be driven, but we all need encouragement.

    I find it very sustaining when someone tells me they’ve enjoyed a gig, especially if they give a reason.

    And I’ve never once sensed that someone was irritated when I’ve told them I thought they did a good job.

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