Enthusiasms No 78
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
In the early 1960s, when I first started getting interested in traditional songs, there were fewer than ten LPs of traditional singers from these islands available, and they each cost about one third of a week's wages. People like me were reduced to going up to the C# House sound library to listen to - you weren't allowed to copy - a load of crackly old 78s. You would carry a shopping bag with your reel-to-reel tape recorder - this was before the advent of the cassette - hidden under some light and noiseless shopping like a bunch of spring greens, and attempt to record the songs you were interested in. The chairs in the listening room had plastic covering over the foam pads so, whenever anyone else came in and sat down, your recording would include the 'whoooosh' sound of the air escaping through the holes in the plastic covers. And this happened very frequently because there were so many people who were as frantic as you were to get recordings of the songs!
The availability situation slowly improved, but Topic (for example) still had only about a dozen LPs of traditional singers from the British Isles by 1967, and only two of these were English. And LPs were still bloody expensive for young people on £5 a week wages.
It gradually became clear that commercial record companies would, perfectly reasonably, only release records of commercially viable material, and that, with the plethora of revivalist performers eager to record - and with fans eager to buy their product - traditional performers were never going to get much exposure.
The first real change in the prevailing situation came when John Howson began publishing Veteran Tapes in 1987. John was doing with cassettes what Musical Traditions is still doing with CDs - making them in small numbers to fulfil demand ... though copying a cassette was rather more of a chore than burning a CD. After producing some 40 cassettes, mainly of recordings John had himself collected, Veteran became the first label to release, in 1995, a CD of new recordings of traditional English singing - VT131CD When the May is All in Bloom. But Veteran was still a commercial company, even if its production methods allowed it to publish for more 'uncommercial' material.
Thereafter, things really did start to improve, and a good number of record companies began to release traditional material - most notably, Topic's wonderful Voice of the People series of 20 CDs in 1998. Even then, because of their 'themed' compilations, coherent pictures of very few of the performers emerged, and the repertoire mediation meant that we still had no accurate idea of what 'folk music' or 'folksong' actually meant with regard to real performers in the 20th century.
I'm not sure if it was the VotP's publication which prompted it but, also in 1998, I noticed a gap in the market, and decided to try to fill it - to offer CDs that were of considerable cultural importance, yet so 'uncommercial' that even Veteran wouldn't want to deal with them. They would be 'uncommercial' because I wanted to include substantial booklets that sought to place the performers within their cultural context, include full and accurate texts of all the songs, detailed song notes, and to make CDs that included examples of the performer's full recorded repertoire, with none of the 'mediation' inherent in commercial publications of the time. In 1993 I had taken early retirement from my day job, and so had the time to do all the work involved: research; finding recordings; photos etc, that neither Topic nor Veteran would have the time to do, commercially.
I also made a decision that I would never loose any money on my records; if I did, then I would stop. And that I would do very little to advertise them beyond making them known to potential purchasers via the Musical Traditions internet magazine, and an e-mail 'announcement' to my previous purchasers. As far as I was concerned, my job was to make the recordings available - as they'd never been to me as a young enthusiast. It was not my job to sell them! Indeed, the only real advertising I've done has been the quarter-page advert in fROOTS magazine, kindly and freely donated by Ian Anderson, who believes in the importance of the CDs I've produced.
That I have been able to follow these two decisions for the past 19 years has been primarily because of my manufacturing process. I made the CDs - originally on the one computer - just four at a time. This number was arrived at through my discovery that it's difficult to fold more than four of the booklet pages at a time accurately. So I would have four copies of each CD on a shelf in my office, and when I had only one left, I would make another four. The consequence of this has been that my entire output of almost 100 currently available CDs fills just two long shelves in my office ... compared with other small-time CD producers I know who have boxes of unsold stock cluttering up their homes and absorbing their money, until they are sold.
Another consequence has been that I can start a new project immediately after finishing the current one, because I know that - in most cases - sales of a dozen or so will cover the expenses of making the current one, so I don't have to wait around until my cash-flow problems are resolved. This manufacturing process has been so successful that I now have a professional 6-at-a-time tower CD duplicator, using top quality discs, a disc face printer, and a guillotine for trimming the booklets. How I wish I'd been able to afford them back in the day when sales were much higher than they are now.
Obviously I didn't sell very many in 1998 with only one double CD in the catalogue, or in 1999 with just one more single one, but by the end of 2003 with some 20 publications in the bag, I had just broken the 2,000 sales barrier. Most had sold a little over 100 copies, though some sold as few as 30. But none of them made a loss!
Annual sales since then have been: 2004 - 900; 2005 - 825; 2006 - 440; 2007/8 (15 months) - 1060; 2008/9 - 480; 2009/10 - 475; 2010/11 - 450; 2011/12 - 910; 2012/13 - 525; 2013/14 - 425; 2014/15 - 570; 2015/16 - 445. So, as you can see, sales varied from year to year, generally depending upon how many new publications there were in any particular year. Sales this year (so far, only 7 months) are just 177. In total, I've sold a little under 10,000 CDs in the 19 years MT Records has been trading - so about 500 per year. Whether that is good or bad I have no idea, but since I've had some 98 CDs and 18 CD-ROMs in the catalogue at various times, that only averages around 85 sales for each publication. Put like that, it doesn't sound good at all! The two most recent publications have also sold poorly: EII - 22; Phoenix - 40. I know that they're both by revivalists, but one of our best sellers has also been from revivalists: Oak - 350.
The one really positive outcome of my efforts with MT Records has been that the single folded CD cover and notes have generally become a thing of the past, and most respectable record labels now make an effort to produce something like the substantial booklets that I pioneered.
But what I'm now finding quite dispiriting is that sales of the most 'important' traditional CDs I've recently published are so low: The Willett Family - 50; Cecilia Costello - 71; Caroline Hughes - 78; Sam Larner - 137; Travellers' Songs from England and Scotland - 72. And all of these have been 'complete recorded repertoire' releases, and would have been the sort of records that I would have died for back in the early Sixties. They would also have radically changed the idea of what 'traditional folk music' was for the Revival by abolishing the 'repertoire mediation' practised by the commercial record industry.
Since we're being told that 'folk' is popular again, I rather wonder why members of this new, young audience (who wouldn't have the original LPs by these performers) seem to be so uninterested in these wonderful CDs. And it would need to be this young audience, because it seems that the audience of my generation rarely buy my CDs or downloads any more. Generally, the release of a new CD brings only a handful of orders from names I recognise, and the recent implementation of the MT Downloads website has produced much the same result.
But, having listened to a couple of broadcasts of Radio 2's The Folk Show, which purports to feature 'traditional and contemporary acoustic music ...' I'm now beginning to realise that the 'folk' which is popular is almost entirely modern composed material - and that traditional songs are very obviously not. This is a bit of a paradox because, when I was young, almost all the revivalists who were so popular had at least listened to (if not learned from) the few old singers who could be heard on records, and even to some who were still alive and performing. Today, I can think of only a handful of English revivalist singers of whom that could be said. When reviewing CDs of people singing or playing traditional material these days, I very rarely find a single reference to a traditional performer as the source of a song or a tune.
I think the important thing about the old singers is that they, and the culture they came from, had all the techniques that they'd developed to enable them to be, after fifty-odd years, still welcome in their pub and asked to sing a song because they sang it well. These techniques included rhythmic and melodic variation, long and short lines, variable verse lengths, syncopation, etc. Making the tune fit the words rather than the other way round! A good unaccompanied traditional singer has the ability to demand your attention - even when you've heard the song many times before.
Two years ago the MT 2-CD set Cecilia Costello : "Old Fashioned Songs" (MTCD363-4) won the 2012 - 2014 Folklore Society Non-Print Media Award. I was obviously very pleased about that but, having just checked up, it seems that this award resulted in just 20 further sales in the subsequent two years! There really is hardly any audience out there for real traditional singing any more.
And, can you believe it, the MT 2-CD set Sam Larner : Cruising Round Yarmouth (MTCD369-0) has won the same prize again for 2014 - 2016. Obviously someone thinks we're making good records - if only people would buy the bloody things!
I just did a Google search on 'Traditional English songs'. The first page produced 14 items - only one of which had more than four or five of the most obvious items, most of which were music hall songs anyway! So, while we're being told that 'folk' is popular again, it doesn't appear that this is remotely true in the 'real' world.
So, after some 19 years of publishing CDs of traditional music and song, I find myself in a rather pathetic situation; if sales don't pick up in the next four months, it looks as if I will sell fewer than 300 CDs this year (2016-17), which hardly makes all the work involved worth the candle. On the other hand, what ever would I do with all the spare time I'd have if I stopped making the records? My adult life seems to have been entirely dedicated to traditional song and music of some sort or other, and I've not had much spare time to spend on any other interests. But certainly, playing traditional-style English dance music doesn't find much of an audience these days, and the couple of hours at our fortnightly singing session doesn't exactly keep me busy, either.
Maybe I should just try to remember the maxim of my younger days, and "Keep on keeping on!"
Rod Stradling - 20.11.16
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