Monday, 4 April 2011

The Trouble With Folk Clubs

Folk musician and songwriter John Richards (he penned such great songs as The Deserter, Honour And Praise, and Shine On) has, following my suggestion, posted a fascinating blog entry about the current state of the British folk club scene, and also about the stagnation of folk festival bills (read it here at The Demon Barbers' website).

Here's my take on some of the questions and points he makes:
A rare youthful folk club flier

There has been a lot of talk about a renewed interest in folk music among young people, and that the success of Mumford & Sons shows that folk music is gaining a grip on the mainstream tastes. This, I'm sorry to say, is (mostly) rubbish.

I've written at length about why Mumford & Sons have little to do with British folk music. And there's more: during the folk renaissance of the 1950s/60s, performers and audiences shared an interest in getting down into the deepest roots, nooks and crannies of the music. There's little suggestion that many of the "new generation" wants to do that, although there are certainly some exceptions.

I see little evidence of Mumford fans wanting to know about the music that influenced their heroes. What the Mumford audience mostly wants is more of the same – "Mumford-alikes", earnest young men with banjos and cool haircuts. They aren't going to look for them at trad folk clubs because that would clash with the (un)popular image of "a folk club": middle-aged men with bad haircuts singing 97-verse versions of ballads about shipwrecks, murderers and May mornings.

By the way, I'm not saying that that is all that happens at folk clubs — although it certainly does happen, and I for one enjoy it! — but that's the popular image, along with the old favourites of beards, knitwear and tankards of foaming ale. I enjoy all of them, too...

However, there is a new generation of "folk-ish club-ish" events and they have been very successful. They are sort of like folk clubs, but they don't call themselves folk clubs. The "F-word" isn't usually mentioned, with "acoustic" being the preferred alternative. The music played is mostly American folk (singer-songwriter, mainly) influenced, not British traditional songs.


Folk is about tradition, and tradition is about time. However, most entertainment is about the opposite of tradition and time: it's about novelty, the new, the now. Folk clubs were once at the cutting edge of "now", but that moment of cutting edge cool is long gone. Folk clubs were, once, fashionable ... but the only thing that is guaranteed to happen to anything that's fashionable is that it will go out of fashion. Folk music has survived in the shadows, making itself heard at festivals and one-off gigs, but the folk club scene has fared less well because the thing that made it strong - time - is now working against it.

While regulars at a folk club that's been around for 30, 40, 50 years probably think that legacy is a good thing, it can instead lead to it becoming set in its way, hidebound and introspective. Organisers concentrate on their regulars - both musicians and audience members - and perhaps hesitate to reach out beyond that sphere. They know what has worked in the past, are fearful of making an expensive mistake with something new, so stick to the tried and tested. Unfortunately, as year follows year more old men disappear (to quote a great song) and soon no-one will march to the folk club at all. 


As for the money side of things, that's always been tough. It undoubtedly improves the quality of the music played if artists are full-time musicians, but it also greatly limits the number of venues they can play if they charge full-time musician rates. I'm all for paying professionals a proper rate for the job, whatever that job may be, but maybe too many musicians are trying to charge top money before they've got the reputation to back it up?

There are certain names that promoters know will put bums on seats and cash in the tin, so those names get booked time and again at clubs, concerts and festivals. They are (mostly) the artists who get played on national radio and who win the annual awards. 

People criticise this, claiming that the "same old faces" get all the exposure, and there's some truth in that. However, those "elite" artists are also bloody good at what they do, which is another reason people will pay to hear them again and again, and why they sell records. And if you sell (comparatively) lots of records you will get your share of awards, because sales are important to the music business and the media, and its people from the music business and media that give out the gongs. 


Where does that leave the others? Having to work much harder to get a gig, that's where. Simply putting together a band, playing a set of songs and putting out a press release is not enough. What's the angle? What's the gimmick? Where's the buzz? The "elite" names have an angle, whether that is a hit single from 1974, a clutch of awards or a visually stunning and creative, modern take on Morris and clog dancing.

Look at the current Cecil Sharp Project: it's not the fact that it's a show about a folk music collector that's the big selling point (that's been done before, for a start) it's the way it's been put together, with the musicians involved secreted away together and given just a few days to come up with the musical goods. That has created what, for the folk world, has been a media storm, with coverage in the national press and on the BBC! You can't buy that kind of publicity, and you certainly won't get it without an angle, a gimmick, a buzz. It helps to be playing bloody good music, too - but that's not absolutely necessary in every case.

Finally, John states that hosting live music events has advantages to a pub landlord, and he's right. But we know about the licensing problems it can create, and we know that many pubs now don't have a separate room suitable for live music. Also, pub landlords are too often mere middle managers with no real say in what happens in their pub, relying instead on the latest promotion from the pub-chain operators (not even a brewery these days). They probably have no interest in live music, no say on whether it can take place, no budget for it, no facilities for it, and they may well think that their regulars wouldn't welcome it, so they stick with the tried and the tested. Sound familiar?

Pubs have changed as audiences have changed. Folk clubs must change too if they are to flourish again … but if they change they will no longer be folk clubs as we know them. 



Anonymous said...

I agree with some of your comments, but some of these ''big names'' at festivals are, in my opinion, poor compared to some of the bands I have seen in 'folk' clubs. Some festival audiences seem to think that because they are booked at the festivals they are good and everyone should like them. I feel its a case of insecure snobbery - they like what the promoters say they should like and to hell with the rest of it. They won't go to folk clubs because these big bands aren't on and won't give anyone else a chance because they aren't on a festival line-up - catch 22. Not sure what the answer is but I agree that folk clubs will die as we know them, and frankly that isn't a bad thing. I am a long time folk (the definition of which has been said to be 'music of the people')fan, but hate the trad finger in the ear droning. I like harmonies and well crafted melodies like those that John writes and performs with his band. I went to see a very big name singing solo without his band recently at a local club and frankly he was poor. I certainly would not go again - his ego got in the way at every turn.
Another point is that clubs want to pay bands the same as they pay solo singers which is definately not fair. One band I know recently played at a club that only charged £3 to get in - what a joke, no wonder they only paid a six piece £200 for a whole nights work - not enough to feed a dog on once it was split 6 ways!!
I say let 'Folk clubs' and their set in their ways audiences die, but hopefully accousitc clubs will rise from their ashes without the snobbery and 'shushing' of anyone who dares speak whilst even the worst of the floor singers is on!!

Daily Gadfly said...

I agree with all your comments here. Most youngsters find links to Mumford & Sons through myspace. There is a serious problem with myspace and that is that acoustic bands click on numerous tags on the off chance their music will end up on more than one chart on My Space. So a, frankly, poor acoustic act will add acoustic, folk, indie, tags to their names. The kids listening think that they are listening to folk but in reality they are listening to convoluted bilge at best and very poor quality acoustic at worst. They never get to listen to any real folk.

In terms of folk clubs I am not an expert. In my experience there is a circle of musicians and on-lookers don't really appear to be welcome (I'm not sure if it's like this everywhere). I'm sure if there was more of an informal gig atmosphere going on then they would be more popular.