It has been announced that Joanie Madden will join the line-up in an all-star concert celebrating Joe Derrane and his upcoming release Grove Lane on November 13th in Fairfield, CT. Joanie joins artists including Billy McComiskey, Mick Moloney, John Doyle, Brian Conway and many more! For more details on the event click here.
Reprinted from Irish Music Magazine - October 2010
By Helene Dunbar
One look at the new Old Blind Dogs album, Wherever Yet May Be, (Compass Records) gives you a good insight into the where the eighteen-year old band is in 2010. With evocative packaging featuring the Dogs dressed as characters from the album’s songs and a wealth of new material, the message is clear: the Dogs are still learning new tricks.
“The packaging is just a bit of fun really,” says Jonny Hardie (fiddle, mandolin, guitar, vocals) who joins Aaron Jones (vocals, bouzouki, guitar, electric bass), Fraser Stone (drums, percussion), and the band’s newest member Ali Hutton (pipes, whistles, guitar) to round out the Dog’s lineup. “We’ve basically just taken characters from the songs and dressed up as them. I’m wearing roughly Napoleonic, kind of Scottish military stuff; Aaron is being a hooper – like a barrel maker; Fraser is a character from one of the songs who has gone away to sea and left his love behind; and Ali is being Willy Wonka,” he laughs. “No, just kidding, he’s supposed to be the guardian of the half life, between one life and the next.” Hutton’s unusual persona comes compliments of the album’s third track, ‘Psychopomps’, named after the spirit whose responsibility it is to escort newly deceased souls to the afterlife.
There is a bit of a scavenger-hunt feel to the booklet as well, since not only characters but objects from the songs are scattered amongst the photos. “There is a whiskey barrel, a bible, and a ring…various things, bits and pieces, that are relevant and that are mentioned in the songs,” Hardie explains. To make it more of a challenge to match the item to the appropriate song – and because they ran out of space – not all of the song lyrics are included in the package. “We’ll probably put them on the website so if people really want to get involved, they can read them and figure out what fits where,” Hardie says.
If you’re familiar with the Dogs, then it goes without saying that the innovative approach of the packaging is carried through to the music as well. The Dogs have never been a band to rest on the successes of the past and Wherever Yet May Be is no exception. This is made immediately obvious by the opening track, ‘St. Kilda’s’.
The tune was brought to the band by Hardie after working with Scottish singer and actress Alyth McCormack. “It was recorded on her album,” he says “as a song with the actual lyrics and I just thought it was such a beautiful melody. So I took it from there and tried it on the fiddle to see if it made any sense. The song itself is one of unrequited love from the island of St. Kilda. It’s about a girl who meets a boy who visited the island and left and went back to the mainland. So it’s her basically longing for her lost love. It’s probably quite an old song, I’d imagine. We decided to put it on first as well, just to start the album, to create a certain atmosphere.”
The track is given an unusually haunting treatment that is almost more Native American than Celtic and is a rarity in that you don’t find a lot of traditional albums that open with a slow air. “Starting an album with a slow air is a rare thing for us,” Hardie admits. “It just seemed like an idea to me to build things up; you don’t have to start by hitting people between the eyes.”
The rest of the album is the usual blend of new material and reworked traditional pieces that have made the band a fan favorite. “A lot of the tunes were written for the album and there are a few of Ali’s that are brand new. There are a lot of contemporary tunes for us, we’ve done some old ones as well but we’ve used a lot of contemporary Scottish writers like Fred Morrison who is a piper and Jamie Smith who is a fiddle player, but the songs are all old trad songs. Our usual method is to try to find interesting stories and bring them to life and up-to-date a bit. Additionally there’s a song, by Andy M. Stewart which we included – he writes in a very traditional style anyway – and we thought it was a really beautiful song.” The album also includes works by Davy Steele and Gordon Duncan.
Like most long-standing bands, the Dogs have had their share of personnel changes. Hardie is the only founding member left and this album features the Dogs’ newest addition, Ali Hutton, who replaces long-time member Rory Campbell, now a practicing music therapist. Many bands are thrown by turnovers but Hardie remains positive about the benefits. “People have to go and change directions; that’s always the way of it. We’re very happy that Ali is with us, he’s brought a whole new style of his own into the band and enthusiasm and energy really, which is great. He’s been friends with Fraser for a long time and is a completely different kind of piper than Rory – it’s very hard to get Ali to play something the same way twice. It keeps me on my toes, and keeps us all moving forward.”
Although the band began as a four-piece, they recorded many albums as a five piece, only returning to the smaller line-up after singer Jim Malcolm’s departure prior to 2007’s ‘Four on the Floor’. “We did that last album as a four-piece and we’ve stuck with it. We feel quite comfortable with that,” Hardie explains. Instead of bringing a new vocalist on board, they decided to split the singing among the existing members. “Aaron does the bulk of the singing and I do a bit as well. We think we can cover it all with the four of us. Everyone has to work a little bit harder, which is fine.”
Jones has also brought a new source of songs to the band. “Aaron has a different repertoire because his family are Irish, not Scottish,” says Hardie. “But that’s also part of the reason why I stepped in to sing as well – it’s more comfortable for my accent because of the way I speak, to be dealing with some of the material, particularly from Aberdeenshire.”
There is also a case to be made for the relative “cheeriness” of Irish songs versus Scottish. “A lot of the Irish love songs have a certain serenity about them whereas the Scottish songs are a bit more blood and gore. Unrequited loves songs that nobody dies in ARE cheery for us,” Hardie laughs, “maybe we’re getting soft in our old age.”
While Wherever Yet May Be is definitely not following in the footsteps of the many Celtic releases lately to pay homage to Americana music, the Dogs have introduced a few Americana touches. “Aaron’s brother Nathan Jones is playing a resonator guitar, so we have that type of steel guitar sound on some of the tracks. It lends itself to that kind of Americana type of sound, but I think that it has to do with the vocals as well. We’ve just been spending too much time over there!”
The Dogs have a huge US fanbase and have been touring the US twice a year for the past fifteen years. “We certainly know our way around the country; particularly the West Coast,” says Hardie. “This last tour we did was the southwest: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, which is a very, very beautiful part of the world. It’s quite an amazing environment for us to experience. It’s so different for us – which is probably why we have a certain fascination with it – the desert, the colors, everything there. And of course, the lack of rain is an unusual thing for Scottish people.”
When choosing material to play in their live shows, Hardie says that it’s always a challenge when you have eighteen years of material to work with. “There is just so much and you keep looking back and just trying to rework some of the old songs and people are asking us to play certain things so we do. That being said, we were really desperate to get this new album and the new material out, particularly for Ali,” he explains. “I think it’s really hard to come in and just play other people’s stuff. I think it’s important for someone new to come in and put their stamp on things as well and not just play the same things I’ve been playing for the last hundred and twenty years.”
One thing that has remained the same though is the Dogs’ commitment to the material. “We’ve been careful to try to choose the best material that we can,” says Hardie. “To choose some old songs and find some stuff that hasn’t been heard before, that’s always our aim. This album probably has more contemporary tunes than we’ve had before, but that’s just because there are so many good writers about.”
"Trading in Trad"
Helene Dunbar talks to Garry West of the Compass Records Group about the new business landscape for recorded music sales
Reprinted from Irish Music Magazine - October 2010
It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this, that the music industry is facing challenges. Decreases in physical album sales, digital download piracy, falling profits in the larger “box stores” and weak worldwide economies have all played a hand in creating the obstacles that face record industry labels and retailers today.
For those who enjoy crunching the numbers, global physical music sales fell 12.7% in 2009 according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) while digital sales rose 9.2%. IFPI also reports that there are now over 12 million legally released digital tracks available worldwide.
To get a glimpse of what this means for the Celtic music industry, I spoke to Garry West of the Nashville based Compass Records Group. Compass could arguably be called the largest Celtic label in the world (and in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve worked for them in the past). Co-founded in 1994 by musicians Alison Brown and Garry West, Compass set out to be a new type of roots-music label with a focus on Celtic, bluegrass, Americana, and other roots-based genres. In 2006 it acquired the famous Green Linnet catalogue which was followed by the seminal Mulligan Records label in 2008.
Like larger labels, Compass has had to alter its business model in reaction to the current industry climate. Unlike some of the others, they seem to be weathering the storm intact. “We’re beating the slide for lack of a more elegant way of putting it,” says West. “But the business is definitely changing. Overall industry sales volume is down 50% since its peak in 2000 and you can see that when you look at the change in the amount of floor space dedicated to music at big box retail (i.e. superstores) or delve into Soundscan figures. But the Compass Records Group is, for the most part, a specialty label and our business is built on selling niche music to other specialists. And while big box retail is suffering, we’re finding that the smaller, specialty retailers — those driven by a passion for the music — are still doing well and have a dedicated consumer base that keeps them going. So, while national distributors have focused more of their resources on mainstream releases selling through the largest 5 accounts and in the process under-serving smaller stores, we’ve taken the opportunity to build a large direct account business that serves these important specialists and their customers.”
The complexities of selling to a specialty audience differ from selling to a pop/rock audience. Irish music fans are used to buying their music in a variety of ways: from the artists, at festivals and gigs, and at local specialty retailers. They have also begun buying their music digitally, but those sales figures are, as expected, not as high as a more mainstream genre’s would be.
There is also not one specific type of Irish music fan; no typical age-range or economic demographic you can use to market to them. “The diversity of the demographic is reflected in the radio outlets for Celtic music,” West explains. “There’s no Billboard chart for Celtic music, or any one spin-driven chart for the genre, so we don’t have that measure of success for reaching the consumer. Celtic music is programmed on everything from a few key tastemaker stations in large markets, to college stations, public radio stations and low power stations in other medium or small markets. Add to the mix internet and satellite radio and you end up with a patchwork of airplay, much of it on programs that only air once a week. So you can see the challenge of getting the word out about a new release even if you are in a position to service the hundreds of outlets that might be interested, which we do with all of our releases.”
“And touring is the key to exposure opportunities—if an artist isn’t touring it’s almost impossible to sell their music. Touring drives most of the meaningful promotion efforts that go into reaching such a disparate audience—tour press to local media, web advertising, social media and commerce, direct to fan promotion, local airplay, etc.”
Add into this already confusing landscape the fact that a growing number of artists are attempting to recoup industry losses by taking the label out of the picture and putting out their own CDs. “The stats are starting to come out now and the DIY model is really showing itself to be a very low impact model. Only about 600 releases out of the over 100,000 released in the US last year sold more than 1000 copies, and many of those under 1000 unit sellers are DIY releases. I wouldn’t mind it if it worked, but ultimately, I think that the DIY approach really narrows the artist’s possibilities. Historically, albums never made much money for the typical artist but they were the best promotional tools available. In the course of doing its work a good label gets an artist’s music ‘out there’—in front of radio, press, tastemakers, festival promoters, film and TV music supervisors, agents and other VIPs in the industry. That kind of exposure and visibility lays the groundwork for bigger things to have a chance to happen. By contrast, a DIY artist’s efforts usually don’t expand that artist’s immediate circle or their next gig. They sell CDs at the gigs and maybe service records to the media outlets that they know. But if some career advancing opportunity does pop up it tends to be a singular event, not part of any strategy, thereby lacking the traction building that can happen as part of a multi-pronged label promotional strategy. For an artist to follow a DIY model, I think they have to say ‘We’re going to accept not getting 80% of the available visibility.’”
"And unfortunately many artists that go that route have a naïve view about the immediate potential financial gain vs the possibilities for career advancement that come out of a good label partnership— short term gain vs long term gain as I call it—and worse, haven’t thought through the economics. They think they can make a thousand CDs, sell them for $15 at the show and pocket $14 each after subtracting the manufacturing cost. But they don’t think about the carrying costs or the time and effort it takes to manage it all. That first CD doesn’t cost $1—it costs as much as $3,000 if you think about how many CDs and the print you need to manufacture to get a decent per unit price. On top of that you need to factor in the thousands spent to record and master the album, take photos and design the CD package. And all that is spent before the artist even begins to think about trying to promote the record, either themselves or by hiring indies to work press and radio. So, I think there’s an economic aspect to the equation that’s gets overlooked.”
“And it’s easy to underestimate the value of the label/retailer relationship and the service that goes along with it. Distributors and labels offer one stop shopping and payment terms for shops as well as a reliable supply chain for catalog and new releases, plus the liquidity to offset the inevitable returns of unsold CDs. What we didn’t understand for a long time,” admits West “is that, because of credit issues and accounts payable processing, retailers don’t feel the need to stock all the available titles—they can’t. They want to work with a few really good service-oriented companies that stock the available titles in the genres they are interested in, and the ones they know are getting the promotion. Specialty retailers in particular, the ones that really care about the Celtic music, are often owner-operated and don’t have the time to go to many different sources to get what’s available, much less search it out from the artist. We try to provide that service. And we also work very hard at cultivating a direct relationship with fans through our direct consumer list, now nearing 60,000 fans.”
“On the rare occasion where we have had an artist decide to pursue a DIY model for their new release we had retailers and consumers coming to us looking for the new album because it’s not readily available in the marketplace. Even I think ‘How can that store survive without stocking an album by one of the best artists in the genre?’ but their feeling is ‘I don’t want to be without it but I can’t afford the risk of not getting it if I order and I don’t have the time to chase it down.’ It all has to do with pricing, delivery, tracking orders, and follow up; all those things you don’t really think about until try to make it happen.”
While the explosion in DIY artists might look bad for the future of independent labels, West says that it really isn’t the case. “We’re not lacking for viable artists to release. And we’ve signed more than a few former DIY artists who felt that the business and financial burden of doing it themselves was detrimental to their music, and who really appreciate the resources and teamwork that come with a meaningful label partnership. But I do hate to think about the really good DIY albums that are just lost in the wind because they don’t enter the existing infrastructure on a deep enough level."
“Ultimately,” explains West, “the Compass Records Group is a big stakeholder in Celtic music and we feel a responsibility for helping to keep the music healthy and commercially viable. In order for artists to be able to make a living touring on a meaningful level we all need to keep seeding the consumer base. That means that an effort must be made to have the recordings readily available and visible anywhere a consumer might look, whether at a big box retailer, specialty shop or digital store; not easy but we try. And it also means we need to keep engaging the consumer so that the sales base for the genre doesn’t shrink simply through attrition.”
“Look, we’re just trying to live a life in music and do the best we can for folks. If we were just into this to make money we would have picked a different genre of music! But this is music that we love, music that moves us as musicians and fans, and every day we try to do our best to look out for it."
"’From the searing “The Family Demon” through the delicious "So Good” and the ominous drive of “Jailer Jailer,” [Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band’s] Legacy presents a compelling set that reaffirms Rowan’s stature as an unsurpassed master of the music’s ancient tones–and its modern forms.’" - From Bluegrass Music Profiles
KindWeb reviews Legacy.
Luka Bloom is to perform at the Egg as part of the Rhythm International concert series in Albany, NY on October 1st. Luka will be performing songs from his new album Dreams in America.
News like this and exclusive articles are available on the Compass Records Group’s newsletter Up Close. Up Close readers can receive 20% off titles featured in that month’s newsletter. To receive Up Close click here.