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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Is Bellowhead a no-bread circus?

Rely on a musician to express himself tangentially. When Pete Flood, Bellowhead's percussionist, guest-curated a mix for Folk Radio UK he called it, rather wittily, No-Bread Circuses. It was billed as a "celebration of bands who, in defiance of all common sense, put their ability to make a big fat racket before other more practical considerations, such as wage and logistical ease". 

The bluntness caused me to spray toast crumbs all over my computer keyboard: Bellowhead has eleven members. Go on, Pete. Say what you mean...

"When you play in a large band the money is a bit hard to come by," he confirmed on the phone, still recovering from Glastonbury. "I wouldn't like to give the impression that Bellowhead is suffering, or that we are in extraordinary poverty. But we're never going to get rich as a result of this band.

"What we get is a lot of knock-on work. Lots of people want to do projects with us because of Bellowhead. There are commissions and other shows to be played, the residency at the South Bank Centre has helped a lot with that. And since the inception many of us have been working with duos and trios, with which you can earn four times what you get for one of Bellowhead's gigs." Spiers & Boden, The Remnant Kings, Belshazzar's Feast, Faustus and The Rachel McShane Band spring to mind. "Bellowhead gets more publicity. But if we were all paying mortgages and Bellowhead were our only source of income..."

The implication being that they'd be stuffed. Now on the one hand this is not news: the rich musician is not one of history's most conspicuous tropes. On the other, Bellowhead is already very successful by folk standards - and 12 out of 20 of the festivals they're playing this summer are mainstream, suggesting that there's more to come. But then, even if they did become as big as, say, The Pogues - there were eight of them on the cover of If I should fall from Grace With God - how many mainstream bands have eleven members? It's kind of fascinating to wonder exactly how successful they'd have to be in order to become properly, rock-star minted?

"As Bellowhead's become more popular it's become increasingly apparent that the smaller groupings have been benefiting too: they're also more in demand. But it's very hard work," said Flood. There's the mental energy involved in changing gears between bands, the touring and coming up with new material. "We played two gigs on Sunday at Glastonbury - one in terrible heat. And, though we're used to sweaty venues, it's hard to play two gigs a day.

"But still," and I swear I heard him smile down the phone, as if the sun had come out over Glastonbury again, "it feels really good to be in Bellowhead at the moment. It feels as if a big weight has been lifted from our backs. We've always been scrabbling for recognition, individually as well as collectively. And we've got to the point at which the hard work is starting to pay off.

"We're getting on really well together as a band. There are none of the little rivalries that you might expect. Jon [Boden] is seen as the figurehead - and in many ways he is a brilliant band leader. But it is a little strange to read the millionth article describing us as 'Jon Boden's raggle-taggle band of merry men', and to be thinking 'Well, hang on. We're really a collective.' And I know that Jon has always thought of it as one too."

It sounds as if they are taking precautionary steps to avoid the standard pitfalls of being in a band that makes money: what's the point of retelling ancient tales for a living if you don't learn something every once in a while? "Well, there is a conundrum when there are so many of us, which is how to divide up the proceeds," explains Flood. "There are so many terrible stories about bands that split up and then sue each other over royalties and we don't want to be in that position.

"Personally, I don't really buy into the idea of a composer coming up with a work of earth-shattering brilliance, which is what the PRS (Performing Rights Society) is all about because it deals with intellectual property." This is unexpected, since Flood has done several of Bellowhead's most memorable arrangements - Across the Line and Cholera Camp, for instance - and his background includes a composition qualification from Goldsmith's college.

"We're all about traditional music, so our stuff is more likely to be about arranging than composition. But once you've done the arrangement you rely heavily on the musicians involved to breathe life into the thing.

"So the conundrum is to reward creativity if an arranger arranges a piece, but also to reward the musicianship that goes into making the finished product. It's something we've been talking about for a long time and there are various ideas kicking around about how to do it.

"We're talking to some music business lawyers about them and working out how feasible they are. I should emphasise, this is not because there is conflict within the band but because we're talking to a lawyer about a whole bunch of admin things and we've only recently started making the kind of money that allows us to talk to lawyers about anything."

I've long been told by members of my family who are old enough to know, that part of the secret of a successful relationship is getting the finances on a satisfactory long-term footing (there was other stuff too - but, ahem, not for this blog). So I say long live Bellowhead and its sensible-sounding accountancy concerns. More for them, more for us.

* If you're interested in Bellowhead you may also like this interview with John Spiers, Bellowhead's squeezebox player.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog automatically in your Facebook news feed, you could *like* its Facebook page. Or you could follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

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