A whole year has passed since the Songs of Separation team took to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall to receive the ‘Best Album’ award. It was a night to remember, and a huge surprise to all of us.
It’s not that we lacked faith in the music itself, created in one short week on a small Hebridean island, but we knew how hard it is to create a ‘reach’ for new music. Despite including some of the current and future leading lights of the folk world in the ten-strong line up, it was very unlikely that this time-limited project would gain the interest and the support of a wide audience who did us the huge service of supporting us through a public vote for ‘BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Best Album 2017’.
So, why did we win?
It’s a question that has been on the mind of Producer and Project Manager, Jen Hill, for a while now. And she’s been wondering whether it might hold the key for other musicians who are looking to create high-impact work which ‘goes further’ than simply an album launch and tour. This article hopes to give some clues as to why Songs of Separation created such a positive stir – here’s hoping it will enthuse and inspire other musicians at a difficult time for the music industry and for working musicians.
Choosing the Right People
The ten-strong team – Eliza Carthy, Hazel Askew, Hannah James, Hannah Read, Jenn Butterworth, Jen Hill, Karine Polwart, Kate Young, Mary Macmaster and Rowan Rheingans – were chosen primarily for their musicianship and innovation, and the way in which their voices and the ensemble’s instrumentation might work together. But that wasn’t all. They were women who ‘knew what they were about’, and had a range of different experience and skills (in addition to their music making).
Importantly, they were musicians with different ‘reaches’; that’s to say, different audiences bases within the traditional music world, and this was one key to the success of the project.
Some were well known on the English folk scene, others on the Scottish folk scene, and others on a more international level. The ethos of ‘social capital’, where people pool skills, experience and networks to create something bigger than the sum of its parts was first evident in the desire to introduce respective audiences to the work of the musicians within the group. This was born as early as 2012 when Jen, Song’s of Separation’s originator, was playing bass for a well-known name in the English folk scene, but finding that people in Scotland weren’t aware of this big musician’s work. It sparked an idea:
Would it be possible to ‘cross-pollinate’ individual musicians’ fan-bases across a group of established and developing musicians, so that everyone benefits?
Could music-lovers, musicians and the wider folk music scene benefit from more co-support and collaboration?
Rather than competing for a listenership, could we create a collaborative approach which would introduce new music and musicians to people who love to listen?
In addition to their musical talent and experience of the industry, many of the women in the group ‘had something to say’ about the world we live in. Karine Polwart, known for her work to support Scottish Independence and equalities, Eliza Carthy, whose songs often reflect on societal issues, Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans and Hazel Askew, who make up the trio Lady Maisery and whose 2013 album ‘Mayday’ was rich with songs with a social conscience. It might even be the case that the title ‘Mayday’ inspired the naming of the Songs of Separation project, known by the acronym ‘SoS’ – both sharing the international ‘distress signal’, although that was definitely at a subconscious level!
A Zeitgeist Theme
The initial idea grew from the issue of Scottish Independence, which was (and remains) a huge deal in Scotland, but is perhaps less recognised by political thinkers in England? In fact, it was initially the media coverage of the issues, the discrepancies in media stories north and south of the English-Scottish border, and the way in which, in the few weeks leading up to the Independence Referendum vote, politicians and the media were working to divide people. These divisions caused rifts, in families, between friends and in communities, and so often the media messages missed the point. Rather than focusing on ‘what needs to change for the positive’, rather than listening to each other across the divide, people were being encouraged to entrench themselves in their viewpoint. It was this separation, and the ease with which the powers that be can divide a population, that seemed, to Jen at least, to tap into human beings’ shared blind-spot – the need to be right over the need to do right.
Given the make-up of the group (5 Scottish musicians, 5 English musicians), and the mixed audience we were looking to reach, the question of Scottish Independence had to be sensitively explored. The project set out to include music which encouraged listeners to ditch ‘politically charged and oppositional thinking’ in favour of a human response; the emotional and personal reaction to separation as it occurs in all our lives. The musical material; featuring one song from the musical tradition of each of the singers in the group, aimed to recognise and celebrate the fact that we are many cultures living on the same island (as represented in diverse musical styles and the inclusion of languages such as Gaelic, Scots and Norn), and that we share similarities and differences which should not go unnoticed. To notice them is to recognise a country, and the diverse people living within it. But more importantly, we share a human response to the ‘societal separations’ we see around us, some of which were explored in the themes of the songs.
When the group came together to rehearse and record the album, in a short 6 day period, we found that we’d gathered songs which touched on a wide range of ‘societal separations’. The songs explore everything from environmental issues and our increasing distance from ‘living in tune with the earth’ (Karine’s Echo Mocks the Corncrake), to land ownership and land rights (Rowan’s Soil and Soul), to the increasing gap between rich and poor (Hannah James’ Poor Man’s Lamentation), to gender inequalities(Hazel’s London Lights), to separations faced by refugees following war (Over the Border), to geographical separation (Mary’s Sad Am I). And then there were the songs with a more spiritual response to separation; an exploration of the thin veil between reality and magic (Kate’s Sea King), Eliza’s dark-comic reflection on a not-so-lonely goldfish, Cleaning the Stones. The album ends with Rowan’s song Road Less Travelled, which, after an album laden with political prompts, requests simply that the listener ‘walks their own way’.
Vitally, as most of the songs were interpretations of traditional material from the respective musicians’ cultures (Karine singing in Scots, Mary in Gaelic), and many of the songs are hundreds of years old, the material on the album holds up a mirror through time, reflecting that people’s responses to these societal separations are unchanging: we feel today exactly how people before us felt. We want to see the same changes as those who preceded us. And in that way, we are connected.
And this was the source of the album’s connection with the audience. People contacted us frequently, to tell us what certain songs meant to them. In part by accident, and in part by intention, we’d happened on a set of themes that really rang true with listeners. We had moving messages from youth workers facing cuts to services for vulnerable young people, environmental protesters, people experiencing bereavement, people with broken hearts… People who told us that these songs had given comfort, or inspiration, or the will to go further in their work. Jen, as Project Manager, was often moved to tears by the stories people shared, and the messages of support and encouragement for the project which accompanied them.
And that’s the nub of it. Songs of Separation created a community, through the wish to bring people together to reflect on things that affect all of us.
This community-focus started out as small-scale. In addition to the rehearsal and recording process on the Isle of Eigg, there was also a plan to create some benefit for the local community, by delivering a singing workshop which you can see here, and by holding a session in the famous ‘tea room’, the site of many a folky session. The outreach part of the work was inspired by things that already happened on the island – there was a small singing group (at the time it was 100% women singers, so it seemed like a nice idea to collaborate with them), and regular sessions, where women musicians were usually noticeably absent. At the outset of planning Songs of Separation (2013), the island had within its 90-strong population, a film maker, a sound engineer, a new recording studio space (without equipment, but a good space none-the-less), a hostel which could house musicians comfortably, and a catering business – all the component parts of a business model for a ‘one stop shop’ album recording hub. Jen’s idea was intended to launch Eigg as a residential recording destination, in turn supporting the creative businesses and furthering aims to bring cultural tourism to a rural place, where people rely on income from visitors.
As the project grew, the community element took on new life. This led to the live touring ensemble working with an adult choir, the Cairn Chorus, as part of Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival, and with a group of primary school children from across Edinburgh, at an exciting workshop and concert, where 50 young folk joined us on stage. Other highlights included working with a charity, Artlink Central, who helped with the ‘Save Our Seats’ strand of work, where tickets were made available (through ‘pay-it-forward’ type giving by our fan-base), to enable disabled / disadvantaged people who use their service to attend a sold-out gig at Celtic Connections.
And the more we supported the wider community, the more they supported us.
Promotion with a Difference
Promoting your work in the music industry can be tricky. So often it feels ‘false’ or ‘forced’, particularly when you’re promoting yourself, your own name, your own output. As the leader of the project it was relatively easy, however, for Jen to talk about the other people in the group in very positive ways. This is the type of distance a music industry manager would usually have, but due to the state of the industry, managers are few and far between now, and many of the Songs of Separation team are self-managing. This limits the promotional activities people can undertake (without feeling egoic, or awkward). However, within the ‘cooperative feel’ of Songs of Separation, musicians were actively encouraged to give a ‘boost’ to promotional material about their SoS-mates, sharing social media posts and celebrating band-mate’s successes in their solo careers. The aim was to create a co-supportive promotional culture, which was hoped to continue past the end of the project.
In a particular coup, Jen had an idea to ask our peers – musicians we respect and who inspire us – to write ‘Peer Reviews’ about the album. To this end, we pooled 30 names and contact details, from Maddy Prior and Danny Thompson (England) to Ross Ainslie and Tim Lane (Scotland), and many many more. These peer reviews were posted on social media in the run-up to the release date, and prior to mainstream journalists’ reviews being written. Not only did these posts enable us to ‘cross pollinate’ with the reviewers fan-bases (and vice versa, bringing them new listeners, we hope), but they also probably influenced the general reception of the album amongst music journalists.
Having chosen to go with a record company (rather than the independent self-release option that had originally been planned), we did have some promotional support to reach traditional media, and huge thanks go to Harriet at Glass Ceiling PR for her work. However, the PR function is paid for by CD sales, and since revenue from sales is vastly reduced these days, only very limited time can be bought for traditional PR support. Jen knew she had to go further.
And it was in the ‘going further’ that the project truly resonated with audiences and with supportive journalists. She began sending press releases about the planned project in January 2015, and built a network of traditional and online reviewers in the 6 months before the album was recorded. During the week of the recording residential, we bought in an excellent and sensitive film maker, a quiet observer and poser-of-excellent-questions, and we published short film interviews with the musicians every night of the recording process. This gave people a chance to get to know the musicians, follow the recording process, observe the silliness and get to grips with the theme of Songs of Separation. Jen also paid for a ‘Making Of’ film, which was exceptionally well made, and an unexpected summary film, ‘The Album and Beyond’, which was commissioned when we were nominated for both Na Trads (music awards in Scotland) and the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. These films cost thousands – because it’s not worth cutting corners on film output – they reached thousands of pairs of eyes and, we hope, touched thousands of hearts.
The full extent of promo activity that emanated from our Producer / Project Manager’s kitchen table can’t be covered here. It involved a year of getting up at 5am, spending 12+ hours per day nose-to-the-laptop. But the key is this: genuinely caring about the people you reach, the worth of the message you share, and your end-goal which, in this case, was empowering each of the musicians to expand their fan-base, have a more sustainable musical life and bring new music to many more people.
In addition to an ethos of ‘social capital’ and reciprocity, there were various ethics that the project looked to adhere to. The most important of these was ‘fair pay and conditions for musicians’. Due to the state of the industry, the low CD sales that all musicians are experiencing, and the costs of record company and distribution activities, Songs of Separation was never going to break even in terms of commercial sales. However, with the help of funders Creative Scotland, PRS Foundation, Arts Council England and Enterprise Music Scotland, the musicians were able to be paid above Musician Union rates, and were able to have the conditions (transport, accommodation, per diems and rehearsal fees) that we should all experience throughout the industry. It may come as a surprise to you that many musicians, even those that are well known and valued by fans, are either not able to pay themselves well, or not able to pay their band well, or both. Songs of Separation looked to demonstrate a ‘standard’ which is not commonly met, as venues see diminishing income (so cannot pass it on to performers), and CD sales drop in lieu of online music purchasing and listening (where musicians receive very little of the income). Before Songs of Separation started, Jen had asked herself: “Could it be possible to pay people well, look after people well, meet the MU’s standards and still stay afloat? What if…?”. In many big bands, if a gig pays less than is needed to meet costs, the musicians take the hit, and have to accept low fees (this even happens in famous folky backing bands!). But for Songs of Separation, the risk was entirely carried by Jen, the Project Manager / Producer, who met all costs, maintained professional rates, even when times were really tough and income from gigs couldn’t cover the outgoings. For her, this was an ethical approach central to the project aims, and it could not have been done otherwise.
Benefiting Women and Girls
The ‘women in music’ theme wasn’t central to the project, despite the fact that the crew was 100% women. A favourite moment of Songs of Separation was Kate Young’s response to a journalist’s question “Why are you all women?”. Straight off the bat, she replies “Why are Treacherous Orchestra all men?!”. We didn’t push the ‘women’ thing, we simply stood up, made music, made it well and hoped that it would have some kind of positive impact on the next generation.
But something about the 100% female line up did strike the right chord with audiences. And it definitely struck the right chord with funders, who are looking to redress inequalities that *do* still exist. Since Songs of Separation, there have been a number of events focusing on women in traditional music, why the numbers are so low (when youth music training – the Feis – has a high number of girls attending…so where do they all go?). There have been forums at trad music events, and Jen has presented at conferences, exploring the reasons why we might still be under-represented on stage (in all genres). A collective called ‘The Bit Collective’ has been started, and several new all-female trad bands have sprung up. We can’t lay claim to any of that, but we hope that at some level we made a small contribution to the question of gender equality in the music industry.
One of the clear benefits for women musicians is that of ‘ongoing collaboration’. Hannah James is now working with Kate Young, Rowan Rheingans has been working with Hannah Read, and Karine Polwart went on to make an album with Andy Bell, the wonderful sound engineer and mixing guru who helped produce the Songs of Separation album and engineered for us on tour. Andy has also gained Hannah Read as an artist on his label, Hudson Records, which he was inspired to start during the process of working with Songs of Separation. Hannah has just been named “one of the finest singers of the day” by MOJO Magazine. All lovely, heart-warming connections through Songs of Separation!
And all the other stuff
If you want your own album to go that little bit further, as Songs of Separation did, you need not to shy away from business thinking. You need to run the process as it if were an ethical ‘start up business’. You need to be an upstart. Think bigger! Think laterally! Think fairly.
You need things like a Communications strategy (starting 6 months before you record), a Marketing and PR Strategy and database of contacts, which you populate well before you’ve even recorded a note. You need a Project Management plan, to track the many balls you’ll be juggling at any one time. If you need funding, you’ll have to ‘get on the case’ and have the money secured at least a year before you intend to record (you might have to apply to funders more than once if your early attempts fail). You’ll need processes for evaluating how you’re doing (for the funders, but most importantly for you to genuinely learn as you go). You’ll need long lead times, which allow you to adequately promote the work *after you’ve recorded, mixed and mastered it, but before you launch and tour it*. For independent releases, you’ll need all this and more. If you’re working with a record company, you’ll still need all this, if you want your work to be known and celebrated. And you’ll need an army of friends, advisors and people who know more than you to help you along the way.
So, why did we win?
We won because the people heard us, and because the people were kind enough to vote for us. We won because the ethos and the ethics of the project were sound. And we won because of the sound of Songs of Separation.