Johnathan Cilia September 15, 2015
On The Issue of Performing
You spend weeks looping a track through your headphones. You can’t get enough of it, the bassline and the melodies are so complementary and superbly delivered that you are not sure how you’ll be able to go back to all that other music. There’s a gig this weekend by the artist who produced that track, with good openers, and the show is nearly sold out. You buy tickets, giddy with anticipation. Yet, at the live show, the artist is just not able to recreate the same feeling the track so easily elicits from you, and you leave unfulfilled, craving the high you were expecting.
Now imagine you are the producer of that track who just let down his fans. Performing your own music live is a privilege and a joy few artists get to experience, and performing your music live and delivering it as you envisioned is even rarer. The amount of things that can go wrong at a show is daunting; from gear failures to low quality acoustics or sound systems to bad promotion or a crappy venue or audience, it is nearly a cause for celebration when a gig goes through without a hitch, regardless of performance.
Malta’s live circuit is interesting. We have quite a spread of venue type; we have the small to medium sized clubs concentrated in Paceville and dotted around the island; the medium to large sized seasonal festivals like Beer Fest, Earthgarden, or Notte Bianca; tiny living room gigs, secretly held illegals, and a willingness to turn nearly any type of room or venue into a one night only performance hall.
Considering Malta’s size, the amount of venues, and the diversity in musical subcultures and promoters is pretty decent. You can, rather easily, find a place to DJ a set in most genres (and pretty much anywhere if you do house); or to play a live gig with a full band, be it indie or metal; or even a small intimate venue for solo gigs or experimental music.
However, how good are these venues here in Malta, and how do they compare to foreign venues? Are they enough to provide the level of professionalism a musician needs when they want to communicate their message and moods to a crowd of strangers (or semi-strangers in Malta’s case)? Considering the nuances of musical performance, and how much relies on subtle touches and understated details, the requirement of a suitable venue to ensure the musician can deliver the goods is essential – but does Malta deliver when it comes to organising live music?
“Bands in Malta have improved a lot material-wise, and we have a lot of good bands around. There are even organisers who do their best to do something to get the scene going, and they end up breaking even or losing money. I think the problem in Malta is the venues.” Dave Depasquale, one of Malta’s top metal guitarists whose work is prolific in the Maltese metal scene (he’s either played on the track, helped write it, or recorded and mastered it at his Spine Splitter Studio) points out.
“We have hundreds of bands in Malta. I don’t understand how there isn’t at least one venue dedicated to live bands. Appropriate size, rectangular or some kind of symmetry, with a nice proper stage which doesn’t have to be overdone. A good PA system and some acoustic treatment. All the venues in Malta lack one of those key things and it ends up affecting everything involved in a show. For bands to perform on decent stages, they would have to perform at events like Beerfest, and so on, and even then these lack sound quality due to their locations…which also ends up being a nightmare for sound engineers,” he laughs.
Having performed in Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, the UK and Russia with death metal outfit Abysmal Torment, he’s seen some interesting methods of organising a live event.
“In most of the countries we played in, festivals and events which are only for death metal or metal in general get subsidized by their government, which is really cool. In Moscow, we played in this place that used to be a huge magazine factory, and the company had moved. The government gave this place to musicians. It consisted of rehearsal rooms that were fully equipped, a recording studio, and a live studio. All treated and everything. And you could stream the show live online as well. One of the best shows that we had. Professional and fun,” smiles Dave.
As Malta has more empty buildings in it in 2015 than Chernobyl, it would not be amiss for the government to find a building – similar to what William Mangion is supposed to have been doing – and deck it out appropriately to create a physical music hub in Malta. As someone who grew up practicing in dingy garages two floors underground, I distinctly remember the trouble involved in finding, procuring, appropriately fixing and soundproofing a location, and moving all the equipment in – and this is before we even got to play one note. To hear that foreign governments are actively subsidizing their musicians may leave a bitter taste for any local musician who had trouble to even set up a space to practice, let alone record or perform. The creation of that space is the key issue. While Malta needs to be modest and envision itself within its means, the quality and diversity of local artists belies the robustness of the scenes, and the appropriate infrastructure needs to be in place to support this diversity.
The creation of that space is the key issue. While Malta needs to be modest and envision itself within its means, the quality and diversity of local artists belies the robustness of the scenes, and the appropriate infrastructure needs to be in place to support this diversity.
Dave Depasquale digs further. “I think the size of the event is also one of the biggest differences between local and foreign gigs. We played some really good festivals with attendance varying from a 1,000 to 10,000 people and the organisation was amazing. In Malta I don’t recall having any problems with organisation really, unless there was a feud or something like that. In all the years playing I’ve only had one ‘instance’, which took place at a festival in Naples. The organiser saw that there wasn’t much attendance, and he took off, nowhere to be found. He had links with the mafia and everything. That was a good lesson for us to take things a little more seriously. And, actually, there was another time in Belgium where the owner of the venue didn’t even know that a show was taking place that evening,” he says with a raised eyebrow. “That’s why I think the problem locally is the venues more than the organisation in and of itself.”
With the large amount of promoters on the island and party-friendly disposition of the inhabitants, interest isn’t the problem; the infrastructure is. But interest is a crucial element for a musician, maybe moreso than the acoustics sometimes.
“Every scene will function proportionally to what people are willing to put in and every community functions in its own way. With organizations like Trackage Scheme it’s easier for people to keep each other up to date, share new discoveries or old gems and especially to hype up events and make them feel and therefore become special. This is probably the biggest improvement over the past, where people took it all for granted,” explains Jim Hickey. The American-Maltese musician who moved to Berlin 9 years ago to pursue his musical dreams continues.
“We all live on each other’s doorstep so the attitude was ‘if I miss them tonight I’ll see them next month.’ Although the shows tend to have the same acts performing by default, the organisation and focus nowadays is on making them unique which I feel makes people less willing to miss them, which is fantastic. I try to create some kind of connection with whoever’s listening when I perform. The music I make is always attached to a feeling or memory or an image and if I can get the same intensity across that I feel with it then I’ve managed that. Everyone experiences things differently and a good performance will move people for different reasons, but if you create a space for that to happen, it will.”
Techno DJ ND, whose played in top clubs around Europe, elucidates even more. “Well of course there is a difference between playing in Malta and abroad, abroad everything is on a bigger scale. If you take Tresor as an example, it’s both a record label and a club. There is more money involved, it’s more flexible, it’s on a bigger scale and with a bigger budget when compared to Maltese events.”
It’s not only the money aspect that sets the foreign setups apart – it’s the mentality and values behind it. Interconnekted, one of Malta’s most celebrated psytrance DJs whose played in some of the most beautiful and well planned out festivals around explains the importance of the ideology behind events.
“There are setups were the promoter is conscious and really takes care of every detail of the experience of both the artist and the people, and unconscious setups where everything is made for money. The right outdoors setup means really good (psychedelic) music, nature and good food to energise the body, decent showers and amazing decoration so something magical happens, so that the people become one. When the party is not made with the correct intention it loses the spirit, you feel a big difference between any party that is related to only drugs and a party which is made to bring consciousness.”
Are We Going Or?
This aforementioned ‘correct intention’ need not only come from the organisers – the audience are just as crucial to creating a good vibe as the performers.
“I find it easier playing abroad. Most of the people from the scene in Malta end up knowing you personally and I think that takes away some of the mystery of an artist. They tend to see you more as individual musicians rather than the band as one entity. When it comes to these things, I prefer seeing the artist rather than knowing the person. It used to be different though in Malta. People who attended used to actually enjoy the show more than analyze it,” points out Dave wistfully.
In 2015 music is personal; everyone has their own unique tastes and, as such, their own expectations of a live musician, which they then project on the performer based on their interpretation of the music. Just being in a band was enough to create some mystery once; today, with artists baring their souls via every medium and mystery becoming nothing more than a marketing tool, consumers have become more wary of who they support since their support is seen as an extension of their own personalities.
Add to this the complication of actually knowing the performers, or even worse, only kind of knowing the performers through rumours and hearsay, and you’ve got a messier situation compared to just a couple of years ago. It’s easy to party to a musicians set; it’s a bit harder to party to your friend’s sister’s ex-boyfriend’s set, as it were, which is so often the case in Malta (and in most places where social media use is pervasive.)
“It’s not really easier playing to people you know, sometimes the anonymity and distance makes me more focused on delivering my message,” says Jim Hickey. “I have seen more of an indifference to live shows in Malta where new music is being played but again, the attitudes are definitely changing and communities are being built out of an appreciation for pioneering perspectives. Shows abroad often cost more, both for the audience and the act, so there’s an in-built mutual commitment for making the most out of it. I’ve never had stage fright but the harder crowds can really bring out the best in a performer, unless you give up of course,” he laughs.
“When playing abroad the stress levels rise a little bit; it’s a new place, a new crowd, you can’t really know what to expect, even though on a musical level it’s always the same mental state – Kill It,” says ND. “I mean, the feel and the vibe abroad is different, here in Malta, while it does depend on where you go, the people here can be much moodier. But as far as the techno scene is concerned, we have a couple of well dedicated ravers,” he says with a big smile.
“At the end of the day people are paying to watch a good show. The goal is to give the people what they want as much as possible, when it comes to performance and execution – which in the case of our genre is to try to destroy everything as much as we can without jeopardising the music playing and tightness,” winks Dave.
The space between creating a track and performing it successfully to an appreciative crowd is much wider than one would think. Be it the not-up-to-standard venues, the artist whose trying to convey a personal message, the mood of the crowd and their preconceived notions, the familiarity of the scene, or the ideology of the local circuit, performing live is a more complicated issue than it deserves to be; and in a small country like ours, the situation can only be exacerbated.
In supporting music as art, it is important to remain grounded and to remember why you follow musicians, consume their work, and give them your attention. As far as how one should act when it comes to music, Jim Hickey succinctly sums it up: “if there’s an act you like, get out there and support them. If you have fans, give everything you’ve got. It’s only a scene if we stick together.”