FOLLOW THE FRESHNET MODEL: Neil March asks why more isn’t done to give art music composers & artists access to a wider audiences

The legendary singer/songwriter and broadcaster Tom Robinson has, for some time, led the way in showing how influential media folk can help the careers of new and emerging artists whilst doing so from a largely impartial standpoint. I believe it is time those responsible for the BBC‘s [in the broadest sense] Contemporary Classical and Art Music programming took a leaf out of Tom’s book.

Now let me be clear. There are individuals within that part of the BBC who already go the extra mile to help the careers of upcoming composers and performers. Max Reinhardt, Nick Luscombe, Fiona Talkington and Verity Sharp are among them and there are others too. It is just that what they don’t have is a system like Tom’s that guarantees exposure to a significant volume of new music by lesser known artists every week.

I am talking about the activities associated with the Fresh on the Net website. Even as a pure resource for musicians seeking good quality advice about how to build their careers it is priceless. As an archive of music Tom and his team have been supporting over a lengthy period it is second to none but it is the weekly invitation to bands and artists to submit new tracks either for consideration to be included in the weekly hour-long Mixtape Show or to be included in weekly Listening Post that is at the heart of why his system is so exciting and successful.

The Mixtape is fairly self-explanatory. Artists submit a track by sending a Soundcloud link and ensuring the same track is on their BBC Introducing page where it can be directly accessed by BBC production staff. If they are chosen by the team their track is played on the Mixtape Show (which goes out at 2AM on a Sunday night/Monday morning) and is then available on that edition of the show’s Podcast to listen to for the next thirty days. It is a great concept and it enables a huge number to be heard by a significant audience in addition to which, if they are PRS members, they will receive a small but significant royalty payment. They will also be given a BBC Artist’s page and they will have airplay on Europe’s top new music station on their CV.

The really innovative idea though is the Listening Post. The rules are important. Those selected must not advertise their involvement to friends, fans, social media followers etc. and, if large numbers turn up in blocks and vote for them, they will be automatically disqualified. This is quite simply because the governing principle of the Listening Post is that the artists put their music to an impartial, well-informed audience of strangers, many of them regular participants who vote according to which five tracks most grabbed their attention and who can opt also to add comments which are published in the accompanying forum.

Not only is it the ideal way in which to get a realistic snapshot of opinion amongst discerning fans. It also allows another large number of artists to get their music heard by significant numbers and, by operating one other simple rule – namely that artists must wait a further twelve weeks before resubmitting in order to give everyone a chance and to avoid clogging up the system – there is no danger of the same acts dominating and shouldering newer ones into the sidelines.

So let me finally get to the point of this article. Although it must be said that Tom Robinson’s system encourages the broadest spectrum of new music I have ever come across in one place and includes some contemporary classical, electronic and avant garde music, it is inevitably dominated by what we broadly label as Popular Music. So it should be because that also makes it an accurate reflection of Tom’s primary audience.

That, however, is why I believe there should be an equivalent system which, like the Fresh on the Net approach, need not be genre-specific but which, due to its clear association with the contemporary classical end of the spectrum, would be primarily geared towards composers and performers of art and related music. There have never been so many people in the UK who are involved in contemporary art music of one kind or another. Yet their only current opportunities for airplay are to occasionally get a spin on BBC Radio 3‘s Late Junction (an hour and a half three nights a week) or, on only the rarest of occasions, on In Tune also on Radio 3.

Of course the excellent BBC Introducing system offers everyone the chance to set up a page and post tracks. But well meaning as it is, many artists [including some of those I have undertaken promotional work for] are still waiting for their tracks to be listened to after more than a year. So it is usually necessary to either keep sending press releases to the producers of target shows or to achieve something of note before the tracks on one’s Introducing page find an audience within the BBC. It is inconsistent too. Some BBC Regional stations have exciting Introducing shows and are vigilant in listening to every track assigned to their area whilst others are not. I have experienced this directly as someone with roots in two different regions. One appears to listen to more or less nothing other than material that has already been brought to its attention by national radio; the other listens to every single track assigned to it.

If something akin to a scaled down version of the Fresh on the Net template could be used to build a similar regime managed from within BBC Radio 3 and Reduced Listen, a number of practitioners could be invited to take part in providing Blog-style information and advice; curating the weekly playlist for a Mixtape-style one hour special to be broadcast at a time suitable for Radio 3’s programmers and archving tracks and playlists for others to listen to later.

The real gem though would be the equivalent of the Listening Post. Some thirty new pieces of music and sound art each week which could be placed in front of an impartial, discerning audience drawn mainly from shows like Late Junction and In Tune and possibly 6 Music’s Freak Zone. It would offer a gateway into the lives of contemporary music fans for composers and artists involved in the many niche areas associated with art and experimental music. At the same time it would offer fans the opportunity to become familiar with a host of new names on an ongoing basis and to make informed choices about which ones they consider worth seeking out beyond this facility.

It could of course be argued that my interest in such a development is self-serving and cynical. Yet the facts would suggest otherwise. I have benefited from a generous helping of airplay over the past few years, especially from Late Junction but also from Freak Zone and the Mixtape Show on 6 Music and I am about to play the BBC Introducing stage at Latitude 2017. If anything I would be creating more competition for composers like myself who are emerging out of obscurity and becoming known to a wider audience.

In any case, if the BBC, for whatever reason, ever wanted me to curate such a facility on a part-time basis [of some description and type], I would happily sacrifice the right to include any of my own music in either the mix show or the listening post if it meant being able to widen the net for a greater number of talented musicians.

For all that there are some wonderful individual people doing their utmost to support the less mainstream artists and composers and that there are fantastic mechanisms like BBC Introducing in place, the truth is that genuinely contemporary and non-mainstream art music has been pushed to the margins by BBC Radio 3; consigned to late night midweek broadcasting while the station spends its daytime trying to compete with the ultra-commercial Classical Pop populism of Classic FM. As a public broadcaster its track record in bringing music as a living breathing art [and not merely the art of dead composers from past centuries] is shockingly poor and fails to reflect its commitment to educating and engaging a wider more diverse audience with a greater range of choices of music and sound.

Instead it is left to Tom Robinson to do his best (and he certainly does) to offer the widest most inclusive means for musicians and recording artists of all manner and background to be heard when, were there equivalents specialising in key [very broad] areas like contemporary classical, jazz and other vast musical spectra, even more might be achieved. Food for thought at the very least.

Neil March is a British Composer and Recording Artist with a PhD from Goldsmiths University.