22 October 2019

The Debut Disc

It is often said that in our age of social media, up and coming musicians have in YouTube and other platforms a wonderful channel through which to promote themselves and their art.  That is all quite true, although in reality, YouTube and social media postings are usually only read by those who know the poster and, probably, already have their views on their musical abilities.  To get the widest reach, to get into the consciousness of strangers and to cross beyond the confines of that clique of followers who access individual media platforms, there is still no substitute for the Debut Disc.

It remains the best way of getting your music – as either performer or composer – out to a public you could never reach by any other means   A professionally produced recording allows you to spend time getting the ideal sound, polishing up all the little defects in any performance, and using the booklet to provide a full and detailed background of you and your work.  Getting an established label to produce your debut disc also ensures you get promotion on the back of their well-established marketing and distribution network.  And a CD will attract professional criticism and review.  It usually costs money, unless you are singularly fortunate in being signed up before you make your debut disc, but that is money well spent in that it reaps dividends far beyond anything you could hope to achieve with the shoestring budget of a social media posting.  Unquestionably YouTube is vital as a means of having something for people to access when they know of you and want to find out more about your work, but it’s the issue of getting out into the global music market which makes the debut disc so essential.

It also provides an invaluable learning experience.

Anyone who has spent any time involved in recording knows that nothing ever goes to plan, that tensions can overwhelm even the most placid of artists, that panic and crisis are a daily occurrence and, more than all that, the simple matter of performing to microphones and an invisible audience is a world apart from performing to a live one.  Live audiences quickly forget – possibly do not even notice – small slips and misreadings; those who listen to recordings have zero tolerance for any kind of flaw or smudge.  As a result, recordings invariably require a certain amount of patching – going back over small passages which had not gone quite right previously – and innumerable re-takes when whole works and movements need to be done again often for reasons which have nothing to do with the musicians involved.  You can’t go back over things in a live performance; yet you have to do it many times in a recorded one.
I well recall my Debut Disc; although it was back in the days of the Debut LP.  After years of intensive training, cutting my teeth on recitals and concerts, and even making several recordings as an accompanist and orchestral player, I decided that if my career as a solo performer was ever going to take off, I needed to have a solo record out there in the shops.  I approached a new record label which was making something of a name for itself as a specialist label in organ and church music, and put forward my pitch for a debut album.  Recognising that my name alone would unlikely prove a major draw for them, I hit on the idea of offering repertory which was not mainstream but sufficiently familiar to attract the knowledgeable listener.  I tried to balance works which had never been recorded before – for me, an essential to make a new recording distinctive, and often a big attraction for adventurous record labels – with those which were already in the catalogues but in performances to which I felt I could offer something different.  I avoided the kind of repertory which was already saturating the market in performances by far better players than me; why would anyone want to hear me play Widor’s Toccata when so many other famous names were out there offering more accomplished takes on it?

And I had an ace up my sleeve. 

Those who buy organ recordings do not just buy them for the artist or the repertory (as is the case with most recordings outside the organ world) but for the instrument.  The secret is to find a spectacular instrument which has never been recorded before and which will, in itself, attract attention.  My good fortune was that I was going to make this recording shortly after the unveiling of the dazzling new organ in St David’s Hall, Cardiff.  Already creating a stir in the organ world, I was able to get in first with my pitch for recording it, and the record company duly took the bait.  What was more, they were willing to do the thing as a commercial venture, which meant all I had to do was guarantee the purchase of a number of records (250, I think it was).  That suited me fine as, in those happy days, I had almost that number of friends and family (today the family is depleted and the friends long since lost!).
If nothing else, the St David's Hall organ made for an eye-catching cover
That was the easy part.  What came next set the scene for a chapter of frustrations and crises which, perhaps now, I could have foreseen, but then hit me with all the force of a rampaging elephant.  What is more, it was only after the record company re-issued several tracks from the original LP with a recollection of the recording session, that I realised just how close to disaster the whole venture had come.

Like any concert hall, St David’s Hall had a pretty full calendar, as did the record company and myself.  In the end, after much negotiation, a Sunday in February 1983 was fixed for a single recording session lasting from 9am to 4pm; and no right thinking musician today would reckon that laying down around 50 minutes of performance in that time was remotely possible (you might as well suggest sealing a Brexit deal in 48 hours!). 
(By an odd coincidence, 23rd February was also the birth date of my daughter, although this record pre-dated her by a quarter of a century!  And as she is now something of a performer in her own right - a dancer rather than a musician - I am indulgently adding a picture of her in action at the foot of this blog.  Fathers are allowed to be proud of their children!)
Some of the background came out when the disc was reissued in 2004 (and that's me in 1983)

When the day arose, I had to drive from my home on the Isle of Anglesey in the far north west corner of Wales to Cardiff down in the south east, a journey on winding, twisting mountain roads of almost 5 hours.  I set off with all my music in hand at 3am and an hour into the journey, just as I was descending a steep hill into the village of Trawsfynydd, my brakes failed.  Luckily my bus driver training kicked in, and I completed the rest of the journey without ever once using the brakes – but with my nerves shredded.  But far from being sympathetic to my plight, the record producer and engineer were too busy with issues of their own – the St David’s Hall staff had not let them in to set up their equipment until spot on 9, and they were buzzing around frantically trying to get it all set up in time for a prompt start.  Luckily that gave me a chance to do some extra practice; I had learnt all the pieces thoroughly but had only been allowed a couple of hours a few weeks before to try out the organ.  It didn’t go well.  The organ was in a dreadful state, with notes sticking, pipes not sounding, stops shooting out of tune and half the electrics not working at all.  When the record company was ready, the organ was not, and the wisdom of having asked the organ builder to be there for the recording sessions was a sure sign of the record company’s experience.

Luckily we got one piece into the can immediately – a short Prelude by Bairstow – with the intention of going back at the end of the session.  But things went from bad to worse and, in the end, the organ builder took out the surrounding of the console and literally sat in it, pushing up the notes that stuck down and operating the mechanical bits that failed while I was playing.  All this time, the security staff were walking into the hall and asking the record company how much longer they were going to be.  I lost count of the retakes occasioned by an intrusive footstep or voice, usually coming just as the final notes were being committed to tape.

It was released and sent out to the critics, who generally liked it.  They didn’t rave over it, but they didn’t pan it either, and that was good enough for me.  I was happy, and felt that all the stress and strain had been worthwhile.  I never tried my hand at another solo disc, however; once was enough!

At no point did it ever occur to me – nor has it occurred to me seriously until now – to explain the circumstances of the recording session.  I felt that the record company did a fine job and if the playing was not up to much, it was my fault and nobody else’s.  I’d decided to do the recording, and would have to live with the consequences.  Things seem very different now.

As a professional critic (the questionable success of my organ playing career now a distant memory) I get to hear a lot of debut discs, some sent to me by the record labels and others posted to me by the performers themselves.  In most cases, I review them as positively but as truthfully as I can, and almost always I get a nice note back from the artist thanking me for taking the trouble to review their debut disc. 

But they don’t stop with that. 

They go on to offer often long, detailed, and usually convoluted excuses as to why their recording was not as good as they had hoped.  They even ask if I will change my review as they don’t think a certain phrase puts their playing in the best possible light.  I even had one writing just recently saying that, while what I had written was quite true and he could not argue with it, would I change one section since, in the future, people reading the review might get the wrong idea. 

I suppose this comes down to the fact that we now live in a blame culture where, if something is not quite right, it has to be somebody’s fault.  But music is not a definitive art.  In an age of snap sound-bites, where if something is not absolutely brilliant it must be dreadfully bad, nuances of opinion and shades of appreciation have no value.  The fact that anything posted on social media has a reputation of staying there forever (which is not true – even those platforms which do not allow earlier posts to slip out of view, rarely attract readers into the depths of the archive) drives debut artists to think that in the years ahead, people will have nothing better to do than to look up old reviews and use them as guidance for their contemporary abilities. 

In one week alone, two performers whose debut discs I reviewed in different publications have written to me to ask for changes and to explain why their performances were not as good as they would have liked them to be.  I will think twice before reviewing recordings by those artists again, not because I feel their work is in any way poor (indeed, both showed exceptional talent in their debut discs) but simply because I have no wish to run the gauntlet of such emotional plea-bargaining.  When a review is written, its honesty lies in the immediacy of its response to what is heard.  Any subsequent tweaking of those initial impressions renders the review false.  I do not retrospectively adjust reviews for any reason.  If you want someone to do that, my advice is to find a social media “review” page and do what everyone else does; assume a false identity and anonymously review your own work through the prism of your aspirations rather than through the evidence of your ears.
The best picture you will ever see on this blog.  Prisca Rochester (Aged 11) performing in the musical "Favourite Things".  Catch her on stage in the Christmas Pantomime at the Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, and in dance shows in both Rome and Orlando next year.  I'm happy to have passed the performer's baton on to her.

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