Monday, September 04, 2006

Confessions of a folk music journalist

My colleague Andrew Dubber is putting together a report on last weekend's IASPM conference in Birmingham. I gave a paper entitled 'Regulating the amateur: traditional music and cultural control' - slightly off topic for this blog although my perspective as a music journalist (specialising in folk music) is relevant to the argument that I was setting out.

I argued that amateur music practices (such as folk clubs, music sessions, etc.) have to deal with sources of 'tension' which effectively impose a dominant construction of popular music and the circumstances in which it should be performed. These sources come in various guises, which I grouped under three headings: the music industry as a commercial practice, bureaucratic and adminstrative regulators (e.g. the PRS, local authorities granting entertainments licenses, etc.) and the transformation of folk and traditional music into commodified forms (Irish theme pubs, medieval banquets, etc.)

As a music journalist I often find myself having to 'interpret' folk music events into 'news' stories that make them more accessible to some imagined 'average reader'. I had the same challenge when I used to host a folk music programme on BBC local radio that was scheduled for the latter part of 'drivetime'. Anything less obscure that Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon or Steeleye Span couldn't be broadcast until after 6.30pm when 'drivetime' was deemed to have finished.

I recently suggested to readers of Mediations that the ultimate PR challenge is to make folk music socially acceptable. The idea was so incredible that no-one took it seriously.

Filed under:
IASPM   folk music   music_journalism   music_PR   folk journalism   


Philip Young said...

I thought Simon's comment on Mediations was serious...

Philip Young said...

Pete, far from being off topic I think you could expand on this interesting post. Give an example of a musician who deserves attention, tell the story you want to tell then show how this is has to be reinterpreted (and diminished, I presume) for a wider audience. Promise I'll listen.

(Or you could just enjoy your trip).

Kathy Sands-Boehmer said...

I just did a search for "folk music" under Google>>>blogs and found your site. Hooray! I'm thrilled to make your acquaintance. I do the booking at the me & thee coffeehouse in Marblehead, MA. I also do the publicity. I find it incredibly difficult to cultivate interest beyond the small cult of folk music fans that already exist. It's my feeling that most of this type of music is far down below the radar that 99% of all music fans don't even know it exists. And furthermore, I venture to say that I bet a good third of those people would actually like and even enjoy this type of music if they were exposed to brilliant songwriters like Greg Brown, John Gorka, Eliza Gilkyson, etc.

Let's toss this idea around. I'd love to brainstome some ideas on how best to spread the "folk music gospel."


Dan Davies said...

I agree with what you say Philip. I recently reviewed Moseley Folk Festival for the Virtual Festival site. I carry the same sentiment albeit obviously my tone is more casual and my experience of Folk a bit 'nu'. As I point out there is certainly a re-interest in the scene because of singer / songwriter movement - pushed particularly by 6 Music.

"I tend to reject this kind of output in the same way I reject battle re-enactment groups or an English teacher who removes any relevance from Chaucer by insisting that it be taught in Middle English. Folk’s primary aim is to speak from the heart - for the common man - and relate experience to the people. It’s this element (that we can displease purists by calling ‘Nu Folk’) that has been taken up by a movement of young people who find modern pop music to be flimsy, button punching, sex ‘n’ image obsessed pap."

Pete Wilby said...

Thanks for all the responses. I've been slow in replying as I am visiting friends and inlaws in central California and Las Vegas and haven't had much time to sit at a computer - this is my only chance before I get back to the UK around the 22nd.

So - some quick responses now and I'll promise to get more thorough once I've got my breath back and acclimatised to British Summer Time.

Philip - I may well take you up on your suggestion although I am thinking of starting a new blog that will be more focused on my research in this area. The classic 'media gaff' was when the Telegraph ran an obituary of Dave Swarbrick which he found interesting reading when he was in hospital. (He now sells copies of the obit at his gigs for 50p a go.) This was not so much a misunderstanding of folk culture - more an editorial cock-up. But it did create a bit of upset in 'folk' circles that the exaggerated rumours of Swarb's demise didn't merit a more carfeul check.

Kathy - more power to you in your efforts to spread the word. There is evidence of media 'gatekeepers' whose perspectives on folk music gets in the way of its publicity. I remember hearing a BBC National Radio presenter interviewing Loudon Wainwright III prior to one of his appearances at Cambridge Folk Festival. He asked LW how he felt about performing in front of an 'audience of carrot crunchers'. LW was lost for words!

I'd like to hear more of some of the acts you referred to - will promise to research and download when I get back to the UK.

Dan - I was sorry to have missed Moseley. I was interested to read your comments. The folk scene that I grew up in included a wide range of singer-songwriters, social commentators, protest singers, etc. What I find interesting is that many of the new generation of BBC Radio 2 Award winners are talented musicians who have been nurtured by their musical parents and bring 'new (nu?) life' to traditional songs and music and make it accessible to younger audiences - but have little if anything to say about the world we live in here at the start of the 21st century.

Pete Wilby said...

PS - I wrote an article in 2003 about the Warwick Folk Festival for the Living Traditional magazine, including comments on how folk was being perceived by a BBC reporter as 'new', 'sexy' and ezxciting. Here's the link

Dan Davies said...

Hi Pete,

Thanks for the feedback. I agree about there being a distinct lack of social comment in the young folk scene. You're right there is a generation that has the benefit of training but we find them less politically motivated. Certainly there is no longer the sense of galvanisation against 'the man.'At the same time this inter-generational interaction is interesting. Less so there is rebellion against "what your parents listened to."

I've started the laborious process of putting my favourite articles on a blog site and recently added a Billy Bragg article which I ghost wrote in 2001
. It reminded me of something Bragg said at the time,

"there are politically motivated people writing music, the music journalists problem is that they often look to the next white male with a guitar to write protest songs, when it's the Miss Dynamites of this world who have something to say."

I agree with him in part on this though I think the music industry in general has a fear of this type of rebellion getting out of hand (see the hysterical media reaction to So Solid Crew.) Praise gets laid at new young Elvis's such as Eminem, The Streets and most recently Ali B.

It's very rare that even when black artists in this country do get accolades that the second album has anywhere the near the same ammount of drive and the voice is often blanded out. Miss Dynamite's second album was very disappointing.

Then there's Pop Idol to contend with in my article Billy Bragg said

"What I think Pop Idol represents is the way in which we’ve turned the charts into a predictable procession of bands and artists who have got nothing more to say “I’m great and you’re shit,” and “Do you like my socks,” I’m tired of that. I think music has the potential to say so much more."

Pete Wilby said...

Hi again Dan - great blog, looking forward to see more articles.

I've now set up the new blog which will hopefully act as a repository for links and place for discussion of issues relevant to my research project on folk and amateur music.

veronica said...

Admiring the time and effort you put into your blog and detailed information you offer! I will bookmark your blog and have my children check up here often. Thumbs up!

live video