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I have memories, clouded by sorrow

Of a time in life when blood ran through my veins

A Tale of Two Festivals
In late June, me and Ellie went over to Hellfest in France, and last weekend we were at Wacken in Germany. It's been 4 years since I was last able to do both festivals, and as they are more similar in size now it makes more sense to be able to compare them. Hellfest has its share of problems, but as for Wacken, I can start by saying that it's fair to say my assessment is the opposite of ironlord's over here - it's well past its peak now, with no prospect of improving.

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Nice work Livejournal, give the site an 'upgrade' which makes the comments invisible. Unless I'm lucky enough to click the right order of events that shows me the old version of the page. Ridiculous.

(no subject)
So, you know when you stop posting on Livejournal because it seems dead, even though you check it every day, and then you realise you've been logged out and therefore not seeing most of the posts your friends made for at least the last two months? That happened. Now my friends page only goes back as far as January 29th, so if you did anything interesting in January, I will probably never know. Oops.

I am in San Diego for work. I've been here since just over a week ago, after getting summoned here at short notice, and I fly back to England in a couple of days. It's my first time in America so it's been quite an interesting experience, although I can't make too many judgements about the country as a whole having only seen the southwestern tip of it.

  • Apart from the body scanner, American airport security was no more troublesome than UK airport security. Having to see me naked on their security screens is a punishment for them more than for me so I can't say that bothered me too much.

  • Years ago, I was told by American friends I met online that everybody makes eye contact and says hi when you pass, which I found unusual because in the UK that's a lot rarer because people are more reserved. The vibe I actually got from people here in San Diego, is that they all do make eye contact and say hi, but somewhat reluctantly. It's as if it's done not because they want to, but because the other person is going to do it and they don't want to be the rude one by not reciprocating. Perhaps the 2 cultures are very similar but they resolved the same social dilemma in 2 opposite ways.

  • Pretty much every road out of town and in the suburbs is as wide or wider than a UK motorway. 6 lanes in each direction is common for the big roads, 3 or 4 in each direction is common for the smaller ones.

  • Their traffic lights change much less frequently than UK ones do. You can typically expect to wait 2 or 3 minutes to get through.

  • The 'Fresh and Easy' shops here are owned by Tesco, which I knew. What I didn't know is that they have exactly the same software on the self-checkouts, except for a dollar sign here and there and an American voice giving you the instructions.

  • There is a common policy to ID anybody buying alcohol if they look under the age of 50. This is a country where beers are sometimes denied to 49 year olds but rifles are marketed at children.

  • It's hot - but not universally so. Mornings have been typically 15C, it goes up to 25-30C for the early afternoon, and it's back down to 15C by early evening. The days are shorter here than in England at this time of year due to the latitude so if you're in work all day you actually miss most of the blistering heat.

  • Food prices are weird. Not high, not low, just weird. You can get a large piece of good steak for $2.00. But then their cheapest loaf of bread is also $2.00.

  • Microwave meals here have less sauce than their British equivalents. I do not know why.

  • They're more into ale than the English are. Most of it is pretty poor, but I've been to about 10 different food establishments over the last week and I think the only one that didn't serve an ale of some sort was the Thai place. Most offer several. I wonder if this just reflects a British failure to promote its own products adequately, given that we have hundreds of good breweries yet they often only seem to stock local pubs. The few English ales that are actually bottled seem to fill the shelves here.

  • No generic pharmaceuticals available in the supermarkets. You want painkillers, you're buying the named brands at the typical high prices.

  • Prefabricated pavements. They don't lay down strips of tarmac, but instead put down square blocks of concrete and arrange them in a line.

  • They have 2 kinds of music here; stuff from the 80s, and stuff from this year. Nothing in between. (A slight exaggeration: I heard a couple of early 90s tracks on the radio, but that's it.)

  • The stereotype of the brash, outgoing American doesn't extend as far as their tech industry; for the most part, programmers here are the same as programmers back in England.

  • On the other hand, some stereotypes hold true. I've seen middle-aged men with serious paunches wearing t-shirts espousing some sort of "armed and ready to defend our rights" slogan.

  • I finally got to try root beer, and it's like Fisherman's Friend in liquid form. (But not the alcoholic equivalent which we had at Wacken a few years back.)

I would post some pictures, but apparently Livejournal still doesn't have a way for me to upload and include pictures in one action, so I can't be bothered. This would be a good jumping-off point for talking about why the business model for internet companies inevitably ends up with site development slowing to a crawl and users deserting in droves, but I'll save that for next time. If I remember.

A few extra thoughts on how people discover new music
I've been thinking about the results and trying to distil them down into broader categories, which maybe tell us more about general attitudes to music discovery.

Recommendations or positive coverage by other people, friends or reviewers, make up over 40% of the examples. This shows the power of people we trust placing the music in a positive light. Obviously the key here is to find people who like your music, and make it easy for them to share it with others. Undoubtedly a part of that is about playing gigs where people can bring their friends to see you - but that requires that you have a decent fan base to begin with. It's cheaper and easier to let them share online.

Reviews alone carry about 1/3 of the weight that friend recommendations do. Magazines seem to still be the biggest game in town here. Perhaps the key is to get good reviews as the seeds from which the friend recommendations will grow.

More passive forms of coverage by other people, eg. music presented without comment at clubs, on radio, etc, make up almost 19% of the results: well worth aiming at, although with it being both harder to achieve and less likely to pay off than getting word of mouth recommendations, it shouldn't be the main strategy.

Automated recommendations based on your own purchases or listening habits make up about 11% of the results. I don't know whether this is something bands can easily aim at, but I suspect this proportion will grow over time, I'm surprised that Spotify didn't feature at all in my results though, as I thought people were discovering new music that way. Given the scandalous nature of how little they pay artists for each stream, it would be adding insult to injury to find out that hardly anybody is getting much new exposure that way either.

Discovery directly via live performance was just over 7%, and almost all of that was from festivals. I don't know whether this imbalance is because festivals are more popular than individual gigs or whether people are more open to discovering new bands at festivals. I suspect both are true to an extent. The only lesson I see here is that the vast, vast majority of people will not form their first impression of you via an intimate gig, so gigging as the primary way to reach people is misguided, at least for the audience I surveyed.
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How do you discover new music? Discussion and results...
Yesterday I asked, "How do you discover new music?" because of some advice I have seen given out to musicians over the last year - advice which is rarely questioned. The advice is basically that the main and first route to growing your band's fan base is just to play more gigs, building up a local fanbase, then broadening out to other cities across the country.

One example is this post on Reddit on "how to help your band grow" where the 2 key points are "Play local gigs, and get more fans." and "Branch out to shows beyond your hometown." Barely anybody there questioned this, and when it was questioned, the original poster said "It's about creating a network of support, and nothing beats the live experience". Is this true? Is the live experience the best way to build that network of support? (Let's ignore how inappropriate it is for many genres of music that don't lend themselves to live gigs, too.)

Another is this video on YouTube which suggests that if a band has $10,000 and wants to spend that on promoting itself, the best approach is to spend it on travel costs so that you can get out on the road, show you're not a local band, and get out in front of new fans and other professionals. At this suggestion my mild scepticism turned to outright disbelief. To my mind, that way will result in you playing gig after gig to empty or near-empty rooms, because who's going to come and see an unknown band from out of town?

More anecdotally, I've often heard it suggested that bands need to be gigging regularly to get anywhere. Some bands play tirelessly up and down the country, seemingly getting nowhere while their fans and advocates lament how odd it is that such a hard-working band is still overlooked by the musical powers that be. But I don't actually think it's surprising.

Basically, I believe that playing lots of small gigs has little to no bearing on whether you make and keep new fans, in 2013. In past decades, local gigs might have been the main way fans got into new music, once you filter out pop bands appearing on TV and radio, and already-established acts appearing in specialist press. Smaller acts played the pub and club circuit hoping to catch the eye of the right person and get signed, which would give them access to bigger tours, magazine coverage, etc. But I don't think that is how it works any more. I don't get the impression that label A&R men are still prowling tiny gigs looking for a gem in the rough, and I certainly don't think that as many people go to underground gigs as was the case in the past, because they have a more compelling alternative in the form of The Internet™. Sites like Last.fm, YouTube, and Spotify let people discover new bands based on their existing taste, at zero monetary cost and in very little time, without needing to leave their own home or put up with substandard gig sound in the local dive bar, drinking semi-poisonous draught beer to try and make the evening more palatable. And based on my own experiences as an occasional live performer, I don't think most live gigs translate into a significant number of new fans at all.

In short, my hypothesis was that today, most people do not discover the music they listen to through live performances; they are most likely to discover it via internet-based promotion of some sort.

So, I did a small informal experiment, and asked my Facebook and Livejournal friends to pick 5 artists at random and tell me how they discovered that artist. The mechanism of selection was supposed to be a media player of some sort, to remove human bias from the selection and to weight the results towards the music people are actually listening to.

I got about 20 responses, although not all did the whole 5 bands, and some provided more than 5 bands - in the latter cases, I'll choose the group of 5 which most strongly contradicts my hypothesis to minimise my own bias here.

In total I got 86 results, and here's where we (claim to have) discovered these bands:

  • Recommendations from a friend: 27

  • Last.fm: 10

  • Seen on TV or in a film: 6

  • By association with another band that is already known and liked (eg. shared members, side-project): 5

  • Magazine review or article: 4

  • Heard on radio: 4

  • Heard at a club night: 3

  • Seen at a festival: 3

  • On a label or magazine compilation CD: 2

  • Based on packaging or artwork seen in shop: 2

  • Web forum: 2

  • Heard on podcast: 2

  • Seen at a gig (presumably not a festival, but not specified): 1

  • Rateyourmusic.com: 2

  • eBay 'similar items' list: 1

  • Based on photo seen online: 1

  • Assigned to review for print media: 1

  • Review (no explanation of where): 1

  • Newspaper review or article: 1

  • Checked out due to name similarity to other band: 1

  • Part of (presumably unauthorised) download of several items: 1

  • Same label as another band already known and liked: 1

  • Appearing at a future festival I will attend: 1

  • "Internet" (no explanation of where): 1

  • Looked up "after internet-stalking someone I rather fancied at the time": 1

  • Bought due to cool name: 1

  • Worked with band as a sound engineer/producer: 1

So, out of 86 bands, 27 of them (31.3%) came to us via recommendations from friends. 21 of them (24.4%) came via various internet sites or through methods that require the internet. Only 5 of them, a mere 5.8% of the total, made their way onto our playlists directly as a result of us seeing the band live, or expecting to see the band live.

In my opinion, this result is strong enough to refute the suggestion that live gigs are the primary way to get new fans. It seems clear that, as I suspected, people are getting into new music via other means. However, I don't think the evidence is clear that the internet plays as large a part in this as I had expected. If we take out friend recommendations and leave only the independent discoveries, 35.6% of the bands we discover come from internet-based promotion and exposure, but almost twice that figure come from a variety of other sources. But then a lot of the friend recommendations might only be happening due to the ease of sharing YouTube videos and Spotify playlists on Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, etc. It would be interesting to dig into that further.

I was surprised at how overwhelming the value of recommendations by friends was. Our group of acquaintances are either sharing a lot of music, or know our tastes extremely well, or both. It would seem that bands need to make it easy for their fans to share their music and convert new fans as a result.

I was also surprised to see so few people citing podcasts (2) or internet radio (0) as sources of new music - although this tallies with my gut feeling that there aren't many listeners to these shows. Is this an attention span issue, where people would rather check out individual songs via YouTube than listen to a show that may go on for several hours?

I was not surprised to see that magazine cover cds didn't make much of an impression. My band was on such a cd, and we didn't notice any increase in listening habits, purchases, downloads, or Facebook fan count. It's common for magazines to charge aspiring bands for the privilege of being featured on these cds, and given the data here, I'm even more inclined than before to declare it a bit of a scam, exploiting bands who feel they should be investing in their act but who don't realise how little effect this particular route will have.

Although I think this is quite negative regarding the value of gigs as promotion, there are obviously second-order effects to consider. How many of the recommendations came from friends who had seen the band live, for example? And perhaps playing live significantly increases a band's chances of getting onto TV, or into a magazine, or to be played at a club night. These are possibilities - but I think that if live bands were making much of an impression on our friends, we'd have seen a higher showing of them making an impression on us directly. I think it's also significant that more people got into bands through seeing them at festivals than at individual gigs. This supports my hunch that simply playing small gigs across the country is not much use - ideally you play at festivals where you get in front of more people. But obviously this is easier said than done.

Final notes on demographics etc: obviously my friends skew towards being fairly technical, and more so since I asked people via internet sites, so there is likely to be an overrepresentation of internet use here. But I think I also have a larger proportion of gig-going friends than the average person, so either the chances of getting discovered via a gig are even worse than these very pessimistic results suggest, or I have friends who are suckers for punishment and attend awful gigs. I suspect a little of both.

Comments welcomed.

How do you discover new music?
I have a hypothesis about how people get into new bands, and it seems to be strangely different from what the musicians online seem to believe. So I am conducting an informal survey, and I'd be grateful to get some responses here if anybody has a spare few moments.

If you put your iPod/media player/whatever on shuffle, take the first 5 bands or artists that come up, and think about how you first heard that band, or what event made you pay attention to them.

Examples might include: recommendation by a friend, seeing them at a gig or a festival, hearing them played at a club night, a random play via Spotify or Last.fm, a shared post or event on Facebook, the band containing a personal friend of yours, seeing them in a catalogue or other sales listing, on TV, on radio, internet radio, etc etc. I'm sure there are other ways that I've forgotten.

When I checked this for myself last night, the answer was: 2 through recommendations from a friend, 1 via Last.fm, 1 via eBay, and 1 at a club night.
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(no subject)
Not much to report right now - but I would like to point out to those with plenty of spare time on their hands that I've recently started uploading a load of Skyrim pictures to Tumblr with my usual silly captions, at this address: http://anordandhissword.tumblr.com/tagged/skyrim/chrono

Tumblr's a good choice for such things as you reach random people much more easily on there, which I think is cool when you're just posting silly stuff like screenshots from video games. Plus, the uploading interface and all-round presentation is a thousand times better, despite it being a relatively new service. I wish Livejournal had kept pace with all the developments in social media and blogging, but alas, it did not. The downside of Tumblr is that it's too anonymous - people see your stuff and 'like' it or 'reblog' it - but you will never know much about those people, because there are no profile pages, and nobody goes on Tumblr to talk about themselves, just to repost other people's pictures. It's a bit lonely really, like being in a room of people where nobody speaks anybody else's language. Another symptom of the modern internet I guess, making money from your existing associations rather than caring if you can form new ones.

Winter is coming
It's cold outside. I have a love/hate relationship with this time of year, and being outdoors for a while on this relatively chilly evening reminded me of this.

I hate it, because I like the summer. I have fond memories as a child making the most of the six-week summer holiday, playing football, building dens, exploring the local area, pretending to be Robin Hood with bows and arrows we made ourselves, going on long bike rides, and more. As I got older the archery and harmless trespassing gave way to evenings sat outside pubs with a pint of cider or days spent in fields watching bands at a festival, but summer stayed entertaining.

Recent years have had disappointing summers. Obviously the UK is not known for its consistent or pleasant weather but even so, the last half decade or so has seemed to be especially bad. The amount of sunshine has been below average every year from 2008 to today except for 2009. This summer was the wettest in 100 years and that's saying something, with rain also significantly above average in 2011, 2009, 2008, and 2007 too. So in recent times people like myself have noticed the end of August approaching and start feeling disappointed that yet again there was little in the way of prolonged sunshine, the long and dry summers of our youth seeming like an illusion.

And yet, looking out over the Nottingham skyline and breathing in the autumnal air, I also remember some of what I love about this time of year. Ever since I turned 16, the end of summer has brought with it a sense of promise. To begin with, that was leaving school and starting at college, and two years later I moved here to begin university. Each academic year would bring new people. Most of my friends, and indeed girlfriends, I met for the first time in the autumn. Most years I'd just have moved into a new house too, and any problems with the old house and its inhabitants were banished (and new problems, though a certainty, would be yet to arise).

Some of this has faded now, of course. Acquainting myself with the latest bunch of eighteen-year-old new students doesn't interest me as much as it did 5 or 10 years ago, for example. And I have not moved house for about six years. But still, that sense of possibility lingers: the feeling that there are new things to do, new people to meet, new places to go. I guess I'll see over the next couple of months whether that's true or not.

(no subject)
Wow, over 40 entries since I last checked here 3 days ago. I guess people still use LJ, hmm? Good, good.

A proper update will come along either tonight or tomorrow.