One of the highlights of our Highland cultural calendar is XPO North, just drawn to a close here in Inverness. Originally an annual showcasing and networking event putting Highland and Island creative businesses in the spotlight, it has developed into a unique bringing together of those with complementary skills to develop new partnerships and share challenges and opportunities.
As well as supporting creatives across artforms to flourish - music, literature, design, film, fashion, gaming etc - the recognition that the creative industries form a vital part of our economy reinforces an emphasis on content. In a rapidly changing landscape of how content is marketed and distributed, it can be a big challenge to acquire the skills, keep up to speed with developments, and access necessary information and networks to progress.
For musicians this is key. Most artistes and bands who write their own songs and tunes are keen to take their work to a wide audience, both live and online, but although technology has made many aspects more straightforward, it brings its own juggernaut of challenges. Understanding digital distribution, rights and royalty management, sync and licensing, cost-effective marketing and promotion, are just some of them.
But I’m jumping ahead – first you must create the content! So, how to record well, how to mix a track (where you fine-tune the recorded music by adjusting emphasis and volume levels, tidy up stray notes or vocal glitches, add effects etc), what defines a producer’s role, if not using a producer how much creative input can you expect from a studio engineer?
As I’m currently at the mixing phase of the Elphen Chronicles album I’ve been working on recently, I managed, in between car trouble and my teaching commitments, to catch several sessions I felt would be useful. The panel discussion, What Makes A Great Record, was particularly interesting. Comprising producers and sound engineers, they covered a lot of ground, including how they approach a mix, how they suss out band dynamics and artiste personalities in order to get the best from them (who would have thought there was so much psychology!), what makes a great song, what, in fact, is a song?
Melody and lyrics are the two components we usually think of, but what about the amazing instrumental a session musician improvises which becomes the defining feature of a hit song? Or bizarre little percussion things that have a habit of emerging in the confines of the studio, which can add so much to a track?
I unfortunately missed the session Maximising Your Potential on Spotify (don’t get me started!), as I was eager to learn how to get beyond the stage where, with 100s of plays on this platform, I still only earn two bob from it.
A band that has mastered many of these questions to become one of Scotland’s most successful folk acts, and who rolled into Inverness hot on the heels of XPO North, with a brilliant show in Bught Park, is Skipinnish.
Celebrating their 20th anniversary with a new album, Steer By The Stars, the band has gone from playing pubs and village halls to sell-out shows in prestigious venues, massive home and international fan-base, global festival appearances and superb chart success. The album’s digital release reached number four on iTunes’ mainstream chart and to date Skipinnish have over 10 million streams on Spotify and millions of YouTube views. Playing self-penned songs and tunes led by pipes, accordion and fiddle, these Highland and Island trad musicians’ astounding achievements reflect incredible talent but also, I would venture, substantial business acumen. I’d love to hear them share how they do it at next year’s XPO!
Amid buzzing evening music showcase sessions, I made sure I caught 21-year-old Roddy Johnson. An Inverness lad of Barra family, his own songs displayed the kind of talent that marks him out as very special. With a voice of soulful warmth, reminiscent I thought of Paulo Nutini, and beautiful guitar playing, his thoughtful lyrics and gorgeous melodies are shot through with emotional intelligence and sensitivity.
As always, I came away from XPO North feeling inspired, more focussed, having learned loads, with the lovely benefit of young Roddy’s beautiful voice floating me home on a feel-good wave.
(First published by Scottish provincial Press 12th July 2019)