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The Beatles

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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Using Twitter: top tips for musicians and bands

Twitter logo

Twitter logo

Although Twitter’s been around for quite a while now (since 2006, if my memory serves me correctly), it’s still not fully understood – or used to maximum effect – by a lot of bands and musicians. But many do seem to have a sense of its importance, and “can you get me a bigger Twitter following?” is one of the most common questions posed by bands to Prescription PR, making us feel as though we are the musical equivalent of plastic surgeons. “For a price,” is a common answer, as we reach for some strange-looking implements. But today, dear reader, we’re giving you some free advice on using the medium – and as you’ll find out, size isn’t everything. Here’s our survival guide…

1. Pick the right username

A very obvious point this, but if your little four-piece is called, say, “The Beatles”, then don’t try to be all clever about things and pick “@YokoOno” as your Twitter handle. Pick a username that is as close as possible to your band’s, because the people who want to follow you on Twitter after seeing you play that gig at the Cavern in Liverpool are as just as likely to whack “www.twitter.com/thebeatles” into an address bar of a browser as they are to search for “The Beatles Twitter” in Google. Or at least that would have been the case had Twitter been around in 1961. It wasn't, which is why the Beatles didn't 'make it' on Twitter. They actually played a few gigs and wrote decent songs - worth doing that too, by the way.

2. You’ve got a biography: use it

Alright, a biography comprising a mere 160 characters is not nearly enough to describe the incredible things you’ve been through as an artist and to impart your views on the price of cabbage – but it is what will come up in Google when somebody searches for your band’s Twitter page (see example below).

So get to the point – put decent, concise content in your bio that enables people to spot your profile easily in search results, and distinguishes you from the American sports hero who happens to share your name.

3. Look professional

Twitter gives you the option to brand your profile nicely – you can upload a dinky profile picture and a background of your choice. Use these tools to make your Twitter profile appear consistent with your band’s general online presence. In short, don’t rely on one of Twitter’s default backgrounds and a blank profile pic – be professional about things. Otherwise you will look like the Twitter novice that you are. Pay particular attention to the profile pic, because this is what pops up in other users’ news feed when you post your latest inanity about a gig down in the Dog and Duck.

4. Follow the right people

Don’t be tempted to use automated ‘adders’ or dodgy sites to grow a Twitter following. The 10,000 followers you get from such services may a) not exactly be real people and b) simply won’t be interested in your latest double album. They will however, be interested in regularly offering you an oil inheritance from Nigeria or shoving a pair of fake breasts in your face (sadly these offers rarely translate into reality, believe me). Instead, try to follow bloggers, journalists, writers and musicians that you respect and that are relevant to you – for example, bloggers that write really interesting stuff about the nu-metal-cum-chillwave-shoegazing scene that your band is trying to break into. A proportion of these hip bloggers and journalists will follow you back, meaning (as we’ll see below) that Twitter will inform other similarly hip bloggers and journalists that you are an interesting person worth following, generating more hip followers for you.

5. Take Twitter’s advice

When you log into Twitter, you’ll see a ‘Who to follow’ panel, with suggestions from Twitter's algorithms regarding people that you might find interesting. These recommendations are based on who you are already following on the network (and who's following you), and assuming you’ve taken my words of wisdom above on board, Twitter will be suggesting interesting, relevant and (shock!) “useful” people to follow. (If not, it’ll be prompting you to follow more oil barons and big-but-pretend-bosomed ladies. Nice and all as they are, these individuals might not be all that much use to your music career). So take a careful look at the suggestions, check out each profile suggested, and if you think the algorithm has sussed you out correctly, start taking Twitter’s advice on who to follow.

6. Follow back – where appropriate

When somebody follows you, take a look at what they do / write about, and if they seem like a "fit" for your band, then by all means follow back. I’d suggest not following everybody back – otherwise it makes it harder for Twitter to make accurate recommendations about who you should be following and who should follow you. As with points 4 and 5 above, the “quality” or relevance of follower / following is everything here.

7. Remember: content is king…

…but not necessarily your content. By all means post links to your band's new videos and MP3s from time to time, but do not get too fond of doing so; otherwise you’ll just look like a jerk. Believe me, when it comes to overcommunicating about my own music projects, I’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt…and despite waxing endlessly about the importance of musicians keeping schtum for five minutes, I still see artists (who should know better) bore their friends, family and remaining fan to tears with hourly Facebook updates about their latest creative endeavours. Nobody cares after a while (if they ever did in the first place). Instead, post links to great content from other sources – whack links up on Twitter to scintillating articles which don’t happen to be about your music (and rest assured, there are a lot of them). Or make witty observations about cheese. In short, get a reputation for being an interesting dude, not a self-obsessed bore. If you post a lot of fantastic content on Twitter, guess what? It’ll get retweeted, meaning your lovely face will potentially pop up in thousands of Twitter feeds. Meaning you’ll get more followers, which you can then eventually bore with stuff about your band (which, after all, is why you’re reading this post in the first place).

8. Interact

Although it’s great for broadcasting news to millions of people, starting revolutions in dodgy regimes and so on, Twitter isn’t a one-way medium and by using the ‘reply’ or “@username” options provided you can interact with people and engage your followers (whatever the hell that means; writing the words ‘engage your followers’ is obligatory in any article about Twitter, so I had to include it somewhere). In a nutshell, if you take the time to respond to enquiries from fans or comment on tweets from the hip bloggers you follow, you will build up a rapport with both groups; this can lead to goodwill for you being generated amongst your two key audiences – fans and tastemakers – resulting, hopefully, in more sales and coverage for your band.

9. Ask for retweets – but only when it’s REALLY important

You can ask your followers to “retweet” stuff –  for example, share posts about your latest video, or a big showcase gig. However, don’t prefix absolutely every tweet with “Please RT!” – only do so for posts that are really important. Otherwise you will become the boy who cried “retweet!” and so jaded will your followers be with this carry-on that nobody will ever retweet anything you post. So there.

10. Be regular

Don’t set up a profile on Twitter and then forget all about it. Doing this will a) guarantee that you don’t have much of a following or b) make you look like you don’t give a monkeys about social media or c) don’t know how to use it. None of these inconvenient truths will impress those skinny-jean wearing A&R guys from Shoreditch who are all queuing up to view your Twitter profile right now.

11. Be visible

Remember to promote your Twitter address outside of Twitter. Put it on your album art, your website, your posters, your drumkit, your head – anywhere people can see it. This will help increase your following.

12. Use hashtags to increase the visibility of your tweets

If you're tweeting about something topical - for example, Louise Mensch - use a hash ('#') followed by a relevant tag - i.e., '#louisemensch'. This increases the visibility of your tweet, because people often search for popular hashtags on Twitter to see what the latest news on a subject is, or simply to steal a funny tweet and pass it off as their own. So with the example given, people who are searching for '#louisemensch' (and there are a lot of them) may encounter your witty, and quite possibly rude, tweet about her. This may result in more people, particularly those of a non-Louise-Mensch bent (and there are a lot of them) retweeting your witticism or following you (or both).

13. But size isn’t everything…

Finally, another reminder that like your girlfriend said, SIZE IS NOT EVERYTHING. Having thousands of dodgy followers you never communicate with is less important than having a smaller group of influential followers who hang on and retweet your every regular, interesting 140-character utterance. Think about it: if 200 tastemakers with audiences of 10,000 each are following you, and 50 of them dig you to the extent that they retweet your post about your latest video, you’ve just hit 50 x 10,000 people…that’s your video broadcast to a potential audience of 500,000 (many of whom may retweet it again). And crucially, those 500,000 Twitter users you’ve been exposed to are more likely to take you seriously, because they heard about you from a credible source, not the oil baron with the big boobies.

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DIY music promotion: avoiding the pitfalls

Today's recording studio?

Today's recording studio?

Right now, all across the country, bands are recording music in dingy bedsits, crap rehearsal rooms, disgusting garages and sheds.

Whilst these locations may not be particularly pleasant, so long as they are equipped with a computer and an audio interface, they house recording studios that the rock megastars of yesteryear would have drooled over.

Even today’s most basic recording packages generally allow you to multitrack a huge (often unlimited) number of instruments; they also come with a vast range of digital effects, software synthesisers, pitch-correction tools and a library of drummer jokes (compare this to the 4-track tape recorders that the Beatles had to rely on for most of their career – although they probably had quite a few drummer jokes to hand). Whereas in days of rock yore, you really had to be signed or very rich to go anywhere near recording equipment this good, incredible music production tools are now cheap and easily accessible to even the most pauperly of bands.

This has led to a an explosion in DIY music recording, which has led to millions of albums being recorded at home or in the garden shed. Most are not very good and not heard by very many people, but on balance, DIY recording is probably a good thing. Although it means a lot of crap records will get made – obviously, there is a difference between having fab recording equipment and knowing how to use it well – at least bands that would not have had access to good recording gear now get the chance to use and experiment with it; and occasionally, they come up with something terrific that captures the public’s ears and imagination.

DIY recording arguably reached the masses in a serious way about 10 years ago, when consumer-grade computers and hard drives became fast enough to handle professional audio recording duties; but over the past couple of years, we’ve seen bands starting to use DIY in all areas of their music career. With DIY recording, artists got their mits on the means of production, but serious manufacture, distribution and promotion were still largely the preserve of record labels. But that’s been changing; over the past couple of years we’ve seen that a combination of technological developments, new online services, an explosion in broadband access and improved awareness of what’s available to musicians has resulted in a huge number of artists not just recording DIY music, but also doing the following:

  • distributing their music globally (through services such as Zimbalam, Tunecore, and CD Baby)
  • building their own websites (via services such as Wordpress and Squarespace)
  • creating HD videos or hi-res press shots on cheap-but-incredibly-effective digital SLR cameras (or even an iPhone 4)
  • buying their own online advertising (on Facebook, Google etc.)
  • collecting their own royalties (via online tools provided by the PRS / PPL)
  • manufacturing their own merchandise (thanks to services such as Cafepress or Zazzle)
  • promoting their own gigs and selling advance tickets online (via Stubmatic or Paypal)
  • running direct marketing campaigns (using services such as BandCamp, Reverbnation, Mailchimp and Aweber).

In other words, pretty much doing everything labels, publishers and promoters would normally do – but usually on a ‘micro scale’.

The question for musicians about DIY is this however: just because you can do all these things, should you? We often come across artists who have spent years perfecting their sound in their own home studios, and who excel at DIY recording...who then ruin a fantastic home-recorded album by designing a crappy cover in Photoshop and shooting their own video (making it much harder for us to get journalists or bloggers to take them seriously). It’s easy to see why bands do this: it’s infinitely cheaper and often quicker than hiring a professional. And in some cases, it’s absolutely fine to take the DIY route  – for example, there might be a guy in the band with a day job in online advertising, who can set up an excellent, cost-effective campaign. Or there may be a photographer in the group who can sort out some fantastic press shots. The problem is that there often isn’t, and with a plethora of cheap gadgets and online services available, it’s very tempting for musicians – who are so used to taking a DIY approach to their music – to assume that a) this is a good way of filling the gap and b) that a DIY approach to everything will always yield positive results.

Obviously, you might not always have a choice around DIY promotion: there may be no budget at all to play with. But even if you are releasing an album on a shoestring, here are some key pointers to bear in mind when you are considering all the other DIY stuff you can do...

  • Before deciding to shoot your own video or take your own photos, see if you can rope in a mate who is better at that sort of thing than you (who could be convinced to help you out in exchange for a pint of larger and a bag of crisps). Or if you do have a budget, just pay somebody!
  • If you are creating any online assets yourself – websites, e-newsletters, etc. – do some research. Take a look at some megastars’ efforts and see what works well. Take a leaf out of their book (read: nick their ideas).
  • Keep things simple: if you’re not an expert graphic designer, your best chance of making something that looks professional, whether that’s an album sleeve or a t-shirt, is usually by taking a minimalistic approach to design.
  • Before spending any money on online adverts, do a dry run – allocate £20 to £50 to a test campaign to see if it generates any sales, Facebook ‘likes’ etc. Try out a few different targeting options and advert creative, and ensure you are getting some sort of a return on your investment before you spend hundreds of pounds on ineffective ads!
  • If you are approaching the media yourself, make sure you are targeting the right kind of critics for your music and that you don’t email them too many times.
  • Run everything you create past somebody impartial to get a sense of whether or not the video / website / poster in question comes across as professional. By impartial, we do not mean your mum.

Above all, take a look at where your strengths lie. If you are a musician who happens to be a good web designer, then by all means, design your own website. But if you know the video you’re going to make to accompany a brilliant track that you sweated for days over in the garden shed is going to look rubbish, it’s time to look elsewhere for help.

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