Writing about music
by Trevor Locke
This article is based on a series of posts I made on Facebook from 10th October 2016. Those postings are included in this article and I have added a bit of connective text to pull them together.
As editor of Music in Leicester magazine, the problem I face is that too few people want to write about music. So, why is this a problem?
Writing about music is important. Leicester live music scene is important. For the bands that played yesterday, or the week before, what is said about them (in the public domain) is important. Musicians are very busy people who work hard to make music. They often value feedback and whatever they do, they are proud of their achievements and often like to see acknowledgements of their work from others who appreciate their work.
Why do people not write any more? What has changed in our culture in the last 30 years that has made people so widely refrain from wanting to write? Why is it that people now communicate only in slogans and cliches? Most people today seem only to want to write in stylised statements and seldom take the trouble to compose full sentences in English. What does a post-literate society mean for our culture?
The English language is one of the most rich and varied of all the world’s languages. As a language English has a long tradition going back hundreds of years. Because it has so many words, it is widely considered to be one of the best languages for expressing emotion and for artistic literary expression.
Music in Leicester magazine is more than just an on-line periodical; neither is it a blog. It is a medium for curating the city’s musical activities. Nothing that is published in Music in Leicester magazine is ever deleted. The whole thing grows day by day and as long as hosting space is available for it the product will be freely available on the Internet to anyone who is interested. History requires curation. Someone has to capture and preserve the present for the sake of those coming after us, in the future who might be interested in the past.
When we are older we will want to look back on the experiences we had when we were young; humans have always done that – generation after generation. Nostalgia is part of what makes us human. Ever since the invention of photography, people have cherished photographs. I can look at the photographs I inherited from my parents that represented moments in their lives but I have no idea of the date on which they were taken, who was in them or what they signified at the time. That information has been lost. A photo on its own seldom tells the full story; it shows a snap shot of what happened but without the written work to amplify the meaning, the photo alone cannot tell about what happened or the significance of it shows.
If writing about music is highly valuable and important; why is it that so few people undertake to do it? Have we really become a post-literary society that has abandoned the written word for a welter of short-term, volatile images that are here today and gone tomorrow? Is the written word more permanent than imagery?
Unless people are prepared to write about music, gigs, bands, singers and other features and elements of the life our musical community then much will be lost; there will be no record of the present from which we can compare and contrast in the future.
The story of a band is important; how they started, what they did, the milestones in their career, the songs that they wrote… all these are worth writing about. We at MIL can, and do, present dozens of photos of bands but we also write about the music they played. In this respect, the role of the photograph is to illustrate the text; the photo cannot be instead of the text. Text alone would miss so many of the details that a visual can only portray; a good photo can illustrate the feeling of what it was like when the band played or the singer sang but it cannot capture the full significance of the event.
Photos and videos do not present the whole picture, not in themselves. The text – or review – sets out to describe who played, which bands were on stage, which singers entertained the audience and describes how people reacted to what they heard. As our magazine grows it provides a historical record of part of the musical life of Leicester; it grows month by month as more content is added.
History is not bunk; it is a record of the life and times of a community. In Leicester there is a vibrant musical community; what happens in that community is worth recording. That record means something to people now, but it will mean more to future generations. The series of article about the history of music in Leicester puts into context the musical that we heard today, where we hear it, and how it has changed over the decades.
As a history writer, I value accounts about live music in a community. I have argued before that historical narratives about music tell us a lot about the history of a community and historians who look only at politics or major civic events and give no indication about the cultural life of an area, fail to do justice to the life of a community or to do a good job at recording its past at any period of time. Real history is about how people enjoy themselves, cook, eat and go about their daily routines, relate to each other, express their thoughts and attitudes. Much of that cannot be photographed and filmed; it is only through writing that we can really portray life as it happens. The pages of our magazine do much more than just report what happened a few days ago; they provide a narrative about the life of the city and county as a whole through the lens of its music.
Seeing the past
In the photo library of Music in Leicester, there are 2,802 images, placed there between 2013 and the present day. We know who is in them because they are all captioned. We know the date on which they were uploaded to the website and, more importantly, they have been placed in a article that tells about a gig, show, festival or event they are related to.
I have thousands of photographs of bands and gigs. It would take a lot of research to date them and to annotate which band was playing with any degree of certainty. Many are just the ones that did not get published. I value those old photos of bands; I hope that the musicians and fans who were in them also hold them to be valuable if only for the nostalgia of the day on which they were taken. I failed to caption them at the time but I think I could identify many of them. Together with the reviews that were written about them, they form part of the history of Leicester’s music; for that reason they are worth curating.
Photographs of bands and videos of a band playing music tell us something and are of value but they do not interpret what is shown; no photo or video can really record the significance of a performance or how to audience reacted to it and rarely are such media items annotated even to show the date on which it occurred or the people that are shown in it. Without annotations of date and names in captions or descriptions we can not know the full significance of a photo or a video. They are ephemeral. They disappear as quickly as they emerged. In the age of television and instant digital photography, the image has become more prevalent the easier it is to make. But what we have lost is the information that tells us the significance of the image. The date it happened, the people in it survive only as long as the person who made it can remember. Human memory is unreliable at the best of times. Without captions photos loose their value. They fade as the memory of the person who took them fades. In a community, photos tell us some of the things that are worth knowing but without writing we can only guess at what the significance of the image might have been.
When taking videos of gigs show the band playing but also show the audience; show the reaction of the crowd to the performance. At the end of the band’s set, swing round and show the audience applauding – show how enthusiastic their response is and how long it lasts for. Remember those TV broadcasts from festivals where shots of the band playing on the stage are interspersed with shots of the crowd. This conjures up the atmosphere and portrays what it was like to be there.
Visual media plays an important role in modern culture and life, now that there is mass ownership of cameras and video-phones. This is something that our grand parents did not have; only a few people could afford to buy cameras or video tape recorders or celluloid movie cameras. In some ways, this mass ownership of devices has reduced the art of picture-taking and movie-making. It is too easy. We do not think about it enough.
Social media has witnessed the huge growth of visual media with the rise of things like Instagram and the ability to posts images and movies on Facebook and Twitter. A whole generation is growing up believing that text is limited to 120 characters; or that a sentence must be only a few words.
As an editor I am concerned about the standards of writing in the magazine; we try hard to get it right and we also want it to be readable. Sometimes there is a triumph of style over grammar. My main concern is to encourage people to write; even if the writing wouldn’t win a prize in an English competition, sometimes it is more important to get something down on paper than do nothing at all. As I said, I am an editor.