I just don’t understand it. I mean, I came back from the most amazing musical weekend I think I have ever enjoyed, and instead of being interested and happy for me, when I start telling people about it they get this weird look in their eyes which looks just a little like blind homicidal rage.
Even more unusually, this look only seems to really go away when I shush and complain about the bad weather in Edinburgh this time of year. (The weather on Eigg, by the way, was awwwwwesome!)
Anyhow, this is the epitome, in its own quiet way, of the dilemma faced by much of the music industry at the moment. Do you make things smaller and more exclusive, and risk cutting off people who genuinely want to support you and be a part of what you are doing, or do you allow things to grow to the extent where they become unwieldy, lose their magic and you cease to actually find them rewarding yourself?
From the phrasing of the question you can probably guess on which side of that particular fence I would choose to sit, and this seems to the approach chosen by Johnny Lynch and Kenny Anderson at Fence Records. Make things more special, more satisfying to be involved in, and in doing so bet that this is the best way to keep alive your own love for what you are doing, and hope that this transmits itself to your audience.
I’ve had some alarming conversations with King Creosote over the last year or so, where the fun really seemed to have gone out of music for him, and so to see him bouncing around the stage on the Saturday night of Away Game announcing that ‘this is what it’s all about’ was a great thing to see. I have loved so much of his music over the years that it seemed almost to be my fault if the process of making it had drained the enjoyment from him to the extent it appeared to have a couple of years back.
Along with their recent decision to go vinyl only (one I personally disagree with, I must confess, but the precise details are still a little up in the air I think), this micro-festival seemed like another step down a very deliberate route for Fence Records. And fuck me it was fun.
Eigg is an island in the Inner Hebrides which has been bought out by its residents, and so the feeling of the place is a little unusual to begin with. Even the drive through Glen Coe up to Arisaig to take the tiny Sheerwater ferry across to the island was utterly stunning, giving the whole silly adventure a hint of magic before anything really happened. The crossing itself was entertaining to say the least, so choppy that certain individuals chundered all over the place, others went very worrying shades of green, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride, and the captain seriously considered cancelling the final journey in case he lost someone overboard.
The weather was a little blustery, but the sky was generally blue, and the setting sun and the beauty of the island itself (as well as a square meal and a cup of emergency tea) seemed to settle most stomachs quite quickly. We greeted the third ferry (and another group of very queasy-looking travellers) and pottered up to the island’s Ceilidh Hall, in the grounds of which a marquee had been constructed, with bands staggered on both the indoor and outdoor stages so you didn’t have to miss anything.
I’ll be honest, much of the music was a blur. I remember bellowing over the top of (well, I thought I was singing along, but in retrospect probably not) Withered Hand’s set (as did most of the audience), I remember FOUND and Silver Columns being awesome, and I remember trying to get back to the tents about three times before finding the right way, and very little else.
Fence Records – ‘Away Game’ – Eigg 2010
The following morning started with an early and excellent performance by Sweet Baboo – my first chance to see someone I’ve heard so much about on Manchester podcast Cloud Sounds, which I highly recommend – and then… well, then there was loads more drinking, great performances from the likes of Johnny Flynn, The Oates Field, Player Piano, the fantastic Slow Club, and people bursting into Happy Birthday inbetween every song in Kid Canaveral’s set. After that it all becomes a bit of a blur, but I did finally get my hands on some stovies, I seem to recall bellowing at everyone to shut the fuck up during Adem’s set (I know, I know, it’s becoming something of a tedious tradition of mine) and er, well leaping around like a lunatic during British Sea Power (ironically enough, just about a day after I published this little rant on my site – what a dick!).
On the Sunday the first people to leave had to set off, which was rather sad. The weather was honestly stunning: a little chilly, but bright, bright sunshine and those who stayed behind wasted most of the day sitting in the sun and drinking beer whilst gazing lazily out over the sea and talking inconsequential nonsense in the most relaxing way imaginable.
In the evening we were taken by a rather murderous tractor ride to the other side of the island, where a bonfire was being prepared on the famous Singing Sands (the beach in the picture at the bottom of this post). Around this bonfire there was much singing, drunk people constantly on the verge of immolating themselves in the fire and a biblical amount of alcohol consumed. There was also time for Reuben and Dylan to make that excellent picture at the top of the post.
The nice thing about having such a lot of talented musicians around is of course that instead of a handful of painful renditions of Kumbaya and American Pie we were serenaded by some of our favourite pop songs of recent years. Everyone carrying on with ‘you’ve got the light of the sun in your eyes’ long after The Pictish Trail had finished Winter Home Disco was just amazing. I even sang along – yes, me! With my voice! I must have been fucking smashed.
Anyhow, I remember getting back to the campsite in the back of the Milnes’ van (bless their amazingly nice socks), starting another campfire, laying into a bottle of Schnapps (like, proper Austrian Schnapps, none of this sickly sweet, piss-weak shit you get in Britain) and umm… and… well.. that’s about it actually. The next thing I was aware of was my massive Monday morning hangover.
In fact most of us looked like total shit on Monday. We got our tents down, scarfed bacon and egg rolls at the caff by the harbour and just waited it out until the final ferry appeared at three that afternoon. The crossing back was the absolute antithesis of the one over, with the sea like glass and the mood of excited anticipation replaced by one of contented comedown. And, just as one last hurrah, as if the weekend hadn’t been perfect enough, we were treated to the sight of a Minke whale and some porpoises as well.
And so this weekend, like a few experiences I’ve had since I became more and more involved in music – the opening of the Bowery, seeing my favourite bands record sessions in our living room, watching bands’ giddy faces at album launches we helped make happen, hanging out with Matt from Bladen County Records in Portland – has become yet another memory which reinforces the rather obvious fact that the more you put into music the more you will get out of it.
So I may quibble with Kenny about the label going vinyl-only, and I may wonder a little at how cliquey the whole thing looks from the outside*, or perhaps even have doubts about how sustainable it is in the long run to tailor your work towards too narrow a group of people. But Fence are doing a few things so very right it’s almost funny to watch less successful labels or communities play catch-up. They are focusing their efforts on the people who put the most back in, making everything more special for everyone involved. They are eschewing quantity at the expense of quality. And they are providing a lot more than just music so they make people feel like they are a part of something; like just by enjoying it we are participating rather than just consuming, and and that even as someone who runs an ostensibly rival record label, there is a little bit of Fence which is mine too.
Photo Credit: Paul Thompson
*I absolutely guarantee you, it is not cliquey. Yes, most folk are friends and everyone knows someone who used to know someone who used to sing in a band, but I have yet to meet a more welcoming group of people if you take the time to get to know them, so there’s nothing exclusive about any of it.