Monday 8 November 2010

Give us a break

A hi-hat clutch. Breakable, apparently.

I guess we’re all used to the way music styles seem to come in waves—you hear one new band who sound just like something straight out of the 80s and sudden they all sound like that. One bands grows beards and suddenly they’re all doing it. Suddenly they’re all wearing skinny ties or waistcoats that don’t make it down to the waistbands of their jeans. Shows how, even in a “creative” arena we’re all constantly feeding off each other.

But it’s interesting how these trends seem to affect even the most mundane aspects of gigging in the world of the Great Unsigned.

When I was first playing in London, many bands ago, there were certain conventions about pub gigs: they would usually cost £4, discounted to £3 if you had a flyer, which everyone did. (The flyers were handed out by the bands to their "fans" so this was a way of tracking which bands had attracted which fans; you got paid—if at all—in accordance with this. People seem to have lost interest in "flyer deals", but I guess promotion is all online now.)* There would typically be three bands on the bill. And they all brought their gear: this went without saying. On stage you would have rows of amps in front of each other like shark’s teeth—the headliners soundchecked first with their equipment, then the next band set up their amps in front of those, then the next band in front of those. The band at the bottom of the bill would soundcheck last, and then perform with the least amount of space. After each act played they would peel away their layer of black boxes until the headliners once more had the stage to themselves. I even saw this happen at Wembley Arena.

At the time it never occurred to me to wonder if it would have been the end of the world if they had simply all used the same equipment.

At some point all this changed. Nowadays it’s perfectly normal for one band to bring gear (traditionally the headliners) and let everyone share it, or for different bands to pledge to bring different bits of kit. Perhaps the universality of email now makes it easier for bands to liaise with each other—which of course absolves the “promoter” from organising any of this. A cynic might also suggest that having just one set of backline for all bands means you can now squeeze four, five, six, even seven acts on to one bill, in the hope that each will bring a few more punters. It also means that you don’t have several vans and cars all trying to park outside the venue (London venues always seem to be situated on a traffic island or pedestrian mall or some other place that has been designed to allow zero access for wheeled transport.)

© michael s marks
The Furbelows on stage this Halloween. Mark was not
told on this occasion that he needed to bring "breakables"
and had to cadge them off other drummers, but I've been
in situations where drummers simply refuse to lend
Or perhaps one day a muso had a eureka moment when he realised that the sound the audience hears is ultimately at the mercy of the house PA—the guitar amp will have a microphone in front of it, going into the PA mix. (The bassist doesn’t even get that—the soundman usually takes a signal straight from the instrument, as if bass players can’t be trusted to turn their amps on properly.)** So it doesn’t make much difference which amp you use, or at least not as much difference as the quality of the soundman and the acoustics of the room.

Or perhaps the eureka moment actually came when a guitarist let another guitarist use his amp at a gig—and it didn’t explode! I’m always happy to let other bands use our gear: if I’ve gone to the effort of schlepping it to the venue, lugging it up/down the stairs and setting it up, we might as well get the best out of it by letting it make some more music. And frankly anything to avoid having any more stuff on the stage—which is probably tiny and rotten and about to collapse. I’ve never known anyone to damage an amp by putting Bad Notes through it.

Of course the logical conclusion of all this is for venues to have their own house equipment which all can use. This is beginning to happen—but I’ve never played at a venue where all the drumkit is provided. The drummer always has to bring his own “breakables”. That’s the term they always use. What are “breakables”? It always includes snare drum and cymbals, usually bass drum pedal and sometimes the hi-hat clutch. (This is a lump of metal that holds the top hi-hat in place. It’s small but without it you can’t really play your gig. I have rigged up a replacement with gaffer tape, but it didn’t really work. Unlike the time I made a makeshift snare stand out of an upturned bar stool and some gaffer tape, a work of genius but that’s another story…)

I don’t know who first developed the concept of the breakable, but the fear has spread like wildfire. We are talking about drums here—objects that are designed to be hit with sticks. Yes I’m sure you can break a cymbal by smashing it with a sledgehammer or backing a truck over it, but the same applies to a guitar amp or indeed a guitarist. I don’t get it.

Mark, drummer in the Furbelows, has two cymbals but seldom uses both. Originally this was because he only had one cymbal stand; so he would use one and move it from one side of the kit to the other for certain songs. Eventually this bugged me so much I bought another one for him to use. But increasingly we’re playing at venues where there is a house kit, sans breakables, which Mark brings in a backpack. But he can’t fit the big one in the bag so he still ends up playing with just one.

Some day I’ll invent the cheap, medical grade, disposable cymbal and I shall be a rich man.

* Of course back in those days there was also "pay to play". You "hired the PA" for £60 then took the door money, so if you could bring in 20 people you'd break even. At the time it was considered a scandal and I think the Musician's Union put paid to it, but looking back it doesn't seem so outrageous. Or course the Furbelows would be screwed—and if this is the only option then it's forcing all bands to be promoters too—but if a band does have a following and fancies the challenge it could be quite enterprising.
** I'm sure sound guys would rather there were no amps on stage at all. They are there mainly for the benefit of the musicians so they can hear themselves. But only in very small venues will the sound the audience hears be coming principally from the onstage amps. The problem for the sound engineer is that once the gig starts he can't control the balance of sounds coming from those amps, so he would rather they were as quiet as possible, with a mic in front of them going into the PA mix that he is controlling.