Broken Circuit (part four)

I have talked a lot about what I think is wrong about the UK live circuit and there’s plenty more I could say. This week there was the surprising (though very welcome) news that tourism and heritage minister John Penrose is proposing a rethink of the crippling entertainment licensing regulations for small venues. This means that some of the issues I have been writing about (tiny budgets, lack of risk-taking, a need for new venues with a fresh perspective etc) could begin to improve.

Beware that word “could” – it’s all very well blaming the current problems on the licensing act but changing the rules won’t alter the debilitating short-sightedness of most UK promoters or the venues they work for (and I use the word “work” with a generous dollop of imagination), not to mention the legacy of the credit crunch and the possibility of a future economic apocalypse.

Why my pessimism?

Take the modern gig out of context and there’s your answer.

Without the warming wing of popular culture to shelter it from the sober scrutiny of common reason the typical live experience is a hollow and insulting one in which we are expected to pay double/triple/quadruple for a concert in a big arena or stadium than we would for a venue where we can actually see the band on anything other than a screen. In this system artists are encouraged to aspire to attaining distance not closeness. Here we queue for the privilege of watching some dubious messiah dishing out distorted life-lessons over a post-whatever soundtrack, interspersed with commands of “make some noise” and the obligatory “oh-go-on-then” encores predictably doled out to grateful idiots who are routinely expected to beg for that which they have already paid for as the creative misuse of vintage synthesizers screams ever on beneath the guise of endlessly retweetable mission-statements penned by a generation of joyless identikit head-nodders condemned to the irredeemably temporary nexus of cynical blog-fodder.

[deep breath…]

And how is this package sold to us? With lazy phrases like “the next big thing” (hell, even I’ve got a bonafide radio soundbite saying those words about me and I know it’s not true!). How does this language persist? It’s a cliche that doesn’t even attempt to apologise for its vagueness. The next big what? It seems we do not know what it is that we’re after (and we can’t even be bothered to make up a word for it) – “Hey mate, let’s go out and watch/buy/criticize/remix/reinvent that… Thing.”

This is the big problem: No one knows what we’re supposed to want. How are we realistically going to rebuild something when we don’t even know what shape it is meant to be? We go round and round, endlessly hoisting the colours of some new assortment of scruffy poet-shaped rebels that supposedly articulate the problems/solutions of whatever the nearest approximation of an acceptable youth-movement is allegedly saying about itself. And then we look to whatever is counter to that. And then we swap sides. And then we pass the baton to the next… Thing.

And when one views it all like that, it’s actually a wonder that the live circuit in this country is doing as well as it is (which, of course, is not very). Whatever that Thing is, it’s certainly persistent.

So let’s just step back from it all. I’m clearly biased. I spend all my time hopping over the fences that separate “tired touring artist”, “industry cynic” and “muddle-headed idealist”. All I can say in conclusion to this series of posts is what I personally want from our music culture. For me it boils down to this: I want some songs to reassure me, I want some songs to challenge me and I want some songs to make me dance. If a song can do all three then I might even buy the bloody thing.

Whatever kind of music it is the live embodiment should follow one rule: it needs to be an event. And by “event” I do not mean an experience swaddled in the rags of misplaced expectation, in which artificially inflated pricing forces you to enjoy yourself out of sheer bloody-minded determination, where the henchmen of Fad and Fashion flex their muscles by the fire exits, where an erroneous zeitgeist breathes down your neck between every anachronistic hip-whiggle and half-hearted hand-clap.

It must be AN EVENT.

An event transports people, it looks after them, it understands that the different arts are not exclusive entities, it mixes them up and creates a world within a single evening. Here’s a quick example: I played a show at The Star & Shadow Cinema in Newcastle earlier this year and the organizers understood their job better than most I have worked with. They began by playing a Buster Keaton two-reeler with live organ accompaniment before the first support act went on. The result? The whole audience arrived early and gave themselves up to the entertainment of the entire line-up (not just the headline act). It was simultaneously a great evening and superb value for money.

I’m not suggesting all gigs should start with a film – that’s an entirely separate licensing nightmare – what it comes down to essentially is the need for content as well as context. A show must make sense on its own terms and not those of a fading industry struggling to comprehend how the last half-century of musically-bated plunder was actually just a brief flutter in the pulse of an otherwise respectable oral tradition. It must be an evening of substance, where people exit the building with more than just a new branded T-shirt, a sense of having experienced rather than endured.

That, for me at least, would be the next really big Thing.

FIRST PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 2011

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