I remember so clearly going to the annual National Folk Festival. It didn’t have a permanent home, moving from state to state, usually on rotation. Sydney on several occasions, Melbourne, Adelaide, even Alice Springs. And now I’m going back again, for the first time in many years, to Canberra where it now has a permanent home.
I’ve played other festivals in the past: Maleny for several years in succession before Bill Hauritz and his crew jumped off the deep end and bought land at Woodford. I watched as it grew into the most ambitious, sprawling festival of its type in Australia and marveled at the organizational skill of its leader as he marshaled his forces, lobbied politicians – and nearly drove himself into the ground. I sang at Port Fairy, many years ago now, and on several occasions with my old friend Doug Ashdown.
I’ve watched as the folk movement of the 60s, which spawned most of the surviving festivals, has struggled to sustain a commitment to the idealism of its youth with the need to embrace commercial reality if it is to survive and prosper. It is a delicate balancing act that I have confronted for most of my creative life – and still do.
So now I’m back doing concerts, playing festivals and trying to sell a CD of new songs. Much has changed and yet much remains the same. Digital technology has revolutionized the way we market, distribute and listen to music. The return on investment for the artist is now a more complex game of managing many different environments to ensure that you receive all you are due for your creative endeavours. Your capacity to communicate with your audience, directly, as this blog is doing, is now so much easier. But with that ease comes a responsibility to ensure you use the technology wisely and sustain the communication in order to build an audience for what you do.
But for all the changes that are evident in the manner in which we as artists make and sell our music the fundamentals remain the same – it’s still about talent if you are to sustain a career and build an audience for the future. It still comes back to the song. Without it you are just another performer, and there are millions out there.
This blog will be about “the song”. It may veer off occasionally on related topics that strike me as worth writing about, but essentially it will be about what has sustained me through my life – finding a way to express through music the things that have been, and still are, important to me as a writer. The irony of course is that what is important to me, what drives me, what worries me, what engages me and what moves me, is no different to the things that all of us deal with every day. I find a way to write about them. More often than not it’s how I process what is going on around me. That I do it through my writing is both a blessing and curse. It’s bloody hard work, particularly as I age and get more critical of my writing. But when it works, when I finally have a new song to sing that I am happy with, the sense of accomplishment is exhilarating and immensely fulfilling.
So, I’m going to play some of the new songs in Canberra at the National Festival over Easter – and some of the old ones, of which there are a few that I cannot avoid doing. I’ll be nervous. No, that’s not quite right – apprehensive. I’ll be excited to be there for the first time in many years and apprehensive that what I have to offer will still be relevant to the audiences, most of whom probably won’t know who the hell I am and may care even less. When you get to my age and have been doing it for as long as I have you run the real risk of being seen, or worse, seeing yourself, as a dinosaur, a relic of the past with nothing of value to offer contemporary audiences. There will be a few who will come out of curiosity, not sure that I was even still alive. There will be those who will know of my commercial life in the advertising and marketing industries and want to see if I have retained any integrity since “selling out”, as someone once remarked. And I hope there will be those who will see me in a concert, wonder who he is and go away having enjoyed and been moved by the songs, bought a CD and convinced that I deserved my place on the bill.
In the end I want to walk away having convinced myself that I deserve to be on the bill. I am, and always have been, my harshest critic. But that’s what drives most writers; the belief that their best song is still ahead of them, that the next CD will be even better than the last, that the next performance will make the connection with the audience that they need, to confirm that what they work so hard at is worthwhile, even valuable, if only to one person.