Virtual Scene 1: British Underground Rock BandsThere's never been anything particularly rock'n'roll about computers. That's why, whatever processed crap is in the charts, and however many samples you use, guitars will always be able to pull more people than computers can. Why? Because there is a certain vitality to live music that draws people in and, right there, amongst all the sweat and hair, makes you feel... alive. Compare the feeling of standing surrounded by people who, like you, simply love the music, with the lonely act of sitting, isolated, in front of a static screen, and there is no competition.
And yet computers – the Internet, in particular – are responsible for many of the musical advances made in recent years. Thanks to services such as MP3 and RealAudio, bands that would otherwise have neither the money nor the influence to get their music heard, now have world-wide distribution at their fingertips. What is more, organisations like mp3.com and BURBs give these artists the useful promotion that they need. No longer does a band need to be either signed or rich (usually both) in order to make itself heard.
However, none of this negates the fact that rock is all about real music, real people and principally live sounds. And it’s not just about the music, it’s about going out and finding out about things: finding out how your own emotions work, what sort of people are out there, and how you react in different situations. It’s about becoming absorbed in something, getting a buzz – it’s a whole lifestyle. And computers cannot imitate a lifestyle.
The Internet can only really be advantageous to those who use it to enhance, rather than to replace, their real-life concerns. The BURBs community has been building up now for several years, and although it is virtual in the sense that it is based on and linked via the Internet, the virtual element only really exists to extend the sphere of influence of the real, live and solid products on offer.
At the core of BURBs is the UK Band Directory. All bands featured on BURBs have a link to their website, and most have either an audio clip or an entire MP3 track available free for download. The directory can be searched either alphabetically or by area, and on each page it is possible to listen to all the tracks available, hence providing a quick way of picking the bands that take your fancy.
But as well as promoting themselves through BURBs, bands can also sell their products direct through the BURBs CD Store. The store has secure ordering facilities, making it just as easy to order from as any other online CD store, with the added bonus that when the order is submitted, it goes straight to the bands themselves to dispatch.
Since July 2000, the CD store has expanded to include a range of BURBs Audio titles. The BURBs Audio label releases a compilation CD every two months, featuring the best music that BURBs bands have recorded, and the CDs are available to purchase either separately, or as part of a subscription fee for the entire year’s set.
Another way for bands to distinguish themselves on BURBs is the Soundroom, in which visitors to the site can sample, on a weekly basis, a selection of six new tracks submitted by BURBs bands, and vote for their favourites. The winning band then receives a red tick next to its name in the Band Directory, making it easier for site visitors to home in on the more popular acts. A title of particular distinction is that of ‘Artist of the Month’, in which a band that is particularly worthy of note is given a dedication by one of the BURBs contributors.
But those bands without audio to show off or the sort of popularity to win votes are not left out. BURBs also includes several features which allow bands to improve their status, the most notable examples being a weekly gig list, to which every band in the Directory can submit information, and a Noticeboard, which can include anything from advertisements for band members, to requests for demos from labels or management companies.
Finally, on a monthly basis Barry Ratcliffe prepares a 20-minute ‘BURBs Radio’ show as a RealAudio file featuring his current favourite BURBs tracks. These shows are archived, and provide yet another way for bands to make themselves known through BURBs.
There are so many alleged “resources” for bands on the Internet now that is has become difficult to determine which are useful and which a waste of time. Possibly what distinguishes BURBs from similar resources around is that, rather than being generated by a corporate dot.com company, it initially started out as the hobby of just one passionate music fan.
“I never had a big master plan for BURBs,” explains Barry, “it has very much been a case of developing as time goes on… I guess that’s the difference between me and people like PeopleSound and mp3.com – they have the money and the staff to make sites that I envy, but I have unrivalled passion.”
What this means is that the bands who are involved in BURBs are working not for a money-making corporation, but with somebody who can work hard to suit bands’ individual interests. Barry has a personal relationship with many of the bands – they fuel his love of good music, and he fuels their need for that extra boost to see that their talent is noticed.
“The best thing is I get to meet my idols – me and Glendo from Zerotonin are great mates, I want him for my brother! Yet their music is like, fucking amazing man. You can't meet and interact with your idols in the normal world – I do.”
There is a strong personal element to BURBs, then, and this contrasts strongly with many of the other music resources around. One of the most ghastly aspects of the Internet revolution has been its ‘de-humanising’ effect – the likes of mp3.com and PeopleSound can sometimes appear to have nothing but money: never, when dealing with these companies, is it possible to converse with a human being, let alone one who actually empathises with what you are doing.
But aside from what might be termed the ‘psychological’ benefits of being involved in a project such as BURBs, there are numerous practical benefits. The Internet has already shown itself to be invaluable for those who wish to avoid the strains of the tough and shockingly restrictive commercial music industry. In many senses, Barry sees BURBs and projects like it as the potential replacement to major record labels.
“A band can now record, promote and sell to the world their own CDs, via BURBs. Imagine saying that 10-15 years ago! The only reason a band would want a deal nowadays is to get more money and promotion into the equation. It can be done without them though.”
The advantages of being able to sell a CD without the aid of a record company speak for themselves – aside from being able to reach an audience which would otherwise never hear of a relatively small and localised British band (BURBs sells CDs as far afield as Germany, France and Hong Kong), the cost of the product is significantly lowered as all those middle-men are cut out. Moreover, the pricing of records in the CD Store is one of the only areas in which Barry practises any degree of restriction: “Even if the music is crap (and there are a couple in there that I hate) I make sure the £s they are asking is not ridiculous.”
All of this leads to the idea of BURBs as a replacement for the conventional method of making and of discovering new music. It is important to stress that this applies as much to fans of music as it does to the musicians themselves, as there is enough variety on offer at BURBs to find what you want (some of it is appalling, but as Barry succinctly puts it, “There will always be someone out there to like some of the stuff”). All that fans have to do is draw from the pile the sounds that interest them – then, should they decide to purchase a product by their chosen band, they will undoubtedly pay considerably less for it than they would do for a record of similar quality in the shops.
The fact that Barry does not turn down any bands for reasons of style or quality raises an interesting question. Because no sort of “filter system” is in operation as with radio stations or record labels, BURBs in itself cannot be seen as a label of quality. Barry is adamant, however, that making judgments on the quality of his bands is not his job.
“Hmm. I’m not a record label, well it could be seen as one but I’m not. Equal to all. As far as the Band listings go (membership to BURBs), I cannot put myself in the position to say ‘You’re not good enough to be listed as a British band,’ can I?
“Everyone should have the freedom to express themselves as they see fit. If they start expressing feelings for other people then I would get a bit upset. You just don't listen to it if you don’t agree or like it. Diversity is important, as we don’t want to ever create a uniformed sound that is acceptable rock music – totally defeats the object.”
Although this is excellent news for those bands who would otherwise have no outlet for exposure, it could potentially pose a problem in that, until now, fans have not been expected to filter out the crap for themselves – that has always been done for them. Even on BURBs, though, it is possible to distinguish between the bands who are really motivated and those who are not, as Barry explains:
“In the band listings, look for bands without audio – they are the ones at the beginning of the band scene or don’t have the ability or dedication to get audio up. On the other side of the scale look for bands with the complete suite of icons: BURBs Radio (means I like the band a lot, that's my own play thing, BURBs Radio), Audio via Real Audio and free MP3 and the ‘Buy our CD’ icon (indicates they have a product to sell)”. Additionally, icons indicating a BURBs Soundroom Winner, a band featured on a BURBs Audio compilation and ‘Artist of the Month’ all indicate that the band is a bit special.
“Also, from the top of each listing page choose the "Listen to all Audio on this Page" link – you can quickly ascertain which bands you like the sound of. Then you can either go off to their site or download an MP3 or both.
“If you find yourself REALLY liking a band (and believe me that's not just possible but a dead cert) you may be lucky enough to buy a CD in the store.”
As far as the bands are concerned, BURBs can operate on a variety of levels. For some, the site is nothing but a glorified contact links page, just another way of getting their name heard and nothing more. But many bands have used BURBs to their immense benefit. “Another thing I’ve been meaning to get round to is to document all the stories I hear,” says Barry. For the mean-time, he racks his addled brain: “Er, Zerotin got mentioned on BBC Belfast Radio as BURBs Artist of the Month – that tickled me. Numerous bands have had air play on radio stations all over the world. Bands have been selected for big gigs via BURBs, BMX Video magazines, Radio 1 even! Poster got on Radio 1 for an interview via BURBs.”
Of course, the aforementioned money problem does mean that BURBs is struggling to offer a perfect service. BURBs is very much a personal vision – and, while all this talk of replacing record companies and returning freedom to the artists is encouraging, it does appear that the idealistic nature of BURBs is sometimes in conflict with what can realistically be achieved. The first BURBs compilation CD, for example, was sponsored by Yamaha, and Barry confesses that he could never have done the job without them. “As everything I do on BURBs is in my spare time, hobby-based, I couldn’t afford the professionalism Yamaha brought. They paid for the CDs to be made to a very high standard, and even financed a gig for the bands on the CD.”
In short, what Yamaha brought was the stuff of dreams for BURBs, and Barry realises that such dreams cannot be fulfilled without such sponsorship. Ironically, however, when the idea of the BURBs Audio series was first suggested by BURBs’ second-in-command JJ Arnold, Barry never thought that it would happen. “I’d love it but past sales indicate that it simply wouldn’t work.” Now that BURBs Audio is up and running, bringing the fans seven albums a year at a bargain price, and giving the bands yet more motivation to keep on going, it is as though the idealism is overruling the practicalities.
All of this relates back to the fact that BURBs is all about enhancing the buzz of rock’n’roll – not exploiting it to make money for selfish reasons, but somehow giving something back to the musical community. “You know yourself how powerful music is – it is simply the best thing, ever as far as I’m concerned. One of the reasons I started off on BURBs and have worked so very hard since is to make myself a player in the British rock scene.” Any talk of money, then, is directed not towards financial gain, but towards a musical ambition which incredibly seems to transcend practical concerns. “Growing up on The Who and The Jam (among others) gave me the determination to put something back. I need to be as good in what I do as the bands I like are at what they do.”
Listening to Barry talk about his project, one gets the profound sense that the principal quality on display at BURBs is sharing. The dot.com world is fuelled by competitiveness and shallow, money-grabbing tactics, yet in the midst of all this is somebody for whom the music itself is enough. “In general, BURBs and the bands give me a mission and entertain me as a reward along the way.” The benefits, then, are mutual – and, naïve as it may seem, this can teach a valuable lesson to a generation growing up in a dangerously insensitive world. Barry has found his niche, and is satisfied enough to be able to say that, “I am very happy in my life, and BURBs is the main reason.” BURBs is not offering instant fame, money, or any other reward, for the bands or the fans. For both parties, it offers the opportunity to get what is deserved. If the bands are motivated enough to use what is on offer, they really have the chance to get somewhere. Equally, the astute fans will be able to reject the mediocrity and find some truly inspiring music, without the commercial obstacle of high prices or talentless puppets masquerading as musical geniuses. It’s a clichéd concept, but with BURBs, what you see is what you get, and while those brought up on the current, shallow pop market will notice a distinct lack of glamour involved in BURBs, the rewards for those who do make the effort are permanent, rather than part of a passing trend. Says Barry, “BURBs is all I do and exist for, nothing less”, and with dedication like that behind the project, it would be a very strange thing indeed to feel natural in accepting anything else.