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How to improve your live performances

The Beatles improved their live performances in Hamburg

When trying to find the secret to musical success, you might as well start by looking at the career of the most successful band in history: The Beatles.

Even if you don’t like their music, they nonetheless wrote the textbook on how a band can overcome odds, succeed in the music biz and sustain a career; there is still much to be learnt, even in today’s internet driven music industry, from their story, and in this post, I’m going to zoom in on their early ‘Hamburg days’ in a bid to help you improve the quality of your live performances.

But before I do that, let’s take a look at what’s currently wrong with your live performances. Based on my own past failings as a musician, I can suggest a few issues that you might want to address:

  • You don’t look like a ‘natural’ performer

  • You look uninteresting on stage

  • Your playing skills aren’t that great

All that sounds rather harsh doesn’t it? Now, of course, I’m not saying that all the above strictly applies to you, dear reader, but my hunch is that if you are reading an article about improving your live performances…well, some of it probably does. So what you can learn by looking at the Beatles’ Hamburg period?

Let’s start with a bit of history: the Beatles went to Hamburg in August 1960, booked to play a string of gigs in the notorious St Pauli area of the city.

Upon arriving there, band essentially lived in a toilet and played gigs seven days a week in seedy nightclubs. And when they started this stint, all the flaws discussed above – by the band’s own admission – were present in their performances.

The Beatles didn’t play like naturals; they didn’t have a ‘look’; and their music was very rough around the edges. But by the end of their Hamburg experience, The Beatles had been transformed into a live powerhouse with interesting haircuts that quickly went on to secure a record deal and…yes, you know the rest; you’ve watched The Rutles movie. 

And here’s why Hamburg transformed The Beatles: first, the band got loads of practice at live performance. Playing seven days a week for hours on end honed their performances to the point where they started to look like the real deal.

Second, they were under huge pressure to entertain: the clubs they played in initially were run by a rather forceful German entrepreneur called Bruno Koschmider, who, whilst the band were playing, would come to the front of the stage and scream ‘Mach schau! Mach schau!’ (‘Make show! Make show’) loudly at them. This led to Lennon to ‘dance around like a gorilla’ and the band ‘knock their heads together’ on stage: a far cry from just standing still and playing songs, which they’d previously done in Liverpool.

Third, the intense schedule of live performances meant that the band effectively spent a vast amount of time on band practice – albeit live on stage in front of an audience. (Additionally, because they had to play for so long each evening, they had to pad out their songs with long guitar solos – thus improving their improvisation, composition and general playing skills). 

One other thing worth considering about The Beatles’ Hamburg experience was that they were playing out of their ‘natural habitat’, Liverpool – they were in a strange city, playing to strange folk, meaning that there was 1) more room for them to make and learn from mistakes in front of a potentially less ‘local’ (read judgmental) crowd and 2) they were more likely to come into people who did things differently.

For example, that moptop haircut – which went on to be one of the things that made the band stand out in Britain – was, curiously enough, a very common sight on the head of young German men in 1960. And the band encountered the likes of artists Astrid Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann, who helped define the band’s style not just in their early years (via Kirchherr’s iconic photo shoots and her insistence on the group wearing leather outfits instead of sports jackets) but later in their career too, with Voormann designing the artwork for Revolver in 1966.

Anyway, let us move from the sixties back to the present, where you are no doubt waiting for me to stop waffling on about some band your dad likes and cut to the quick with those handy hints on how to be a pop star. Here they are:

1. Play as many gigs as you can, in as many venues as possible

Playing live frequently – even in awful venues – will help you to feel comfortable on stage and more able to deal with a variety of different (and even hostile) audiences. It will also do wonders for your playing, and – almost as importantly – your stage patter. 

2. Try to differentiate your band from other acts

Don’t just stand there and play songs like every other indie band: employ some theatricality. Whether that’s by dressing interestingly, getting your frontperson to do a gorilla dance, putting on a light show or using some arty video backdrops, follow Bruno Koschmider’s advice and ‘mach schau’.

Remember of course that there is a fine line between making your schau look ‘interesting’ or making it look daft – but generally speaking, even a daft show is infinitely better than a bland one. 

3. Invite feedback

In Germany, the Beatles didn’t so much invite feedback as receive it somewhat unwillingly via a venue owner yelling at them as they played; but either way it worked – the instruction to entertain led to them starting to do precisely that.

Particularly if you are relatively new to gigging, ask (ideally impartial) members of your audience to give you an honest post-mortem after the gig. Don’t be offended if the feedback ain’t so hot: try to learn from it.

Another thing you can do is video your performances and, much like a football team sitting round the TV watching a game they’ve just played, try to establish what worked and what didn’t, with a view to including the good stuff more in gigs and omitting the bad. 

4. Get out of your comfort zone 

Don’t just play in your local venue. Try to find gigs in places where you wouldn’t normally look for them. Whether that means busking on the tube or playing in a fan’s house, the more you can er, expose yourself to different situations and audiences, the more likely you are to come into contact with people who you may be able to learn from – whether that’s simply a hard crowd or a bohemian photographer who goes onto play a big part in your sexy new look. 

If none of the above work, I would suggest a brief stint in Germany and some leather pants: after all, there’s nothing like the real thing.

Chris Singleton wrote this post. He has never been seen in leather trousers, which perhaps explains his relative obscurity.

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5 ways that musicians can be inspired by the life and times of David Bowie

David Bowie tributes

David Bowie tributes

by Chris Singleton

The sad and unexpected passing of David Bowie has led to a huge number of tributes to the artist being made by the great, good and downright odd (Lewis Hamilton and David Cameron were big fans, apparently).

And rightly so: Bowie was one of those very few artists who managed to not only entertain us with music but fundamentally transformed the very nature of it. He was a member of an elite club of artists – comprising, probably, Elvis, Lennon and McCartney and Dylan – who wrote the script for the evolution of rock and roll.

It is no surprise that so many musicians – myself included – are profoundly influenced by him and his work; and for many of us in the business of writing songs, Bowie’s death this week has been felt particularly keenly. We are so used to incorporating him and his work into that very introspective activity of songwriting that his death robs us not only of a great rock star but something enormously personal too. A touchstone relied on or referred to during the creation of songs is gone; for many musicians, it feels as though they have not lost an influence but a dear friend or uncle.

The good news of course is that Bowie leaves us with so much to celebrate and enjoy; so this post I thought I’d share a few ways in which musicians be inspired to greatness by the Thin White Duke.

1. Persevere

Given his legendary status, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time Bowie was just a mere mortal and, what’s more, a struggling, unsuccessful musician (like the majority of us!).  He spent much of the 60s going nowhere with a variety of different acts – The Konrads, The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Riot Boys – before finally attaining success in the 70s. A huge part of his success was down to bloody-mindedness and a refusal to give up.

2. Be different

Thanks in no small part to Bowie himself, it’s next to impossible to be shocking in rock and roll any more. But it is still possible to be different – and more interesting than the average act. Whether it’s by putting on a quirky stage show, doing a band photoshoot that doesn’t involve a brick wall as a backdrop or wearing outrageous outfits for media appearances, there are still a lot of ways to differentiate your act from the average indie band or singer-songwriter. Theatricality and image were key to Bowie’s success – experiment a bit with both.

3. Appeal to head and heart

For me, all great music (indeed art) appeals to both the intellect and emotion; and Bowie was a master at getting his tracks to work on your head and heart simultaneously.

Think of ‘Starman’ as an example: it’s essentially a hifalutin’ concept-album / art-rock song about a androgynous alien, but despite these foundations, its pulls enormously on the heartstrings. This is because it’s not only a song about the an androgynous alien but a track with a wonderfully melodic chorus that cannot fail to lift the spirits (this may have something to do with the fact that said wonderful chorus has more than a little resemblance to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, but we’ll ignore that for now).

Same goes for another hugely popular Bowie track, ‘Heroes’ – a masterclass in experimental production techniques involving, amongst other things, pitched feedback, ‘multi-latch gating’ and low frequency drones…which somehow goes on to be a song that people walk routinely down the aisle to. Next time you find yourself being too cheesy or too clever in studio…well, try to be both.

4. Work with great people

It’s particularly tempting, in this day and age of ‘I’ve got a 128 track studio in my bedroom’ to try to do everything yourself.

Don’t.

Key to Bowie’s success was his respect for other musicians and producers – would Bowie’s music been remotely as good without the contribution of the likes of Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Nile Rodgers, Rick Wakeman or Ken Scott (to name just a few great people he worked with)?

5. Appreciate silence

The age of social media brings with it the opportunity for musicians to form direct connections and conversations with listeners. In many ways this is a good thing, but it also brings with it the potential for too much communication, to the point where there is no mystery about a musician left, and no distance between artist and fan.

Enigma and silence are powerful things and they can be used in an extremely impactful way, as Bowie demonstrated with the surprise release of ‘The Next Day’ in 2013. He used silence again to maximum effect with the timing of his last release, ‘Black Star’ which became far more potent/significant because it was issued immediately before a death that nobody was expecting.

As Visconti put it, Bowie’s passing was, in its own right, a ‘work of art’ – and this was all down to how Bowie used silence. It is just very sad that silence from Ziggy, Aladdin, The Thin White Duke and David Jones himself is now a permanent fixture.

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Steve Albini on the state of the music industry

Microphone - image accompanying article about the state of the music industry in 2014

by Chris Singleton

It's been a little while since I posted in The Prescription: many apologies for that, I've been very preoccupied with the build of the new Prescription PR website (we hope you like it). 

We're still beavering away on certain aspects of the new site so actually, you're not going to get a series of useful tips from me today. However, what you ARE going to get is a very interesting speech from Steve Albini - the keynote address at the 2014 Face the Music event in Melbourne - where he ruminates on the 'surprisingly sturdy state of the music industry.' In the speech he discusses the changes that the internet has brought to the music industry, and how he feels they've been overwhelmingly positive in nature for bands:

In short, the internet has made it much easier to conduct the day-to-day business of being in a band and has increased the efficiency. Everything from scheduling rehearsals using online calendars, to booking tours by email, to selling merchandise and records from online stores, down to raising the funds to make a record is a new simplicity that bands of the pre-internet era would salivate over. The old system was built by the industry to serve the players inside the industry. The new system where music is shared informally and the bands have a direct relationship to the fans was built by the bands and the fans in the manner of the old underground. It skips all the intermediary steps
— Steve Albini

You can read the full text of the speech over on the Guardian website or watch the video of it below. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Albini's optimism for the future of the music industry, the way he describes its past, present and potential future amounts to a fascinating read and I'd recommend that any band or artist currently working on a music project check it out (unless you're a Prince fan, for reasons which will become clear towards the end).

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Four things today's bands can learn from David Bowie's comeback

Some David Bowie outfits

Music has come a long way since David Bowie’s legendary 1972 Top of the Pops appearance – the one where he flung his arm casually and camply around Mick Ronson, and proceeded to blast out one of the catchiest songs about a gay alien (Starman) you are ever likely to hear. Yes, things have changed alright. We have (nearly) abolished ‘physical’ music; we’ve shut down HMV; and we give away music for free (not for people's listening pleasure but in order to make databases).

Yet amidst all these sad developments, with the surprise announcement of the release of new album The Next Day, Mr Bowie has managed to make a comeback that seems almost as arresting as his 1972 Top of the Pops appearance. And there is a hell of a lot that today’s contemporary artists can learn from it.

1. Silence is golden

In this instant-communications era of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and so on, it is incredibly tempting for today's bands and artists to say something online every five minutes.

Whether constantly imploring people to buy their next album or letting their Facebook fans know what they've just had for lunch, bands – both unsigned and established – never seem to shut up.

Contrast that with Bowie, who kept 100% mum for 10 years regarding what he was up to musically, meaning that when he actually had something important to say ('hi guys, I've got a new album out') it was said with maximum impact.

Now admittedly, most artists are not rock legends like Bowie and simply being quiet for ages and then suddenly issuing a press release is not going to shock the music world to remotely the same extent as Bowie’s surprise comeback. However, there is still a huge amount to be said for the ‘less is more’ approach to communicating music news; and a bit of enigma (read silence) can do your band the power of good, by adding an air of mystique to proceedings and generating intrigue amongst fans and the media.

The key thing for bands to remember is to use their arsenal of social media tools judiciously. Ensure every status update is genuinely interesting; don’t hit your mailing list with e-newsletters every week; and only send press releases to journalists and bloggers if there is an absolute need to. The way that Bowie announced the release of his new album was a classic example of quality of communications trumping quantity; and you will note that in his first message about his music in 10 years or so, he didn’t mention that he had a chicken kiev for lunch.

2. Live up to the hype

I still haven’t forgiven the international community of rock critics for persuading me to purchase a copy of Oasis’ Be Here Now album back in 1997, so I’m not quite ready to buy their unanimous conclusion that Bowie’s new album is as good as Ziggy Stardust or whatever.

However, even after only a couple of listens it is clear that there are some very strong songs on the album – it’s fairly apparent that Bowie has done enough here to (largely) live up to the hype that the dramatic announcement of the record’s existence generated.

Again, few (if any) bands will ever find themselves in a situation where their next release is accompanied by as much hype as The Next Day, but nonetheless, some artists who have yet to release anything will find themselves in a position where they are starting to get feted by some very cool people indeed (largely Instagram-food-snapping types with a slight tendency to overuse the words ‘subtle’ and ‘textures’ when discussing music).

The natural reaction to being talked up by such types is to seize the moment and rush out a half-baked record. This is always a bad move. It is far better to bide your time and concentrate on putting together the strongest album you can rather than release something that fails to live up to the hype. For nothing offends a fashionable champion of your band more than a mediocre record that makes the aforementioned champion look a bit silly. And, if it’s a mediocre album, the average music fan isn’t going to like it anyway.

3. Work with interesting people

Most bands these days have a laptop and a copy of Pro Tools or Logic, which means (in theory) that they have a state of the art recording studio at their disposal.

Having this studio on tap often leads these bands to think that they can ‘do it all themselves’ without involving producers, arrangers and engineers (the financial implications of involving such professionals also puts them off).

But working with really good people can do wonders for an album, in two ways: firstly, it can seriously improve the quality of the results, and secondly, if the producer / mix engineer etc. constitutes a ‘name’, this can add a dash of kudos to the project and help generate mediate interest around it.

Bowie’s choice to work again with the legend that is Tony Visconti certainly didn’t hurt this release; nor did getting Tilda Swinton involved in the video for single The Stars Are Out Tonight; or letting long-time collaborator and guitar hero Earl Slick noodle all over his songs again.

Your band might not be able to get these sort of high-profile dudes on board that easily – but that shouldn’t stop you trying to get talented people to contribute. Even getting a decent mix engineer to do your final bit of knob-twiddling could pluck your record straight out of the amateur division and transform it into something that, sonically at least, could give The Next Day a run for its money.

4. Write / record significantly more than you release

I’ve always believed that whilst music-making involves a lot of artistry, skill, effort and so on, sometimes you just get lucky and a good song seems to pop along out of thin air (Yesterday by McCartney being a case in point – he just woke up one day with it going round his head).

Simply put, the more you write, the greater the odds become of this kind of musical serendipity popping up and slapping you round the face (maybe this is because the more practice you get at doing something, generally speaking, the better you get at doing it).

Now, if the contributors at Wikipedia are to be believed, Bowie recorded 29 tracks for this album – but how many songs made it on? 14: less than half. If the ‘record way more than you need’ way of doing things is good enough for Bowie, I suggest you investigate this approach too.

Or think of it as an argument in favour of editing your album heavily: try to make it all killer, no filler; leave out the self-indulgent numbers. This has always been sage (and obvious) advice, but in an era where people can download individual tracks from an album and skip the dodgy stuff, it makes no sense to put duffers on your record.

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