Traditional Music & the Media
"My own observations are based on what I feel is a fundamental change akin to global warming. Nice at the time but it could land you in trouble later on." Alastair Clark

One foot in the grave
Here we are on the brink of another festival season with a healthy mix of festivals of all shapes and sizes. Festivals rather than clubs seem to be the main focus of attention these days with a continuing upward trend of attendance yet another sign that traditional music is still in a growth phase.

There is little doubt that in parts of the country, folk music is big news and people are starting to take notice. A recent forum on 'Traditional music and the media' organised by Dave Francis as part of his consultation exercise attracted a surprisingly large crowd. On the platform Alastair Clark stood out as a key speaker who had the knowledge and viewpoint from both the musical and the media perspective to comment with authority on what was happening.

There seemed no doubt in Alastair's mind that change was gathering pace. "My own observations are based on what I feel is a fundamental change akin to global warming. Nice at the time but it could land you in trouble later on." When he started listening to traditional music it was existing in a cocoon. "There were one or two break outs. The Dubliners were in the charts a couple of times in the 60s and on the Scottish side of things the Corries had the kind of following that would make Barry Manilow envious. Some people were quite happy with the situation as it was then. It was nice and easy and safe within the walls of the ghetto."

Right at the very start Alastair campaigned to have the walls torn down putting together a programme 27 years ago which brought rock and folk together using his own record collection. He had a dream at that time. Looking across the Irish Sea he saw what was happening there and dreamed that sort of paradise could be created here. Two years ago he notes things began to change and the dream is showing signs of becoming reality. The question he now ponders is whether the scene can handle it. "The scene is now putting a foot out into the mainstream but still wanting to keep one inside. One foot in the grave perhaps - the problem is knowing which one is the grave!"

Alastair is also a football fan and used a good analogy. "Traditional music is a bit like a part time football team, which suddenly finds itself, promoted to the premier division. The rewards are there but the pressures are greater and at times the game not quite so beautiful."

He sees plenty of evidence to support the claim that traditional music is moving into the mainstream and paid tribute to Radio Scotland and Iain Anderson for showing that radio can support traditional music throughout the airtime without causing any problems at all. "Travelling folk recognises there is a place for the committed enthusiast as well as the general listener. As a specialist music programme it should be an example to all others."

Speaking about his own newspaper, he pointed out that The Scotsman has a better track record then most in coverage of folk music. For 30 years Alastair had a regular column but now as the music rises in popularity that has gone - it no longer has the protection afforded by the ghetto - but rather it has to compete for space on equal terms with all other types of music. 'This becomes more encouraging and at the same time more difficult. Clearly traditional music faces changes if we are in the big league - can we survive or are we heading for early relegation?"

Alastair pointed out some of the problems folk music would face in this mainstream. "There is very little in the way of commercial structure and there are too few entrepreneurs. Groups made little attempt to be accessible to the media - notable exceptions over the years would be The Chieftains. Very few people seem to be interested in marketing and promotion and traditional music has none of the business back up which is found in the rock and pop industry."

"Traditional music has been thrust into a heavily competitive market place. Newspapers also live in a new age of intense competition and apart from the national broadsheets, newspapers are just not interested. The editors of broadsheet and weekly papers are quite sensitive to reader's opinions and on a positive note, you can actually change things in your newspaper."

He pointed out that when we come to radio and TV, real gaps are beginning to show. Commercial radio is still dominated by pop play list and this is very difficult to break down but he did wonder if Scotland's new Parliament would provide us with an opportunity to follow the Irish example by ring fencing some air time for 'local' artists.

"Radio has the power to turn records into big hits but TV can establish music personalities. It can bring that fiddle player or songwriter into our living rooms. An example is Aly Bain who because of this feeling of reliability and confidence results in people turning up in droves to see his concerts."

TV hasn't yet managed consistently to capture the essence of the music and sometimes asks the musician to do things they really can't do, such as asking Aly Bain and Shooglenifty to MIME on the Hogmanay programme! Several people have now said that what the folk scene needs is a folk equivalent of Jools Holland, somebody who can entice new listeners.

Which foot is in the grave?
A 'Living Tradition' attempt to answer
It is easy to feel excluded from the current trend if you happen to be working in a different area that isn't in the spotlight. The media is always on the look out for stories and we shouldn't get too upset about their choices. Better to just appreciate the fact that they are more likely to report on a problem rather than a success and to home in on a picture that fits their needs and perceptions than the one we might prefer.

I am beginning to view what is going on as two strands of activity, both related to folk music, often interlinked, but both with their differences. In one strand musical and artistic motives are a key driving force, in the other commerce and money are more dominant. Again it is better to realise this rather than misunderstandings leading to tears.

To again use a football analogy, Manchester United and the Keswick Boy Scouts Football teams are both playing football. One might have to re-schedule their match to suit Sky TV, the other only has to consider the needs of the players on the pitch.

Alastair Clark posed the question, which foot is in the grave? The answer depends on who you are. Back to football, the full back for Keswick Boy Scouts might not get a game if he joined Manchester United and Ryan Giggs might not earn such a good living with Keswick Boy Scouts.

What is needed from both strands of the folk scene is respect and understanding for each other's position. At Celtic Connections there were signs that this was breaking down and some bridges need to be built.