Hope Lies Over the Border!

It is with delight and amazement that I can report…Songs of Separation won the ‘Best Album’ category at the BBC2 Folk Awards, 2017. What a special thing!

It’s not a surprise to me that people liked the album. The musicians on it are all incredibly gifted, and it just so happened that the theme really touched them, prompting an outpouring of true creativity. Together, we explored the many different separations that human beings experience during their lifetime, from the personal to the political, from issues around geography and borders, gender inequality, our ever-growing distance from the natural world (which keeps us healthy and grounded, when we engage with it), the impact of war, divisions within communities, the magic and the not-so-magic, and the internal separations linked to our consciousness, the ‘Road Less Travelled’…

And people ‘got it’. They understood what we were looking at. It resonated. And many, many people wrote to tell us so:

“Your record company’s sense of timing is almost as good as your own! After a really traumatic week, working as usual with some very challenging and vulnerable kids, I get home to find your much-anticipated album on my doormat. I have nearly despaired this week (mostly for the way that cut-to-the-bone services are failing the most needy children) and then along come these beautiful songs that speak of all sorts of pain and loss but come out on the side of hope. Please let no-one undervalue what you have achieved here. Thank you!”

An SoS fan

What makes the ‘win’ a surprise relates to the way the industry works, the sheer slog involved in ‘getting the music to people’s ears’, and just how tough a job that is. Many musicians create exceptional albums – every year the trad music scene generates wonderful new work and – nominated for ‘Best Album’ and ‘Best Track’ we were up against the best. So what surprises me is that some of my totally nutty ideas for promoting the work, worked!

So, in case you’ve got an album out, and want to think a bit differently about the promotional aspect of things… here are some of the most far-fetched experiments that popped into my brain, often in the wee small hours when I was up doing musician-diary-chasing, asking people to give us gigs, booking vans, hotels, sound equipment, chewing over dietary requirements, travel arrangements, processing payments, staring at spreadsheets, answering a billion emails, responding to facebook messages from our wonderful fanbase, courting recording companies, trying to understand contracts, chasing lawyers, solving publishing puzzles, writing promotional copy, liaising on the film work, commissioning posters, mugs, stickers and, yes, fridge magnets (fridge magnets?! I ask you…!!!). Sweet-talking journalists, pursuing radio play, reaching out to online communities who could help, doing funding applications and reports etc etc etc… and drinking a lot of coffee.

Here are a few of those ideas. I hope they might inspire other industrious people working in a tough industry!

Peer Reviews – from musicians who know!

I had the idea to get ‘peer reviews’ from exceptional artists that we, as a group, know and admire. These were released just before the album launch, when press reviews were still pending. We shared these on facebook, and our peer reviewers also shared them, which meant that the album reached new groups of people. My favourite was English Folk Legend Maddy Prior’s

“Rehearsed and recorded in 6 days? You lot are too f**king clever for your own good!”

Being Human (in the ten days before the launch)

I asked each of the musicians to take a picture of themselves, ‘being human’ (e.g. not being a musician in a posh frock), and representing numbers 10, 9, 8, 7, 6… which were posted on facebook, to create a daily ‘count-down’ to the album launch, and to invest some humour and pique people’s interest. I think they maybe enjoyed the challenge?

Pre-emptive media strikes

I started talking to journalists when the album was just a wee twinkle in our eye (six months before we recorded). It was such an unusual endeavour – to embark, en masse, to a tiny Scottish island, and I think this helped engage people with the story. Over time I established really supportive relationships with a lot of the great people who help to share new music with the world. They were patient with my many press releases, and kind enough to give us brilliant reviews. Those of the ‘on air’ variety continued to support us right up to the awards, and I love them for it!

Working with legend(s)

I tied it in with a wonderful legend about ‘The Big Women of Eigg’ who, legend has it, were a 7th century warrior clan, who came to their sticky end when they challenged the new status quo (a bunch of monks who were in the process of ‘christianising’ the island. Many people believe that this was the beginning of the patriarchy, and a move from a tribal, matriarchal culture in the region…who knows?) We recorded and filmed at one of the sites of the legend. The beautiful film, made by Ben Cormack of Eigg, went with a suite of other films, one released each day of the recording process, to generate public interest and ‘introduce’ the musicians, creating a bond with future audiences.

Constructing ‘sold out’ gigs

Once a few of the gigs had sold out, I got a bee in my bonnet about getting them all to sell out. I did this by writing personal invitations to folk clubs within a 50 mile radius of venues (where there were tickets still left). It worked! People came!

Aligning with unusual suspects

I even asked the RSPB to ‘tweet’ the song Karine Polwart brought to the album, ‘Echo Mocks the Corncrake’. Why? Because they have one of the biggest twitter followings in the UK, and also because Karine is a serious twitcher and loves her birds! I was sort of hoping they’d commission some bird-related tunes from her in the future…

Trying to pick up Sync opportunities (in strange ways!)

Badgering Visit Scotland (the Scottish tourist board) to use a track in their promo films, hounding advertising companies (in Scotland), and talking to random companies like Diageo (who make a lot of whisky, and now own Talisker, the whisky that started life on the island where we recorded the album, way back in the 1800s.

Exploring politics and music

I even made contact with Labour and Green MSPs and MPs (with a view to using the tracks to effective positive change), and asked SNP ‘big women’, Nicola Sturgeon and Fiona Hyslop to write reviews… as this project shows them the worth of government funding given to Creative Scotland (our main funder). Each year, funders need to be able to show people in the government that they are spending their money to good effect (so that they can secure a good level of government investment in order to support the arts). With my strategic brain on, it seemed like to good idea to highlight the work that Creative Scotland helped us create, as a small way of showing my gratitude.

And then there were the promo ideas that actually ‘did some good’:

Being inspired by our audience

Responding to a brilliant idea by a fan in the USA, Ed, who suggested that – because he couldn’t come to a gig himself – he’d like to pay for someone who might otherwise not be able to attend to come along. This idea grew into a project called ‘Save Our Seats’, receiving multiple donations, and meaning that a group of women who had recently left prison, and a group of people with learning difficulties were able to come along (supported by my pal Kevin Harrison at Artlink Central). The festival team themselves weren’t hooked on the idea (they were very busy running Scotland’s best festival!) and for a while it looked like it might not work – but then I made friends with one brilliant woman in the box office who moved mountains to make this possible.

Creating musical community

Bring together a choir of children to join us at the Queens Hall, which involved us running a workshop in the day, with all sorts of great games and songs, and then having the children’s family members join us in the audience, resulting in a full house at the Queens Hall on a Monday night (Monday nights aren’t the best nights for big gigs!). I like ideas where ‘everyone wins’, and this was one of those: the young people gained something, the parents stayed all day and enjoyed the workshop, and the musicians loved working with the kids just as much as they loved working with us!

I could go on. I won’t!

But I would like to invite musicians to ‘think bigger’. I reckon it’s not just about the music. We have a role in society – we always have had – to comment, observe, reflect, support, question and rebuff the status quo when it does not serve people. Yes… they didn’t tell you that at music college, eh? They certainly didn’t tell me.

I’m really grateful to everyone involved in Songs of Separation. The musicians for their creativity, performing skills, humour, patience (as I learned on the job), but also to the hundreds – genuinely hundreds – of people who went out of their way to help. And let’s not forget, the funders who enabled me to pay the other musicians for the recording work, pay healthy gig fees (not always the case in big bands) and meet their needs on tour. Particular individuals working for funding bodies went above and beyond – listening and supporting when the workload was really tough and the challenges seemed insurmountable.

The ‘win’ at the Folk Awards is something, but it’s not everything. ‘Everything’ is about connection. The connection that music can bring, the power it harnesses to move communities, and the way that it can be valuable contribution in troubled times.

Go on the musicians! What we can bring is much needed now, in this fragmented world.