Bizarro World

For those unacquainted with early 1960s DC comics, I’d better explain what Bizarro World is…

In short it is a cube shaped planed called Htrae (“Earth” spelled backwards) that featured in a series of Superman comics. In this world, everything was topsy-turvy and back to front. Beauty was despised and ugliness celebrated; stupidity was regarded as a positive attribute, and to be called intelligent was a grievous insult; creating anything deemed to be perfect was a crime. You get the picture.

Imagine if we had a similar culture here and now. What would it mean? Here are a few possible examples…

  • Katie Price would have a trophy cabinet full of literary awards for her erm… “novels”.
  • Every McDonalds “restaurant” (do they know how ironic they’re being by describing their fast food outlets with that word by the way?) would be awarded the coveted Michelin star for culinary excellence.
  • The Daily Star “newspaper” (another unintentionally ironic description) would have a string of Pulitzer Prizes to it’s name.
  • The head of Volkswagen’s diesel car division would be the recipient of a Nobel prize for outstanding contributions to combating climate change.
  • Donald Trump would be declared sane.
  • Tony Blair would be made a Middle East Peace Envoy (oh… hang on, that actually happened, didn’t it?)

All of these things, including the last one, all seem too ridiculous to be true don’t they? But we DO live in a world where things just as absurd are happening. Allow me to explain…

Out of all branches of the arts, the music industry seems to be the one most populated by critics and awards panels who, frankly, couldn’t find their own arse even if you drew them a map. Witness the recent Grammy awards. The young lady who swept the board (I’m not going to name her because she has quite enough publicity already, thank you very much) is considered by many to be a supremely talented singer/songwriter. Such is the adulation she receives you would imagine, if you’d never heard a single note of her music, that her use of chord progressions was ground-breakingly original; that her voice was the type that only came along once in a generation; that her gift for lyrical & poetic expression was on a par with Dylan Thomas or William Wordsworth; that her skills as a writer of melodies set her apart from her contemporaries much like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Someone who possessed all of these attributes would, surely, deserve the critical acclaim she has received in recent times? Right? Well, it is at this point that we leave planet Earth and head directly for Bizarro World. The recordings inflicted on us by many award recipients these days (including those by the heroine of this tale) are full of the tell-tale digital artefact that is evidence of a performance which has been enhanced by pitch correction software. Can’t hit the difficult notes? Don’t worry… we can just use auto-tune to fix that & you’ll still get the Grammy (we can even do this for your “live” shows too these days). Stuck for ideas for your new song? Never mind, just use the same formula you used on the last one, churn out another big power ballad & the award can still be yours. Scared you might fluff a big, important performance, even WITH auto-tune? Fear not… It’s OK to just mime nowadays.

Let’s not ignore the phenomenon of plagiarism either. Another recent Grammy & Brit awardee was found to have directly lifted the melody from someone else’s song & had to give them a credit (and, presumably a royalty cheque) as a co-writer for the ditty which won him his gong. Was he stripped of his award? Of course not… he was considered to be “cool” and that, ladies & gentlemen, trumps everything in the music industry equivalent of planet Htrae.

What can be done? Well, how about instituting the same system as in other fields when it comes to giving out awards? Which chef gets a Michelin Star (for example) isn’t decided by ordinary punters who can simply tell if something is tasty or not; these awards are adjudicated by people who know their way around a recipe and can tell if a dish is truly original in it’s use of ingredients and preparation… as well as being scrumptious. The Palm D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival has NEVER been won by a superhero blockbuster franchise, no matter how “cool” or commercially successful it proved to be. And you don’t award Olympic Gold to the “coolest” athlete… it goes to the person who crosses the finishing line ahead of the others. If they are found to have cheated, they have to give their medal back. Seems fair to me.

Imagine if Brits & Grammys were given out by a panel who actually looked at the sheet music for a song, and rejected those nominees who were just churning out yet another 70BPM, Aeolian Mode woeful dirge documenting a failed relationship. Imagine if musical awards were distributed on the basis of actual musical talent (can you or can’t you hit those high register notes without the sound engineer’s laptop giving your voice a leg-up?)… and not just doled out to whoever had shifted the most product that year or whose publicity machine had managed to get them the most coverage in the popular press. If that were to be the case, then these awards might actually be worth something. Now there’s a thought!

Until next time,

Have fun.

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

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Bad Guitars? There’s No Such Thing!

It struck me, the other day, just how lucky we are as guitarists these days. What I mean is this: Can you think of a genuinely bad guitar that’s available now? I bet you can’t, can you? Sure, there may be guitars that aren’t quite right for you in terms of sound and/or playability. But there really aren’t any badly made guitars available now, no matter how tight your budget. This hasn’t always been the way of things.

As you may recall, about a year ago, I took delivery of a cheap Les Paul copy made by Harley Benton. It cost £120 and it ticks all of the Les Paul boxes…

  • Mahogany body? Check.
  • Mahogany set neck? Check.
  • Flamed maple body cap? Check.
  • Alnico Humbucking pickups? Check.
  • High standard of fit & finish? Check.
  • Well set up, straight out of the box? Check.
  • Great Les Paul tone? Check.

Contrast this with the Les Paul copy I owned back in 1979… Here’s a picture, of the very same make & model (not my actual guitar – I just found this pic on the web, but mine was identical):

satellite-lp

It was a Satellite branded copy of a Les Paul Custom & in this picture it doesn’t look too bad, but trust me… it was! Let’s take a look at what kind of features a 1970s Les Paul copy had to offer…

  • Mahogany Body? No… plywood.
  • Mahogany set neck? No… I’m not sure what kind of wood it was, because of the thick paint but even if we assume it WAS genuine mahogany, it was attached to the body with 4 screws – it wasn’t a set neck.
  • Maple body cap? No… Some of the paint wore off, around the selector switch, after I’d had it a little while to reveal pressed fibre board sitting on top of the plywood body – it wasn’t even attached properly. You could press the arched top in about 1/8 of an inch in between the pickups, so there was obviously a gap between the body & the “arched” top.
  • Alnico humbuckers? No… cheap ceramic magnet single coils inside fake humbucker covers. The inside of these pickup covers were covered with the Pepsi logo & Japanese writing – they had been made from old soft drinks cans!
  • High standard of fit & finish? No… sharp fret ends, and a neck that could be moved from side to side by about a millimetre, even when the neck screws were fully tightened. Also, the plastic “mother of pearl” inlay at the 3rd fret fell out within the first week I had the guitar & had to be superglued back in.
  • Well set up, out of the box? No… It had an action that was borderline unplayable – you could fit a Bic biro under the strings at the 12th fret & if you lowered the bridge to bring the action down, it began to sound like a sitar with all the fret buzz.
  • Great Les Paul tone? No… it sounded cheap & raspy and was prone to squealing microphonic feedback if you got it anywhere near gig volume. Even when I replaced the pickups with that staple of 70s retrofit pickups, a set of DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbuckers, it just became a louder version of the same “fingernails-down-a-blackboard” tone.

And how much did this guitar, (which despite all it’s faults was my pride & joy as a 12 year old fledgling musician) cost? Well, I bought it out of my Saturday job money from my mother’s Great Universal Stores mail order catalogue for £80-00 @ £2-50 per week over 32 weeks. Let’s put that into perspective…

A quick check on a couple of websites, that compare the value of money from years gone by, reveals that eighty quid in 1979 is the equivalent of about £300 in 2016. Can you imagine paying that amount for a guitar nowadays? A guitar which had a poorly fitting neck, fake pickups inside covers made from old drinks tins, and a hardboard top sitting on a plywood body? Of course not! Any company offering such an instrument would be out of business in a heartbeat. A similar sum (£300) these days will buy you something like this…

esp-ltd-h-101fm-2016-spec-dbs-349218

Or this…

nighthawk

All the right tone woods & decent pickups. Professional quality, well made, well set up instruments. This is the new normal… good quality pro standard guitars for, what would once have been seen as, beginner instrument prices. Not a whiff of plywood or old Pepsi cans anywhere! These guitars cost £300 in today’s money, and if we take inflation into account over the passage of time, it turns out that £300 back in the late ’70s, would be nearly £1,100 now.

And, going in the opposite direction through time, don’t forget that £300 today was roughly £80 back then. So whichever way you look at it – a £300 guitar for about £80, or a £1,100 guitar for £300, the way prices have dropped, while quality has improved is astonishing!

As I said, guitarists are a lucky bunch these days!

Until next time, here are a few more of the horrible guitars we probably all remember fondly from the late ’70s/early ’80s which, by today’s standards would be judged as little more than firewood…

The Hondo Rainbow:

£95-00 in my local music shop & available in a range of day-glo colours:

hondo-rainbow

This was a truly “aspirational” guitar as (despite it’s plywood body) it had GENUINE humbuckers!

The Woolworths Top Twenty:

wooliestop20

My first ever electric guitar. I paid £25 for it, second hand, in 1978. Sort of what you’d get if you described a strat to someone who’d never seen one before and asked them to draw what you’d told them. I plugged this little beast into the mic socket on my Amstrad “music centre” and drove my parents mad!

Kay Les Paul Copy with built-in effects…

kay-lp-fx

Don’t let the glossy finish fool you – this was another plywood, bolt-on LP forgery with those fake humbuckers again. But, it had hi-tech on board effects. All the 70s staples of phase, chorus, fuzz and trem-echo (whatever that was). There was a lad a couple of years above me at school who had one of these & he could play Rockin’ All Over The World… my first guitar-hero worship!

These were the kind of guitars that those of us who remember the 1970s learned to play on… invariably made badly out of cheap materials. We didn’t know how horrible they were, compared to a “real” Fender or Gibson, because the nearest we ever got to a good instrument was to stare longingly at one in a guitar shop window. My local music shop had one, just ONE, Fender Telecaster on display for about a year (the rest of their stock was all the usual Kay, Columbus, Hondo & CSL plywood planks). Me and my friends would go into town on a Saturday morning and spend ages just looking at it and imagine what it would be like to actually play a guitar as good as that!

So next time you hear someone complaining that the latest incarnation of the Squier Strat, tele or Epiphone Les Paul is sub-standard because it doesn’t have Sprague Orange Drop capacitors on the tone control, or because the neck profile isn’t accurate for a 50s/60s re-issue, or that the pickup selector isn’t a genuine Switchcraft part… just do what us middle aged old farts have been doing since the beginning of time & tell them that they don’t know they’re born. Young ‘uns these days, eh?

Have Fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

The Economics Of Gigging

I “turned professional” as a musician in 1991 & since that time I have scratched a living from music in one form or another. I found out pretty early on that the most reliable source of income from my skills was to teach. This is quite lucky for me as I enjoy working from home and setting my own hours. I also get a real thrill from seeing a fellow musician overcoming their difficulties, progressing towards their musical goals & knowing I’ve played some small part in that. I’ll be honest, though, I’ve really never enjoyed gigging. Yes, that’s right I DID just say that! To some musicians, gigging is their raison d’etre – it’s how they define themselves & in their eyes, a musician who doesn’t regularly get out and play in public is somehow not a “proper” musician. I beg to differ.

Don’t get me wrong, I have gigged (quite extensively, in fact) in the past and I would happily do so again, with one proviso… I want to earn money doing it. I don’t think this is unreasonable, do you? No-one would expect any other skilled artisan to ply their trade at a loss, but somehow being a musician is to be expected to perform “for the love of it”. Just out of interest I sat down with a pen & paper and a calculator the other day and ran through some numbers to see if it were a viable option to gig for a living. This is what I found out…

OK, so let’s start with defining how much a musician should be able to earn. I decided it would be reasonable to expect an income roughly on a par with any other skilled tradesman. A bricklayer can expect to earn (if my research is correct) an annual salary of around £24,000 so let’s use that as our baseline for calculations. 24K a year breaks down to two thousand quid a month, right? Well, let’s put that into the perspective of gigging. Let’s assume you play ten gigs a month – a couple of weeks where you get a Fri/Sat/Sun run of gigs on a weekend & a couple of weeks where you only manage to play Friday & Saturday. This, in my experience is pretty normal. Sure, you’ll occasionally get a really lucrative period which exceeds this, but you’ll also have fallow patches too, where the work isn’t coming in. We’ll assume these periods cancel each other out.

Assuming the average number of gigs per month is ten, then in order to hit the target of £2000 per month, you’re going to need to earn on average £200 per gig. If you’re in a fairly typical four piece band this means the band has to show a profit of £800 per gig. That’s what has to be left over after all the overheads are taken into account. Let’s take a look at what those are…

Well, for a start off you’re going to need a van to get to & from shows. A quick search reveals that a decent, reliable vehicle is going to run to at least £100-£150 per month in HP payments. Then you’ll need a full PA system with decent monitors, a lighting rig of some kind and a backdrop. All of this equipment has to be bought (probably on credit) and represents a bill landing on the doormat every month. Let’s assume that the total monthly cost of outfitting the band with all the necessary gear comes to £250. Which if you’re playing ten shows a month represents an overhead of £25 per gig.

What other expenses are there? Well, you’re going to need a couple of roadies. I’ve been in bands in the past where we’ve tried to do without them, and sooner or later we always relented and went back to having that extra couple of guys on hand to pitch in. You simply need (in my experience) the mixing desk out front being controlled by someone who can actually hear the front-of-house mix, rather than just having it on stage and going with your “usual settings” which may or may not be right for the room you’re playing in. Also, some of the venues in my part of the world are a little erm… “boisterous” if you know what I mean. I’ve had items stolen from the dressing room whilst I’ve been on stage and I’ve experienced hostility from drunks at gigs many times. Just the security of knowing you’ve got a couple of big chunky lads looking after things is worth every penny. So… how much do roadies cost then? Well, if we assume that we’re doing this as a business, and everything is above board, then you have to pay them minimum wage. Let’s say you’re paying them from the moment they get picked up from home (usually around 6pm) until they get home, sometime around midnight. That’s six hours at £6-50 per hour meaning that two roadies are going to cost £78 in total for the evening. Add that, along with the £25 for equipment overheads to the tally.

Another good idea is to keep a petty cash balance for things like fuel costs and those emergency equipment repairs that any band has to cope with. Let’s say each band member chips in a fiver per gig to keep this topped up. In my last band we used to do this & then share it out once a year around Christmas if there was a surplus. OK then… that’s another £20 per gig to go into the expenses column.

And finally we come to the question of getting the gigs. The scene in my part of the world is pretty much sewn up by various entertainment agencies. Sure… some bands manage to gig without using an agent but these are the acts who’ve either been on the circuit for years (decades in some cases) and have enough of a reputation to not need representation. Most of these bands began by using an agent anyway so it’s unrealistic to assume you can earn good money as an unknown quantity without one. The other kind of acts who eschew representation are the kind of amateur, hobby bands who simply play for the enjoyment of it and don’t care about covering their costs. If you price yourself cheap enough, you can always find work but that’s not what this is about, remember? So, lets accept that an agent is a necessity. How much does one cost?

Well, the fees vary, but I’ve never, ever, paid an agent as little as 10%. I mention this number because the popular myth is that the agent is “Mr. Ten Percent”. In my experience, it’s often between 15% & 25% of your earnings as a band. Not your profit after overheads, they take a cut of the gross earnings. There’s also VAT to put on that, but we’ll assume that the band is being run as a business and is VAT registered so you can claim that back. Let’s say for the purposes of simple calculation that the agent is taking 20% of everything the band gets paid. OK let’s add up the numbers:

Payment to musicians commensurate with a professional salary : £800

Equipment costs : £25

Roadies : £78

Petty cash fund : £20

Total before agency fees : £923

Agency fee of 20% : £184-60

Total band earnings per gig for each member to earn a professional salary : £1107-60

So, there you have it. Eleven hundred quid per gig is what it would take for each member of a typical four piece band to earn the same as a bricklayer. And this doesn’t take into account the cost of getting a group of four musicians ready to hit the road, either. There are going to be expenses for rehearsal studios too, but even without these factored in it’s still a pretty tall order to command this kind of money. Even the best paid bands in my area – the ones who’ve been at it for years, slogging away building a reputation are lucky to earn half of this figure. Sure… you can cast your net further afield (I’ll admit that my little corner of the world isn’t the most affluent place) in the hope of getting better paid work, but that, in itself, will increase your travelling costs & even lead to accommodation expenses if you’re touring the country. It therefore seems unlikely that a professional musician will, by playing gigs, be able to earn the kind of money that their artisan skills should command in an ideal world.

What a good job I enjoy teaching for a living.

Until next time… Have Fun 🙂

John Robson Guitar Tuition

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