As 2017 is almost over here are some thoughts on my first full year of recording sessions for For Folk’s Sake. FYI, this is going to be quite behind-the-scenes rather than talking about the music as such.
I think overall the year has been a mild success. The interest level from artists has been very good, I haven’t had problems finding people to take part and in fact have had to pass on some I’d like to have done. Production quality of the sessions has increased over the year, and the effort required per session has gone down. I’m mostly happy with the quality of the work I’m putting out.
These a few negatives, which I’ll get into more below, but the overall message is that things are OK.
In terms of numbers, I published sessions with 16 artists/groups for a total of 37 songs. So an average production rate of a song every 10 days, which isn’t too bad for a weekends and evenings project.
The Amazing Devil Blockbuster (part 1)
The Amazing Devil session recorded back in February was a real highlight for a few reasons. Firstly, it was a huge step up in complexity. Where previously I’d recorded duos (and a single trio) this is an eight person band, with four singers, and several new-to-me instruments including a drum kit. This added up to 14 audio channels in use compared to the 2–5 channels you’d find in a normal session. On the video side this was a seven camera shoot versus the three or four cameras normally used. On top of that it was recorded on-location in a club in Soho, which added an extra element of logistics.
It was a such as big progression I had to give the band the same warning I gave Zoe Konez for the very first session recording, “I don’t really know what I’m doing, this may not work at all.” In the event it was all OK aside from some issues on the production side, partly due to some 2nd rate equipment I was using to add the needed capacity without breaking the bank. Regardless, we got three good videos out of it, and Pray is probably my favourite session track.
It was also nice to work with the band. My normal sessions have the feel of providing a service. That is, artists turn up and play and they get something out of the other end. That’s not to say they’re not pleasant and friendly, and I’ve met some lovely people, but the whole shape of the thing is determined by me and what I’m offering. This had more of a feel of being a collaboration, of “let’s do something cool and work out how together” and sharing the reputation risk of it being a terrible idea.
They’re a lot more visual than most bands, related to the fact that of the eight people in that session, six of them have some level of acting experience. A simple way that showed up was that whilst all bands will talk about their musical performance during setup and between takes, The Amazing Devil also discussed costumes and performance style.
They were also a lot more involved in the video edit. Normally when I send a draft video to artists the response is something like, “Guitar is too loud, bring down the vocals in the 2nd chorus and add more reverb to the violin.” And the video? “It’s fine.”. But for this one there was a lot more involvement in the pacing, shot choices, colour grading and even the titles.
Another effect of their stage background was in the mechanics of being on set. When we worked out where people should stand, someone would tape that mark on the floor and then the performer would stand on that mark for every take. When someone bumped into a stand and moved it they made sure to catch my attention and point it out. And those things really help in managing the shoot, particularly on such a complex one, and mean I’m less likely to miss something that only becomes apparently in the edit.
Although I’m not intending to repeat artists in general, given I have a waiting list of people who I haven’t recorded once, I will hopefully be doing something else with the band in 2018. By the time that happens I’ll have had the benefit of a year more practice as well as replacing all the 2nd-rate equipment used before. But in the spirit of progress, there will be a few things attempted for the first time and once again it will be a case of seeing what happens.
The longest journey
The session with Pavey Ark I like for two reasons. Firstly, it was the first successful three person shoot in the studio. I had previously had Joe Innes in as a three and although the audio for that is pretty good, the video has problems for various reasons. So getting a three-hander done in a competent way was a useful milestone and means I can now invite other trios in as well.
The other nice thing was the the level of commitment the band showed. They’re based in Hull and all three of them came down on a combination of train and Megabus to record the session with absolutely no fuss at all. In fact, they agreed to do it when initially I was only able to offer a single song session. It’s genuinely heartening that people care enough taking part in the project to do that. At some points this year it’s been a bit of a grind and this was an antidote.
There were a couple of negatives that reduced my enjoyment of the project. One was that, particularly towards the end of the year, I just took on too much. For a while I had my weekends all planned out for a couple of months in advance: record this weekend, edit next, then record, then edit etc. That work rate is possible but relentless and it’s hard knowing you can’t take a weekend away from it without screwing the schedule.
There was also a certain amount of mental load from dealing with sessions which were agreed and then didn’t happen. In particular, for artists on tour with agent representation the cancellation rate has been extremely high. I haven’t worked it out exactly, but my gut feeling is the cancellation rate in these cases is somewhere between 60-75%.
My best explanation for this is that when an artist pitches to me directly they’ve already mentally committed to the idea, they’ve seen our previous videos and decided they’d like to take part. That’s different to an agent trying to get the maximum press coverage for an artist who is in town for a day or two. The artist will have agreed to it, but it’s more of a “why not?” statement then something they really care about. The on-tour aspect means they’ll be pressed for time, and visiting me is quite a time consuming thing. I’m located in the inner-suburbs of London and you conservatively have to allow an hour each way on the trains from the central areas people care about. The actual recording will take two hours and you end up with a four-hour round trip. This is on a day when they might already spent time travelling, have an afternoon soundcheck or have other, more important, press activities.
What has happened several times is something was all agreed, sometimes months in advance, and then a week before someone actually starts to work out the schedule for the day, realises it doesn’t add up and I start getting requests to change the day or the time, or do it in a different location and we go backwards and forwards and more often then not it ends up not happening. As these are often midweek events I’ve booked the day off work which I then have to get cancelled, I’ve got a gap in my schedule to try and fill and it’s all very frustrating.
It is worth saying that it’s only that combination of factors that’s been a problem. Artists who aren’t on tour have always shown up as there isn’t that time pressure element, they’re only going to agree to a day where their time is not limited.
Learning to be single
As the year has gone on sessions have got shorter. I started off with three song sessions, then it dropped to two and then I started doing singles, and I expect singles to be the predominate format next year.
The longer sessions were driven by a few things. One of those is efficiency. Each session is a combination of fixed amounts of effort (e.g. setting up the studio) and variable amounts (editing). By doing more songs per session you spread out the fixed effort across more videos. A second aspect was to improve the draw for the artists, by saying they’d get three videos for taking part.
What’s changed is that the application rate for sessions has been very good, and it just hasn’t been possible for me to accommodate all the people I’d like to with the double-session format as the time spent editing would kill me. My fear that people wouldn’t be interested in singles hasn’t been borne out, and nobody has changed their mind when only offered a single. Although singles are less efficient, the fixed cost aspect is less of an issue then it used to be.
On that point, one of the running sub-projects I have is to reduce the workload of each session through a combination of small improvements. For example, rather than using tripods for all cameras I’ve started mounting some on movable arms which attach to the lighting stand. This saves space, which is useful in itself, and time as I don’t have the issue of trying to line up camera while dealing with tripod legs clashing into each other and blocking shots. It’s also an arrangement I can leave in place between shoots.
I’ve also done some eBay shuffling so that for most shoots I can use a single type of camera, the Panasonic G80, which reduces the amount of time in the edit I have to spend colour matching. Ideally, I’d move to lenses that all have a constant look as well but that would be a big, and expensive, change.
There’s still a few things to improve. One is that I’m currently using a big 2ft square CFL panel light which I have to setup and remove each time as I don’t like leaving it in place. It’s quite a lot of elevated weight and glass to be in a room that sometimes contains dogs going crazy at a fox. Replacing that with an equally bright, smaller light would be a nice little tweak. That and finding a new home from some furniture I barely use would mean the studio could stay 80% setup all the time.
White room blues
The studio itself is one of the limiting factors in making these sessions better. It is very small in there, 2.7m a side, and that has to accommodate the artists and all the recording equipment including a fairly large office desk. This limits the number of people I can host and also means I can’t perform any shots that involve moving around the room.
I’m also not actually a big fan of the stark white room aesthetic and would prefer something warmer and more interesting looking like Fiction Studios. But that would require a lot more space then I have. Even changing the colour scheme is a bit awkward as a lot of what you see in the background isn’t wall but the sound absorber panels which would need to be reupholstered rather than repainted.
The sessions have found something of an audience although it would be nice if it was growing faster than it is. I suspect I’m not the first person in a creative project to have that thought.
I don’t consider pure views as particularly useful metric and instead prefer measure that show a positive response, e.g. likes, comments, shares, etc. I’d rather get one comment from someone saying they went out and bought the album as a result of the session than 1000 views in complete silence.
In terms of interactions, Facebook has been a much better platform for these videos than YouTube. That is partly due to a larger base audience, we had 5,000-and-something page likes at the time I stared these sessions versus around 270 YouTube subscriptions. As a proportion our YouTube subscriptions have grown more over the year, but in absolute terms the numbers are still small. One of the other differences is that Facebook promotions have worked much better than YouTube ones at driving interactions, and in fact any interactions from YouTube promotions are very often down-votes which is not really the point.
For a while I ran YouTube promotions just to keep the views at a credible number when people, including potential artists, look at our channel. Now I just make clear that Facebook is the main platform and leave YouTube to do its own thing.
Another way to measure reach is to say is the audience big enough to attract the kind of artists I want to work with, and the answer to that is ‘mostly yes’. There was one person I reached out to, slightly optimistically, who declined and one agency who more or less said “come back when you have 10x the audience”.
The project will continue. I’ve already got bookings for January and February. I will be taking up fewer offers relating to touring artists. It’s not an outcome I’m happy with as it will mean I’ll miss out on some good opportunities, but the project management cost has made it too much like work.
Having said that, I will be blurring the hobby/job boundary by tentatively sticking a toe into the idea of charging with the Pocket Money Sessions. These are lower complexity than the For Folk’s Sake sessions, with the idea being to find the right balance between cost (largely determined by my time), quality and not adding too much to my total workload. I’ll run these as a charity fundraiser for now just to gauge interest at that price point and if it catches on I’ll go through the admin to make it a legitimate business later in the year. I’m not going to get rich off these but if it helps offset some of my equipment costs, then it’s nice to have. It also gets out the idea that I can be paid for other things if someone is sufficiently motivated to do so.
Will hopefully have the next ‘blockbuster’ session with The Amazing Devil to break some new ground. Ideally I’d like do a few more of similar complexity with other artists. The challenge will be finding the right people to collaborate with.
There’s also the ‘win a session’ competition in partnership with Reverbnation which closes shortly. That will account for three sessions to be recorded throughout the year. I don’t want to talk too much about those entries yet, but I think it’s going to be OK.
Finally, I’d like to find a way to practice more studio style recording. That is, separate tracking for instruments and vocals, merging takes, and getting the engineering absolutely right for a particular voice or instrument. Initially I’d want to try this on a fully experimental “this probably won’t work” basis and then go from there. For live performance recordings you can get away with things sounding a little unpolished, and in fact some artists haven’t wanted too much polish on their session mixes, but I’d to see if I can do the other style as well.