Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Interview with an independent music producer

How do you get on in the music business if you aren't Timbaland's cousin? And what about the hurdles, pitfalls and Faustian pacts that the industry is notorious for?

In this interview I conducted in 2004 for Focus West, a digital media business support project in West London, I spoke to "Little" Wayne Antoine, an indie producer who has worked with some of the top names in the business, including Craig David and Jamelia.

Making it big: Little Wayne talks to Focus West
“Little Wayne” Antoine has worked in many studios including Groove and a Quarter and Jetstars' Cave studio and with some of the music industry's best-known artists including Craig David, Jamelia, and Daniel Debourg. He was also one half of the Silent Voice production team. However, he always aspired to having a studio of his own.

Wayne realised his dream when, along with business partner Pavan (Stixman) Chavda, he founded Poisonous Music, an independent music business based in West London. The company now comprises a record label, recording studios and production teams.

Wayne and Pavan met while at school. They went from running a sound system to producing their own material, and eventually produced tracks for Stixman, who was signed to an independent record label.

Originally a DJ, Wayne acquired many of the skills needed in record production "on the job" and found himself more inclined to the engineering side of the business. He also studied at the School of Audio Engineering and got jobs as a sound engineer in London. Wayne's technical understanding of sound engineering, combined with his musical background, enabled him to appreciate both sides of the business. And by 2000 he was managing the studio and record label he had developed with Pavan.

Poisonous Music expanded when DJ Daniel (Baby Boom) Francis joined the team. The current line-up is completed by JP, producer and studio engineer, and Anita (Neetz) Patel, who is in charge of promotion and marketing.

Wayne has learnt to recognise the importance of getting the business side of things right. When he needed expert advice on developing a business plan he turned to the Business Enterprise Centre (BEC) in West London. He also received support from the Prince's Trust.

The music industry has developed rapidly over the last ten years, especially in the development and ready availability of reliable, affordable technology. Wayne points out that the competition for recording studios now includes people at home with laptops. High-end studios are suffering, and can no longer rely on what was traditionally their technological advantage. But Wayne also sees this as a good thing and says that competition is vigorous and stimulates creativity.

Record companies are merging as the market consolidates. Wayne sees this as an opportunity for the independents, and he believes the future for Poisonous will be in production. With fewer A&R people signing the big acts and investing in talent, the majors are relying more and more on smaller production companies who can provide a ready-made "package" which the large record companies can then take to market.

Smaller, edgier acts are seen as more of a financial risk by the industry, although it is often creative artists from the underground, such as Dizzee Rascal, who reinvigorate the mainstream music scene.

Digital technology has created new problems as well as opportunities. The threat of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, such as KaZaa and Grokster is taken seriously by the industry: kids just don't buy singles anymore. However, Wayne also points out that new markets have opened up, such as ringtones, which now outsell singles. Opportunities still exist for writers, music publishers and performers. In fact, the situation is improving, with a resurgence of interest in watching live music, despite the downward trend in record sales.

For people starting out in the creative industries, Wayne's advice is to concentrate on developing your skills and creativity in your chosen art form, but to not neglect the business of things. Making contacts and networking are essential. Wayne was originally a studio manager and gradually took over the studio's client list. While advertising can be expensive and isn't always effective, word of mouth is often the best way of getting known - and certainly costs a lot less. Publicity and PR is often more direct than advertising, and exposure in the music press carries more weight because it's seen as impartial. Following a write-up by the Business Enterprise Centre, Wayne found himself on the cover of HFM magazine: that's the sort of publicity you just can't buy.

Wayne stresses the importance of getting sound, impartial business advice and support early on. He particularly benefited from the Business Enterprise Centre's "Surviving into the Mainstream" programme. This was set up to support women and black and minority ethnic (BME) creative practitioners. Not having had a break from work for over a year, he found it really useful to share experiences and ideas with other creative people on the residential week-end courses. People in the creative industries often work on their own or in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs): getting together with fellow professionals was a great opportunity - and he found everyone he met was facing the same problems in running their creative business: raising finance, dealing with late payers, negotiating contracts, struggling with red tape, etc. Without the chance to share experiences and discuss solutions you'd be on your own, according to Wayne.

He also received invaluable advice and practical support through BEC's Rent Support Scheme, and recognises that finding affordable workspace is crucial for new creative businesses. Wayne has gone from being someone seeking advice to someone who gives it, and he now often addresses Enterprise Seminars for people setting up their own businesses and talks about the key issues they'll face. The experience of standing up in front of people and talking about the business as an industry insider has also boosted his confidence.

Having got a lot out of being in the music industry, Wayne has also taken practical steps to put something back into the wider community. Media 4 Life, a group he set up in 2003 aims to encourage young people interested in the media/music industry to actively participate in a new and dynamic project. Media 4 Life works particularly with young people who are not in any form of employment, education or training. By providing workshops it provides participants with the relevant skills and knowledge that will both inspire and motivate them to plan for their future and commit to some form of education, employment or training. The workshops are delivered by industry professionals with over 10 years experience in the media/music industry. Media 4 Life aims to give a more holistic view of the media/music industry, highlighting the many different and varied career paths and opportunities available.

Wayne, who has worked with some of the big names in the music business but describes himself as a "background person”, points out: 'It's more than just being a star'. Getting on in the creative industries requires a lot of hard work and setbacks are inevitable. However, by getting aspiring creative practitioners to take a realistic view of the media/music industry, they can discover that there any many possible avenues rather than stardom. Wayne hopes that Media 4 Life will realise young people's potential and help them succeed in whatever area of the business they eventually become involved in.

Media 4 Life has already done two pilot sessions (in June & August of this year), and has opened up the age group from 16 up to 24 years. Media 4 Life runs evening courses and free daytime sessions in all aspects of media and music and the career options available. Both the Business Enterprise Centre and the BBC's Media Village have featured Media 4 Life.

© Robert Dennis for Focus West, 2004

The Focus West project was a business support agency for the digital media sector, based in the Business Enterprise Centre in West London and supported by the London Development Agency and London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

This interview appeared in a section of the website entitled “I Could Do That” – a series of inspirational and informative interviews aimed at giving aspiring creative professionals an insight into the practicalities of setting up their own business.

Digital media articles: Audio branding and recruitment

Here are two articles that I wrote in 2006 for New Media Knowledge, a learning and business information hub for companies and individuals working in UK digital media.

Sounds Subliminal: Branding The Future With Audio
Ringtones, radio and TV audio branding, MP3s and podcasting all offer ways for brands to connect with consumers. This article is a write-up of an event held jointly by NMK and Music Tank. The event looked at how marketers and brands can use audio as a way to engage with consumers in the digital space.
Click here to read the original article on audio branding on the NMK website.

Situations Pretty Vacant
This is a report of a speaker event held by NMK at One Aldwych which looked at how agencies large and small are facing up to the skills shortage. It also examined the strategies agencies are employing to find talented people.
To read this article about the skills gap in the digital media sector on the NMK website, click here.

About NMK
NMK is a not-for-profit body in receipt of public funding. NMK operates across economic boundaries, bringing together knowledge and expertise from commercial companies, professional bodies and higher education to provide objective, independent guidance and promote the success of the UK's digital economy. Since NMK began as New Media Knowledge in 1997, it has been supported by the University of Westminster, one of the UK's leading educational institutions for digital media.

London South Central: Bermondsey Street and the South Bank

This is an article I wrote a few years ago for World Language Consultants Ltd, a language school in Bermondsey Street in South London. Some of the facts have changed (e.g. the Eurostar train terminal that connects Britain to the Continent is now at St Pancras), but most of the places referred to are the same. If you plan to visit the capital it might be a good idea to check some of the tourist websites (such as visitlondon.com) that contain current information on visiting times and prices, etc.

Exploring London South Central
Whether you live in London or are just visiting, you'll find there's plenty to see and do in London South Central. Explore the area's rich history and culture, hunt for bargains in its arcades and markets, and chill out at some of the trendiest cafés and bars in the capital.

London South What ?
London South Central is the new name for one of London's oldest districts. It includes Vauxhall, Waterloo, London Bridge, Bankside and Elephant & Castle. Traditionally, the area has always been seen as charming but dodgy. (In Shakespeare's day the South Bank was as famous for its brothels as its theatres). And in more recent times, taxi drivers have refused to go "south of the river" at night.

But all that is about to change. South London has been smartening up its act, and is attracting a new generation of artisans and professionals who have transformed some of its most run-down areas into thriving local economies. While the attractions of the South Bank are a must for visitors to the capital, there's also plenty to discover in some of the smaller streets tucked away behind the waterfront.

How to get there
The Eurostar terminal at Waterloo [now at St Pancras - and featuring the longest champagne bar in Europe] has brought the area within easy reach of the Continent, and there is also a good rail service to London Bridge and Waterloo stations if just you're coming in to town for the day. If you're already in London, hop on the tube (Jubilee and Northern Line trains stop at London Bridge, while Waterloo connects with the Jubilee, Northern and Bakerloo Line as well.) There are also plenty of buses, and there's even a river bus service, if you really want to arrive in style.

What to see
Go for a spin on the London Eye for a breathtaking bird's-eye view of the capital, and marvel at Sir Norman Foster's London Assembly building near Tower Bridge. Check out Tate Modern art gallery (formerly Bankside power station), Shakespeare's Globe and the Millennium Bridge. Relax in the precincts of Southwark Cathedral, then stroll down to Hay's Galleria and Gabriel's Wharf where you can shop and take in the view from one of the many waterside cafés or bars.

Step back in time
The Thames has always been London's gateway to the wider world, and you don't need to look far to discover Britain's maritime history. Visit Sir Francis Drake's reconstructed ship, The Golden Hinde, at St Mary Overie Dock, or explore HMS Belfast, which played a leading part in the Normandy Landings.

Shakespeare's Globe, a faithful reconstruction of the original theatre, stages open-air plays (take an umbrella just in case) and has a fascinating permanent exhibition about the building in Elizabethan times. To see the darker side of London's history, descend into the South Bank's medieval Clink prison (which is where the expression comes from). And if that's not grisly enough, the London Dungeons in Tooley Street will bring you face to face with the Black Death and Jack the Ripper. (Stick close to the guide, and don't wander off on your own, if you want to make it to the gift shop!)

Make a scene
Playing host to both the Royal National Theatre and the Globe, the South Bank is rightly regarded as the home of drama in London, with the West End having long ago given up any claims to that title. Plays are staged throughout the summer in The Scoop, a modern amphitheatre next to the London Assembly. Head for the Old Vic, where you can currently catch Kevin Spacey's production of Cloaca (until 11 December).

Make it new
If you're looking for Old Masters, you won't find them on the South Bank. (Try the National Gallery, or catch the regular boat service that takes gallery-goers from Tate Modern to Tate Britain). Tate Modern hosts installations and exhibits outsize sculpture in the massive Turbine Hall. It also has cafés, a superb restaurant and a well-stocked bookshop. Further down the South Bank, you'll find the Saatchi Gallery, which boasts Damien Hirst's shark and Tracey Emin's infamous unmade bed. The Hayward Gallery, behind the Royal National Theatre, has a fascinating exhibition, Eyes, Lies & Illusions (until 3 January 2005) which features optical illusions, magic lanterns and all sorts of visual trickery. And if that's not enough, why not pop into the Salvador Dali exhibition in County Hall. Or just enjoy the surrealist statues outside, including Space Elephant (an elephant with spider legs carrying an obelisk on its back.)

Handbags and Glad-rags
While most of London South Central's tourist hot-spots are along the river, there are also some great places to discover away from the South Bank. But Bermondsey Street must surely be the hottest spot of all. Once a desolate wasteland of derelict factories and disused warehouses, it's now home to design studios (including Kurt Geiger), loft apartments and some great restaurants.

Dominating Bermondsey Street is Zandra Rhodes's Fashion and Textile Museum. This striking building, a former warehouse painted bright orange, is also the home of the shocking-pink-haired designer, who lives in the penthouse (complete with palm trees).

Bermondsey Street's latest addition is World Language Consultants Ltd, one of London's longest-established business language schools, which specialises in teaching English and foreign languages to professionals. WLC is located directly opposite the Fashion and Textile Museum, adding a complementary splash of colour to the other side of the street with its distinctive blue door.

Food for thought
London South Central has more than its fair share of great restaurants and cafés.Bermondsey street boasts several superior eateries, including the Delfina Studio Café, the Bermondsey Kitchen and The Garrison, a gastropub with its own cinema in the basement. Other places to check out are Terence Conran's Blue Print restaurant and the Oxo Tower, which has stunning panoramic views. Vinopolis, the museum and temple to the god of wine rolled into one, has an excellent restaurant (with, needless to say, an outstanding wine-list). And fans of Bridget Jones will recognise Borough Market, even if they have yet to sample the unbelievably fresh produce from its specialist gourmet stalls, selling everything from game to white truffle oil.

What makes London South Central exciting and distinctive is its mix of the historical with the ultra-modern: you can find them side by side in its architecture its culture, and its diverse communities of long-established residents and those who have discovered more recently the charms of this unique area.

© Robert Dennis 2004

A day trip to Oxford: iVillage article

Read an article I wrote a while ago about visiting Oxford for the day - without breaking the bank. The article was written for the Travel section of iVillage.co.uk:
Print-and-go: Oxford on a budget

(Note: this link takes a little while to open - but it's well worth the wait.)

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Guy Fawkes Night (or Bonfire Night)

Remember, remember the fifth of November

If you are in Britain during the weeks running up to the 5th November you will notice a lot of loud bangs and flashes going off at night. Don’t worry: they’re only fireworks, bought by teenagers in temporary shops that suddenly spring up all over town. You will also see large bonfires being prepared on open ground such as parks. The bonfires gradually accumulate old furniture and any other combustible material that people want to get rid of. Finally, you may see children outside Tube stations or on street corners with an effigy of a man, usually with a satanic mask and pointed hat (known as a “guy”). You will probably hear them call out “Penny for the guy” and passers-by might feel inclined to give them a few coins.

So, what is this all about?

The 5th of November in Britain, generally known as Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, is an annual celebration marking the failure of a group of Catholic conspirators led by Robert Catesby, a prominent Catholic, to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5th November 1605 using barrels of gunpowder concealed in the cellar of the Palace of Westminster (Parliament) when King James I and all the members of “the House” were present. The Gunpowder Plot, as it is known, was foiled by a tip-off (although in the popular imagination it was the vigilance of the guards at Parliament who discovered Guy Fawkes, one of the plotters, and his gang just as they were about to ignite the explosives). Those involved in the conspiracy were subsequently tried and sentenced to death by being hung, drawn and quartered. Over time, celebrating the failure of the plot became an annual national event.

Photo of fireworks by Semnoz, available under a GNU Free Documentation License

Come Bonfire Night people usually head out of doors and find a public celebration or hold their own private party in their back garden. To celebrate properly you need a bonfire – and some fireworks. Many local councils organise quite elaborate (and expensive) firework displays for the public involving sequences of brightly-coloured flashes set off using sophisticated electronic technology to produce spectacular effects. Domestic 5th November parties are a much more modest affair involving evocatively-named fireworks such as Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels and squibs. People hold sparklers, eat hotdogs and drink steaming mugs of tea. (There are a large number of injuries caused every year from people failing to protect themselves from stray fireworks and animal welfare groups always ask people to take their pets inside as they can be frightened by all the noise.)

For foreign visitors to the UK who may not be familiar with this custom, the strangest – and most macabre – moment of the evening is when the guy (the effigy of the main plotter Guy Fawkes) is tossed onto the bonfire, usually causing a huge plume of sparks and smoke to flare up into the night sky, accompanied by enthusiastic cheering and clapping from the crowd. While Guy Fawkes was a real person – and, indeed, a conspirator involved in what was essentially a Catholic plot to seize control of Protestant Britain – it is unlikely that most people standing in the freezing November night air munching a hot-dog make the connection between the perceived threat of Catholicism in 17th century England and the symbolic burning in effigy of a man who could arguably be called “Britain’s most infamous Catholic”. For the vast majority of people (and especially children) Guy Fawkes is just a bogey man, a generic villain who tried to blow up Parliament (which, incidentally, was a very different collection of buildings from the Victorian Gothic structure that stands on the north bank of the Thames today).

Photo of a bonfire © Gavin Mills (Stock.XCHNG)

T.S. Eliot, the American poet who subsequently settled in Britain, refers to the practice of collecting money for Bonfire Night in an epigraph to his poem “The Hollow Men”: "A penny for the Old Guy". While the practice is still fairly common, many people are reluctant to give children money which they will probably use to buy fireworks (which, legally, can only be sold to adults).

Bonfires are also lit in Northern Ireland on the 12th July (“The Twelfth”) to mark the eve of the Battle of the Boyne, a decisive military conflict that established Protestant supremacy (or, if you prefer, domination) in Ireland. (Interestingly, while the sectarian aspects of this celebration in “the Province” (Northern Ireland) are explicit, on the largely apathetic or agnostic British mainland, the Catholic-Protestant roots of 5th November are largely obscure to most people.)

Guy Fawkes Night is always something of an anti-climax. Having lit the bonfire, burnt the guy and watched the fabulous display of pyrotechnics, there is nothing left to do but go home – or, if you are at home already, to go inside and watch the telly. Since the origins of the event are purely historical, rather than being tied to a holiday, such as Christmas or Easter, there isn’t really much to celebrate, apart from the fact that Parliament wasn’t blown up. No-one feels inclined to organise a real party afterwards (although it might be a good idea to take refuge from the chilly November night in a cosy pub with some friends); there are no family get-togethers or blockbuster films on TV. The people who really enjoy 5th November the most are children: there’s a big fire, an ugly figure in a pointy hat who gets incinerated, hot dogs, sparklers and fireworks (the appeal of which, I personally find, gradually diminishes in proportion with the number of times you have seen them).

When I lived in London I noticed that the random bangs and shrieks of fireworks being let off got progressively earlier – starting around early to mid-September and then continuing throughout November towards December. With celebrations for the Hindu festival of Diwali taking place at this time of year combined with the fairly recent trend to have huge firework displays on New Year’s Eve, it now seems that the whole of autumn and most of winter is a general “firework season”. It’s also noticeable that the impromptu firework shops – which are generally just empty stores sporting a canvas banner, mobile shop-fittings and a cash register – seem to follow (or lead) this trend. However, this may just be part of a wider tendency to cash in on seasonal events, a phenomenon which results in Christmas puddings being sold in supermarkets in August and Easter eggs appearing on shelves from 2nd January. (For those who assume this must be due to aggressive (and godless) Anglo-Saxon marketing, I have to report that the Christmas Village shop on Milan’s Naviglio Grande (a canal) was decked out with fairy lights and doing a roaring trade when I passed it in October.)

Monday, 2 November 2009

Autumn: Conkers

Autumn is, of course, the time of year when you can find conkers. A conker is the British English name for the fruit of the horse chestnut tree. When schoolchildren find a nice big shiny conker lying on the ground they drill a hole through it and thread it onto a string which they knot at the end. They then look for other people in the playground who have a conker and challenge them to a fight or contest. To play the game one person holds their conker out so that it hangs perpendicularly on its string. The other contestant then swings their conker on its string and tries to hit the conker of their opponent. The winner is the person whose conker survives; while the loser is left holding a rather sad-looking piece of string with half a chestnut still hanging off it.

A conker that has proved successful in a series of matches is referred to by the number of matches it has won: a sixer, for example, is a conker that has won half a dozen contests, while a twenty-three-er would be a truly formidable weapon. Some tricks are used to make a conker extra-hard, such as baking it in an oven or soaking it in vinegar. (These, however, are generally considered unsporting, if not downright cheating).

Photo of a conker by Sharonkcooper, available under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

Since a conker being smashed to pieces can send small fragments of shell flying out at unpredictable angles there is a tiny chance that one of the contestants might receive an eye injury. Perhaps a more common danger would be a bruised knuckle from your opponent missing your conker and hitting your hand. If you read the British tabloid newspapers (such as The Sun) or rightwing middle-market paper The Daily Mail you will usually find a story about schools banning conkers (or other traditional playground activities, such as skipping or throwing snowballs) on the grounds of health and safety. These stories form part of a wider narrative usually referred to by phrases such as “health and safety gone mad” or “the nanny state”.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Picture postcard views of London

Here are some of my photographs of London with a few comments...

Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, a red London double-decker bus, a black taxi - all the world-famous symbols of London. Even when I lived in London I always found this an exhilarating sight. If you get close to Big Ben you can see it's covered in extraordinarily fine details - including the Latin inscritpions in gold gothic text and the filigree of the clock face. In fact, the Houses of Parliament (also known as the Palace of Westminster) offer examples of some of the most ornate architecture and lavish interiors to be found anywhere in the capital - well worth a visit if you are going to London!

Oxford Street - London's busiest street, where you can find departments stores and boutiques selling all the latest fashions at highly competitive prices. In this picture commuters dodge the traffic and shoppers spill out of the brightly-lit stores onto the crowded pavements. Overhead, the Oxford Street Christmas lights glow in the rush-hour dusk and the headlights of cars, vans and buses shine on the black road soaked with rain, making it glisten.

Notting Hill Underground station at night. The familiar symbol of London Underground shines out at night in red, white and blue. The Tube is the fastest way to get around town - and its extensive network of lines criss-cross the capital. Ticket prices, however, are much higher than here in Milan and if you plan to visit London I recommend that you buy an electronic Oyster card which you can top up with credit and use on the Underground, buses, Overground trains - and on the futuristic Docklands Light Railway (DLR), a driverless monorail system in the east of the capital.

Fish and chips: English food at its best. Tender, white cod freshly fried in crispy batter, served with a portion of succulent chips and a generous dollop of mushy peas. Seasoned with the finest tomato ketchup (Heinz), salt and malt vinegar and accompanied by a slice of bread and butter and a thirst-quenching Coca Cola, a plate of fish and chips is ideally followed by a refreshing cup of tea.