Monday, November 26, 2012

The Richness Around Us

Going to the folk club is a bit like going to church regularly; the format is much the same and the content changes slightly. Sometimes it's rewarding, sometimes it's obligatory. Last night was one of those times when the planets seemed to align (to confuse the metaphor further) and I was reminded of what unorthodox talents I'm surrounded by.

I had no sooner arrived than I was called over to view (and play) an f-style mandolin, a prototype made by luthier Steve Barkman (who made my own guitar and indeed, most of the guitars you'll see at the folk club on any given night; Steve also does the sound engineering most nights). This was a truly beautiful instrument with the characteristic bluegrass "sound like running water" and felt so lovely under the fingers. It was as light as a feather.

Shortly afterward, a 5 string violin, a spec eBay purchase that required a good deal of work to make it even playable, was returned to me by Peter Madill, another spectacular luthier in the fold. The instrument had been pulled apart and reassembled with a care and precision I can only guess at, for it didn't look as though the thing had been touched. It played exquisitely. (I can only report to within the scale of my ability, as testified to in a previous post.)

Then, to settle back with a glass of Emerson's 1812 Pale Ale (another local product, the astounding quality of which is beyond the scope of this blog) and listen to our guests for the evening, Brenda Liddiard and Mark Laurent. This fantastic Auckland duo never ceases to amaze me with the diversity of their songs, musicianship and poetry. The hour flew by graced with sublime guitar and mandolin textures and soulful harmonies. As is often the case at the end of a warm summer's day, there were too few people to give them their due but those that were there were well rewarded for their investment.

It's good to be reminded from time to time what a rare and privileged society we live in and the fine and talented people we're surrounded by.

Steve Barkman's instruments can be viewed here and Peter Madill's instruments here. I commend them both to you.
Mike Moroney

Friday, November 23, 2012

Nice Website, But...

It's that time of year (it's always that time of year) where we're trying to put together artist profiles for festival websites, brochures and programmes. Of course, the first resource is Aunty Google to find the artist's bio, press kit and publishable photographs. It's rare that a performer doesn't have some kind of web presence these days and many are very beautiful affairs with gay graphics, designer-quality presentations and many innovative approaches to engaging their public. And almost always they fail in many important aspects.

As someone who uses your website, allow me to point out why it's not working for you.

The first time I go to your website is when you point me to it as part of your application to our festival or club. That's when I want to find out who you are, where you're from, what other people are saying about you and your achievements, and see or hear a few clips. Most of you get this much right, but the trick is to give a good overview with a few salient words and images: I should not have to keep digging down through pages and links to glean a complete picture.

The second time I go to your website is when we've booked you and I need some sensible copy and print-quality photographs. I'm looking for links that say Press or Bio or EPK (electronic press kit). This is where even the most seasoned touring artists fall down. Often what I find is a rambling history of the artist, punctuated by name-dropping lists of famous people they've played with, played for, been on the bill with or once met backstage.

When I design a website, be it for an artist, venue or festival (disclaimer: I'm not a graphic designer - I secure those services from the professionals), these are the key points I observe:

  • Title or name as the heading. (You might think this is obvious, but some websites eliminate it in favour of some clever graphic.)
  • Byline. A pithy, quotable sentence that describes you.
  • A 40 - 80 word paragraph that says what you do. (Get someone to write this for you if you're squeamish about self-promotion.) Imagine this as the blurb about you in a programme or a newspaper article.
  • Link to a biography page. This should contain a list and description of personnel (if it's a band) and a short timeline of your accomplishments. The key to writing a good bio is to make each paragraph complete in itself so that at the end of any given paragraph it makes good sense. This is so that someone (me) wanting to get promotional copy about you can select one, two or three paragraphs to fill the available space without having to rewrite it.
  • At least two or three up-to-date digital photographs at high resolution (behind thumbnails for selecting) for use in the print media. Each should be 2Mb or greater. Have at least one in portrait and one in landscape. It's worth paying a professional photographer.
These are just the basic marketing things that need to be there. Think of your website as your calling card. Clearly there are many more bells and whistles you can add for interest - but make sure your pages, especially the home page, load quickly. Here are some things to avoid:

  • Entry homepage. "Welcome to my website, Click to enter." is an annoying waste of time. Get all the relevant information in front of the viewer immediately (hence fast loading).
  • Homepages that are insider oriented. Too many websites are designed for fans and people that already know them and don't provide information for the first-time visitor.
  • A Facebook page is not a substitute for a website. Social networking is ideal for keeping up buzz and information among your fans and promoting your next gig. It is not particularly useful for definitive information or as a repository for promotional resources. Make sure your Facebook page links to your website (and vice versa).
  • The dead website. Nothing looks worse than an abandoned website, where the last blog entry was 2006 or where there are spammy entries in the comments (Aunty hates it too and will push you down the search pages as punishment.). It's ok for your website to be static (non-interactive) as long as it's accurate and up-to-date.
  • Pages that scroll sideways. Total fail. And keep all the most important information 'above the fold' - don't make the reader have to scroll down until they're fully engaged.
  • Text information as an image. It might look pretty but I can't copy the text - unless that was your point in the first place.
The key thing is to make it immediately obvious to the visitor who you are, what you do and how to contact you in a single hit and then easy navigation to fuller media content after that. Everything else is superfluous.
Mike Moroney
Dedicated to Louise who is trying to put the festival programme together.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thank You for Your CD

Recorded music is cheap, ubiquitous and relatively easily made and distributed these days. The definitive document still seems to be the CD (the Compact Disc as developed by Philips and Sony in the early 80's) - although sales of the commercial product have been in steady decline this century, despite an overall growth in the recording industry's output. The balance, presumably, is distributed digitally as mp3 files. For those of us who still like 'to have and to hold' our albums, the CD is the default. And although some still covet the vinyl LP with its tactile physicality and its lovely readable cover, this remains largely the domain of the audiophile and the serious collector. My own small collection of LPs sit mostly idle, occasionally rifled by my grown-up daughter who has a penchant for things retro.

Sales notwithstanding, CDs are used most often as promotional calling cards. They are distributed freely around promoters, festivals, libraries, reviewers and radio stations in the hope of bookings and broadcast. Having had an organisational association with a folk club and festival for many years, I have acquired several hundreds myself. Now I gaze upon a wall of two thousand or more CDs and wonder if I will ever listen to most of them again.

Because I listen to virtually (- see what I did there?) all of my music in mp3 format on my home computer connected to the home stereo, I have developed the habit of migrating (ripping) chosen albums from my wall to my computer when the listening occasion arises. Any newly purchased disc's first destination is to the CD drive of the computer and then to the wall. My media player reports that I have eight months and twenty days of continuous listening without repeats - and I have only transferred a small percentage of the wall. Of course this data pool is regularly supplemented by iTunes purchases as well (- sometimes I just want the music).

These days promotional packages of CDs and printed material (about as useful as glossy press photos) are deprecated in favour of a convenient link to a website or a YouTube clip or two.

But in the event, thank you for your CD; it will be listened to, booklet thumbed and credits acknowledged, then placed lovingly in alphabetical order with the others. Maybe in the not too distant future, an inquisitive grandchild might peruse the wall of CDs the way I did with my granddad's books or my daughter with my LP's, and find there treasures I've overlooked or failed to recognise. I really hope so.
Mike Moroney
Happy birthday Joop Walhain.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Third Hand

Needs must.
It's been a source of great amusement to me over a period twenty years or more to observe the incessant and pointless evolution of the simple toothbrush. Every few months there is a "revolutionary new development" in the dental hygiene technology that is essentially still just a stick with bristles on it. From putting a kink in it (remember the flip top head ads?) to tongue scrubbers, a myriad of head designs, thumb grips, vibrators and more. I can hardly wait for the next instalment. It's a bit like that with the humble capo.
A few types of capo

Like a passive third hand on your fretboard, the capotasto (to give it its full name, literally: the head of the touch) can be a simple device to raise the pitch of your instrument or a complex mechanism to contrive new tuning combinations. Gone (almost) are the days of the elastic strap and buckle systems that strangled the neck and threatened to take out an eye during an inadvertent explosive release. These days capos are engineering marvels, both simple and complex.

The main consideration is to have something closely approximating the force and form of a human finger on the strings which, in most cases, means applying pressure from around the neck. You might think that this is simple and straightforward, but the number of mechanisms developed for achieving this is startling: elastic straps, spring loading, cam mechanisms, lever-tensioning, friction locking and over-centre locking are just some of the engineering principles employed for this seemingly simple task.

Whatever its design, it's important that it applies only the necessary pressure. Too much and the tuning is compromised; too little and the strings 'buzz' on the leading fret. It should be possible to tune the instrument with the capo on (usually necessary as the intonation is inevitably compromised when capoing).

But it doesn't stop there. How about capos that only fret certain strings and leave others open (partial capoing). Or low-friction capos that are designed to be more or less permanently installed on the instrument that can be slid quickly into position for a rapid key change while playing.

Partial capoing is used on guitars, most commonly on the second fret across the A, D and G strings making the effective tuning of E,B,E,A,B,E. (Those familiar with DADGAD tuning will note that this is the same tuning ratio, 2nd fret). This gives the dubious benefit of being able to play in a faux open-tuning, but use conventional chord shapes. I've always thought this defeats the purpose of open tuning in the first place. It's not uncommon to see a player use a normal capo and a partial capo together.

The use of capos is not restricted to guitars. There are small ones for mandolins and ukes and the afore-mentioned low-friction, sliding type for use with open tuned instruments like the Irish bouzouki (or mandola, or cittern) that sit behind the nut when not in use and can be slid like a collar to the desired fret mid-tune.

Dobro capo
Not all capos press down on the strings. Some, like those designed for instruments played with a slide or steel (Dobro, Hawai'ian guitar etc) slip between the fretboard and the strings and push up, like a moveable nut (the slotted block at the top of the fingerboard that the strings run through). I've known fiddle players to carry a small length of leather shoelace to slip under the strings, making an effective capo and similarly a matchstick used in the same way on a mandolin.

Your choice of capo will depend on your style and mode of playing - many are designed to be positioned with one hand (important if you wear finger- and thumb-picks). Some are discreet and some are imposing. Another consideration (recently demonstrated to me) is that different capos make your instrument sound differently, so it's worth trying a few. That's the thing about capos. You can try them at the shop. Not like toothbrushes.
Mike Moroney

Monday, November 05, 2012

John Archer and NZ Folksong

For as many years as the Kiwifolk websites have been running (since the inception of the web itself), John Archer's NZ Folksong website has been growing and becoming increasingly sophisticated, making a huge contribution to our social and folksong histories. It is a resource of considerable depth with lyrics, histories, recording and clips of songs and waiata (importantly, the only online resource I know of that combines the two), with plenty of informed comment. John himself is known to be outspoken on issues of our social history in respect of our musical heritage, often garnering respect and opprobrium in equal measure on the nz-folk list. John writes:
"I’ve just been looking at the statistics of my NZ Folksong website for the past 12 months. For the songs I have heard sung at folk clubs, the most visited songs are:
  1.  Farewell to the Gold 1890
  2.  Taumarunui 1360
  3.  Minnie Dean 1270
  4.  Davy Lowston, She’ll Be Right, Spider in the Bath, Across the Line 850
  5.  The Close Shave 730
  6.  Gin and Raspberry 680
  7.  Russian Jack 640
  8.  Down the Hall 550
  9.  (my own) Arthur Allan Thomas song 510
  10.  Dugout in the True 480
  11.  Wellerman 450
  12.  Stable Lad 440
  13.  Beautiful Coast of New Zealand 410
  14.  Packing My Things to Go Home 340
  15.  Gone to Invercargill 300.
In the more plebian Pakeha folk culture, the most visited songs are
  1.  Ten Guitars 14,900
  2.  Blue Smoke 4400
  3.  Gumboot song 3600
  4.  Damn the Dam 2000
  5.  No Depression in New Zealand 1900
The most visited Maori-language songs get many, many more visitors...
  1.  Pokarekare Ana 47,500
  2.  Tutira Mai 30,000
  3.  Ka Mate 25,600
  4.  E Papa Waiari 20,000
  5.  Po Atarau/Now is the Hour 17,100
... but I deliberately put Pakeha and Maori songs on one website so that young people coming for one type can explore the other. And so I have mixed both Maori and trad folk songs in the same topics on the School Projects page. For example, “Hunting and fishing - In My Little Whare, The Eel Song, Black Matai, Karu Karu, She'll Be Right Mate, Te Manu Titi.” 
That School Projects page has had 1650 visits, presumably by school teachers, so I hope this is helping to get the next generation on New Zealanders familiar with the old trad NZ folksongs.
It is great to see that kids are visiting the site, using their school’s computers: an average of 400 every schoolday. Visitor numbers drop from about 1500 to 1100 on weekends and school holidays. 
But kids are now getting smartphones and tablets and using them to visit the site on the weekends. Mobile visits have increased from 50 a day to 250 in the past 12 months, and those mobile visits peak up on the weekends. Guitar chords and embedded Youtube videos are big drawcards for youngsters learning the songs.  
As well as visits from Kiwis (350,000) there has been a significant number of visits from overseas.
  • Australia 68,200
  • USA 44,500
  • UK 24,500
  • Germany  7,000
  • Canada  6,500
  • France  4,200
Altogether there have been 562,500 visits to the NZ Folksong website in the past 12 months."
I know from my own paltry efforts that the upkeep of such a huge resource is an undertaking only for those with singular dedication, time and ultimately, generosity of spirit. The best reward for such an endeavour is to mercilessly plunder the treasure within and spread it around.
Mike Moroney
Dedicated to John, with thanks.