Of all the release parties I’ve attended over the years I have two clear favourites: Alabaster dePlume‘s Copernicus LP and Richard Barry‘s Diffident Fecund Album. They were markedly different in theme and fuss but shared one key likeness (other than being on the same label): they were both small. Most artists try to go big with album launches – as big as possible, often bigger than they can comfortably accomplish. We’ve watched generations of rock and pop bands do BIG so many times it’s what we all naturally aspire to. It’s an instinctive impulse. We think of inflatable pigs over Battersea Power Station or heroic effigies floating down the River Thames. It’s not enough to simply celebrate a recording – EVERYONE must celebrate it. Everyone must be bullied into having an opinion… it is album promotion as military campaign (who will win: Art or Indifference?).
Too often the consequence of all this pomp is the artist/band ends up caring more about what strangers think than what their actual audience thinks. What started out as a genuine celebration becomes PR ammunition for the next project and the wretched cycle perpetuates itself indefinitely, with each press release just a little bit more cynical than the last.
Richard Barry has been on the Debt Records roster from the very beginning but has only just released his first full length album with us. Preparing for the launch was a nest of complications from the start. Indeed, we’d been discussing it for well over a year before it actually happened. The date kept getting pushed back; the event concept kept changing; band members’ calendars were forever protesting and going out of sync. It was not an easy birth. We all loved the record and wanted to do it justice, yet all we managed to do was continually delay its emergence – simply because we wanted it to be BIG. Unfortunately our ambitions were not the only big thing needing attention – there was also a big problem. Around the time the album was nearing completion Richard began to suffer terrible pains in his hands. Any prolonged performance became an agony, particularly exacerbated by stringed instruments with a high action or heavy gauge. Touring was, for the time being at least, completely out of the question.
This is a huge blow to any performer, especially now that we so often hear the argument “the recording industry is dead, it’s all about playing live”. The prospect of being surrounded by zillions of boxes of CDs and unable to shift any of the damn things can lead even the most optimistic individuals down a rabbit hole of melancholia.
It is also a problem for small labels. Debt has a rule about only working with acts that perform live, not because we sneer at shy bedroom producers, it’s just that our marketing budgets are so meagre (you can count the thousands of pounds on a single hand – and that hand is generally a fist) the only real hope for our records is to simply get on the road and put them directly in front of people’s faces.
So here we were with one of our original signings (and one of my best friends) unable to promote the album it had taken years to make.
Of course, the worry is not merely that an individual album cannot be toured effectively but that the momentum in general becomes almost non-existent. It doesn’t matter how ecstatic people are about your music, if you sit still too long then the more casual element of your regular audience simply forget you exist.
Still, we were pressing on. A year passed, a single came out and, later, so did a baby (though the label had nothing to do with the latter). By this time we’d finally settled on a launch date and an event strategy whereby we’d establish a “Richard & Friends” scenario and pepper the main performance with a series of guests so that there’d never be more than, say, twenty minutes continuous playing for Richard (whilst still giving the audience a formidable quantity of his songs spread throughout the evening). The issue now though was Where. Large capacity venues seemed an unrealistic proposition after such a hiatus, but small ones seemed inappropriate for a proper celebration. No one wanted to be confronted with a beautiful yet half-empty theatre, but neither did we want to be folded away in some generic pub backroom.
So we did what we always used to do in the days before the label started, when we were just a ragtag bunch of skint twenty-somethings still looking for a niche. We filled a house with booze and instruments, set up a performance area and enjoyed ourselves. We did a bit of promotion on social media but only enough to spread through existing networks rather than to lure strangers or the press. The result was a house full of people we liked – some playing and some spectating – people who had previously only seen Richard on a stage now got a chance to talk with him at length in a relaxed setting (and not just Richard, there were representatives of pretty much every band on the roster, just there for a good time… no hard sell, no agenda). Anyone who knew about this gig only knew because they’d deliberately positioned themselves near enough to Richard and/or the label – people with an active interest in what he’s up to rather than those idly scanning event listings for a night out. A sort of reward for the most dedicated.
Next time we’ll do the usual thing and hire a venue with a fancy lighting rig and a big sound system, with a backstage that has lightbulbs round the mirrors (you know the sort of place). We’ll put up posters and charm local radio and maybe get a few bits and pieces in the paper; we’ll get a respectable crowd that mingles the long-term enthusiasts with the cultural grazers. And it’ll be a different kind of fun, a more impressive kind of fun. An environment in which a performer can publicly gauge their success and be judged accordingly. In this instance, however, I think it was good to go small, to put on an event specifically for the people who really wanted it, who were hungry enough to sniff it out.
Because if you’ve been away without going anywhere, experienced hard times and dead ends, felt like your options were shrinking before your very eyes, you don’t necessarily need the applause of those you’ve coaxed back into the room, you need it from the people who never left in the first place.
Richard Barry’s Diffident Fecund Album is available to stream and purchase here.