Warringah Counil’s “Northern Composure” youth band competition is rolling around again. Continuumusic has been a sponsor of the band comp since its inception and I’ve been one of the judges. I’m also the house sound engineer at Yo-Yo’s (the venue that the competition is run from).
I’ve had the pleasure of mixing some of the Northern Beaches’ best bands (and other touring acts from around Australia and abroad) there for over ten years now and I’ve seen some amazing talent get up on the stage at Frenchs Forest.
My first night on shift at Yo-Yo’s, which is basically a basketball court in a youth centre run by the council, saw me mixing six bands with the headline being Melbourne act Antiskeptic. The venue was very “fresh” in those days. I was hired in to set up and run the in house PA system. I didn’t really know what I was in for. In those days they didn’t have a lot of equipment and it certainly wasn’t “high end”. It was barely enough to run a basic band night for unsigned local bands playing to family and friends let alone a well known touring act in a packed house. There was insufficient front of house power, a 16 channel desk that was more suited to a rehearsal studio than a venue (no mute buttons, minimal eq, inbuilt FX). There was no rack gear and the microphones were cheap, all-purpose, no-name-brand things that sounded pretty awful. Foldback consisted of three powered speakers. The venue itself, as I said, was a basketball court. There was no acoustic treatment in the place at all and it sounded God-awful. Air conditioning was virtually non-existent too and it got very, very hot when the punters moved into the space.
I had no idea what I was walking into that night and neither did the headline act who, when they arrived and saw what we had to work with, were less than impressed. They were under the misapprehension that it was my rig and, the bass player in particular, decided to take out his frustrations at the lack of amenities on me. I remember that I was dropped off at the venue by a friend as my car was broken down and ended up getting a lift back to my studio before sound check by the venue organiser to pick up more gear to supplement the show. We made it through the night in a pool of sweat and noise and the band actually sounded pretty damn good. The heat got a little too much for one of the front of house speakers and it shut down mid show forcing us to grab one of the foldback speakers to fill in to the end of the set. I was uncomfortable for the whole time. It was not at all pleasant. After the show the bass player came up and apologised for his earlier abruptness. Apparently after they had performed, he found out that it wasn’t my PA and that I’d walked into the situation cold. He, and the band, ended up being really grateful for my professionalism and my ability to pull off a good night against the odds. My professionalism aside, I was cursing them throughout the night under my breath. It was bloody hard to keep my customer service face on for all concerned. The band were actually good guys. Over-stressed definitely but they had been stuck in a Tarago together with a bunch of merch sales people for a couple of weeks. I could see how, from their perspective, they were feeling hard done by.
The venue didn’t really know what they were doing yet. I don’t mean any disrespect to them. The Council guys are great people and I’ve loved working with them over the years but at the beginning they failed to get the right advice on what they needed for a good venue and took the cheap option for their equipment so they could get things up and running. I can’t disrespect them for that though either. If they’d shelled out for what they actually needed for the show, it would never have gotten off the ground. Funding wouldn’t have been approved for it. It would have just been another “pipe dream” that was put in the too hard/too expensive pile of community initiatives and it never would have grown into what it is today.
Over the years the Council has been able to funnel more money into the set up. Admittedly in dribs and drabs. Thankfully they asked me what that money should be spent on and each year when their grant time rolls around we add something that makes the place that much better for the bands, staff and punters. It’s now got acoustic treatments, the PA is kick-arse and there’s more than enough good mics, rack gear and foldback to put on a fairly top notch show for even the most discerning acts. I’d say it also has the best light show of any venue on the Northern Beaches thanks to one of the managers’ obsession with funky lighting.
PA wise, I’ve had the thing tuned up for years now. Once it’s set up it’s a dream to run and everything is at my fingertips. Plenty of power and the sound is sweet. (How it should have been on that first night!! Anyway, I digress.)
The Northern Composure competition has run since that first year. It’s open to local bands with an average age under 19 and has been sponsored by a tonne of local businesses that have thrown prizes at it that have at times added up to tens of thousands of dollars. Continuumusic offers the first, second and third place winners a multi-track recording of their performance at the final as part of the prize pool. Basically I lug my whole digital system down there and an additional engineer and set it up in a spare room, take a feed of all the lines of the multi-core and chuck some extra room mics in. I record the whole thing on 24 tracks and then take it all away to mix down. First place gets their whole set, second place gets four songs and third place gets two songs. Production quality is high and they end up with a mastered CD they can use for sale or promotional purposes.
Whilst juggling the recording process I’m also judging the bands (which is what I’d set out to write this blog about in the first place but I seemed to get distracted. Nothing new there.)
I’m a bit torn about how I feel about competitions in music. On one hand, I feel that you shouldn’t really judge music. It’s an art form and it’s subjective. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and I’m not sure it’s completely healthy to pit musicians against each other in a shoot out. It is, after all, expression and, as this is a competition for original music primarily (although you can play some covers without being disqualified), it really serves to heighten a feeling of unworthiness in an emerging market of young musicians testing the waters with their own material. If a band were “too original” they run the risk of being judged harshly against a band that may sound like a lot of other bands. This can lead to that originality being squashed and that would be the last thing I’d want to do to someone daring to be different.
On the other hand, it’s these very competitions that push many young musicians into their biggest learning curves on performance and professionalism and I’m all for that.
As I’m really the only judge who is at “ground zero” with the bands (that is that I’m there when they arrive for the gig, set up, sound check, etc through to them loading out after the lights come back on), and the other judges tend to only see the performance, I have some slightly different scoring criteria. My score tends to be just as much about the whole presentation of the band from before they get on stage to after they’ve packed up and left as it is about their musical performance. Being a performing musician is one thing, being an entertainer is another and there’s so much more to that “job” than just playing well. How you interact with the venue staff, whether easy to work with, knowledgeable about your role, etc makes up a massive part of my score sheet. I start channelling my inner Simon Cowell the moment you walk in the door.
How many stupid questions did you ask about things that you should already have known or were briefed on already? Did you put things down in the way of other people or fire exits? Was your ego so big that you could barely fit your head through the door? Were you polite and introduce yourself to the people you needed to introduce yourself to? Did you move quickly to get things on and off stage? Did you stow your gear where you were told to? Did you make unnecessary noise at inappropriate times? Did you start smacking your drums or cymbals when I was miking up your kit and my face was right in front of it? (Definitely one of my biggest peeves!! And I’ve had touring artists who should absolutely know better do that to me. They have felt my wrath!) Did you turn up too early and hang around being a nuisance or, worse, turn up late? Did you listen to the sound engineer’s direction on how loud your amp should be? These and a long list of other things will be establishing the baseline for my score on the band before the lights get turned down and the audience get let into the venue. Then there’s the on stage component that makes up maybe forty percent of the marks at most. Even then, only half that remainder will be about your music or your level of playing ability. Did you engage the audience? Did you draw them into your show? Was there a “wow factor”? Did you remember to tell them your band name? Did you promote your website/upcoming shows/merchandise? Did you thank the audience and the venue for having you? Did you mention and talk up the other bands who were on the bill with you?
It’s hard for the other judges. They don’t have all that pre-show information and are left to basically mark the bands based on the 30 minutes of stage time. Harder still if the genre of music the band plays isn’t what appeals to the particular judge, it can be diificult for them to give credit where credit may be due. I’ve seen this cost bands the winning spot before. As this is a comp for under 19’s, you would expect the bands to cater to their own age group. When you’ve got sponsors who have been brought in as guest judges who are maybe in their late forties, there maybe some prejudice for or against particular styles of music that are going to tip the balance. It can’t be helped really. In a lot of cases it will be comparing apples and oranges. I’ve seen amazingly intricate musicianship lose out to catchy, three-chord ditties played by complete newbies many times because the better players played music that was inaccessible to the judges’ taste. I’ve probably been guilty of it myself. I admit I’m not a fan of hardcore music and, over the past ten years, I’ve seen a hell of a lot of it at Yo-Yo’s. I can appreciate the playing ability that goes into it but it’s not something I’d put on my stereo to unwind to.
A judge needs to be very clinical when making decisions in this space. It’s not about music that you like and it’s a very easy trap to fall into to mark up one genre over another, hence me making the bulk of my marking about how a band performs the job of being a band. It’s a safer place to be in as a judge. There is far more black and white in it.
Even with that methodology in place though, the competition has not been without its controversy. There was a time a few years back where I was accused of “giving the prize away to a band because they were the studio’s friend on Myspace.” Of course I was innocent of this charge. Firstly, the complaining band was also a friend of the studio’s on Myspace (among some four thousand others). Secondly, I had actually marked them higher than the band that won due to their diligence behind the scenes. It was the other judges’ scores that had put the winners over the top. And thirdly, I just have no interest in doing that. It gains me nothing. I actually take the role of being a judge in the competition quite seriously and I feel I’m pretty incorruptible! (Although if the right cash bribe were offered…. Lol.) Jokes aside, I enjoy the process of pointing out where these young bands can make improvements upon their on and off stage performances. If they truly want to work in the industry, then this is a good way to get that information even if sometimes it may seem a little harsh when it’s delivered. Often the truth is a little harsh but you are unlikely to improve upon anything if people just keep telling you how wonderful you are without ever telling you where you might be making mistakes that could cost you that ultimate superstardom.
In the last ten years or so I’ve seen some great bands go through the comp, some of them multiple times. I’ve watched them play their first show and then improve and grow and often take out the winning place a couple of years later. Some of them have gone on to great things and I hope I’ve played some small part in that.
Recently I saw a performance by a young Keith Urban on New Faces. It was a long time ago and the judges were fairly brutal with him. Instead of going home and giving up, he took their criticism on board and went on to establish himself as an international star. There’s not a lot of Keith’s music that particularly inspires me to be honest but there’s no doubt he’s made a name for himself and enjoys success. I also have no doubt that the early discomfort of having some people in the know tell him where he was falling down had strengthened him and helped him become what he is today.
Of the judges remarks in the band comp, I’d probably be the one seen as “the bad guy”. I’m blunt.. at times brutal but I guarantee it’s not out of any personal malice, in fact the opposite. I want to see these bands take on the world. I’d like nothing more than to have them reach their goals and dreams. I’m unlikely to get thanked for my remarks when they reach the top. More likely they’ll think of me while they’re accepting their Grammy and say “In your face, pal!!” if ever at all. And good luck to them when they do. I may well deserve it. I know I would rather have them do that though than have just given them pats on the back or pissed in their pockets only to find out that they’re serving burgers in Maccas somewhere down the track because they never really made it in the industry and they couldn’t figure out why.
Northern Composure is a Warringah Council initiative. If you’d like more information about it, it can be found on the website: http://www.warringah.nsw.gov.au/live/community-support-services/youth/youth-events