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Sunday, 2 February 2014

It’s not (quite) about the money, money, money.

I’ve had some interesting correspondence since my previous post about deciding to record an album and to write about the various issues associated with that process. Most of the comments have been supportive, with some folk saying that they are curious to see how it will all turn out.  I was a little bit surprised by a couple of the more critical remarks, not because I expect everyone to think that my idea is great and that my music is wonderful, but because these comments focused on the fact that my opening spiel talked about money and, specifically, about my hope of recovering some of the costs of the venture. 

One correspondent suggested that I was approaching this from the ‘wrong direction’, because true artists shouldn’t be bothered with financial considerations; this person suggested that, if filthy lucre was at the top of my agenda, I would be better advised to stick to my day job. I’m intrigued by arguments about the ‘purity’ of art.  It seems to me that, unless you have a benefactor (or can survive on just the occasional bowl of steam), money will impact on how and when you produce your work.  If you can’t make a living from it -which is the case for the majority of artists- then whenever you spend time and money on your art, it is time and money you are not devoting to something else; it is time you are not giving to your loved ones and money you are not spending on essential bills or other items.  Should I spend a couple grand making an album because I feel the need to, or should I put that money towards my mum’s hip operation?  Should I hire some really good session musicians to sprinkle fairy dust over my stupid little songs, or should I use that cash to give my kids a really good holiday?  It’s a difficult call.  

Any musician who has their work promoted by a record company and any artist whose endeavours are supported through the public purse (for example, with a grant from Creative Scotland) is in an unusual and fortunate position.  I don’t have any choice as to whether some of my hard-earned tax buck should go towards subsidising another artist’s (no doubt worthy) efforts.  I do, however, have a choice in how I spend my own spare cash and -much as I’d love some additional support- I’m comfortable with the fact that I’ll have to record this album on my own dime.  If wondering how I might best manage that makes me some kind of philistine breadhead, then I guess I’ll just have to live with the stigma.     

If previous experience is anything to go by, I have about as much chance of getting my money back as I have of becoming the next James Bond; in fact, I would regard it as something of a triumph to recoup even a quarter of my costs.  My prospects of glory are somewhat south of ‘remote’, but that won’t stop me committing to the enterprise.  It would just be nice to think that I’ll be able to bank enough positivity to encourage me to start work on another album; that ‘positivity’ might be defined in financial terms, but it is just as likely to be something as simple as getting some good reviews and good vibes from a handful of supporters.  The truth is that the real reward will be the work itself and the completion of that work.     

I think that when people make art, they are probably making it first and foremost for themselves.  But even if that were not the case, I’m not sure why anyone would object to an artist hoping to get paid for their work.  It’s always nice to get a little approbation, but it’s probably nicer to get paid; and it’s probably even nicer to get paid a lot.  I heard the comic actor Christopher Biggins on the radio recently talking about his role in the TV comedy ‘Porridge’; he was, as I recall, a relatively minor character in the show (let’s, for the moment, leave to one side the question of whether or not Mr Biggins can legitimately be described as an artist).  In a charming interview in which he came across as an amusing and essentially decent chap, Mr Biggins revealed that every time the BBC shows an old episode of ‘Porridge’ on the telly, he pockets £1,000.  That, my friends, is a beautiful dollar.  Just imagine how good it must feel to get work that pays you at the time that you do it and is still paying you some forty years later.  No wonder Mr Biggins sounded so jolly.      

At the risk of causing offence, I’ll venture the opinion that writing a song is a purer artistic process than acting in a sitcom.  I would define it as purer because there is an unbroken line between intent and execution. It is pure in the same way that writing a poem or painting a picture is pure, because the intent of the artist –at that stage- is unmediated and uncompromised. 

On my way to the holy grail of completing the album, there are certain things I am able to do musically and certain things in the recording sphere that I can achieve on my own.  I have a basic recording set-up at home, but have neither the equipment nor the technical expertise to record to the standard I would desire.  Accordingly, I have to book time in a professional recording studio to realise my goal.  I must also factor in the additional cost of hiring session musicians.  You might argue that I could just record these songs with vocals and acoustic guitar and do a ‘purer’ version of the album without spending a lot of money.  I could do that, but it would result in a particular kind of album and not the one that I want to make right now.  The album I want to make has to sound as close as possible to what I’m hearing in my head; achieving that sound will necessarily involve a significant investment of time and money. 

There is, of course, an obvious tension between ‘how much’ money I am willing to spend and ‘how good’ I want this album to be; in my experience, the less you rush things, the more you take the time to review your options, the better the end result will be.  There might, however, be limits as to how much time you should take.  Many moons ago I was in a band that recorded a couple of songs at a ‘proper’ recording studio in Glasgow.  We sat on the tracks for a few weeks before deciding that they could be improved with some judicious remixing.  When we called the studio to book some additional time, we were told that our tracks had been erased to free up some room on the master tape.  Chastened and more than a bit crestfallen, we had to make do with the unsatisfactory versions we had.  Who knows, the entire course of pop music history might have been different had we only managed to remix those two tracks (although, if I was a betting man, my money would be on the remixed tracks still sounding a bit rubbish and the band still breaking up within six months).  These days, with digital recording and storage, it is unlikely that anyone would have their material scrubbed just to make some space.   

There are countless examples of the excessive (and compulsive) behaviour of bands in the studio, tales of musicians who spent weeks working on a snare sound or a difficult guitar solo.  Bryan Ferry -an artist I really admire- once used 30 musicians at six different recording studios over several years to make one album, the lush and lovely ‘Boys and Girls’, released in 1985. This album achieved some notoriety before it was released because Ferry had sunk so much cash into it; he is known to be something of studio obsessive, but –even by his meticulous standards- this one was a doozy.  You might argue that to spend so much time and money on an album was ridiculous, decadent and indulgent, but the end justified the means if the songwriter achieved what he set out to achieve. 
‘Boys and Girls’ is bejewelled with sonic delights, but there is one achingly beautiful piece in which the purity of the songwriter’s vision is illustrated. ‘Windswept’, like much of the album, features gossamer-light melodies floating on a beautifully seductive rhythmical bed.  About two minutes into the track, a violin appears stage left for a brief cameo, the job of which is to introduce a scorching and melodic guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour which –for 25 blissful seconds- lifts the song out of its seductive reverie, before we settle back once more into Ferry’s trademark elegant ambience.  You could argue that ‘Windswept’ didn’t need that brief appearance by the violin nor, indeed, the expensive guitar solo, but here’s the thing: Bryan Ferry thought it needed it.  My guess is that he wanted to create something beautiful, now matter how much time and money it was going to cost him.  He pursued his vision and, for an artist, that is what counts.  The bonus for Bryan was that the ‘Boys and Girls’ album gave him his only UK number 1 solo record. 

Now that I’ve fulfilled a lifetime’s dream by seeing my work mentioned in print alongside that of Bryan Ferry, there’s a link below to a work-in-progress, a song I’d like to develop into something more substantial and textured than it is now (without having to hire 30 musicians).  This is a basic version featuring only a rough acoustic guitar, a one-take piano part and a lone vocal.

It’s called ‘How will you know when you know?’ and the lyric is relevant to some of the topics I’ll be exploring in this blog.  The song is about being in a band and about hitting the wall of realisation that you are not going to be the next U2.  In the first verse, there is excitement and optimism as the band plan for a successful future, loading up their van to hit the road for a gig (in the exotic location of Aberdeen).  The second verse is written from the perspective of the morning after the night before, grinding through the day job and attempting to analyse events through a fug of sleep deprivation.  What was last night about?  Why did we do it?  Was it really a good use of our time?  The chorus illustrates that perhaps a certain realisation has occurred to the protagonist:  

“If every step we ever take leads us to where we ought to be,
shouldn’t we be smart enough to know we ought to rest there?” 

So here’s the demo, recorded a couple of weeks ago at Stealth Studio in Glasgow.  Perhaps because it was done really quickly it has a charm of its own, but my plan is to introduce some other instrumentation; one way or another, I’d like this song to inhabit a lusher soundscape. 

Now does anyone out there have David Gilmour’s phone number?                 

How will you know when you know?


  1. Excellent essay. Very honest and sincere. Good luck with the album. I believe Aja cost 2 million bucks to record...and it shows.It is a timeless classic. Pay your bills by all means, but if the album really is worth it (and only you can tell) then don't spare the horses. Jimmy Smith in Dublin will knock you out a guitar solo for a fraction of Gilmour's cost. Check him out.

  2. Hey Joseph ... thanks for the comments and the tip about that guitarist. I'll check him out. You are absolutely right about 'Aja'. Whatever they spent on it was worth it.

  3. Raymond, here is Jimmy in action...plays rock and blues too. Teaches at BIMM in Dublin, reads even, and is in the RTÉ Concert Orchestra...a complete all rounder, and a lovely guy

  4. All very interesting to be monitoring from afar. How about the whole crowdfunding option? Wouldn't that enable you to go the extra mile?

  5. It's an interesting idea Tim, but I don't think there is enough of a fan base to make much of a dent. It would be nice if the next album helped to grow the fan base so that perhaps the following one could benefit from that crowdfunding idea.