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Swn

As part of Swn Festival (pronounced ‘Soon’) in Cardiff this weekend, I was on a panel discussing independent and DIY music business in the digital age. One of the questions asked (and it comes up a lot) was about whether localism and local scenes still play an important role in music.

It had been a very orderly and polite seminar up until that moment, and so when the music-manager-for-bands-you’ve-heard-of answered in the negative, citing the globalising impact of the internet as his evidence, I took the opportunity to be a bit provocative, and piped up with “you’re very wrong”.

But before I get to my main point, I’d like to tell three short stories of recent live music events and how a little bit of local knowledge changes everything.

1) Here we are – where is everyone?
A band from my homeland of New Zealand turned up to play in Birmingham. Amazing band, amazing gig and they put on a show that would have delighted a stadium, a festival or a packed large venue.

The venue capacity was only a few hundred – and there was something like 60 people in the audience.

All of them had a great time – but it could have been much better with a big crowd in the room.

Now, I have to say – this band really appreciated their crowd, thanked them (especially the Brits) for turning up to support them – shared their bottle of vodka from the front of the stage and gave their all. It was superb showmanship all around, but in the grand scheme of things, it was mostly hidden from view.

The point is that this was not a failure of marketing and promotion – but the lack of one important piece of information that only a local could really have told them.

They are not a band for an inner-city venue in Birmingham. They belong in Kings Heath – a smallish village in South Birmingham, but with massive support for bands of this ilk. A night at the Hare and Hounds would have been utterly packed to the rafters, well supported, profitable and laser-accurately targeted.

It would also have started a buzz about this band that would have spread like wildfire through the city.

2) Where are we everyone?
As it happens, another band from my homeland of New Zealand played in Birmingham the following night. These guys are far more established internationally and are pretty much guaranteed to pack out any venue you care to put them in throughout Europe.

There’s a gag that our fellow countrymen Flight of the Conchords use in their live performances. In front of a packed theatre crowd, Jemaine calls out “Good evening…” (looks at the back of his guitar) “…New York!”

That’s kind of funny, right? Sadly, this particular band didn’t take those precautionary steps – and addressed the Birmingham crowd as ‘Hello Bristol!” (yikes…).

We’re a forgiving lot, us Brummies – but some towns would have taken great offense at such a slight. I mean – easy mistake to make when you’re touring the world playing venue after venue, night after night – but not a good mistake to make. Like calling out the wrong name during sex – only, y’know, in a live music situation.

Even when you’re in venue after venue, night after night – the simple fact is that to everyone facing towards the stage, this is the one concert they’re attending. It has to feel like the most important night of the tour – the favourite city.

3) Here we are, everyone!
I attended the Swn Festival in Cardiff, Wales this weekend. A lot of bands I’d never heard of. A couple I had. Some good, some great and some really amazing.

But the ones who really made a mark were not necessarily the most competent or most polished bands. In fact, one of my favourites were a teen punk band that just threw everything they had at what they did (watch out for The Stilletoes).

But equally, there were some acts who turned up, knew they were buzz of the industry and played to rooms full of scene kids and A&R men. And good on them. But they were just doing what they do.

And then there were the bands who weren’t just performing – they were performing in Cardiff.

English bands who learned how to say ‘Good evening Cardiff!’ (Noswaith dda Caerdydd!) or ‘thanks very much!’ (diolch yn fawr iawn!) in Cymraeg. Bands that made local references in their banter. Bands that had clearly been working the local fanbase through their MySpace, website, mailing list and contacts.

And then there were the bands who won the crowd over with their unique brand of Welsh-ness.

Derwyddon Dr Gonzo – a nine-piece ska/afrobeat/klezmer/funk band primarily consisting of a horn section, and singing exclusively in the Welsh language – were clear crowd favourites. I’m hoping to see them at festivals further afield.

The music is universal – but the band is part of a local pride and a local scene (supported by local radio, which is important – but that’s a rant for another day) that guarantees an enthusiastic and grateful crowd that blows us out-of-towners away.

And that’s significant – because besides the local residents, music lovers and gig-goers – city festivals like Swn also draw influential music industry types from elsewhere (in this case, notably, London).

Is localism important?
People make sense of music in a number of different ways. Of course, genre is important. But music is also often tribal: clothing, piercings, the bars you go to – all of these things speak to identity. See a teenager on the street, and you’re likely to be able to take a decent guess about what they have on in their headphones.

And scenes develop in places. Just as the South Birmingham scene I mention in my first example embraces a mix of reggae, soul, funk, hip hop, and related genres of music, other areas of the city organise around different sorts of music – without being restricted to a specific single genre.

Music – particularly (though not exclusively) live music – is a social affair. People share tastes, they see each other at the same events and start to develop friendships – or at least that kind of recognition that says ‘you’re one of us’. Scenes have opinion leaders and taste makers, focal points (eg: particular venues and record stores) that may not be immediately obvious to the outsider.

Audiences are not large numbers of individuals that act individually – they are groups of people that act as groups. Understand them, treat them well – become part of them – and they will be a far more powerful support and advocate than any single ‘user’.

Moral of the story: If you have, or are part of, a local music scene – feed it. Make it a key part of your activities, and the backbone of your outreach as a music enterprise.

If you are going to another town, make an effort to learn about local scenes. Do a bit of research. Find record labels, independent record stores, other artists that may be able to offer advice and insider tips that will help you understand the unique characteristics of the town you’re turning up in.

Tune your performance to the local scene. Get some local knowledge behind you – a spot of language, a point of local pride or topical item to drop into your banter. Anything that will make the audience get that you care.

Appeal to the group’s sense of its own scene – and you’ll make a lasting impression on whatever town you find yourself in.

And yes, of course you can use the internet to do this sort of research and make these kinds of connections. That is what it’s there for.