An Open Space for Creativity and Collaboration

I love the work I do so much that it doesn’t actually feel like work at all. My Linkedin page describes me as a “solution architect” and “knowledge broker” but that’s only a small part of what I do. As someone who has worked in the international music industry for the last 38 years, and the higher education creative arts sector for the last 24 years, I am required to solve problems on a regular basis. A few weeks ago I was involved in a meeting with a couple of high-ranking academic mangers from an international creative higher education institution. They had correctly identified that the traditional siloed approach to “teaching” the creative arts was not particularly productive, nor was it creative and that collaborative working between different creative disciplines was the way forward. Bravo, problem correctly identified but that is the easy part. Now comes the really hard part; how to make creative students from different siloed disciplines work in collaboration? A classic Vladimir Propp ‘dispatcher’ scenario instilled in me, now go forth and solve that problem.

I am a big believer that the most dangerous eight words in any institution, enterprise or organisation are, “we have always done it this way before”. So I find myself in a meeting of educators from various different creative disciplines, e.g. film, design, audio, games programming, etc. to solve the problem of how to initiate and foster greater collaboration between these creative silos. It immediately becomes apparent that it’s not only the students that are not working collaboratively but neither are the staff. Indeed each ‘department’ was more that happy to be working within their own discipline with hardly any positive noises been made by anyone in the room towards full and meaningful collaborative work. Creativity by its very nature is a deviance from those unquestioned norms. Having a position outside the mainstream can facilitate one’s questioning of accepted practices and everyday modes of thought. I was shocked that a room full of creative minds was so closed to change. Maybe it’s an age problem; I am a 54 year old who grew out of the post punk art school movement in the UK. Deviance comes as second nature to me. This is not the first time in my professional career that I had stumbled into what Irving Goffman (1957) termed the “total institution”.

Osram
Osram’s cutting edge open plan Munich office in 1957

I do not think that my learned colleagues had correctly diagnosed the problem. It’s virtually impossible to make students work on collaborative projects if the teaching staff can’t or won’t work collaboratively. In the same way that you can’t force people to love one another, you can’t force them to work collaboratively. The way to solve this problem is to get the teaching staff working collaboratively first; a classic case of some silo busting needs to be done. Traditional thinking here would suggest that a large open plan office housing the chalk face academic staff would result in collaborative approach. Not in this case. Each creative silo occupies one row each in a large open space. Just because a colleague sits within a PC’s throw away from the next, doesn’t mean they are going to talk to each other. Close proximity doesn’t generate productivity or collaboration nor is it conducive to creativity.

As a devout modernist you would think that I adore the concept of the open plan office. Ironically, it was a team of 1950s German modernists from Hamburg that conceived the open plan office to better facilitate communication and ideas flow. This new movement was termed Burolandschaft (office landscaping). But a growing body of evidence suggests that the standardisation of the open office undermines the purpose that it was designed to achieve. It’s my view that modern open plan office is a hegemonic device used to supress deviance and foster worker compliance. The problem here is that by its definition, great creative, collaborative work is by its very nature deviant in both form and content. It does not conform to established traditions in the field. Recent evidence published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Jungsoo. K, 2013) from a study of more than 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. office buildings, by far the most comprehensive research on this issue, came to the following conclusion, “Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality), particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.” Research journals love to use jargon but don’t let the jargon confuse you. The term “proxemics issues” refers to how people feel uncomfortable when they’re forced into close proximity with other people. In this case all the creative academics are stabled in a huge open plan office that resembles a call centre sweatshop rather than a highly creative space of voluntary collaboration.

The big issue here is one of physical creative space. One of the most important ingredients for an effective collaborative circle is a magnet place such as a pub (I spent an awful lot of time in pubs in the 1980s and 90s “working”) these days its more likely to be a café/coffee shop, corner shop, or even a lawn or garden; so long as it’s a place where group members can freely come together with each other to discuss new ideas and to talk and argue (constructively) about their work. A second key ingredient is for group members to have time away from the mainstream, time to look at issues and ideas from new perspectives without mental or social pressure to conform to accepted norms and attitudes. In the words of the inventor of lateral thinking, Edward de Bono, “Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way”. The blunt tool of management dictates, “you will work in collaboration”, will never be effective here in a similar fashion to the fabulous dialogue from Dr Strangelove (1964), “Gentlemen you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room”. In 2011, organisational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. Davis found that although open-plan offices often fostered a positive symbolic sense of organisational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were extremely damaging to the inhabitant’s attention spans, productivity, satisfaction but most importantly their creative thinking. A more intelligent, less obvious, critical and creative approach needs to be taken here.

Last month saw Apple Inc. unveil two new sleek and very expensive iPhones in their brand new Steve Jobs Theatre, housed in the $6.2 AUS billon dollar campus Apple Park. According to the theatre’s architect, Stefan Behling of Foster and Partners, it is “a building which is pushing social behaviour in the way people work to new limits”. Behling identified that creative people work best in a space which is not a beige, standardised open plan office space. As discussed at the start of this article, Behling’s approach to design has its roots in Modernism. In 1896 the essay, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by the founding father of skyscrapers Louis Sullivan stated that the loftiness of skyscrapers is to be “on a high road to natural and satisfying art”. Just like other Modernist ideas such as Socialism, the building of utopia is great but it’s intrinsically difficult. People in general, and creative types specifically, do not enjoy collisions, or having their social behaviour pushed. You can lead a creative to another but you can’t force them to work together.

Revolutionary painter Henri Mattise once said “Creativity takes courage”. To go back to the original problem highlighted earlier in this article, rather than forcing creative people to work collaboratively why not manufacture the physical and social conditions conducive to creative collaborations? This requires a fundamental change to the working conditions at this institution. The big problem here is that they have just undertaken a very costly multi million-dollar campus renovation and my solution to this systemic issue is somewhat challenging (they often are). Despite all the investment, open plan offices invariably fall short of the mark because they negatively affect workers’ satisfaction with their physical environment and perceived productivity. The main complaints often include: noise and lack of privacy. Cramming people one on top of the other is probably the human equivalent of battery hens, the egg gets laid but the chickens are far from being happy. By my direct observations the desks in this institution’s open plan office are only occupied for a fraction of time each day. People turn up in the morning and use their desk to check email or more likely their social media and dump their personal artefacts. I would argue that a specific dedicated desk is not conducive to creative or collaborative working. Indeed, in this institution most collaboration takes place around the lunch table or in the tiny, uninspiring and unventilated kitchen.

Here’s my solution. Close the car park and give everyone an interest free 12-month loan to buy a bicycle. My premise here is the more you drive the less intelligent and more isolated you become. Allocate everyone a specific locker and make all desks, including managements’, ‘hot desks’. When staff arrive to work they can source a desk, if needed, but make sure all workspaces are connected either with a computer or capable of accommodating your own (BYO) devices. The apotheosis is “activity based working”, an approach pioneered in the mid 1990s by Dutch consulting firm Veldhoen. Rather than sitting in one space staff should move around different zones during the working day working normally, focusing quietly, or collaborating or even indulging in total isolation.

Creative Office Interior Design
The BBC’s version of creative office interior design

We also need to accept and understand that creative types don’t all exhibit the same behaviours or work in similar patters. Lets create better physical space to exploit this? Most creative collaboration requires constant moving from communal discussions to individual focus and back again. Kill the open place office and provide a variety of stimulating spaces that people will naturally gravitate to depending on their activity as opposed to their specific creative discipline. I call this activity based working. Rather than forcing creatives to work collaboratively let’s try to re-engineer human behaviours through inspiring work spaces. Forced marriages have been known to work occasionally but the best ones are where people meet and fall in love.  

Now would be a fantastic time for institutions to stop using collaboration as the main driver for open-plan offices. Let’s be honest and realistic, although open-plan offices may have started out as well-intentioned Modernist collaborative experiment, these days they exist purely for economic reasons. It is far easier to cram twenty desks into a single space than construct some highly creative and stimulating creative paces. My main point here is that you cannot force collaboration onto anyone who doesn’t want to collaborate. Simply put, some individuals have their own style of “collaborating” and should be left to their own devices. My intuitive guess is if the teaching staff initiate collaborative projects of their own accord then student collaborative projects will follow. Unfortunately creativity and commerciality make for unhappy bedfellows and are always mutually exclusive. My ultimate solution for effective collaboration at higher education institutions is to devise a creative space that encourages and facilitates student and staff from all previously siloed disciplines to share, discuss, debate and collaborate on meaningful creative projects together.

TimDalton2014

 

I am available for guest lectures, workshops, master classes, conferences and panels; simply drop me a line with your request and I will get back to you.

Melbourne Music Education Sector Promo (MMESP)

DKHQ partner Tim Dalton has been working with the City of Melbourne to promote the city as a global destination for music education. One outcome of this collaboration was a promotion video featuring Tim Dalton.

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Watch the video here

Melbourne is a globally recognised music city and music education is a key element of the industry eco-system here. Melbourne has a range of education and training facilities to choose from. If you are keen to study music in Melbourne, but not sure which course is right for you, have a look at our latest video to see all that our city has to offer or drop me a line. 

This video was produced by BENCU for City of Melbourne in partnership with The Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music – University of Melbourne, RMIT University, Collarts, Australian Institute of Music, SAE Creative Media Institute and Box Hill Institute.

Time For A New Slogan?

Last Saturday, 16th April, was Record Store Day (RSD) and what a super successful event it was too. Over the last three years that I’ve been a RSD ambassador I’ve seen it go from strength to strength. The success of RSD has made me think about how we can move forward to develop a more sustainable local music ecosystem. In particular, I am keen to see small local music venues survive in what is increasingly becoming a hostile environment. Local music venues are under attack from all angles including, gentrification, urban planning, outdated laws and the general ongoing financial climate. Bodies such as Music Victoria have done amazing work in helping to keep grass roots music venues operational but as with all ecosystems some of the responsibility lies with us: the general public.

I’m old enough to remember the slogan ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ with the logo of a cassette and cross-bones on record sleeves during the 1980s. The major record labels in the United States and the United Kingdom instigated this slogan to publicly confront and shame domestic consumers over the private copying of music onto blank cassette tapes. Industry trade groups, such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), mounted publicity campaigns aimed at combatting the practice of ‘home taping’. In addition to this sloganeering, they threatened to take legal action against home tapers, lobbied governments for new copyright legislation and tried to have a tax levied upon blank cassette tapes. The home taping of CD and vinyl recording onto blank tapes was publically condemned. Lots of people did it. I remember friends giving me their home-recorded tapes of popular music albums. This practice was labeled as piracy, even though private, non-commercial copying was predominantly legal in both the UK and USA.

Home_taping
Is it time for a new slogan?

In a significant precursor to the digital file-sharing battles of the 1990s and 2000s, fans and musicians widely objected to these attempts by trans national corporations at media control, often through highly creative responses. I would argue that downloading has pretty much killed tactile music sales, well almost. Thanks largely to the Internet, the music industry has been thrown into a state of flux and re-organisation. This new paradigm has resulted in artists at all stages of their careers becoming reliant on money from live shows to pay the bills and survive.  Even international rock stars have mundane bills to pay too, from the mortgage to their beans on toast!

There’s only one problem and its a pretty big problem. Unless the artist is lucky enough to be ‘loved’ by a huge audience, playing the local enormo-dome with tickets selling at $200 plus, they will probably be found playing smaller grass roots music clubs across the country. It’s a fantastic circuit which both musicians and fans love. So how about we introduce a new slogan of ‘Not Buying Tickets In Advance Is Killing Live Music’? Through the creative deployment of this new slogan we could help keep music venues open. Walking up and paying on the door is par for the course for many fans of live music. Many local and regional acts can attract good numbers, even though they probably won’t sell out the venue. The problem here is that come the night of the show, if it’s raining or the punter just can’t get off the sofa, it’s easy not to bother showing up. If punters don’t walk though the doors then small promoters get nervous, chew their nails, panic and often they will cancel the gig if they don’t sell enough advanced tickets.  It’s understandable for small venues which operate on very tight margins. If a small 200 capacity venue only sells 50 advanced tickets, you can fully understand why they get twitchy when they are committed to paying bar-staff, door personnel, technicians, turning the lights, AC/heating on and providing power for backline PA and lights. The break-even point in a 200 capacity venue is probably around 180 tickets; those last 20 ticket sales are the ones that make the show worthwhile.

I’m very lucky because I live in Melbourne one of world’s great music cities. According to the Live Music Census (2012) there are 62,000 gigs annually taking place in over 470 venues in the Greater Melbourne area with 14.4 million patron visits resulting in an industry worth $1.04 billion per year. Those figures are staggering, even more so when you consider that live music in Melbourne employs the equivalent of 116,000 full time jobs. To put then into some type of perspective the combined automotive engineering industry in Victoria only employs approx. 25,000 people. Without good governance, stringent financial management and our own active involvement, this fragile musical ecosystem could be eroded and eventually lost forever. One big irony is that prime TV talent shows have commoditised popular music to such an extent that many people will no longer venture outside of their front door to enjoy live music at a venue. The economic environment and the general tightening of the purse strings have all taken their toll on live music ticket sales. The big hangover from the above is that gig fans are being a bit choosier and many are not buying advance tickets for shows with a detrimental effect on live music venues.

The other casualties are full band shows. It’s no surprise that more artists are performing solo or with slimed down backing bands/tracks rather than with a full band.  Fees have gone down in the last few years so it is much easier to take less risk with booking a solo performer. Fine for someone who plays and sings, but not so good for some artists with one string to their bow. Ultimately its the audience that suffers. While I love the intimacy of the solo gigs, you can’t beat rocking out to a complete band with a ‘full production’ show in an intimate venue.

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The Tote Hotel music venue in Melbourne. Buy tickets for their shows in advance via their web site and help them stay in business

It’s not just the small venues that tread a fine line, look at some of the medium and larger sized venues and to some extent the touring festivals in Melbourne. It’s very frustrating that increasingly, with each passing year, more and more people prefer to pay at the door rather than buy tickets in advance. The numbers end up the same in the end, but it puts the promoters under a great deal of financial pressure in the run up as they work out how many paying customers they need to break even or occasionally turn a profit. Buying a ticket in advance diminishes these financial worries and keeps venues open. If people bought tickets in advance there would be no need to run campaigns along the lines of ‘lets keep venue X open’.

My message is very simple. If you want to keep live music alive and kicking in small and medium sized venues, then you need to cough up for the ticket early and persuade a bunch of mates to go with you. You’ll have an amazing time, inject some much need cash into the local community, provide employment for all types of trades and help support the local music ecosystem. My very simple equation is thus Beer + Live Music + Friends = Good Times and if you don’t believe me then go out and test my theory. So if you see a gig you like, buy the ticket as far in advance as possible, otherwise it might not be on when you get there!

The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll

David Hepworth’s new book Never A Dull Moment claims that 1971 was the greatest year for popular music as it saw the release of more “monumental” albums than any year before or since. It’s an interesting claim and one that I will contest here. I also think it’s a really odd book title considering it’s the same as Rod Stewart’s superb 1972 album; why not give the book a namesake title from a “monumental” 1971 album? Granted 1971 saw an unprecedented number of album releases, but does that single metric make it the greatest album release year? Anyone who knows me will confirm that I love a good argument and so here it goes. Dave Hepworth is a fantastic music journalist but he got it completely wrong. His book should have been about the era from 1969 to 1981; the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.

Taste is a very slippery concept as Immanuel Kant proposed in his 1790 Critique Of Judgement. Kant calls aesthetic judgments “judgments of taste” and remarks that, though they are based in an individual’s subjective feelings, they also claim universal validity. It could be claimed that Hepworth’s book is an attempt to canvass some form of universal acceptance; or he might just be trying to sell more books. The viewing of an art form is anything but a passive activity. Art should rouse us to an intellectual involvement with the world in which it was created. Good art results in a discourse and the better the art the more tumultuous that discourse should be.

Only last year (2015) I published my own book, Album Rescue Series, in which I tried to show some love to mistreated, misunderstood and underrated albums. On page 129 of this book, I rescue Jim Ford’s excellent 1969 Southern funky rumpus album Harlan County. During this album rescue, I argue that this album was largely overlooked because of the year of its release: 1969. Harlan County was probably the strangest but most compelling release of 1969, but what a year for popular music. 1969 was the launching pad for an era of unparalleled creativity in popular music the likes of which we’ll never see again. Hepworth’s identification of 1971 should not be viewed as an isolated year but as part of the twelve-year continuum of popular music’s most prolific era, which ran from 1969 to its sad demise in 1981.

Harlan County1

During the 12 months of 1969 we see releases from Bob Dylan (Nashville Skyline), The Beatles (Abbey Road), Tim Buckley (Blue Afternoon), Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin II), King Crimson (In The Court of King Crimson), The Who (Tommy), Captain Beefheart (Trout Mask Replica), Nick Drake (Pink Moon), Sly and the Family Stone (Stand), The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed), The Band (The Band), The Stooges (The Stooges) and a host of other amazing albums. How on earth could Jim Ford, an unheard of artist from the back hills of Kentucky, with his unique blend of country, funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll ever get noticed in the company of these esteemed artists? If you’ve never heard Harlan County then go out and buy this album and give it a spin; if you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back. I was seven years old for the majority of 1969, and didn’t turn eight until mid December, but all of these albums I distinctly remember. What I do remember is zeitgeist of 1969, the break up of The Beatles, the violent end of the peace and love generation presided over by Rolling Stones at Altamount and the white heat of new technology manifested by Neil Armstong standing on the moon. No wonder 1969 was such an epistemic year for popular music.

1969

Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Hepworth when he cites some exquisite, delightful and ground-breaking albums of 1971. You cannot dispute Carole King (Tapestry), Badfinger (Straight Up), Rod Stewart (Every Picture Tells A Story), Emerson Lake & Palmer (Pictures At An Exhibition), Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers), John Lennon (Imagine), Paul McCartney (Ram) and George Harrison (All Things Must Pass); all of which I play on a regular basis. Back in 1971 record sales were growing too fast for the record companies to exert any kind of meaningful creative control. They threw an awful lot of shit at the wall and hoped some of it would stick; not the type of approach prescribed in the business manuals that would follow in the 1980s. Amongst all this shit though were the shining diamonds of perfection as listed above. Back in 1971 the record business was in an unprecedented boom period, profits were good and re-investment in product development (A&R) at an all time high.

Carole_King

For the next decade the music would be good until it died at the end of 1981. Even as a musically precious nine/ten year old I remember 1971 very distinctly mainly because of the music which I was already showing signs of being obsessed with. During this era it was de-rigour for acts to be signed to two albums a year recording contracts, which meant they were all extra productive at their most creative age. Everybody played live all the time. Neil Young wrote and recorded Harvest while on the road during 1971 in locations as far apart as Barking, East London and Nashville. The classic T. Rex singles were recorded at stops on their 1971 American tour. Pink Floyd spent weekdays recording Meddle and weekends playing colleges. Nobody took months off. Nobody dared. During this era, popular music was getting serious and corporate. The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, was their first album under the distinctive tongue ‘corporate’ logo and released on their own ‘independent’ label. I would argue (I like arguing) that this Stones album was almost as notable for its cover as its content. 1971 was the year Brown Sugar, the last truly great Rolling Stones single (but that’s another article for another day), went to number one.

While discussing this article at work last week with my boss (Gareth) he made the point, and a good point it is too, that 1981 was probably the last truly great year for popular music. In terms of this article/blog I am prepared to state that 1981 is the end of rock ‘n’ rolls’ most creative and productive era. 1981 is an interesting time as Modernism is all but dead and post modernism has well and truly taken hold. Consider the albums that were released during 1981: The Rolling Stones (Tattoo You), Stevie Nicks (Bella Donna), Motorhead (No Sleep Till Hammersmith), U2 (October), Human League (Dare), Miles Davis (Directions), New Order (Movement), The Cure (Faith), Simple Minds (Fascination/Sister Feeling Call), The Psychedelic Furs (Talk Talk Talk) and The Police (Ghost In The Machine). In many ways these albums signal then end of rock ’n’ rolls creative and profitable golden years and signal the start of a new era; a new way of conducting business.

Behind the scenes the creative, maverick, iconoclastic and entrepreneurial music managers were been driven out by the faceless beige suited office drones, obsessed by spread sheets and quadrant charts. By 1981, Thatcherism was starting to make its presence felt in the UK; the good times for a whole host of traditional industries was well and truly over. In the same year, Ronald Regan came to power in the USA. Between Regan and Thatcher, the traditional Anglo American power base of popular music was well and truly under attack from monetarism. How can any creative endeavour survive when it’s exposed to monetarism’s money growth rule? 1981 was the end of making lots of great records and the start of making a small number of profitable records. In a head on fight between creativity and commerciality, the one with the muscles is always going to win.

I hate to end this piece with such a downbeat message so here is some good news. Head down to your independent local record store as every album listed above will be for sale. Have a listen to these albums and test my argument. Record Store Day happens on Saturday 16th April this year, so why not head out on this special day and treat yourself to a classic piece of music. Not only will your purchase make you smile for many years to come but you will also have supported a local independent business and that’s a good thing. In the words of Mott The Hoople’s 1974 hit The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll

The golden age of rock ‘n’ roll will never die
As long as children feel the need to laugh and cry
Dont wanna smash, want a smash sensation
Dont wanna wreck, just recreation
Dont wanna fight, but if you turn us down
Were gonna turn you around, gonna mess with the sound

Ohh, ohh, ohh
Its good for body, its good for your soul
Ohh, ohh, ohh
Its the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll

Golden_age

 

Record Store Day Australia 2016 by Tim Dalton

Record Store Day Australia (RSDA) falls on Saturday 16th April this year. It’s the third year that I’ve been asked to be an ambassador, something I’m extremely proud of. Ever since I left school in 1979 at the age of 16, I’ve earned my living working in the music industry in one form or another. Physical formats such as records, tapes and CDs are almost part of me; in many ways they define me and who I am. I live in a house that has a whole room devoted to my music collection; rather metro-sexually I refer to this as the “media” room. This curated musical collection tells the story of my life, which hopefully is still a work in progress. Planning and writing about RSDA has got me reminiscing about the first record that I ever bought and about some of my favourite record stores that I’ve visited over the years. The first record that I ever bought was a 7” vinyl single of Son Of My Father by UK band Chicory Tip. I vividly remember budgeting 37 new pence (70 Australian cents) of my birthday money to buy this record from Shakespeare Records, located inside Paragon railway station in my birth city of Hull. The word ‘Paragon ‘ is an interesting choice here as the word means “a person or thing regarded as a perfect example of a particular quality”. The station actually took its name from the street it stands on, Paragon Street, but I still love the way the word is misappropriated.

Shakespear

Back in 1972 there were approximately 39 record stores in Hull city centre serving a population of around 200,000 people. This begs the question why did I choose Shakespeare Records and not Sydney Scarborough, Stardisc, Sheridan’s or one of the large department stores such as Hammonds or Debenhams or any of the other 39 stores? Paragon Station was a fabulous unmodernised Victorian building so much so that it has appeared in numerous feature films and TV shows. One attraction was that Shakespeare Records was a small building, more a pre-fab really, inside another enormous building. Subconsciously it could be the 11 year old me signalling that music and travel would forever be connected in my life.

Originally this record store was called Shakespeare Brothers but in a bid to move with the times in the early 1970’s they dropped the ‘Brothers’ and replaced it with ‘Records’, very hip and groovy. Mid December 1972 and it was a right of passage type day as my Dad drove me to Hull city centre in a tepid blue Vauxhall Viva to make my first ever purchase of what I now know would be many future records. I didn’t know it at the time, but this record is actually a cover of a Giorgio Moroder/Pete Bellotte tune that was released in 1971 under the name Giorgio. The 1972 Chicory Tip version features the very first top ten appearance of a Moog synthesizer in the UK. AIR studio manager Roger Easterby heard the Giorgio original and persuaded Chicory Tip to re-record their version, with additional lyrics added by vocalist Michael Holm, in a weekend. The Chicory Tip version was rush released where it went straight into the top ten and eventually hit number one. AIR’s resident record producer Chris Thomas played the dominating Moog synth part.

Released in February 1972, it took me almost 10 months to get around to purchasing this record. Listening back to this record I can see why I developed my lifelong love and obsession with synth pop. This record has all the DNA of 1980’s synth-pop, such as the synthesizer as the dominant musical instrument, which I came to love a decade later. For an 11-year-old kid from a cultural backwater like Hull, this record demonstrates a musical maturity way beyond my tender years.

This visit to Shakespeare Records set me on a course that would see me visit many record stores all over the world for both business and pleasure. Only 16 years after purchasing my first record I’d left school and was working in the music industry, albeit on the very bottom rung of the ladder. Over the next 36 years I was lucky enough to travel the world many times over and visit record stores in just about every major city that I’ve visited. One of the biggest stores I regularly made visits too was Tower Records at 1 Piccadilly Circus, London. This massive 2,300m2 store opened in 1986 and was their European flagship store. London also had the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road and that was also enormous. These enormo-dome type record stores ushered in the ear of the ‘in-store’ performance or as we called them in the USA music business “the shake and howdy”. If someone had told back then that this behemoth of a record store chain would completely disappear off the face of the planet within a few short years (along with all the other major high street retailers) I would have thought them completely insane.

In these big stores a small stage and PA could be incorporated onto the sales floor allowing for acoustic performances. These performances normally coincided with whatever touring band was in town playing at the local venue. The normal schedule would be an in-store early afternoon, sound check late afternoon and show on the evening; we liked to work our acts hard back then. These in-stores would pay a dividend in terms of record sales, through in some ‘specials’ some free nibbles/barrel of beer and significant sales would follow. In-stores are now a common component in the arsenal of engagement tools of the music retailer.

The sheer scale of some record stores is breath taking, such as Amoeba Music in LA, which is the world largest independent record store spread over 2,230m2 and holding over 100,000 titles. It’s the sheer variety of independent record stores that I love. Some are genre specific, some location specific but all of them love and know music. Some of my favourites, in no particular order, are: –

  • Aquarius Records in one of my favorite US cities San Francisco. This store has been a fixture of San Francisco’s music scene since 1970, making it one of the longest-running independent record shops in the United States. The store carries a wide range of stock, but is most famous for its extensive selection of psychedelic, metal, and drone music, as one would expect of a San Fran store.
  • Spacehall Records on Zossiener Straße in Berlin, which I first visited in the mid 1980s. You cannot even begin to talk techno or house or dub or any electronic music for that matter without bringing up Berlin’s Spacehall. The beautiful minimalist, modernist design of the store suits its refined, highly stylish musical aesthetic. It’s like a classic 1980’s BMW, stark, functional but never out of style.
  • Rough Trade East is the daddy of UK record shops. London’s Rough Trade East, which opened in 2007, may be the younger brother of Rough Trade West, but is also one of the biggest independents in the UK. The store sells predominantly new stock of vinyl and CDs, racked up across a huge 465m2 sales space, and has a handy cafe at the front. Rough Trade is more than just a shop, it’s also one of the most influential labels in the UK, and has put out influential records by The Smiths, The Fall, The Strokes, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian and more. Rough Trade East also plays host to in-store gigs, film screenings, and talks on film, music and literature. This is more than a record store, it’s an institution and I can’t get enough of the place.

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  • Probe Records, in a city where I lived for over a decade, Liverpool. In a city with such a fine musical pedigree, it takes a lot to stand out and Probe does that. Though it’s moved premises through the years, Liverpool’s Probe Records has been going strong since 1971. Established by legendary Twisted Wheel DJ Roger Eagle and music entrepreneur/producer Geoff Davis, it was more than a record store it, was the epicenter of a movement. Pete Burns of Dead or Alive and Paul Rutherford of Frankie Goes to Hollywood have both worked there along with countless other wannabes and rock stars. In the wake of punk, Probe Records became Liverpool’s go-to record shop, attracting clientele from Echo and the Bunnymen, The Lighting Seeds and OMD. The shop launched its own record label Probe Plus in 1981, which has released work by cult Merseyside act Half Man Half Biscuit.
  • Good Vibrations, Belfast. The film Good Vibrations named after the legendary Belfast record store of the same name and released last year, was brilliant. It told the story of local music lover Terri Hooley’s attempt to expand his store into a label that would go on to release DJ John Peel’s favorite record Teenage Kicks by The Undertones in 1979. But the film’s popularity also sparked the store back into life. Now in its 13th incarnation, and proclaiming itself as “Belfast’s poorest record shop”, shoppers can still bump into Hooley, now aged 65, working behind the till. Visit it soon as it has a history of going bust very quickly.
  • I know I’m very biased but my favorite of favorite record stores is Grimey’s in Nashville. Nashville is a town of institutions and Grimey’s is no exception. It’s a store beloved by the city’s residents, and has a sort of hometown family feel about it. I first Mike ‘Grimey’ Grimes when he played guitar with local rock band Bare Jr. who I was working with at the time. Grimey has an uncanny King Midas knack of turning whatever he touches into cool. When I lived there he took over a run down bar, The Slow Bar, in the very un-trendy East part of town and within a few weeks it became Nashville’s coolest, muso bar and late night hangout. It’s exactly the same with his record store. The store has a vast selection of new music, and next door at their “too” (sic) store they have an abundance of “pre-loved” music. They supply their consumers with all formats including CD, vinyl and cassettes. But what really makes them stand out is they do a lot of activities to bring artists into the stores and make them accessible to their patrons. They have many releases and after hour in-stores in ‘The Basement’ located obviously beneath the store. This is a cozy little live music bar to catch a local artist performance while drinking a beer. This is a very special kind of record store that I recommend to anyone that stops in Nashville. This place holds a special place in my heart just because it’s so damn cool. And who knows? Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll visit at the same time as locals like Taylor Swift, Steve Earle, Bobby Bare or Ke$ha.

In my now adopted hometown of the last three years of Melbourne I’m totally spoilt for choice. From recollection there are approximately 87 independent records stores, a number that grows each year, in the metropolitan area alone. There are some fine record stores in this city as there probably are in your city/town/suburb of residence. My suggestion is to go out on an adventure and find the one you like. Find the one that stocks the style and genre of music you like in the part of town that appeals to you. I’ll be out and about but it’s doubtful I’ll physically be able to visit every single independent record store in Melbourne on RSDA on 16th April. If you see me in an independent store around Melbourne on Saturday 16th April come up and say “Hi”, I might even show you what I’ve bought.

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Why I Support Record Store Day Australia

Record Store Day Australia (RSDA) takes place on April 16th this year and it is the third consecutive year that I’ve agreed to be an official ambassador. I’m very happy to join fellow RSD ambassador’s Ella Hooper and Adam Brand to support this wonderful day of music and fun. The purpose of RSD is to celebrate the culture and diversity of the independently owned record store. The Australian Music Retailers Association (AMRA) promotes RSDA and it has the unqualified support of record companies and Australian music icons that know the importance of supporting independent music stores. The day brings together fans, artists and thousands of independent record stores across the whole of Australia.

Chris Brown, who was an employee of independent CD, DVD, games and book retailer Bull Moose, originated Record Store Day in the USA. The concept was loosely based around the idea of the already successful Free Comic Book Day. Inspiration came from a brainstorming session held during a record storeowners’ meeting in Baltimore resulting in Record Store Day being officially founded in 2007. It is now celebrated at stores throughout the world, with hundreds of recording and performing artists participating in the day by making special appearances, performances, meeting and greeting their fans, the holding of art exhibits, and the issuing of special vinyl and CD releases along with other promotional products to mark the occasion. Each store holds their own party for the day, to celebrate the unique individuality of each store, and the place it holds within its community. Although Record Store Day, the actual day, only occurs once a year, AMRA (the organisation) provides promotions, marketing, and other opportunities for stores throughout the year, maintaining a website, social media and other means of promulgating its views about the value of independent record stores.

The key word here is ‘independent’. RSDA is about celebrating this word ‘independence’, as in freedom, liberty and self-governance. I am well aware of the advantages of a globalised world economy; indeed I am an English man who now lives in Melbourne, Australia who also lived and worked in the USA. For the whole of my working life I was involved, directly and indirectly, in producing and selling mass appeal contemporary popular music to a global audience. So it may sound contrary when I pontificate about the virtues of independent retailers. But I believe that it is possible for independent retailers to exist in a globalized economy, adding value and variety to our otherwise over standardized lives. I come from a family of independent retailers, my brother Nick and his wife Annie, are proprietors of the UK’s coolest bicycle shop, East Coast Bicycles, my father owned a number of different retail operations and my grandfather ran a shoe repair business all of his life. Our retail spaces are now almost exclusively the preserve of trans national global corporations who view the entire planet as one large connected market place. This can work in the consumer’s favor e.g. economies of scale resulting in lower prices and standardization of products across the globe; I’m not anti-globalization per-say. The globalized retailers take care of the generic, standardized, bulk of products but with little deviation resulting in limited choice. Take globalized furniture retailer Ikea, as an example, each store throughout the world carries exactly the same lines. The world’s biggest music retailer, iTunes, is a truly global phenomenon even though it only exists virtually.

This is where independent retailers come in, no matter what they are selling be it recorded music, groceries, shoes, clothing, wine or bicycles. The independent retailers are the purveyors of choice and are more often-than-not the local arbiters of style and taste. It’s the independents that seek out the bizarre, unusual, quirky, sexy, individual, niche, local and personal items that we desperately need in our lives. Granted these ‘desire’ or ‘life style statement’ items may cost a little more but they are the artifacts that become family heirlooms, the items that we cherish, the ones we love, the items with a narrative attached to them. I for one think that’s worth the cash premium.

Go into any independent retailer of whatever variety and you will invariably find the owner or his family serving you as opposed to some minimum wage earning, polo shirted/fleece wearing, badged, robo-drone who has no interest in the item that you wish to purchase. With an independent you are getting the attention of an expert/enthusiast, someone who has invested countless hours in researching their stock line, they can point out the almost indistinguishable differences on what appears to be similar products. At my favourite record store I spend many hours of my Saturday afternoons flicking through the racks. More often than not the owner, lets call him Buddy, comes over and strikes up a conversation with me and discusses music, records, artists and gigs. He’s not ‘upselling’ rather he is genuinely interested in my musical taste and me. Try this approach in a giant, on-line, globalised music retail environment it’s not the same. Reading the on-line ‘customer reviews’ below a product on a web site is useful but its not like being there. My local store plays loud music on a great sounding system with the cover of the album that they are playing highlighted on a plinth with “Currently Playing” written on it. OK, this is upselling but its upselling of the kind caring type, the type I like. You can buy wine at the supermarket but isn’t it much better to chat with the independent retailer who can describe the characteristics of that particular wine and what dish it is best served with? It’s the same with recorded music.

RSDA is motived around a single day, 16th April this year. This is the day when we celebrate the independent music retailers. Bands, acts and artists release special limited runs of ‘product’ and often perform in store with a real party atmosphere. There is a misconception that RSDA is solely about vinyl sales, its not. RSDA is format agnostic, buy whatever you like on whatever format you like, but make sure that you buy it from an independent retailer. This is a use it or loose it deal. If people don’t support local independent retailers they will disappear. Indeed with the ‘long tail’ online globalised retailers increasingly colonising our leisure space it’s becoming even harder for independents to keep the lights on. At the most basic level, when you buy local more money stays in the community.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF), a UK based independent economic think tank who’s aim is to transform the economy so that it works for people and the planet rather than profits, recently compared what happens when people buy produce at a supermarket vs. a local farmer’s market or community supported agriculture (CSA) program. This research found that twice the money stayed in the community when customers bought locally. “That means those purchases are twice as efficient in terms of keeping the local economy alive,” says author and NEF researcher David Boyle. The local producer/retailer also adds creative elements that make either the product or materials used more appropriate to the location. For example in my adopted home city of Melbourne, RSDA will see local stores offering up some superb one off recordings of local bands. Check the lists of releases on the RSDA web site for what’s available in your city.

Another argument for buying locally and independently is that it enhances the ‘velocity’ of money, or circulation speed, in the area. The idea is that if currency circulates more quickly, the money passes through more hands, a greater number of people benefit from the money and what it has purchased for them. “If you’re buying local and not at a chain or branch store, chances are that store is not making a huge profit,” says David Morris, Vice President of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit economic research and development organisation based in the USA capital Washington, D.C. “That means more goes into input costs such as supplies and upkeep, printing, advertising, paying employees, which puts that money right back into the local community.

By shopping at the independent record store, instead of the global online retailer, you can stop your community from becoming a ‘clone town’, where the Main Street now looks like every other Main Street in the world with the same fast-food and retail chains. This is a compelling argument for supporting RSDA and its fun too. Save some cash and get into those independent record stores on 16th April and spend, spend, spend. Not only will it give you a smug good all over glow feeling but you will also come away with some music in a tactile format that will stay with you for the rest of your life. That’s why I support Record Store Day Australia; I’ll see you in-store on 16th April?

The Dr Who of Rock ‘N’ Roll

It’s been a difficult few months in the world of rock ‘n’ roll because everyone seems to be dying. I know this is a new phenomenon (rock stars dying not death per-say). This is because the commercial music industry is relatively young when compared to other artistic endeavors. The early pioneers of this industry are now reaching their late 60s and early 70s, so I suppose death is inevitable. An often-repeated quote is, “the only certainties in life are death and taxes”. Although death is inevitable, it is no less of a shock. Sadness and shock were the first emotions I felt when I heard of Keith Emerson’s death early morning on Saturday 12th March 2016, Melbourne time.

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Keith Emerson, the Dr Who of Rock ‘N’ Roll

I worked with Keith Emerson in 2002 for almost the entire year as his tour manager and his de-facto go-to guy; that’s how I earned my living back then. However, my connection to Keith goes way back to a childhood in Hull, East Yorkshire. My hippie parents, Karl and Jenny, always had a very eclectic taste in music and I remember in 1972 that they played the Emerson Lake and Palmer album Pictures At An Exhibition in heavy rotation with other weird and wonderful tunes. As a ten year old I found this a very difficult piece of music to comprehend. Indeed any ten year old that could fully fathom the testosterone fuelled butchery of this classic Mussorsky piece would probably be painfully precocious and end up pursuing a career as a popular music academic later on in life. But lets give credit where its due because ELP’s iteration has become one of the seminal documents of the progressive rock era, a record that made its way into the collections of millions of high-school kids who had never heard of Modest Mussorgsky and knew nothing of Russia’s Nationalist ‘Five’. At the time, it introduced the new genre of classical rock to millions of listeners, including the classical community, most of whose members regarded this record as something akin to an armed violent assault. Track four off this record really stuck in my mind, a short original Moog synthesiser interlude, which was never part of the original Mussorsky template. Little did my parents know they were hegemonically pre-programming me to love synth-based music that would stay with me for life. Philip Larkin was right about parents.

I left school in 1979 at the age of 16 to pursue a backstage career in rock ‘n’ roll. Initially this was as a sound engineer before I drifted inevitably into tour management and subsequently a variety of other roles; but that’s a different story. This career development was all done without any formal education; I didn’t complete my first degree until I was 30. I learned on the job as everyone did back then. One of my frequent places of work was a rehearsal studio complex, John Henry Enterprises (JHE), located on Brewery Road just behind Kings Cross railway station in a shabby part of North London. Kings Cross was my de-facto arrival point in London when I rode the East Coats mainline train down from Hull. JHE also had an excellent on site café and a pro shop, which was managed by an incredibly scary; take no shit, Scouser called Barrington ‘Bazz’ Ward. Bazz was king roadie, the roadie’s roadie and what he didn’t know about roadieing probably wasn’t worth knowing. Many a time I stood before Bazz in JHE’s Pro Shop knees trembling while I attempted to purchase all the supplies for a forthcoming tour. Initially I was a very green; know nothing, regional kid working with crap up-and-coming regional bands. Bazz verbally and very bluntly confirmed this fact whenever I met him. But over the next 20 plus years my knowledge base and standing grew and Bazz had obviously taken all this in from behind his shop counter.

Jump forward to mid 2001 and I received an unsolicited out-of-the blue phone call from Bazz Ward, who even over the telephone sounded angry and scary. During this call he summoned me to a meeting at The Balmoral pub on the corner of Caledonia and Brewery Road right opposite the notorious Pentonville prison. During this meeting I discovered two things: 1. Bazz’s bark was much worse than his bite and 2. he had a cunning plan. Bazz had spent many years working with Keith Emerson. Keith was restless out in Santa Monica, California and wanted to tour again. Bazz made it very clear that I had undergone a 21-year observation period and it was deemed that I was now capable enough to be the tour manager, though Bazz was still the boss. Bazz would handle all things technical and I would take care of budgets, staff, contractors, musicians, travel, logistics, accommodation and anything else. For the next few months I worked with Bazz and spoke to Keith many times over the phone while we planned the tour. The tour was to be billed as Keith Emerson and The Nice. The Nice was Keith’s pre ELP band formed in 1967 with Lee Jackson (bass), David O’List (guitar) and Brian Davison (drums) to back soul singer PP Arnold. When PP Arnold departed, the band carried on but with a sound focused on Emerson’s Hammond organ showmanship, and abuse of the instrument, and their radical rearrangements of classical music themes and Bob Dylan songs.

Original member Lee Jackson and Brian Davison were augmented with seasoned session players Dave Kilminster on guitar, Phil Williams on bass and Pete Riley on drums. I hired a road crew, broke into Keith’s lock up, liberated his long retired equipment and commenced rehearsals at JHE. I hired and fired three sound engineers before I blackmailed an old colleague of mine to come out of retirement for the tour (it involved some graphic pictures of him and some strippers in Abilene, Texas that his wife wound not want to see).

It was day one of rehearsals when I got to meet Keith face-to-face for the first time. Soberly dressed in Prada he came across as a quiet successful businessman, which I suppose he was, as opposed to the show business exhibitionist. During these rehearsals I spent many hours discussing the tour with Keith. He was interested in all aspects of the tour including detailed scrutinising of my budgets, logistics, venue information, crew backgrounds and everything connected to the tour. I attended numerous meetings with his accountant in New Cavendish Street in London and even found myself sitting next to Bryan Ferry in reception on one of these occasions. I found the right coloured tour bus that met his very exacting requirements, made sure that hotels and transport details were precise.

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Rehearsing with Keith Emerson at JHE London in 2002.

I enjoyed my time with Keith as he was always polite, punctual, fair, humorous and strangely introverted often bordering on shy. On a personal level I found him annoying at times especially his inability to undertake everyday tasks such as opening a door, making a decision over mealtime menus or requesting “tepid water”. I guess that middle class upbringing and all those years of being a world famous, high-living rock star resulted in his aberrant behaviour. I hired one of my college students to work as his personal assistant during the tour to take care of these annoying shizzles; the best move I ever made. During the tour Keith would regularly throw me curve balls e.g. moments before departing on the carefully selected tour bus he’d announce that he wanted us to travel by train. Quite often the train option was a much slower, more expensive and more inconvenient then riding on the tour bus but he was the boss so I complied.

Off stage I found Keith very quiet; he spent almost every minute playing a small portable keyboard or harmonica. He’d sit on the train/tour bus with his headphones on ‘clacking’ away playing music (unheard by the other occupants) with a sly smile on his face. I often witnessed him playing his keyboard back-to-front just to make it more challenging. His offstage personality was in direct contrast to his stage persona. On stage he was a maniac and the audience loved it. He fought his Hammond organ every night, stabbed it with daggers until it howled with pain and forced weird and wonderful sounds from his ginormous six foot tall Moog synthesiser. I hated the music; I could not listen to Tarkus or Brain Salad Surgery but that was OK because once I’d put him on stage I would head to front of house to chat up the T-shirt girl while drinking tall glasses of Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic for the next two hours.

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Keith Emerson’s mighty Moog synthesiser.

Our merchandising was as eclectic as the music. The biggest selling item was Keith’s self penned book Pictures of an Exhibitionist that we literally shifted by the truckload. Not many rock ‘n’ roll tours can claim that their biggest selling merchandise item was a high priced, 350 page piece of literature. He signed my copy “To Touringtim lots a luv careering Keith”. He knew of my love of Public Image Ltd album Metal Box and the single Careering. While on tour in Glasgow, we recorded a live album which turned into a three CD box set where I was credited ‘Executive Producer’; I really must add this to my CV. While on our way to the Croydon Fairfield Halls gig we stopped off to have afternoon tea and scones with his lovely elderly mum. Touring with Keith Emerson was full of these wonderful surprises.

Only last week I was stood in an open plan office taking the mickey out of Keith and doing my inept impression of him to a bewildered audience of wage slaves and office drones. Don’t let this mickey taking fool you. I was incredible fond of Keith Emerson, he made an indelible impression on me. I saw the vulnerable side of Keith and the last two nights have passed without much sleep thinking about his lonely violent suicide. His degenerative medical condition in his right hand, resulting in his inability to play keyboards, had taken to him to a very dark depressed place. Of course he could have bought a cheap plastic USB keyboard and smashed notes into a computer programme with a single finger and let some fruity loops software do all the work but that wasn’t Keith. He was a perfectionist. I remember when we were preparing for the tour, Keith absolutely insisted that we have a $150k Steinway 8’ 6” grand piano on tour with us. We found a piano, built the world’s biggest flight case and shipped the thing around the globe with us. The tour’s trucking company loved us because we had so much equipment; the bright blue pantechnicons with the eagle on the front sure made for an impressive sight outside of the loading bay each night.

My thoughts go out to Keith’s family, who he never discussed with me, and the fans that loved the man. I still feel shocked but not entirely surprised that he chose to take his own life in such a violent fashion. There’s another article to be written here about the absolutely appalling duty of care that the music industry has towards its participants, but that’s for another day. My memories of Keith are all pleasant ones, despite the mickey taking. He was a visionary musician who fused rock ‘n’ roll with classical, jazz and world music and he set a standard by which others would be judged. Thanks for the music and the memories Keith; to me you’ll always be the Dr Who of rock ‘n’ roll and part of my childhood past.