Twisterella Unconference – Advice for musicians

As part of the brand new Twisterella Festival there was a series of sessions for musicians/bands who want to move their careers on to the next level. This was a free and all ages event held on Saturday, October 11 2014 at the Teesside University Students Union in Middlesbrough, UK.

The panelists were:

What stood out was that they were all music fans and the sessions were packed with great advice.

Below find my notes for if you couldn’t attend. Credit for who said what exists only where I have notes and/or remember. I came in mid-way through Session 1. Separate post to follow on the greatness of the festival that followed.

Twisterella Unconference 2014

Session 1 – Getting started

Official description of session: You’ve got some songs. You might’ve even played some gigs. But what next? Getting local press coverage, establishing a presence, etiquette, basic expectations & other essential information.

Panel: Ally McCrae, Bob Fischer, Michael Lambert, Chris Cobain

What you should be looking to do now; Nice people don’t finish last

Ally: It is easier to be a premiership footballer than breaking a band. Think of creative ideas, different ways of approaching promotion, something to stand out. An example from a band he worked with…they offered to do free house parties for fans. This was something they could do, then tell people about.

Michael: Promoters (and venues) are not a charity. It’s good to have a story, stuff going on…for example that you had some busy house parties.

Panel: Be careful not to bullshit people. When you talk to people, it should be about what you’ve done notwhat you’re going to do, e.g. “set to be massive in 2015″

Putting bums on seats is important but be honest if you can’t.

If the promoter likes you they will try and help. If they have a sold out gig they may give a chance to a band that could otherwise only bring in 5 people.

If you are not honest you may be put on a bill, where each band brings in 5 people and you’re playing to 10 total.

Promoters can keep you in mind so contact them if you have new music coming out.

Cheek is okay but hello is also good [in terms of how you deal with promoters/venues]. It is a partnership. It is not not you vs the promoter. Promoters look for local bands to build relationships with.

Look at Sofar Sounds nights where lineups are not announced and it’s about discovering new music. Playing for fresh ears can build up your mailing list.

Chris and panel: Don’t lie to promoters. They talk to each other.

Do a single launch.

Hire a room.

Talk to the local media – locally – the Gazette, Narc, Radio.

The Chapman Family started out by putting on their own gigs.

You don’t have to play live all the time. You can also spend time on Facebook/Youtube/Twitter.

Use your own social media/voice to promote what you are doing. You have to do your side of promotion and equally you’d be pissed off with a promoter if they did nothing to promote your gig.

Q: Is social media crucial?

Panel: It is another tool. Use what you’re good at. Followings on social media can influence a Radio 1 playlist slot. [Recent article on this]

Making yourself easy to publicise – press releases, press kits, photos

Q: On press releases and band blurbs/bios – what do you look for? What do you hate?

Ally: Love seeing information about a band on [someone else’s] blog(s). Also, a record deal doesn’t matter if you don’t have fans. Look at things like Hype Machine charts.

For one band he once took a day to send 120 bespoke emails to bloggers who love or have written about similar bands. He took the time to read their blogs and compliment previous writing. The band went on to be top 5 on hype machine’s international chart.

Bob: Life stories are not necessary, e.g. “picked up a guitar at age 4.” One paragraph only please. For BBC Introducing he gets about 100 tracks per week from 40-50 bands. Talk about what you’re doing now.

Michael: Two paragraphs are okay. Write one paragraph that can be used easily, copied and pasted, for listings and websites.

Ally: Get friends who are journalists to ask you questions and see what stands out.

Michael: A concise two paragraphs for promoters is useful. But also recently they sent the two paragraphs out for Stanley Odd along with a two page long interview as the biography. This worked well for bloggers and journalists who made use of the quotes in the interview within posts/articles.

Bob: Press releases that can be readily used as articles are useful; sometimes they are published as is.

Bob: Quotes from other blogs are good, but they should be credible sources. Unknown blogs are not necessarily helpful as pros will assume that other people haven’t written about you.

Ally: Not everyone will get on Pitchfork instantly.

Bob: I play purely stuff I like. BBC is not a commercial radio station so it is ok if you haven’t been written about. I’m happy to be the first to play it.

Panel: You need good quality images. Sometimes managers/promoters/bands send a postage stamp size image of the band that can’t be used for anything [e.g. posters, flyers, press]. Good images may get featured.  If not given an image, media will use an image [of someone else] they do have. Make images available on your website.

Bob: Try and be creative with your photos, and create some intrigue/interest that way.

He’s seen loads of photos of four guys in t-shirts and jeans near a wall or near some trees in a park.

Ally: A festival he worked at had a wall of shame for bad photos

Panel: Show why you’re not like anyone else. Potentially set up a live shot, it can be used for a gig review. They don’t necessarily use a photo from the night they go to.

Make it available – A short bio, 2 promo shots, 2 live shots. Have a dropbox [or other service] link available for promotion of any gig you do.

Michael: Once got a request for a hi-res photo while on a train from NME. He was able to reply with a link straight away, where trying to upload a photo with a poor connection wouldn’t have worked and the opportunity would have been lost.

Panel: Journalists never ask for these things with time in advance. It is always last minute – I have ten minutes…

If you’re a local Teesside band, Saltburn photographer Nick Wesson made an offer for free photos on Twitter.

Deals for gigs, gigging advice and whether you should work for free

Q: What kind of deal will promoters offer?

Michael: On a national tour the decision may not be up to the promoter. They may get £50 for 2 local support acts. You could do events like a Single Launch in a venue – on a £5 entry fee you could get half, or if you hire the venue you would get all of it. Sometimes you could be offered a guaranteed flat sum – plus a percentage – e.g. £30 guaranteed + 50% over the first £30 plus some beers/drinks.

Q: Do you have to play free sometimes?

Panel: There has to be something in it for you. It may be to get you in with a promoter or that the performance is being filmed. You have expenses so definitely not all the time. You need to get there, your equipment, food, drink, etc.

Ask yourself why you are doing anything.

Michael: Example for Stanley Odd on a recent tour – it cost £300 for a big van, sound guy to do a gig paying £150. Is it worth it? Sometimes it is.

Q: Is there a danger of local overexposure?

Panel: Yes. Venues need local acts who can help sell out a venue. Put your efforts into making one show busy. Maybe do 4 gigs in a year in your backyard.

Q: Would you shy away from a band with another nearby gig within the month?

Panel: Definitely, though they appreciate it can be difficult when you’re only getting £20-£30 per gig.

Q: How would you feel about a band with another gig in a nearby town the night before [Tees Valley / Teesside context]?

Panel: If it was a free pub show, definite no go. If it’s a midnight club appearance that is maybe okay.

It comes back to building a relationship with a promoter, they will be more willing to give you leeway to pursue other opportunities e.g. night before support slot for a big tour.

Session 2: Kicking on

Official description of session: Establishing a regional presence – some dos and don’ts. Securing regional dates and beyond. Securing national airplay. Getting your music distributed online via digital platforms. We’ve got it covered.

Panel: Tom Cotton, Ally McCrae, Bob Fischer, Vic Galloway, Michael Lambert, Chris Cobain

How to book gigs outside your region and making the most of gigging

Q: [Bob asks the crowd] How do you book gigs outside of Teesside?

Audience: Consensus – Gig swaps are a good thing, maintaining contacts with bands who have played on your own turf.

Panel: There’s a “moral blackmail” you can inflict – when they are on your turf, make it busy, feed them and they will want to do the same for you.

Ask contacts where you should go and who you should speak to. Rinse each opportunity for all it’s worth, talking to local radio stations, BBC Introducing, regional press and blogs.

Watch other bands. Introduce yourself. Stay and watch headliners. It is awful when bands eff off to a pub and leave the bands after them to a poor crowd.

Make friends and be nice to people. Talk to the venue manager, sound guy.

Promoters also know other promoters so talk to contacts you do have when you are looking to expand your reach.

What to do if you have no contacts, what should you never do to get gigs

Q: What should a band do if they have no contacts, what’s the approach?

Panel: Research locations. Realize there is a fine line between being proactive and being a pain in the ass. There’s a difference between being pushy and being just pushy enough. Send your material with a covering letter. Panelists like an old school approach with a personal handwritten note. The Internet/Google is your friend.

Using a mailing list – e.g. “Dear sir” – is a no go.

Vic: Chatting with someone and pretending you’re a big fan isn’t great either when  by the end of the conversation they realize you’ve mistaken them with someone else or don’t actually listen to/read their work.

Panel: Getting a note with “We’d love to play [insert venue here] is terrible.

But do let promoters/venues know when you have an EP coming out or that you’re booked somewhere else.

Don’t accept every gig

Pick and choose your opportunities. You don’t have to play everywhere. Assess the offer – is it worth doing.

Don’t feel like there is a city you must perform in – you could book a London gig and it could be terrible.

It is demoralizing to play a bunch of empty gigs. You don’t want to spend loads on traveling to a gig for 4 people.

Take advice and rely on local knowledge e.g. a band telling you Monday night in a particular town/venue is not very good.

Once a band set up 18 dates to play Ferret and Firkin pubs. Firkin pubs are not known for music gigs. There was no one at the gigs. It broke the band and they broke up.

Someone recalled a gig in London where there was a crowd outside the door and a person with a clipboard in the doorway not allowing people in unless they paid £10 so bands played to an empty room.

Have a plan and a reason to play somewhere.

Bob: Research if promoters are reputable. Musicians are spoiled on Teesside because people generally get paid with beer and cash. Though he recalls other locations having pay to play gigs or bands needing to buy 100 tickets for their own gig.

Honesty is the best policy [with promoters, venues and yourself]

Be honest about who and where you are – e.g. unsigned gigging.

Remember that bigger bands than you have trouble getting gigs. Be realistic about who you are and where you are in the scheme of things and try not to be disheartened.

Venues/promoters need to be careful about lineups…a rising band in a middle slot vs. a band with a declining following as the headliner.

Booking a local show and not making use of local media is a waste of time. Find local bloggers. There are more ways than ever to promote yourself these days.

The music industry is full of careerist, asshole, knobhead professionals. Find the nerdy music fans. Local promoters may give you a chance.

Getting airplay – and minimum quality requirements

Q: Advice on getting airplay

Tom: Gets 600 tracks through Amazing Radio – generally knows if something is terrible in the first 10 seconds…gets some “artists” sending their 10 newest tracks this week.

Listens blind to about 100 songs a week. The music comes first, over the press pack.

This gets condensed to an 8 song playlist.

Panel: Consider the timing of when you send your track to a major show. Do you have a new ep, tour, etc. You’re more likely to get airplay when you’re touring.

Bob: Consider the quality of the music you’re sending. He sometimes gets low quality mp3s that sound “tinny/thin as f*ck and he can’t play them.

Vic: 192kbps or above, preferably 320kbps or WAV. Though deliberate lo-fi music is also great.

Panel: Use your local BBC Introducing. About seven Teesside bands have played major festivals in recent years through this route. Sound original. Be great. Not looking for Biffy Clyro 2.0. Send in a  couple of tracks.

Once you start getting some airplay, there is no need to be arse-y in a live session. It feels like some bands have watched too many Oasis videos.

Be creative in the making of your music but be strategic and have dates in mind for promotion.

Have a big picture or…go DIY and just go out and play gigs.

Session 3: A&R

Official description of session:

  • Get your track heard by the panel. Are you brave enough?!
  • The panel will give feedback on submitted tracks. They will consider aspects such as:
  • Is the quality of the recording good enough to gain airplay? Is there anything that might prevent this particular track getting airplay? Could parts of a track be used for syncing, etc?
  • This part of the Unconference is not about whether a track is good or bad, but it is designed to give the acts feedback from industry professionals on how they might look to develop things as they move forward.

Important note: This is not some sort of “rate them and slate them” X-Factor style audition. The aim of this A & R session is to provide constructive feedback, advice and support to help you move forward.

Panel: Tom Cotton, Ally McCrae, Bob Fischer, Vic Galloway, Michael Lambert

Vic started the session indicating they would be polite but honest in order to be useful. Songs were listened to about 2/3 of the way through to allow for as many songs as possible to be played.

There is a wealth of diverse musical talent on Teesside and some bands from further afield, who were playing Twisterella Festival later in the day, took part too. Below find the bands, brave enough to get feedback live and in person in front of an audience.

Richer Sounds Middlesbrough helped out with some last minute tech support so the songs could be played. They also handed out £5 vouchers and let everyone know about Richer Unsigned.

After the track list I will try to summarize the advice given as a whole so it is useful for musicians in general.

Tracks submitted [where available]

Track one – The Broken BroadcastSea Coal Collectors

Track two – Sirens in the DeltaDirty Words

Track three – Josh Newell BrownShine

Track four – LittlemoresDeborah

Track five – Dressed Like Wolves – Walking

Track six – The TapestryInfatuation

Track seven – Violet Deep – ??

Advice for musicians [on the music]

Consider your intro…what will make someone want to listen past the first 10 seconds? A long intro done well can create anticipation, not done well can make someone skip to the next track. Don’t be afraid of the intro but it is important. For some artists – voice needs to come in sooner as it is the unique character of what they are doing.

Don’t feel the need to hide your vocals in production, or to put on a voice that isn’t authentically you.

Consider what you leave out – sometimes sparser is better.

Vulnerability can be good e.g. hearing your breathing.

A local accent is a good thing. An adopted American accent is not a bad thing if it is not overdone. Some bands will be easily placed within their geography/hometown others will not be viewed as being from a specific place.

Transcend your influences. Create a sense of originality within a genre.

Don’t worry about the current zeitgeist. There will always be a market for …choose great music genre here…

Create dynamics in a song with a single instrument or with your voice. It doesn’t have to be at the same levels all the time. Instruments also, do not have to be at the same levels as each other.

A good producer, and remastering can make a huge difference to a song.

What do you think?

Were you at the Twisterella Unconference? Did I miss anything out? What question do you wish you could ask the panel? Do you have any other advice for up and coming bands?

[Post recovered via the awesome Internet Archive Wayback Machine, edited to include additional song embeds not available at the time]

Stargazing at RSPB Saltholme

RSPB Saltholme puts on great activities for families. Just as BBC Stargazing Live returned to our screens they held two live stargazing events on the reserve. Both events were fully booked well in advance so it is worth pre-booking early.

Volunteers from the Cleveland and Darlington Astronomical Society helped out for the evening. They generally meet monthly at the Wynyard Planetarium.

There were 3 activities to keep everyone busy. We took our two nephews and were lucky to have a clear night.

We were at capacity and split into two groups.

Our group went outside first. The volunteers had telescopes set up.  There was a small one pointed at the moon’s craters – well within reach of little ones. There were also step-ladders to reach the eyepieces on larger telescopes.

We could see Jupiter and its rings with four moons, a yellow star near a blue star, and given a historical eye test. The telescopes needed to be readjusted all the time as the stars moved due to the Earth’s constant rotation.

A great tip from the volunteers was that an amateur would do well with a pair of binoculars rather than a telescope as it would have a wider field of vision that wouldn’t have to constantly be readjusted.

It was a bit chilly so we went inside to have a warming cup of delicious vegetable soup and a bun and take part in activity 2 to make planispheres.

It was then time to swap with the other group and go upstairs for activity 3. A star dome, a portable planetarium was set up from Teesside University. You have to crawl into it, it looks like an inflated igloo. There is a moment when the tunnel is pitch black. I was concerned my younger nephew would panic and freak out (flashbacks of his former 5-year-old self at The Forbidden Corner shrieking and crying). Happily he pushed past his initial fear :o) One of the volunteers then showed us different constellations inside the dome, telling stories with drawings overlaid on the stars.

As we left they handed  out the BBC Stargazing calendar for 2014 – available online as a pdf.

A great early evening activity with the boys at “the bird place” who are now looking forward to the Big Garden Birdwatch

More star resources linked to from the BBC website:

60 Second Adventures in Astronomy

Star Party Pack

Stargazing Event Pack

Axe Cop at Animex

Ethan Nicolle speaking at Teesside University for Animex had a lot of helpful things to say for people beginning their career paths and also was a lot of fun for fans of his work.

I LOVE Axe Cop. Because of the talk I have since picked up copies of Chumble Spuzz (how neat that Doug Tennapel, creator of Earthworm Jim has written the intro) and The Weevil. How much would I love to see a copy of The Drug Busters?

I was a bit fangirlish and asked for a smooch cop here it is:

Smooch Cop