FEATURE: Scene, Or Not Heard? The Realities Of North East Music
This article began as a picture in my head. I was watching The Lake Poets at Hoults Yard – halfway through their set Martin Longstaff invited some of the artists sharing the bill on stage to play with him – Fran O’Hanlon (otherwise known as Ajimal), Natasha Haws and Amy Holford clustered around a microphone and together they put on a flawless performance. I was struck by their camaraderie – it wasn’t just friendship, but respect among fellow musicians – and that these few people held the possibility – the hope – of a music scene on their shoulders. Those few thoughts became the beautiful photographs taken by Ian West that you see gracing this magazine.
So what’s my point? Am I here to extol the virtues of these artists you see before you? To tell you that these are the BEST musicians in the region? No.
It was only once I got these 24 people together in the gorgeous surroundings of the Mill Volvo Tyne Theatre, that I realised that’s really not the point at all. I’ve seen many, many bands come and go – be successful, or not; fail (in one subjective way or another) and continue to strive for their goals; what makes this group of musicians any different from the previous wave of artists from, say, five years ago? Can these people be any more (or less) successful? And what is it that will cement their future?
Being part of a ‘music scene’ is all well and good – and we count ourselves within that too – after all, you’re reading this article about these bands, aren’t you? – but what are the realities of what we all strive to love?
Perhaps the best person to answer that in the first instance is someone who has seen a lot more than me come and go. Nev Clay, the elder statesmen of the North East music scene, has more wisdom than me to impart. “I don’t think there is a ‘scene’, it’s more of a honeycomb of interlocking but partially exclusive micro-scenes. Perhaps what’s changed over the years is visibility – a porousness between the scenes that’s encouraged more people to go out and see the talent on their doorsteps.”
There will always be arguments about what makes a so called ‘scene’ and what keeps it strong. This very magazine is criticized for perpetuating a clique (and hey, maybe by putting this group of artists on our cover is proving that), but we are part of the hype machine and are in some way responsible for this ‘new wave’ of successful musicians – haven’t you read about them all, at one point or another, in these very pages? In the insular nature of the local music scene, it’s inevitable that we all become part of this, but is it all too backslappy?
“I don’t see it in terms of success or failure The Lake Poets is me; it’s not a project or something I’ve formulated at a desk that I have a master plan for. I can’t see myself ever giving up doing what I love so much, no matter the highs or lows.” – Martin Longstaff
Generator’s Artist Development Manager Joe Frankland thinks artists these days are afraid to slag each other off: “In the old (and awful) days of local music forums, band members and fans were more than willing to offend each other and start feuds. No doubt behind closed doors there’s a lot more rivalry than people are aware of, but I’d like to think that most artists building a steady buzz are into each other’s music and there’s definitely evidence at gigs where artists are collaborating more.”
Martin Longstaff from The Lake Poets has been enjoying a fair amount of success recently, with his eloquent style and enigmatic band popping up on festival bills far and wide. “I do often hear accusations levelled at groups of like-minded local musicians that it is too cliquey up here. I refute these accusations as I usually find that the types of people moaning are bitter and shy of a bit of graft. There’s nothing worse than a musician with entitlement issues. I hate it when I talk to someone and they tell me they can’t break into ‘the clique’, or that they can’t get gigs. If you can’t get any gigs put your own bastard gig on!”
The benefits of a ‘scene’ far outweigh the pitfalls of being involved in a local community. But is it easier for a band to get noticed now? Has the World Wide Web and the plethora of music available to us as consumers, become a poisoned chalice? Joe Frankland knows from his own experiences of being in a band that it’s not as easy as whacking a track up on Soundcloud and being heard. “New business models mean it’s much easier to get noticed nationally, and in many ways, it’s easier than ever to build a buzz regionally that fans and the industry elsewhere will pick up on. Where we had a handful of amazing artists five years ago, I think artists now have more diversity, more of a pop/radio-aware sensibility and more potential to break through nationally. The ‘Digital Revolution’ if you like, has obviously made it much easier and cheaper for artists to record music and get it directly to fans. The downside of this is whether you agree with the traditional filter and power system or not, there’s simply too much new music available now.”
“I like [the internet’s] potential to change the parameters by which people define success for themselves.” Says Nev Clay. “I mean, having a hundred people download your song is a success, but if you’ve suddenly got 150 million songwriters sticking their stuff on YouTube, what arbitrary criteria are used (and by whom) to narrow down that field and choose the rare few who are granted ‘traditional’ success?”
And what of the bands? How much can they attribute their success so far to themselves, to others they work with, or even to talent?
“I am very privileged to be doing something that I love – most people don’t get that opportunity.” – Lulu James
Sultry soul chanteuse Lulu James is fresh from releasing her highly acclaimed debut EP and performing at the main stage of Evolution Festival. She’s currently working with respected producer Dom Zilla and venue owner and long-term promoter Dave Stone. She firmly believes that it’s all a team effort: “Your manager needs to get what you’re about and what your goals are. I’m lucky because I’ve found people that get my vision and who are on the same page as me.”
Natasha Haws, another solo female songwriter that’s getting increasing acclaim for her powerful songs and astonishing voice, feels she’d be nowhere without her manager, Kittle PR’s Emma Howe. “It wasn’t a case of her coming to see me and saying she’d help me out. She was the one who told me it would be a good idea to try to write my own songs. So if it wasn’t for Emma, I’d literally be nowhere. I wouldn’t have had a clue where to start, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it on your own. You can, it just takes a lot of balls. And emails.”
Pretty much every artist in every style or genre of ‘art’ I know – myself included – isn’t in this game for the money. But there comes a time when simply doing something for the love – the need – of it, is no longer viable. Martin Longstaff has a particularly poignant tale: “Our Evolution Festival set went really well, we played to about 3,000 people and to my surprise a good deal of them were singing along. On the last song I was enjoying playing so much that I was really thrashing my guitar, my fingers were bloody and a string snapped. Despite playing to such a large crowd and having a great experience it dawned on me that I couldn’t afford another packet of strings.”
Covering the cost of equipment and petrol to get to gigs is becoming a real issue for a lot of musicians. As their popularity grows and towns outside of the North East beckon, they have to make a choice between getting to a gig or eating for the rest of the week. The relative isolation the North East enjoys from the rest of the country is becoming a hindrance.
“The money I’d saved for driving lessons ended up being the money I spent on getting my EP mastered,” says Natasha Haws, “but I don’t regret it.”
Let’s Buy Happiness, as one of the more established young bands to come out of the region over the last couple of years, and who are continuing to enjoy increasing success, have dealt with their fare share of injustices. “We packed out the Camden Barfly back in 2010 and the promoter gave us an envelope with 20 quid in it.”
“If I wanted to be famous I’d go on the X Factor. This is what I want to do, my ambition is pretty unwavering.” – Amy Holford
But money isn’t the be all and end all – in fact, I was surprised how little bands equate their success with money. “Everyone wants to succeed in what they do but you shouldn’t make music for a trophy,” says LBH’s James King.
Teesside’s Collectors Club have had a pretty whirlwind year, recently being given the opportunity to compete for a place to play at Hop Farm Festival. “As a band who don’t represent iconoclast ideas we’re interested in people consuming our music any which way they can,” says Joe Smithson, “as we’re a pretty new band, we’re not too concerned about making a great deal of profit – that people fully exploit our easy accessibility is enough for us right now.”
Jack Dancer from pop wizards Vinyl Jacket, another band who have tasted success both in the region and out, feels there’s more rewards on offer. “Blood, sweat and tears are required before you have any chance of getting a big pot of gold. Having people appreciate your music is far more satisfying.”
“It still amazes me when people hand their money over to buy an EP or a t-shirt,” says Natasha Haws, “that’s enough for now.”
So it’s enough to just be heard then? “There’s nothing quite like the connection between a musician and an audience,” says Martin Longstaff, “you simply can’t buy that feeling.”
“I am very privileged to be doing something that I love – most people don’t get that opportunity.” Lulu James points out.
Something Collectors Club share with Lulu is their radio-friendly potentially mass-appeal, and it’s something that the band’s Lewi Mondal thinks other acts shouldn’t shy away from. “I think sometimes bands should let go of trying to be niche and just embrace certain aspects of pop music because bands CAN be sellable. We don’t get eaten up about the fact that maybe one day our music can be popular, and we don’t feel ashamed that we’d like our music to reach as many people as possible.”
“When you look at mainstream music, perhaps it’s just a different set of ‘talents’ that the mass audience is after. It’s important not to get too snobby about music.” – Joe Frankland
What does success mean anyway? Nev Clay urges bands to stay realistic. “I think aspiring songwriters might want to consider the whole spectrum of possible outcomes contained under the umbrella-word of success. You really need to unpack it. If you define it too narrowly, the outcome can feel like its opposite, failure. I mean, being able to sit down and write one honest song is a massive achievement, being able to share that with other people is a huge thing too. The power and value of those things gets dwarfed by constant comparison with some incomprehensible, other-defined measure.”
In some respects then, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to go about a musical career and attaining your goals. But Joe Frankland’s torn… “There are simple errors many emerging artists make which stunt their progression. But I’d like to think you could get away with breaking the set and traditional rules. Look at a band like Frankie & The Heartstrings for example – they’d be the first to admit they didn’t necessarily have the ‘business minds’ for breaking into the industry but they damn well got the music right.”
Is it enough to be simply talented though? “When you look at mainstream music, perhaps it’s just a different set of ‘talents’ that the mass audience is after.” Says Joe. “Olly Murs is by no means the most talented artist musically but his talent for being a cheeky chappy obviously appeals to a lot of people. It’s important not to get too snobby about music.”
Amy Holford’s vocal talent is undeniable, a bluesy sassy feel sets her apart from the traditional ‘girl with a guitar’, and she’s a firm believer in hard work. “You don’t get anywhere by being lucky, you get places by being good at what you do, and rising to a challenge.”
“Having a hundred people download your song is a success, but if you’ve suddenly got 150 million songwriters sticking their stuff on YouTube, what arbitrary criteria are used to narrow down that field and choose the rare few who are granted ‘traditional’ success?”
Martin Longstaff’s philosophy is more along the ‘you get what you deserve’ lines. “I’ve had people say in the past that I’m ‘so lucky’ for getting to play certain places or even sell out the Sage Gateshead. I find it a bit insulting when they say these things because I’m not lucky, I just work extremely hard. No mystical force made people buy all the tickets for my single launch, it was pure graft on the part of me and my mates.”
Joe Frankland puts it all in a regional context. “NARC. readers prove that there’s a demand for music with artistic merit and in this area those with genuine talent will get noticed. To have artists thriving at various stages of their career and a wide range of styles in the area is very exciting.” – Nev Clay
While I hesitate to cast a dampener on proceedings at this point – Everything Is Brilliant In The North East and all that – I’m curious as to whether anyone has a cut off point. Is there going to be a stage where they just have to cut their losses if they haven’t achieved their goals? I’m met with a resounding and, thankfully universal, no.
“That question has so many awful implications. It carries the notion that giving up is…doable.” Says Amy Holford. “If I wanted to be famous I’d go on the X Factor. This is what I want to do, my ambition is pretty unwavering.”
“I don’t see it in terms of success or failure.” Says Martin Longstaff. “The Lake Poets is me; it’s not a project or something I’ve formulated at a desk that I have a master plan for. I can’t see myself ever giving up doing what I love so much, no matter the highs or lows.”
So for the final say, I look to Nev Clay: do the musicians operating in the region today stand any better chance of succeeding than any others have? “I hope so. But I hope they end up contented and doing something they love anyway. The problem with striving for success is that you suffer. Like the Buddha says, ‘the cause of all suffering is craving’. When you stop craving, when you enjoy it for what it is, it’s better.”
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