A Punter’s Perspective March 2014: No Such Things As Mistakes

Oops! There are no such things as mistakes.
Oops! There are no such things as mistakes.

A Punter’s Perspective: Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage

No Such Things As Mistakes Part I

First published in Trad and Now magazine, March 2014

As has been the case from time to time in the seven years plus of A Punter’s Perspective, ’tis the night before deadline and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a half-decent idea for a folk music magazine article.

Realising my dilemma on the train to work today, I turned to the world’s font of most knowledge (and funny cat videos): Twitter. And I asked publicly to all, and pointedly to three or four music bloggers, what might a good topic be.

Image courtesy of The Dutch Guy
Image courtesy of The Dutch Guy

The answer came from a former radio presenter now blogger/vlogger (a kindred spirit, then) from the Netherlands who goes by the eponymous title of ‘The Dutch Guy’ (@DutchGuyOnAir), and he suggested:

“How about talking about some mistakes indie artists might make?”

By curious coincidence, this is a topic I’d considered before and only pulled back from it at the risk of causing offence.

Causing offence is a service I often provide — usually unintentionally.

I’ve put enough noses out of joint in the music world in the past nine years by commission, omission or at the very least, blind stupidity, and have no need to add to that score by inadvertent misadventure.

I often say that I can have intelligence insulted without watching certain TV programs or listening to certain radio stations. (And that I didn’t mention them by name is at least a sign that I’m learning — slowly.)

Similarly, I have no need to add to the great heaving morass of people I have annoyed by mistake or misinterpretation by going out of my way to rile them up. It’s just not how I’m wired and those who I run into who DO delight in this way of living, well, I just edge slowly away from them and run.

[UPDATE: This article was written at a time when I was pretty happy with life: working 6.5hrs a day at a very large multinational company — the one that never forgets that its THEIR money — bouncing between two locations (a girlfriend’s place in the south west of Sydney and a three-week on, three-week off arrangement taking care of a Tibetan Terrier and a three-level mansion of a place high, high up above the Pittwater on Sydney’s northern beaches.

I did not know it at the time, but all three were: mistakes. But maybe I had to have all of those fall and fail to embed the lessons of crowing too noisily about when things are going well. If you don’t know the parable about the bird that finds warmth and heat from a very unexpected place, then announces it to the world, ask me sometime. It’s not for here or I too could get covered in ship.]

Therefore, some disclaimers.

I am totally in awe of musicians, artists and singer-songwriters.

The concept of playing a three to 20-stringed instrument (or one you blow, slap or pump) while singing and possibly dancing (or at least a little light duck-walking), and then doing that from 20 minutes at a time, for up to three or four hours, leaves me absolutely breathless.

So any observations that I have about how musos ply their trade are made in that context. (See this is the fine print and early warning sign that so many miss and the next thing I’m being pilloried and people are jumping to conclusions so fast they strain their hamstrings.)

Je suis un armchair critic
Je suis un armchair critic

Much as one might loll on the couch and announce to the world where Wayne Rooney went wrong taking that penalty, or tut-tut at cricketer Michael Clarke for a form slump that sees him amass only 60 runs in four innings, there are those who ignore the bulk of your work and home in on one stuff-up.

Think here of Ellie Goulding at the football final and other poplets at events where it becomes painfully obvious that not only do they have a backing track but the voice track is being transmitted via tape as well.

For whatever reason, many do love to point out the flaws and the pit marks and the imperfections first. Which is probably not a bad indicator that the whole is pretty OK. If one or two blips are so salient as to draw comment, the rest must be kinda groovy.

I make some casual observations here, but do so as a punter, a gig-goer and record-listener, one who never ever evah claims to have any sort of expertise, but it comes from one who hangs around the green room a little more than most punters.

I probably offer these observations a little more politely than many armchair sports critics. I’m offering what I see from the perspective of being a sideline observer and nothing more, albeit one with a compulsion to document those mumbled thoughts. And broadcast them when the opportunity arises (e.g. four years on radio).

Salience. Image courtesy of guerrillaguide.wordpress.com.
Salience. Image courtesy of guerrillaguide.wordpress.com.

So, I do so by repeating my banner-like, underlying motivation that I truly love youse all, but I can also say as a communication specialist, a trainer, and a human:

I notice stuff.

Stuff you do that hurts what you’re there to do, adds a little distance between you and your audience, and occasionally makes the punters vote with their feet.

I’ve definitely watched the flight factor in action enough times to almost see it coming. Laud knows I do it myself.

But to borrow an old HR phrase, there are no such things as mistakes, only opportunities.

I’ll soften that and say that there definitely are mistakes, but they’re accentuated and emphasised as mistakes if you insist on doing them over and over again. Especially when it’s to your detriment, financial cost or reputational risk.

Learn from the master on this topic. I’m something of an expert at this in terms of practical application. I often say I’m not crazy (I had myself tested) but if insanity is doing the same things repeatedly and expecting a different answer, I can ‘Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL)’ my way to a doctorate and 36% of the thesis is already written.

Dr Quinn, Malapropism Man.

Ashley at Moorebank Sports Club believes if my field is communication, I would be Dr Quinn, C-Man. Let’s not dwell on that, and please don’t say it out loud.

I could title the thesis: ‘Screws I Have Upped’.

(If you think I’m warming very  s l o w l y  to the topic then you’d be right. An empathetic soul would argue I’m being wise in setting the playing field and agenda. A more cynical type might believe I’m milking this for all its worth for a word count. That never happens in article or academic writing. However I may or may not be adding ‘Part I’ to the title above.)

My Dutch muse has suggested a couple of items to mention here, including engagement with your audiences via social media, advertising gigs, and actually turning up to your gigs with merchandise. But I’ll let you read about those for yourself at www.dutchguytv.com

I want to start with a surprisingly common faux pas, and I don’t mind covering ground previously covered, or rehashing sentiments of others here since it happens with such regularity it really does bear repeating.

Humility vs self-deprecation
Humility vs self-deprecation

Please don’t talk yourself down.

People may do that to you, for you and about you, but that comes part and parcel with putting yourself out there in the public sphere. Not everyone’s going to love what you do, and you might get some negative comments, a less than flattering review, or a bit of chat behind your back that you probably wouldn’t write down and put in quote marks on your gig ads.

This is especially salient (that word) at the moment [November 2015] when I’m considering the value and utility of CD reviews. I’ve done about three in my time, plus a detailed analysis and discussion of ‘Let The Franklin Flow’ for the Daramalan College Student Newsletter in 1983 (Year 12). My view on them in the main is it’s just one person out of seven billion expressing an opinion.

And media 101 teaches us this: when you’re reading, seeing or hearing a critique (or any piece), ask yourself who the source is, is it credible, and what are the motivations for that review.

More on CD reviews another time.

The simple proposition and invitation to you is: don’t bag yourself out. Especially don’t do it on stage.

Do any of these sound familiar?

— “I’ll give this song a go. I haven’t played it in ages so I’ll probably forget half the words.”

— “Today has been so hectic and mad that we only just got here and haven’t really had a chance to soundcheck properly. Hopefully it doesn’t sound too crap!”

— “That was a bit of a new one, so I’m sorry I repeated the second verse at the end when it should have been the chorus.”

It’s so often to hear and see this as I an MC-ing that I can often be found off to the side of the stage or out back, bashing the forehead into the masonry as yet another talented, not-so-well-known fills the audience in on what not to like about her or his music and song.

A fresh-faced MC wields some power via the microphone
A fresh-faced MC wields some power via the microphone

There’s a very powerful force in the world of presenting which I learnt early on: (s)he who holds the microphone holds the power. I actually believe it was a bastardisation of my elder sister’s learning from her teaching studies, the microphone in this instance being in-built into, or inferred from, the teacher. And some teachers, let’s face it, have internal megaphones set to Force 10 from Navarone.

(Unlike teachers, I’d counsel you to keep the audience in after class (available via calls for encores), but not confiscate their tennis balls or chewing gum. Maybe their mobile/cell phones. Your call.)

Where were we?

We’re conditioned to mostly believe in some level of authority wielded by people standing before us and presenting information, often more so when it comes bundled with electronic amplification. We tend to attend to the orator before us.

But if you stand/sit in this position of power, in front of your minions, wired for sound, and announce that you’re not going to be very good, we’ll take you at your word.

There is a skill in under-promising and over-delivering and it has its place, but doing this in the context of previewing your own performance is not one of them. You’re setting yourself up for failure, and in so doing, you can risk ratchetting the tone and the mood down several notches.

Which is not to say that you should come out and announce to the crowd that you, as a god’s gift to your genre, have arrived and that those present should prepare to see heaven for the next two to three brackets.

Do be confident, flash those pearly whites, and ready those assembled for the gift of your time and art that you’re about to embark on.

And if you do swap a verse or two, or muck up the chorus, then just cross that bridge when you come to it. (See what I did there?) But don’t point it out afterwards because, and here’s the dirty little secret: it’s a new song and we didn’t know any different.

It’s one of the fundamental and simple axioms of performance: don’t point out your mistakes.

Unless you’re such a seasoned performer that you can do it such that it takes nothing away from the mood and actually generates some genuinely funny, self-deprecating good humour.

But I would counsel a ridiculously large bucket of caution on this one as it’s usually only the real pros that can pull that off successfully. And every fumble and bumble is rehearsed and the perceived upping of stuff is just them following the script.

If you’ve got some of your faithful rent-a-crowd in, and you make a hash of an old song, you can usually rely on them to know your lyrics better than you do. And then it becomes a collaborative vaudeville act getting one of your older babies out from hiding and successfully navigated to fruition. The crowd in this setting is a resource, so draw on them. Open it up to the gallery to fill in any of your senior-moment-like gaps in your wordification.

The BordererS -- always seem to have the best fun on stage
The BordererS — always seem to have the best fun on stage

You do, however, run the risk of no one knowing and joining you in the silence, which could leave you feeling a little naked up there without the fine threads of all those killer lyrics that are floating around just out of reach. Proceed with extreme caution on this one too.

Only an arrogant, pretentious type who makes being on stage an opportunity to disappear up their own fundament would stride out on stage and announce that they’re going to be wonderful. But the live acts that I really enjoy and look forward to seeing live totally radiate their joy of being there and having fun with the audience.

It’s infectious in a good way and it takes people along with you. I won’t name names because it’s a fairly big one, but years ago I was MC for a hugely talented Australian and his band at Woodford Folk Festival. And between the five performers in his band, I’d rate the ‘I Want To Be There’ factor they were projecting at about 20%. Which is a crying shame when you think of all the uber-talented talent in this country that would almost sacrifice a limb to be on that bill.

It’s not a folk genre, but a large stadium rock band from the UK whose name rhymes with Coldplay had the habit of looking forward to the gig ahead by announcing in the first song of every show on their Mylo Xyloto tour: “It’s going to be a f——— good one tonight!”

I was at the Sydney gig on this tour. And it was as predicted by Chris Martin: a f——- good one. Ask my then 17yo daughter (30 years my junior) bouncing along next to me.

Meanwhile in Parijs:

There’s nothing wrong with announcing to the crowd that you’re looking forward to a great show, but if you dip the shoulders, mumble sideways into the mic and pretty much say, “Well, let’s just get through this, shall we?”* then few if any are going to have a good time.

I had a colleague on radio who looked and sounded like a dementor from Harry Potter, but somehow it worked for him and people adored his show. I caught it when I could, even though it’s not a genre that I would classically claim to be a favourite. But on quiet weekday afternoons between 2-4pm in a home office, sure.

So I’m still in second gear on this one, but I’m using an evil Satanic computer device made by the Piece of Fruit company so I have absolutely no idea how many words we’re up to. I’ll tuck this away off to the publishers for this month and pick up the curmudgeonly quill in April.

Though I’m not saying April of which year…

In the meantime, if you have a view on things that you’ve noticed yourself that bear an outing, contact me via Twitter at @overheardprod, by email to bill.fj.quinn at gmail.com or drop me a line in the comments below.

Overheard Productions is also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/OverheardProductions

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